Every day of this brain injury begins with a held breath. On Saturday morning, my husband, TC, kissed our two children on the foreheads and threw his suitcase into the back of the car. He was headed to the airport for a work trip. To anyone else, this might have been an inconsequential moment – nothing outside of the norm. To me, it was extraordinary. With a belly knotted in equal parts pride and fear, I bid him goodbye and tried to think about anything else. Worrying about TC can become an around the clock job if I let it get the best of me.
Four years ago I couldn’t have imagined this moment. I was sitting at his bedside in the ICU drafting e-mail to his co-workers who I barely knew. I don’t know how to say this, I wrote, but TC was severely injured last night. He’s just come out of neurosurgery to try and save his life.
At that point in time, it was unlikely TC would ever be employed again, let alone as a consultant in the complex industry in which he had made his career. It broke my heart. Weeks and months later, as he recovered from a series of surgeries and a three-month stay in a rehabilitation hospital, he began to feel the gravity of what was at stake. Our lives had been transformed. We were both out of work. The loss of purpose and identity was crippling and heart wrenching for us all.
So he set a goal: that one day he’d return to work again. From my position, it seemed like a pipe dream, a surefire way of inviting more disappointment and sadness into our lives. But he was steadfast in his resolve, determined to tackle one tiny goal at a time. By tiny, I mean really tiny. First it was a matter of relearning the alphabet, then it was relearning how to read – a paragraph, an article, eventually a whole book. The entire process took years, but he got himself back to work, one small step at a time.
Since then I’ve been asked for the magic formula in helping other TBI survivors do the same. And, of course, there isn’t one. Miraculous good luck was probably the leading cause in TC’s success – luck that his injury occurred in the precise location of his brain that it did and luck that his ambitious personality was only marginally affected. But after luck, the next best explanation is unwavering grit. He made few excuses for himself along the way and was forced to swallow a generous slice of humble pie in allowing me to intervene with the techniques I used as a 4th grade teacher.
I never wish to glamorize the process of returning to work, nor unfairly claim credit for it. TC was at the helm for most of this journey, and overcoming the depression and challenges along the way is his triumph alone. With that said, there are a few pieces of wisdom I’ve gathered from the experience:
- We are not defined by our jobs. There’s a very real danger in identifying ourselves by the things we can and cannot do in the professional world. When we refer to ourselves first as a doctor or a teacher or a consultant, we omit the essentialness of who we are at our core. People fill many roles in their lives, but they cannot be defined by a single one of them. Losing his capacity to work was a forced opportunity for TC to ask some big questions: who am I outside of my job, and, what kind of person do I want to be in this life? Seeing himself as a person of value, even without the ability to bring home a paycheck, was a critical shift in his emotional recovery.
- Returning to work does not solve every problem. If either TC or I thought that returning to work would wholly restore his pre-TBI identity, we were wrong. You cannot bypass the important process of acceptance on this journey. Even people like us, who have returned to a comparable norm in our lives, must readily acknowledge the changes in our lives. TC is grateful to be back at work, but it will never feel the same as it did before his injury. His challenges are greater; his stamina is diminished. Everything feels a little less certain and a little more risky than it did before TBI. This is something that will never change.
- Any loss must be grieved. Losing the ability to participate in one’s career, occupation, or even hobby, is cause for valid grief. Not everyone with a brain injury does return to work, and if they do, it is likely in an altered capacity. This can feel like a tremendous loss and rightfully so. But as TC has discovered, it doesn’t help to judge his new self by the standards upon which he used to hold himself. He may not be able to work as quickly, and it has been hard to watch friends make gains in the field as he struggled just to get back in the game, but comparing his life now to his life in the past only exacerbates the pain.
As we go forward on this journey, one thing we continue to think about is how to address disability in the professional workplace. Stigma around disability is very real, and the conversations we in the TBI community need to have with employers are awkward and tough. My hope is that by adding transparency to the issue, we will create a better understanding for others of what this disability is like and how brain injury survivors can continue to contribute to the workforce.
In the meantime, I’m counting down the days until TC gets home. And trying to remember to exhale a little breath of relief now and then.