Chapter 13: Your New Normal
“When are you going to get back to your old self again?”
“I’m looking forward to seeing the old Alex.”
“I miss the old Alex.”
“After chemo, won’t it be great to get back to ‘normal’ life again?”
Normal life? I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, a life-threatening illness, and I survived two near-death experiences. Who can be normal after that?
While recovering from four surgeries and two six-month rounds of chemotherapy, I frequently heard these kinds of questions and comments. But I knew in my soul that I had profoundly changed. Could I return to the “old” Alex? I gained too much wisdom and insight to go back to being her.
My “new” normal takes friends and family by surprise. This fascinates me because I know I’m not the same person I was before I had cancer. I’m not afraid of things the way I used to be. I also don’t worry unless someone (like my oncologist) tells me I should worry. Living with cancer gives me a confidence I didn’t have. I know now that I can survive whatever life throws at me.
A serious or life-threatening illness is not an inconvenience — something to get over. It’s always life-altering and a time for personal transformation. Cancer made me reevaluate my priorities and values. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually, I stopped taking life for granted.
My initial, physical response to stress and trauma is always to FIGHT. But I’ve found out the hard way what happens when I don’t maintain a healing mind-body-spirit balance. Fighting cancer cells is tough. My body did what it could do. Then as I dealt with sleep apnea and cancer, I found that during sleep our bodies heal. I find this amazing. I have the tools within me to keep my body healthy. If I gain weight, I know how to take it off safely. If I party too much with friends, I know the next day I will need time to rest. If my back aches after cleaning the house, I know I need to stretch my muscles to ease the strain. Taking care of our physical bodies doesn’t have to be complex. I’ve started to make an effort to simply stand in front of the mirror every day and say, “I love my body.”
My initial emotional response to stress and trauma is always to FLEE. I know that taking care of my feelings is a bit more difficult. It was easy for me to stuff my feelings so I didn’t have to face them. Fleeing was a learned response when I knew I couldn’t express my feelings. Now, facing them on a daily basis is both a direct and an authentic approach. If I deal with the sadness or anger of today, I won’t have to be bothered by them tomorrow. It sure makes sleeping much more peaceful.
My initial spiritual response to stress and trauma is always to FREEZE. This is like a deer getting caught in your headlights. It’s natural for them to freeze. Many of us are like that.
I didn’t flee from cancer; instead I practiced being authentic. Becoming authentic means being the real person you are meant to be. You clear away all the old beliefs and actions that no longer work for you. By being authentic, I align my emotions with my heart and my actions with my energy. I dump the “should” and clear out the old ways that harmed me in the past.
I love this quote from two cancer therapists, Carl and Stephanie Simonton, mentioned in the Renewing Life program:
You must stop and reassess your priorities and values. You must be willing to be yourself, not what people want you to be because you think that this is the only way you can get love. You can no longer be dishonest. You are now at a point where, if you truly want to live, you have to be who you are.
I’ve come to understand that if I truly want to live I have to be who I am.
Tools for Coping with Your New Normal
These tools can help you adjust to your new normal.
- Make friends with your body parts. Your stress, trauma loss, or illness may have left you with physical scars, aches, and pains. I learned through guided imagery to make friends with my body parts. It wasn’t easy. I first had to hear what my physical body had to say. My body was angry with me for not accepting the changes it went through, especially since it tried so hard to keep me alive. I looked in the mirror and began talking directly to my physical body. I told it that I was grateful for the healing it had done. My scars were not ugly as I had claimed, but now medals of honor. Then I thanked my body parts for staying with me and keeping me alive. Finally, my body parts thanked me for hearing what they had to say. I go back and talk to them frequently, so I know how my body parts are feeling. This really works. Try it.
- Accept your limitations. Since my stomach endured multiple surgeries, I can’t wear clothes that are tight around my waist. Tight waistbands may be the style, but for this body I no longer wear them. I also lost my ability to balance on one leg. It seems my center has shifted, and I continue to fall to the right. I frequently crash against the dresser to catch my balance. The mesh screen that was surgically installed to keep my hernias from popping out keeps causing pain. I can’t just jump into bed anymore. I have to sit down first, bring my knees up, and gently lean back into the mattress. When I walk a lot, I need to take breaks to sit down and rest my legs and feet. Some would call this a sign of aging, but I’m not ready to go there yet.
- Test your memory. With taking so many drugs during my cancer, including chemotherapy, I now forget things. (Again, some may say this is a normal sign of aging.) I seem to have kept my long-term memory in place, but I have some short-term memory loss. I find I’ve got word search problems. As a writer I’m devastated. By the time I reach the end of a chapter I’m reading or even writing, I can’t remember what was going on in the beginning. I work on these memory issues by using games to keep my mind challenged. If you can’t recall things, just allow your mind to search through millions of stored memories. Don’t get frustrated—this happens to all of us. If your memory loss is sever, see a memory specialist or a physician for help.
- Try new challenges. For those of us who are prone to frequent feelings of anxiousness, we often avoid new experiences and challenges, but that’s the last thing we should do. Trying new experiences actually widens our comfort zone and increases our ability to survive. Our lives are constantly changing—whether we like it or not. New jobs, new relationships, and new beginnings require us to us to adapt faster to new technology and communications than in the past. If you don’t adapt to these changes, you may experience a feeling of loss and loneliness.
New experiences also have positive emotional effects. We learn new skills, increase our knowledge, and develop a feeling of confidence. If we fail at first, we learn that we may have to finesse our thinking or modify our behavior. Challenges happen daily, but the good news is that we learn from every experience we face. Taking risks can increase your self-confidence and self-esteem. The more we try new challenges, the more support we gain from family, friends, and coworkers.
Live in the moment. The past is in the past, the future is in the future, and the present is here and now. There are many ugly things in life. First of all, acknowledge your past, and be grateful for the incidents that propelled you forward. You don’t have to live there anymore. What a relief. The same goes for incidents in your future. Why worry and get yourself sick? All we have is the precious present. In this moment you can choose to be sad or joyful. Visit nature and marvel over the beauty and tranquility. Do you want to interrupt this moment with anger or fear?
It’s so easy to give up and walk away from transforming your life into something healthier and happier. If you choose to make changes, remember to never give up.
-End of Chapter-
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