“I got very tired of hearing how ‘lucky’ I was,” says author Kara Swanson. “This was not some vacation-gone-wrong that I would return from with horrific tales of adventure. From the moment I left that hospital, I heard slap-on-the-back choruses of ‘It could have been worse!’ and ‘God, you were lucky!’ Intellectually, I understood that. But emotionally, I did not feel very lucky.”
There’s no denying that life is different after a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In addition to all the physical changes a brain injury may bring, a TBI can also mean the loss of a career or the disruption of an education. It can change your plans for the future, alter the way you meet and make friends, and affect the way you think about yourself. Life after a brain injury usually involves challenges, but that doesn’t mean life is less valuable or fulfilling.
By writing a book about her struggle with brain injury, Kara was able to embark on a journey of self-discovery, one that required a tremendous amount of honesty and courage in order to face the reality of her new life. While everyone with a brain injury embarks on their own unique journey toward recovery, there are some common experiences that many people share — experiences that can offer tremendous inspiration and support at various points in life.
Dealing with the injury
Soon after the injury, most people tend to focus on the abilities that have been lost. Emotionally, the experience can be overwhelming, confusing, and frustrating. But as time goes on, everyone begins to grapple with their injury in both productive and non-productive ways. One common response is to deny the significance of the injury; unfortunately, a brain injury can’t simply be “walked off.” Brains are notoriously slow to heal, which only compounds the frustrating aspects of TBI.
Brain injury also has a tendency to bring a lot of psychological challenges and may affect mental health. Depression, anger, and anxiety are common repercussions of brain injury, so people with TBI should be vigilant to seek out qualified care and support if they experience mental health problems.
As people begin to regain lost abilities or acquire new coping skills, they also begin to accept the realities of their injury. At this stage, a person might express that they are no longer fighting the injury but rather seeking ways to integrate their TBI into their lives.
For most people who experience a brain injury, life will return to a similar pace. But for many others, a TBI may mean months, years, or even a lifetime full of changes.
Moving forward after a TBI
A brain injury is supposed to set off a clear chain of events, all of them around a person’s medical care: the emergency room, the ICU hospital care, and then rehabilitation. But there isn’t a roadmap for all the aspects of life that fall outside of medical care — just ask someone like Kara, who seemed surprised that life marched on despite her injury.
One of the realities about living with a brain injury is that you may need additional check-ups, routine doctor visits, or ongoing rehabilitation. Even people who feel like they’re "back to normal" may visit a neuropsychologist for periodic testing or may incorporate various cognitive exercises into their daily routine.
While most people who sustain a TBI recover quickly, for those with moderate to severe TBIs — and their families — life may need to be reinvented, reinterpreted … and accepted as something different.