When your life has been shattered by brain injury and the door to your old life has not just closed, but slammed shut, how do you find a new door of happiness and acceptance? Where do you look? How do you begin? Below is a list of actions that gradually helped me in my journey from banging against the closed door of my old life to walking through the open door of my new life. I hope they can help you, too.
- Get to know your new self
- Listen for the wisdom of the little voice inside
- Take action
- Start small, find success and build on it
- Find ways to give to others
- Take risks: Feel the fear and move forward anyway
- Make something: Create meaning out of suffering
Get to Know Your New Self
Brain injury changes who you are and what you know about yourself. Many of us feel like different people, with new and unfamiliar limitations, reactions, thoughts, feelings, fears, likes and dislikes. We’re strangers to ourselves. The last thing many of us want to do is get to know the new person we’ve become. I know I hated the new Carole for a long time after my injury. I wanted to distance myself from her. I didn’t think there could be anything to like about her.
However, the more I tried to ignore the new Carole, the more stuck I stayed in denial, in loss and in grief over what might have been. I had no chance of finding my new door of happiness and acceptance until I turned away from the old one.
A crucial step in turning away from that old door was getting to know the new me. I had to develop self-knowledge. The importance of self-knowledge has been recognized for millennia, as evidenced by this wisdom from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates: ‘Know thyself’.
In an instant, brain injury changes the self-knowledge you’ve accumulated over your entire life. Getting to know your new self is kind of like growing up all over again. When you grew up the first time, others helped you figure out who you were. That same process can work again after brain injury.
My family and friends helped me gain a lot of self-knowledge. They suggested new activities that brought joy to my life. They reassured me that the new Carole was still good at many things. They focused my attention on the times when I felt proud of myself. They helped me gain greater awareness of my challenges and struggles.
It was hard for me to accept help from those who had known me as a competent, independent adult in my pre-brain injury life. I didn’t like feeling dependent on them. Often I felt like a confused child. However, eventually I learned that dependence on others was a necessary part of my path to self-knowledge and greater independence.
You can get to know your new self by listening to observations from your team—trusted medical professionals, family, friends, other brain injury survivors and members of the community. Especially early on, they often see what you’re not able to recognize. They can help you begin to understand who you are now, find your strengths and work on your weaknesses.
Nothing about brain injury is quick and easy. Getting to know and even like your new self is a process, one that takes time. It means focusing on the present, on what is. That’s how you begin to find the door to your new life.
Making It Your Own
Who are the members of your team who could help you get to know your new self? Your team may include family members, friends, other brain injury survivors, community members, medical and other types of professionals.
What brings joy into your life right now?
What are you good at now?
What do you struggle with?
When do you feel pride?
Carole Starr is a 20-year brain injury survivor, national keynote speaker, author of To Root & To Rise: Accepting Brain Injury, and the founder/facilitator of Brain Injury Voices, an award-winning survivor volunteer group in Maine.