The “new normal”. It’s what the freshly-diagnosed heart patient is supposed to get used to now. The implication seems clear: “Forget about your old life and the person you once were.” Many of us fight that “new normal” label, but there might be another way to look at this. .
Here’s how one of my blog readers described the concept:
” A lot of people at my Cardiac Rehabilitation classes have talked about this NEW NORMAL that I’m supposed to get used to from now on. I hate that term. I want my OLD NORMAL back again. I don’t want to have to adapt and adjust to what seems like a stranger’s life, not my own anymore. To give in to this NEW NORMAL would feel like just giving up hope.
“I am a competent successful active outgoing business owner, but since my double bypass open heart surgery, I feel weak, anxious, weepy and frightened at every little twinge or pain. THIS is what I’m supposed to get used to? No way.”
When I was first diagnosed, I too felt like I was expected to get used to living somebody else’s life from now on.
It’s almost as if I went to bed as one kind of person, but woke up the next morning as an entirely different person (the kind of healthy person who has never, ever seen a cardiologist but now apparently needs one!)
When I wrote about this predictable response later, I compared it to being deported to a new country, a place where you don’t know the language, the customs or how you will ever get back home.
But this “new normal” isn’t necessarily a permanent state. Think of it as more of a transition while we slowly adjust physically and psychologically to what has just happened. This “new normal” stage helps us to gradually plan ahead rather than looking wistfully behind at what used to be.
There’s a lot to adjust to. As my Alaska friend Dr. Stephen Parker (a cardiac psychologist and – more importantly – a longtime heart patient himself) once listed some of his own “swirling emotions” following his first heart attack:
“Relief at survival — disbelief and anger that it happened — grief for everything that has and will be lost — gratitude to those who helped — extreme vulnerability in a previously safe world — fear of what the future might bring…”
One reason I had trouble adjusting to the “new normal” was the tendency to confuse chronic illness with acute illness.
Here’s an example. When you’re diagnosed with an acute illness, you:
- get sick
- get diagnosed
- get treated
- get better
- thank your brilliant doctor!
But in ongoing chronic illness, it rarely works that way. Yet we still cling to what’s known as the cure myth.
Cardiologist Dr. Stephanie Moore of the Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplant Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center explained the confusion:
“ One reason some women aren’t too concerned about heart disease is they think it can be cured with surgery or an angioplasty procedure and they won’t have to worry about it again. “
This is a myth! Heart disease is a lifelong condition and once you get it, you will always have it.”
For some time after my heart attack, I was overwhelmed, exhausted, and reeling from (as my heart sister Jodi Jackson calls this predictable phase) Post-Heart Attack Stun.
By the way, this state of Stun just might help to explain why some new heart patients are simply unable to follow the long list of heart-smart lifestyle improvements initially recommended by their physicians (“Take this fistful of new cardiac meds! Lose weight! Quit smoking! Eat healthy! Exercise every day!”)
But gradually, amazingly, we’re able to adapt little by little to each stage of recuperation – especially if we start learning as much as possible about what has just happened. A heart patient’s only job now is to become the world expert on the new diagnosis.
Those days of feeling terrified by every unusual twinge (“Is this something? Is it nothing? Should I call 911?!?!”) do gradually occur less frequently.
The “new normal” I was suddenly forced to face 11 years ago is no longer “new”. It’s just “normal” now. And as my former colleagues still tease me, this is simply what happens when a PR person has a heart attack: “We just keep writing and speaking and looking stuff up – because that’s all we know how to do!”
But meanwhile, what to do in the very early days while we’re still trying to get our heads wrapped around what this “new normal” even means?
As I wrote in Chapter 10 of my book:
“ I know that it’s taken me a long time to arrive, skidding heel marks and all, at a realization that perhaps has been blindingly obvious all along. I can either choose to focus on all that I’ve lost, or I can focus instead on what I still have.”
Consider also the wise words of Jenni Grover, author of Chronic Babe 101 and a woman who lives with a number of debilitating chronic illnesses:
“Do not let your chronic condition become the ONE THING that defines you. Too many people never give themselves a day’s rest from thinking or talking about their diagnosis. Even if you have daily symptoms that make it impossible to forget you’re truly sick, learn ways to enjoy your life in spite of them.
“There will be days you can’t get your game face on – and that’s okay – but whenever possible focus your attention back to something you love, that gives you joy, that is uniquely YOU – not your illness.”
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about the adjustment to becoming a patient in my book,“A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).