The New “Normal”

Sometimes it seems like I’ve spent most of my life walking that fine line between wanting to be “normal” and wanting to be “unique”.

As a kid, I wanted to be normal and fit in with the other girls.  I wanted to be slim and wear the right clothes.  I wanted to have two parents and a home in a neighborhood that didn’t inspire contempt.  I wanted the cute “normal” boys to like me.   I wanted to have more than one page number after my name in the yearbook index.

At the same time, I was a theater student who loved being different.  I reveled in “borrowing” clothes from the costume department, or junk-shopping at the local Goodwill for outrageous accessories and one-of-a-kind fashion buys.  I made no secret of my involvement with the Repertory Theater, and was known to spout lines of Shakespearean dialogue at odd moments.

For the record, moaning “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt” during gym class is grounds for detention.  Apparently Ms. Longjohn was not a fan of Hamlet.

Later in life, “normal” came to have a lot of different meanings, and I’m still not sure if “normal” is a good thing or a bad thing.

For my gay friend who lost his family because he couldn’t be “normal” for them, it was a bad thing.  They turned their backs on a funny, smart, loving guy because their version of “normal” meant “straight”.

Their loss.

For my niece, with her tattoos and piercings, “normal” means “boring”.  She is the single most creative human being I have ever met; she is quietly fearless about trying new things, and for her to be “normal” would be a tragic loss for the world.

But sometimes, normal is a good thing.  I have spent the past two years struggling to look and feel “normal” again.  I’d give anything to be able to stand with my head straight up instead of stuck in mid-nod; I would love to have just one day of looking “normal” enough to walk into a room without people giving me odd looks or asking, “do you have a stiff neck?”

“Normal” for me would be waking up in the morning after a full night of painless sleep, followed by a day of working at the job I loved.  On a “normal” day, I would come home with tired, aching feet and an occasional scissor-nip between the first two fingers on my left hand.  I might have a curling iron burn here or there, and sometimes my hands might be stiff from manipulating the marcelle iron.  I’d be tasting hairspray and my skin would reek of perm solution and peroxide, but I’d be content.

I had a purpose.  I’d accomplished something during the day.

The pocket full of tips wasn’t bad, either.

My “normal” day would have continued with supper with my family, griping because the kids didn’t help with the dishes, and probably panicking because somebody had forgotten to mention needing four dozen cookies for school tomorrow.  There would have been homework arguments, a bedtime battle with the five year-old, and quite possibly a little bit of closed-door time in the bedroom with the Big Guy if we both had the energy for it.

That will never be my “normal” again.

My new “normal” involves fighting off pain and self-pity at every turn.  A “normal” day for me now might be spent on the couch, popping Norco and applying heat to whatever part of me is hurting the most on that particular day.    Or it might be a day when the physical pain is a little less but the depression keeps me on the couch with a whole different kind of pain.

Sometimes, I have a day when I bake cookies and build a pan of lasagna and write two chapters of my novel, and I tell myself that the new “normal” isn’t all that bad.  Those are the days that make the other ones tolerable.

I want my kids to have a “normal” life, with a “normal’ mom.  One who can run around in the back yard with them and ride roller coasters at the fair.  One who doesn’t hold them back when we go places.  I hate the fact that people ask them “How is your Mom doing since the accident?”

But the one thing that is finally getting back to “normal” around here is my determination.    I have never been a quitter, and I have no intention of being one now.  That tree broke my spine; it didn’t break my spirit.  Bruised it, hurt it, knocked it out of commission for a while, but nothing permanent.

Last week, my daughter asked me if I want to have a gathering at The Tree to mark the anniversary of our accident, like we did last year.   “I don’t think so,” I told her.  “I’m ready to put it behind me.”

I’m ready to start getting back to normal.

The Stitchin’ Zone


I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know how to do needlework.  I embroidered my first set of stamped pot holders before I started Kindergarten, and I haven’t stopped since.  Growing up, I also learned to do cross-stitch, latch hook, crochet and more.

Spending time at my aunts’ house, I learned to always have a craft project close at hand.  Each of the four aunts had her specialty, and when a butt hit a chair, a craft basket hit the hands.  That’s just the way it was.  Marian made afghans,  Ida did cross-stitch and crochet, Noni did candlewick, and Verna quilted.

Verna’s quilts were works of art.  She did everything by hand, from the piecing to the quilting itself, to the hand-stitched binding.  She made Tumbling Blocks, Log Cabins, Nine-Patches and more; she made cross-stitched and appliqued tops, and she gave away every finished project.  Wedding quilts, baby quilts, lap quilts, she made them all.

