Category: The Journey Written by Mark Palmer
The Power of Acceptance – Mark Palmer
“If you’re in this much pain at 47, what will you be like at 57?”
That is the question my wife asked me one day when, after 25 years of marriage, I came home to find the lawn mowed—a job I usually tackled myself.
“I just can’t stand to watch you mow the lawn in pain any longer,” she explained.
I was dumbfounded: it was my pain. Why should it bother her? I’d never considered that the pain I’d lived through for the last 30 years could actually be even more debilitating for those who loved me than it was for me.
When I was 15 years old, I’d received my parents’ permission to go skiing in the mountains near our home in Michigan with a recently licensed friend. But instead of going to the mountains, my friend and I went to Detroit where big-city adventure awaited us. Unfortunately, it was not an adventure either of us would have chosen.
It was a cold wet day and the rain had turned to sleet, but we were young and oblivious to the dangers of driving in bad weather. As we sailed through a downtown intersection, we were broadsided by a Detroit city bus. My head was caved in; my eyeglasses forced into my eyes. Though I remember nothing of the accident, it was a day that forever changed my life.
I suffered a massive head injury and was rushed to a busy hospital, where emergency surgery saved my life. My shocked parents were summoned to the surgical waiting room, where they could do nothing but worry and pray. The doctors told them I was unlikely to survive the surgery. If I survived, I was not likely to regain consciousness. If I regained consciousness, I was not likely to be able to function. Yet my parents, aided by sympathetic strangers who offered various forms of comfort, clung to the thinnest thread of hope. I lay in a coma for 17 days.
While in the coma I received round-the-clock care by nurses who read aloud to me every one of the get-well cards I received from family members, classmates, and even paper route customers. Somehow, from the depth of my unconsciousness I knew I faced a choice: to stay where I was and continue floating effortlessly, or to rejoin the living and fight to rebuild my life.
Through a combination of medical care and the miraculous, I regained consciousness, sat up in bed, and began relearning how to perform the rudimentary tasks of living: feeding and toileting myself, walking and talking.
A few weeks later, my parents drove me home in a cloud of euphoria. It seemed we’d been granted a Lazarus-order miracle. Our ordeal was over. Or so we thought.
For the next 30 years, I tried my damnedest to act as if the ordeal was over. After all, I’d been granted a second chance at life! I refused to complain about any subsequent difficulties or inconveniences. I endured countless grand mal seizures, literally hundreds of shoulder dislocations (I’d have a seizure and throw my shoulders out), chronic vision problems, sinus problems, a ruptured lumbar disc, urinary tract scarring from an improperly inserted catheter, and pain—relentless pain.
Somehow, five years after the accident, I married an incredible woman who became my lifelong helpmate, enduring all of the pain and difficulties with me. It was she who pulled my shoulders back into their sockets; nursed me through over a dozen surgeries; accepted my sleeping on ice to numb the pain; and who watched me muscle my way through every physical activity, unwilling to accept my body’s limitations. Until one day she couldn’t do it anymore. She took matters into her own hands. She called a yard service.
That small act began a chain of events that continues to this day.
To begin with, it prompted me to seek out a pain specialist, 34 years after my accident. His single, offhand comment changed my life:
“With personal commitment to being a little better every day, you should be able to compensate for most of your brain damage,” he said.
My mind reeled. “Brain damage? What brain damage? I’m normal, aren’t I?”
After I recovered from the shock, I realized I had never accepted the truth about my situation. I’d never accepted that I’d had a severe traumatic brain injury, and that recovery from TBI can be life-long.
But what did that mean? If I wasn’t normal, what was I? I had to accept that I was locked in a body wracked with pain because I had stubbornly tried to muscle my way through every activity rather than admit that I needed help. The reality was that physical activity was painful. Did pain cause me to use the wrong muscles to walk, or did the fact that I used the wrong muscles to walk cause me pain? Either way, the answer was yes.
By finally acknowledging that walking was painful, I was able to begin a long journey of re-learning how to walk—in fact, learning how to crawl. With my therapists I discovered that the connections I had forged from my brain to my muscles very often made no sense. Ask me to move a toe and I would move an ankle; ask me to straighten an elbow and I would freeze: I had no idea. We spent hours deciding whether we should first remove the pain with an epidural or build up muscle functionality and strength to reduce pain.
Progress was slow, very slow; frustration was high. Physical therapists would tape my shoulders in place for a week at a time in order for my brain to learn where to hold them. The journey continues to this day. I continue to make progress; I have reduced my pain most days. I remain committed to a regimen of therapy that is designed to restore my life to its highest level of functionality. I could never have begun this journey if I hadn’t been willing to accept that where I had been was not “normal.” I was not OK. I was in pain. From that acceptance, progress was possible.
Ironically, it is this acceptance that has enabled me to now—another 15 years later—to swim, rollerblade, play on the floor with my grandkids, do Pilates with precision, and everything else I want to do—with much less pain.
But this is not a story about swimming or rollerblading. It is a story about the power of acceptance. Because it was only by accepting what my actual situation was that I could begin to change it.
And it was the refusal of my wife to collaborate in my denial that forced me to acknowledge the denial I had been living in.
Those of us who are die-hard optimists can find it hard to realize that our optimism can actually postpone the happy ending in which we believe. If I’d understood from the beginning of my recovery that I might have to relearn countless routine tasks—everything from speaking to swimming—I might have spared myself 45 years of pain. So I share my story to encourage others. There is no shame in admitting and accepting where you are now. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And you can only begin from the exact place that you are.
Acceptance Into Action
Mark Palmer is the author of Realistic Hope: Aspirations for Survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury, available through Amazon.com.