Accepting the New Normal – Phil’s Perspective

When I was in my 20s, I had the privilege of being an Air Force jet pilot and flight instructor. I spent my brief Air Force “career” at four different Air Force bases in the state of Texas. A few weeks ago, I attended a class reunion in San Antonio, Texas, of fellow Air Force pilots with whom I had attended a year of pilot training school at Randolph AFB more than 41 years ago. Almost all of those guys I hadn’t seen since pilot training graduation in August, 1970.

To my surprise, three of my former classmates told me that the thing they most remembered about me from pilot training days was my “cannon” arm on the softball field! Back in the day, I had played a lot of baseball during high school and college, and with the help of weight training and constant practice, I had developed a relatively strong and accurate throwing arm. I was an outfielder who prided himself on his ability to throw out runners at third base and at home after catching a fly ball.

The ability to make long, accurate line-drive throws from the outfield was normal for me from the age of about 18 until the age of 44, when I radically tore the rotator cuff in the shoulder of my throwing arm. I continued to play softball and throw from the outfield for two more years, but my throws became increasingly more painful and had less and less velocity. Finally, I had to accept the fact that I could no longer play outfield and throw out base runners tagging up after fly ball outs. Softball heroics became a thing of the past.

You are probably thinking, “So what? What’s the big deal with that? All athletes get old and slow down and lose their edge and have to retire from their sport. Get over it!” That’s absolutely true, but my new normal is that I can’t throw anything at all anymore with my right arm. My right shoulder has been operated on twice, and the supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendons have both torn again completely and are unusable and inoperable. I can’t hold my right arm out in a horizontal position or straight up in a vertical position for more than a few seconds. Changing a light bulb that’s over my head is a challenge. Placing a suitcase or camera bag in an overhead compartment on an airliner is extremely difficult. Installing a ceiling fan or light fixture is next to impossible.

Here’s another even more radical “new normal”….

In the fall of 2010, I began experiencing complications from prostate cancer radiation treatments and from cryo surgery (a freezing process designed to kill cancer cells inside the prostate). Except that the complications seemed to be related to recent spinal surgery, not to the cancer treatments. When all was said and done, I ended up in the hospital in February, 2011 with a ruptured bladder and a massive abdominal and pelvic infection that nearly killed me.

I lost my bladder, my prostate and my rectum in an 11 1/2 hour operation on February 17, 2011. I was on strong IV and oral medications for 14 weeks because of the infection, which had impacted my pelvic bone. I now pee into a urostomy bag attached over a stoma coming out of the right side of my stomach, and I poop into a colostomy bag attached over a stoma coming out of the left side of my stomach. I have a completely “new normal” for going to the bathroom! (It’s not normal for most people, but it’s now normal for me.) The bags have to be changed every 5 to 7 days (sometimes more often), which takes from 45 minutes to an hour.

How does one adjust in a positive way to this type of “new normal?” Well, for one thing, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when things like what I described above happen, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s beyond your control. “It is what it is,” as the saying goes. There’s really no point in complaining or lamenting about things that happen to you over which you have no control. Nothing you can do or say is going to change what is. Complaining about it or feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to make anything better; it’s just going to make you feel worse. So it’s best to just accept the reality of the situation and make the best of it going forward.

Another thing that really, really helps is to acknowledge the sovereignty and Lordship of the personal God who created the universe and all that has life and breath. It is my miniscule and radically incomplete knowledge of this God and His ultimate purposefulness and goodness that has helped me more than anything else to weather the storms of physical and emotional adversity and to come through them with a mostly positive attitude and with the assurance that no matter what, “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

For more information about my background and about some of the details of the adversities I’ve summarized above, see the Prologue I’ve written for what will eventually become a Fine After 50 book. If you’d like to read about another life-changing family event that has shaped my thoughts about God and my relationship with Him, see the Anchors Away book excerpts here.

Beginning the Journey: Defining a New Normal

You are not your body. Let me say that again in case you didn’t catch it the first time. You are NOT your body!

Now repeat after me: “I AM NOT MY BODY!”

While we all know this to be true in theory, it seems to be a very difficult concept to grasp and apply on a concrete, practical level. We generally tend to see ourselves as a physical, visible entity rather than as a very personal but invisible soul and spirit. After all, what do we generally see when we look in the mirror? We see a physical being; we see what’s on the outside of our true self. If we like what we see – if we view our external body as attractive – we tend to think well of ourselves and to have a positive self image. If on the other hand, we don’t like what we see – if we think we are ugly and unattractive – we tend to have a poorer self image.

This same emphasis on our physical bodies influences how we shape our concept of what is “normal” in terms of our health and fitness and our general physical capabilities. Of course, what is normal varies from individual to individual, but we all tend to describe “normal” in terms of what we could do physically when we were in our prime years: say between the ages of 20 and 30.

Well, guess what: we’re not 20 or 30 anymore, and we can’t still do all of the things we could do at that age. At least we can’t do them as well or as fast. However, many people never allow their “normal” to change as they get older. Instead, they get frustrated and discouraged because when they slow down and wear out physically, they are no longer “normal” in their own eyes. Don’t be one of those people.

Do the personal assessment exercise that Tina suggests here; then based on where you are physically right now, define a new normal. Be honest. Then, if you’re not satisfied with your new normal and you’d like to make some changes, set realistic, measurable short-term goals (in areas that you can change) that will start you on a path toward where you’d like to be.

Be realistic in setting goals for where you’d like to be. There may be some things you’d like to change – some areas you’d like to improve in — that are simply out of reach and not possible. Don’t frustrate yourself by trying to change something that can’t be changed due to circumstances beyond your control.

