14: Starting Over

14: Starting Over

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

Starting Over

If there is one thing that can be forecast with confidence, it is that the future will turn out in unexpected ways.

~Peter F. Drucker

My life changed in a moment. While returning from taking my son and his friend to school, a car crashed into my SUV, causing it to roll. It took the Jaws of Life to remove me from the vehicle, and I remember nothing.

When I woke up in the hospital, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t recognize my son or have any knowledge of current events. Who was the President? It was more like what is a President?

I had suffered a traumatic brain injury, which left me with retrograde and anterograde amnesia. My past was totally gone. Doctors told me that my condition was the best it would ever be. A therapist later told me to think of it as if I were a newborn, learning everything from scratch.

Life didn’t get easier after being released from the hospital. Day-to-day activities were confusing. Basics like dirty dishes going in the dishwasher and clothes being inside the closet were new concepts. Meanwhile, I had my youngest child, a thirteen-year-old son, to raise. I was trying to learn the duties required of a mother in addition to the basics of functioning at home and in society, and it felt overwhelming. One day, I burned cookies when the kitchen timer in my pocket went off . . . while I was standing in line at the post office. But give up? Never!

My motor skills were impaired, so I was constantly running into doorways. I thought, “I must be huge!” In reality, I wasn’t going through the center of the doorway like I thought I was. I had little feeling on my left side, so there were confusing signals from my brain to my body parts. Pain was ever-present. The rest of my life will always include chiropractic, physical therapy, therapeutic massage, doctors, and believing in my instincts.

Prior to the accident, I ran my own consulting firm specializing in accounting and database management. Returning to consulting was not an option; I would have no idea how to help my clients. In fact, trying to relearn even simple math was a challenge because I couldn’t remember the number four—a common problem with my type of brain injury.

I began volunteering for my local hospital’s auxiliary, editing the newsletter and raising money. Volunteering helped me learn what functions I was good at and which activities I wasn’t able to do.

Friends encouraged me to enroll at Claremont Graduate University, where I earned a certificate in leadership. After lots of hard work, and with the help of patient professors and student-led study groups, I earned my master’s degree in management with honors. While at the university, I became a student of Peter F. Drucker, the prominent author and educator. I was fortunate to become friends with him and his wife Doris. They encouraged and inspired me.

While earning my master’s degree, I became director of the MBA program at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management. I found my rhythm as a productive, effective team member—bringing alumni, staff, students, and Professor Drucker together for the enrichment of all.

At some point during my journey, I decided to sculpt a personality for myself because I couldn’t remember my character traits from before the accident. Based on observing others, I realized that if I became known as a happy person, people would want to be around me. From then on, becoming happy in spite of my circumstances was my mission. It became what I call my “happiness project.”

As I focused on being happy, the key was to not dwell on the negative aspects of my life. For example, I made a conscious decision not to lament the absence of special memories, like giving birth to my children. Instead, I concentrated on the present.

I also became determined not to let setbacks destroy my happiness. When I was involved in a second car crash, I suffered another brain injury. It happened as I was finishing my master’s degree, and schoolwork was much harder after this second injury. But I decided that happiness is a choice, and I just needed to make a conscious effort to stay positive.

In recent years, I have become focused on speaking, writing, and coaching, to empower people to break through self-imposed barriers, implement new strategies, and achieve successful outcomes, just as I have. I have founded a non-profit organization (www.tbibridge.org) that provides resources for survivors of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. My motto is “Believe. Be patient. Never give up!”

My life now is rich with close friends, family, and activities I enjoy, in addition to my non-profit work. I don’t know what my life was like before the accident, but all that matters is that I’m happy now. Attitude truly is everything!

~Celeste Palmer

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