Have I mentioned how amazing my readers are? I don’t know how so many interesting, intelligent and thoughtful people find their way into my little corner of the internet, but every time I find myself in a conversation with one of you I’m reminded how lucky I am to have you guys in my pack. You’re awesome and I love you.
Someone wrote to me recently and she wanted to remain anonymous, but gave me permission to share her story. I really related to the feelings she’s having and I think many of you will, too. I’ve edited and changed some of the important details slightly to protect her privacy.
My life underwent some MAJOR changes in the last few years, starting with a serious health issue and ending with my long term partner ending our relationship. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say my life has been flipped on its head so many times that I don’t know which way is up anymore. I’m desperately trying to adjust to all the changes in my life and I feel like it’s a constant uphill battle, and half the time I feel like I’m moving backwards instead of forwards.
I want some sort of confirmation that things will get easier and I will adjust and my new normal will eventually feel less “new” and that my new normal will be just as good (or even better!) than the original normal future I had always envisioned for myself.
My treatment is done now and so far all is well on that front! It’s just hard because people often don’t realise that just because the treatment is finished doesn’t mean your journey is over. I’m still grappling with changes to my body (I had to have multiple surgeries), my identity and my life. Most days I’m alright, I adapt, I cope and I go through the motions of a normal day. I go out with friends and socialize. But it’s when I think about how I thought things would go and compare them to what actually happened, and when I think about the person I was and the person I am now, and when I think about the future I thought I was going to have and the future I see for myself now, it becomes overwhelming and I don’t know how to reconcile those two worlds. And then I feel silly, because really, who was I to believe I had a right to that future, that I was owed it in some way. Life is never predictable, but we make the absolutely best life out of the one we do get.
So, wonderful letterwriter, let me start by saying that you have dealt with two huge life changes that, individually, would be enough to make most people feel completely lost and disoriented. You’re having a completely understandable and human reaction to really heavy shit.
I’m going to come right out and give you that confirmation: Things will definitely get easier and you will adjust and your new life will be awesome. The bad news is what you probably already know – that there’s no magic switch to flip. Normal will happen eventually, on it’s own time, and you probably won’t even realize it right away. And you’ll have to work for it.
First, dress your wounds.
One thing we hear a lot from other people when we’re going through rough times is that we should feel lucky for what we do have! That it could have been worse! At least it wasn’t XYZ! Some children are starving in China or something!
So let’s start by acknowledging that all of that talk is complete bullshit. This is not the Pain Olympics where the person who has suffered the most takes home the gold medal and everyone else should count their blessings. You went through some seriously bad stuff and I think that everything you’re feeling is completely valid. Forgive yourself and do not feel silly for mourning that shiny future that you were looking forward to.
Have a funeral for your former life. I know that sounds a little dramatic, but hear me out. I’m a big believer in giving yourself a finite amount of time where you’re allowed to be a sadsack, cry, scream or do whatever you need to do to take all that hurt that’s in a tight little ball in your stomach and heave it out. You probably haven’t had time to really do that yet, because you’ve been so focused on keeping it together and just surviving that you haven’t given yourself a moment to just feel unapologetically sad.
So you can do this by yourself if you want, or you can invite your besties or your parents or anyone else you feel safe with, as long as you feel you can be your authentic self in front of them.
The ground rules are the same, whether you choose to do this alone or with company:
- There should be comfort food and wine or coffee or chocolate milk or whatever else makes you happy.
- There should be tissues.
- There should be no attempts made by you or your compatriots to talk you out of how you’re feeling.
That last one is the most important, because people’s natural instinct in the face of someone else’s pain is to try to convince them that things aren’t that bad and they’re going to get better! And really soon! And that’s not what this is about.
So you’re going to throw this funeral for a finite amount of time (say 2-4 hours) and you’re going to spend that time thinking or talking about all of the sad and terrible shit that’s gone on, what your life was supposed to look like, and you’re going to mourn that it didn’t come to pass. If you have friends with you, make sure they understand that the only noises they’re allowed to make are ones of validation and acknowledgement and “I’m so sorry, and you’re totally justified in feeling that way. It totally sucks.”
And you’re going to cry and yell and do whatever else you need to do, you’re going to allow yourself to feel emotionally exhausted and then go to bed and hopefully sleep like a rock. And then you’re going to wake up the next morning and remind yourself that you’ve said everything you needed to say and said your final goodbyes to that person you thought you were going to be.
Find the pits you fall into and fill them with other things
I extricated myself from a long term relationship with someone who turned out to be a really horrible person. And even though that relationship was a shitshow and I was glad to be out of it, in quiet moments I’d find myself rehashing all the bad stuff that had happened in my head – I’d replay it in my brain like an episode of the World’s Dumbest Criminals.
