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Finding Happiness During Traumatic Brain Injury Recovery

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In 2011 I was a physical education teacher for high risk youth. One day we were playing basketball and I was accidentally headbutted in the mouth. At the moment, I had no idea that my life would change forever. I ended up losing my front tooth and fracturing my jaw. In 2013 I ended up being admitted to the ICU for five days because I was exhibiting very unusual behavior. I was delirious, I couldn’t walk on my own without my legs giving out, I didn’t know who I was or anyone else around me. The amount of pain that was radiating from my head was astronomical. I saw multiple neurologists who all came up with the same conclusion; they wouldn’t treat me because they would view my medical history and toss me to the side like their uneaten lunch. They were convinced that my symptoms were because I was sexually and physically abused as a child. I eventually found a neuropsych who did brain testing and concluded all my symptoms were, in fact, from being headbutted, not from the abuse.

Each day when I woke up, it was a mystery of what my new symptom would be that day. There were times I had completely lost my hearing and vision, passed out, lost control of my legs, had migraines that felt like someone beat me with a baseball bat, issues with speech, short-term memory loss and many more. I was also pregnant when my symptoms had peaked which made my fight even harder than I had imagined. Those were some of the worst moments in my life. However, I told myself I would recover and help others when I finally did. I would have bad days and breaking points but my whole mantra was to focus on my blessings, not my triumphs.


It wasn’t until my early 20s that I gained an appreciation for things I had never even thought about. Waking up and knowing who I was, having a migraine-free day, being able to recognize someone and remember a memory you shared, going to the bathroom on my own, feeling the sun kiss your face after being bed-bound, my eyesight, hearing, ability to speak full sentences and using all the right words, walking, etc. There are so many things I had taken for granted for many years and I had no clue how important they were to me until they were removed. There were times I was frustrated and wanted my old life back, but it wasn’t something I could dwell on for too long. I had so many blessings around me – I just had to be willing to see them.

A few years before my traumatic brain injury I was in Peru volunteering in an all-girls orphanage. It was my first time leaving the country and I was convinced I would go there to help people; little did I know it was the other way around. I went there so they could help me. Peru opened up a whole new perspective for me. In the United States we have conditioned ourselves to “chase the American dream.” Our whole focus is on the things we don’t have, such as a bigger house, luxury car, the newest iPhone, perfect family, etc. We have become so reactionary to our own circumstances that our surroundings and urges control us, not the other way around. While visiting Peru I met all kinds of people. They worked more hours than the average American, made less money, sometimes had minimal living quarters or food. Yet they had the one thing every American seems to be chasing: happiness. I learned that happiness isn’t something you can hunt, it’s something that lives within you. If you treat every day as a blessing then circumstances won’t control your happiness.

While in Peru I visited a small town for La Semana Santa week and met some of the most beautiful people who impacted me forever. I had the honor of meeting a family with a teenage daughter who was around 18 years old. She was bed-bound because she was in an accident while riding a bus. The bus flipped off the side of the mountain and she broke her pelvis, among other things. She was stuck in that bed and had to lay flat in hopes that it would heal properly. They didn’t have much money so they couldn’t afford to take her to another city to be treated. The bus companies don’t have insurance in Peru so this girl was just stuck hoping she would heal so she would maybe walk one day again. She wore the biggest smile and had the brightest perspective, just like most Peruvians. She didn’t have a grudge, never complained about boredom – in fact, she was very happy to be alive. This mentality was almost uniform in Peru, no matter what their stories were.  I remember thinking, I wonder how the average American would handle this situation (including myself).

After my traumatic brain injury I lost a lot of my memories but I eventually remembered that sweet teenager lying in the bed who taught me so much. I remembered how she conquered peace and happiness was what she made it. This became my whole perspective with my brain injury. My injury has control over so many aspects in my life as it is, why would I want to hand over my happiness too?

If I were to dwell on all the things that were going wrong and how my life had changed, I knew I would never be happy. I didn’t want to create milestones of if I have “x” then I will get “y.” Turning life into an equation only sets up a precedence for expectation. Expectation is something that comes from the ego. It sets up a stage so we can scale and judge our surroundings. But what if my surroundings didn’t control how I felt? I wanted happiness and peace during my recovery and my life no matter what stage I was or am in. I will always keep growing and pushing myself to be better, but I won’t give anyone or anything power over my happiness. That is mine to cherish, hold and experience. It has been the most powerful part of my recovery.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

– William Earnest Henley

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Thinkstock photo via hobo_018.

Originally published: June 5, 2017
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