Last night, my local brain injury support group celebrated with our annual holiday party. It’s been a yearly event since our group began back in 2011. For a few years, reservations were made at a local restaurant, and a fun night defined by food and fellowship was had by all.
Our last restaurant-style holiday party back in 2017 found our group being seated in the dead center of a large and bustling dining room. Like a long banquet table, attendees lined each side of a table that spanned over thirty feet end-to-end. While it was easy to engage in holiday chit-chat with whomever was sitting right next to you, real and meaningful conversations were difficult, if not impossible.
But this was not entirely due to our seating arrangement. Like so much that encompasses all-things-brain-injury, there was more than meets the eye. Passers-by our long table would have thought nothing unusual about our gathering, thinking perhaps we were out for a company holiday party, or perhaps an extended family get-together. After all, we looked like a pretty normal bunch of celebrants.
The reality is that most of us were brain injury survivors. While the hustle and bustle of a very busy dining room would not affect most people, for many of us, it was close to torturous. In addition to our party, there were at least a hundred other diners enjoying dinner in the same room. Waitstaff bustled to and fro, whisking food and friendly service to those in attendance. Just behind us, the kitchen doors swung open and closed with reckless abandon – only adding more to the evening’s activity.
Though a good time was had by all in our group, the prudent decision was made to make 2017 the last year of a restaurant holiday party.
I can speak from very personal experience that sensory overload is still a struggle for me as a brain injury survivor. Loud noises, lots of distractions, and crowds of people still overwhelm me. Living as well with PTSD, the challenge is doubled as the unpredictable nature of people in large groups comes into play.
There was a collective sigh of relief when the decision was made to start having our holiday party at the same rehab that hosts our monthly brain injury support group meeting. It is a familiar environment and a familiar drive for most of us. Better still, we essentially take over the facility cafeteria.
Gone is the chaos, the uncertainty, and the sense of being overwhelmed. We are able to simply be together as a group and share in meaningful conversations without the distraction of a hundred or more others.
Looking around the room during this year’s party, it was hard not to be overwhelmed with emotion. Small clusters of twos and threes sat talking happily; lots of smiles and hugs were shared. Some of us brought main dishes; others brought cookies and various and sundry sweets making everyone feel a part of, rather than apart from.
And in that moment, I realized the magnificent reality of the power of support groups. They unite us as survivors and family members, they end the isolation that so many of us feel after brain injury, and the friendships that ensue come from the bonds of shared pain and hardship.
After a couple hours, we collectively knew that it was time to call it a night. Call it a shared moment of cognitive exhaustion. More hugs were shared; more smiles abounded; and as I walked out of the rehab, it hit me that this felt more like spending time with family.
Life as a brain injury survivor has not been easy, but there are times, times like our annual party, that I realize how fortunate I am to have so many amazing people in my life. Seen in this light, it’s hard not to be grateful.