Erin Hazelton Redefines The New Normal
The fashion journalist and breast cancer survivor, on how fashion became her armor, what the new normal means to her and on clearing cancer.
By Erin Hazelton
Two years ago, a doctor said to me: “The good news is, you will survive this. But life as you know it will be different. It won’t ever go back to exactly as it was. You will just have to get used to a new normal.”
This was my introduction to the phrase “new normal.”
I was a long-haired, physically fit, organic-eating, thirty-seven-year-old mother of two who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. The words “new normal,” and all they implied, felt as if my doctor had given me a second death sentence. My life was being turned on its head because of a 1.8-centimeter lump that had been hiding in my right breast and had silently spread to my lymph nodes. All I wanted was to go back to normal. Regular, old normal, even if “normal” was never something I imagined myself striving toward.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, I noticed an uptick in the usage of this familiar phrase in reference to how our world will change as a result of this pandemic. Each time I hear “new normal,” I feel like I’ve been jolted back into a stiff cotton hospital gown, my feet dangling off the side of an examination table.
After hearing it a dozen times, it finally hit me: It feels like civilization just got cancer.
As dramatic as that sounds, I’m finding many parallels between my experience with the disease and what we are currently enduring as a society. Thankfully there won’t be chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and ten years of endocrine therapy for the whole world to bear, but our lives are changing. The uncertainty around the situation and what will ultimately result from it is terrifying. We don’t know what the future will look like, but it is clear we aren’t going back to how we lived a few months ago.
We, collectively, have lost control of our health. Many of us are unable to work, confined to our homes, fearing infection. Our hands are raw from washing, when we do leave the house, our eyebrows fly up in fear if we hear a cough; a thermometer is always close at hand. We are obligated to wear a mask in public. We are forced to think about mortality. Each one of us is living like an immuno-compromised cancer patient right now. We are all at risk. We are all suffering. And the trauma will continue after this thing is over. Not only will there be PTSD resulting from the illness and death, but we will also have the economic downturn to cope with. The enormous loss of jobs and businesses. The rate of depression has and will continue to increase.
As we try to make sense of the barrage of information hitting us, the overwhelming statistics, paralyzing economic projections, we go numb. Fear arises from “the worst-case scenario,” and each person’s worst-case scenario is different. Will treatment work for those of us who get diagnosed? Will my parent be offered a respirator should he or she get ill? Will I be able to say goodbye in person? Will I be able to pay my rent? Pay my medical bills if I or someone I love gets sick? Will my job still exist after this? How can I access what the government will be offering? Will I get assistance? Will researchers find an effective drug combination? A vaccine so that we can, at some point soon, move on? Will my business survive? Will my children fall behind with school? Will I go insane stuck in this apartment with my family for another month or two? Will I lose my mind being alone in my home for another month or two?
As someone who survived a life-changing diagnosis full of unknowns, I know that from fear and suffering come strength and resiliency. The essential thing to remember is that this is a moment. It will pass. It’s a tough moment, some of us will not make it, some of us are going to be irreparably damaged, but the vast majority of us will survive. But we won’t be the same.
Adversity forces one to sift priorities. The insignificant parts of our lives fall through the holes and the important pieces remain on top, no longer lost in the noise of everyday life. Instead of rushing through dinner and hurrying the kids to bed, every second shared becomes a gift because you now know, firsthand, how quickly those moments can be stolen from you.
When you have cancer, you learn to lean on others, to ask for help, and accept it. You feel an invisible net spread beneath you, your sense of community expands. Yet your experience is nonetheless isolating, not because your doctors tell you to stay away from crowds and sick people, but because no one else has, or is able to, experience the physical and emotional duress you are personally living through. Our coping mechanisms vary widely, and even if we are able to distill the physical pain and the rollercoaster of emotion we are winded from riding, it is exhausting, distressing, and plain difficult to try to explain it all to anyone else. The truth is, not everyone is going to get it. Some friendships wither, others bloom.
As we are seeing now, when a society gets “sick,” it divides. Some of us can flee epicenters, some of us can’t. Some of us are quickly tested, some of us must wait. Some of us get respirators, some of us won’t. Some of us can work from home, some of us no longer have jobs, and some of us are called to the frontlines whether we want to be there or not, risking our health and the health of our families, so that we, collectively, can get through this. But none of us are “non-essential,” just like none of us knows what “normal” really is.
When my hair fell to the floor two years ago, my ego went along with it. I had nothing left to hide behind. In the mirror I looked at my naked head and had to deal with who was now looking back. It was awful, but it was also the most empowering moment of my life. No longer staring at me were the fine lines and wrinkles I used to focus on, nor was there a thick set of eyelashes that needed to be mascara-ed. What I saw was a chance to start over and decide how I was going to make my life matter more. Instead of beating myself up for all the things I hadn’t yet accomplished — the book I’m still writing, the house I don’t yet own, the marathon I still haven’t run — I grabbed my children’s hands and held them a little longer.
We all could have done without COVID-19, but now that we have it, let us use this time to reassess our lives, our healthcare system, and our priorities as a society. Instead of focusing on how we wish things were, let’s be grateful for what we have and consider what we can improve. Let’s step up and continue to support each other in ways that we ordinarily might not have. Let’s remember that none of us, no matter how young or how healthy we appear, is immune to, or prepared for, life’s relentless curveballs.
Let’s never forget this. Even when this virus is no longer such a major threat to our health. Aiming at a “new normal” is selling ourselves short. Let’s instead advance toward “renewal,” and all the possibilities that term contains.