… for the moment you are in now.
Thus spake dictionary.com, when I wandered over to look up a word. True, true, true.
And if all my life leading up to this moment is a rehearsal for this moment, then this moment is also a rehearsal for what’s coming later. You can improve your brain matter at any age. You can prepare for any eventuality. I’m convinced of it. Of course, your preparation may not be adequate, or you may be preparing yourself to fail, by setting your sights on things far beyond your scope of ability — like taking up downhill race skiing at the age of 92, when osteoporosis and arthritis have set in. Discretion is the better part of valor, so why set yourself up?
I’m feeling a little like I left the TBI SoS series a bit abruptly. Things got busy. I flew across the country. I had other things I wanted to talk about. Distractability can be a real bitch, sometimes. Anyway, the magical three steps I’ve identified for restoring my own sense of self are:
1. Understanding the nature of Self as an expression of an individual’s unique personal abilities.
2. The overt, conscious valuation of those abilities both by the individual and those around them.
3. The repeated practice of progressive abilities, all of which lead to further growth and improvements and expand the sense of Self beyond the limits it once had (even beyond the limits it sensed prior to the injury).
Which is to say, this thing we call our Self is specific and unique to us. It’s the part that’s unlike any others, but which makes it possible for us to connect with others. Those differences are not deficits. Not if we value them. And the overt, conscious, deliberate valuation of our differences, our abilities, is what helps us to get back to a place where we feel like ourselves again.
Indeed, if you consider that differences are what make us individuals, then the changes that take place in us after TBI aren’t necessarily deficits. Of course, if we look at them as losses (which to some extent they are) and get stuck in that loss, and we continue to try to get back what may be gone or changed for good, then we lose the chance to seek out new ways to be unique and individual.
One of the BIG problems I have with TBI rehab — based on reports from survivors as well as videos I’ve watched on YouTube — is the focus on accepting your deficits and resigning yourself to a life that is less than 100%. Less than 100% of what, exactly? How we were before? What we were before? That may be an accurate assessment, if you use your old life as a measure of your future prospects, but the minute we start doing that — basing our current value and self-assessments on an old, outworn mesaure — we hobble ourselves and our future.
Who among us ever remains the same throughout the duration of their life? Not a one. Who among us never changes, due to circumstances? Only someone who is stunted by fear or some sort of imbalance. Normal people change. We change all the time. After job changes. After life changes. After marriage, divorce, death, birth, and all those other life passages that we as humans participate in. Our bodies change over time. Our personalities change, as well. But all along, we remain who we are. And so long as we feel comfortable and fluid in our self-expression, we can be reasonably sure of who we are in the world.
It’s the dramatic life changes that turn us upside-down. Natural disasters that destroy our homes. War and pestilence that decimates our families. Sudden divorce. Unexpected deaths. TBI. All of these — and more — do their part to warp our sense of Self and make us strangers in our own skin.
See, here’s the thing (for me, at least). The tragedy of loss of Self is not so much about losing specific abilities or capabilities. It’s not about losing your balance or your hearing or your cool. The real loss comes from losing the sense of fluidity, the sense of mastery, your sense of beign a viable individual. It’s the loss of ease and grace that hammers us, not the loss of specific abilities. I would even suggest that even in the face of a substantial loss, if we have backup abilities that can come online to help us immediately — say, we become intensely sensitive to light and sound, but we soon learn to use sunglasses and noise-canceling earphones to protect our senses… or we suddenly have a piss-poor memory, but we’ve got a PDA that we constantly use and we’re already used to writing things down — that can soften the blow and keep us from disintegrating into a pile of quivering self-doubt.
It’s not the loss of specific ability that gets us. It’s the loss of confidence, and the loss of our sense that We are Alright, because we can handle whatever comes along, that does the damage.
And given that, if it’s the loss of the feel of grace and ease and mastery which undercuts our sense of who and what we are and defines our individuality, then hell yes, we can restore a sense of Self over time. Our renewed sense of Self comes from repeated actions, practiced actions, the over and over and over again that goes along with things we seek to do well.
These don’t even need to be big things. I can tell you in no uncertain terms, I have gained some of my greatest wins and restored a considerable amount of confidence from seemingly stupid little steps that I mastered. Things like daily exercise. Things like being able to get through making my breakfast without melting down and messing up the kitchen. Things like being able to relax.
In my practice and mastery of those things, I found a solid footing I had lost in the aftermaths of my TBIs. Not just the most recent one in 2004, but all the others I’ve had, each of which took something from me that was a core value about myself. The cumulative effects have not been easy to to deal with. Far from it. But through the simplest of actions — making lists about what I needed to do each morning and following them until I had my routine down pat — I found my footing. Solid footing. And that set the stage for a level of comfort I had all but given up on.
