Over the last year, there have been countless times that I’ve congratulated myself on being over my brain injury challenges. And why shouldn’t I? I’m back to work again on a full-time basis. Sarah and I are happily married. Things feel pretty smooth at home as I sail through life with my best friend by my side.
Now in my tenth year as a brain injury survivor, I see that things could have been so much worse than they were. While I wouldn’t wish the last decade on anyone, looking at life as it is today, it’s hard not to be a bit smug about things.
But as I continue to move forward in this second life since brain injury, I continue to learn.
A few weeks ago, I was sharing with Sarah that it was nice to have the biggest TBI challenges now in our life’s rearview mirror. I went on to extoll how well I was doing, how far I had come, and how I was actually closer to being one of the uninjured than I have ever been.
As I shared with Sarah how pleased I was with life, I watched a smile spread slowly across her face. In two ticks of a clock, I knew why she was smiling. Though she didn’t have to say it, the message was clear: “I’m not buying what you’re selling!”
In that moment, I realized that perhaps I wasn’t as “over” my brain injury as I had hoped. While I am hard-wired to be an optimist, sometimes being too optimistic can border on denial. While others can tell me how I am doing these days, I am unable to see the apple on my own head, unable to truly gauge my own recovery with any reasonable degree of perspective.
I spent a couple of days thinking about it, pondering my fate, and wondering how I am really doing. Though difficult, I tried to be as objective as I could. The takeaway is this: I still have very significant memory challenges. Memory issues are hard to gauge as you need to have a memory to do so. I still have slower processing speeds than I used to. While I am better than I was in the years following my injury, I’ve not come back to the point of being at my pre-accident levels. In my life before, I was quick-witted. I can no longer lay claim to this.
For many years I lost the ability to capture the subtle nuances of conversations. My slower processing speed was the biggest culprit. Tell me a joke and drop the punchline … then begin counting slowly to 10. Somewhere around eight or nine, IF I was lucky, I’d “get” the joke and laugh the type of delayed laugh that made people uncomfortable. More often than not, I would simply stare forward, not understanding the joke.
Fortunately, those days are (mostly) behind me.
But so much of recovery has to do with my perceived well-being. Most of the time these days, I feel better than I have in many years. I smile more. I’m less averse to crowds. I’m not always looking to be the quiet guy in a room, afraid my speech problems will betray my brain injury. My sense of being okay in my world today has created a life that is truly sustainable. In fact, if nothing changes, I am quite okay with living the rest of my life like this.
This realization has forced me to rethink the idea of what recovery looks like. It does not necessarily mean the absence of my brain injury challenges. Rather it means that I can still have significant challenges, all the while having a deep acceptance that this is simply the way life is. And from that space, I find that I can be reasonably happy.
I don’t need to see the apple on my head. Occasionally I am reminded that it’s still there, out of sight, out of mind. But those close to me know that, in spite of my ongoing TBI issues, I’m doing okay. I really can’t ask for more.