Navigating “Normal”

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

Sometimes when I drop my son off at school in the morning, something will catch my eye and it will take me back to my own years in high school.  I think about how normal life can seem at the time you are living it but, years later, when you look back at that season of your life it really isn’t as normal as you once thought it to be.

It was 1986 and the summer before my freshman year when my mom sat me and my two older brothers down to tell us she had breast cancer. She would have a mastectomy and then go through rounds of radiation and chemotherapy treatment.  My 13 year old mind wasn’t even scared when she told us the news.  My mom would simply have a surgery, heal, and then life would carry on. After all, bad things like parents dying from cancer is something you hear happening to other families…not your family.

I was a shy and extremely insecure teenager.  In a large high school, I was thankful for the marching band and a couple of band friends who I could sit with at lunch time. On the days when they weren’t available, I would quickly gulp down a carton of chocolate milk and go hide in the library to avoid the awkwardness of the cafeteria.

High school seemed normal yet, simultaneously, excruciating. I sank all my energy into studying and getting perfect grades (even graduated 12th in a class of about 900).  I spent my days trying to walk that line between not doing anything stupid that would draw any embarrassing attention to myself and wanting to just be accepted.  I wasn’t unpopular or popular. I did my best just to blend in. I got along okay with pretty much everyone but didn’t seem to fit anywhere specific.

I fixated way too much on body image and struggled with anorexia. I exercised obsessively and watched as the scale dropped from 126lbs down to 88lbs all the while looking at myself in the mirror still believing my butt and thighs were way too big.  When my concerned parents confronted me about my refusal to eat dinner and opt for a small bowl of cereal instead,  I would tell them I was fine. I reassured them I hadn’t lost anymore weight and still weighed 100lbs.  It wasn’t until my starving body began fighting back when I decided to seek help.  I was eating practically nothing and, one morning, I stepped on the scale to discover I had gained a pound back. In panic mode, I tried to stick my finger down my throat but just couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. I went to my mom in tears and she took me to see a dietician so I could learn how to eat healthy.  Looking back on this season, she should have taken me to a psychologist to learn how to cope healthily with the two “c” words: control issues and cancer.

About the same time I was ending all the fun days of high school,  I found out that my mom’s cancer had returned; it had metastasized to her bones. She would begin more chemo and radiation treatments. My dad added my name to the bank checking account so I could write checks and do the grocery shopping. I helped take my mom to many of her radiation appointments, 80 miles up the road in Tucson.  I would prepare my mom’s lunch and bring it to her in the living room.  So many of the things were not normal teenage stuff and, yet, I didn’t realize it until years later. 

I often think about those days as I watch all the students walking into my son’s high school.  I wonder what load some of these kids carry with them into the building…detached parents, abuse, divorce, addiction, identity issues, cancer.

I wonder how many kids (and adults) are just trying to make it through their “normal” as best they can.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

4 thoughts on “Navigating “Normal”

  1. Janet Brown

    I was your mom and my oldest daughter spent her first Christmas break from college doing things that were not “normal” in caring for me. And yes – the things that kids in middle and high school deal with as their “normal” these days would shock so many…I used to wonder how they even got to school on a daily basis. In many cases, school is the most stable part of their lives. Thank you for sharing this. I was thinking I’d sure like to hug that 17 year old Eileen, but then I remembered she is still right there in you. Love you.

    1. Eileen Post author

      I can just imagine how many things you heard and saw as an educator. Grateful for your friendship, Janet!


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