Long before my traumatic brain injury, I developed the habit of occasionally looking back over my life. I used five years as a yardstick to measure my progress. Someone wiser than me once said that if I am dealing with the same challenges today as I was five years ago, it might be a good time to reevaluate my life. Fortunately, for many years, as I continued to grow into my “humanness,” looking back over five years, more often than not, showed me that I was indeed continuing to grow as a person.
Recently, I had the opportunity to apply this same practice to my life as a brain injury survivor. I am delighted to say that I really liked what I saw.
Last week was a traditional Monday through Friday workweek. I am rather big on routines, a compensatory strategy that has served me well since my 2010 injury. One afternoon was a bit busier than the rest, as I had a 1:00 PM conference call, followed by a 3:00 PM call with another potential client.
While this may sound completely unrelated to brain injury, as is often the case, there is so much more than meets the eye. That night, as I reviewed my day, I looked back in time. If you are wondering if I used this as an opportunity for a five-year lookback, you are correct.
Life five years ago was vastly different than it is today. I was a five-year brain injury survivor and still learning the ropes of my new life. While five years may sound like a long time, I know today that I was still such a TBI Newbie. At some point, just before my five-year anniversary, I learned through our statewide Brain Injury Association that it was at five years that most people reached out for help. It was more of a significant milestone than I knew at the time.
By that time, I had begun the slow process of rebuilding my career. But as a brain injury survivor, I had to be mindful of my limitations. For the most part, the productive part of my day ended right around noontime as neuro-fatigue set in. Neuro-fatigue is unlike traditional weariness. With traditional weariness, my body is tired. With neuro-fatigue, however, the tired seeps to the level of my soul – it is all-encompassing and all-consuming, sapping every bit of energy I have.
But, like most survivors, I found a work-around. My work-around was simple. I stopped working around midday every day, knowing that nothing good would happen after lunchtime. I used my afternoons to cycle, to do a few chores, and to heal.
But work is work for a reason and it doesn’t always happen on my terms. There were times that I had to take calls with clients after lunchtime. Had I been in the position to have an afternoon of calls as I did last week, the results were… well, punishing.
At five years out, an afternoon of conversations would have wrecked me. I would struggle to use the correct words, aphasia lurking just under the surface. If I was able to get off an afternoon call without too much collateral damage, I was still unable to celebrate. The worst was yet to come. The next day, and sometimes for several days, I would essentially be useless. Neuro-fatigue caused by pushing beyond my TBI limits is not a “one and done” event. It can linger for days. I would hunker down, battling unfathomable brain fog, and wait to recover.
From a self-worth standpoint, it was devastating. How can a couple of high-intellect conversations bring me down so far, for so long? The answer is easy – I am a traumatic brain injury survivor, and it goes with the territory.
Let’s time-hop five years to last week’s afternoon of calls. Both calls went well. I still struggle with my speech, especially when I’m tired. I did fumble more than a few words, but another compensatory strategy set in as I am able to recover from speech stumbles so quickly these days that it almost goes unnoticed by others.
And the day after my afternoon of calls? How did I fare?
Truth be told, it was just another workday. There was no lingering brain fog, no extra layer of exhaustion, and no multi-day event as I tried to get my feet back under me again.
When I compare the two experiences – one last week and one five years ago, it’s hard not to be grateful. I still have challenges related to life after my injury, some minor and others rather significant. But when I look back, I am able to clearly see that I am continuing to heal. Who knows what life will look like five years from today? Unlike the early years after my brain injury, I am no longer filled with dread.
If you are new to your journey and everything seems unfamiliar and you find yourself losing hope, please remember that time is your friend.