Monday, April 23, 2012

Recovery-The New Normal

This is the first in a series of posts about living with and recovering  from major illness. Many thanks to Jonny and a number of dear friends who agreed to share their thoughts with me about their own journeys through illness in order to help me write these posts. Their bravery ,honesty and poignant accounts moved me deeply and with their permission I am sharing  these insights with you.

When Jonny was first diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia in October 2008, I remember yearning for him and our world to get back to normal.

 When trigeminal neuralgia struck again 3 years later having hung as a threat over our heads in the intervening time, his quality of life became so reduced, because of the terrible, unrelenting, unpredictable pain and the side effects of medication, that as a family we barely left the house. We stopped going to friends, to the movies or out to eat. Jonny took sick leave from work and I was constantly on hyper alert for changes in his pain, symptoms and  emotions. I just wanted everything to return to the way it had been before trigeminal neuralgia.  I wanted the Jonny I knew and loved with his vibrant, wise, charming, funny  personality and outlook, back  exactly as he  was before. 

But what  I have realized now, after listening to my friends’ accounts and living with Jonny through months of pain, major surgery and ongoing recovery is that there is no going back to normal, going back to who you were before, there is only moving forward to a new normal that has all the previous ingredients but now includes some new ones learned from the harrowing experience. And in order to get to this new normal, you have to follow your own unique recipe of recovery.  (I obviously have a recipe theme obsession  at the moment-see my previous post Food For Thought-The Perfect Job Share

In Rabbi Naomi Levy’s inspirational  book Hope Will Find You*, about “searching for wisdom to stop waiting and start living”,  she describes a scene, where as a young child she is helping her 14 year old brother Danny put away their mother’s long saved for and last of its kind, best china. In the process Naomi drops a plate and shatters 11 other pieces including a sugar bowl lid, into shards. Danny carefully collects all the pieces together and using a tube of Duco Cement, painstakingly puts the china back together. Their mother so moved by Danny’s care and thoughtfulness in trying to protect Naomi from punishment and herself from despair, does not reprimand Naomi and continues to use the dinner set for many years.  Naomi says the sugar still tastes just as sweet from the sugar bowl as it did before the lid was broken, but perhaps it is a little more fragile, and it never looks quite the same again. She uses this account to show that her brother saved her not by hiding the damage but by caring enough to try to repair it.  

With this story I have also begun to understand what a new normal might look like and why we cannot go back to being exactly what or who we were before a major illness, surgery, loss or other serious life event. Going through these traumas is much like the shattered sugar bowl lid, being glued back together. The sugar bowl is still a sugar bowl, it still serves up the same sweet sugar, but if you look closely you can see the scars of brokenness, experience and recovery,- and I think this  is also true for people recovering physically, emotionally and spiritually from serious illness or other major life events.  As a friend of mine who is recovering from breast cancer told me, “This is the new normal because the experience you have been through changes you forever.” It   shapes, colors and molds who you have become and how you view the world. She goes on to say “I think the hardest part is accepting that it is the new normal, only then can you move on.”

And Jonny is finding his new normal through his ongoing recovery. It is a complicated recipe that takes time to refine and we are  working on the ingredients of experience, as I write!

* I first mention this book in my post Among the Weeds (Reads)

** Please email me at
 or leave a comment on this post below. I'd love to have your feedback.

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  1. I look forward to reading more posts in this series and learning from them, as I have from most of your blog posts. I love the sugar bowl story.

  2. Thank you Rachel. When I read your link on FB about the exercise to help children understand how being bullied feels, it resonated with me because of the sugar bowl story. Gilly

  3. Beautiful post Gilly. I do think, in part, it is our scars that give us some of our most interesting and beautiful aspects.

  4. Yes, it is the difficult,challenging experiences that shape us the most. Our life direction often changes as a result of them enriching us,but it's hard to see how that is possible when you are in the midst of the challenge.
    Thanks Corey.

  5. However, just have to say that sometimes ENOUGH is ENOUGH!!! Like really, when does the @#$% end?

    And really some of us are just lucky to be able to wish for past halcyon days, at least we had those.

    And finally, in an attempt to get used to the new normal, with Hope, a lot can happen.

  6. Suks-There is no doubt that the layers that serious illness or other major life challenges and everything else that seems to pile on top, really can seem unending and unfair, enough to make you want to scream. But it is that same anger that can energize and empower you to act to change whatever you can about the situation. Really, really difficult, but that is where hope comes in...the hope that if you take certain steps you will be able to find a new normal you can live with. Gillyxxxxxx

  7. Gilly, I know that you read my blog, so I know you understand what my "normal" life is like. Somehow, people like you who share their version of normal make it easier for me.
    I like the sugar bowl story....normal, but a new kind of normal.
    Best wishes to you and your family xx

    1. Thank you Liz.I'm glad this post was meaningful for you.
      I am always amazed at how when something that changes my life, first hits, I wonder how I will ever move forward and function. But after a period of time somehow my brain and life make room for what ever it is, accommodate it and it becomes the new normal.... I guess that's called survival!
      Good to hear from you as always Liz.