Last month I wrote that brain injury has been a great teacher in my life. This much I know to be true, but as my family prepares for our third Alive Day this August 18th (the anniversary of my husband’s survival), I’ve begun to embark on my annual reflection of the specific lessons I’ve gathered throughout our experience with brain injury. Like other caregivers, I believe I’m a changed person from who I was three years ago, before the term “traumatic brain injury” ever entered my lexicon. Changed too is my husband TC, who looks very nearly the same, but for whom daily life continues to hold constant challenges. In three years we have evolved in shifting states of matter: broken, bent, and only recently, solid again. And throughout this period we have learned lessons that, for many, take decades to acquire. These are the lessons I wish I had been born with, the lessons that have allowed me to access my most authentic self, helping to guide our family out of the grief and back into the sunshine.
This is what I know now:
You will survive.
I never thought I’d survive the ambiguous grief of losing my very best friend. In the days after TC was assaulted, I remember thinking that I’d never be able to go on if he died. And it goes without saying that I’m eternally grateful I didn’t lose him completely. However, there was still a loss. He was alive, but I still felt devastatingly alone most of the time. Within an 18-month period, my husband had been nearly murdered, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and my father passed away. How else can I describe it but as a hellish trifecta of life events? It was a period that threatened to sweep me into a sea of depression at times, but I survived it. And now I see that grief and sadness are a natural part of life. What reassures me as I examine the world these days is the affirmation that humans are built to withstand unimaginable things. We will all confront a rainbow of heartache in our lifetimes, but as Diana Ross famously reminds us, we will survive.
Life is supposed to be fun.
Anxiety, stress, obsessive thinking. These are the byproducts of living in a fast-paced, mentally overwhelming society, and they are habits that TC and I once regarded as “normal” in our pre-TBI life. But never before have I been more convinced that life is simply supposed to be fun. Yes, there will be unavoidable struggles, but giving into self-doubt and negative thinking is consuming and wasteful and generally not our thing anymore. These days our time is better spent participating in epic dance parties, planning picnics, and laughing until someone cries or snorts (or both). Jack, our four-year-old son, has been an excellent teacher in all these skills, and I credit him as our number one guru these days. Perhaps we all need a fun guru to show us the way!
This is it, folks.
One of the consequences of surviving trauma is that you start to see danger everywhere. Suddenly everything has the potential to kill you, and it’s hard to shift your mind away from all the worst-case scenarios lurking behind every corner. My own line of obsessive thinking (which I consciously work to curb!) is dwelling on these dangers and wondering when and how I’ll meet the next major loss in my life. But here’s the thing: I can’t control it all. Life inevitably comes to an end, and I want to take my last breath feeling that mine was a celebration of the world and all it has to offer, not just a very long warm-up to a funeral. Likewise, I recognize that the people in my life won’t be present forever, so I choose to cherish them now, to share with them the things I admire about their character, and to hold the hug for a few seconds longer. This is all we get. It truly is.
Go your own way.
In one respect, brain injury survivors and their families don’t really have a choice about this one. No longer do TC and I “fit in” with our family, our social circle, or our community as we once did. And though I tried hard for awhile to make us fit, I eventually found myself exhausted and disappointed by the results. Fitting in is no longer a practical or useful goal. Now I simply wish to illuminate my own path in life, to honor the things that feel real and alive within myself, and to block out the noise and indecision that threaten to steer me away from my own truth. It’s not easy sometimes, but I have to believe that whatever the price is for pursuing the life that best fits your soul is worth the risk. I don’t want anyone else’s life but my own, and why should I?
But all of these lessons boil down to one essential philosophy:
Choose love over fear and gratitude over sorrow.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, writes, “Your fear is the most boring thing about you.” And isn’t it so? I’ve given into fear more often than I’d care to admit in my life, and the result is almost always the same: I purposely shrink my world, and I dull myself in the process. When I choose love, the opposite happens: I open myself up to the world and allow the blessings to pour in. Choosing love has allowed me to choose gratitude, which in turn, has allowed me to change the way I view everything. In the beginning, I looked at our circumstances, and I felt pitiful. But families of brain injury are not unfortunate or marred. We are tough. We are resourceful. We have the opportunity to create a happier existence for ourselves because we have experienced first-hand the gift of life.
So, this is what I know. Life is good. And we are so very alive on this Alive Day.