Just like the classic movie Freaky Friday, life after brain injury is its own out-of-body experience. One day you wake up and POOF, you’re living a different life – trying to navigate new challenges and responsibilities. We often hear how differently survivors emerge from their experience, but one of the most unexpected outcomes in our post-TBI life is how vastly I have changed too. Why is it that caregivers, like survivors, also feel like new people?
For me, the answer has to do with all the shifting dynamics that took place at the beginning of our TBI journey. I never considered our marriage particularly rooted in traditional gender roles, but I began to wonder about this more thoughtfully as I tried to keep life together in my husband’s absence. I ran through a mental list.
Who was the primary breadwinner at home? TC.
Who was the one in charge of our family’s finances (also the person with all the maddening secret passwords to online accounts!)? TC.
Who was in charge of taking out the trash and fixing all the stuff around the house that needed fixing? Also TC.
Who was the one responsible for taking care of everyone’s emotional needs? Me.
Immediately, brain injury demanded that I step into the roles previously occupied by my husband. There were bills to be paid and healthcare issues to resolve, and I was so far removed from the logistics of our lives that I didn’t even know the answer to simple questions like, Do you have long-term disability coverage?
YES, turned out to be the eventual answer (thank goodness for TC’s cautious planning).
The point was I had a lot to learn, and to do it, I would need to fill both sets of shoes simultaneously. I consulted a lawyer. I met with a financial planner. I went through old documents and old e-mails and tried to get a handle on how TC had managed everything before.
Then came the fun work. I threw myself into the world of home repairs, clogged toilets, and mice infestation. One night I got creative with 15 mousetraps and channeled all my TBI-related anger into setting up an elaborate mice catching amusement park in my kitchen. It was gross. But it was also surprisingly empowering.
Throughout this time, I was also holding down my old roles in our family – most importantly, caring for our son, and supporting TC’s recovery as his primary caregiver and TBI advocate. As I struggled with critical decisions about TC’s health – like whether or not to sign off on potentially consequential surgeries – and dealt with the criminal investigation into his injury, I asked myself a hundred times a day, What would TC do in this situation? And then I did whatever that thing was.
Simply put: to survive, I had to become TC. I had to become an avid planner, a cautious decision maker, and the kind of person willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty in the trenches. And as I leapt into these new roles, I continued to surprise myself. I can do these hard things, I realized. Even if I didn’t always want to.
There were moments – and more than a few of them – in which all I really wanted was a dude on a white horse to ride up and fix the situation. I didn’t even realize how unconsciously devoted I was to this damsel in distress fantasy until it started to echo loudly in my head. Who is going to save you? Where is your knight in shining armor?
And then came the same silent answer I’d been receiving since day one: you are. Now go save yourself.
In addition to my own newly realized capabilities, it’s been fascinating to observe TC explore roles he’d never stepped into before either. His felt less than and rocked to the core when it became clear he couldn’t return to work right away. But his injury also helped him to appreciate a temporary and wonderful new role in his life: stay-at-home dad.
Trying to adhere to strict gender norms can cause a lot of friction after brain injury. Unfortunately, society doesn’t give men a lot of leeway when it comes to vulnerability. We don’t often receive messages that it’s okay for men to reflect on their own life journey or to ask for help or to allow themselves to be taken care of by someone else.
It’s not easy to break away from old roles, but there is the potential for growth when we do decide to bravely chart a new course. Recently I came across a photo of our family taken on Halloween night five years ago. It struck me, in part, because we had just snapped an updated photo taken at the exact same location, also on Halloween. As I compare the photos, there are obvious differences between the two. There is the addition of our baby girl, and the growth of our son, Jack, who was a baby himself when TC’s injury occurred.
But the invisible differences are where the real change lies. The dynamics of our marriage have irreversibly shifted since that first photo. I am a little more TC, and he is a little more me. We take on different responsibilities at home, and we’ve learned to enjoy a relationship in which we’ve written our own definitions for husband and wife. Learning to play new roles, as we’ve discovered, is all part of this landscape known as the new normal.