My life journey has taken me to the new world. I have accepted this new world, my new reality. I am going to do my very best to be a productive and healthy person in this new reality. BUT – WHO IS THIS NEW PERSON? And how do I understand the new “normal” for this person?
We have good reason to ask “What is normal?” We go through our days in the midst of family, community, nation and world having some idea of what to expect from those around us. That is, until some monumental event shakes up our world and our expectations and we are forced to accommodate a new reality. Even when we are merely the observers, adjustments must be made that vary in the degree of their intensity according to our degree of attachment to the former situation.
We watch a documentary recording the life of a wounded warrior, struggling to make sense of his changed body and mind and find new meaning in his life. We are touched, reminded of our own frailty, and perhaps even determined to engage in some effort to assist the many such members of our society. But what if that warrior is my spouse, parent, or sibling? The change in my own life must accommodate the changes in the life of the warrior in many ways. There is a grieving process that must take second place to the need to care for the wounded loved one, and to learn how to maximize the benefits of our new life together. The changes are emotional, physical, and social. They are economic. They are time consuming, demanding, and often frustrating. The family, individually and as a unit, must “reinvent” itself to achieve a new wholeness. For too many, this is like putting Humpty Dumpty together again. The fractured selves are unable to withstand the challenges, and wholeness becomes elusive.
In all of the outwardly evident necessity for communal adjustment, the psyche of the wounded themselves may require more support than the medical and family community is able to provide. Patients are subject to unwritten rules and expectations that include: 1) A willingness to get well; 2) Compliance with medical treatment and with family expectations of same; 3) A positive attitude about life and their new place in it; and 4) They should not suffer too loudly, or too often. There is more, but of course each wounded person and each family will be both unique and yet have much in common with others in similar situations. Each person within the family unit also brings their own personality to the situation, for better or worse. But what about the wounded warrior him- or herself?
At this point, let us enlarge our wounded warrior status to include, as we have, members of the family and community. These are wounded warriors whose injuries did not occur on the battlefield, and whose wounds may not be visible. Yet individually, they share much in common. There are also others: The stroke survivor. The cancer patient. Those who have lost limbs, or have lost mobility due to accidents or disease processes. Those who have given all that they have in their vocations, or to their families or community, and have simply burned out. Those who struggle with addiction. The point I am getting to is that while we may understand and sympathize with the outwardly evident wounds of these pain warriors, we understand too little of the inward journey they are making. The physical needs, including the social environment, are so great that the patient is often left to figure out on their own how to be a whole person within, having lost so much of the external evidence of wholeness. If we address this at all, we tend to say (as I already have) they are “reinventing” themselves, which may be a problematic term.
Some commonalities exist: With physical loss, there may have been an event where the patient was in one place when it occurred, and returned to consciousness in a completely different and possibly strange place, already both physically and mentally changed. Or, disease processes may over time become too overwhelming for both body and mind, and there is a loss of ability, loss of productivity, loss of independence, loss of financial status, loss of mental acuity—too many losses to support the former persona. Too many losses to grieve, to accept, to overcome easily in the effort to restore a sense of self, of worthiness, of place in a different world.
Some wounded never return to us as independent, self-sufficient persons. Depending on the degree of injury to both body and mind, they may daily suffer a constant state of mental and/or physical pain that precludes outward focus. But many do return to some degree of personhood and productivity, and it is these who may be most painfully subjected to society’s rules for patients as outlined above. As the ability to cope increases, so do the expectations of society, family, and medical caretakers. The huge problem of “Who am I going to be, now that I have lost who I always used to be?” remains unrecognized, and if actually voiced, bulldozed over by the well-meaning advice that boils down to GOIAMO. Get over it, and move on.
It is not that easy. Yes, I have completed the grieving process. Yes, I have accepted that this is my new world, my new reality. Yes, I am going to do my very best to be a productive and healthy person in this new reality. BUT – WHO IS THIS NEW PERSON?
The emphasis on “new” comes from the phrase “reinventing one’s self.” That can appear as a completely overwhelming task for the recently wounded soul. And it is a task that for the most part begins alone. Later, as the self becomes more certain, relationships with others of varying significance will be vital to the restoration process. First, however, there is that incredibly lonely, often painful, often frighteningly introspective search. And at first, it is likely to be a search backwards “for the self that I used to be.”
That focus in the past is healing, but eventually may be stunting to the growth process. It is healing, in that common, continuous threads of the personality and the life of the patient become evident. I am not completely new, after all. There is much of my personality that is still usable and strong. But retrospection becomes stunting when the focus remains lost in the past, and the wounded one begins once again to grieve for what has been lost.
In the end, if we persevere, we begin to focus on the future, and what we will bring to it. That is all that is really unpredictably new, and in reality, it always has been. It may not be the future we have intended, and for some of us that is truly an entirely new concept and challenge. More of us, though, have had to live and adjust to Plans B, C and even D already in our lives, and have the experience to make this latest adjustment. We just may have bigger hurdles to jump in order to do that.
Whether the life changing wounds are our own, or those of a loved one, the change is both an outward and inward journey. It might help if we adjusted our expectations of how people should react to their woundedness, and how we should react to our own woundedness. In either case we need to make room for potential wholeness in a changed future.