Back to Normal

We asked our Associates to share their insights of living through this pandemic and emerging into the new normal … here’s Mike Nicholson’s powerful piece

March 2009 – no massive warning – just a bit of ongoing indigestion – out of the blue it all becomes clear – Stage3 cancer diagnosis.

It’s a slowly unfolding car crash. Life upside down. Disorientated. Work on hold. Everything abruptly stopped as treatment starts. Uncertainty about each day. Fear about the future. The family hanging together through it all with some lurching ups and downs along the way. The new normal.

Months on – good results – out of the woods – relief doesn’t even begin to describe it. Serious bullet-dodging seems to have happened. Returned to work. Everything back to nor….nor…no wait…

Something is different. Big time. Foundations have been shaken. What was life, somehow seems to have been a phase that is over. It’s time to change – ‘now’ seems really precious – spend more time doing what I really want to do. Nothing rash – think it through – plan 6 months ahead – a safe departure for the organisation I work for and my staff team – a ‘good goodbye’ after 12 years.

That’s how freelance life begins. Taking control of things. The new normal.

9 months later – nagging overnight pain – all too familiar. A scan. A phone call.

It’s back.

I put the phone down. It’s a gloomy Saturday in February 2011, and I know straightaway – a shadow has just moved over the whole of the year ahead, and after that? With a relapse this soon…who knows? Life flipped over again.

As the months go on, we carve out some good memories. We return to the remote island which became special the year before, and had another crazy summer of running a cafe and post office that somehow made total sense with two small children in tow. I become the bald Postmaster that year.

When it’s time to leave, I cry on the boat back to the mainland. The temporary escape is over – home to face the music – a big throw of the treatment dice, culminating in December’s stem cell transplant and three weeks of hospital isolation. I stagger out days before Christmas – author Michael Rosen described his post-COVID legs as being ‘cardboard tubes full of porridge’. Spot on. That’s me. Also I am wearing five layers indoors, but can’t get warm. I feel like a half-life. Lockdown in a room with mostly a dripstand for company has done me in. Or had it? I was bruised and battered but I wasn’t done.

I was however, different.

“Great! You can get back to normal now!” The most common cheery comment as the scan results present good news and the hair grows back. I’d smile. Sort of. To be honest, inside I was sometimes screaming “WHAT IS ‘NORMAL’?!”

The thing is, that what had happened to me throughout those years was normal. Uncertainty is normal. None of us ever know what’s next. We like to think we do, with our plans and our busy diaries and our tickets bought well in advance. Look how ‘in control’ we are…until…well, until whatever it is that comes along that we hadn’t foreseen. For me, many things supported me through those times; friends, family, faith – each had the most powerful of moments. But appreciating and accepting this truth of life’s ‘certainty of uncertainty’ also helped, by putting each upheaval into perspective.

Fast forward to 2020 and what do we have? Pandemic and lockdown – another slowly unfolding car-crash of health fears, work evaporating and life up-ended – only this time it’s not just me – everyone is facing their own degrees of turmoil. The one saving grace is at least this time your hair doesn’t fall out – quite the opposite in fact.

And as the weeks of lockdown trundle on, many elements of those previous times of sudden and grave uncertainty seem to be mirrored. Whatever small routine you can carve out becomes crucial, exercise is hugely important, an old interest or a new one can give a surprising focus and comfort, and kindness is fuel for the day. And acknowledging how you feel, to yourself and others, is important even when you’ve shocked yourself at what’s welled up inside.

So what now as the doors begin to open – will the life we knew look the same?  There is lots of talk of a ‘new normal’, shedding the old stuff that is suddenly struggling to show its worth. There’s a chance now to move forward, striding out if we are able, or maybe only managing to stumble on our cardboard tubes filled with porridge. However we tread in this new normal, one crucial thing will not have changed. The normal landscape we all have to navigate our way through is one which will always surprise us – that’s the certainty of uncertainty.