Mental Health Challenges After Brain Injury

David Grant and his wife smiling in front of a cloudy sky over a body of water

Next month a significant milestone in my life will come to pass as I turn 60 years old. I sustained my traumatic brain injury at the age of 49, when I was run over by a newly licensed teenaged driver on Main Street in my New Hampshire town. I have lived the entire decade of my fifties as a brain injury survivor. 

As my 60th birthday approaches, the internal emotions are ramping up. When I was younger, someone 60 was really old. This is not the case any longer. I still cycle an hour or so every day without exception. I’m hovering within a few pounds of my high school weight, and my grey hairs are outnumbered by brown by over a hundred to one.

Over the years, I’ve heard the saying that health is one of those things you never fully appreciate until it’s gone. While this is definitely true, most often it’s used in reference to physical health. But what happens when your mental health is compromised?  While we have made great strides in acknowledging the mental health epidemic that surrounds us, like brain injury, there are still societal stigmas that surround mental illness.

The pandemic has acted like Miracle-Gro for many who have mental health challenges. For as much as I wish that I was exempt, I have been pushed to the brink of mental health unwellness a couple of times since our world changed so drastically.

The first time was in the fall of 2020. The daily stress of living under the cloak of the pandemic had taken its toll on me. The endless drumbeat of mainstream media announcing deaths that measured in the hundreds of thousands literally brought me to tears. There was no vaccine available, and all felt dark. As most of 2020 is a blur, I am unable to tell you whether it was in September or October of last year that I hit an emotional bottom, but I can tell you what I felt. 

“I just can’t do this anymore,” my mind screamed at me for a few weeks. If I see one more Target or Walmart delivery person at my front door, I’m going to go out of my mind. Think I am being overly dramatic? Think again.  

I wanted to get off the pandemic bus. There was no suicidal ideation, no desire to exit life’s stage. That would come later. Rather, I was just weary of it all—wearier than I had ever been in my life. Weariness exacerbated my brain injury challenges, and it became difficult just being me. I felt like I had taken a half-decade step backwards in my recovery.

But it passed. 

Round two of my own mental struggles occurred just last month. A few back-to-back nights with horrific PTSD nightmares took its toll on me. At one point—sleep deprived, brain-injured, and utterly exhausted—I had one of my toughest post-TBI days. It was a dark day of stunning magnitude. For a very brief moment, I almost bought into the lie … the lie that things would always be dark and that I was destined to a life of forever struggles. It became too much to even think about. In my mind flicked the dreadful thought that I could no longer take it, that it was all too much, and that I wanted to get off this planet. I had had enough.  

The very thought of living for a few more decades, forever tormented by a damaged brain and a life-long path of PTSD, seemed simply too much to bear. In that moment of despair, I lost all perspective. 

I find it hard to even admit this out loud. As I pen my experience, I wonder if I will even share these words. If you find yourself reading them, then you know I followed through. 

The tough nights continued, troubled sleep bleeding into exhausted days. Never one to be overly fond of unnecessary suffering, I began using my EMDR app more mornings than not, in a quiet quest for relief from my self-torment. But, alas, PTSD has very strong claws. Into my soul, its talons cling tightly. 

I have no death wish. It is my hope to endure well into my 90s. I also knew with every fiber of my being that this sense of despair would eventually pass. 

“But it’s been over a decade,” whispered the PTSD into my ear. “I have you in my grips forever.”

Slowly the bad PTSD nights became less frequent. My mind started to heal and I felt my mental footing once again strengthen. Today, I am back to my normal brain-injured self, a marked improvement to where I was just last month. Go figure … I’ve come to a point in my recovery where being brain-injured isn’t the biggest problem in my life. 

As I’ve done over the years, I share the solutions that have worked in my life. If they work for me, they might just work for you. There are ALWAYS solutions. Even in our most troubled moments, we must remember this.

First and most important, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem—and it's really not a solution at all. If you find yourself in a place where oblivion looks appealing, please speak with someone. You are worthwhile, and your life has value.   

In my case, my wife, Sarah, is my trusted human. She is not my therapist, nor is she a doctor. She is someone I love and who loves me. We’ve been through so much together. We talk about anything—even tough topics like fragile mental health. When I tell her that I’ve had some dark thoughts, she knows exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes she gives me a hug; other times she lets me know in no uncertain terms to suck it up, that we all are going through tough stuff right now.

The other lifesaver for me is to try to alter my perspective. While my mind might lie to me, saying things are going to be tough forever, the reality is that I have had many, many more good days than bad, and that every tough day—without exception—has passed. When times are difficult, just reminding myself that “this too shall pass,” can carry me through the next hour, or day.

It’s complicated. So much of my journey over the last decade has been two steps forward and one back. But the net/net over time always equals forward progress.

I really am okay—as okay as I can be. Again, if suicide looks like an option for you, I beg of you to speak with someone—kind of like I’m speaking with you here, today. You are not alone, though it may feel like it right now. Remember, it all passes—the good, the bad… and the dreadful. 

And me? I am going to ride the wheels off this life, living my best life possible. 

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide—whether you are in crisis or not—please call or live chat the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Comments (3)

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Thank you David, as always, you remind me that there are others like me out there. It will be 28 years for me in a month. I have gotten used to my lack of flexibility and my dislike of change, but the pandemic has made those qualities seemingly unbearable at times. I have wanted to scream often that I just can't take anymore of this. But, the feeling does pass. My therapist has taught me to accept how I'm feeling, it's okay and not a reason to berate myself. I don't know if it will ever get easier to live with a TBI, but I'll keep on keeping on.

Your words so ring true with me today. I had got to a point of acceptance of my brain injury. Today I face another surgery for a different illness, still tumours growing, but not in my brain this time, I tell myself, I survived brain surgery, I’ve come so far in recovery. Far beyond that the doctors thought. And now I am thinking what if this sets me back? Already the sleepless nights are here, 3 am pondering, anxiety is high and am feeling exhausted. I’m trying be positive, they’ve caught the tumours early, they think they are benign, I can do this, surely brain surgery and living with a brain injury is harder. Will I be set back as my brain is having to deal with this trauma? I’m I going to loose my speech again ? Will I be emotional and frightened? All these things play heavy on my mental health, which causes my physical health to decline.
You have reminded me this is temporary, these dark times don’t last. Maybe I should go and talk with my husband again and explain in more detail, how consumed I am feeling. Thanks for your words, they make perfect sense

Beautifully written, such deep, raw emotion which we can all relate to as survivors. We have walked a similar path and felt similar feelings and depths of despair stay strong... we can do this together!