THE BLOG

New Year! New Normal?

01/08/2014 06:29 pm ET | Updated Mar 10, 2014
  • Bret Hoekema Filmmaker and writer at www.CultivateStudios.com, Blogger at www.hoechemo.com

"We need to talk. I know you are planning to start a diet next Wednesday. I used to start diets, too. I hated to mention this to my then therapist. She would say cheerfully, "Oh, that's great, honey. How much weight are you hoping to gain?" -Anne LaMott on new year's resolutions

Happy New Year!

Are you resolute or destitute? Ready for the year or living in fear? Feeling normal or hormonal?

It's probably not an either/or proposition, but ready or not, the new year is here. Just as 2013 was coming to a close, I had designs on an essay that might just stumble naturally into advice column territory, comparing my distaste for new year's resolutions with my distaste for what I feel to be an overused and reductionist piece of advice for new cancer patients: "Find your new normal."

"A new normal is a way to not constantly think about what life was like before. It is a way to focus on the present and the future." --Living With Cancer blog, Mayo Clinic

I had hoped to write in favor of a more nuanced approach to the new year and life with or recovering from cancer. One filled with more honest self-examination than sloganistic self-improvement. Problem is, today, I'm sitting here, fighting my way through a rough case of writer's block, feeling like I need to make a few of my own adjusted for new normal resolutions. New year. Old ghosts.

I'll be receiving a six-month, post-allogeneic stem cell transplant PET scan on January 20th at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. As of the three-month scan, my Hodgkin's Lymphoma was technically in remission -- though the scan showed a very small area in my chest that could be a harbinger of disease. In spite of this gray area, I have high hopes for a completely clean scan. Of course, one thing I've learned from cancer is that it is rarely up to me. For two and a half years cancer has drilled this thought into my head. I am anxious. Still, I am a dreamer. I didn't make resolutions, but I may as well have. As I've been sinking deeper into the proverbial holiday couch, I've been mulling over a mountain of personal improvements -- a decidedly more achievable activity than climbing that mountain. History has shown... resolutions ain't my thing.

After I was diagnosed, I can't remember who first suggested that I find my new normal or the first time I saw it written in quotes -- "new normal" -- but it wasn't long before I developed what is presumably an abnormal distaste for the idea. Since then, I've thought often on why it bothers me. I can't deny that it seems to help some people cope with the inevitable life-altering changes a cancer diagnosis brings. Perhaps, I've just never been good at taking advice. Over the years, I've been known to occasionally ignore the well-intentioned guidance of parents, preachers, teachers, professors, R.A.'s, assistant managers, managers and district managers, and here I am -- 33 years old -- a well-adjusted member of my community. I feel like besides the whole getting cancer thing, I've done pretty well for myself. Of course, drinking Mad Dog 20/20 in my dorm room probably wasn't the smartest idea either. If you're going to drink in your dorm, keep a low profile and drink vodka.

So maybe I just have trouble playing nice with others. Belonging to something. Benefiting from the collective knowledge of a community. Maybe, to my detriment, I'm dependant on independence. To quote Woody Allen -- quoting Groucho Marks in Annie Hall -- "I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." It's true. I've never really been a joiner. I've even left a few clubs I was born into, like Conservatives and Churchgoers. Again, I feel like I've done pretty well for myself.

Problem is, now I belong to a club I can never leave: Cancer Survivors. As a member, I automatically receive a lifetime membership and enough welcome kits and educational pamphlets filled with stock advice and photography to fill two sizable cardboard boxes in my basement. While I've never been able to force myself to spend much time reading through these kits, a central piece of advice seeps from their pages, "find your new normal."

So what does it mean to find my new normal? Do these pamphlets even know? What's my problem with the idea of a new normal?

Maybe it's the same problem I have with the common educator's epithet to the young and apparently naïve student: "When you get out there in the real world..." As if we weren't already in the real world. As if we hadn't worked our ass off to get where we were. As if we couldn't see clearly until we viewed the world from a cubical. As if we didn't already know soul-crushing pain and soul-filling joy. As if the pain of youth is merely a flesh wound compared to the repeated stabbing we all receive in adulthood. On the contrary, I constantly hear adults ruminating on, still struggling through, the realness of their youth. Graduation is when we take the real world experiences of college and apply them to the real world experiences of having a job or doing some real world wandering. Graduation is a milestone, not the beginning of the real world.

