A Two Year Update, Complete With Two Pet Peeves
So here I am, two years to the day after my brain injury, submitting an article from my own apartment, in my adopted home state of New Jersey. If someone had told me then what I’d be doing now, I’m sure I’d be horrified to know I had to move to New Jersey, let alone all the other drastic changes in my life. However, if someone had told me the same thing exactly one year from then, when I was in an assisted living facility- questioning how I could just get through another day, let alone another year- I’d be pleasantly surprised to know I was living on my own. Above all else, this shows just how relative life can be.
It’s taken a long time for me to come to terms with what happened on August 1st, 2017. Just like that, my entire life plan, which I had been working on well before adulthood started, vanished in an instant that I can’t even remember. Months of bouncing between relatives and short-term hospital care after the accident, first on the west coast and then out here, had me wondering why I was even bothering to try anymore. Nevertheless, I continued to try anyway, as I didn’t seem to have any other choice. Once my family checked me into assisted living, the situation finally stabilized in the short term, but we knew that wasn’t sustainable. Eventually, something had to give, and none of us had any idea what that would be.
The process hasn’t been straightforward, but I was moving in the right direction, even when it didn’t seem like it. Like staring at a newly minted Polaroid picture (remember those?) my once-cloudy future started to take shape in real-time, even as it took a little while to do so. I’ve needed to learn to be more patient with myself, as well as others. Even more significantly, I’ve figured out that just because I was thrown into a situation I literally couldn’t previously imagine, didn’t mean that I couldn’t find a way to manage myself through it. It’s taken a lot of outside help, from therapists, family, and friends- old and new. Changing the way that I operate hasn’t been easy, to say the least. I’ve often been a stubborn, rigid person throughout my life. But the struggles that I endured, thanks to my traumatic brain injury, created challenges that had previously been unprecedented for me, and I had to adjust accordingly.
Sometimes, people listen to my story, and say to me, “Wow I can’t even imagine going through something like that!” The truth is, though, neither could I. I’m sure it’s not entirely unlike being a newborn, having no idea what’s going on, only having the ability to incoherently scream and cry when something is wrong. And similar to being new to the world, I have eventually learned- or relearned, in my case- to handle most problems in a more constructive way than just screaming and crying, which brings me to my pet peeves. In honor of my two year anniversary, I have exactly two of them. They’re well-intended statements designed to encourage, but instead usually just serve to trigger me. I’ve had trouble explaining why, but I think I finally understand now, so I’m going to explain Here goes…
“It’ll All Work Out!” (or “It’ll get better- you’ll see!”)
Everyone has a different way of coping through tough times. Some people believe everything happens for a reason. Others believe they can will themselves to positivity. And many believe in a higher power that’s guiding them. If you are one of these people, I would never try to convince you otherwise. The problem is that none of those methods work for me personally. I know this, because I inadvertently tried, and it ultimately let to more emotional trauma, to go along with whatever trauma I was already enduring.
When my niece Ilana got sick in 2015, for the first time in my life, I felt that I had a mission that was greater than myself. I like to think that I’ve always been pretty compassionate and generous, but I’ve never made notable sacrifices for anything greater than myself. But once it was clear that Ilana would need as much help as possible, I decided not to go on any major trips, spend as much of my “vacation” time helping out with her (and my nephew Evan) as possible, and trying to save up money for her future. This was going to be my major purpose in life, as long as she needed it to be.
So much for that plan. Barely two years later, I suffered my own illness, not only having no extra time or money for Ilana, but needing the rest of my family, already stretched pretty thin, to help me through this ordeal. As I’m typing this, it’s really only been the past six or seven months that I’ve really been able to take care of myself, for the most part- not even half the time I needed everyone else to help me make it through. So while I’ve made great strides- as has Ilana- letting my guard down after her trauma made mine that much more disillusioning. So you’ll forgive me for not wanting to be told how things are going to go, because while I am increasingly (albeit very cautiously) optimistic about life, I have no interest in letting my guard down again. Anything can happen at any time, and until someone can convince me otherwise, no one has the power to tell me how it’s all going to turn out, because the future doesn’t care about your intentions. I learned that firsthand.
“Don’t you see how much better you are now?!”
This one is often preceeded by “I know you hate to hear this…” Look, I mean no disrespect- as Stephen A Smith would say- but if you know that I hate to hear something, you probably should keep whatever you’d like to say to yourself! Let’s be honest here- you’re not saying it for my sake, you’re saying it for your own. Believe me, I understand why. Anyone who cares about me wants to see me improve. Hell, I want to see me improve! But just because I appear a certain way in public, that tells very little about how I’m doing on the inside. This isn’t even specific to brain injury. How many times in life have you felt differently on the inside, than the way you present yourself on the outside?
Early on in this process, my behavior was extremely uneven. I knew people who would meet me in September, then tell me in November how much more of a mess I was back then. Then I’d get the same speech from someone the following March, who’d have first met me in January. TRUST me on this- just because I present myself a certain way at a given time, that tells you very little about how I’m doing overall. So if you’d like to tell me how much better I’ve gotten at guitar, or yoga, or anything tangible, go right ahead. But if you’d like to tell me how much better I’m doing at life, please wait until I ask for your opinion first. Having said that…
Since I Brought It Up
Yes, I HAVE improved lately- thanks for NOT asking- and I’ve felt better about myself in recent months than I had since before my accident. It’s all still tenuous, but after feeling severely depressed for over a year, I’ve gained confidence, self-respect, and a general sense of well-being, for the most part. I’ve proven myself wrong many times at this point- living on my own, playing guitar (488 notes/minute consistently, 528 when I “turn it up to eleven”), traveling locally on a regular basis, socializing to an extent, watching baseball on TV, and a whole bunch of other stuff I figured was gone from my life. Unfortunately, my main conviction that the brain injury has left me changed forever remains…well, unchanged. But even in areas that I haven’t been able to get back to where I was, I’m learning to compensate for it. I’ve also learned to appreciate New Jersey, even if I miss southern California weather about 300 days a year.
All in all, I am relieved that many of the gloomy assumptions that I made early on turned out to be incorrect. Without any idea how to operate with my newly damaged brain, I automatically assumed there was little hope, if any at all. Sticking with the Polaroid metaphor, it’d be like looking at a picture that just came out of the camera and saying, “The picture is blank! This thing is broken!” But the truth is, that picture just needed time to form. And as I’ve discovered over the past two years, so do I.