I was recently out for a bike ride. It’s been seven years after my traumatic brain injury, and I still cycle daily. There are a myriad of reasons. The first one is the most obvious – I love cycling. There is something magical out being out on the streets, enjoying a totally immersive experience.
Of course, there are the health benefits. I’m diabetic, and daily cardio helps keep my diabetes in check. I get the dubious luxury of snacking a bit without gaining too much weight. In addition, over the last few years, there has been a growing body of evidence that daily cardio speeds brain injury recovery. Mindful of all this, I would be crazy not to cycle.
During my recent ride, music came on that I listened to the summer before my injury. It was the summer of 2010, my last summer before everything changed. For a few minutes, sadness consumed me as I thought about how things used to be.
I started thinking about “normal.”
Shortly after my injury, I heard someone describe life after brain injury as “the new normal.” Frankly, I could not stand that phrase. There was nothing normal about my life during those difficult early years after my injury. The very foundation of my personality shifted. Friends dropped out of my life; family members faded to black, and financial stressors kept me as awake at night as my PTSD nightmares did. Life itself had become a veritable nightmare.
People had the audacity to call this my new normal. There was nothing even remotely normal about that existence. Sarah and I were struggling daily just to regain our footing. It remains the biggest single event in both of our lives. I steadfastly refused to accept that things were going to be like that for the long haul. The never-ending parade of challenges made life unsustainable.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you are looking for “normal,” it’s a setting on your dishwasher.
One of the blessings of time is that it passes. For those new to the wacky, unexplainable realm of brain injury, let me share something that I have learned over the years: Time is your friend.
While I never accepted my early post-injury chaos as normal, my life today is pretty—dare I say it—normal. My wife Sarah and I live reasonably uneventful lives, something I say with profound gratitude.
My perception of normal has shifted since my injury. Today it is normal to lose words and have speech challenges when I am overtired or stressed. It is also normal to take more time than I did before my TBI to process simple requests. It is normal to have my ears never stop ringing. It is normal to have a wave of emotion crash over me that brings me to tears. It is normal to say too much, too candidly. It is also normal to tell the people I am closest to that I love them and that my life is enriched because of their presence.
Sometimes the lack of a filter can be a good thing.
Let’s circle back to my recent ride, shall we? As I thought about a normal life, two things came to mind. First, I have trouble really recalling what life was like before my injury. As the years continue to pass, my life before my brain injury is not only forgotten, but somehow seems less important than it did in the early years of my recovery. Second, and probably more importantly, my life today with all its quirks and challenges is really the only normal I know. The volume has been turned down on a few of my more glaring deficits. And those that remain, well, I’ve learned to live with them.
Over the last few months, I have had quite a few people tell me that I seem happier than I’ve been in a while. While I have never really been unhappy, feeling that my life is reasonably normal does bring with it a bit of peace. In the end, that’s all most of us want - a bit of peace in the midst of this one shot at life.