Early on, somewhere during the first couple of years after my traumatic brain injury, I heard a slogan that stuck with me: “Brain injury is the last thing you think about – until it’s the only thing you think about.”
Once brain injury became part of our lives, it quickly and quite understandably became the most often talked about topic in our home. Let’s get real for a moment. How could it not be?
The life we had been living for years was instantly shredded away from my wife Sarah and me in a twisted mess of steel and broken glass. A sixteen-year-old driver t-boned me while I was out cycling. Hello, ambulance ride, and goodbye life as we knew it.
I lost many friends during my first few years as a brain injury survivor. I was not fully aware that a social stigma surrounded traumatic brain injury. Many well-intentioned friends, knowing I was gravely injured, would naturally ask how I was feeling.
And did I have an answer for them.
“My bones are mending, but this traumatic brain injury is kicking my backside,” I would share with unfiltered exuberance.
Human nature is what human nature is. People back away from what they don’t understand. Reminding people that their life can change in an instant scares folks away. No one likes to be reminded of their own mortality. I hold no ill will and no resentment toward those who have chosen to fade to black, to become only memories. I often wonder what I would do if the tables were turned. Most likely, I would have done the same.
For a long time, there were doctor’s visits, testing, evaluations, conflicting diagnoses, and enough life changes to fill a book. It was singularly the biggest life-altering event of my life, by far. And like every brain injury, there were others who paid a heavy price.
My wife lost her best friend as my personality changes became more apparent. My mom and dad had a new, unfamiliar son; my step-kids saw a familiar face, but not the same person who married their mom. And my own children had their father taken from them.
For the next several years, virtually every day, and often many, many times a day, traumatic brain injury became part of the day’s conversation. And I have to painfully and ruefully admit, somewhere I lost focus. Brain injury became the thing I thought about most and talked about most. I became a walking, talking brain injury on two legs.
While others might say, “Let me tell you about my grandchildren,” I wanted to talk about my TBI.
Quietly over time, and unknown to me, I was beginning to burn people out. In fact, souls who are among those closest to me were paying a heavier price than I knew. While I was getting weary about living with a brain injury, others were just getting tired of hearing about it.
“I’m getting tired of ALWAYS hearing about your injury,” came the words I never expected to hear. And in a moment of clarity, I saw it for what it was – the painful truth.
The years passed, and I continued to recover. It feels like every year is a new chapter in this second life. I continue to struggle to reinvent myself and to get to know this new person I’ve become. But one thing is now painfully clear, I need to look at my life with a different perspective. I am not a brain injury that happens to be human. I am a human being first. I am a husband, son, father, and step-dad—one among many in this sea of humanity.
I’m not attempting to deny that I am forever changed, nor am I dishonoring the person I continue to become. But for my own sense of well-being, and equally as important, for the well- being of those closest to me, I need to tone it down a bit. Those who know me, those who really matter in my life – they know I am compromised. They really don’t need me to remind them at every opportunity.
Recovery from a brain injury is not an event; it is a lifelong process. Sometimes the truth will be easily digestible, while at other times, self-awareness is painful. But this is all part of the process.
And if you happen to see me sometime and feel compelled to ask how I’m doing these days, you’ll most likely get a simple answer.
“I’m fine, thank you.”