In the last chapter of Naomi Parker’s book about her daughter’s brain injury, Libby was starting her senior year of high school. BrainLine wanted to find out where she is now.
High school was finally finished. She’d made it. Now college lay ahead, her dream of studying music education closer than ever. She could picture her dorm room, the posters she’d hang, the way she’s arrange her desk, and where she’d stow her violin when she wasn’t practicing. She imagined laughing late at night with her roommate, and sitting at the top of a lecture hall taking notes as a professor expounded from behind the lectern. She thought about the boys and the parties, the plays, concerts, and sporting events she could attend with a pack of new friends.
When it’s time to head off to college, every young adult wants to stretch her wings. Libby Parker was no different except for the fact that she had sustained a brain injury when she was 14 and was still learning to become a new version of herself.
In late September 2006, at the start of her first year of high school, Libby was involved in a school bus crash. She did not lose consciousness that afternoon nor spend a night in the hospital, but over the ensuing months, Libby and her family had to learn to come to terms with the consequences of her traumatic brain injury: severe headaches, fatigue, erratic moods and emotions, and loss of short-term memory and executive function. Worst, the “old” Libby — tough, athletic, and bubbly, a girl who grew up horseback riding and who excelled at the violin — seemed to have been replaced by a girl who would tire and frustrate easily, who would get angry or cry at the drop of a hat, who struggled to do what used to come so easily. During the next several years, Libby battled at home and school as she tried to find a new “normal.” With support from her family and the sheer determination she had always been known for, Libby graduated with her class.
Leaving the nest
Newly settled at college, Libby was ready to spread her wings. She wanted to be independent; she didn’t want people telling her what to do anymore. And like all mothers when their kids go off to college, Naomi knew that she had to learn to step back, to let Libby find her own way. But with Libby, the stakes were higher. She still had long-term issues from her TBI like migraines, fatigue, and problems with organization and prioritization. Naomi suggested to Libby that she get a counselor, a least for her first semester or so. That way, she would have assistance with any issues that arose. But Libby had other ideas, and was determined to handle her issues alone.”
College turned out to be much tougher than Libby — and her mother — imagined. Although her orchestra teacher was accommodating (for example, he required his students to play pieces by memory, but he’d allow Libby to have her sheet music since she had trouble with memorization), other professors proved inflexible. Libby took things people said at face value, which caused problems in some of her classes (for example, a health center nurse told her to stay in her room until she felt better, so Libby stayed in her room for a week, not realizing that missing classes would lower her grades to failing). Libby had always been a determined and hard working student, good qualities, certainly, but with her TBI, she needed to acknowledge her limits.
During her first semester, she overextended herself and not only did she get pneumonia for a few weeks, she also hyperextended her thumb making it impossible to participate in orchestra. Second semester was slightly better, but in the end, she received only seven of the 12 credits necessary to pass. By the end of the year, Libby was totally discouraged and disappointed. College turned out to be nothing like what she had imagined.
Plan B: Slow down
After much thought, Libby decided to take a year off. More rest, less stress, and time to figure out her next steps seemed like the right choice. She got a job at a Dunkin Donuts a few towns from home and was soon voted Best Employee. She has learned to better manage her fatigue, or to know that if she chooses to go tubing on the river with friends, for example, she may need to take long naps the following day. With less stress and her increased awareness of how best to manage her TBI symptoms, Libby also experiences fewer migraines. She takes care of the house now that her parents are starting to take vacations again, just the two of them. She enjoys being in charge and plans to get an apartment of her own. She has started to review her college choices — returning to her university which may be more willing to work with her through their special education department, or maybe a community college where she could get her basic credits out of the way and then go to another school to focus on music education.
She enjoys time with the friends she made in college. They come to visit and she has gone to stay with them at school, too, on a couple of occasions. The devastation she felt from the loss of some of her high school friends after her TBI has faded. At college, she learned that there are so many different people out in the world, that she could choose her friends, and that high school is just a short stop in a long life.
Libby did not share the fact of her brain injury with many people. She wanted to be treated like Libby, not like the girl in high school who had a “before” and an “after.” She shared her story — and her mother’s book, When Libby Lost Her Smile — with a few close friends. When she shared it with her best friend, the friend returned after reading it in tears. She hugged Libby and said she couldn’t believe how strong and amazing she was and that she had had to go through all that.
Libby has also made new friends from working at Dunkin Donuts. One time, while attending a local TBI support group she and her mother attended over the years, a man who was new to the group recognized her. “Hey, I know you! You work at Dunkin Donuts,” he said. “Yes, you’re large coffee, chocolate cruller.” They laughed. As it turned out, the man had had a TBI eight years before and had a difficult time dealing with crowds and with his family who is still adjusting to the “new” post-TBI version of him. But after he met Libby and read Naomi’s book, he sometimes came by the Parker home for a coffee and conversation. He related to Libby, to their shared “invisible injury,” and Libby enjoyed answering his questions and sharing her experiences of what TBI-related strategies worked and didn’t work for her. Their conversations seemed to help both of them.
Taking the stage
Libby has not been the only person learning how to manage life post-TBI differently. Her mother continues to try to take a back seat and let Libby make choices, even if those choices may be mistakes that lead to more fatigue or stress. She doesn’t react now; instead she waits for Libby to come to her if she needs help or advice. She also looks for the small “yahoos” in Libby’s life, not just the big ones — like high school graduation. Opposed to four years back, there’s a different normal, one in which she and Libby can find more humor and lightness.
While still at college, Libby found out that a group of violinists she’d seen with her mother back in high school were coming to perform. Libby had certainly not forgotten that night with her mother enjoying the performers who had played violins, danced, and sang, transforming the theatre into an ecstatic whirl of sound and movement. Libby remembered leaning her head on her mother’s shoulder and saying, “Some day I am going to play violin with them.” At college, after learning they were scheduled to perform, Libby mentioned to one of her music professors that she had listened to the group’s CD over and over as inspiration during her lowest points in high school after her TBI. He arranged to have her go up on stage and play her violin with them. She was ecstatic. When Naomi saw her daughter on stage that evening — one of her dreams coming true — something shifted. She knew Libby would be okay, and that the family needed to stop setting time limits for her recovery. As Libby’s bow danced across the strings, Naomi knew that Libby would find her own way, no matter how long it took
Libby’s dreams have not shifted. In fact, because she is an incredibly determined young woman, they are brighter and even more robust, as if glowing from the inside out. However, it seems that because of her brain injury, she has learned earlier than most that one’s dreams are always there for the reaching, it’s just that the path may be something unimagined. And it is in that unplanned, unimagined unfurling where the light from the dream eventually emerges.
Written by Victoria Tilney McDonough, 2011, BrainLine.