Category: Tips Written by Mark Palmer
One day when I was 15 years old I lied to my family about where I was going, got in a car with an inexperienced driver, headed for Detroit, and was broadsided by a city bus. I suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by a depressed skull fracture. I went into a coma. The doctors who performed emergency surgery informed my parents that I was not likely to survive the operation. If I did, I was not likely to regain consciousness. If I regained consciousness, they expected me to be severely handicapped.
Six weeks later when we were heading home—my father and I in the front seat, my mother leaning forward from the back to protect me with her arms every time we went through an intersection—we were celebrating. Through the skill of surgeons, the care of nursing staff, and the prayers of scores of family, friends, and even paper route customers, we had beaten the odds. I was a living miracle.
Although I wasn’t “back to normal,” we believed that was only a matter of time. After all, six weeks ago I’d been unconscious! Now I could walk, feed myself, and void. Although my entire left side was extremely weak, a few weeks ago it had been paralyzed. My right arm was in a cast, but that would come off soon. I couldn’t speak intelligibly, but when I first came out of surgery I couldn’t speak at all. I had a four-inch gap in my skull covered only by a bandage, but we just needed to find a neurosurgeon to install a metal plate. In other words, we were so grateful and relieved I was alive and well enough to be home that all remaining difficulties seemed trifles by comparison.
For most TBI sufferers, that ebullience would erode over time and frustration with their continuing inability to “get back to normal” would set in. The hard facts of TBI are that discharge from the hospital means only that the acute crisis is over; now the chronic one begins. In my case, the chronic health issues included nocturnal grand mal seizures that repeatedly dislocated my shoulders, continuing sinus and vision problems, speech and language processing difficulties, numerous additional surgeries, and—always—constant pain.
Yet my hard-headed refusal to accept physical reality kept me from acknowledging even fear or frustration. Perhaps because I felt responsible for causing my parents so much anguish and expense, I resolved never to let my accident or its consequences stop—or even depress—me. I minimized the pain and difficulties I faced. I stopped reporting my nightly seizures. I laughed off being able to spell only 10 percent of words correctly on weekly quizzes. My teachers passed me anyway. I went to college, got married, had kids, built a career, and just kept demanding that my body perform for me—no matter what compensations it had to make in order to do so. After 34 years of this, I was in agony nearly all of the time—and so were those who loved me. They watched me suffer, but I wouldn’t even allow them to call it suffering. I was in denial. I had unrealistic expectations.
It took a new doctor—34 years after the accident—to say something that got me to accept my actual situation. He said, “With personal commitment to being a little better every day, you should be able to compensate for most of your brain damage.”
My mind reeled. Brain damage? What brain damage?! I was normal, wasn’t I?
I thought all the way back to that hospital homecoming in 1965, when we were all so convinced my “return to normal” was imminent—just a few short days, weeks, or maybe months down the road. My parents had been through so much, I didn’t want to disappoint them by not getting back to “normal.” I’d been muscling my way through life ever since.
And, to tell the truth, it wasn’t just my parents I was determined not to disappoint—it was me. If I wasn’t “normal,” what was I? It was a question I’d never given myself a chance to answer.
My doctor’s pivotal comment set me on a new trajectory, which began with acceptance. I had to accept that TBI had caused brain damage and that my attempts to override that fact had made matters worse—forcing my body to invent new neural pathways to convince the wrong muscles to perform the tasks I demanded of it. Leaving me in constant pain. Putting my loved ones in constant pain, as well.
I have since spent 10 years working patiently to address my physical limitations, rather than denying them. I have adopted more realistic expectations. I now have a new normal, which is also my mantra. It’s called “A little better every day.” With acceptance, patience, and hard work, my pain has diminished greatly. I now can swim, rollerblade, and play on the floor with my grandkids. I keep working, knowing that my new normal is a work in progress. “What am I if not normal?” A little better every day.
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Mark Palmer is the author of Realistic Hope: Aspirations for Survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury, available through Amazon.com.
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