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!