Lately, I’ve heard from several TBI spouses who are right around the one year anniversary of the injury that transformed their loved one in challenging ways, and every one of them has written me some form of: I am not happy anymore. I don’t like my life, and I feel like I’ll never be happy again.
I wish I had a magic wand I could wave to help others heal or to ease their emotional pain. And although I consider myself a writer, I’m not so sure I have the words to help because I went through these same feelings and found there’s no easy bridge over the raging first year of caring for someone with TBI. This is the hard stuff of being human, of witnessing a horrific event and Herculean struggle as we wait for time to work its magic, and maybe even a miracle.
Caregiving spouses spend a lot of time and energy praying, hoping, and wishing for their old life to return after a loved one sustains a TBI. Here are just a few of the wishes I’ve heard:
- I wish she would be the responsible mother she was before the accident, instead of a wishy-washy sentimentalist.
- I wish he would stop blaming everyone else for his angry outbursts.
- I wish she would do something—she never wants to do anything anymore.
- I wish he would better groom himself. He won’t take a shower or shave without a fight.
And, the one everyone says, “He (or she) is just not the same anymore.”
Life changes in a million small ways that others cannot see when a loved one is suddenly brain injured. Few understand why caregiving spouses are grieving. After all, you should be grateful that your loved one is still with you. Right?
Of course…and yet….
When we struggle against ‘what is’ we cannot see our lives clearly, and therefore, we cannot learn from our experience. When we constantly look for something that no longer exists, we spend precious time searching for ghosts, grabbing at vapor. And while we’re busy stamping our foot at the injustice of our circumstances, time is passing us by.
I’ve been known to say, “It is what it is,” which sounds passive, and yet when I say these words, I’m letting go of my stubborn wish for things to be as they used to be. I’m acknowledging things as they are without yearning for something else, and I usually find that I feel a little more peaceful when I accept the blatant truth. I might let out an exasperated sigh of resignation now and then, or even burst out laughing at the absurdity of life as it presents itself; or I might have a good cry—it depends on the circumstances.
Facing the truth of my circumstances while resisting the temptation to blame or feel cheated seems to make me behave differently and react differently, and that’s what I have found is beneficial. Once I accept things as they are, I find myself taking action in the flow of what is instead of criticizing, arguing against, or crossing my arms over my chest in protest.
And then I’m moving again. I’m moving forward, as they say. And in my moving, I begin to see new perspectives I didn’t notice before. I begin to listen and hear with more than my ears.
An insightful article by Olivia Downing on liv mindfully points out three ways we might respond to our problems in everyday life:
The first is Giving Up, and it includes “dropping standards, learned helplessness, being described as lazy or complacent, or feeling depressed.”
The second is Acceptance, and it includes: “Acknowledging what is, waking up and embracing life, chilled out and realistic. The typical emotion associated with this state is contentment.”
The third is Striving: “Wishing things were different, never content or peaceful. People might describe this as driven; emotions related to this state are frustration and anxiety.”
As caregivers for loved ones with brain injury, we can get stuck in the first and last states very easily: giving up or striving. Giving up might look like ignoring someone, separating or divorcing, or drifting away from those we love without caring. Striving might look like someone pushing another person to change what cannot be changed. Tension and fighting result in an endless cycle of criticism, of rehashing failure instead of seeking something valuable like a quality worth loving in a person.
But acceptance offers us a way forward. Accepting is not remaining stagnant; it is dealing with what is. Acceptance is a Zen action verb. We see what’s actually happening, and we deal with it, we move through it.
Acceptance is not giving up. It’s where I want to be every minute of the day with eyes and heart wide open. When it comes to the hard questions about being human, we can only answer them if we are looking clearly and honestly at the reality facing us and take steps to move through each situation as it presents itself. And hopefully, what follows, will be peace and maybe even contentment.