It usually happened in my car on my commute to work. I always listened to music, but I’d tune that out and the bad memories would flow, and by the time I got to work I was in a terrible mood. Once I became aware of this pattern, I was able to throw a wrench in it. I started listening to podcasts instead of music, and I found that listening to people talk focused my attention better and prevented my jerkbrain from taking over. It was a simple change, but it made a huge difference in how I felt day to day.
You have a lot of painful, stressful memories swirling around in your head. Start paying attention to when your jerkbrain is taking over and fill those spaces with other things.
Does your mind race when you’re sitting at your desk at work? Could you bring headphones and listen to an audiobook or a podcast? Is it quiet evenings at home? Could you ask a chatty friend to be your emergency contact that you can call up when you need a distraction? Could you immerse yourself in a juicy Netflix series that you really have to pay attention to?
Find things that you enjoy that require brainpower and focus and have those ready when you need them.
Find your new normal.
The problem with “normal” is that nothing is normal right away, until one day it just is. So you can’t find it. Stop looking. You have to keep doing things that make you happy until they become normal. This is going to be a combination of two things: Reconnecting with things that made you feel good about your former life and finding new things to love.
Find your touchstones
Way back before all that shit hit the fan, and before that relationship that didn’t work out, what made you happy? Were there things you liked to do or people you liked to hang out with that you lost track of?
Maybe you used to have lunches with your sister, or have a regular dinner night at your parents’ house. Maybe you did puzzles or belonged to a book club or loved soccer or knitting. Try to remember what you loved before that you may have let fall by the wayside, and reconnect with those things.
Reach out to people who knew you then and just tell them what’s up. You can say “I’m really struggling with getting back to feeling normal right now. Remember when we used to go to the movie theater and see the WORST movie we could find? That was so much fun. Could we do that tomorrow?”
Sometimes it’s been so long since things felt “normal” that we can’t even remember what that was like. You’ve moved away from those people or those places that made you feel happy and you don’t even know what you’re into anymore.
In that case, think back to what you enjoyed when you were a kid. Was it putting together Legos with your brother, riding your bike, reading Nancy Drew or Harry Potter?
This is probably the best kept secret in the world: You’re an adult and you can do whatever the f*ck you want. If that means you want to walk into a toy store and walk out with the motherload of Legos and spend the entire weekend building the most majestic godamn Lego fortress the world has ever seen, you can do it. Also, call me so I can come over.
My point is, you can still do the things you used to do that made you happy. You can recruit help. You can do them by yourself. You don’t need permission, and it doesn’t matter if they’re silly or don’t make sense to anyone but you. You just need to spend some time figuring out what they are. Get a piece of paper. Brainstorm “happy stuff to do” and start checking things off. Some things you’ll realize aren’t your jam anymore, but some things will stick. Those that stick will help make up your new normal.
Write the story of “New You”
Things didn’t turn out the way you wanted. You’ve mourned that life and laid it to rest. The awesome thing about your life being completely disrupted is that this is the perfect opportunity to try out new things and figure out who the new you is going to be.
You can try all those things that you always thought looked fantastic and fun but that you never had guts or motivation to do. And if anyone questions your choices you can scream at them “I’m in emotional distress and I’m finding myself!” and just continue doing whatever you want, because that’s a good way to shut people up.
Get a piece of paper or open up a document on your computer. Pretend you’re writing a script for a story about a fiercely strong, smart and interesting single woman who happens to be played by you. You’re laying the groundwork for her character. We Dungeons and Dragons nerds refer to this as a “character sheet”.
What do her mornings look like? Is she eating breakfast pizza and painting her toenails or is she sipping a latte at an outdoor cafe? You can do those things. What does she do with her free time? Is she rockclimbing, geocaching, attending a murder mystery dinner, planting a garden, hiking, walking shelter dogs, getting lost in the library, cooking gourmet dinners for her friends? You can do those things!
There are so many things you’ve probably thought looked so fun over the years that you’ve never tried for no better reason than it didn’t seem like “you”. Well, you don’t know who you are anymore, right? So why can’t those things be you, now?
I’ll have more to say on finding your “new normal” in a future post. Really, there is SO much to say. But I think the important first steps are these: Say goodbye to that old life and future. It was out of your control, and that sucks so much, and you can’t change it. Reconnect with your happy things and people and places. They’ll keep you grounded and give you that sense of familiarity that you’re craving right now. And start rewriting your story.
Nothing is certain, and a lot of life is completely up to chance, but you have what we’ll call the “gift” of trauma – your house has been destroyed, but now you can build a new one and it can look like whatever you want. It won’t feel normal. Not right away, at least. And that’s ok, because it’s going to be beautiful.