Lost Memories and Living in the Present: Reflections of a Brain Injury Survivor

David and his wife smiling in front of trees on a sunny day

Just when I began to think that I was familiar with all the ways brain injury could affect my life, a recent reality check shook me to my core. Now in my second decade as a brain injury survivor, I have come to expect to have challenges with my memory. Word-finding issues when I'm over tired are commonplace. Slow processing times when I’ve pushed too hard are part of the TBI life. As I also live with a rather egregious case of PTSD, having uncertainty at bedtime after a stressful day is also a familiar part of life today. All of these challenges are actually a normal part of living these days. In fact, having the ability to call what used to be foreign “normal” is a good indication of how far I’ve come in my recovery.

My mistake was in forgetting that there will always be a degree of unpredictability in life after brain injury. And as I learned, there is a big difference between familiarity and predictability. While I am familiar with most of my day-to-day challenges, life remains unpredictable.

A chance meeting with an old friend a couple of weeks ago let me know in painful clarity just how much of my past life I’ve lost. We were scuba dive buddies for many, many years before my brain injury. I was the best man at his wedding as well. Such was the strength of our friendship. We spoke for 30 minutes, catching up on each other’s lives over the decade. He mentioned a couple of our deep-diving foibles. I smiled and nodded a few times but had no recollection of any of the events he mentioned. None. It was as if he was telling me about someone else’s life.

Driving away, I wished him well and proceeded to rack my brain for any memories of our years diving together. While I had a couple faint memories, I was unable in any meaningful way to recall those memories. It was as if our years as friends never happened.

Over the years since my injury, I have heard countless others share about simply losing large swaths of life through memories lost forever. I can recall thinking about how grateful I was that my memories remained intact, and about how awful it must be to simply lose big parts of life. Like a fish unaware of the water in which it swims, until my recent encounter, I was living completely unaware that a big part of me was gone.

I spun the life clock backwards in a conscious effort to see if I could identify any other holes in the fabric of my memory. For many years before my injury, I was a single dad to four young sons. I searched high and low for memories of things that I had done with my children, places we had gone, experiences we had had together. Just like my newfound understanding that my scuba years were gone, I was unable to bring to mind more than a couple of events that involved my own children.

By now you might be wondering how all this made me feel. Was I devastated by the loss? Perhaps crushed by what my brain injury had taken away? My reaction surprised me. These days, I am a reasonably happy person. I have learned to take most things in stride. Not much bothers me these days. After all I’ve been through, I’m pretty unshakable. When the reality of how much of my life was gone hit me, I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “Oh well,” and continued on with my day.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve discovered mindfulness and have learned the value of living life “in the moment.” It’s a learned skill that has enabled me to find peace in my life. In what amounts to almost an irony, I no longer have much of my past to recall. The future never really comes. By circumstance, rather than any virtue, I am now forced to live in the moment.

Looking back on my day today, a rather typical day, I’ve had many good moments. Better still, I’ve had many days defined by good moments. While I may not be overly thrilled to have had a giant eraser wipe away part of my past, my present is okay. And for a guy like me who’s been through so much, having a present that is okay is ... quite okay!