52: Making Believe

52: Making Believe

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

Making Believe

I think we may safely trust a good deal more than we do.

~Henry David Thoreau

It was late October when my husband Miles, a tree crew lead, was hit in the forehead by an eighty-pound branch when a tree fell the wrong way. After surgery and in-patient rehab, he was released, and though they called his traumatic brain injury mild, he came home a shell of the man I knew, a shadow of the daddy our two young children trusted.

The holiday season arrived and I forged ahead optimistically, fueled by the adrenaline of survival. Relatives sent a package full of gift cards from what seemed like a thousand different retailers. Friends came by with dinner. The children, three and five, gave everyone hope in their cute pictures with Santa. Meanwhile my husband, who couldn’t remember names, missed conversational nuances and slept the day away.

In the hospital, I saw the scan showing which part of the brain had bled, the left frontal lobe a dusty nebula. “The frontal lobe controls your executive functioning,” a nurse practitioner told me. I could scarcely eke out a question, not wanting to know the answer. She explained how executive function helps us connect past experience with present action. Her list sounded like prerequisites for normal living: planning, memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility. My sleepy inner contrarian woke up. Did she mean to predict his future? Wasn’t the brain mostly untapped, its plasticity an open book? I dug in my heels, refusing to believe Miles’s cognition would be limited.

Six years later, I recognize these as the arguments of trauma. I thought that because we were living idyllic lives, with beautiful children, a nice house, and good jobs, that we could beat the odds. My attitude was: persist and conquer. Perseverance did help, and Miles improved. And yet during the darkest days, when he struggled with a seizure disorder and growing despondency over joblessness, I learned how lying is sometimes a necessary defense.

Trauma compartmentalizes life into before and after. Before the accident, people at work knew me as a friendly front desk girl. Immediately after, I was a brave wife and mother, quickly promoted to full-time staff. My colleagues wanted the inside scoop on Miles’s impressive survival, so I spoon-fed them my meal of malarkey, explaining how he had vision problems, and we weren’t sure what he’d be doing for work, but that one thing was for sure: he’d dodged a bullet. My defensive armor was so intact that I take the blame for what happened next, during a routine Monday morning staff meeting. On my way to the conference room, the Chief Financial Officer pulled me aside and said, “I’d like to give you a few minutes to address the staff.” I was stunned. Was I supposed to talk about my department’s latest project? “No, no,” she told me. “We want to hear about Miles.”

You do not say no to a genuine request from a person of power. Come my turn, my hands were a shaking mess. I took the microphone and gushed about how my colleagues had been so generous to take up the slack in my absence. I thanked everyone for contributing to the home meal-delivery service. Then came the biggest fib of my life. “Miles is . . .” Deep breath. “. . .about ninety percent toward making a full recovery.” I hadn’t planned on it, but there it was, a bold-faced lie, and a cacophony of clapping followed as my reward. Whereas I should have stomped and cried out, “Help me, I’m hurt!” I chose the path of make believe, and it felt good.

And why is that? My friends sincerely wanted to help me through this hardship. A good one, in fact, took me to lunch to probe why I was being so cold and stoic. “I thought I was your number one,” she told me. If I told her how the words “brain injury” made me want to bury my head in the sand, she would have surely comforted me. But I couldn’t say that, because giving voice to pain makes it real, and I wasn’t ready. Years later, I would learn what a normal psychological response that is. Sniveling into a used tissue on the couch in my therapist’s office, it felt like a boulder had been lifted off my shoulders when she told me that “trauma is simply too unbearable to talk about while it’s happening.”

People removed from trauma metabolize information with a degree of separateness. But when it’s you, the experience is so raw, so immediate, you need a shield to protect yourself from further assaults. It’s like having a super power, the ability to deflect horror through make believe. With every ninja slice through the air, we avoid the unbearable details the real world asks of us, and so long as we just keep going, nobody can catch up. After a while, though, pretending takes its toll. It’s like that nightmare where you are naked in public. You wish someone would throw a blanket on you, or just wake you up.

Once, I was on my way home from the hospital, stopped at a railroad track, waiting for the light. With my Ford Explorer in park, a particular weariness overcame me, and I collapsed, sobbing, behind the wheel. I punched a friend’s number, finally ready to share my awful truth—I was scared, and the situation seemed hopeless. “Maggi,” I moaned. “Miles weighs 152 pounds.” The phone was wet against my cheek. “His skin just hangs off his bones.” From her, not a single word about how lucky we’d been. My force field thinned a bit after that. I learned that there are people who will weep with you in silent compassion.

In my experience, survivors and caregivers (who are also survivors), don’t seek pity. We march on, managing work projects, coaching soccer, feeding our families. The switch I’m convinced all humans have, dormant until required, flares like an infection the moment we hear the unalterable news that a loved one’s life is at risk. We are lit inside, hurt and burning. And yet, it is as Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl said, “What is to give light must endure burning.”

One thing I’d do differently, if I could go back to that meeting with the microphone, is not worry so much about what people think. I’d tell them, when they asked, that my husband suffered damage to his frontal lobe, that he can no longer work as an arborist, and it is likely he will have cognitive limitations. I envision myself, quiet and accepting, as their jaws drop or their eyeballs bulge. My work as caregiver is more important than managing strangers’ anxiety. The rest is the same. I’d go to my desk, do my job, go home, and take care of my family.

~Sarah Kishpaugh

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