To say that traumatic brain injury complicates relationships is an understatement of monumental proportion. Brain injury affects more than just the actual survivor. Husbands, wives, children and parents all feel its effects. Many friends may slowly fade away as life forever changes.
With what might be called a more "traditional injury," time passes and everyone involved moves on with their respective lives. Not so with a traumatic brain injury. The aftereffects can last a lifetime.
My own brain injury occurred just over four years ago when a teenage driver struck me while I was cycling on a mid-November day. As the years passed, I knew the collateral damage was high, but there are some things you just can't see coming.
My oldest two sons were in their mid-twenties when our lives changed forever. One was a web developer, the other looking to pursue a career in criminal justice. They were the types of kids that any parent would be proud of. Though much of what I read during the first couple of years after my accident talked about fractured friendships and families, I was quite sure my life would be different.
A bit over four years out, my naiveté shines bright. Both of my oldest boys are nearing thirty now. And both have made the decision to fade into the background of my life. One faded away in 2011; the other, a year or so after my injury.
Brain injury? Yeah, it's complicated. As I started the abysmally slow and painful crawl toward my new normal during my first year as a survivor, I heard the whispers.
"Dad is faking that brain injury stuff for attention," came the quiet voices that I was not supposed to hear. Internet research was done and I was labeled by several family members as having a mental disorder in which a person fakes illness to gain attention and sympathy.
In what amounts to a cruel twist of fate, these accusations came at a time that I was least able to advocate for myself. I was doing all I could to understand where my old life went. Barely having the internal resources to live my new life as a brain injury survivor, I did not have the ability to defend myself. The lack of my reply to accusations only fueled the rumors that my injury was indeed being faked.
As time passed, the absence of my sons became acute. The lack of return calls, the deleting of email and the non-responsiveness to text messages made it clear that they chose to believe the rumors.
Time passes, as it inevitably does, said the Winnie the Pooh narrator voice that so often describes the timeline of my life. Earlier this year, after many years of failed attempts, I surrendered my sons to the Universe. Oh, how I would love to share that this was a freeing experience, that my hours of prayer paid off and that a joyful reconciliation came to pass.
But they are still AWOL.
Last month I deleted my sons' numbers from my cell phone. It was painful and moved me to tears again. Just when I thought the river of tears had dried up, the waterworks started. I did not delete them for reasons you might expect. Daily, when I would use my phone, if my contact list happened to stop on an "S" or a "D," I'd again see my sons' names on my screen. And in seeing their names, the pain would often come rushing back with a vengeance. Little did I realize that the toughest part of my post-brain injury journey would have come to this, but such is the reality of life after brain injury.
Those who know me best, those who really know me, know that my default setting leans decidedly toward optimism and having a positive outlook. These two attributes have carried me far in this second life. So what type of positive take-away can come of this?
I've learned that family is not defined by shared DNA. There are people who are part of my new family who love me unconditionally. I am grateful to have many souls like this as part of my life. I cling to the old adage that says, "Where there's life, there's hope." In spite of how things have unfolded over the last few years, my not-so-secret hope is that my sons will eventually come back into my life.
Brain injury is complicated. More complicated than anything I've ever experienced. But the Beatles were right. I'll get by with a little help from my friends.