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The New Normal

By Cherie Binns

How can you tell if a relapse is over and what you are feeling now is your “new normal”? How do you know when an illness is resolved sufficiently to resume your regular activities? What determines when you’ve done too much and will suffer consequences from the activity?

For each of us with multiple sclerosis, we must find our “new normal” following a relapse, an illness, childbirth, an accident or injury and must ask the questions above with some self-knowledge and care for our health. Some who are reading this may have just been diagnosed and are afraid that what is now being felt is your “new normal” and are scared out of your minds by this. Others have had MS longer and have successfully picked up and gotten on with your lives on more than one occasion after defining that “new normal” for yourself.

Most of us have had weeks or months where our discomfort and lack of “normal” seem like a permanent thing. Somehow troubled nights become fewer and less severe and the fatigued days that have us longing for bed are more productive until we know we are better. Not necessarily well, but better. This may be a “new normal” for me or for you.

When you find yourself in the place of this “new normal” you may be tempted to grieve that it is not like the old normal, that you cannot do all of the things that define you or you enjoy. I think you have to go through that recognition and even a short period of grief to come to grips with the “new normal” and discover all of the things you can now do in this new state of wellness. I seem to always (and I do not use “always” lightly) find I can do far more than I thought possible with each “new normal.” For me, the trick is to push the envelope a little in the discovery process. It may be 10 feet of walking past the point where I thought I could go no further. Or it could be five more reps of an exercise when I am tired. Maybe even an extra 15 minutes at a function before I leave. The trick here is not to push on everything in a given day in this discovery process. With MS, fatigue looms large for many of us and there is just so much energy in the bank before you stop responding to the willed commands of a tired body.

The best approach I have found over the years in dealing with this is to take those days of complete rest that are needed and as soon as you are able, do some maintenance activity (stretching to prevent spasticity, shower, shave, get dressed) just to give the impression that normal is there and coming back. You can modify what you do depending on what the symptoms are. For example, if the MS Hug has you, perhaps you put on a tank top rather than a bra until the sensation minimizes. If you have facial pain from trigeminal neuralgia, this might be the perfect time to try growing a beard. If you are recovering from optic neuritis this is an opportunity for you to get away from the eyestrain of the computer screen and refresh your senses with a long peaceful look out the window at the beauty beyond the walls that house you. A TV is easier on affected eyes than a computer so stream some good movies and laugh a little (very healing) or learn something new from the History Channel. Expand your mind. Or save the eyes altogether and pick up the phone and reconnect with a friend.

That is how I start to get to my “new normal.” Starting is half-way to finding the “new normal.” As I do little things each day, more becomes possible and what was normal for yesterday is changed to something beyond that. I cannot think of a time during the past four decades of dealing with MS when “normal” did not evolve as I pushed that envelope. A “new normal” has the potential to be better than the old normal if you are willing to get rid of behaviors along the way that are not conducive to good health. The cigarettes, alcohol, snack foods, inactivity, stress that cause you not to feel well can go by the wayside with your new routines. I personally find that changing everything I can identify that could be less than healthy for me all at one time is far preferable and much more successful than trying to quit or cut out one thing at a time. You can change your diet, activity, substance use all at the same time and feel better sooner than if you attacked each of these singly.