As I round the bend to the seven-year anniversary of my life-changing brain injury, I’ve looked back over this past year like I do most every year, to see if I can see measurable gains.
One of the biggest lessons that I learned in the first few years is that there is no finish line for my recovery. As long as my heart continues to beat, I will continue to recover. Though there are still a few old-school hold-outs who insist that meaningful brain injury recovery ends after a year, new science and the wonders of neuroplasticity mean that the future is indeed brighter for those of us living with brain injury.
For years, I measured my recovery by external gains. I looked for tasks that I could do better and longer. This was easily quantifiable data.
I’ll give you a few examples:
For several years, my ability to work ended at 2 p.m. like clockwork. While I count myself fortunate that I can indeed work again, full-time work still eluded me. By early afternoon, I was exhausted. My cognitive ability crashed hard, my ability to speak fluently fell away quickly, and nothing meaningful happened at my desk after 2 o’clock. It was like that for a very long time.
As the years continued to go by, I was able to gradually surpass the 2:00 threshold, still able to work. This was an easily measured gain. Other gains that were easy to measure included regaining my ability to read after four years, and moving beyond middle-school books at the five-year mark.
These gains all have one thing in common – they are external measurements of my progress.
I recently took some time to take stock of my growth over this past year. And what I saw surprised me. In fact, it was a completely unexpected revelation.
Over the last year, I cannot work any longer than I did a year ago. Nor can I read at a pace any faster than last year. Looking from the outside in, not much has changed, but I measure this past year as one of my biggest growth years in the last few.
“How can that be?” you might be asking.
Great question! My epiphany came with the realization that I can now accept what I cannot do. I am unable to work full-time, and may never be able to do so. I accept this truth as part of my new life. I may always be burdened by neuro fatigue and a cognitive processing speed slower than my pre-injury life. I can accept that as well. Many people have left my life; unable to understand what happened to the David they once knew. I count a couple of my sons among those who chose to step back and out my life. While I may never fully understand why many I was close to are now gone, I am more accepting of it than I was a year ago.
Time takes the sting out of what had been an unfathomable pain. Time has also shown that though I will always have brain injury challenges, these are not a barrier to having a meaningful life. All these changes reflect my inner changes and not anything I can measure with a yardstick. As time continues to pass, I will continue to heal, though I define healing differently than I did in the first few years of my injury.
Today, healing is not the gradual cessation of challenges from my brain injury. Rather, healing involves the slow realization that I can live with the challenges I face. I now coexist with my brain injury. I have ceased fighting both my injury as well as my deficits. Paradoxically, when I cease fighting, I win, as my new understanding of healing continues.
My year seven gains can’t be charted on a graph, but living with a level of acceptance heretofore unknown to me reminds me that I am going to be okay. And isn’t that what any of us really want - just to be okay?