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How I Learned to Stop Judging Myself After My Traumatic Brain Injury

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In 2011 I sustained a traumatic brain injury while playing basketball. At the time I was a P.E. teacher for high risk youth while I was pursuing my massage degree. My dream was to travel to third world countries and set up centers for people to become certified massage therapists. That way they could help people in their own community, and also have a chance to make a decent wage for their families. I was on my way to lining up my life when one headbutt to the mouth changed my life forever.

I was so focused on the excruciating pain in my fractured jaw and fractured front tooth that I didn’t even think about the possibility of my brain being injured as well. As more time passed I started gaining more symptoms like fatigue, mood swings, migraines, short term memory loss, and many more. I kept putting them off and blaming it on being tired from chasing my dreams. On March 10th, 2013 I was admitted into the ICU because my symptoms had peaked. I couldn’t remember who I was or where I was, I had severe head pain, lost control of my legs, had hallucinations, and we were trying to find answers.

It wasn’t until later that year I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. During that period I had to move in with my parents and needed a 24/7 caretaker. I couldn’t drive, some days I lost my vision, hearing, I would lose my balance and have to wear sunglasses everywhere I went. I couldn’t use the right words if someone asked me a question. I had the hardest time processing and answering what they were saying. Sometimes I could only remember the word in Spanish or only see a picture of it in my head, but it never translated smoothly into clear words that slipped off my tongue. I would often walk around with that “deer in the headlights look” painted loudly on my face. I went from a confident teacher and student to a broken toy you get out of a cracker jack box.

Because I had so many symptoms from the brain injury, I began losing the ability to read human connection. Anytime I had to go somewhere I would map out my task to where I had the least interaction as possible. For one, I didn’t want to get overstimulated and not know how to process the situation, and two, I was so insecure in my new life that I didn’t want to stand out even more than I already had. I was so scared of looking like something I’m not that I avoided everyone. After plowing through my parents’ retirement fund and going to about 15 appointments of alternative therapies a week, I slowly began gaining my confidence and would challenge myself to do things to interact with people.

In the beginning I was so hard on myself if I forgot a word or what I was talking about. I was filled with so much embarrassment that my face would turn redder than the American flag, which made me even more flustered. After the interaction I would feel so low and hopeless. Is this what my existence has come down to — choppy sentences and mortification? I cried more tears into my pillow than a teenage girl who got dumped on prom night.

One day I was hit with a moment of clarity; why am I being so hard on myself? Why do I care what others think about me? Before I had my TBI, I never made fun of someone with a disability, and if someone did make fun of me, they were more broken than me. I had worked so hard to get where I was, and I wasn’t going to let someone’s comments or perception stop me from recovering and being the amazing person I know I could be.

I began observing how people interacted, and I found out that people who don’t have traumatic brain injuries would sometimes do the same things I was doing. Sometimes they were flustered and forgot something, or didn’t understand a question someone asked them. They used the wrong context to describe a situation at times. They did many other things I had been ridiculing myself for. After these observations, I went from feeling like an outcast to one of them. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, whether injury is present or not. I didn’t have to compare myself to them; I had to be proud of myself regardless.

Another cycle I felt myself caving into was being upset about the things I had to miss out on. Because I was experiencing so many symptoms at the time, many aspects of my old life would remind me of the life I could have had if I was better. I would see pictures from friends and family of all the places I would have been. I’d remember concerts, birthdays, graduations, swimming, traveling, going to a restaurant, running the dogs around the block, watching the sunset and everything else in between. I felt lower than dirt and my emotions would flare more and more with each experience I would hear about. My heart ached for the connection with them and to experience life again. Everything I once had was taken in an instant and I was slowly keeping score. Nikki: 3, TBI: 14,538 (OK maybe it wasn’t quite that high, but you get the idea.)

The more I was getting upset about the things I missed, the more I saw the bigger picture. I kept trying to hold onto the old me so much that I wasn’t giving myself a chance to become the new me. I knew one day I would be making memories, but in the meantime, I was going to improve the best I could daily — and the first place that needed adjustment was my attitude. While they were moving their lives forward, I was given the opportunity to reconstruct myself and start all the way over. I was given a chance to be reborn, and if I did it correctly I could have as much happiness as I wanted, no matter where I was or what I was doing.

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Thinkstock photo by Berdsigns.

Originally published: September 24, 2017
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