74: Survive, Revive, Thrive

74: Survive, Revive, Thrive

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

Survive, Revive, Thrive

Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve driven on icy Ohio roads since I was sixteen. I could always pull myself out of fishtails or push myself out of ditches until December 23rd six years ago. I spun off the road and rolled twice. I woke up to broken glass in my beard, a cold breeze where my driver’s side window used to be, and a truck driver trudging toward me through the snow, asking if I was okay.

I was lucky. I was alive. My wife wasn’t with me in the car. And though my airbag didn’t deploy, my only injuries were a bruise from the seatbelt strap, and what we thought at the time was a simple concussion when my skull shattered the window. No loss of motor skills. No personality changes. Just a concussion.

I vaguely remember a doctor saying it would be a few days before my ability to focus would return to normal. When I was still having trouble weeks later, another doctor told us: “Well, yes, it could be days. Or it could be weeks.”

Later: “Could be weeks, could be months.”

Then: “Could be months, could be years.”

And it was also possible that this would be my life from now on.

I was constantly frustrated. I felt like I was a burden. I was a writer. That was my identity. And years of working at it were finally paying off as I began to sell stories to the publications I’d grown up with. After the accident, I exhausted myself trying to read and retain just a few paragraphs each day. Writing was worse. Subject-verb agreement was hard enough to concentrate on, but assembling multiple ideas into a single sentence which flowed between the previous and next in interesting, coherent ways? I kept at it, but it felt hopeless.

Appropriately, most of the resources out there are for more severe brain injuries. A concussion taking more than five years to go away is more of a strange limbo in which you don’t need as much help, but the help you do need is harder to find. How do you ask for help when you don’t know what’s wrong? And here my luck continued . . . .

A few weeks before my accident, I’d begun writing a brain-related science fiction story, and while perusing my library’s neuroscience shelves for research material, I saw a book called Brainlash. I liked the title, but it had little to do with my specific topic, so I put it back and forgot about it.

Six months later, I was determined to return to work on that story, no matter how many months or years it would take me to finish. Back at those library shelves, I thought for the second time, “Oh, that’s an interesting title.” I picked up that same copy of that same book again and looked at the cover. The full title? Brainlash: Maximize Your Recovery from Mild Brain Injury. My story research could wait.

Starting with that book, I’ve learned that I have post-concussion syndrome or an mTBI (mild traumatic brain injury). I’ve learned about neuropsychiatry and other therapies. Neuro-feedback was helpful in my case. ADHD drugs . . . not so much. Medicinal levels of caffeine were fantastic in the short term, devastating in the long term. I’ve optimized my diet with brain-friendly essential fatty acids. I’ve figured out ways within my limitations to be socially, physically, and mentally active, giving me three chances at neuroplasticity.

I’ve learned that I’m slowed, but not stopped. It’s been gradual, but I’m now able to read entire chapters of novels in one sitting, and have sold stories I’ve written partially or even entirely post-injury.

Energy management has become more important to me than time management. I’ll look up restaurant menus ahead of time, so I don’t tire myself trying to read in front of my friends (or feel embarrassed because I didn’t finish looking at the appetizers by the time they’re all paying the check). I’ve learned to be ready with phrases like “I might be fading,” which can take some social sting out of asking everyone to please leave me alone because I’ve got nothing left to offer today.

I’ve learned to compensate for my weaknesses. Even as I learned to read properly again, I also listen to spoken word audio. It’s more passive an activity than reading something on the page, but it is fulfilling. As a scripter of comic books, I now rely more on my illustrator’s attention to detail than I do my own. And last year, a story I wrote won an Eagle Award, the longest running of the major comic book industry’s honors. My collaborator and I are no less happy for sharing the credit.

Even six years out, there can be weeks of lucidity followed by longer stretches of feeling as bad as I did in those first few months. But by giving each day a score from 1 to 10, and tracking those numbers on a spreadsheet, I can see a moving average of the previous sixty days and see that number improving when the ups and downs day to day make it hard to feel that I’m getting better.

I’ve learned that everyone has days when they don’t feel they measure up. Forgetting where I put my keys was a problem before my accident, too. Everyone’s brains disappoint them now and then. I can do anything I set my imperfect but still viable mind to, if I break tasks down into subtasks small enough that they don’t overwhelm me.

I tend to speak more rapidly since my bump on the head, and I’ve realized it’s because I lack confidence in the value of what I’m saying. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with my brain’s meager offerings, so I try to get it over with quickly. I’m working on that.

An author friend told me about this book and its call for essays. I’d met her in Hollywood earlier this year, where she took the grand prize in an international short story competition in which I was a third place winner. By her prose or by social interaction, I wouldn’t have known she was dyslexic if she hadn’t mentioned it. I’m sure the same is true for me and my hurdle.

Today, I apologize less often for being slow. I used to explain that I’m recovering from a head bump in order to blunt the unpleasantness of my quirks. As it turns out, my bringing it up would often provide the first hint of awkwardness in a conversation. Oops.

Immediately after the accident, my focus was on survival. Over months and then years, I was lucky enough to move beyond that, on to how best to revive my former abilities.

Now, though I may never regain everything I’ve lost, I don’t spend all my time fighting for it anymore either.

I want to thrive. And I’m lucky to be able to want that.

~Lex Wilson

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