Recovery is a process. Healing is a process, and some might say we go through life in a constant state of healing from discomforts large and small that our bodies suffer daily. And then there are the big health events — the events that change nearly everything and rearrange our lives in ways we never saw coming.
When my husband, Hugh, sustained a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), my life sped up. I rushed into emergency management mode. I ran to the hospital. I quickly called friends and relatives. Even my heart raced.
And then, just as suddenly, life slowed down to the quiet business of healing — to the steady tick of a slow clock counting down the seconds. While I was waiting in this limbo as I watched my husband heal, my thoughts turned inward. Questions rose up. What just happened? What does this change mean? Can I handle this? And the one question many TBI spouses ask themselves: Will my husband ever be the same?
Will I ever be the same?
The answer I always whispered to myself was, yes, of course, he’ll be the same.
My silent wish was wrong.
The experience of nearly losing Hugh never feels distant or vague, and he is fourteen years out of his accident. The shock of it always feels fresh to me. When I visit a rehab hospital to speak to therapists or the community, my heart races again. The fluorescent lights and the “clean” smell can propel me back to the spring of 2002 so completely that I have to inhale deeply to calm myself.
When I step in front of a group of TBI families, I see weary faces at the beginning of the healing process, and I want to deliver a huge serving of hope on a shiny platter to them. I want to tell them all will be well, but I can’t. All I can honestly tell them is: if your loved one survived, you will need to be patient. Every brain injury is different, and every recovery is different, but there are better treatments and more knowledge about brain injuries than were available fourteen years ago. There is hope, tempered hope. And there are many people now trying to find a better way to treat brain injuries, but there are no cures and no magic remedies to make your life go back to what it once was.
This is not the best news. And yet, from the podium, I see heads nodding in agreement. I see eyes well up with tears. I see yearning and sorrow, understanding, compassion, and gratitude.
Somehow, my being honest often comforts families, and that means the world to me. Speaking openly about my struggle, Hugh’s struggle and our family’s daunting uphill climb gives caregivers and survivors a form of validation that sounds something like this:
What I am going through is hard; it’s very hard.
I’m not alone in this aching disconnected experience.
I’m not weak. This injury is all encompassing — my problems sometimes feel insurmountable.
There are people who understand and can help me.
I will eventually be able to make progress and find peace and joy again.
Sometimes we just need a good friend to sit with as we wait out a stretch of time that seems unending. We just need someone to say, “You will survive this. You can do this one more day.” And several years later, you could be that someone for someone else.