25: Healing Your Heart after a Brain Injury

25: Healing Your Heart after a Brain Injury

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

Healing Your Heart after a Brain Injury

We are human “beings”, not human “doings.”

~Bernie Siegel, MD

When a car skidded into mine on a slippery road in 1991, I felt very lucky. Although my car was totaled, I had my seatbelt on and I didn’t have a scratch on me. I had blacked out only for a moment and I looked okay. The emergency room sent me home with instructions to take Advil.

I thought that I couldn’t think because I was exhausted and in so much pain. I had a severe case of whiplash. I could barely eat or talk. As I slowly healed physically, I began to realize that I couldn’t do anything mentally that I used to do effortlessly. I was a wife and mother and I managed the household. I had worked professionally in teaching, banking and healthcare. I was an achiever; multitasking, problem solving and organizing were second nature to me. Now I couldn’t remember what I was doing. I couldn’t figure out what to wear. I couldn’t find my words. I couldn’t follow the storyline while reading to my son or watching TV. I was a bank officer and I literally could not hold 2 + 2 in my head long enough to get 4. I had lived in town for twenty years and I couldn’t find my way around. I had been a home economics/consumer science teacher and I couldn’t cook supper. Noise and confusion overwhelmed me.

My brain used to feel like a fancy multi-function machine, copying, sorting and collating all at once. Now, the harder I tried to do what I used to do, the more meltdowns and shutdowns I had. I thought I was losing my mind. I remember thinking “this must be what going crazy feels like.” I wasn’t feeling so lucky anymore.

Eventually, I found help. It took time, it was the hardest work I have ever done, and it changed my life forever.

Something essential that I learned and wish I’d known during this journey is that there is usually a grieving process associated with healing from a brain injury. I learned that there are common stages associated with the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I also learned that processing grief is not a straightforward path. One typically moves back and forth in the different stages and that is normal. I learned that in order to heal and be able to move forward, it is necessary to recognize your feelings, acknowledge the losses, allow yourself to feel the feelings and mourn the losses.

The devastating losses brain injury survivors experience are far-reaching. On top of struggling with physical injuries and cognitive deficits, there are usually secondary losses as well: income, jobs, social networks, friends, even family and homes. Survivors often lose parts of their lives that took years, sometimes even decades, to build. Something else to consider is that your family and friends may be grieving too. When you think about it, they have lost the person you used to be and the role you used to play in their lives as well.

Needless to say, the changes and losses I experienced had a profound effect on me, on my being. I found myself struggling with a fundamental life crisis: who am I and what is my value if I can’t do what I used to do, if my friends aren’t my friends anymore and I’m a problem for my family? I had lost my self-confidence and my sense of self. I was becoming more and more depressed. I contemplated suicide.

Getting in touch with my spiritual guides was instrumental in helping me move through the grieving process and heal my heart. I needed to hear that I had value in my being, not just in my doing. Being part of a support group for brain injury survivors let me know I was not alone in my struggle.

One of the keys for me was to forgive myself for not being able to do what I used to be able to do. I also needed to forgive others for their shortcomings. Ignoring your feelings will hold you back. Your grief and whatever way it manifests in your life will create stress and inhibit your rehabilitation process overall. Our brains work best when we feel well, physically and emotionally.

Here are some suggestions to help you heal your heart:

•  Keep a gratitude journal, writing down three things every day that were successful, an improvement, or made you smile.

•  Arrange regular get-togethers with friends, even if just to chat on the phone or to meet for a cup of coffee or tea.

•  Spend some time on a hobby.

•  Practice random acts of kindness.

•  Volunteer.

•  Get some physical exercise, every day.

•  Go outdoors; soak up some fresh air, sunshine and vitamin D.

•  Sign up for a class, anything that interests you.

•  Think about what is most important to you and how you can bring more of it into your life.

•  Keep your perspective, refer to your calendar and journals to look back and note improvements. Celebrate what you can do now that you couldn’t do six months or a year ago.

•  Remember that you are still the same unique and valuable person inside, with the same loves that you had before your injury. No injury can take that away from you.

Today, my brain can work like that fancy copy machine again when conditions are optimal. I can do quality work again if I plan it, allowing extra time for fatigue and “bad brain days.” I have rebuilt skills and regained stamina. I am able to listen to my intuition. I can depend on myself again. Hallelujah!

Today I am a lucky lady! I have had the privilege of facilitating an amazing Brain Injury Survivor Support Group since 1995. I work for the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, assisting other support groups. I have also written a book, a collection of “brain injury survivor wisdom,” to help other survivors. My mission is to encourage survivors to continue their healing process, to never give up, to inspire hope. Healing from a brain injury shouldn’t stop just because your insurance coverage does. You never know what the future may hold and how much you can recover.

~Barbara J. Webster

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