Hands up, who feels normal right now? I’m going to go out on a limb and say… no one. We’re living in a global pandemic that’s causing an unprecedented level of collective stress, anxiety, and life disruption. Quite frankly, nothing is remotely close to normal these days.
I want to share something with you, though, that will hopefully be reassuring, which is that based on my experience, life doesn’t need to be normal for you to feel happy. And isn’t being happy, as opposed to normal, what we really care about, anyway?
Set aside your expectations of normalcy and happiness for a moment, and let me explain:
In 2013 I was a normal, happy and healthy 31-year-old and felt I was just coming into the best years of my life. I was six months out from graduating residency, in a committed 5-year relationship, and ready to start experiencing all the fruits of my labor of nearly 12 years of training to become a physician and practicing psychiatrist.
Then… I think you know what happened next. I was diagnosed unexpectedly with Stage IV Lymphoma and my life came to a screeching halt (seriously — like a 3-4 year screeching halt). My relationship ended and I had to stop working. The chemo was long and painful, and I was constantly sick and exhausted. During this prolonged period of suffering, the concept of “normal” started to consume me. I became obsessed with the question, Would I ever feel normal again? Or was I doomed to suffer like this for the rest of my life?
I constantly asked my doctors, other cancer survivors, and colleagues what the timeline might be to achieve “normal.” How long after finishing chemo would it take? Could I feel normal while still on maintenance chemo? When, specifically, would I feel normal again? After repeatedly being met with unsatisfying answers, like, “This is your new normal,” or “Never,” I realized I was asking the wrong question.
*Side note, as a cancer survivor who has lived through prolonged periods of physical and emotional suffering, I absolutely f*$&ing hate the term “new normal”… that may be a story for another time.
Ultimately, I realized, it didn’t matter when I felt normal. What I really was so desperate to know was if I would ever again feel happy.
Well dear reader, the answer is yes, and I can tell you the happiest moments of my life came after cancer, not before, and they didn’t require me to feel “normal” to happen. In fact, to be specific, I first felt happy again when I met my future husband, which was around a year and a half before I felt anything close to “normal” in terms of physical health and being back to work. It was my first sign that there was a light at the end of the tunnel — a light only this path could have carried me to.
So no, you don’t need to wait for things to get back to normal in order to feel happy. You need the same things anyone needs in life to feel happy, which aren’t contingent on life going back to just the way it was. You need relationships and emotional connection. You need purpose and meaning. And you need moments in which you are at least open to the possibility of joy.
I can’t tell you what the future holds for you, but I can tell you this: Be open to the possibility that the best moments in your life are not in your past, but in your future.
You can read more about how I found happiness after cancer in my blog post Love, A Reprise.