5 Lessons About Finding a ‘New Normal’

By Pat Akerberg, Columnist

Once chronic pain and/or illness invade your life, any sense of normal that you once knew is shattered.

“Normal” implies that there’s some accepted standard or pattern that equals a widely adopted way of living or being.  It’s a consensus reality considered culturally acceptable or reliable.

Good health is one often taken-for-granted aspect of normal.  But what if your medical circumstances become anything but normal overnight? When that happened to me, I resembled a nomad who lost her way. I set out on a search for my next acceptable, reliable state.      

Feeling suddenly disenfranchised, without hope and alone, I longed for where I might fit again.  No wonder it was an appealing elixir to read books and articles that suggested a “new normal,” a reliable replacement for my previous one, could be found.   

How many of us have spent untold energy (that we pay for later) trying to find, construct, and mimic something resembling another version of normal when our lives fell apart?

It took me years, a lot of effort, and self doubt before I finally realized that the concept of “new normal” didn’t apply for me. 

After losing my health, a hazy cloud of guilt and embarrassment lingered over my perceived failure to meet others and my own expectations of normal. I was already questioning how a neurological disorder (trigeminal neuralgia) could run a swath of career and personal destruction through the middle of my life in record time.    

Family and friends kept slowly nudging me to get to a more predictable state.  Because I looked okay, they couldn’t appreciate my inability to keep plans on any given day.  Or understand why a multitude of doctor appointments, medications, or brain surgery didn’t make me “get better.”

Unless you live with a chronic illness or debilitating pain, it’s hard to fathom that they trump plans at will. 

Why couldn’t I find the place that the books/articles talked about?

Because pain has a life of its own that dictates yours despite your good intentions.

I finally let go of the unrealistic expectations swirling around me, realizing that constant change laughs in the face of pat answers that pose to corral it!

The kind of life altering changes that happened when I became medically compromised explain why chasing a “new normal” isn’t the journey its’ cracked up to be.

We know that change is a process that involves opportunity and stress (crisis) – even if the change involved is chosen, like changing jobs, buying a new house, changing a hairstyle, or dieting.  These kinds of changes are happening in your life and don’t really alter your life as a whole.  They are small, easy to digest changes.

Then there are the kinds of unfortunate changes that can happen to your life that carry more gravity.  They alter your life altogether.  Some can be temporary, like a divorce or job loss. Others, like losing a loved one, physical impairments, disabilities, or scary medical diagnoses that involve painful, progressive, or rare disorders transform your life overnight.

The very option of fitting into “normality” or consensus reality is taken away when those happen, despite our best efforts.  That’s a bell that rang true for me.

Sometimes ideas about finding a reliable substitute for normal can be motivational, if they’re realistic. But there are other times when expectations can set us out on a journey that disappoints if we’re not careful.  Elusive expectations can carry the potential to set you up for an emotional roller coaster ride.

Just because someone wrote about a concept doesn’t make it applicable or possible for all.  In some cases, expecting to find some steady state that’s reliable or trustworthy enough to call your “new normal” isn’t realistic.

If your condition is anything like mine, one that is progressive and creates other complications, continuous functional losses, or involves treatments that carry further risk, chasing some steady state becomes counterproductive.

What’s realistic instead is recognizing the state of constant change before you.  It’s an overwhelming kind of chaos. That means what’s predictable for me now is that my pain decides everything, not me.

I came to realize that the best way forward for me was to stop expecting myself to find and conform to the self help version of a “new normal” as the answer to feeling displaced. 

Here are five lessons I’ve learned about chasing normal and acceptance:

1)  When your circumstances are ever changing, your responses will too.  It’s all situational.

2)  Changes that happen to our lives present much tougher challenges, such as coming to grips with irreplaceable   losses. 

3)  Letting go of unrealistic expectations can be freeing when the circumstances impacting your health are constantly progressing or shifting.

4)  A "new normal" needs to to match the realities of living with chronic pain/illness.  Change is the constant, predictable steady state.

5) Chasing normal means going beyond the touted answers that we strive to pursue (equanimity, acceptance, letting go, etc.) and redefining them to fit our fluid situations. 

That’s a realistic journey that can deliver.

I know now that expecting my condition to fit into a predictable state won’t help me. Try as I might, chasing some concept of normal everyday while trying to fit in is truly out of my control, just like the weather.

Yet knowing that the weather always changes is something that can be counted on. And that’s a tried and true pattern that I can fit into.   That’s acceptance.

Pat Akerberg suffers from trigeminal neuralgia. Pat is a member of the TNA Facial Pain Association and serves as a moderator for their online support forum. She is also a supporter of the Trigeminal Neuralgia Research Foundation.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.