3: Forgiving Myself

3: Forgiving Myself

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

Forgiving Myself

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

~Khalil Gibran

On November 18, 1979, a van traveling over seventy-five miles per hour crashed into my Volkswagen bug and pushed it across three lanes of traffic into a telephone pole. The driver never applied the brakes. The officer on scene said that if my gas tank had contained more than fumes my car would have exploded. I was in a coma, had a broken back, a collapsed lung, and the potential for multiple other internal injuries. The doctor told my mother to gather family, that I was in God’s hands, and even if I lived through the night, I would never again live independently. He told her to go ahead and make funeral arrangements.

After only two weeks in the hospital, it was decided that I was well enough to go home. Ignoring the advice of my neurologist, I went off to college less than two months later. I never gave my neurologist a chance to explain the seriousness of my injuries, nor how those injuries might affect my future. I was in full blown denial, never understanding that denial after traumatic brain injury is defined as the inability of the brain to compare the difference between behavior and abilities before the injury, and behavior and abilities afterward.

The accident was not only the pivotal point between the safe cocoon of high school and life on my own. It was also the pivotal point between the Bonnie I knew, who died, and the Bonnie I lived to be. The Bonnie who died was an intelligent, confident, talented girl capable of anything she tried. The Bonnie who lived was lost in the world she came back to. The Bonnie who lived was sure she was dead. I thought a near death experience in intensive care was what left me confused about my existence. It turns out that being unsure of my own existence was just another consequence of severe head trauma.

The first indication of physical problems occurred in college when strange sensations flowed through my body at random moments. An on-campus cardiologist diagnosed hyperventilation and taught me breathing techniques. Starting in college and lasting through my twenties, my menstrual cramps were severe enough for my gynecologist to diagnose that for one day out of each month my body would go into shock. At the time, these seemed like independent, random events, but later I learned about the possibility of hormonal imbalance after traumatic injury, and that these were not random events at all.

They say families of the victims of brain injury think in terms of days or even hours until the victim recovers, but victims themselves think in terms of years. That is certainly true of me. Scholastic difficulty, abusive relationships and severe depression defined the next ten years. All I wanted to do was support myself through college, find a great love, and start a career. It seemed like a simple life plan that everyone around me had no problem achieving. Embarrassed that I struggled ineffectively with these goals, I never told anyone how hard this phase of my life was.

Making good grades in high school had required little or no effort. In college, any class involving memorization was nearly impossible to pass. Defining a scholastic goal was a challenge that kept losing focus. Every time I struggled, I turned against myself, castigating myself as inadequate and stupid.

My relationships with everyone had changed. One day, I read a letter my brother had written to our grandmother. He wrote, “It’s like I don’t even know Bonnie anymore.” My feelings were hurt. At that time, I had no idea brain injury could change personality.

I could not let go of relationships that were long over, and I could not connect with people who offered stable and good relationships. There were beacons of light that I never saw. My grandmother would periodically ask, “Bonnie, are you sure you’re all right? You know, you had some really bad injuries.” I just dismissed her. When the love of my life asked me to marry him, instead of feeling elation, it felt like he pulled the rug out from under my feet. I knew something was wrong but I could not articulate what.

I wish I had known that the sequelae of traumatic brain injury could include emotional instability, dependent behavior, difficulty with planning and adapting to change and difficulty making decisions based on a lot of simultaneous input. I wish I had known that one of the most common consequences of TBI is depression.

Amnesia allowed me the ability to drive again without fear. Ironically, seeking counseling for a debilitating fear of flying is when I learned that I have post-traumatic stress disorder from the accident. A diagnosis of PTSD finally inspired me to learn the full extent of my injuries and the potential long-term effects. What I learned was enlightening. When I look now at the ramifications of brain trauma, I can see that all of the residual effects were conditions I attributed to my own failures and inadequacy. The evidence that I was still suffering physically from the concussion throughout my twenties, has given me permission to forgive myself for those years. My perspective has changed from regret to wisdom.

Along with the wisdom came clarity. Interestingly, only recently a recurring dream became clear. Over the past several years, in times of high stress, the same dream would repeat all night. In the dream, I was standing over a sink and a nurse was telling me to keep my eyes closed while she washed my hair. I got agitated and told her that she was hurting me and that I wanted my grandmother to wash my hair. The nurse tried to keep me calm by telling me that she was doing the best she could and to keep my eyes closed. “You wouldn’t want your grandmother to wash your hair tonight,” she said. I opened my eyes anyway and saw a metal sink full of bloody suds. This dream finally stopped occurring when I realized it was not, in fact, a dream, but instead, a memory.

The gaps in my historical memory have fully returned as the healing took place. Eventually, I worked my way through college and graduated summa cum laude. I’ve been successful in two professions and I have a wonderful network of life-long friends and family that surrounds me. Healing ultimately took counseling, bravery and time, yet I have also found understanding and forgiveness and much more of the Bonnie I once knew.

~Bonnie L. Beuth

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