What does the word recovery mean after a traumatic brain injury (TBI)? Does it indicate the full return of your abilities, talents, and skills? Is it finishing rehab, learning to speak, walk, and think again? Is it returning to who you were the day before the trauma that changed everything? Or is it much more? Could recovery mean a return to life—a life that feels whole and full of possibility again?
The dictionary says recovery is "a return to health, the return to a normal state." But what is normal when everything is changing around us all the time. Every day, our lives expose us to new information, experiences, perspectives, people and places, to new ways of being in the world.
Just before a car hit Hugh in 2002 causing a severe traumatic brain injury, we were a family in transition. Our daughters were transitioning from middle school to high school; Hugh and I were transitioning into parents of young adults and learning how to live with young teenagers who wanted to be independent. I was thinking about returning to school and growing my small business, and Hugh was on track to be a Chief Financial Officer or even a CEO. That was his dream.
But here's the thing about life: dreams change. Circumstances change. People change.
And yet when I usually write about our family at the time of Hugh's accident, I write as if we were a family frozen in a picture, framed by the good life, a perpetually "happy" family. We were happy—sometimes. We had our ups and downs, our good and bad days. We had our struggles, as everyone does. We shared joy and laughter, but there were also slammed doors, family arguments, and tears. We were living life, and life is sometimes messy, and always morphing and changing and throwing us off balance just a bit, even if it feels as though we are moving along right on course. In reality, we are tipping and spinning and finding our feet each and every day. We are aging, we are learning and growing, we are stretching, questioning, and faltering, we are failing and succeeding and reaching.
Traumatic brain injury forced our whole family to stop and look around and to reconsider. For the first time in a long time, we really saw ourselves, not as a job title or as parents or as students or teenagers, but as vulnerable, complicated humans. We collectively became particles swept up in a tide of TBI debris, left wondering on the side of the road—what just happened? In our own time, we each caught our breath and tentatively stepped out into the world. We thought deeply about our next steps. And in doing so, those steps were more deliberate than the steps we were taking before Hugh's accident. They involved different goals: more experiences and fewer things, more time spent doing what we love to do, more consideration for others, and many more "I love yous."
I finally admitted to myself that I was tired of writing resumes and wanted to write something more meaningful. I joined a writing group and worked on publishing my writing. Our daughters decided to pursue the arts, and both have worked hard to make a living doing what they love to do. Hugh decided he eventually wanted to live at the beach, so we bought a small beach place not too far from home and travelled there on weekends for several years, and now we are relocating to Nags Head, NC. We've had progress and setbacks, success, and disappointments.
We've laughed and cried. It's life after all.
Thirteen years have passed since TBI blew through our household. We've picked up the pieces. If nothing else, we are proud of sticking it out, of our combined deep gratitude for the finite lives we have been granted, and for the opportunity to give back. Our lives have changed and will keep changing. The difference between who we are now as opposed to who we were before the accident is this: we now constantly and consciously reconsider our circumstances and adjust in the hopes that our lives will change for the better. We're not just finding our feet; we're watching where we place them.