She died before I had a chance to learn from her, but her sister Noni taught me the basics during my first pregnancy so I could make my baby’s quilt.  Noni hated quilting, but she knew just enough to get me started, and then she told me, “Don’t forget any of this, because I don’t love you enough to teach you again.”

Years later, I made her a quilt that took more than two years to complete; I spent two years cross-stitching the top and six weeks quilting it together, and I told her, “Don’t lose it, because I don’t love you enough to make you another one.”

I’ve lost count of how many quilts I’ve made over the years.  Each of my children has one, as does every baby born into our extended family.  I’ve given them to friends and donated them to fundraisers and silent auctions, and I’m finally making one just for myself.  It’s a king-sized quilt with cross-stitched yellow roses.

I tell people that quilting is my Prozac.  When I pick up one of Verna’s handmade wooden hoops and take the needle in hand, I lose track of everything else around me.   It’s automatic, a process.  Load the needle, pull it through, repeat.   Over and over, my hands doing the job with hardly any conscious thought on my part.

When I’m quilting, my mind can play.  I plot novels, rehash conversations that didn’t go well.  I mentally redecorate my living room or plan out my grocery list, or I re-live moments of my life.

It’s a slow process.  An afternoon spent quilting may result in only a few inches of a quilted pattern, but those hours can give me peace that no amount of therapy or antidepressants could provide.  When I’m quilting, the world slows down enough for me to think –or not think, if that’s what I need that day.

When I’m quilting, I’m spending time with Verna and Noni and the others, or I’m reaching out to the babies who have slept on one of my quilts.  I’m enclosing myself inside my own healing bubble where I can retreat, where I can lose myself and find myself at the same time.

When I give away a quilt, I love the ooohs and ahhhs.  But no matter how many I give away, my quilts give me far more.

Shoulda Coulda Woulda

Tell us about something you know you should do . . . but don’t.


Hoo boy.  I could write a novel about all of the things on that list.  Oh, wait.  Writing my novel is on the list too.

Now that my kids are all in school, my house should be spotless and my novel should be in the last stages of its final edit.  I should be able to prepare delicious meals for my family, complete with tasty desserts.  I should exercise, write letters to The Big Guy’s Great-Aunt, finish the baby quilt I am working on, read a good book.  I should reach out to old friends and family members that I haven’t seen in a while.  I should do volunteer work with all of this free time.

But . . . I don’t.

I can only blame just so much of it on chronic pain.  There are people out there in much worse shape than I am who manage to function.

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to people who have never dealt with depression.  They ask me, “What do you do all day?” and I don’t know what to say.

“I sit here in this chair and think about all of the things I should be doing,” I should tell them.  “Most days, I cry a lot because I don’t know what to do or where to start.  I cry because I want to be a good wife and mother, a good person.  I want to do all of those things. . . but I don’t, and I don’t know why, and then I cry because I don’t want to be crying.”

I should explain to them that I spend my days making bargains with myself, trying to trick my will-power into getting back to work.  For every mindless half-hour of staring at the walls, I tell myself that I must do a chore.  Wash the dishes that never get completely done.  Fold the laundry that is wadded in the basket and should probably be re-washed.  Run the vacuum.  Go outside and go for a walk.  Write a chapter or a query letter or anything, for God’s sake.

Just get out of that chair and move.

And then it’s 3:00 and the kids will be home in a half-hour and I start to panic because nothing is done and I have to cook supper and make phone calls and scramble to cover up the evidence of my inactivity.  I have to dry the tears and get dressed and pretend that I remembered to shower.

I have to make up stories about my busy day to explain what they see as my being lazy.  I have to make excuses and try to act “normal” and then bow my head in shame in the face of the irritation and impatience and downright anger from the people who just don’t get it.

I should tell the world that I don’t want to live this way.  This isn’t my choice.

Depression is an illness, not a choice.    Who would choose to live like this?

I should be able to move on and stop dwelling on things.  Stop talking about and re-living the car accident that changed my life.  Stop grieving for the career that I lost—for everything that I lost –the night I broke my neck.  Stop feeling sorry for myself.  Stop missing Mom and Dad and Marian and Jennifer and Kristy and all of the people I loved who died too young, too soon.  Stop regretting  the way my life has turned out.

I should surround myself with positive people and read books that lift my soul.  I should pray harder and ask God for His help.

More than anything else, I should admit to myself and the world that I am suffering; I should accept that the time has come for me to ask for help.

I should step away from the computer and make a phone call.