Finding my own new normal

Since 2009, when I moved to Cambridge to start my PhD, I’ve lived my life around triathlon. I’ve had years when triathlon has been my entire life. I’ve had years where it’s taken up every chunk of non-work time. And I had last year, where I did my best to wean myself away and find a more balanced existence. I still trained hard but I no longer made sacrifices for triathlon. I taught myself that triathlon didn’t always need to come first, though it was still a close second. But if I’m honest, as much by habit as by desire, despite not aspiring to race at the top any more, for the most part I kept on doing what I’ve always done, albeit with a bit less drive, time and urgency.

And then came lockdown. A lockdown that coincided with a running injury and a nasty, undiagnosed shoulder injury after a fall down the stairs (don’t ask!) All of a sudden, I couldn’t keep swimming just because that had been a habit for over 10 years. All of a sudden, like all of us, I was limited to one bit of exercise daily. All of a sudden, I was forced to reflect, to really reflect, on whether, when lockdown ended, I wanted to go back to my old life or mould a slightly different looking one.

Lockdown showed me that exercise will always, for me, be the most powerful stress release. I didn’t ‘train’ once but I exercised every single day. Most days, I would cycle home the scenic way; after an emotionally charged day in the hospital, I would often leave work with thoughts churning but an hour of pedaling would allow me, without even trying, to process these thoughts and get home with a clear head. Exercise, but not training, was the drug that sustained me.

Lockdown also reminded me that I will always have a deep need for adventure. But it’s taught me that you can create adventures from your doorstep, even if you can’t travel. I’ve learnt that for me, an adventure means being out of my comfort zone, physically and mentally. We can all make adventures for ourselves if we dare. For me, an adventure is something that excites me when I dream it up, but terrifies me the day before. It’s something that challenges me physically and takes mental strength to complete. An adventure will have epic highs and invariably some lows but will always end with a sense of deep satisfaction. I’ve realized that it’s being out of my comfort zone that makes me feel most alive. That’s one of the reasons I loved racing so much; you can’t race at the top without putting yourself out of your comfort zone physically and psychologically.

I’ve always thought that my job as an oncologist helps me remember how short life is. And it does. Most days I see something that reminds me how lucky I am to be fit and healthy and not to waste opportunities. As a relatively new consultant, I’m still learning my personal coping strategies when patients I’ve treated for some time die. I’ve definitely not got that right yet; it’s hard not to see death as personal failure rather than treatment failure, whether or not that’s rational. But I am always grateful that every day at work, I see what really matters to people who are actually facing their own mortality or that of those they love. Nobody wishes they had worked more, or had more money. What matters are memories, laughter, companionship and love.

But despite my daily reminder of the shortness of life, the Covid pandemic has, I think, added an extra dimension to this. We’ve all been forced to accept that everything we take for granted can, all of a sudden, be taken away from us without warning. For me, it’s added a sense of urgency, arguably a somewhat unhealthy sense of urgency, to cram adventures into weekends and annual leave while we have the freedom to do so. Since July I’ve been almost  ‘panic-doing-cool-stuff’ in case things tighten up again over winter. “Live like you may not have long to live” is a pretty good way of living at any time, but it seems even more pertinent now.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been deliberately making memories that I hope will sustain me through the winter if restrictions return. I’ve discovered the beauty of the UK that I never knew existed. I’ve discovered ways to challenge myself physically that aren’t about being fast. The temporary deprivation of things that I normally take for granted has helped me to understand what really makes me happy. And lockdown itself helped me to step off the triathlon treadmill that just kept running.

Cramming so much into life is exhausting; a life lived with this urgency is not sustainable. But at the same time, I do believe that despite the huge challenges of Covid for all of us, socially, mentally, physically, financially, it really has offered us all an opportunity.

An opportunity to really evaluate what is important to us. An opportunity to step away from the treadmills we’re on, just because we’ve always been on them. An opportunity to make changes that enhance our lives in the long run.

People with cancer often talk about ‘finding their new normal’. Unexpectedly, Covid seems to be helping me find mine.

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