My doctor introduced me to the term “new normal” and it intrigued me – probably because I was well on my journey to finding one. And it was a hard journey, as bumpy and wild as the five-day tour of Kyrgyzstan in a 4-wheel drive van driven by a guide who had fantasies of being a bronco rider – more about that in future posts. The journey to a new normal was full of doubt, fear, pain, sadness, and anger and it required a major change (not just a shift) in how I thought about myself and my life. It took courage and perseverance; sometimes I wanted to give up but I didn’t know how. Even though I became discouraged at times, I always had a strong drive to find a way of living that had integrity. But what does a new normal consist of?
I wrote this in my journal in October 2004, ten months after being diagnosed.
For many years I have found strength and direction in the following words by James Baldwin (1961, Nobody Knows my Name, p.100):
Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet it is only when a [person] is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free – he has set himself free – for higher dreams, for greater privileges.
I need to reflect on what this means for the changes I am experiencing. There are days when I feel like my world is breaking up, I sometimes don’t know who I am anymore and whether there is enough of me left; I’ve lost the safety of knowing who I am and what my body can do. And I am really afraid of what my future will be like.
Thinking about what it means to give up my dreams and privileges will have to wait for another day, when I can muster enough courage. It has been many years since I’ve felt this much emotional pain. I had forgotten the feeling of crying from so deep that it feels like a fist in my stomach.
Seven months later I reflected on what I had written above in the following journal:
During the past 7 months, as I had to face a very uncertain future, I tried to cling to what I had been and especially what I thought I wanted to be. I fought to hang onto my dreams and hard earned privileges. James Baldwin wrote to the privileged whites who he is asking to give up their personal dreams and social privileges for a more just world. I would have to rewrite the last sentence in order to communicate the journey I am taking:
Yet it is only when I am able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender my old life – and be willing to live the life I have been given – that I am able to have a fuller life.
I think I am mostly there, sometimes more gracefully than other times. Most days I feel a peace that comes from knowing God will use me in ways I can’t even imagine. I feel a peace that comes from knowing God will give me what I need when I need it. I’m not quite as graceful when, after I have done things that I didn’t think I was capable of, when I have pushed myself to my physical limit, I experience days of pain and fatigue. I guess I didn’t think that was a part of my covenant with God, but then he never promised life would be easy. He just promised to love me and be with me.
When I wrote the previous paragraph I believed that I was “mostly there.” I had done a lot of grieving, had felt a lot of sadness, fear, emotional pain, frustration, and anger. But I still had a long way to go because developing a chronic illness like fibromyalgia impacted on all aspects of my life and adjusting was a process that took years. At times I felt like I was taking too long but adjusting to a chronic illness is neither easy nor quick.
I was in my late 50’s when I was got sick so I also had to deal with the physical and life changes that took place as I was aging along with the changes imposed by fibromyalgia. I have been thinking about people who develop chronic illnesses in other stages of the life cycle and know that each life stage has its challenges and tasks and adjusting to a chronic illness makes accomplishing the task even more challenging. The bottom line is that no matter how old we are, being diagnosed with a chronic illness is devastating and disrupts our goals and dreams.
Here is what I wrote seven and a half years after being diagnosed explaining how I knew I had found my new normal:
I have made two interesting discoveries that have confirmed for me that I have settled into a “new normal.” One is a quote from an article that I discovered while doing a literature search for my writing. The literature review includes the work of Nola Pender[i] who proposed that levels of health exist along a continuum and interact with the experience of illness. And here is the interesting part for me: “Whatever the illness experience, the individual continues on a quest for health – a developmental process… Through this developmental process, it is possible for a subjective state of good health to emerge in the presence of overt illness or disability.”
Boy this makes a lot of sense to me when learning to live with a chronic illness. The authors have put into words what I have experienced. Even though I am very aware (when I think about it) that I have fibromyalgia because symptoms don’t ever seem to totally go away, I still am experiencing a subjective state of good health. How cool is that!
The second discovery is that my life no longer centers on fibromyalgia. Instead, I am living my life fully with some limitations due to fibromyalgia. Most of the time when I am active and doing things I love, I don’t even think about having fibro. It has become one small piece of my identity and how I live my life.
My doctor helped me understand that a new normal is not a destination that we arrive at but a new way of being right now. It is being who we are right now as we move through our life-cycle phases. It is a way of thriving as we are continually adjusting to the demands placed upon us by having a chronic illness. This means that I will face future challenges as my life circumstances change and I will have to continue to work on what it means to thrive, to live my life and be who I have been called to be.
What is encouraging to me is that I once again feel like I am in tune with my normal life cycle. I can once again take an active role in making decisions about who I am as I age and how I want to live my life, as some options are lost and new opportunities become available. Fibromyalgia will always be a factor in the decisions I make but I don’t feel like my chronic illness is in control of my life. My life has integrity.
[i] Pender, N. J., Murdaugh, C. L., & Parsons, M. A. (2002). Health Promotion in Nursing Practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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