… I’ve got some good news and some bad news and some more good news.
The first good news is, it’s possible — indeed, even probable — that after a mild traumatic brain injury, you will be able to return to work at the same level as you were before. You may even be able to get to a higher level than ever before (as is the case with me), by developing compensatory strategies and techniques that offset the known issues that get in your way.
The bad news is, this takes time. I’ve heard recently that the average time for a traumatic brain injury survivor to get back to full employment is 3-5 years. For someone mid-career, this can be a huge hurdle, an interminable wait. It can also be a significant discourager and handicap, as you work at getting back to the level you’re comfortable at.
Recruiters and prospective employers may ask, “Why were you out of the action? Why did you take that detour? Why did you stop working or take other jobs that were obviously beneath you?”
In my case, I have the plausible, believable (and fortunately true) explanation (not excuse) that I was helping a family member recover from a serious illness, and I needed to scale back my hours to help them. I then assure people that the family member I was helping is 100% recovered and self-sufficient, and they no longer make demands on my time. I’m fortunate to have a solid background and firm footing for my past employment, to keep me perpetually up for consideration by numerous potential employers.
In your case, if you don’t have that kind of background to explain an interruption in work, you need to come up with a totally plausible reason for your change in work venue. By all means, DO NOT TELL PEOPLE IT WAS BECAUSE YOU SUSTAINED A TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY AND WERE UNABLE TO WORK. People just don’t understand TBI, especially mTBI, and you will pretty much disqualify yourself on the spot if you use that as your explanation.
A better choice of words? Something that emphasizes the growth prospects of your “choice to change jobs” — and you have to frame it that way, to show that you’re totally committed to growth and improvement in all your work activities… which prospective employers see as translating to your future work with them.
Here’s a scenario:
Individual A has been working steadily for a stable company for a number of years. They have worked their way up to a mid-level position with a fair amount of responsibility and influence.
They are involved in community activities and volunteering, as well as playing ice hockey in a league on a Saturday afternoon. During a game, they get checked hard and go down and smack their head on the ice. They see stars and are a bit wobbly on their feet when they get back up, but they continue to play. And they fall again and hit their head — harder, this time. They don’t feel well after the last hit, and they leave the game, go home, throw up, have trouble with lights and sound, and make a trip to the ER. They get a CAT scan, maybe an MRI, and everything comes back fine. The doctor tells them to take it easy and not exert themself — just rest and let the brain recover from the hits.
Individual A takes a few days off work, citing the flu/upper respiratory infection, and then goes back to work. But they have trouble concentrating, their moods are extremely volatile, and after several months of being unable to complete their work to their supervisor’s satisfaction, they are put on notice that they must either shape up or ship out.
They know better than to get fired, and they know that if they don’t do something, they’re going to get canned, which they cannot afford. So they start looking for work, and they decide to start contracting/temping for 3-6 month jobs in positions that are far less challenging than what they’ve been doing, so they can have a steady paycheck, but their behavior and mood and execution difficulties won’t be as obvious, as they would be in a permanent situation.
Several years ensue, with them working progressively longer jobs… from 6 weeks, to 3 months, to 6 months, to 9 months, to a year… then they decide it’s time to start looking for a new permanent job. The pay is not as good with contracts, and they need better insurance as well as paid time off, so they can actually take time to rest without getting their pay docked.
They go on interviews, and when the interviewers see their resume, they are surprised to see that they had a break in regular employment for the past three years. This doesn’t make any sense, and red flags go up.
“Why did you stop working at _____?” they ask, about the last place Individual A had a permanent job.
There are a number of different routes they could take. The could say that the company they were with didn’t have the kinds of opportunity that they were looking for long-term, and they needed to branch out and do some serious thinking about where they wanted to go with their career. The past few years have been a way for them to take more time to get clear on their own personal goals and objectives, and also survey the industry more from a distance, so they can make better strategic decisions in their own career path.
They could also say that they have been involved in volunteer work, and they hadn’t had as much time to devote to their community work, with so much day-job responsibility. The past three years were a time for them to give back to the community, while staying active in the workforce.
They could also say that they wanted to take more time to reconnect with their family in ways they couldn’t when they were working so much in the past.
These are just a few of the possible routes they could take — the important common thread with them, is that they are all positive and pro-active. They show that they are managing their own life, that they are the kind of person who takes command of their own destiny and takes responsibility for their life and their work. It’s not a vicitim mentality, a way to excuse and justify — it’s a mentality that focuses on the positive and pro-active, which is the kind of quality a company looks for in a potential new hire in a position of responsibility.
Again, TBI doesn’t factor into it at all. It is in the background, but it never needs to be mentioned. In fact, it’s better if it never is. And that’s for the benefit of the impacted individual, as well as the potential employer.
See, here’s the thing — successful recovery from mTBI is very much about personal responsibility. Taking responsibility for your behavior and your choices and your actions and their impact on others, and actively managing those aspects of your life. Developing this skill doesn’t just help you in your personal life — it’s also very beneficial in your professional life. Indeed, as you develop a better and better familiarity and command of your own inner landscape, that ability can translate to your outer world, as well, making you a better employee, a better manager, a more compassionate, patient, and emotionally intelligent co-worker.
Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that mTBI can be one of the best things to happen to your career. It can totally wreck you and throw you off course for years and years, even decades. Some people never fully regain their feet, like a person I used to work with who was probably one of the most remarkable under-achievers I’ve ever met. Their explanation was that they’d sustained a brain injury when they were a kid and had a bike accident, so that disqualified them from using their considerable creativity and ingenuity in a professional way. It was sad, really, to see this person with so much talent and ability, essentially bench themself permanently. Because they had decided they “couldn’t.”
What a waste.
A needless, useless, pointless waste. All because they let that former brain injury define them.
I still cringe when I think about it.
Anyway, that doesn’t have to happen to you. Like I said at the beginning of this post, full re-employment after TBI is possible, but it takes time. Still, it can be done. It just takes a whole lot of effort and a lot more time than we think it will.
For me, it’s taken about six years to get back to where I want to be. Six years ago, I was rising meteorically in my organization, leading multi-national teams on projects that served more than 10 million active customers, with direct access to chief decision makers and holding discussions with potential clients (and helping my company win their business to the tune of millions of dollars each year). Then I fell down some stairs, smashed the back of my head on 3 steps, and everything went to hell in short order. I went from being a hands-on supervisor in three continents, to sitting silently in my cubicle for hours at a time, just staring at my computer screen, snapping at anyone who came near me, unable to remember who it was I was talking to.
And thus began the downward slide, which sent me on a 5-year detour out of my main career path, put me in a bunch of situations that were far beneath my skill level, and now has me battling back from the brink of personal financial ruin — fortunately with a really great company with wonderful future prospects and amazing teams all-around.
But downward slides don’t have to last forever. They can even slow down and stop short and turn around. In my case, the slide is turning around — and make no mistake, it hasn’t been quick or easy. It’s required a tremendous amount of work, constant vigilance, resilience for all those times I strayed or got lost or forgot what path I was on. But that work and energy and focus have not been expenses for me. They have been investments. And the pay-off has been huge.
Someone once said to me that our greatest weaknesses can sometimes become our greatest strengths. And I have to say that with regard to mild traumatic brain injury, the skills I’ve developed in managing my own physical and cognitive issues have helped me become a better manager of my workload, my relationships, and my working life overall. I’m far more mindful now, than I’ve ever been before. I’m also more cautious and careful, and the attention to detail and keeping the big picture in mind I have been forced to cultivate for my persona life have done wonders for my professional path.
See, it’s not just about being employable again, that matters to me now. After all I’ve lost in the course of my life — relationships, jobs, homes, money, stability… just about everything that people told me I HAD to have to be happy — what I know now is that my resilience will see me through, and my ability to rebound, which I’ve had to develop, will be there for me, even when all seems lost, and I can’t see my way through. Being employable is just part of the whole picture. What I want much more, is to have a full and complete life, one where I have warm connections with family, friends, and co-workers alike, and where I can be connected with a larger world than what exists in the hidden recesses of my brain.
Last night, I had a terrible nightmare that my brain was horribly broken, and nothing was working. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t talk in a way that I could be understood, I couldn’t behave properly, and all the world around me shimmered and shifted and careened wildly out of control, as I struggled to pretend to keep up. All I could think about was the chatter in my brain, being unable to interpret anything that was going on. All I could do was withdraw, farther and farther back into my shell.
But then, in my dream, I stopped. I just stopped. I quit thinking hard about everything going on around me. I quit trying to analyze everything and see what it truly meant. I got out of my head and quit second-guessing what people were saying and doing.
I also stopped withdrawing. I started engaging people in conversation. I started reacting to what they were saying. I started being mindful of others, not just myself. I started doing things — moving physically, like walking and moving and talking with my hands — instead of just sitting passively by, trying to sort things out. I ventured out of my shell and started to DO.
And the nightmare stopped. It turned into a regular dream. It was still frustrating for me to be dreaming about paying close attention to others outside my head. It felt uncomfortable and slow and ungainly. But it worked. By the time my dream was over, I was fully engaged with the people in my dream, I was having conversations, I was doing things. And it wasn’t a nightmare anymore.
That is the ideal I seek — in my waking life, as well as my dreaming one: to be connected with others in ways that help me be part of the larger world. I’ve been locked away from the rest of the world for so long, being uncertain and unsure about so very much, and not knowing how to step out and find out what else is out there. It’s true in my working life, that I work better when I am connected with others. And I feel better, too. I AM better, when I do that. And the connection I practice at work carries over to the rest of my life, my social life, my family life, my community life.
It doesn’t just make me fully employable (and more). It makes me a better person, a better member of my community, a better spouse, a better relative, a happier, more fulfilled individual who can contribute more to the world around me than I ever dreamed possible.
Yes, after TBI, you can become fully employable again. And more. The good news is, you’re not just going to become fully employable. Your life is going to become fully liveable.
So live. And learn. And love. Never stop trying, and you’ll never stop receiving the blessings and gifts that come from this.
Just something to keep in mind in the New Year.