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The 'Success Strategies' I Use in Life After a Brain Injury

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Have you ever thought about how you would feel if you woke up one day and didn’t know why you were wherever you were? I’m not talking about waking up after overindulging in some substance or forgetting where you slept. I’m asking if you’ve ever been betrayed by your memories. Suddenly, you find that you are unable to do what you remember you could do. Your life terrifies you; you trust no one and you can’t remember needing the assistance that you now require. How do you continue? What do you have to do differently now and in the future? Is doing all you can worth the struggle?

Over 45 years ago, in November of 1971, I was an active, liberal rebellious college student. I was very social, well-organized, goal oriented and fiercely independent with just the right touch of passive aggressive resistance to authority figures. I remember laughing a lot and handling stress without much thought or anxiety. I could manage multiple demands with ease. In the fall of that year, my world collapsed. I was a passenger in a car that was involved in a head-on collision in the Ann Arbor area. In that split second, my career changed from one of a college student to an entry-level position in the field of brain injury recovery.

I got an impressive set of credentials that afternoon. My right wrist was crushed; both of my eyes would never again work together and I sustained a severe closed head/brain stem injury. Fortunately, the driver of the other car was a doctor who immediately began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to restore my breathing. I was rushed to the University Hospital in Ann Arbor, where I was placed on life support.

In 1972, I was concerned with learning to walk without using furniture for support, go up and down stairs, cook my own meals and set my hair. Things that I unconsciously do today were very difficult and required deliberate efforts. I could only do one thing at a time. I couldn’t eat and carry on a conversation at the same time. I used to hesitate between groups of words so often, I was told I sounded like I didn’t know how to speak. I didn’t like that at all. So, I started listening to how people in the mainstream talked and I copied them. I also had no idea how to interact with anyone after my injury. So, I watched how others did that wherever I went. I chose role models from the people I like and respected.

I decided to be the kind of person who got treated the way I wanted to be treated. Somehow, I knew I had to treat others the way I wanted to be treated. I’m not going to talk about my trials returning to school, trying to work and getting fired repeatedly. And I’m not going to discuss my seizure, sleeping and breathing disorders. Those circumstances are simply facts of my life. The important question is: what do I do now?

Today, I work as a Trauma Recovery Expert/Disability Life Coach. Quite logically, you might want to ask me how I managed to accomplish all of this. First, I’d have to say that I lead an interdependent life and I’m comfortable asking for assistance when I need it. Then, I’d say that I’m aware of the activities that deplete my energy and I try not to do them very often. I know what I do well and I know when I need to ask for help. Lastly, I would make it crystal clear; that I do all that I can and ask for assistance only when it is necessary.

Now, I will mention some of my difficulties and the success strategies I use to overcome them. The first is a problem I confront daily and that is my fatigue — so, Success Strategy #1: I get adequate sleep and remain calm. Mornings are my best times and that’s when I try to schedule any appointments or activities.

Another problem I have is with organization of everything. That’s a skill I find to be extremely difficult to master and that brings me to Success Strategy #2: I do one thing at a time and what is necessary first. I must finish what I start before moving on to another project. In other words, I’ve learned to prioritize.

I also have energy challenges. I have difficulty with stamina and endurance. My stamina is dependent on the time of day and my interest in the activity in which I’m engaged — so, Success Strategy #3: I need to be cognizant of how I’m eating, sleeping, exercising and how I’m taking my medications.

I must address my health issues at least three times each day. It’s inconvenient to have to take multiple prescriptions many times a day. That brings me to Success Strategy #4 and that is; to just do it. I take lots of pills and I use two medication organizers to help me remember when to take which drugs. I simply empty the designated part of the organizer into my hand and take the prescribed medication. If I want to live as well as I can, be free from pain, not have seizures and get a good night’s sleep, I take what my doctors advise.

Earlier I mentioned a success strategy that I use. I spoke of treating other people the way I want to be treated. I call this Success Strategy #5. I get along better with others when I treat them with respect. That applies to everyone, from doctors, to health care workers, to the people who provide me with services.

The final problem I’m going to speak of is the one I have with my memory. I forget things; I put something somewhere and then absolutely forget where I put it. I miss appointments or things I know I want to do — So Success Strategy #6 is to use notepads and calendars. Along with these tools, I leave myself reminder messages in places where I know that I’ll see them, like the back of my front door, on my refrigerator or kitchen table.

I’ve lived with my difficulties for over 45 years and I’ve learned that I need a plan to win the war with my problems. Just like any war, I need to have a Battle Plan. Mine is:

  1. It’s best to confront rather than avoid my problems.
  2. I think of myself as having a battle with the deficits created by my injury, my disability, my illness and my age. There are some things I just can’t do as well as I once did. For instance, I’m not as coordinated as I used to be and I don’t move as quickly or manage stress as well as I did in the past.
  3. I cannot allow myself to remain ignorant of my difficulties. When I familiarize myself with the difficulties that might occur, my stress seems to be reduced as well as my fear and anxiety about life with all my problems.

When I no longer need to be afraid of what might happen, I’m able to better prepare for the options, or what the health care professionals choose to call, compensatory strategies I need to make. I choose to call them Success Strategies. I have learned that for me to make changes, I need to have goals. Those goals must be realistic and attainable. I recognize my difficulties in the here and now. When bringing about genuine change, I need to make a sustained effort.

My experiences have taught me that it takes determination, effort and time to modify my behavior. While it’s important to set reasonable expectations and be respectful of the reality of my situation, I feel I must never lose sight of what I hope to achieve.

One statement that I like and helps me to feel good about myself is: Recovery is not only making progress, it is taking one step. It doesn’t matter where I start, doing anything to make my life better is making progress.

How do I win the war against the residuals of my problems?

I have learned I must accept what I absolutely can’t do, before I will allow myself to learn the skills necessary to do what I want to do. Then, I need to remember that every day and every task is different. Just because I can do something today, doesn’t mean I’ll be able to repeat that process on another day or at another time.

After a trauma, an illness or an addiction, life becomes an uphill battle in all situations. Whether it’s dealing with doctors, drug companies, mental health and rehabilitation professionals, or any other support staff, living as an independent, self-sufficient human being is simply no longer possible. There are countless adjustments, accommodations and modifications that need to be made to ensure the possibility that a quality life will be realized.

Now, let’s bust some myths about living with challenges. First, true independence is simply no longer a possibility. Total dependence on anything is undesirable. A mixture of both, independence or self-sufficiency and dependence or getting assistance when needed, becomes your new normal. Being interdependent with your environment becomes a new success strategy.

What you believe about yourself defines who you are. Who you believe you are is who you are. You form your beliefs about yourself early in life. Your core beliefs form the context out of which all else evolves. If you believe yourself to be competent, you will behave in ways that reflect and strengthen competence. Conversely, if you believe yourself to be inadequate, your behavior will reflect inadequacy. If your self-concept is negative, you will probably remain in a state of needing to improve.

People experience a fundamental belief system shift when they face a life-threatening crisis. They suddenly see their priorities in a different order, their values change, their thinking about themselves shifts and their feelings are modified. Everything seems to change.

Recovery to a person with an injury, a disability or an illness is making progress. Making progress is accepting your deficits, learning success strategies to help you with those deficits and learning to love and value yourself.

Is it worth the struggle? I say yes, absolutely it is!

Follow this journey on Survivor Acceptance.

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Getty image via primipil

Originally published: July 30, 2018
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