October 1, 2014
Finding a New “Normal”
I know it’s a cliché, “a new normal.” But it fits.
We do this all our lives. I have found a new normal after numerous life events, none so life-changing as the one I’m going through now, which I hope you’ll stick around to read . . . but first I go back.
I had to find a new normal when I was the first person in my family to go to university. It was a scary and formidable place filled with privileged kids and a few like myself, a country girl raised on a farm—more comfortable with animals than I was people. At times I felt so alienated by my academic surroundings that I hid in the stairwell of the physics building, feeling alone and unworthy. I remember crying in the basement of the math department, a young woman in the 80s trying to get a degree in science. Often I was the only woman in my classes.
Perhaps that’s why I found solace in my mandatory humanity classes and ended up changing my degree program to writing, which included classes in Women’s Studies. I was less alone there.
A new normal.
When I decided to go to graduate school, another new normal. I chose a writing/teaching program that was predominantly female and had numerous female professors. I felt safe and challenged both. I was thrilled to learn.
Then came graduation with a PhD and a job offer from a university in Kentucky. I became a “professor.” A new normal I tried to live up to. I really loved to teach. I moved to Little Rock the next year and joined a writing department. Loved my job, loved my life. I started a small business. I was happy, healthy, excited about each new day.
This is important because it relates to the present.
In Little Rock, I woke each morning, readied my son for school while I baked quiche for the café I had opened and managed while not teaching, drove to campus to teach and work, picked my son up from school, returned to the café where my son did his homework, and I worked until closing time. Returned home. Sometimes I enjoyed a day off—but not often. I was engaged. I was living. I was doing. And I think I was happy most of the time.
Then came the next transition. A plane crash. American Airlines flight 1420. It tore my world apart. I became depressed, psychotic, and delusional. I was hospitalized. I was fired. I lost my business.
Then started a ten year search for sanity, which included Buddhist studies, meditation practice, yoga training. A new normal. Healthy living, active exercise, learning. Again, I was in love with live, engaged, and excited about possibilities.
Then my son died. MRSA, pneumonia. He died at the age of 20. How does a mother deal with that? She makes a new normal. A normal without her son.
Then she falls in love. She falls in love with a long-time friend who’s son is a drug addict. She tries desperately to help her new love/husband save his son, whom she’s known for over 20 years. And then he dies of a drug overdose at age 22. A new normal.
No children. Just my husband and I, trying and succeeding at living a life of gratitude in honor of those we lost. Seriously, we were succeeding. Every night we would toast to the sky, to the stars, to our lost children, and to all the world. We celebrated life.
And then came the cancer diagnosis. My husband was dying of stage-four colon cancer. And it was my job to see him through it. A new normal. My normal became the chemo ward at the VA, medication supervision, cleaning bloody stools . . . it was a job I loved and hated at the same time. But it became my new normal until . . .
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2013. And with much hope (because very few people in my extended family had died of cancer) I took a BRCA test. The test came back positive. I have a gene that predisposes me to breast, ovarian, and colon cancer. I had a double mastectomy in April. Charlie died in August. I had a hysterectomy in December. All sad and difficult, but still not what this new normal is about.
On Labor Day weekend 2013, still reeling from the death of my husband, I fell ill. I thought I had the flu. I spent the weekend in bed, alone. I was alone. I was scared. I was in pain from my second breast surgery the week before. I thought it was the flu.
The sickness, mostly vomiting and diarrhea, continued. In the second week of September 2013, I started seeking medical help.
My search has included: traditional medical testing, acupuncture, psychological evaluation, more medical testing, drugs (taken and given up), spiritual healing, any fucking thing I could find. I was called “hysterical” by one doctor who could not explain my illness.
I have not given up. And I guess I’m writing this mostly as a confession to my family, friends, and meditation students. Because I am still sick. Horribly sick. I either spend the first few hours of my day vomiting or on the toilet with sever diarrhea. After which I am so exhausted it’s difficult to engage in life the way “normal” people do. Seriously, can you imagine having the flu for over a year? Can you imagine spending your first two hours of the day vomiting? Can you imagine diarrhea for five hours every morning?
So this is my new normal.
I have tried so hard to find answers (and will continue to). I’m still going through testing—I can’t tell you how much blood has been drawn from my veins in search of a diagnosis. I’ve given stool, urine, blood to the almighty medical system that returns results of “normal.
But I live in a new normal. I live in a normal of chronic abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea.
I know there are people out there—family, friends, students—who feel like I’m “letting them down” because I’m not “available” to them as I would like to be. But this is my new normal. A chronic illness that I cannot control and that has yet to be diagnosed. I promise I will keep searching, both physically and spiritually, to find a cure, to get better, to change my “normal.” But for now, this is where I am.
Sometimes I run to the toilet not knowing which end of my body to empty first. Vomiting and diarrhea. It’s insane. It’s my reality. It has been my reality for one year and 31 days.
I want to thank to the bottom of my heart those few people who understand how painful this new reality is for me.
And I want to beg humanity to understand that physical illness doesn’t mean we don’t care or don’t want to help. It means we can’t. Chronic physical illness is a prison. And I am trapped in it.
Yet, I am not discouraged or disappointed. This is my lesson. This is my new school. My new normal. And I will do what I can because of and despite it.
Love Love Love.