The New Normal
“The new normal.” This is a term I’ve been hearing a lot lately. I’ve heard it in relation to COVID-19, which is not going away anytime soon. We are all tired of wearing a mask but we wear them anyway, in order to stay as safe as possible. This is our new normal. Holidays and events are cancelled or reconfigured. Life has become a remote virtual experience. I asked some Facebook friends in a cancer group I belong to: “When do things go back to normal?” The answers, unsurprisingly, were “That ship has sailed” and “This is our new normal.” I was asking about when the symptoms of chemotherapy would go away, not when we might approach a semblance of pre-pandemic life, but the question seemed to tap into a more universal concern about what has happened to our lives in the global community we live in today.
When I think about what the new normal means, it feels like loss, followed by shock or surprise and then the expectation or desire for things to go back to the way they were. The need to adjust follows soon after. I am at times unsure and uneasy about change, but at other times, it’s like an adventure, something new that can be exhilarating. Someone I spoke to recently also said that hearing “the new normal” feels as if it carries a sense of loss with it, but she likes to turn it into an opportunity for improvement. Someone else relayed how he looks at the new normal as “going with the flow,” accepting what comes his way. Another person sadly remarked how it means previously inconceivable events are now reality.
Thinking about the new normal has made me question, What was the old normal? What is normal anyway? When I think of normal, I think of stability, predictability, and comfort in a regular routine, instead of having to think about how I should spend my day, which has been a more recent occurrence. Since retiring from my full-time job over five years ago, my work routine changed to part-time work with hospice patients whose lives were anything but what they’d consider normal. Instead, they lived one day at a time. “Normal” suggests some form of judgment or an assessment of how things ought to be. Throughout all my work years, different opportunities frequently came my way and so my work routine was constantly changing. There was always a new normal.
Then, when I was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma, there were changes every day. My focus turned to chemotherapy, which affected my body and my emotional state, and which also meant the end of my work routine. I lost my appetite and I lost weight. I felt scared and sad at the loss of my health and uneasy whenever I experienced new symptoms. So if my interpretation of normal involved predictability, then no, nothing was normal; at the time, my new normal was constant change.
When COVID -19 arrived, it changed our sense of normalcy completely. People gravely ill, over 300,000 deaths in the United States alone, hospitals overflowing with devastation and sadness in quantities never before seen. That became a new normal with no clear or immediate resolution. The ebb and flow of the disease frustrates us because when there is an ebb, we think it’s going away and we can tear off our masks, but then it flows again. This constant change has become our new normal. Now that a vaccination is on the horizon, hopefully in the near future, it presents us with hope, but the stability of what is to be normal is still up in the air.
The loss that exists in the new normal reminds us that we all react to change in different ways. Some of us resist change completely and would be inclined to say that COVID is a hoax, so safety precautions are unnecessary. Others approach the new normal with trepidation and anxiety because the new normal is unpredictable and can change on any given day. The lack of assured safety is unsettling. It requires us to abandon our expectations and experience what each day brings with caution and an alert set of eyes.
After chemotherapy, there was a short period of time when I thought that my body was going back to “normal” but soon after, as part of my treatment, I had to have a stem cell-transplant to minimize the risk of having cancer return. Initially I thought that after the transplant, everything would go back to normal, but now I’m finding that cancer is like living in a haunted house, because if I experience a minor ache or pain, my first thought is to worry that cancer might be returning. Cancer is always there, like a ghost creaking on the floorboards. When I’m feeling energetic and healthy, I look in the mirror and am reminded that I don’t have hair, yet that’s not the norm for most people. A routine of periodic appointments and tests to monitor my status is not likely to ever end, and there will be more blood tests where certain blood cells are either too high or too low. The good thing, however, is that the appointments give me something to do, as I would otherwise be home looking to keep busy. I am reminded that I am still in the early stages of recovery until a full year passes and I reach what transplant survivors call a rebirth. There will always be the reminder that cancer exists in my life. Even though I am considered to be in remission, the reminder that cancer once actively invaded my body and could do so again is always in the back of my mind. This is my new normal.
It is human nature to think of normal as the good or safe, predictable life, while the new normal is an upside-down existence filled with stressful unknowns and possible hardships. For some of us it’s an opportunity for positive change. What I am learning from all of this is that when we think of the old normal or the new normal, it is an expectation we are looking at, when in reality life is unpredictable by nature, and we are presented with changes more frequently than we realize. A friend made me aware of a quote from Heraclitus that is very fitting at this time: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” This quote reminds me that change is constant, not just in the world around us, but within ourselves. Maybe there is no old normal or new normal. Maybe, instead, that’s just life, and we can learn to face every day with courage, openness, and the ability to meet all the new challenges that come our way.