Thursday, January 26, 2012

Essays about self-improvement

Making Sense of Brain Injury

            This is an introduction on a series of three essays on self-improvement that I have found worked for me. I am sharing my several years of experience post-TBI in the hopes that others may find bits and pieces that facilitate their own personal growth.

            These are things that I wish someone had told me during my first few years post-TBI. The words “years post-TBI” are important for a couple of reasons. The word “years” is important because it places a realistic time frame for growth. The words post-TBI are important because I don’t like the word recovery. The word recovery is a palliative that obscures the true nature of a brain injury. You are not who you were so there is nothing to recover. You are a different person after a brain injury and trying to be who you were is like trying to be someone you’re not and that is a prescription for depression. To thine own self be true.

            Being a new person means that who you were is gone. This is called a loss of sense of self. Overcoming this loss is hard enough, but to enjoy the fruits of growth post-TBI you must discard your second identity. This is your “TBI survivor” identity. The most difficult part of this is the voluntary aspect. You have to decide that you want to be more than just a victim of brain trauma.

            Let’s be realistic, it is a very hard thing to see past your brain injury. No one can see it and you can see little else. This is, in my opinion, one of the primary reasons for support groups. Being among others who can understand your loss helps to validate your feelings and this allows you to move on and heal.

            Moving beyond my brain injury and continuing to grow and develop as a person is the passion that fills my day. I am not ashamed of my brain injury, I am proud of how far I’ve come. I don’t advertise my brain injury, but I don’t hide it either. When you are ready to start your life anew I hope the following articles can help.

Sense of Self and Sense of Accomplishment

What is this “sense of self” that everyone is talking about? Your sense of self is that knowledge of what kind of person you are, how you feel and act, how you have developed over time, the roles you fill and the roles you play.

Your sense of self was turned off like a light bulb when you had your accident, when the light was turned back on the room had changed. It had become a shambles. It takes a long time to put it in order and it will never look the same. Who you are is a dynamic process. This sense, the personal experiences, are the sum of events over time. Permit yourself the time to become a whole new person.

How many times have you heard the phrase, “if I could do it all over again…” Well, now you can.

Brain injury is an opportunity to design yourself all over again. When you do something or behave in a way that is unsatisfactory you can tell yourself, “that wasn’t me, I’m better than that.” Saying it makes it so.

One thing that makes for a positive sense of self is a sense of accomplishment. Unlike many people, I get a real sense of accomplishment just from tying my shoes. Twelve years ago I had to learn how to do that. It was a lot of work, I still must work at it, but I’m getting better all the time. Now I only look back to see how far I’ve come!

Post-TBI everything is hard, so it makes little difference what I’m trying to do, whether it’s tying my shoes or learning another language. I hone my will on adversity. I started small and worked my way up. The nice thing about having no short-term memory is that it rarely occurs to me how long I’ve been working at something. I just put it into my routine and work at it every day until I succeed.

            I believe you will find that success suits you. 

Sense of Memory

            There is an oft repeated axiom “Every brain injury is different every brain injury is the same.” This is because if two people with TBI’s start comparing notes they will find as many symptoms the same as different. One symptom that seems universal is loss of memory.

            Even the kinds of memory lost are different. There are different degrees of long term memory loss, some don’t remember certain places or events, and some don’t remember people or faces. There is also short-term memory loss, the kinds of things that you can often compensate for by writing notes and so forth. Sometimes it is not always practical to write a note, or possible to anticipate everything you will need to write down, or even if you will remember to look at your notes. However, I still find my self more likely to recall something if I have made a note than most ordinary people who try to “wing it” with just memory alone.

            But what about recovering your ability to remember? So much of life’s enjoyment is dependent on memory. The rich tapestry of life is etched in our memories; things such as movies, books, jokes, good times, and lessons learned.

            I believe that people can improve their memory. The brain responds to activity just like a muscle. Most of us accepted having to go to physical therapy after our accidents. Many see brain injury as something different and they wait for things to just improve, or they tell themselves that they have a TBI and their memory is just bad – end of story. I refused to accept that. I worked on improving my memory and my memory has improved.

            I have friends who were theater students in school. I asked them how they could memorize entire plays and they told me that it just takes practice. They also could not memorize as well when they started, but they found it got easier with practice. Now they just know they can do it and it is relatively easy for them.

            One of the biggest oceans to cross is confidence. If you tell yourself you won’t remember, or believe that you won’t remember, then “voila!” you won’t remember. To overcome this you need to build your confidence. Start small, try memorizing a short quote, maybe just a couple words, and work your way up from there. You are not competing with anyone. The more successes you have the stronger your confidence will become.

            If you have seen the movie “Pulp Fiction” you may remember that at several times during the movie Samuel Jackson repeats the verse Ezekiel 25:17. Last year I decided I would memorize that and repeat it just the way he did in the show. It took me quite a while, I had it posted in my work area and looked at it all day long and I would listen to it on my computer at home. Now when I repeat it people just laugh and say that I must be over my brain injury if I can remember all that. I smile and tell them that I can do it in spite of my brain injury.

            That last point is critical. A few years ago when I was still trying to get everyone to acknowledge my brain injury, a comment like that would have stung, it was as if they were denying what I went through. Now that I have made TBI a part of me instead of all of me I find it amusing, not hurtful.

            One final note. Being able to memorize movie lines might be a neat parlor trick, but it has a much more important benefit. As my ability to memorize things improves, my ability to remember things improves. One quick example is I rarely forget to turn my headlights off when I park my car the way I always used to, this alone has already saved me money and time. I can say that I have now improved my memory to a point that it allows me a higher quality of life. Give yourself time and keep at it. The thing you should never give up on is perseverance.  

Sense of Compassion

            One of the greatest gifts that I have realized with my brain injury is a deep sense of compassion. I have felt pain and loss very deeply and it has improved my character immensely.

Anger is a common reaction to TBI, but once you have accepted your injury and are ready to move on that is where real growth and real compassion begin. This point may take months or years to reach, but once you are there you will find that the benefits will enrich you. Getting past that anger is beyond the scope of this article, but knowing the benefits may give you the added strength to transcend the anger.

A compassionate person is a loving person and a loving person is a loved person. Everyone wants to be loved. TBI gives us a bridge to compassion.

People are not drawn to you by your needs, if anything a needy person pushes them away. We are drawn to people by their compassion. You must be strong for someone else before they will be strong for you. When you are strong for someone you will find it makes you stronger, regardless of what they do or don’t do. It is like a confidence building exercise.

So many brain-injured people are lonely and that is unfortunate. It is doubly unfortunate because they have been given a gift that empowers them to draw others to them. When you develop that inner calm and strength that comes from mastering a difficult situation like TBI you will draw others to you.

Sympathy says, “I know how you feel.”

Empathy says, “How can I help.”

Volunteering is one way to demonstrate compassion. Any one who has heard Craig Martinson, a survivor from Minnesota, speak about volunteering knows the rewards that such compassion has to offer.

Compassion involves you immediately with others. Thus, you cannot act compassionately and be alone at the same time. People will see your compassion even if it’s not directed at them and be drawn towards you. As the Hindus say, “The breath of the compassionate is never taken alone.”


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