78: The Red Cow House

78: The Red Cow House

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

The Red Cow House

Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.

~Pablo Picasso

My dad and I had walked halfway around the empty lake enjoying the silence. I loved the way the sun reflected off the water as dusk approached. My black Lab, Brady, was wading and ducking his head under the water, splashing as he chased fish or perhaps just his own shadow.

At the lake, I could watch the ducks and birds, feel the gentle breeze, and just let myself be. Since the car crash, relaxing activities had been hard to enjoy. Numerous previous concussions had caused only headaches, but this concussion was a doozy.

Post-concussion syndrome was my doctor’s diagnosis. As a result, everything became a challenge. Every day, a friend, my mom, or my dad would help me with basic skills and coach me through therapy.

That afternoon, my mother and I had been sitting at the table and she suggested I clean the kitchen. I looked at the kitchen and figured out what needed to be done. I put a box of crackers into the cabinet and sat back down, proud that I had done what she asked.

“Honey, look at the counter by the sink. What do you see?”

“The plant.”

“What else do you see that you could do?”

Sorting through all of the visual stimuli to realize that washing the dishes would be a good place to start was difficult but I did it. “The plate is now dirty.”

“Good. You can wash the dishes.” The speech therapist had suggested that instead of correcting my sentence structure, people should repeat what I was trying to say with a prompt.

I didn’t move from my chair. It takes initiative to get up and begin. “What do you need to do now?” came my mother’s gentle voice.

I looked at her and then walked over to the pile of dirty dishes. I put the dishes into the sink. I turned on the water and added soap. I began to wipe the glasses, and then place them down gently to keep the clatter low to protect my ears from the clanging noise. I moved over to put the clean dishes into the drying rack. A bird landed on the deck railing outside the window. I watched the bird until it flew away and continued looking at the deck railing.

“Julie, look back at the sink and keep working.” Focus. This is what my occupational therapist had called this step of the process. Turning my attention back to the plates, the water was gone, only a bit of soap remained.

I began to cry in frustration. “No good water to one mountain is gone.”

My mom walked over to me to try to understand my jumbled speech. “The water drained out of the sink. Let’s see what happened. Let’s put the drain stopper in, and then try again. You can do it.”

She noticed the soapy glasses in the drying rack and put them back into the sink to be rinsed.

“Let’s list the steps in order.”

“Stopper. Soap. Wash. Water done to it. Counter rack.”

“And fill the sink with warm water before the soap goes in,” she coached.

So many things to remember and put in order. Sequencing was the hardest part of everything. I ran the water until suds covered the plates and washed them each carefully.

I walked away and sat down at the table to open a bill. “Julie, come back over here. Completing a task is just as important as starting it.”

The dishes were finally washed, rinsed, and drying in the rack. I looked at my mom. “Done it right now one time.”

“Good evaluation,” she said with a smile.

My occupational therapist had coached me on the six brain processes required to accomplish a task. Recognition that a job needs to be done. Initiation to begin. Sequencing the actions. Focusing on the activity. Doing the task to completion. Finally, evaluating the end result.

My mom praised me for washing the dishes while she wiped down the counters and swept the floor. I was exhausted from my efforts.

“It’s time for you to rest. Let’s listen to your mindfulness CD.” I lay down in my loft and closed my eyes as a calming voice walked me through a visualization of a beach with the soothing sounds of the ocean. As I walked the beach, as the voice suggested, my mind returned to the frustration of the sink emptying.

“Stupid. I’m stupid. I can’t even do the dishes right.” In my thoughts my speech was always so clear even if my perceptions of an event were a bit distorted.

Forgetting about the CD, I remembered a day shortly before the crash. I had been at work, patrolling one of my tougher neighborhoods when I was dispatched to a robbery around the corner. I raced to the location where the victim told me a man had just taken his wallet and phone. With a quick description and direction of travel, I searched the streets as I directed backup units to set up a perimeter. While canvassing the neighborhood, a lady holding a baby came running out of a house. She said she was in the kitchen when she heard a noise in her back storage room. She had peeked into the room and saw a man hiding. My partner and I approached the back room and ordered the man to the ground at gunpoint.

“I used to catch robbers and now I can’t even wash dishes right,” I thought, mentally beating myself up. My mom came upstairs when she heard me crying.

“No cop even one time,” I sobbed. She reminded me that I was hurt and that I would get better, a reminder I needed several times a day.

My mom said goodbye and told me that my dad would be over in a few hours. She then corrected herself and said that he would be there at 6:15 p.m. Time disorientation and an awareness of time passing had also become problems. “I’ll put it on the board for you,” referring to the white board where all of my reminders and daily activities were now listed.

By 9 o’clock my dad and I were almost back to the car, our evening activity coming to an end. “I’m so proud of you and how hard you worked today with Mom.” I glowed at his praise as I got into the passenger seat. Riding in the car was difficult at times. My compromised depth perception made it seem that all cars were just inches from hitting us. My dad took the back roads to accommodate this after my long day.

“Do you remember where I turn?”

I pointed to the left and directed him to turn at “the red cow house.”

He smiled and brought me home.

Three years later, the “red cow house” has continued to be what our family still jokingly calls barns. My speech and abilities returned and ten months after my injury I returned to my job as a police officer.

“You will get better,” my mom had promised.

I have.

~Julie Sanderson

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