I remember vividly how lost I felt for weeks and months after Hugh’s accident when he could not talk to me because he was in a coma, and then when he could not relate to me because of his brain injury. I felt as if I had lost my emotional North Star, the connection to my alter ego, and the person who knew me best. Even as friends and family rejoiced that Hugh had survived, I wondered if he did, and I felt so guilty for feeling that way.
Months later, as I sat in the office of the director of Psychological Services at HealthSouth Rehab Hospital, I was told that it is not uncommon for the spouse of a loved one with TBI to feel as if his or her loved one had died. This feeling of loss and anguish is called ambiguous loss, and it’s considered one of the most serious losses anyone can face because there is no grieving process. In cases of TBI, it happens when the person you love is still with you, but radically changed.
Over time, Hugh grew more alert and could focus, and little by little his old personality traits began to come back. I was relieved at each familiar phrase he spoke from “our old life” and happy when he returned to some of his old habits. With the passage of more time, my own memories of our old relationship began to fade as we started new routines along with new ways of interacting and relating.
Now, many years later, it feels like we are more like our former selves again. Well, not really, but it doesn’t seem to matter. I’m often asked, “Is Hugh 100 percent now?” I usually answer, “No, he’s 200 percent.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we write our own story. We structure our own truth, and we alone create the narrative of our own life. There are many ways of seeing any one moment in time, or any event. There are ways of framing the experience and the feeling. When a friend asked me, “What’s it like living with Hugh now that he has a brain injury?” I answered, “It’s like having an affair without cheating on my husband.”
Hugh had a terrible accident, and I went along for the ride. It was the hardest thing we ever went through, but we went through it together and we’ve grown from the struggle. What’s the takeaway here? It’s that no one can tell you how your story will end. No one knows. In the end, we all write our own story as only we can. Some may think our story is tragic while we see it quite differently.
I didn’t publish Learning by Accident to give people a happy ending, but to give them the courage to create a new beginning … to rebuild a new life as rich as the one they had before using the circumstances they find themselves in right now. And this holds true for all of the big troubles and traumas we face in life because sometimes a new beginning is the only option that will bring us happiness. It’s empowering when we finally learn that happiness does not spring from our life circumstances, but rather from the way we choose to see our circumstances.