It’s taken two and half years to get here, but I now cautiously declare that our family has reached that elusive, indeterminate state of being otherwise known as the “new normal.” There have been no welcome signs, banners, or champagne toasts to signify our arrival, of course. It’s more of a gut feeling, an awareness of our progressively steady pace, that leads me to believe we have arrived at the locale we’ve been preparing ourselves for over the past thirty months.
I would need additional hands and feet to count the number of times I have been warned or reminded of the “new normal.” This TBI catchphrase was used so often during TC’s recovery that I eventually began to meet it with an eye roll. OK, I get it; I remember thinking, the normal-normal is a thing of the past. What I didn’t expect, however, is that it would take so long for the new normal to finally take hold. Or, like I wrote last month, that it would be so fragile.
My husband was 29-years-old when he was robbed on the street and beaten with a baseball bat. He was also a new father. So as I reflect on the new normal from the perspective of a 32-year-old caregiver, full-time teacher, and mother to a 4-year-old, I know it’s important to recognize that this period of life tends to be stressful for all families, not just those affected by brain injury. As our son’s world becomes increasingly larger and more complex, so does ours. And as we welcome the arrival of monumental blessings, such as TC’s return to work, we also welcome additional complications and stressors. For us, the new normal is a constant whirlwind of activity: packing lunches, toilet training, paying bills, arranging babysitters, grading papers, etc., etc. By the end of the day, we’ve checked off only a third of our to-do list and we’re completely wiped.
There’s very little time left at the moment to focus on the remaining physical and cognitive issues that TC would like to strengthen. Likewise, there’s minimal time for teaching yoga or writing books or working on any of the goals I’ve set for myself. On a good day, we can get two adults to work, one child to school, and three meals in everyone’s stomach. And on a really good day, the poor dog gets a walk.
But the reality is that many days don’t run quite that smoothly. Add in a leaky faucet, the stomach flu, or any of the other little stressors we’ve encountered this winter, and the whole thing feels as if it’s crumbling.
It was just this past Wednesday, otherwise known as Day 3 of the Dreadful Stomach Flu being passed around by my fourth grade students, that I felt a familiar low. With a rising fever and a very tender digestive tract, I dragged myself out of bed and managed to get dressed. I would have called out sick but I had already stayed home for a day to recover, so it was imperative that I suck it up. Unfortunately, my illness coincided with Day 5 of Brain Injury Related Insomnia for TC, and my caregiver radar began to loudly alarm as I watched TC exhaustedly struggle to understand my words and to formulate his own as we dressed Jack for school. My mind quickly disregarded my own illness as I assessed TC’s condition and the likelihood of a stress-related seizure.
A week later, all is well again, but I can’t help worrying that the new normal is only manageable for us in ideal conditions. What happens if I become ill with something more serious than the flu? How will we manage when we meet our next major catastrophe? Those are bigger, long-term concerns, of course, but it never ceases to amaze me that even one or two little kinks in the chain have the potential to derail us. Such is brain injury, however, and such is this “new normal” of which everyone speaks. I write this month’s blog not to broadcast a pitiful and unnecessary declaration that life is hard, but to remind all of us who now live in this fragile state or are nearing it, that the new normal is its own kind of challenge.
It’s a gift to write from this position and I can’t deny it. There was a time not so long ago that my biggest dream (truly a legitimate fantasy I nursed) was to be able to escort my wheelchair-bound husband to the grocery store alone. I wistfully imagined us strolling up and down the aisles of Safeway, picking out cereal and debating dinner menus. For months I longed for any life outside those hospital walls, any kind of existence that harbored even a 1% resemblance to our former lives. Now we have so much of what we once did that it feels shockingly ungrateful to bemoan the tough days.
The new normal looks different for every family because the challenges handed to us by TBI are never the same, nor are the ways we find to adapt. To those on the outside, our new normal may look pretty darn normal, so it is with equal parts gratitude and humility that I make this request: please do not be deceived. This invisible injury is only invisible to strangers. At our house its presence is visible enough that it has nearly earned its own place at the dinner table. We make do. We’ve learned to adjust to a family with one driver, a calendar full of doctor’s appointments and plans that often have to be canceled, and a laundry list of our other quirks. We power through and make the best of the high degree of uncertainty we feel about the future. We’re hanging in there and we’re grateful for our second chance. If this is the new normal, we’re living it. And we’re trying our best to stay in this delicate, special place as long as we can.