Staying Between the Bumpers after Brain Injury

David and his wife smiling in festive holiday sweaters

In many respects, Sarah, my wife, and I represent a fairly typical family dealing with brain injury. I am a brain injury survivor, having lived through the unfortunate circumstance of being T-boned by a car while cycling. Sarah, as the spouse of a brain injury survivor, and I navigate life with as much grace and dignity as our circumstances allow.

I can't really compare our experience to others in our situation, but I can offer deep insight into how Sarah and I have successfully faced life together, remain quite happy, and use our shared experiences to help others.

The term “caregiver” recently came up in a conversation. Sarah has never been fond of the term as it applies to our lives. Nonetheless, it is a common term not only in the brain injury community but also among those dealing with chronic conditions. Sarah actually co-facilitates a caregiver support group for our statewide Brain Injury Association.
Over the years, I’ve needed substantial support as I learned to navigate life post-injury. In the early years, little remained of our previous life, and we had to build new lives from scratch. I fully credit Sarah with helping me make as much progress as I have. She intuitively knows when I need a hug but, more importantly, she doesn't coddle me. While I am paraphrasing, she has consistently reminded me that I am fully capable of taking care of myself.

This attitude left me no room to wallow; she expected me to work hard at my own recovery. At support group meetings requiring introductions, while I openly identify as a brain injury survivor, Sarah introduces herself as a “supporter.” It took me many years to fully appreciate the brilliance of her approach. While the life-changing effects of my 2010 injury persist, I am able to work, drive, maintain friendships, and sometimes even pass as uninjured.

It's worth stating again that we both realize we are fortunate, and that others face challenges far greater than our own.

Recently, I told Sarah she was more like a bowling bumper than a caregiver. For those unfamiliar, bowling bumpers are guards placed on the sides of a bowling lane to prevent the ball from rolling into the gutter. They are used for both children as well as inexperienced bowlers. It’s an apt analogy for me as I can get from point A to B in my life reasonably successfully, but without my personal bumper guard, I might just end up in the gutter. 

“So, what exactly do you mean?” she asked.

It’s quite simple. I might opt to go out with Sarah for some evening shopping, wearing just a T-shirt. “You might want to grab your winter coat; it’s only 22 degrees outside,” she would say. Or perhaps I'll do some baking at home, only to forget that I left the oven on. “Are you planning on turning off the oven anytime soon?” Another example: “Hey David, it’s already 12:30 PM. Aren’t you planning to have breakfast?”

You get the idea. None of these scenarios lead to catastrophic outcomes, but they do have natural consequences. I’m not naive enough to deny that I still face significant challenges, most of which can be traced back to ongoing memory and judgment issues. But none of these, or any other times that Sarah helps keep me from being my own personal gutter ball, really have dire consequences.

We make a good pair. Even though I am not exactly who I was before my injury, I can say with certainty that she likes me for who I am today. And the feeling is mutual. Without her support over the years, I would not have made it this far. And if the biggest challenges we face these days are about how to stay in my lane, we’re doing pretty well. These days we do a lot of laughing, but in the spirit of transparency, we never forget the years we spent crying together.