What Does It Mean to Survive?

Kara Swanson, Brain Injury Blog
What Does It Mean to Survive?

We hear the word all the time. In this brain injury community, especially, we toss it around and heap it and don it. Survive. Survivors. TBI survivors….

I was wondering how it is that so many of us feel so blessed and gifted of this life after injury while so many feel so cursed and struck down.

Is it simply a matter of severity of injury?

I think part of it, at least, has to do with how we view what it means to survive. What our own definition of it is and how that evolves over time.

Think of your own situation…What words and phrases come to mind when you think about surviving TBI?

I hear from so many survivors and, for many, the term “survived” is personalized, surrounded by and thrust into a tangled mess of phrases that include, “Got stuck with,” “End up dealing with,” “I lost…,” “I can no longer….,” “I don’t have…..”

Perhaps it is our personalized definition of the word which plants the seeds for our recoveries, successful or not. Perhaps it is how we define what has happened to us that sets the tone for how the rest of our lives will be.

I think two things are important regarding this: One, it’s knowing and searching and being aware of how we have defined our survival. And two, it’s seeking to redefine it and to help sculpt its meaning over time.

A definition, by its very nature, is the answer to the simple question, “What is it?”

I’m sure most of us have a similar definition of brain injury at the beginning. What is it? It is scary. It is painful. It is life-changing. It is horrific. It is unfair. It is all-consuming. It is confusing. It is and it is and it is, a thousand times over.

But what is it now?

What is it six months later? A year later? Five?

How does your definition of surviving change and how have you sought to change it?

I close my eyes and picture the word “survive.” While I can recall the words I first associated with my injury, I no longer feel the emotions attached to those words.

Instead, the words and feelings and phrases which come to me now are:

To emerge.

To shed.

To transform.

To blossom.

To change.

To reach.

To improve.

To prioritize.

To sift.

To reveal.

To love clearly.

For me, to have survived, is to have been given a gift greater than any I could have imagined before I brushed past Death.

I don’t simply wear “Survivor” around my neck like the anchor of some unjust sentence.

I celebrate it. I dance with it. I giggle with it. I drink umbrella drinks with it. I pull it near and hold it close. I dust it and clean it and polish it.

What do you do with your survival?

I’ve had seventeen years to practice and, granted, to survive does not mean to recover from all of our symptoms.

Recover. Heal.

We can enjoy those things, even with symptoms that refuse to leave. Refuse to flee.

Today my legs started doing their silly “I have no bones” thing around 2 o’ clock. I came home and napped. I gave the napping no permission. I did not invite it.

It came and swallowed me up and sat on me.

I napped.

But I don’t require all the symptoms to heal in order to define myself as recovered.

It is the changing definition of survival. Of recovering. Of living.

I have survived many things. I survived a serious carbon monoxide scare as a kid. Sexual abuse. My parents’ many strokes and their deaths. Losing my house and my perfect credit. My catering career.

There was that drunk driver who rear-ended me and that breast mass and that near-miss in the intersection on vacation.

There was that abusive relationship and that statistics class in college and that horrible bout with food poisoning. There was the bad hair of the 80s. Double pneumonia. That adrenal gland tumor and every time Michigan loses to Michigan State or Ohio State or Notre Dame.

I survived them all.

What have you survived? Brain injury. Divorce, perhaps. A medical scare. A lost job. A car accident. An abusive spouse. A felony conviction. A hazing. Bullying. Lonliness. Desperation. Depression. A broken heart.

Life and living is the very definition of surviving. It is what the living do.

We survive.

In the absence of survival comes our death and so, when we survive, it is not the dreaded anchor around our necks. It is not some awful curse and sentence.

It is the opportunity to live. And to live better.

To put a day or seventeen years between us and the things that we survive.

To embrace the emergence of transformed selves.

To come through.

To come out of.

To emerge.

Definitions reflect that particular moment when something is described and characterized.

Definitions are meant to change. Able to change.

For the brain injured, begging to change.

What does it mean to you to have survived?

From Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog. Used with permission. karaswanson.wordpress.com.

Posted on BrainLine March 29, 2013.

Comments (13)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

That was heart breaking.

Survivor seems to be me to be a poor wretch. Strong, tough, not going down, beat the odds are positive and we need those. Survivor brings to mind some poor soul lying in a hospital bed. Not I can "I am going to overcome I am going to adapt.
Good on you Kara for putting this out...survival means not dying...celebrate it!
It means having received a lifetime prison sentence from which you can never escape.
Very helpful. Like a dash of reality. We have the power. Thank you. Jamela from the Caribbean
For 5 years it is attitude which has brought me this far.
My daughter survived the unsurvivable. 21 years. She is so happy. and everyone loves her and is inspired by her. She keeps suviving. Keeps getting better. She works every day to improve. She can work an Ipad. I can't.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Kara. Every day I have survived for 13 years and now I am about to graduate college with a BFA/painting concentration. My everyday survival is transformed into a painting and how I survive is I paint. I invite you and anyone else to check out my art on facebook at www.facebook.com/artbyjerms. My paintings are how I see the world around me. Please leave me feedback.

this is good

This is written beautifully. My daughter is 2.5 years post ABI. She is a 7 years old and a survivor. I can relate to some of what you said but from the caregiver's view. Thank you for helping me understand what is still to come in our journey.
Beautifully expressed!
Some days it means I wish I would have died on that freeway. Some days it means what the heck else have I forgotten? Most days it means I just sit on the end of my couch and lose hours of time and cry to let out the pain and darkness to only be replaced with more of it...
On most days it means "this is not the life I was meant to live". On very bad days it means "I wish I were dead..."