Diagnosis, with cancer or anything else, is a great tragedy -- a milestone we didn't ask for, likely can't be blamed for, and a transition some of us never really figure out -- but does it create a new normal? I guess, no matter how much it pains me, I can't say that it doesn't. I do not think encouraging someone to find their new normal misses the mark as badly as preparing a student for the real world, but it is certainly worthy of critique. It definitely didn't work for me, and it's not just a matter of semantics. Although, it's that as well. Finding a new normal is a depressing concept for a depressing situation.

At it's best, new normal thinking likely helps freshly diagnosed cancer survivors to cope with the shock and see through the whirlwind. In those first days your mind is flush not only with thoughts of death, but also thoughts of the death of life as you know it. In this way, learning you have cancer is not unlike experiencing a truncated version of aging. Almost overnight you can't think like you used to. You can't breathe like you used to. You can't be social or go to work or have sex or make your own decisions like you used to. Long before you have the ability to parse through what all of this means to your hopes and dreams and aspirations for love, family and career, you are asked to begin treatment that just might kill you if the cancer doesn't. It's like being taken from your home and slipped into a retirement community bed with only a lighthouse puzzle and a television set loaded with episodes of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy to keep you comfort. This is your new normal. Deal with it. A depressing concept for a depressing situation. Your life is in Jeopardy, but hell, why not take a spin of the ole Wheel of New Normal? At its best, maybe new normal thinking wraps a blanket around us when we are at our most frail, shocked by the whirlwind of cancer -- not yet able to see that for most of us there is life with cancer and life beyond cancer. It says decidedly that there is. You will have a new normal. It might be a shorty, but you'll have it.

Many of us refuse blanket solutions for a complex reality, and the concept of a new normal is a blanket solution. It's ubiquitous, and maybe it shouldn't be. After diagnosis, the dust settles. The shock fades way to the everyday, and we realize the fan that the shit hit is still turning, and there is still shit on it. Diagnosis is not the obverse of the contemporary Christian idea of a born again experience. Cancer shouldn't make you brand new or inspire a completely different worldview. Neither is cancer emotionally bested by a concept lifted from the pages of a corporate training manual. Just google "new normal." It's not just for cancer patients. It seems everyone has a piece of the new normal pie, even sitcoms.

I distrust attempts to boil down the tragedy and profundity of being diagnosed with cancer at 31 years of age. I distrust attempts to tell me how to move on with my life. My guess is that for many cancer survivors, new normal thinking begins to feel, or maybe always felt, like a boiling down -- a too tidy package for a full and joyous life with cancer. Some of us are smart and savvy senior members in this club. When the dust settles, many of us justifiably and healthily move forward with nearly the same worldview -- in full recognition of what we have lost and full of gratitude for the opportunities we still have. While new normal thinking ever so subtly suggests a cutting off, I am interested in a carrying on. A continuity. A digging into my reality. Admittedly, cancer enters our lives at different velocities, but it has continually been an important and life-giving idea for me to realize and emphasize that no matter the velocity, cancer ultimately has no control over who I am. I am still alive. Still the same old Bret. New realities and augmented dreams, but some of the same old ones as well. Cancer and chemotherapy ravage our bodies, deplete our finances and challenge our families, but they don't have to cloud our vision. Cancer so often does not have the last word. It certainly doesn't give us a clean slate, but it can be an incredible opportunity. I believe in coping, not cutting off. I believe in honing, not reinventing. I believe in combing the past to find strength for the future. I believe in a daily struggle to find more than a semblance of inner peace before I go trying to piece together anything or anyone else. We must be the constant gardeners.

I guess I don't believe in born again experiences, corporate thinking or new year's resolutions. Trauma or no trauma, who we were is always part and parcel to who we are and who we will be. Our past doesn't have to own us, just inform us. Cancer doesn't have to change our worldview, but it can dust it off with pinpoint precision. Radical transformations rarely last. Corporations just survive, no matter the cost. New year's resolutions are so often just impractical short cuts, creating a disastrous cycle of binging and purging. A full life is not served by resolutions or blanket solutions. New normal thinking is just a huge self-helping we don't need on our plate. Integral living filled with honest reflection, reasonable expectations and love for self and others on the other hand...

In the end, new normal thinking isn't much of a philosophy at all. It's really just a clichéd saying. Tonight, I'm resolute in saying, that for as long as I'm alive, I'll be cultivating a worldview in which cancer doesn't have the final say over who I am or who I will be.

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