The Pandemic and Brain Injury — Maintaining Emotional Health by Staying in the Moment

David Grant and his wife smiling at the camera.

It's been almost ten years since my brain injury. Of all of the expectations I had for the future, living through a global pandemic was not one of them. It’s upended one of my most important tools for living with my TBI … routine.

Very early in my recovery, I learned the value of routine. To this day, seven days a week, I climb out of bed at 6:40 AM. My keys are always left in the exact same spot — next to my wallet and pocket knife on an open bookcase shelf in my office. I learned the hard way that if I am unable to see something, it no longer exists. If you have a brain injury, you will immediately know what I mean. Brain injury takes “out of sight, out of mind,” to a whole new level.

Back when we were able to head out to our local market, I would always park in the same row making it easy to find my Jeep again. Dinner was at the same time most every day, and bedtime rolled in between 9:30 and 10p.m. Routine created a feeling of normalcy. Routine was predictable. Routine left less room for the frustration of losing or misplacing things. Routine was healing and helped me to rebuild my fractured self-esteem.

A couple of months ago, my routines ended. The effects have been challenging on some days and completely devastating on others.

Like muscle memory enables you to complete repetitive tasks without even thinking, the old pre-COVID routines had enabled me to attend to life tasks without much thought. They did not tax my internal mental resources.

These days, having to think about most everything we do is completely exhausting. Just this past week we ventured into our local supermarket for the first time in two-and-a-half months. There was a heavily armed member of our local law enforcement guarding the door. Limiting the number of shoppers inside meant that Sarah and I had to wait in a “food line” outside the market until it was our turn. While most shoppers engaged in appropriate social distancing, many did not. Many also chose not to engage in wearing the type of PPE that keeps the vulnerable population safe.

Thirty minutes later, we checked out. Being on high alert for the entire time in the store would wear down just about anyone; but add a brain injury to the mix, and I was left with a level of exhaustion that was reminiscent of the first year after my injury. I’ve known for years that exhaustion is the enemy of brain injury recovery. We both agreed that it’s back to food delivery for us. This is a compensatory strategy — eliminate the source of high stress (in-store shopping) and replace it with a zero-stress substitution (home grocery delivery).

This is just the tip of the iceberg, a single example of the hundreds of ways that routine has been stripped away from everyday life. Developing new ways of doing even the simplest of tasks requires extra brain power, power that I clearly don’t have like I used to.

So what happens when everyday tasks require Herculean effort?

Over the last few weeks, numbers are beginning to emerge. A recent article in Time estimated that one in three people are now dealing with pandemic-induced crippling anxiety and depression. One article estimated that number to be closer to 39% — and this is for the general population. It’s an absolute certainty that these numbers are much higher within the brain injury community.

My own emotional health has suffered more than I thought possible. Thankfully, depression has not been part of my pandemic life. I walked through clinical depression many years ago and know it well. But the gnawing anxiety has been crushing. Tasks heretofore simple — like pumping gas at a self-service station — bring panic. Who knows who touched the handle last? Hand sanitizer has become my best friend. There has been a months-long, low-grade panic, punctuated on occasion by full-on panic attacks.

Thankfully, my wife Sarah and I are best friends. We do well together. But there has been a complete void of most any other social contact. Just last week I was going to join a few friends for a backyard get-together. You’ve seen them — everyone brings their own chair, we socially distance, enjoy a bit of time catching up, and all go home. But on the afternoon of our planned get-together, one by one, everyone cancelled. None were ready to take that first in-person social step.

Always one to look for solutions, I’m trying to take a “back to basics” approach to my mental health. I’m trying to cut down on my news consumption, but that has proven to be tough. “What if I miss something important?” That inner voice is not always my friend. I’m making a concerted effort to do things that bring me joy, things like gardening. Our yard has never looked better.

I still struggle with the uncertainty of how all this will end and wonder if I can keep going on for perhaps months (or longer) with the challenges that life continues to throw at all of us.  The reality is that the future is none of my business. I need to double-down on doing the best I can to simply live in the moment. Looking back in time, I mourn the loss of how innocent life was and how much I took for granted. Looking forward only elevates my panic and anxiety. Living in the moment is my emotional safety net.

In this exact moment in time, now long passed by the time you are reading this, in this moment I am at my desk. My office windows are open next to me. I can hear the waterfalls in our Koi pond. Bees buzz by, oblivious to what humanity is going through. The sun is shining, birds are singing, and a soft early summer breeze is blowing. In this moment, I am safe. In this moment, you are safe.

And isn’t that what most of us want these days — just to be safe?

Comments (2)

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In latter part of June 2003 in St Paul MN I was severely beaten by the father of my only child. What I do recall was awakening lying on my back and feeling an arm underneath my neck. Out of panic I immediately felt an overwhelming urge to get up out of a deep sense of panic and lifted up just a smidge but felt that arm tighten, and I strikingly just laid my head back down...what stopped me from trying to rise again was an inner strong voice telling me to lie still until that arm underneath relaxed. It was dark, my not knowing if it was nighttime or due to my incapability to open my eyes.
Once I felt that arm relax, I slowly raised up and carefully and gingerly felt my way to a wall and then to my apt door....then I felt my way down to the basement apt I knew was empty and felt my way to the bathroom and immediately began filling the tub with water and once it was full enough (my still not being able to see), I began dunking my head into the water and scraping whatever was on my face with my fingernails. I then felt my way back to the door of this basement apt to the next floor and remembered a tenant by the name of Tom and immediately began to frantically pound the door. The next thing I remembered was Tom opening the door and stridently exclaiming “Oh my God!,” Though I could barely see out of my eyes I do remember next him grabbing a blanket and wrapping me with it, as unbeknownst to me I was completely naked from the waist down. My next memory was hearing a voice shout “Code Blue! Code Blue!!”
My next memory was leaning on my right elbow prone on something hard beneath me and crying so uncontrollably for I feared so deeply that if I went to sleep I would not wake up. I was so physically exhausted...and as I lain there on my right elbow, I could barely see a man some distance from me leaning against something standing with his legs crossed. He was looking at me and the next thing I remembered was him leaning down to me asking if I’d be willing to furnish him with my DNA. I didn’t understand why and just agreed for I was so tired. Next thing I knew was sitting somewhere and feeling someone touching my face and feeling these painful touches, not realizing it was a plastic and reconstructive surgeon sewing up tears on my face....not knowing I had undergone surgery for that area of my cheek being fractured.
It is now August 2020 and several weeks ago I experienced a sharp jagged pain from the left top of my brain radiating down towards my facial area.
Thank you for sharing “Being in the moment.” I surely needed to see that as I go through periodic spans of time, both back in time and fearfully sometimes of the future. There is no future, for there is just the now.

Thank you David for your honesty and candidness about the impact, on you, that this historic pandemic has had on coping with the disruption of daily activities. I too am faced with new and challenging obstacles as I continue to travel this rocky road of TBI.

I slowly found balance in restructuring a new routine by having “virtual” sessions with my therapists, yoga, even my weekly art class. It took time, lots of trials and tribulations, but, months later, it helps me to feel more grounded than I was when Covid-19 first reared it’s ugly head. On this long road towards recovery we must each find a renewed balance in our lives with each challenge that comes our way.