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Managing My Spoons After a Traumatic Brain Injury

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Having a traumatic brain injury can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Let’s refer to “The Spoon Theory” for a better explanation. The Spoon Theory is a way chronically ill individuals can explain to their friends and family what certain “normal” everyday actions cost their bodies to complete.

As a TBI survivor, I live with chronic migraines and excessive fatigue. These symptoms were emphasized most when I first received my TBI from a car accident back in 2016. I had no idea my brain worked so hard doing activities I thought were exceedingly simple. We can’t see how hard our brain works and what all it does, especially when we are not thinking about it. The brain controls breathing, movement, problem solving, decision making, and lots more. Yet while we conduct these actions, we think nothing of it. The spoon theory was a very useful tool when I attempted to explain to a few family members what I was experiencing.

Healthy individuals who get a good night’s sleep begin each day with their “batteries” at full charge. A TBI survivor may only wake up with 40 percent charge, and still has to get through the day. The theory better explains “charge” by the use of spoons. Ten spoons is often considered full charge, therefore, a survivor may only wake with about 4 spoons if operating with 40 percent of their energy. Due to this, survivors have to make educated decisions on how to conserve energy and what to spend their spoons on.

Personally, taking a shower is what depletes my energy the most. In the event that I wake with 40 percent charge, I have to determine whether or not taking a full shower is required, or if a half-shower is acceptable depending what plans I have scheduled for the day. Should I attempt doing some light exercises at the gym? Do I have enough energy to drive to the tanning salon? Do I have enough time to take a short nap today? These are a few of the questions I have to ask myself. It’s incredibly frustrating having to go from an extremely hard-working go-getter, to having to slow my life down substantially in order to take care of my brain.

I have to focus on what should be prioritized first. Taking care of my brain is at the top of my list. I can’t risk injuring myself again just because I want my life to go back to the way it used to be. I have a lot of ways I control my emotions throughout this experience. The one I utilize most is writing. I’m a blog writer and my goal with my writing is to not only be an advocate for myself, but for others with TBI. I am a religious person, and wish to give God the glory for saving my life and for getting me to where I am now, so if I can do that with my writing, I see it as a win-win situation.

I also do an excessive amount of research on traumatic brain injuries and what issues they cause long term. I’ve always been a researcher and the more I understand a problem, the better I can find or create a solution. Thirdly, I utilize my church as a support system. I have been blessed to have a church family that accepts my situation and helps me when I’m in pain. It’s a great comfort to have others praying for me, teaching me how to effectively pray, and giving me encouragement when I hit a low point in my recovery. Lastly, I seek out others who are having the same issues with their TBI and I ask questions, as well as compare and contrast my experiences. It truly helps me to not feel so alone in this process.

Of course there are going to be days when I simply run out of spoons. There will be days when we as survivors do not wake up with enough charge to complete all the activities we had scheduled for that day. And it’s unpredictable; we may go through an entire week having pain and excessive fatigue, only to be rewarded with a day or two without any complications. It’s like one step forward and three steps back. So how can this be dealt with accordingly?

Referring to my own methods, I resort to tracking. I have several apps on my phone that remind me to track how often, how intense, and how long my migraines last. I have a second app that keeps track of which medications I take or have taken for that day. These tools become useful when checking in with my physician. It tracks progress or setbacks as well as “triggers” that could have caused them in the first place. I have light sensitivity and sometimes sound sensitivity that trigger my migraines. Other times, the migraines simply come at random.

These migraines are classified differently than the traditional migraine. My migraines are caused by damage to the brain itself, and the pain is often unbearable. My migraines are categorized in two sections, pressure migraines and stress migraines. I may find myself screaming in pain from the throbbing and the pressure that feels as if my head is going to explode, or I might be under a substantial amount of emotional/physical stress which flares up the pain. These are often treated with medications, as well as constant ice application and very dark environments.

Having a traumatic brain injury completely changes your life, and a TBI is categorized as an invisible injury. Those who can’t see it often have a hard time understanding or even believing everything survivors are going through. So an important goal can be to educate those who don’t understand — but also understand that your health comes first. Therefore, it’s important to educate yourself as well, and never feel scared or ashamed to reach out for help if you need it.

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Thinkstock photo by Gokcemin.

Originally published: September 12, 2017
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