Here’s a well-known prayer that you might want to make a part of your daily routine: “God, please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Tina and I both have “new normals” in our lives that we wish we could change, but that are permanent irreversible physical disabilities that occurred in our lives after we passed the half-century mark. We will be sharing some of these life-changing experiences in future posts.

Beginning the Journey: Managing Expectations

As Tina has written in “Before the Journey: Self-Assessment,” becoming Fine After 50 and remaining Fine After 50 is a journey that should be preceded by an honest evaluation of where you are right now physically, mentally, and spiritually. Just as you wouldn’t set out on a long trip without considering what you need to bring with you and what you’d be better off leaving behind, so you shouldn’t embark on a quest to improve body, mind and spirit without assessing where you are right now and how far you can reasonably expect to go.

Let’s face it — we all begin to accumulate physical limitations as we get older. The human body doesn’t last forever. It inevitably begins to slow down and wear out.  For some, physical limitations may begin developing as early as age 30; for others, they may not become noticeable until after age 50. But try as we might, we cannot eliminate the inevitable aging process.

One of the most difficult things for us to do (guys especially) is to accept the physical deterioration that begins to occur in our bodies as we get older. We’d rather live in denial of the obvious, and instead try to continue doing the things we were able to do easily when we were 20 or 30 years younger — or even 10 years younger! But this isn’t realistic. Denying what is happening to our physical bodies will lead to frustration as we continually experience failure while trying to maintain the schedule and lifestyle that we were able to maintain when we were younger.

On the other hand, an opposite reaction that some of us may have as we begin slowing down and wearing out is to give up completely and not even attempt to exercise and stay in shape, since it becomes more difficult to do the older we get. We become increasingly discouraged and depressed.

Neither an attitude of denial nor an attitude of defeatism is helpful. Instead, we need to recognize and accept the physical limitations that are taking place in our bodies, analyze and rethink what the possibilities are for improving or maintaining our current physical condition, and then learn to manage our expectations going forward so that we neither ignore the changes that are taking place nor give up all hope of ever being Fine After 50.

We will talk more about accepting limitations and managing expectations in future articles.


Before the Journey: Self-Assessment

Phil and I have identified certain things that we think are necessary in becoming Fine After 50. Becoming Fine After 50 and staying Fine After 50 is a journey–a life-long journey of exploration, self-acceptance, and fulfillment where the only things we take with us are our body, mind and spirit. Before beginning, though, it’s a good idea to spend some time reflecting on where we are right now. This journey is no different from any other long-distance trip: it really helps to know exactly what we are hauling along for the ride before we start out. Trust me–there are enough roadblocks that we all face. It helps to have a heads-up.

So take a few moments to honestly answer the following questions. The purpose, really, is to begin the process of getting into the habit of checking in with yourself. At this stage in our lives, especially for those of us with chronic illnesses, life is anything but stable and predictable. Being Fine After 50 involves self-assessment on a daily basis so that we can learn to dance with the ups and downs of our daily lives. In essence, we begin where we are right now and then we make adjustments based on how we assess ourselves.

So, beginning with our bodies:

How tall are you? Not how tall you were when you were 17 years old–how tall are you now? This may seem like a silly question, but it can give you an indication of how much you are clinging to an outdated image of yourself if you resist the idea of finding out how tall you really are now or if you have a reaction to the answer.

How much do you weigh? Not what you have listed on your driver’s license–what do you really weigh? If you do not already have one, go out and get a decent, accurate scale that weighs to 1/10th of a pound. For many of us, weight gain or weight loss is an indication that something needs to be adjusted–medication, food intake, time spent exercising. If the number is not what you want to see, it also gives you a chance for self-forgiveness.

Now that you have your height and weight, plug that information into the tool on this website to discover your body mass:

While this tool is not infallible (because it does not take muscle mass into account) it can give you a general indication as to whether you are underweight or overweight. Neither Phil nor I are going to nag you about your weight, but just keep this in mind: it’s easier to move when you don’t have a lot of excess weight to drag around. Even a 10% weight reduction (if you are overweight) can make a significant difference in the quality of your life. It’s just as important to know if you are underweight.

In addition to knowing how much space you occupy, there are a few more aspects to consider: strength, aerobic capacity, balance, and flexibility. Phil and I will be talking about each of these in greater detail later, but for now consider:

Do you feel that you get winded doing the things you want to do?
Do you need help lifting or carrying things, like grocery bags or bottles of water?
Can you touch your toes (remember, keep your knees slightly bent)?
Can you balance on one foot for 10 seconds without grabbing onto something to keep from falling over?

Mind encompasses both mental and emotional flexibility and capacity. Nothing impacts the quality of our lives as much as our attitude. We truly can change the quality of our lives by changing our minds. Phil and I will be exploring mind issues in extensive detail, but for now consider the following questions:

Are you lonely? Do you feel powerful or powerless?
Do you feel hopeful or hopeless?
Do you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or frustrated more than you used to?
What do you enjoy doing?
How often do you allow yourself to do what you enjoy?
Who do you love?
When was the last time you read a book or magazine simply to learn something new?
How well can you concentrate?
If somebody were to give you a math problem to complete right now, how would you react?
Can you program your DVR?

Spirit refers to having a connection with something greater than ourselves. Sometimes this can be a sensitive, charged area. Many of us have unresolved issues with religion or religious institutions. Spirituality, though, has the capacity to help us transcend our human experiences and find purpose and meaning in all areas of our lives. Phil and I will be exploring spiritual growth and development in the future, but for now consider the following questions:

Do you believe in a Higher Power?
If you believe in a Higher Power, do you believe that it is personal and knowable, or impersonal and unknowable?
Do you trust or mistrust that Higher Power?
How does your belief (or lack of belief) in a Higher Power impact your life?

These questions are not intended to be exhaustive or complete. Did they get you thinking about things? Could you answer them without self-judgment? What questions would you have asked?

More to come…