The Wonders of Neuroplasticity!


It was yet another in a series of devastating blows. I had lost the ability to read.

Piece by painful piece, my traumatic brain injury was tearing the life I knew to shreds. Some of the carnage was blatant, friends drifting away like dandelion seeds on a warm summer wind.

If the tables were turned, I would most likely be a seed on the wind as well. I was no longer the person friends of old came to know.

I was someone new – someone unfamiliar – someone different.

In my life of old, it wasn't uncommon to find two or three titles on my nightstand. Being mostly a bedtime reader, I’d let my day’s mood dictate my evening choice of books.

I had an unquenchable literary hunger. I almost always selected my next title before my current volume was even close to completion. My conveyor belt of books continued its relentless march.

Until that fated day in 2010, the day when everything changed. And I do mean everything.

When I picked up a book I had read in my pre-injury life during the first year after my brain injury, the storyline was unfamiliar. Turning back a few pages, even more unfamiliarity. My ability to retain a plotline was gone. Like Elvis, it had left the building.

There were a few attempts at reading for a couple of years. I’d find a new book, crack the cover at bedtime, read for a spell and call it a night.

One of two things would then come to pass: either I would attempt to pick up where I left off the previous night only to find myself exasperated at not being able to recall any of what I had read just the night prior. Or I would simply forget that I was reading a new book. A few weeks, or a couple of months later, I’d notice a book by my bedside – covered in dust. I’d look at it with a bit of sadness.

Well, so much for ever reading again, I’d think to myself, missing my old life and my long lost abilities.

In the spirit of complete disclosure, I did reread Tolkien’s epic tale The Lord of the Rings, somewhere between years one and two. I’ve read the trilogy a dozen or more times in my past life and figured a familiar tale might help jump-start the reading engine. Normally a three-month read for me, I spent an amazing 18+ months following Frodo to Mordor and back.

Looking back with a bit of hindsight, as I already knew the tale by heart, there was nothing to remember. I am not discounting my attempt, but it was more of a reading exercise than anything.

For the next several years, I simply gave up. I would still read every night on my tablet, but my cherished books were replaced with the daily news. USA Today and the New York Times were my literary mainstays for years.

Short articles, no real plotline, no need to remember what I read – the perfect recipe for a brain-injured guy like me.

I have a vague recall of testing the waters a couple of times, each endeavor ending with the same frustration.

But I made one rather impressive error. The tables were about to turn, and no one was more surprised than I was.

I underestimated neuroplasticity – my brain’s ability to rewire and remap its broken circuits.

Over time, I knew that I was slowly healing. I was able to complete tasks at three years out that I wouldn't even consider at two years. And at over four years post-TBI, I decided to take a swim again in Literature Lake.

Sure, I might only get my toes wet. But maybe, just maybe, I could tread water again. And who knows, maybe I might even make a bit of headway against the TBI tide.

Setting my sights low, I asked my now twenty-year-old son to see if he had any middle-school-level books in his room. Like most kids, his bedroom is a timeline of his life.

Carrying a copy of a Goosebumps book, and a “Here you go, Dad,” he passed on a piece of his own history to me. Two weeks later, I had finished this gem of a book cover to cover! Me - the one who never expected to be able to read anything longer than a few paragraphs.

Better still, I was able to pick up every night where I had left off the night before.

Little did I ever give a thought to the fact that during all those years reading USA Today and the New York Times, my brain was quietly remapping in stealth mode. No smoke pouring from my ears, no smell of wood burning, all my healing was happening quietly under the hood.

Behold the true wonders of neuro plasticity!

I allowed myself a bit of hope. Long ago, I gave up the fantasy of ever being who I was before my accident. Too much time spent looking backward stalls my forward process.

And life for all of us, brain injured or not, is all about moving forward.

My son Nick and I repeated the “Here’s your next book, Dad,” two-step, this time a Cirque Du Freak title in my hands – complete with a layer of dust on it.

Those 200+ pages were happily consumed in a short couple of weeks. I am now half-way through the second book in this ten book series.

A joy has come back into my life. Sure, I still read my news every night. But it’s no longer news and lights out. Rather, it’s news and then my real reading.

Tonight I will pick up the tale where I left off last night. I won’t need to flip back a few pages to figure out where I was in the plot line. I’ll just do what I did for decades before my accident: I’ll continue to move forward through the book.

When I have completed this ten-book series, over 2,000 pages, I’ll find a new title to read.

Many years ago, I heard a saying from within the traumatic brain injury community:
“Recovery from a TBI is a lifelong experience.” In my early naïveté, I was a skeptic and thought sure, maybe for you. Today, I am a no longer a skeptic.

One of the snippets of information I hear that really gets my goat is: “Most all of your recovery will be in your first year. Any gains after that will be minimal at best.” I was told this very thing by a well-intentioned member of the medical community.

There is no greater hope-stealing sentiment than this.

Here I sit, well over halfway through year five, still making measurable gains in my life. This alone gives me great hope for the future. If I can do this at 4.5 years out, just imagine where I’ll be in a decade!

