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Finding the Indestructible Within Me After a Traumatic Brain Injury


Last year, I was rear-ended by a truck on the highway in a moment that changed my life. I vaguely remember it being a warm and sunny day, but everything else is totally, confusingly blank. Reading the police reports and hearing what witnesses had to say, I’m grateful not to remember. It may be the only gift of a traumatic brain injury.

I do remember the weeks that followed: laying on the couch at home, broken bones aching, constant nausea, unable to eat solid food. As my 27-year-old brain sputtered back to life, I had a waking dream that I was a newborn baby cradled in my mother’s arms. I felt so pained and helpless.

It took even longer to fully absorb the news that I had sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Nurses and therapists filtered in and out in a haze of weeks, making tallies on their clipboards for everything I could and could not do.

Before the accident, I helped students understand how their brains worked and coached them to plan, organize, and set achievable goals. After the accident, I saw my own brain scans — the areas of my brain that had been most damaged, ironically, were the same areas I built a career on nurturing in children.

I no longer had the ability to teach executive function skills because my own were all but demolished. The structures I built for security crumbled at my feet, and with the TBI, the rebuilding took more energy and stamina than I could muster. Recovery felt like stacking the rubble of a fallen building one sooty chunk of cement at a time. I was forced to slow down, admit what I could no longer do, and live every day with no guarantee of returning to my former self.

Over the last year, I’ve made great strides in recovery and have grown so much as a person. Here are the three biggest lessons I learned in the year following my car accident and traumatic brain injury.

Self-Compassion

The first lesson involved fundamentally changing the way I related to myself. My patience for myself has always been limited, which was made painfully clear in the early stages of recovery. I wanted to get back to my life pre-TBI almost immediately even though I was nowhere near healed. Despite studies suggesting it takes anywhere from six months to two years to fully heal from a traumatic brain injury, I insisted on going back to work just two months after the accident. In the back of my head, there was a small voice telling me, “You can’t! You’re not ready! Not yet!” It was a voice I’d heard before, a voice I learned to ignore. I was known for stretching myself beyond my comfort zone, doing something before I felt completely ready, pushing past my limits to reach a goal.

That mode of coping got me through life, and continued until the moment I started crying in a meeting with my supervisor over having a pretty significant lapse in memory. Every feeling of insecurity and not-readiness I shoved down flared back out to the surface, and I was forced to confront the possibility that maybe the voice had a wisdom I wasn’t yet prepared to hear. I had to entertain the idea that I could no longer approach life like a human battering ram. I was in need of something slightly less familiar — compassionate attention and care.

I learned to listen to that inner voice without judging it, overriding it, or pretending it didn’t exist. I learned to hear it as the healthy boundary-setting part of me, the part who knew best instead of the part who needed to be ignored in exchange for success or praise. In those first few months, my job responsibilities fell away, my graduate school applications sat on the back burner, and I devoted myself to inner listening so I could know when I was truly ready and able to make progress again.

Gratitude

Out of patience, gratitude grew. Before the accident, I shined a spotlight on my faults in the hopes of becoming aware enough to improve them. I would begin the mental sentence, “My problem is…” and the blank would be filled with whatever I wanted to fix that day. It was my tactic for creating success, and although it made me highly self-critical, it helped me move forward in the world. I was an effective problem-solver. But the laser focus on lack could feel overwhelming, especially after the TBI when my list of “problems” was longer than I had the attention span and motor skills to write, much less solve.

TBI recovery is about small gains. A victory isn’t running a marathon, it’s asking one less time for someone to repeat what they just said. It’s remembering to write down anything you may be prone to forget (which for a long time was everything). For me, it was performing at an open mic, making light of my notebook being on stage with me so I wouldn’t forget my own lyrics. It’s anything that signals growth, no matter how small or silly.

Never before had I felt grateful for my attention, memory and concentration — I always took my basic cognition for granted. But when all of that was taken from me in the accident, it completely shifted my perspective. Through recovery, I saw each gain as a sign of life’s unthinkable mercy and grace. Life allowed me to drive again, to go for a short hike through my favorite forest, grocery shop for myself, and explore alternative career paths that would better accommodate my “new normal” as an accident survivor. Even one year later, I’m still grateful every day for how far I’ve come, what I’ve gotten back, and how much I’ve gained.

Freefall Into Flight

When life really falls apart, there is little you can do to prepare and protect yourself from the drop. In the weeks and months following the accident, I had a felt sense that my dreams were dying off one by one. I felt like I had just fallen out of a plane. I was falling further and further from safety and there was nothing I could do to fight back, short of defying gravity.

At first, I grasped onto whatever I could. I took hold of threads and feverishly pulled, hoping to retrieve what I had lost. But the more I scrambled to put my life back together, the more it became apparent that I could not run from my pain just because I had grown impatient with it.

The months went by without any guarantee of a brighter future, and I felt myself in freefall. The image of the plane had fallen away and all that was left was me, surrounded by air and sky. It was in this space, this uncertain limbo zone between what was and what will be, where I felt freer than I ever had before.

In my falling, the world opened up around me. I was no longer constrained to the narrow idea of what my life “should” be and the alternatives felt energizing instead of scary. I tapped into my unrealized passion of working with violins and acoustic guitars. It was a far cry from psychology, but working in a musical instrument shop filled me with a joy and enthusiasm I would never have known had I stayed safely in my plane. The world became one of possibility, where uncertainty was not only accepted as a part of life, but could be the catalyst for unprecedented growth.

I send my sincerest thank you to everyone who helped me on my journey through recovery, which I see as a constantly unfolding process even today. Some days I still can’t believe how an event so devastating transformed me into this new, beautiful and resilient version of myself. Above all, this experience has shown me the strength of spirit that is best summed up in this quote by Pema Chodron:

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found within us.”

Through annihilation, I found what’s indestructible in me — and for that gift, I am grateful.

Getty image by Artisteer.