1: As I Am Now

1: As I Am Now

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

As I Am Now

I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.

~Brené Brown

“You look fine. Are you sure you’re hurt? How did you injure your head anyway?” I’d like to say that I broke my brain doing a cool flip while waterskiing, or something fun like that. Pretty much anything would be better than the truth: I’m a klutz.

It was a blustery January day in Michigan, when a day of freezing rain was followed by a day of heavy snow. Early in the afternoon, I drove to a convenience store to pick up snacks for what I expected to be a long night at the office. As I walked back to my car, I slipped on some ice and smacked my head on the concrete. I don’t know if I passed out, or if I did, for how long. I don’t know if anyone saw me or tried to help me. At some point, I got up . . . and drove home.

My townhouse was only a mile away. I called a colleague and uttered some nonsense that drew her concern. She ignored my insistence that I felt fine and drove me to the emergency room. I told the doctor there that I felt fine, too. So while they X-rayed my arm, they didn’t do a CT scan of my brain. My arm was put in a sling and my brain and I were sent home to rest. I was told to follow up with my regular doctor.

The next day I woke up with an excruciating headache and an unwelcome initiation to the world of traumatic brain injury. Every brain injury is different. While I have some vision and balance issues, the majority of my deficits have to do with executive function, which is a broad term covering cognitive abilities such as memory, multitasking, organizing thoughts, prioritizing, time management, recalling details, problem solving, and initiating and executing projects. In short, all the things I needed to do to succeed in my job as a marketing director and newly-published author.

When I first ventured out of my home, I realized that a healthy brain filters out sounds and sights so that one can focus on what is needed at the moment. An injured brain can’t do that. When I returned to work a few weeks after my injury, and against the advice of my neurologist, I was overwhelmed by the cacophony of sounds: multiple radios on multiple stations, multiple conversations with multiple voices. All the noises jumbled together at the level of a rock concert; I was amazed anyone could get anything done. The lights seemed brighter too, so I looked for my sunglasses. Any movement seemed lightning fast and I was disoriented. I plopped in my chair and promptly fell to the floor. My sense of balance was out of whack as well. In my confusion I became aware of another sensation: nausea. I made it to the bathroom just in time. A coworker drove me home. I sat in the silence of my home wondering what had just happened to my life.

The first three years were the most difficult. I just couldn’t comprehend that I would never successfully work again. I might have a few good weeks, then I’d spend the next two in bed. Even more unsettling, I would have periods where I thought I was doing well, but people told me that I was speaking gibberish. I would get so frustrated that they couldn’t understand me, not aware that what I was saying was not understandable. As someone who had always persevered through challenges, it seemed utterly counterintuitive that the worst thing I could do now was push myself too hard. My recovery was marked by many periods of hopeful progress, followed by soul-crushing setbacks.

When things were going well, friends who knew the old me would start to inquire about when I’d start writing again. I realize that people meant well, but the reality is that I have permanent brain damage. Permanent. While I may get glimpses of that old creative spark, I can’t maintain it. It’s like my brain used to be a souped-up Jaguar. Now it’s a broken-down jalopy. I might still be able to get from point A to point B, but the ride is a lot different now, and while the Jag is just getting started, the junker is headed back to the shop.

People have this idea that if you have a disability, you are only as good as your worst day. I do have plenty of bad days. But I do have good days, too. I’ve noticed these come when I’ve avoided the things that trigger my symptoms, like crowds and stressful situations. Occasionally I have great days and feel like my old self. But I am always aware that I can’t take my health for granted.

The losses I’ve faced are significant, if not visible. My family and friends know that I can never offer a definitive RSVP. Each day is a new lottery. Will it be a rare good day when I can be productive and play catch-up? Will it be yet another fair day when I choose my priorities and let my rock-steady husband pick up the slack? Or will it be a bad day when snuggling my son all day in my quiet, dark bed is the best that I can do?

A couple years after my injury, when I was in the throes of self-pity, I had a chance conversation with a colleague at a conference. After pouring out my frustrations and fears, his response freed me from the futile hope of ever returning to my old life and gave me the grace to accept whatever the future might bring. He told me the following:

May you experience joy . . . as you are now

May you have peace with yourself . . . as you are now

May you have patience with yourself . . . as you are now

May you show kindness to yourself . . . as you are now

May you seek the goodness in yourself . . . as you are now

May you renew faithfulness in your life . . . as you are now

May you show gentleness to yourself . . . as you are now

May you exhibit self-control in your thoughts toward yourself . . . as you are now

May you love yourself . . . as you are now.

His words became my mantra as I clawed my way back from depression. They stayed with me as I met and married my husband. They formed the basis of how I see myself now as a parent. Ten years ago, I was a Type-A single career woman. Today I am a Type-Z stay-at-home mom. I like to think I am a kinder, more accepting person now. My brain injury has made me realize my need for grace. And I am more willing to extend grace to others . . . as they are now. I’m more willing to give people the benefit of the doubt because I know that the outside doesn’t always show what’s going on inside. Though my head is still injured, my heart is healthier than ever.

~Jen Abbas de Jong

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