Surviving the Holidays with Grace and Sanity: A Look Back

David and his wife smiling in front of a Christmas tree wearing holiday sweaters

By now, the holiday season is behind us, but I’ll have to say that this year was perhaps one of my favorites. It was a mix of time with family, followed by a very quiet Christmas day, just Sarah and I together, enjoying each other's company. I recently heard the holiday trifecta of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's called the Bermuda Triangle of exhaustion. No one knows this better than brain injury survivors!

Now, more than 13 years post-injury, there's a lot that I've learned about navigating this often overly busy season. Like many people who share my fate, most of what I've learned, I learned the hard way as I desperately tried to live as I once had. But the reality is that there's no going back, no do-over, no reset button. 

I’ve learned that my experience can help others, and today I'll share a couple of things that have served me the most. Perhaps they can help you.

Honoring my limits: This was a hard-learned lesson. For many years after my brain injury, I tried to live at the same pace I had before my injury. And still today, the price I pay for trying to do too much can be high. Sometimes I can recover in a day or so, while there are times when it can take me several to get my feet back under me. Such is the unpredictability of life after a brain injury. We did some traveling this past holiday season. While driving generally does not require a lot of cognitive heavy lifting for me, it can still be stressful. This year, as has been the case for many years, Sarah did all the driving. While this may not sound like much, it was one less stressor, leaving me better able to be present with the people we were visiting.

Learning to say no: I have always been someone who tends to go with the flow. Part of this is because I really like to be fully invested in life, but I’ll admit that I’m also a bit of a people-pleaser. My default response to most everything is usually, “Sure, I'm in!” But this is also very much in lockstep with honoring my limits. It took me many years to simply say, “No, thank you,” to a request for something that might simply be too much for me. Don't get me wrong. I have adopted this strategy not because I like it, or because it's good for me, rather as a survival must. These days, I live a pretty contented life. Saying no is a self-preservation strategy that allows me to be the best version of me possible — as often as possible. Pardon the pun, but it's a no-brainer.

Giving back: Long ago, I embraced the words of a man now deemed a saint: “It is in giving that we receive.” (Yes, that’s right, Saint Francis of Assisi.) I have learned that one of the secrets to living a deeply fulfilling life is by giving back. The more you give, the more blessed life becomes. And I don't mean in a financial sense. For me, giving back means being a good human. I try to be generous with compliments, and to practice kindness in all that I do. You never know who might need something as simple as a smile, a kind word, or even a hug. It can be a tough world out there. By giving of myself, it's my hope to bring joy to others. If you think this sounds corny and impractical, I challenge you to try it. You have nothing to lose, and what you find might may change your life.

It was my intent to share strategies and beliefs that made this past holiday season one of true comfort and joy. But the reality is that these strategies work all year round, 24/7, and in most circumstances. Not only is my life as a survivor enriched, but in the end, I feel as if I am part of bringing the human back into humanity. And even if I am only partially successful, then it's a job well done.