Brenda Denzler is a writer and editor living in North Carolina. She received her doctorate from Duke University and worked as an editor at UNC-Chapel Hill before she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2009. Since then, she has devoted a great deal of her time and energy to understanding and writing about cancer, cancer treatment and the impact of pre-existing PTSD on the ability of doctors to give and patients to receive medical treatment.
One survivor on "New Normals" and living through "apocalyptic" times that reveal who we really are.
I have faced the apocalypse three times, now, in my life. I managed to come through the first two. Not unscathed…but I did survive. However, the world that I knew afterward was not the same one I'd known before.
The first time it happened I was 30 years old. When I was in my early teens, I'd joined a large fundamentalist religious cult that preached the end of the world by about 1975. Of course, that didn't happen, but personally, it more or less did. I wound up leaving the church in 1982 — getting kicked out actually. As I walked over to a neighbor's house the day I was disfellowshipped, it felt like the earth literally weaved and wobbled under my feet. It was a blow to lose the world I'd known for fifteen years. All the things I thought I knew, all the things I'd done because that was just what good, righteous people do…. All gone. Life went on, however, a new and different life than the one I'd thought I'd have.
The second time was in 2009 when I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. Another little apocalypse, but this time it challenged not just my worldview and my way of being in the world, but my life itself. Like the first time, I survived this, too. I was lucky. But also like the first time, my life was never the same. This time, though, there was a name for what I was facing — a "new normal."
Today, I'm in the middle of the third apocalypse of my life: the COVID-19 pandemic. No…that's not quite right. This time "we" are in a little apocalypse, not just me by myself. And we're not in the middle of it at all — we've only just begun.
Our way of being in the world is changing every day. Things we thought we knew, things that we thought were truths and steadfast parts of our lives that we could pretty much rely upon, are being revealed as only provisionally true or frankly untrue. Almost everything is in flux for us now, like the ground that moved under my feet decades ago when my personal world shifted on its axis.
We will, however, find a collective new normal. Eventually. I've never liked the term. It makes it sound like everything gets OK again. It's maybe just a little different, but it's basically just like it was before. Before the world fell apart due to a belief system collapse or due to a cancer diagnosis. That's not true though. As many cancer survivors know, a "new normal" always means leaving something behind, something that you inevitably miss.
I miss the certainty and reassurance of being a fundamentalist — of having my world consist of blacks and whites, wrongs and rights cosmic checklists that I can mark off to make sure that I'm OK and in God's good graces. I miss the way I felt good before cancer, a feeling of well-being and the ability to do things that are now beyond me, not to mention the assumption (false though it was) that the future only holds more of the same.
Today, I also miss the way I lived before COVID-19. Coming and going as I pleased, knowing that if I went to the grocery store I'd be able to get whatever I needed, not worrying about whether my high-risk status dooms me to my worst nightmare: the choice between drowning in the waste products from my own COVID-infected, self-destructing lungs or having a tube pushed down my throat to try to force oxygen into me--or being denied that because I'm too old at 66. I worry about the safety of my family and my friends. I am scared senseless at the unnecessary magnitude of the economic collapse that threatens to bedevil us as surely as the late effects of cancer treatments.
I only know one thing for sure. It's a thing that most cancer survivors already know: What doesn't kill you, makes you. It doesn't make you stronger, or prettier, or healthier or more kind or charitable…. It just makes you more of whatever you already are.
We will find a new normal, once this global mini-apocalypse has passed (at least, in its extreme form). What that new normal will be like is up to us. We will lose something, for sure. We will have to mourn what we've lost. But there will be no going back. What we are left with will have to do; it will have to be - or become - good enough.
Take a look in the mirror. Take a look at everyone around you in your life. Take a look at the human race. We are in the process of becoming more of whatever we already are, and we're going to have to live with it for a long time. Let's do what we each can to make it our best. As John Denver said in his song, The Eagle and the Hawk, "reach for the heavens and hope for the future, and all that we can be and not what we are."
Be safe. Stay well. Help others.