It’s been three years since the tragic accident took our oldest son, Aaron, and left our youngest son, Steven, with a severe TBI. The date of the accident, coupled with Aaron’s August 9th birthday, leaves me feeling more anxious and emotionally drained in August than any other month.
This year, in an attempt to combat my anxiety during the month of August, I found myself rapidly moving from one project to another. You can picture me with a “Do Not Disturb Sign” hanging around my neck! The more consuming the project, the more satisfaction I felt. I ignored the signs of exhaustion and kept making lists. Early in the month, I found myself in a regularly-scheduled counseling session, during which I was asked how I was handling the month of August. With no desire to linger on the question, I gave what I thought was a quick response: “I’m ready to move on.” For some reason, counselors like to dig! It didn’t take long to reveal that I was using every possible distraction as a form of survival. When I retraced my actions to the beginning of our journey, there was every sign that I had embraced diversions. A moment of being distracted means a moment of escaping my reality … a reality that includes acceptance of living daily life without our first-born son and navigating the turbulent waters of traumatic brain injury.
Maybe, without realizing it in your own stressful situation, you have practiced what I call “distracted survival skills.” Consider this visual: you have an injury or an ongoing nagging pain that keeps your focus until one day you feel a more severe pain in another part of your body that sends off an alarm totally distracting you from the previous pain. For me, our devastating news split my heart between hearing the news of the death of one son and traumatic brain injury for the other. I survived by putting all of my attention and energy into Steven's recovery from his brain injury. I was not able or willing to face daily life without Aaron. Focusing on Steven’s recovery saved my life.
Practicing distractions and embracing diversions in the early stages of our tragedy proved to be helpful, but as the calendar pages flipped, my actions left me analyzing. For me, analyzing often comes with a high price of guilt. Let me explain. Three years later, I find myself asking questions like: Why did I think I had to be strong for everyone? How could I have “normal” conversations with visitors? How could I smile or laugh? How could I enjoy morning deliveries from Starbucks? In my mind, these things were not normal behaviors for a mom watching her son fight for his life while a life celebration was being planned for her first born. But in retrospect, I don’t know how I was supposed to feel and act! This journey did not arrive at our door with a parental “how to” handbook!
I’m slowly learning to release the guilt. By allowing myself to feel even the most painful emotions, I can see that I was willing to do anything to distract myself from the devastating reality of Aaron dying. By attempting to carry on with normal behavior, I allowed myself to escape to a place where Aaron was still with me. I could handle Steven's injury, but not Aaron's death. By putting all of my focus on Steven's recovery, I didn't have to feel the pain of being separated from Aaron. If I could convince the rehab center to keep Steven longer, I wouldn't have to return to our home. I wouldn't have to face Aaron's empty bedroom.
After practicing this survival behavior for almost three years, it is frightening to think about not having a distraction. I have gone from being consumed with Steven’s recovery to home improvement queen! On a light note, I’m really good with power tools!
Don’t get me wrong. The passage of time has made the pain of this horrific experience less excruciating for me, and I believe that one day healing will arrive. For now, I’m going to allow myself as much time as it takes to feel the emotions I denied myself while wearing my “mom” survival armor — the very same armor that encased my broken heart, shielding it from completely shattering.