This holiday season I find myself wishing for the very thing I wish for every day of the year: peace. Peace, in times of turbulence, is something many of us wish for on a global scale. But peace also exists in small forms, beginning at home, and certainly within families who are struggling to stay unified.
Before brain injury, my husband, TC, and I found peace easily with one another. We fought occasionally and complained of small, meaningless annoyances from time to time, but our home was truly one of solitude. We were happy in our roles as spouses and new parents and were fortunate to live without many of the underlying tensions or stressors that plague other families and relationships. But as the story goes, brain injury did much to disturb the peace in our family.
In giving a quick snapshot of our post-TBI life, I tend to claim that the first year was all about TC’s physical recovery – it was an exhaustive, all-consuming effort to keep him alive and make gains while simultaneously trying to prevent everything else in our lives from falling into complete disarray. Little did I know, the hardest work was still ahead. The second year was about assessing the damage. For us, this was the movie scene in which the dust clears, leaving the survivors standing, caked in dirt and shell-shocked as they examine the extent of the wreckage. And in the world of TBI, it is an unfortunate coincidence that families often land in that moment of wreckage at very nearly the same time they’ve become depleted of their own energy, resilience, and patience.
For the first twelve months of recovery, I did a pretty good job of maintaining reasonable expectations of my husband. Because TC’s injury was so severe and the recovery so arduous, I did not expect him to take care of me as he once did. I did not expect him to walk perfectly, or speak in full, coherent sentences, or successfully manage his relationships with family and friends. I knew these tasks were too much to ask, and so I powered on, picking up the extra weight he once carried; and I learned valuable lessons about how to care for myself. But at some point, I got tired. And when I got tired, it became abundantly clear that the wreckage of our lives was extensive and that we had most certainly lost our peace.
In the second year of recovery, I learned how to be married to a survivor of brain injury. More truthfully, this is the year I learned how to be married, period. I learned what it took to work for peace amid great tension and I discovered what marriage looks like in moments when things aren’t going very well. To be sure, TC was improving rapidly, but this unquestionable blessing sent my own expectations spiraling. I was ready to be taken care of again, so why couldn’t he understand my needs and feelings intuitively? Why did his aphasia make it so difficult just to hold a simple conversation? Why was he doing so well and yet it never felt like enough for us to be happy again?
I began finding myself tempted into stupid little arguments, determined to correct TC’s speech or prove myself right in some way. I was ready - anxious and impatient - for us to be healed again and so I picked at the things that weren’t perfect, deluding myself into thinking this was helpful to TC’s recovery. Our fights began to sound familiar – the type I had heard from my own parents in those moments where one of them could not let something go or resist the urge to prove their viewpoint correct. I detested these fights as a child, took them painfully to heart, and here I was: engaging in the very same warfare. The message I needed to hear, I’d known all along: being right is not the same thing as being happy. My desire for perfection, which spawned my urge to nitpick, was doing very little to restore the peace in our family. Simply put, I needed to learn to let things be.
My husband is a survivor of brain injury. And like me, he is also a human. He was not born perfect, although my pre-TBI memories often seduce me into believing this myth. Alas, he was not perfect then, and he is not perfect now. He overloads the washing machine and puts delicate cookware into the dishwasher. He has trouble tracking the events on our calendar and sometimes he can’t think of the word he wants to say. On his bad days, when he’s fatigued and confused, he sometimes shuts down and blames me for being the confusing one. Some of this is challenging, some of it is silly and inconsequential, but most of it is best left alone. I am not perfect either, and I have no doubt TC has his own laundry list of complaints.
Letting it be isn’t just a task for spouses. Rebuilding our lives has also meant learning to tread peacefully in fractured relationships with family and friends. Traumatic events don’t always encourage people’s best behavior, so as we attempt to repair relationships and heal sore wounds, it’s been important to step back from old grudges and abandon that ever-alluring self-righteousness that threatens to skew our perspectives. Life is not a scoreboard boasting our victories. It’s an expression of how we see ourselves and how we treat others.
Learning to let things be is a lifetime task. Some days I do very well, and other days I’m so shortsighted I can’t see past my own nose. What I’ve noticed, however, is that on the days I simply let go and allow myself to accept imperfection or walk away from an impending battle, I am at ease with life and peace flows organically. During a season that often seems to uncover and amplify old wounds, it is especially important to remember that brain injury has left us each with our own post-traumatic scars. Caregivers struggle to understand survivors. Survivors struggle to understand caregivers. The best we can do is to allow ourselves an extra breath to ask, “What’s really important at this moment?” and then let go and let be, if necessary. Our lives and the people in them are full of imperfections, but if we can acknowledge each other’s scars and be generous in our assumptions about the people we love, peace will no longer be a thing for which we need to wish.