Almost 12 years ago my life changed forever as I joined the brain injury club, a club that no one ever expects — or wants — to be part of. Early on, the phrase “recovery is lifelong” completely and totally annoyed me. I had always been and remain a classic Type A personality. I set high and lofty goals for myself, am quite motivated in everything I do, and am occasionally guilty of impatience — a classic Type A personality trait. So, it comes as no surprise that I wanted no part of the “recovery is lifelong” model of living out the rest of my life. My plan was to get over my brain injury and move on.
But let’s go back a bit first. In the first months after my traumatic brain injury, my first (and only) neurologist assured me with white-coat cloaked confidence that I would be back to 100 percent within a few months. A few months passed, and I was still struggling. “We are going to extend your recovery timeline,” he said at our last meeting. “You’ll be back to 100 percent, but it can take up to five years.”
Little did I know, but those first months, then the next were what have turned out to be the initial steps of lifelong recovery.
Five years passed, then another five years, and then a couple more years — and I struggle still. I hold no ill will or animosity toward my neurologist. He was doing the best he could. As my journey progressed, it was actually from those within the brain injury community that my trusted sources of information came. They understood brain injury from the inside out, having lived with it. Nothing beats on-the-job experience!
Over the years, I’ve been able to parse the concept of recovery into a couple of segments.
My physical recovery took several years. Over time, my vertigo lessened. My verbal filter slowly returned and the brain fog rolled in a little less frequently. At some point, my physical recovery slowed and eventually stopped.
The second segment of my recovery transcends the physical. It has been more of an emotional/mental recovery as I ever so slowly began to master compensatory strategies. Though not at all related to my physical recovery, this emotional/mental mastery continued to improve the quality of my life. Today, I embrace the concept of lifelong recovery, though it clearly holds a different meaning to me from when I first heard the phrase (and hated it)!
One of the biggest challenges that I face — still — is one of staying in the middle lane of life. Almost daily, I fight the urge to do too much, to be too much, and to try to reach goals that would have been a challenge even in my pre-injury life. When I allow the Type A guy inside of me to drive, the results can be painful.
Staying in the middle lane is my goal now, though at times it can take real effort to slow down. However, like so many of my life lessons since that fated day back in 2010, I seem to learn by pushing well beyond what is healthy for me.
Today, staying in the middle lane means not getting overly emotional. If I get too (Insert your choice here: happy, sad, mad, tired), I crash hard. A hard crash means thick brain fog, slow processing time, a dramatic uptick in speech difficulties — life becomes very uncomfortable. I need to be mindful of the pendulum swinging too far in the feel-good direction as well. Type A adrenaline-filled activities can leave me equally spent. The middle lane is definitely my safe spot.
By far, the most effective way to stay in my own personal middle lane is to practice mindfulness, being aware in the present moment of where I am on the emotional spectrum, and watching for the highs and lows that can result in TBI exhaustion. Mindfulness as a way of life does not come easily. In fact, it’s only been over the last year or so that I learned of the benefits of living a mindful life.
If I find that I am getting out of my lane, I keep myself in check by focusing on my breath, my immediate surroundings, and where I am “right here, right now.” Sometimes I succeed, other times I fail, but I keep at it.
I am learning the fine art of self-forgiveness, cutting myself a bit of slack for the times I fall short. The reality is that even as I cruise through the second decade of my recovery, I am still learning new strategies that help increase the quality of my life, making things easier not only for me, but for those around me.
Today, I accept that recovery is indeed lifelong and unlike my early years, I am quite okay with that.