20 years ago today (March 7th) I pulled out of my driveway to go to the gym and then stop by my office to do some straightening up. The next thing I knew I was conscious of a strange noise in my left ear. It was the sound of the EMT cutting open the jacket I was wearing.
I told him to stop it, because it was my favorite one.
I then lost consciousness again.
I had survived a car accident.
I spent the next week in the hospital in and out of consciousness and have very few memories of that time.
I do know I struggled to control my emotions.
The rare times when I was in conversation with anyone I struggled to follow what they were saying. I struggled to not compulsively repeat myself over and over and over.
I struggled to not sound angry and to not start crying.
I couldn’t hear very well. I complained about my double vision so much that I had two….MRIs?….CT scans?….I can’t remember what it was; but I remember being wheeled away and stuck in some contraption so doctors could figure out what was going on inside my head.
The day of my release, the doctor – who never looked me in the face while he talked to me – told me I had a brain injury and what I was now was the best I would ever be.
I couldn’t tie my shoes. Couldn’t remember the honeymoon we’d been on just six months earlier.
I couldn’t see right. I couldn’t hear well. And I had lost sensation in most of my face including my mouth and gums.
When I walked, I had to stay close to the wall because I was afraid I’d fall over.
I was 36. I had been married for 6 months. 10 months prior to the accident I had graduated in the top 10% of the class when I got my Master’s degree in HR. I had been promoted 3 times in 18 months and was about to be promoted again from Director of HR and Chapter Operations at the nonprofit where I worked to Assistant Executive Director.
I spent the next week at home. Sleeping.
Each time I woke up I had a hard time processing what had happened to me.
I looked fine. Why didn’t my eyes work anymore? When people saw me they would either ask me what was wrong with them or they’d look over their shoulder thinking I wasn’t looking at them.
I went back to work.
I thought just needed to get back to a routine. Back to doing what I knew I was good at. But I struggled to do the smallest task. I couldn’t control my emotions and of course people didn’t understand I wasn’t the same because I didn’t understand it either.
And I looked so normal.
Then the migraines started.
They’d last for most days of the week. Every week.
Sleep was the only way to get relief.
After about a month more of my unusual behavior and inability to function my husband insisted I see our family doctor.
My doctor took charge of my care and explained that getting well had just become my full time job.
FINALLY. Validation that there was something wrong and some hope that I could fix it.
I saw a physical therapist to regain my balance and learn to deal with the loss of much of my depth perception. Many TBI survivors continue to reinjure themselves because of their issues. I hit my head on the trunk of my car twice. I fell down the stairs of my deck.
I saw a psychologist to deal with the fact that I had suddenly become a disabled person and to work to learn how to control my deep frustration with my issues and to relearn how to control my emotions (for me, this has been the hardest and most shame-inducing “scar” since I had always prided myself on self-control…the calm in the center of any storm).
I saw a neurologist to try to solve the nerve, hearing, and vision problems in my head. But it was my home town eye doctor who came up with a solution of sorts to the vision problem.
Lasik surgery in one eye created mono vision where one eye sees distance and the other eye handles up close. But I had to wear an eye patch for months before I took that chance and I was shocked at how people treated me when I wore it.
The reactions were occasionally funny — like the cashier who yelled out how much I owed her. As if not being able to see out of one eye also meant I was deaf.
But most of the time people made very hurtful comments. I assume that was because they thought I couldn’t hear either, even though I was less than a foot away.
Finally I was referred to an occupational therapist who specialized in treating the brain injured.
It was the hardest, most frustrating 6 months of my life.
There were times I’d be late to my appointment because I couldn’t remember how to get there even though I had been there less than 48 hours before.
If anyone had seen what we were doing for hours at a time they’d think we were “just” playing video games.
But I was working to retrieve the skills that that had gotten jumbled up inside the filing cabinet in my head.
I couldn’t add one column of three single-digit numbers.
There were times when I would burst into tears from shear frustration.
“You HAVE to do this” my OT would say. “THIS is what’s going to get you back to where you were. THIS is going to get you back to the YOU that you remember being.”
That’s what kept me going. Hope and someone who believed in me…who believed she could help me.
