Recovering from a serious illness is a mental and emotional process as well as a physical one. For me, now that the physical has reached a fairly stable plateau, the emotional and mental recovery has taken center stage.
It’s trickier than it might seem at first. When you get a cold, or the flu, you’re sick for a little while, but then you get back to normal. Your life continues as it did before, and you go back to being who you were, even if you’re temporarily busy trying to catch up.
When you get sick with something chronic, or something that makes permanent changes, it isn’t so easy. Try as you might, you can’t get back to “normal”. That pre-disease state is gone, never to be repeated. You can’t go back to where you were before it all started, and pick up where you left off.
One of my internal strategies for fighting cancer works well during the physical treatment phase, but not so well after. Part of me fights the disease by essentially “sticking a pin” in an image of myself before the disease, and resisting the effects of the disease that pull me away from that. I’m in a tug-of-war, and stubbornly hold my ground.
Which works really well if what I have to do is persist through treatment after treatment. But when the treatment is over, that drive to return to the pre-disease image can become a problem. Because there is no room in that mindset for accepting the changes that have happened. There’s no permission to acknowledge “losses”, accept them, and move on. And, as you might expect, constantly comparing who I am now with who I was before isn’t so good for my self-esteem.
So I’ve been working on letting go of “getting back to normal,” and working on getting to a “new normal.” I’ve been consciously working on accepting these scars as part of “me”, and trying to believe that I might one day see them as emblems of strength and bravery, instead of deformities and wounds. (That’s still only an abstract possibility at this point.)
I’ve been working on reconnecting my body to my sense of self, trying to shift out of the sense that “I” am just a mind-thing living in a brain, driving around in a cantankerous jalopy of a body. This involves tuning in to a bunch of sensations I’ve been screening out for some time, including everyday aches and pains, and the memories of others. It involves thinking about eating and nourishment as something less about calculating fuel mixes and minimum requirements, and more about taste, pleasure, and spiritual, as well as physical sustenance. It involves exercise for enjoyment and not as a rehab chore.
For some time, getting to a new normal has been about letting go of the old normal, and feeling my way into the new reality. There’s a lot of experimentation. What is this like? Can I do that? How does this work? Often, the answer is familiar, because it is like it was before. But not in every case, and not in some important ways. It’s hard to not get frustrated by the inconsistency. I’m like I was, but I’m not.
I want there to be rules. I want there to be known expectations. I hate having so much unknown. I hate having to carefully consider the vitamin capsules in the jar I just picked up, wondering if they are too big for me to swallow, and knowing that I won’t know until I try. Part of me says, no, they look too big, get the smaller ones. Part of me says, I’m getting better, maybe they’ll work. A simple purchase becomes an internal struggle between my cautious side that wants to take care of me by avoiding disappointment (or choking) and another side that knows the only path to improvement is trying new challenges. I’m doing that over and over again, walking the boundaries of New Normal. (As it turns out, they aren’t too big, but they are hard to get down.)
Lately, I’ve been made aware that there are whole dimensions of New Normal I hadn’t even started thinking about yet. A couple weekends ago, Kimberly and I went to visit our musician friend Erin in Oakland. It was a wonderful visit, full of old friends, music, interesting conversation, and good food. Erin, in addition to music, has a fine eye for art and design, and enthusiastically enjoys many things in life. She’s a great cook, a habit she indulges in her new kitchen (the remodeling of which was covered in her blog). She made me some wonderful soups from scratch, rising to the challenge of elegantly feeding someone on a no-salt diet with limited swallowing.
That visit made me realize that a still-larger shift of attitude awaits. Unconsciously, I’d been living in a world of “surviving” or “not-surviving.” I’ve been so focussed on “surviving” that I’d pretty much lost track of anything so radical as “living large”. The reminder that, instead of merely not-dying, I could energetically embrace life, with enjoyment and passion, was a real eye-opener. “Oh yeah,” I’ve been thinking, “I remember stuff like that!” It’s been a while.
So, there’s a lot of work ahead. I’ve made a start. And, having realized the challenge, I hope I can succeed with this aspect of healing. It’s time.