Being You & the New Normal (Volume 1)
One of the things I hear most from people who have blood cancers (and probably all cancer) is that they can’t do as much as they used to. It’s a common complaint, and a difficult thing to get past. Adjusting to your new normal sometimes seems like an impossible task, but it’s not. Getting Facebook to stop sending you endless notifications, that’s impossible, but changing isn’t. I’m going to take you through some things that might make it a bit easier and explain why it’s so difficult. I find that once you know why something is happening, it’s simpler to find a way around it.
Creating new pathways to change our routines
First of all, you have to realize that adapting isn’t a physical change, it’s a mental one. Now, that may make you say “duh,” but you really have to consider what that means for your body. Adapting to a physical change is something we do every day. Women put on high heels. Men wear tight jeans (God knows why). People get all dolled up to go out. Physical change is something we are used to, and even if you are missing an arm or a leg, you adjust extremely fast. Within a week or two, actually, muscles begin to re-learn muscle memory. The brain is a total different animal. When you live your life a certain way, with certain daily routines and activities, your brain forms pathways. No, this isn’t black magic, it’s something called neuroplasticity, and it just means that the more you do something, the easier it becomes and the more likely you’ll do it. In a nutshell, of course. So, when something throws us a curve ball, like cancer, it forces us to change all of our routines. The things we took for granted are no longer, well, granted. Now, you have to form new pathways in your brain, and that takes a serious amount of mental effort. Your brain just wants to sit back and ride along the roads it’s already paved. It doesn’t want to have to hire a construction crew and get permits and draw up plans and build new roads. So, it does everything it can to make you travel along the same highways and streets it knows like the back of its hand. Your hand? Whatever. It does so well enough that it doesn’t need BGPS (brain GPS) to navigate. When you are diagnosed with cancer though, you simply can’t travel most of the same roads you did before the diagnosis, at least not for the foreseeable future. So you have no choice but to forge new pathways in your brain. I know, I know, it sounds more confusing and difficult than getting your cell phone to stop telling people to go “duck” themselves but there’s good news. Your brain adapts, and fast. Within the span of a few months, you will have formed preliminary new pathways, and it will get easier from there. I promise. You just have to ride out those first few weeks.
You can’t do more than you can do
The next thing to know is that you are expecting you to do more than you. It sounds like I wrote that sentence wrong, but it’s correct. You can’t do more than you can do. No one can, healthy or otherwise. So, the first thing you need to do is strike the phrase “I can’t do what I used to do” from your lexicon. Look at what that phrase begins with: “I can’t.” If you are always going on about not being able to do, then guess what – you won’t do. Instead, try saying “I can do what I’m doing now.” By properties of logic that are way too complicated to explain in this short post, those two statements are logically equivalent. Probably. Either way it doesn’t change the fact that saying “I can” instead of “I can’t” will completely re-frame your mindset about the whole situation and teach you to believe what is factually true – no one can do more than they can do. That’s what the word “can” means.
The consequences of pushing past your limits
So I’m sure some of you are saying by now “I hate not being able to do everything I used to, so I push myself and get it done.” So let’s examine that and see if it’s really a time saver. Everyone’s body has a limit of what it can withstand, and if you push past it there are consequences. Sometimes it means you need more rest, but more often than not, the consequences are much more dire. Let’s not go with the worst case scenario, because it’s easy to see how a hospital stay actually eats up more of your time than pushing yourself every day. Let’s go with the best case scenario – that you need more rest after a day of pushing yourself. Say you sleep an extra two hours for three days recuperating from the two hours extra you stayed up to finish wallpapering the billiard room. (My imaginary people are always from the Clue board game.) So now that’s six hours of rest for two hours of pushing yourself, if my math is correct. So that’s a net loss of four hours. Even if you need half as much rest to recover, that’s still a net loss of one hour. Do you get what I’m saying here or do I have to draw a pie chart? Pushing yourself past your limits does not equal more time to do stuff! Most times it means less.
Giving yourself a break
This brings us to the last, and arguably the most difficult part of the whole endeavor. You must learn to be ok with doing as much as you can do. In all my travels and travails, I’ve learned this is the thing everyone gets stuck on. If you are down on yourself, and upset every day at “doing less,” let’s talk about effort. I mean, if we are measuring how much a person gets done in a day, I think the only way we can compare between different individuals is by effort. People have different ability levels so we can’t compare results, that wouldn’t be fair. Effort someone puts in is the only fair way to measure how much someone does. So, riddle me this batpeople – does it take more or less effort to get through the day now that you have cancer? I think you know the answer. So, if you expend more effort in a day than you did before you got ill, how can you not be ok with how much you get done? As I said, no one can do more than they can do, and the effort you put in just to get out of bed in the morning is more than a healthy person might expend all day, so GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK. You are doing it, you are living, surviving, and that’s nothing to scoff at. So be ok with yourself.
Change is hard, and it takes time, and the majority of change is mental. You might make physical changes and adaptations, but the bulk of the work takes places upstairs in the ol’ grey matter. We will get more in depth with some of these concepts in volume two, but for now, try to accept that you are you, and that’s exactly how much you’re supposed to be.