Since I’ve published He Never Liked Cake and done a little public speaking on the topic of having a brain injury in my family, I’ve received a handful of e-mails and Facebook messages asking advice on … well, I suppose you could say, how I roll with it. So think of this as a letter to all of you like me. I’ve written a few emails to those of you who have asked me advice. Think of the below as a compilation. Take it or leave it, and know that some of this is stuff even I don’t want to hear.
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Wow, does my heart ever go out you. It's hard to express in words how much I truly understand what you are going through. It hurts so much, because damn ... I don't wish this upon anyone on earth. So I'm going to be as honest as humanly possible. Some of it might sound ludicrous or cliché, but I'm simply sharing with you what has worked for me.
Brain injury is your past. That is hardly something I share with anyone, but the truth of the matter is that you are the kid, and you have your entire life ahead of you. You can still have a family without a brain injury. You have everything you can ever possibly hope to endeavor in front of you. Remember that. I look at my mom (caregiver extraordinaire) and my dad (with his brain injury) and I feel incredibly sad, because it is the future of their lives, their marriage. I mean, I hate it, which makes it a challenge to remind myself that this my own past. Yet, remembering that it is behind me is sometimes the only thing that has kept me afloat. I get the bad first, then the good.
Don't let it rob you. Not of anything, not ever again. You can always think of yourself as strong or different or built with more character, but do not let yourself be less because of your dad's (or your mom’s) broken brain. You're not alone if you think you coulda-done-it-better — be it college, friendships, first jobs, current jobs, relationships, romances, pursuits of dreams. But do not fool yourself into using blame for what you didn’t do, who you couldn't be. For years, I blamed my dad's injury on my crappy relationships, like it robbed me of a happy relationship with a good boyfriend. Nice try, Janna Marie. Only I can rob myself of that. And wow did that take me a long time to begin to learn.
Forgive yourself. For absolutely everything. For saying terrible things, for thinking them. Forgive yourself for your lack of motivation, for not handling brain injury the way that you wish you could have. And forgive yourself for whatever it is that you think you should be able to do but can't… Live at home. Stop crying. Be stronger. Hate this less. Figure it out. Fix it. Stay close. Forget it. Love easier. Know that all of what you feel and do is okay. It's a process, and you're working through it. If you think death might have been easier — that's okay. If you want to not have to deal with any of it — that's okay. If you can’t stop wishing and wishing and wishing it never ever happened — that’s okay. Really, it's all okay to feel whatever you feel.
Love yourself. For the longest time (well into many of my drafts of my own story) I thought that I had to learn to love my dad to love myself. And I couldn't figure out how to do that. I was 25, and I wasn’t sure if I even really liked him. I was so angry, lost, incomplete. But I had it backwards. I had to learn to love myself first. So begin there — love yourself. Whatever it takes. Generally, it takes being selfish. Always putting yourself first, learning to say no, even if you wouldn't normally, or if other people don't understand. Build up you, and then you will begin to see you have all the reserve in the world to handle the rest. And one day you might love your dad (your mom) for all that he or she is in a way you never knew you were capable of. But, for now, it's all about you.
Find the thing you love. For me, it's yoga. It's a challenge, a release, a fulcrum, a solitude, a community, an intensity all wrapped into one. It’s all mine. It teaches me, and it’s fun to play with. So yeah, maybe you’re not totally into your mat and your mala beads, and maybe arm balances aren’t your party trick, and backbends don’t calm your soul. But there is something that is all of those things for you. Go find it. Let that one thing lead you out of the lack of motivation and the anger and the eating and the scared and far away from that place you don’t want to be. Let it be the thing that takes care of you with you.
Know that this oscillates. We children are in a tough spot when it comes to this stuff. Space hurts and space helps. Responsibilities are a choice we make. Few things remain consistent or constant — situations, therapies, families, and not even your own thoughts and feelings stay the same. Sometimes I am comfortable in the thick of my parents' lives. Sometimes I want to run to the ends of earth away from it. Still, today. It’s always changing and that’s the constant.
Cry. Seriously, you will feel so much better. I'm sure it will feel terrible and weird at first, especially if crying is just not your thing. But good lord, let stuff go. You have to, otherwise all of these feelings will stick with you forever and you will feel weighted down and crazy and trapped and alone. I know. I've been there. And if you feel silly when you are crying alone, know that it's what emotionally healthy women and men do all the time. And, if you want to cry with someone about brain injury, you can cry with me. We can cry over the phone or over beer or wine or whatever you’d like about our parents with brain injuries. You'll feel better. I promise.