Normal – To Be or Not to Be
When I first entered the outpatient rehab hospital after my stroke, during the initial interview process, I was asked about what my goals were for rehab. I recall saying first that I wanted to walk again, and then adding that I’d like my left arm to work. My daughter was there with me, and she later reminded me that the first thing I said was simply “to be normal.” Nearly seven months later, this is a concept with which I still struggle. I have heard it often, but resist the term “new normal.”
There is a t-shirt declaring “Normal is Boring.” Though I understand the sentiment, I am still hoping to be just plain old normal. Normal is sometimes said to be doing that which everyone else does; yet how does that relate to slavery or the holocaust for example? Does normal mean free from discomfort? Aren’t pain, guilt, sadness, anxiety, doubt, often normal in terms of everyday life? And at what point do such adaptations become a new normal? The term “new normal” is applied to slower economic growth, altered financial circumstances, climate change or the current political environment - and to life after stroke. Why do I still just want to be normal, despite the negative connotations? Why am I reluctant to accept being a “new me” living a “new normal?”
I have always been cursed/blessed with exceptionally light blonde hair. As a child, people would frequently comment on it. A common remark was “Now there’s a real towhead” which of course I heard as “toe-head” and didn’t like it at all. I can remember trying to stuff my hair under a hat so I could be left alone. I was asked if I was albino or why I wore white tights in the summer. Some people would say things such as “Don’t you get too proud because when you get older it’ll turn brown and you’ll look like everyone else.” I couldn’t wait for my head to no longer look like a toe and just be normal! But my hair never darkened very much, and though I remember looking at packages of brown hair dye, I eventually accepted being a little different and learned I was a towhead and not a toe-head. These days, as I age, I can now tell people that I am simply “going blonder!” I guess I could say that I accepted being different while still being normal.
To accept a “new normal” feels somewhat like giving up on my old plain normal life. It was a life I loved and had worked hard to obtain – early retirement, a small but beautiful new home, frequent travels, contributing to my community, caring for a grandchild. But however I label it, life has changed. Travels these days consist primarily of trips three times per week, 45 minutes each way, to therapy appointments. My volunteer work has been limited to a few things I can do from home. Though I refuse to accept this as being permanent, for now this is the way it is. Okay, and this hurts me to say - I have found a new normal. Ouch. But as I sit here typing this, challenged by trying to get the left fingers to actually find the desired keys now and then, I am able to look out the window at the lake which is now nearly free of ice. Any day now the loons will return. There are crocuses breaking through the ground; the chickadees are singing their spring song and the male goldfinches are beginning to turn yellow. Three adult bald eagles have been spotted nearby. Trout season opens in a few weeks and the lake will again come to life. This summer our second grandchild will be born. We will visit our daughter in Montana and at least go for short walks in nearby Glacier National Park. This is what I love, what sustains me and makes me me. It is why I don’t want to find a “new me.” I don’t want to now be “that lady who had a stroke.” I just want to be the same old Carol with the ridiculously blonde hair, who can spend hours watching the birds and the lake. And who will sometimes still cry and swear and say something inappropriate and feel sorry for herself. And who will most likely, at least once this summer, manage to tip over the kayak. I will be in the kayak, though, wearing a life jacket and staying in shallow water. That will be a new normal. For now.