A bit like a luxury car, traumatic brain injury comes with a full complement of accessories. Not accessories like heated leather seats or a fully decked out sound system designed to sweeten your ride. Rather than making the journey more comfortable, traumatic brain injury accessories can add more bumps to an already difficult ‘life commute.’
The traumatic brain injury I sustained in 2010 when a teenage driver and I met by accident was just the beginning of the strangest chapter of my life. Sure, I had a few broken bones. Who wouldn’t? Getting t-boned by a speeding car can do just a bit of damage. Lacerations and bruises healed over time, as they should have, but it's the hidden injuries that can make life today more challenging than most will ever know. Invisible disabilities are like that.
PTSD and I have been in an ongoing relationship since the first day of my new life. I write quite a bit about this ever-present life companion. PTSD is not my friend, never invited and always showing up at the wrong time.
Let’s talk about sleep, shall we? Perhaps it’s better to call it what it is: the lack of sleep!
Every now and again, someone will ask me how I’m sleeping these days. My reply has remained unchanged for several years. “I’ve not slept a full night since 2010.” Every time I hear myself — in my own voice —"‹ acknowledge this hidden challenge, I marvel that I have made it this far.
My first year as a TBI survivor living with PTSD found me living with chronic and debilitating nightmares. Ten to fifteen nights a month or more, I’d wake up screaming, covered in sweat, heart racing, eyes wide open and often arms flailing fighting off my nighttime demons.
Brain injury is a family affair, you know. Every night I woke up, my wife Sarah was pulled against her will into my nightmare. We both spent our days like a couple zombies from The Walking Dead. Sleep debt is like that.
Always one driven to find solutions, I went on a quest to find a solution to my sleep challenges. My neurologist strongly suggested a sleep study, but our high deductible insurance made that option unaffordable for us. When choices like paying for a sleep study or paying our mortgage come up, the mortgage wins every time.
Suggestions for proper sleep hygiene were adhered to with the strictest of diligence. No caffeine after 2:00 pm and no technology in the bedroom. I tried prayer, meditation, and melatonin. Nothing seemed to help my inability to sleep. A trip to a mental health professional specializing in PTSD produced no meaningful results.
I leaned heavily on those who said that time is my friend — that in time things would get easier. I had faith in their faith. Now, well into year five as a survivor, sleep issues still dog me. I am profoundly grateful that my evening night terrors have been reduced to three or four nights a month, but regular sleep still escapes me.
What has gotten just a bit easier is living daily with a head clouded by sleep debt. I got used to it. And on days when the cloudiness and weariness feels paralyzing, I try to remember that tough as it is, my fate could have been so much worse. I could have ended up in a wheelchair. Not everyone lives through the type of accident I experienced. I could have died.
Over time, I have come to find that the words shared with me early on are the truth. While bad nights still occur today, a measurable decrease in the number of tough nights has come to pass.
There was no magic bullet, no quick fix. I had to simply allow time to pass for my brain to continue its inevitable march toward the new normal of life after brain injury. I now see time as my friend. And I hold out a quiet hope that as the years go by, my nightmares will come less often, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll experience the blissful feeling of a night well slept.