Comments (13)

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After a profound emotional shock and heartbreak and with a backgroound of extreme electrohypersensitivity I became non functional in my medical practice and had to stop work. After not sleeping for 5 nights I became paranoid and ended up under the psychiatrists, was hospitalized and put on a compulsory treatment order . It was a miracle that I escaped from that but was convinced something very serious had happened to my brain . I ended up in a boarding house and then a rental garage. I was completely unable to access my normal brain functions, make any sort of decissions and had major problems with working memory, recall and processing speeds. I finally ended up existing in a tent on a farm . I lost all hope of recovery and most of my friends and family thought I would  never recover  . I read about the miracles in the gospels and of people whose prayer groups had made a difference and thought this was my only hope. A prophet predicted I would recover and a slow turnabout began and the anxiety and fear lessened . I became well enough to have the gold crown [with underlying mercury containing amalgum] and titanium posts in my mouth removed and this made a dramatic improvement to the electrosensitivity  and I began to sleep again.  I had kinesiology to access and heal the emotional blunting and acupuncture to try to restore the balance again. There was so much prayer including that for deliverance from the spirit world.  A remarkable turnabout occured .. My GP had thought I was heading for a rest home . I stil  have residual problems with memory and processing but I am dramatically improving . . I am on any number of health supplements . Neuroplasticity is remarkable and I have found the message of Jesus to be true. 'He heals the broken hearted' and with that the mind and soul  . I have a second chance in life and now have a heart for the homeless many off whom have a brain dysfunction whether from phsical or emotional injury both of whose consequences can be devastating...But there is hope thank God.  

In certainly relate to your story.  I am 3 years into my recovery from a stoke & TBI, After years of no movement in my left arm & leg and being unable to read anything  longer then  a short article, recently, I became able to  move my arm & leg slightly and, after a 2nd  round of vision therapy to retrain my brain, I read two 400 page novels.  What a blessing this has been. I am now going to the library for as many more books as I can get my hands on!    I truly believe that, with faith  in God and perseverance, anything is possible.  

Great read thank you!  I am 6 years on from my injury and still seeing progress, definitely more finer tuning but some really important finer tuning to me!  Mostly now around emotional management and coping with stress which are fine tuning but still really important parts of functioning in society.  So I wholeheartedly congratulate you on your ongoing recovery and future progress too.  Kia Kaha (a New Zealand Maori saying, best translated as 'stay strong')

You have inspired me to hope. My daughter is 28 and is 2.5 years out. She is a miracle and quite amazing in her positive attitude and goal to regain ALL that she lost. she fell over 6 stories to a marble floor and survived. But she wants more than survival. She wants Her life back...or as she says maybe one better because of all she has learned and hope that she is intent on sharing with others.  But every day is a challenge and it is so hard to see her struggle with every ordinary thing...walking, talking, reading, ......the question is asked....will I get better....will I ever get my normal voice back.....will I ever be able to jog.  

I don't know - -but there is HOPE.

Carol Dumm

I have experienced the same remapping process. I am 9 years post TBI. What I would add is that hyperbaric therapy helped speed up the process! Others comment almost everyday about my progress

Now that I'm 7 years out TBI, your story rings True. Your next step can be to write your own book about your travels post TBI. I'm on year three of this effort. Geoffrey 

Great story. My story is very similar to yours. The validation of sharing this journey with each other is healing as well. I can't count how many times I've heard that "this is as good ad it's going to get". My daily news perusal has been my safe place too. Story lines and plots are still a problem. I suppose it's time to ask my 16 year old for a challenge too. I'm closing in on my 3rd anniversary and I'm still up to this challenge life threw me...and to all my TBI family out there, it does get better!

Thank you for sharing, I, too, am a TBI survivor. October 30, 2011 changed my life. Books were the first thing I ran to. I could read the same book over and over and it would be new to me. I would mark the inside cover every time I read it, so I would know. I rarely have to do that now. I still have many other problems, but I am a tenacious and stubborn woman. What was once a curse became necessary for survival. I just knew all my life that stubborn would come in handy. God knew what he was doing when he made me that way.

Terrific. I'm two years in and still improving weekly. Never give up, never surrender. 

Fantastic our son is nearly 8 years post TBI we were told he would probably never walk so much negative words spoken he is today walking everywhere,swimming and loving life a little confused / forgetful on daily things like what meal we are going to be having that evening after asking 6 or so times but that is no biggie when you see how much progress he has made .

I too was told after my hemorrhagic stroke that if I hadn't gotten it back in 2 years I never would. But I was still doing physical therapy for 3 yrs and seeing improvements. Keep going and keep working. The brain is a wonderful mystery with the power to make new pathways and heal itself.

BTW_ whoever "they" is thinks that you have them on a pedestal so they tell you that "you will never"- so that when you do by your own Willpower and no thanks to anyone else- they will not have fallen off your pedestal!!!

I'm a firm believer that you set your own boundaries and you can accomplish anything if you set your mind to it. I'm just about a year in and I'm feeling good and looking forward to more recovery.