This blog is dedicated to my fellow brave survivors of survivors who are still standing while living and learning through our firsts. The firsts that we never saw coming, let alone survive.
I have written about my son Steven’s firsts in a previous blog post. Steven’s list of firsts is long. He was in a near-fatal car crash in 2012, leaving him with a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). Steven was faced with learning to live life again from infancy to adulthood, but the most devastating first was having to learn to navigate life without his brother, his best friend, Aaron, who didn’t survive the crash.
Recently, during a counseling session, the topic of Steven’s journey came up. I found myself going down memory lane of how far he’s come and talking about all of his firsts and how brave he is. My counselor listened intently. I know her well enough to recognize when her counseling wheels are turning in the direction of doing some extra unpacking, as she calls it. I call it dread because it puts the focus on me. She asked if I had ever processed the reality that I, too, lived deeply each of those firsts with Steven while also compiling a list of my own firsts. Tears flowed as we unpacked this realization.
As a survivor of a survivor, my most devastating first was hearing the words, “Your sons were in a car crash. Your son Aaron didn’t survive. Your son Steven isn’t expected to survive.” It took a very long time for me to absorb those words … words that erased so many hopes of what my firsts as a mom to my adult children were supposed to look like. I went into survival mode, putting my own needs and recovery on hold to stay focused on Steven as he recovered, cheering him on as he bravely conquered all his firsts.
One of the repercussions of living on auto pilot for years is the fact that my own needs got filed away with a to-be-determined date for unpacking. As I very slowly began the process, I experienced a landslide of emotions as all the firsts played through my mind like a slow-motion video reel, reminding me that I never allowed myself to process the firsts that I survived as a mother losing one son and almost losing another.
A first that no parent wants to face is planning a Celebration of Life for their child while watching another child struggle to stay alive in the ICU. These are firsts we will never forget.
Further down the list of firsts was putting my comfortable career on hold while stepping into the unknown role of caregiver, a position for which I had no qualifications. I had to accept that my then shy, reserved voice needed to evolve into a get-your-attention voice to advocate for Steven in what would be years of recovery. Doing so definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Steven lives with TBI coupled with epilepsy, which is a result of his brain injury. It was less painful for me to focus on Steven’s diagnosis and recovery than to face my own firsts. I didn’t want PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep deprivation. I’m Steven’s caregiver, after all; how could I possibly have time to deal with my own issues? Diagnoses like PTSD, anxiety, and panic attacks can also come with shame, but through counseling, I am slowly learning that I must let go of that shame. These are real medical diagnoses, not self-inflicted labels. I am thankful for knowledgeable and patient medical professionals and I cling to my faith and to my village for love, support, and encouragement. And the life lessons that I learn daily from my firsts help me help other survivors, reminding them that we are not alone.
On the positive side — because there is always a positive side if we dig deep enough! — without being a survivor of a survivor, I would not have discovered my desire to write publicly. I wouldn’t have taken the brave step to learn a new career, which has introduced me to an amazing work family. And I wouldn’t be volunteering with our trauma family at the hospital to which Steven was airlifted. These steps are positive reminders that I’m also on my road to recovery — alongside my amazing son, Steven.
Gentle reminders from a survivor of a survivor:
- Take prescribed medication if necessary
- Attend support groups
- Pay it forward
- Spend time in nature
- Invest in yourself
- Settle (because there’s always room for improvement)
- Think you have reached your peak in rehabilitation (instead, keep going, there are new solutions)
- Feel like you can’t ask for help (because you are not alone!)