December 7 is a day most people remember as Pearl Harbor day. For me, it was a different type of life-changing event. Today, it has been 4 years since my brain injury. I don’t remember 12/7 because of Pearl Harbor, I remember 12/7 because my birthday is 7/12. It’s always seemed ironic to me that the day my life got flipped around is the flip-side of my birthday.
I’ve talked to lots of brain injury patients, and have learned that, while everybody’s recovery is different, there are many things that are the same. Many of us experienced what the medical community calls “Mild” Traumatic Brain Injury. When I first received the diagnosis, I thought, “Cool. OK. It’s mild, so it will go away soon.” That’s not exactly how it works. The term mild simply means the person either didn’t lose consciousness, or was only out for less than a couple of minutes. There isn’t necessarily bleeding in the brain, and it isn’t necessarily life threatening. All of those are good things. Those can also be the bad things.
When diagnosed with something “mild” it’s very hard for the injured person, as well as the people around them, to fully understand what is happening. In movies, books and on TV, someone gets a knocked out, and they’re back up to speed in no time. In reality, several different things start happening.
The list includes, confusion, short-term memory loss, balance issues, specific weakness, vision problems, easily overwhelmed, fatigue, depression and anxiety. “Emotional lability” is especially fun – rapid, often exaggerated changes in mood, where strong emotions or feelings (uncontrollable laughing or crying, or heightened irritability or temper) occur. The laughing for no apparent reason could come across as quirky, or maybe inappropriate. I get the crying for no reason. It’s really hard to convince someone that absolutely nothing is wrong when you’re sobbing like a toddler having a temper tantrum.
The first couple of years, I waited for the symptoms to go away. By the end of year two, I was devastated that I wasn’t all better. Year 3 was spent learning how to work within my new limits. Now, by the end of year 4, I’ve settled into my new normal.
One day I may remember something, then the next I don’t. If it’s important I write it down. If it’s really important, Charlie makes sure he can remind me, and he does this tirelessly. The bad part is, I sometimes forget things that I really needed to remember. The good part is, I can save lots of money on books, because I can read the same ones over and over and never know how they end.
My left side is weak. This means I crochet, instead of knit, because it only requires one hand to be coordinated. I spin yarn “backwards,” using my right hand where I should be using my left. Sometimes my left leg doesn’t want to go the direction I want it to, so I may stumble backwards or sideways. Fortunately, I’m right-handed, but I’ve still had to learn how to work around my left side.
I can’t watch movies with too much action, and 3D is totally out of the question. Windshield wipers even get distracting, if they’re moving too fast. I can’t drive at night because the lights are too much, and sometimes the world goes “flat.” If I’m playing solitaire on the computer, I have to look away when the game is over and the cards go flying all over the screen. I spend a lot of time looking away from things or closing my eyes. It’s fairly automatic now, and not something most people would notice.
Initially, I got lost quite a bit, even in familiar places. That still happens, but I don’t think it happens as often. Hard to say. I’ve gotten used to not always recognizing where I am, so I don’t panic about it anymore – usually. Every trip to the grocery store is like visiting a store in a new town. I read every sign in every aisle, and sometimes I wander around trying to find something simple like milk. This is the grocery store I visit at least once a week. If I happen to be driving, and don’t know where I am, I either keep driving until something looks familiar, or pull over and enter the home address into the GPS.
Charlie can read my face like nobody else can. He knows when I’ve had too much, and need to leave, or take a nap, or just have a little break. When I’m frustrated or aggravated because I’m having trouble learning something new, he’ll remind me that I’ve learned part of it, and to just keep trying. Or, to put it away for awhile and come back to it later. He knows what I can and can’t do. He knows when to push, and when I need to quit for awhile. He makes sure my world is safe, and works so hard to provide this new life I love. Most people won’t see me on a bad day, so they don’t get that it’s not always easy. Charlie gets me through all of it.
For quite some time, things were hard, and we needed to make a lot of adjustments. The doctors don’t expect there to be much more improvement. In their terms, I’m “permanent and stationary.” Despite the challenges, I love my new life, and couldn’t want anything more. Without this injury, I wouldn’t have this life. I hope that people who are at the beginning of this journey understand that it does get easier. I hope that people who are caring for someone with a brain injury understand how important they are. More than anything, I hope that Charlie knows how much I love him and appreciate everything he does to make Redmon Woods my safe, magical place.