Learning to accept the new normal

Coming to terms with the current reality is challenging

The following post is all about my personal mental health experiences. For the latest information on COVID-19, please visit www.cdc.gov.

In the chronic pain community, we often talk about the “new normal.” While the term seems straightforward, accepting it is challenging.

We must adjust to life with pain and changes that none of us wanted. Because nobody deals with chronic pain and illness on purpose.

Adjusting to the new normal looks different and takes a different amount of time for people. It often involves going through the various stages of grief from anger to denial to sadness until finally we reach acceptance.

While we may still fight to feel better or even for a cure, at some point we work to get to a place where we can say, “OK. This is life now. It isn’t over and I’m going to move forward in spite of it.” At least that’s the goal.

For almost 20 years, I have lived with this new normal, and I’ve felt all the feelings that go along with it. Sometimes the stages even repeat themselves. I still have times of denial, sadness and anger. But, I let go of those feeling quicker than before.

Another new normal: parenthood

When I had my first child back in 2009, I remember talking with some other first-time moms about how motherhood requires yet another version of the new normal. While I loved my daughter so completely and fully (still do!), I had to get used to somebody coming first always. I had to adjust to the new normal where things I want to do (or even need to do) get shifted to low or no priority. Again, it’s an adjustment that has phases just like any other: anger, sadness, acceptance.

When my son was born in 2013, adjusting was easier because I’d already gotten into the new normal of parenthood. Of course I had to make other adjustments in dealing with a newborn and preschooler, but the new normal wasn’t as dramatic. I knew what to expect for the most part in having a new baby to care for.

The difference between the new normal of chronic pain and the new normal of parenthood is the time factor. With chronic pain, I can’t be sure when the pain will stop or start or get more intense. Flares can hit out of nowhere and last for days or months.

With parenthood, I have more parameters. Having children is unpredictable in many ways, but I at least have some idea of timeframe. We usually go into parenthood knowing things like about when our kids will be able to talk, when they will be starting kindergarten, when they will be graduating high school and so on. And parenting phases also don’t last forever.

Both dealing with the new normal of chronic pain and the new normal of parenthood have been on my mind lately as I am adjusting to the new normal of life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The beginning of the pandemic new normal

March 11 was when everything started changing for me and got very real. It was also the day my husband had surgery to repair his rotator cuff in his shoulder. I was even more vigilant than usual about using hand sanitizer throughout the day. In the waiting room, I talked with my mom and my in-laws about how the new travel restrictions would impact their various travel plans.

That evening, the university in our city announced plans to begin online learning the following week. The next day (Thursday), my children’s school announced plans to follow suit with the university.

Suddenly the reality of COVID-19 was very real. I contemplated taking care of my recovering husband, schooling my children and doing work. It was overwhelming.

I had no idea how long this journey was going to be. I was clueless at how much it would turn our lives upside down. As I write this, two months later, I still don’t have all the answers. I’m contemplating questions like when I will feel comfortable enough to let my children be out in public. I’m wondering what it will take for me to confidently go somewhere without wearing mask. I don’t yet have those answers.

The continuing pandemic new normal

Last week, I marveled at how things have changed. I’m used to working at home and being at home. Reality hits me when I leave the house.

I decided to pick up Chinese food for us. It was something I’ve done many times, but this time was different. This time I went into the restaurant and found the tables and chairs put away. I saw newly erected glass surrounding the cash register and both the employees and I wore face masks.

This is the new normal. It’s the kind of stuff we do to try and stay healthy. I can easily forget it as I have adjusted to life at home. We have a school-at-home routine fully underway now. I have figured out how to do my work. I can navigate the various technology needed for the kids’ school. My husband has now recovered well enough that he doesn’t need much help from me. It doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary.

Then I go to get food wearing a face mask. And I remember the world has changed.

Like with chronic pain, I don’t know when the change will end. My state’s governor is working toward a plan to have things all reopened by summertime, but even then says masks are necessary.

Nobody can say what will happen with the school year in the fall, yet. It’s too soon. We are waiting on things like better treatments and vaccines. We are doing our best, but we don’t have a precise or predictable timeframe with COVID-19.

And that’s hard. The unknown is scary and hard. It’s even scarier when I start thinking about all sorts of what-ifs and worry about loved ones. I’ve seen all sorts of articles floating around about both how it isn’t as bad as the media says and how it’s way worse than the media could report. I’ve seen conspiracy theories and scientific articles. But the truth is that nobody can predict the future. Nobody can say for sure exactly how this is going to play out.

My governor has a date to have everything reopened. However, as he announced his plan, he was quick to remind all of us many times that the plan will be constantly reassessed and we may have to take steps back. He, too, doesn’t have a crystal ball.

Managing the new pandemic normal for the foreseeable future

In the midst of all of this, I’ve also seen all sorts of advice articles about how we should have our kids continue with schoolwork for normalcy or that we should just let them do what they want because living life is enough of a struggle right now. I’ve read how this is a great time to organize my house or binge watch seasons of shows on Netflix.

For me, the truth of all those things lies right in the middle. My kids do their schoolwork as required, but they also have downtime. I’m not organizing my house, but I am cleaning well as I go. I don’t have time for major binge watching, but I have watched the entire season of “Supermarket Stakeout” with my family over a few weeks.

I’ve felt the feelings from panic to terror to anger to sadness. I’ve stayed awake at night pondering how we’re going to get groceries or what we’ll do if we can never find packs of toilet paper. I’ve gotten choked up listening to my kids doing a Zoom call with classmates instead of being in school with them.

I’ve stressed out about going into the store and wondering if I made a huge mistake in trying to get supplies for my family even though I sanitized and sterilized myself and my purchases. I’ve felt anxious about not wiping down every piece of mail with a bleach wipe. On and on the list goes.

Managing our feelings about the new normal

If nothing else, COVID-19 has certainly brought a slew of feelings for all of us. We are learning a new normal. There’s a chance that COVID-19 could change things permanently. No matter what, clearly this new normal is going to stick around for a good while.

And so we have to feel all the feels. I have to navigate through the feelings to get to acceptance. Because no matter how anxious or anger I feel, reality is reality and the sooner I can get to acceptance, the better. But just like with chronic pain and illness, it’s an ongoing process.

Sometimes feelings are going to creep up again. Feelings and issues I’ve thought I’ve worked my way through are going to surface again. I’ll have moments when I’m still shocked at wearing a face mask in public even though I’ve done so for months. I’ll have moments when I’m angry at having to sanitize and sterilize everything that comes into my house in hopes of keeping my family safe.

There will be days when I want to smack someone who says that we are in this together because if we were, couldn’t they come to my house and make dinner or do dishes or monitor schoolwork?

But I am going to do my best to get to acceptance and get back there as much as possible.

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