This is the month that I mark 12 years as a brain injury survivor. Twelve years since the day everything changed. Twelve years since the day I survived being hit by a car. The memories of twisted metal, shattered glass, and a broken body rise less frequently, but they do come at times, unbidden, a reminder of all I have been through.
These “crash anniversaries” have pushed me to reflect; it’s hard not to look back at the “before and after” chapters of my life — sifting, shuffling, and reinterpreting the contents of each. I still mourn the loss of my old life and lament the disappearance of precious loved ones who walked out of my life, unable to understand or accept that with brain injury comes personality changes. For all of us, I was no longer who I once was.
But, this year feels different. I’ve been much less introspective, much less interested in comparing life today to what it used to be. I think this year is the healthiest crash anniversary I’ve ever had, in large part, I believe, because I spend less and less time looking back. These days, life is pretty okay. Learning mindfulness over the last couple of years has definitely helped me to better see life through the prism of now, instead of yesterday or tomorrow.
The brain injury life is now familiar. It comes with quirks and oddities, sure. But for the most part, I’m okay with it. Not taking things too seriously took me years to master, but it certainly beats fighting what I can’t change. Humor and acceptance go a long way.
But, even after 12 years, I am still learning and discovering new things about how TBI affects my day-to-day life. Last month, my wife, Sarah, and I were fortunate enough to take a vacation. Like so many others our age who steadfastly refuse to grow up, we went to Disney World. In the midst of the mouse ears and happy families, I had a moment, an unexpected in-your-face reminder that I’m still compromised.
One of the newest attractions at Disney is actually a restaurant — Space 220, which simulates dining on a space station. As only the Imagineers at Disney can do, the experience is stunningly realistic. A simulated elevator ride up seven miles into space ends with a short walk to the dining room. Window walls 25-feet tall show the earth far below. Random astronauts float by weightlessly. It was incredibly realistic and all-encompassing. Gazing in wonder at the earth below, I lost it. It was like every emotional barrier and every restraint inside me lifted all at once. Tears filled my eyes. I was completely unable to speak and so overloaded and over-stimulated that all I could do was sit there and let it wash over me.
Seated at our table, Sarah was completely unaware of what was happening to me until our eyes met. Well experienced from living with me, she knew just to wait and to be there. She understood that whatever “it” was, would pass.
Here’s where the learning comes in. Early on in my recovery, I would have called that kind of intensely emotional experience a meltdown, but that is not really a good description. I was actually experiencing what is called “emotional flooding” — something I only heard about a couple of years ago. Fortunately, I’ve learned that no matter how my brain injury may be affecting me in the moment, it will always pass. And, as expected, the emotional floodwaters receded and we were both able to fully appreciate the immersive experience — and our dinner.
I no longer assign good or bad attributes to events like this in my life. Things are things. But I can say that being able to feel so deeply, at almost a primal level, is a gift — a surprising and strange gift, maybe, but a gift nevertheless. I was more than present in that moment gazing at the “earth” from “space”; I was overly present. While this may make no sense to some, others will be undoubtedly nodding right now, having experienced similar events.
And now I begin year 13. I have no expectations; I only hope to live my best life possible. So far, so good.