Normal, the norm...Whats that? What's My Normal?

When living with chronic pain or chronic illness long enough, at times some people can start to believe that their discomfort is normal, until a moment comes and they are reminded that in fact it is not. Many people who live with chronic pain and illness may quickly understand what I am referring to... those moments when you look around and realize that nobody else in the room is experiencing the pain that you are. This may feel obvious to some; however, pain and discomfort may have become the new normal for many people living with pain. It is always or usually there, and some people may have even forgotten what it is like to live without it.

I am reminded of a young woman who for many years fancied herself an active athlete with no limits to her physical capabilities. She ran marathons and engaged in martial arts. She also enjoyed yoga. This woman also lived with rheumatoid arthritis for the last 7 years. Her joints hurt daily which when she was first diagnosed caused her significant distress and even thrusted her into a depression. Seven years later she managed to learn how to adaptively cope with her pain and led a fulfilling life. She cannot remember what her body felt like before her diagnosis. She still feels pain daily but to her that is her new physical normality. And then she experienced that moment...

One day this young woman took an intermediate level yoga class, not usually too challenging for her. At one point the instructor reminded the students to engage in a specific exercise to loosen the wrist joints if experiencing wrist pain. This young woman then asked, "what can we do for ankle pain?" The instructor seemed puzzled and concerned. He told the woman to speak with him after class. It was clear to this woman that wrist pain was normal given the particular exercises that the students were doing in the class, but ankle pain was not! This was that moment! At this moment, this woman recalled that her pain is not something everyone else experiences; that this discomfort is not the normal state of her body; that this pain is a result of her arthritis. This moment felt painful, not in the physical sense, but in the deep emotional sense of the reminder that she is living with a chronic illness. When she spoke with the instructor after class and told him about her condition, he did not know what to say. He was not familiar with joint pain due to illness, only the run of the mill pain people experience when practicing yoga. This highlighted for her that her discomfort was certainly not normal.

What is normal? When talking about normality in statistical terms we are talking about frequency of occurrence in a general population. So in that sense, feeling chronic pain is not normal. But what if we are thinking about frequency of occurrence within a single person? Well then for that person that may be their norm. It is so easy to compare ourselves to other people but it may not always be the most helpful thing. Perhaps in the situation of chronic illness and chronic pain it may make more sense to identify one's own normal and figure out how to best manage that. And of course there will be those moments, like what occurred for this young woman, where you recognize that your own norm is not necessarily the norm of the general public. So what do you do about these moments?

One may initially want to push away the feelings that emerge when realizing that your own norm is not really "normal." However, it can be very helpful to acknowledge and recognize any feelings of sadness or loss that one feels. Trying to push these feelings away may actually keep them festering under the surface for even longer. Once you have acknowledged these feelings then maybe you can think about ways to manage your discomfort so that you can still engage in your life in a way that feels consistent to you. Like this young woman. She may not be able to interact physically the way that she used to, but she hasn't abandoned physicality either. This comes with acceptance.

This acceptance is not a linear process. When living with chronic pain or chronic illness it may take time to discover what your new normality is. However, even then after living a new normal, there will always be these moments that serve as reminders that "my normal is not the norm." It is important to be patient with yourself during these times. You may feel like you thought you had it figured out and now you don't, but give yourself some time to readjust again.

It is not easy living with pain and discomfort, but it is not impossible. Everyone's way of coping is unique and specific to their own life and circumstance. Find what works for you. Create your own norm. And if you need help figuring out what that is, ask for that help from a professional or from people going through similar situations. You may be the only one in a room who feels a certain way  but you certainly are not alone in the world. Connect with others who experience chronic illness or pain, and create new norms together.