For cancer survivors, finding the new normal is often job number one following a successful treatment. I know firsthand how hard it can be to reassemble the pieces following a long and exhausting treatment. While the good news for many is survival, there are often new concerns and challenges. And just as unique as is each survivor, so too will be the way in which (and depth to which) cancer touched their life. But one thing is for sure, it touched something, and getting back to normal takes time, patience, effort, and probably a good bit of help.
When I was looking for a way to explain how I felt following treatment -- the disorienting feeling, the sudden unfamiliarity of so many things in my life -- I used the analogy of an invisible fence. It really helped me and others to better understand and frame what going on. Simply put, I felt (I could only imagine) like a dog whose trusty, familiar invisible fence had suddenly been moved. The new boundaries were startling, jarring, even shocking. Much like for Fido, one cannot see an invisible fence, one has to live it, experience it, bump into it a few (or a bunch) of times. It used to end over there, but now I can't get past here. It used to have one shape, now it has another. I used to do, think, feel one way, and now those things either don't work or no longer feel right. But the new perimeters do not reveal themselves like a runway in the dark, all lit up, and they can't be found with the ease of a Google search. No, the process of recovery, and rediscovery, is one of patience, honest assessment, acceptance and a lot of self-care (and self-love).
We all have invisible fences surrounding us, even if we don't know it. Many of them since before you were born. These fences, for better or for worse, are the perimeters that surround our lives, make things familiar, predictable, and within our control. They all shape our sense of what is right, familiar, "normal," and expected. They make up the what should be. They needn't fence us in, so to speak, but at any given moment, they define our perimeters and what makes up our world.
At the highest level, our fences are shaped and put in place by when, where and to whom we are born -- by our generation, our religion, and our ethnic background, as well as by societal expectations, family, friends and community.
On a more personal level, we all have physical, mental and emotional fences, perimeters that we have learned to live by and these are the ones I want to focus on.
Physical perimeters: We know our limits, what we are capable of, what we can or cannot do well.
Emotional perimeters: We know how we feel, how we react to different triggers or familiar situations. We know our likes, our dislikes, preferences, motivations, dreams, goals, and desires. We know ourselves... or at least we think we do.
Mental perimeters: We are trained from childhood in school to think, and to reason. We know if we excel at math, language, science, business or philosophy. We know how our minds work on a daily basis. We take for granted the countless things our brain does without our conscious involvement -- the thousands of learned responses that are stored, and fired off when predictable patterns are detected, from making a pot of coffee half asleep to handling stressful situations.
All of these things come together to shape how we live, what we believe to be true, what we expect, what we know we are capable of and what we think life should be. They provide a sense of safety and security, and allow us to trust that tomorrow will follow today and everything in our lives will be in the same place when we wake up.
If you are lucky, you are the engineer of your fence. You expand it or contract it as things change, slowly. Learn something new? It expands in one direction. Get an injury, and your abilities contract in another direction. The result is a new shape. If this happens at a slow enough pace, it is not overly stressful. You take it in one move at a time.
But what happens in a major life trauma such as the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, a serious illness, a disability, or the loss of a loved one is a massive shifting of the fence. The changes are so big and/or come so fast such that all that was familiar and safe and predictable, the foundation that all else was built upon, is shaken, or perhaps even broken.
In my wellness practice (see more at lilypadwellness.com), I have spoken with many survivors of breast cancer. A theme that is consistent no matter what stage or course of treatment they had (and one that needs more attention and resources than it currently receives) is the post-treatment phase of recovery, or "finding the new normal." There is good reason this phrase is repeated so often by this group, and frankly by anyone who has endured a trauma or loss. While our loved ones might want to see us recover and resume our lives as close to how they were before as possible (for good and loving reasons), the truth may be that parts of us will simply never be the same. The perimeters have moved. Finding the fence through a process of trial and error (nice way of saying bumping into it and messing up, a lot) and establishing new perimeters of body, mind and spirit, is where the survivor must begin the journey back to feeling whole, vibrant and ready to thrive again.