Getting used to living with a traumatic brain injury takes time — lots of time. Years ago, I heard what so many of us have heard, “Recovery from a brain injury is a life-long experience.” I have to admit that that comment really didn't bother me that much. When you really dig deep, most of us are recovering from something.
But the real eye-opener was how long it has taken me to realize that the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train. I am beginning to experience moments of life being okay. It has taken years.
While there isn't a lot that's really comfortable about living with a traumatic brain injury, there is an element of predictability to it all. I've been dancing this new dance with my brain injury for long enough to know how it feels. My dance partner, perennially paired with me on the dance floor of life, is predictable.
I can expect to live daily with brain fog. That's part of our new TBI two-step. I can expect to have bouts of overwhelming exhaustion. Occasional vertigo and speech challenges are part of this new life as well. Word finding after a long day can be like playing hide and seek with my vocabulary … now you see it, now you don't.
The point I'm trying to make is that for quite a while, years in fact, this was the only existence I knew. Where living with a damaged brain used to be unnatural, it's now my normal state. Somewhere that Winnie-the-Pooh voice that narrates the timeline of my life just said to me, "David continued to grow, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, as he wandered the Hundred Acre Wood of his mind."
Early on, had you or anyone shared that this degree of acceptance would slowly permeate my being, you would have been met with a resounding "never!" Recovery is a process, not an event. And most every day, I proceed a bit deeper into my new life.
But there is a bit of an unexpected pendulum effect to all this — one that swings from the realm of the predicable, through its arc, into the realm of the unpredictable. Shared before and most likely to be shared again, there are two links in the chain that define so much of my new life as someone with a brain injury.
The first link is my brain injury. The second link is another newfound friend — post-traumatic stress disorder. They are forever bound, forged as one by the hammer and anvil of my cycling crash back in 2010.
As predictable as my brain injury is, my PTSD is equally unpredictable. It keeps me on my toes.
My wife, Sarah, and I live in Southern New Hampshire. Our town has three fire stations with one being only a few blocks from our home. I can hear the wail of sirens a few times daily as our first responders heed the call of duty. There are many times that an ambulance can wail by our home and I don't even give it a second thought. At other times, that same sound can reduce me to tears, leaving me paralyzed, unable to move, my eyes brimming over. There is no rhyme or reason. Now you cry, now you don't. It is predictably unpredictable.
My old friends, Mr. and Mrs. Night Terror, work in much the same way. Many nights find me sleeping, albeit haltingly, from sunset to sunrise with no real after-dark surprises. Then, there are the nights, where for no reason or cause, that I am dogged by "scare your pants off"' nightmares that see me kicking and screaming as Sarah tries yet again to call me to where it's safe, back to a wakeful state.
Happily, there is always something to be grateful for. I have long been a glass-half-full person, so finding gratitude is never very far from the surface.
If I shine the searchlight back over the last few years, daytimes are easier. Like Olympic dancers who have worked for years on perfecting their dance routines, so have I learned to dance with my brain injury. But unlike Olympians who spend time apart, my dance partner and I are forever together. We know each other — and there is a sense of comfort in the familiar.
I have to stretch a bit further with my PTSD. The less-than-friendly nights are fewer than they were a year ago. And a year ago, they were fewer than the year prior. Looking back, I can see progress. So when I look forward now, I have hope. I have real hope that next year will be easier that this, and that the year after that easier still.
And it's largely because of that hope that I am able to get up every day, and move, however slowly, forward in my new life.