Back in 2002, when my husband was injured with a severe traumatic brain injury, I struggled to make use of myself. The mess was so huge, so incomprehensible, and so chaotic that I could not deal with it. The mess was his injury, his blank stare, his unfulfilled potential, his job loss, our relationship, our mortgage, our children’s well-being, my mental health, our finances—I lost my husband, my lover, my friend, and all of it felt like a huge, unfixable mess. All of it smashed down on top of me when a car hit his bike on a sunny day in April, and I had nothing but questions without answers.
Years later, I wrote in my memoir: “Containing my nervous energy has become impossible. I often feel like I’m ready to bolt. I begin cleaning when I feel antsy instead of fussing over Hugh. Cleaning is therapy for me—a mess that can be easily wiped up or straightened out. The results are clearly observable: order out of chaos, beauty out of grime. People begin to comment about my house being neat all the time. ‘With all you have to do, how do you keep up with it?’ They don’t know this tidy space represents a fragile island of perfection on the outside that masks the unfixable mess I feel inside.”
I knew I was constantly anxious, over-protective, hypervigilant—a walking bundle of nerves, but I did not admit it. I put on a happy face and told the world we were handling things.
If someone you care about has a loved one who has sustained a traumatic brain injury and they tell you all is well, don’t believe them. Look beyond the surface. Brain injury can take years to stabilize. Your friend may appear super organized and look like a CEO of trauma, but she is probably breaking inside. So just check in. Be present. Remind her that you care. Run errands, clean out the garden, drop off small meaningful gifts, or just say, “I’m here for you.”
Because chances are, the caregiver and family dealing with TBI is overwhelmed and deeply afraid. They no longer feel connected to the outside world where people don’t have brain injuries—where they don’t even know what a brain injury is. And people need to feel held in love when a crisis hits, even if they can’t verbalize these feelings in the moment.
Please don’t be fooled. Messes aren’t always on the outside. Sometimes we have to look deeper.
Hugh and I were fortunate enough to have attentive family members and friends that showered us with love, concern, and help. They showed up to visit us in our shiny house, and it made all the difference.
P.S. Fourteen years later, my house is not nearly as neat, and I take that as a healthy sign.