THAT and the determination that this wouldn’t trap me. It wouldn’t define me.
My family didn’t understand what was going on or why I wasn’t the same.
I understand that it hurt them to think of me in pain or suffering emotionally and not being able to help me.
It hurt me that I couldn’t talk to them about what I was going through.
I looked so normal.
And when friends saw me – people who I had worked with and known for years — I had a hard time remembering their names.
They didn’t really want to hear how I was. They didn’t want to know I was in physical pain or that I was sad and depressed.
Most people say “how are you?” as a sort of extension of their greeting hello. They don’t truly mean it. And if you mention something you’re struggling with they’ll try to minimize it what you’re experiencing by laughing off their own forgetfulness or struggle with words.
I knew they meant well and were uncomfortable thinking about what I had experienced and what I was going through.
But it still hurt.
As I worked to get better, colleagues who heard about my accident and recovery began calling me asking if I was well enough to do a small project for them.
It might have seemed small to them but it meant the world to me.
Suddenly I had validation that I was worth something. That I wasn’t useless. That I still had skills that mattered.
One project lead to another and the projects got bigger.
People often ask me what kept me going during the recovery (which is never really over….TBI is a lifetime of adjustment and work to develop new strategies to bring me ever closer to my former self).
In a word….faith.
The definition of faith is belief in that which is yet unseen.
Faith is built on trust.
I believe you play the hand you’re dealt as best you can. We can’t afford to give in to the sadness that can easily seep in and overwhelm us.
I also believe that because God created the world in balance – every back has a front, each season is needed for the others – this had to have happened to me for a reason or reasons and it was up to me to use it for something positive…or something negative.
I also had to give myself a break and have faith in myself. I had to trust that I could do this. I could recover.
I had to stop focusing on what I struggled to do or what I couldn’t do (yet). Instead I had to be so grateful for what I was still able to do – write and teach.
I had to learn to give myself what I was known to give others: compassion. To be kind to myself.
That was especially hard because what I was forced to realize was I couldn’t be kind to myself since I actually LOATHED myself.
I had to admit that all of the degrees I chased and the jobs and promotions had simply been a way to get outside validation that I was a good person….a smart person….a deserving person…a worthwhile person.
See, as my brain worked to re-organize the memories stored in my mental file cabinet, all sorts of awful memories stored away in the banker’s boxes of my head came tumbling out.
As the early years of my TBI recovery passed and I struggled with marketing myself as a solo professional and taking action to do the things I knew would lead to business for me (things I could easily tell others to do), I had a colossal epiphany, which was this:
The behavior patterns and strategies I had developed over the course of my life that had led me to be a good student and a successful employee were now actively holding me back. And I knew I HAD to break free from those disempowering patterns I developed that yes, had helped me survive and even thrive in those environments but now actively held me back.
Things like perfectionism….not rocking the boat….people pleasing (which was actually an extreme attempt for love and acceptance)….workaholism (which for me was driven by a combination of fear and wanting to be seen as good and valuable).
So on top of dealing with my ongoing brain injury I had to heal from the emotional trauma I had experienced growing up as a child, living in a house with abusive parents. I had to heal from the emotional trauma I experienced working for abusive bosses.
I had to become a student of mental health. I had to take my knowledge of behavior and motivation much deeper in order to recover from my newly rediscovered emotional wounds, just as I had to relearn how to learn as I recovered from my physical wounds.
I share all this because whether you’ve experienced something traumatic like I have or you’ve “just” experienced the slings and arrows of everyday traumas – little wounds that overtime become deep, painful aches that you try to hide — each wound you experience or obstacle you face is an opportunity to grow in a new direction. It’s an opportunity to shed beliefs…stories… that you’ve become attached to but no longer serve you.
Some people decide the pain of change isn’t worth it. They believe THEY’RE not worth it.
Don’t let that be you.
Promise yourself that you’ll step up and create #CourageousSuccess for yourself.
PS. If you or someone you know recognizes that fear is getting in their way and they’re ready to get help to break free then please know you’re welcome in my Facebook Group, Courageous Success. You can ask to join here:https://www.facebook.com/groups/2104151309834011/