And these small steps, these small ways I was able to restore my sense of mastery, also restored my sense of Self. Because in the midst of all the confusion and frustration and trial and error of my daily life, I was able to make good, solid starts to my days which set the stage with confidence and surety. Before I had my morning routine down pat, I started out every day steeped in the most caustic acid bath of self-doubt and insecurity. Before I figured out how to get my breakfast made without blowing up, I couldn’t get out the door and get on with my day in a sane frame of mind. But once I had the basics mastered, it set me up in a very good way for future success and future confidence. And even when everything at work was looking confusing and frustrating and not very promising, being able to go back to the basics and practice them with mastery, retracing my morning routine at night, and ending each day on a stable note, did wonders for my ability to cope and just get on with it.
No matter how small our actions, no matter how insignificant our new masteries may be, the fact that they are masteries, is what gives them potency. It’s what gives them power. They can be the “littlest things” — being able to brush our teeth, take a shower, and wash our hair every morning, being able to make breakfast in such a way that the coffee isn’t cold by the time the egg and toast are ready to eat. Or they can be more complex things — being able to control our emotions when confronted by the unexpected, to read a book or participate in a conversation, or to go on an extended business trip and participate fully in the experience without melting down. The main thing is how we participate and experience them. The main thing is not what we do, but how we feel.
That feeling of mastery, even if it’s related to a new activity or an old activity we’ve changed, is what restores us. And if we focus on that, rather than the specifics of what we’re doing and our judgments about them, we have a chance to increase the value of those things, and come to accept ourselves and our newfound ways more than ever.
Take, for example, someone who’s been hurt in an accident, and is unable to walk without braces and canes. I once knew someone like that — they’d fallen 100 floors in an elevator, and lived to tell the story. They could have given up and given in, but they turned their attention to other activities — ones that weren’t dependent on their legs to get by. They went from being an elevator inspector to being a stock market investor, and in the process they ended up much better off, financially, than they’d ever been before. Even with the stock market crash of 1987, they only lost a fraction of their holdings, because they were smart and didn’t get greedy. They couldn’t walk without canes, but they could drive a modified sportscar and they could certainly participate on other levels. I doubt they would have said falling 100 storeys in an elevator was the best thing that ever happened to them, but they made it work. They made their life work.
So, no matter how different we may end up, after TBI, there is always more about ourselves that we can discover. We can certainly stay stuck in our past, interpreting our every mistake as an indication that something is wrong with us, and we’re too damaged to get on with it. But the simple fact is, our brains are plastic. Our lives are plastic. We can shape and change them however we like – within reason, of course. Not a single one of us knows just how much we are capable of. And until we stop clinging to the past and decide to move on to the future, we cannot find out.
We’re all — TBI or otherwise — like shards of a broken vessel, that needs to be put back together again. Tikkun Olam is one way of saying it, I think. Repairing a broken world. Repairing our broken Selves. Restoring our whole Selves — and others — in the face of shattering circumstances, so that the light we all hold within ourselves can shine forth. When we see the light, instead of the broken pieces, and we find new ways to experience and express that light, how much more can we be, than just survivors of some terrible accident or fate?
Ultimately, all of this TBI SoS series is just a very long way of saying:
- Our Selves are the collection of unique qualities we express with ease and grace.
- Our sense of Self depends not only on our uniqueness, but on a sense of mastery and fluidity that comes with practice of those qualities.
- When that sense of mastery is disrupted, our sense of Self is, too. We get lost. We lose ourselves in the newness of our reshaped brains.
- Nevertheless, we can restore our Sense of Self by achieving mastery. These can be in small ways, or in large. But they should matter. They should have value for us and for others.
- By practicing our mastery, day in and day out, we can build a foundation for our sense of Self that restores our own confidence on small but important scales, which then set the stage for later, more complex masteries.
- Ultimately, we can find our way back to our Selves by expanding our definition of who we are and what we’re capable of doing. And we may just find that the new Self we inhabit has abilities and talents we never would have discovered, had we not been forced to.
All of us change over time, without exception. Welcoming the changes in our Selves and letting our Selves be made new again isn’t something to be feared. It’s something to be encouraged and valued. Fearing changes helps no one. Fearing differences just makes matters worse — for ourselves and others.
And in the end, it’s not so much what life sends our way, that determines our future and our comfort level with who we are, but what we do with those well-camouflaged gifts.
This is the eighth part in a multi-part exploration of sense of self and how it’s affected by traumatic brain injury. Read the other sections here.