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Accepting the 'New Me' After My Traumatic Brain Injury

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In 2013 I earned myself a five-night stay in the ICU because I was displaying a slew of symptoms that were irregular from my normal behavior. Slurred speech, hallucinations, aphasia, memory loss, no control of my legs, light sensitivity, anger impulses, extreme head pain, fatigue and more. I would talk in a tone that made me question whether I had been sucking down helium balloons for a living, and yet I had no control over it. I even went “code blue” at one point with no explanation of why. Neurologists tried to blame it on the fact I had been sexually abused as a child and refused to look further into it. I was discharged out of the hospital without resources, a diagnosis, and a couple prescriptions for anti-psychotic drugs.

For a few weeks I woke up every morning questioning who I was and where I was. When I first woke up, I couldn’t move the whole left side of my body for at least 30 minutes to an hour. My head felt like it had been bashed in, and I couldn’t recognize anything in my surroundings even though I would be in my own bedroom. My parents became my caretakers and many mornings I would wake up thinking I had been kidnapped. I had to make the executive decision to take the locks off my bedroom and bathroom door once I found myself looking for weapons like razors to “escape.” After hours of my mom working with me and questioning me I would look at her and say “I remember.” It was like Drew Barrymore in “50 First Dates,” every day I knew I would go to sleep and not remember anything in the morning. The only hope was that I would eventually remember after I woke up.

I knew something was seriously wrong with my brain, but I wasn’t sure what it was and couldn’t find an expert who cared. I was determined to get back some quality of life but I wasn’t sure how. I decided to exercise my brain by doing 25 piece puzzles which took days to complete due to their complexity at the time. I started receiving acupuncture, craniosacral therapymassage, and chiropractic work to treat any symptoms they could. Later that year I was able to find a neuropsych who performed brain testing on me and determined I had sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2011 during an accident playing basketball.

Every day there were many shouting reminders of my old self, flaunting how I used to be. I longed for the day I could do things I used to like driving, working, going to school, talking while using the correct words, peeing without being supervised among many other things. In the beginning I was covered in shame and sprinkled with hopelessness and crushed dreams. The cherry on top was watching people eye me up and down while analyzing what I had become. The awkward silence would eat me alive while we both acknowledged the helpless mercy in my eyes.

I remember one day had been exceptionally hard and I was reeking of defeat. My mind began to wander and I thought about the sand mandala ceremonies created by Tibetan monks. Many Monks gather around a table and create patterns with colored sand while setting a specific intent for the mandala to represent. They are made for different things like healing, peace, deities, prayers etc. Each grain of sand is hand selected to make sure it is of standard before it is carefully placed in the pattern. Then they use a tool called a chakpur to pour the sand into their masterpiece. This process can take days, weeks, and even months until it is finished. Once it is finished there is a ceremony and the Monks wipe away the sand and destroy the creation they spent so much time and effort making. They do this to represent the impermanence of life and that everything has a beginning, middle, and end.They take half the sand and give it to the audience for blessings and healing. Then they take the other half of the sand and dump it in a river so its energy can be carried to the oceans and the rest of the world.

The more I kept thinking about sand mandalas, something clicked, and I was enlightened about the darkness I was being sucked into with my injury. It doesn’t matter how much time, effort, energy, or love you put into something; it can change in an instant. Nothing in life is guaranteed. My traumatic brain injury put an end to many things, but it was also time for new beginnings. I couldn’t cling onto my masterpiece of life I had created prior; that wasn’t me or what I had anymore. I gave all my old hopes and dreams a big blessing and sent them to the river for someone else to fulfill. I recognized I had the opportunity for new beginnings filled with goals, dreams, and gifts. I just had to reach out and start hand selecting the grains of sand that reflected the new me.

I poured everything I had into becoming the new Nikki, knowing this version too would have a beginning, middle, and end and I would find happiness all the way through. I continued alternative treatments for a few years, going to four to 15 appointments every week and most of my symptoms have subsided. I love the new Nikki just as much as I loved the old one, and continue to work on finding the best version of myself — one mandala at a time.

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Thinkstock photo by Elena Korsukova.

Originally published: August 23, 2017
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