When I sustained a severe traumatic brain injury fifteen years ago, I learned that every small step I took to return to health made a difference.
It took over a year of intense occupational, physical, speech, and cognitive therapy to regain the use of my left side, my balance, ability to walk, run, ride my bike, speak coherently, and increase my attention span and memory. In short, I began enjoying life once the cloud lifted (brain injuries heal slowly). It also took nearly a year for me to motivate myself to work hard again since I had executive function issues, but once I was able to motivate myself, my healing accelerated.
It wasn’t always easy, and I often felt like quitting, but the important thing is that I didn’t quit. I stuck with my rehab and listened to my family and friends even when I felt they were annoying.
In the past twelve years, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me, “How did you do it? What did you do differently?” The first and only response to that question is that every individual and every brain injury is unique. Some injuries make it impossible for a person to regain his or her speech, balance, or memory. Other injuries require persistence, a healthy lifestyle, and rehab to reach success.
There are no guarantees, but there are smart choices and strategies that can optimize recovery after TBI. The following is a list I compiled as my answer to the many people in the beginning stages of TBI who have asked about my success over the years. I hope it helps.
1. Find doctors that you trust and follow sound advice.
Some doctors are more informed about TBI than others. This seems like obvious advice, but you’d be amazed at the number of people who do not follow through—who don’t exercise, eat right, or make an effort to rest and follow instructions—especially when it comes to doing the “homework” required of therapy.
2. I take short naps when I need them.
They help me rejuvenate myself and give me the energy to enjoy a full day that lasts well into the night.
3. I think about multiple ways to accomplish something.
Mental fatigue is harder on me than physical fatigue.
For this reason, I break my mental work into smaller segments of time. I might read the newspaper in the morning, balance my checkbook an hour or two later, and check email or work on the computer for only thirty minutes at a time. Taking a break in between mental work sessions allows me to stay energized.
4. I’m able to laugh at myself when I mess up.
This puts others at ease and helps me because then I’m not so hard on myself when I fail at something. In my book, the only failure in life is a failure to keep trying.
5. I (still) always consider the people in my company.
When in the company of new acquaintances, I tell myself to be quiet and not say too much because I know I’ll be at risk of saying something offensive off the top of my head. When I’m with family or friends, I am open and more talkative because they know me and understand that I sometimes express myself in unclear ways, and usually, we have a good laugh.
6. I always evaluate risk: both physically and mentally.
I ask myself these questions: How could I get hurt if I do this? If I do get hurt, what will be the likely injury? What plan do I have for escape? (If riding my bicycle on a road, I make sure there is a safe landing spot, grass, etc.) I leave extra length between other cyclists and especially vehicles. For mental risk, I think about places that are loud, noisy or have flashing lights (all three aggravate my symptoms and give me a headache). So I might choose to sit in a corner away from the crowd, or I may use earplugs (during a concert) to dull the noise.
7. I make sure to keep up social ties.
I will visit the surf shop to see a friend, make a phone call to reconnect with someone out of town or text a friend to catch up. These relationships enhance my life, and focusing on recreation is a welcome rest from “thinking” too much.
8. I make it a priority to exercise regularly.
I am fortunate that I love to exercise and be outdoors. I ride my bike, swim, surf, and walk with my wife. Exercise is a way of life and involves planning and research to maintain and improve physical and mental health. I also set goals by using a heart monitor, power meter, and Strava (a social network for athletes). Keeping track of progress provides motivation!
9. A few simple strategies that help me throughout the day include:
- I manage my meds with a plastic med keeper to be sure I take my medicine on time and don’t take it twice.
- I use alarms on my cell phone as reminders to do various activities.
- I make an extra effort to drink liquids whenever I can to stay hydrated and because I have dry mouth from certain medications.
- I still struggle with sleeping through the night so naps help.
- When driving, if I feel tired, I pull over and take a power nap in the car.
- I keep my wife’s cell phone number in my phone designated as ICE (In Case of Emergency), and wear an I.D. bracelet when cycling.
- I talk about my feelings with trusted family members because it reduces stress and stress can exacerbate symptoms of TBI.
TBI is something that happened to me, but it’s not what defines me. Knowing that any moment could be my last makes me want to see, do, and enjoy as many people and as many experiences as possible.