Rediscovering Passions After Brain Injury

David Grant in a wet suit and snorkel holding a crab at the beach
David's snorkeling find

As I round the corner to the 12th anniversary of my brain injury, I have something that I didn’t have early on: a perspective that comes only with time. 

For a couple of years, grief and confusion defined our lives, as my wife, Sarah, and I struggled to come to grips with the complete and utter enormity of how brain injury impacts every aspect of life. The grief was suffocating and the confusion about what happened to our lives was overwhelming. There was no instruction manual and no set of easy-to-follow directions about how to live life with a traumatic brain injury.

The next chapter can best be described as “acceptance and learning.” After several years, it became clear that there was no going back and that the life we once knew was gone forever. While this may sound like a difficult place to reside, there was actually an unexpected freedom during this part of our journey. Once I fully accepted that I would live out my life as a brain injury survivor, I doubled down, learning as much as I could about how best to live my life. I sought out “brain injury old-timers,” and saw that a meaningful, albeit different, life was possible after brain injury. Those old-timers became my greatest teachers as they showed me that a life worth living was possible. 

That fact alone gave me great hope. And as I’ve come to find out, hope is the ultimate healer. Hope makes even the darkest of nights more tolerable, knowing that eventually, the sun will shine again.

A big part of the acceptance chapter of my recovery was coming to grips with the many losses that accompany brain injury. The loss of many friends and relationships with several of my own children were the most painful losses. Acceptance does not mean that I have to like something, but coming to embrace acceptance means that the pain of those losses is no longer debilitating. It took me many, many years to get to that point, something I never envisioned as possible.

The chapter of my journey that I am embracing today is one of discovery. It’s been, by far, the best chapter of the journey. I’m pushing the limits again, seeing what I am capable of and looking back in my life to see if there is anything that I can resurrect.

Before my injury, I was a consummate thrill seeker. An adrenaline junkie at heart, jumping off a forty-foot cliff into a frigid New Hampshire river, for example, was a commonplace occurrence. Memories of scuba diving deep into the hull of a shipwreck off the Massachusetts coast still cause my heart to skip a beat. There was that time my dive buddy and I found ourselves in a school of small sharks off the Maine coast that still makes me smile. And let’s not forget the abject terror of night diving; seeing bioluminescent life in the ocean is something not easily forgotten.

When my brain injury occurred, life got a lot smaller. My PTSD was like cement, binding me to engage in familiar activities. 

But I continue to heal. And with that healing comes the desire and wanderlust to revisit some of what I thought I had lost forever. 

Earlier this summer, I took the plunge (pun intended!) and bought a new wetsuit. Living a short drive from the New Hampshire coast, the ocean had been calling to me. For years, I ignored the call, but no longer. 

Donning my wetsuit, I ventured into the sea again, though as I’ve learned, it’s best to take things slowly. Whether that comes with being 60 years old, or whether it’s a post-injury behavior doesn’t matter. The spot for my first swim was the same seaside park where Sarah and I were married a year before my injury. 

And in two ticks of a clock, I was at home again. I watched a couple of striped bass swim by. Crabs scurried about on the seabed beneath me. I found myself adrift in multicolored seaweed, letting the waves push me back and forth. I reached out to touch a flounder, only to have him skit away. Coming out of the water, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I was smiling so hard that my face hurt; under the surface there were tears, too. 

In the weeks since then, I’ve had several similar swims. While clocking hundreds of hours as a certified diver in my “before” life, I marveled at the fact that you can see almost as much in 15 feet of water as you can in 60 feet. 

Not yet ready to strap a tank to my back, I’ve reveled in the more skin-diving excursions of snorkeling. Will I get back into full-on scuba again? I don’t know, but I’ll never say never. Having reclaimed this piece of my life that I thought was forever lost has brought indescribable joy. 

I’m already looking forward to what’s next. Later this summer, I’ll be skydiving for the first time ever, something that both terrifies me and calls to me. That adrenaline-fueled guy is still alive and well, he’s just been on a bit of a hiatus.

In the spirit of “what’s next,” I’m going to take my first academic class in a very, very long time — an Introduction to Astrophysics online course. I’ve got nothing to lose and lots to gain.

None of us has a crystal ball. The fact that the future is veiled is a gift. What I can do is live my best possible life with what I’ve got. If I look at my life right here, right now, it’s hard not to be grateful.