Discovering a new identity after brain injury – or creating one? – Part II

I decide who I am

I had to run out the door to work this morning, before I could “finish my thoughts” on Discovering a new identity after brain injury – or creating one?, so now I’ll continue…

So, after my fall in 2004, something happened to my old sense of being able to reinvent myself at will. I lost my flexibility. I lost my fluidity. I lost my “old” Self — the Self who knew there was more to me than I knew at the present time.

That change didn’t happen immediately. It was a gradual process… a slow erosion of who I was and who I knew myself to be… as I had one instance after another of feeling and thinking and behaving not only different from how I wanted to feel and think and behave, but how I intended and expected my Self to be.  Listening to myself fly off the handle over little things… Watching myself get so belligerent and argumentative over stuff that never used to bother me… Seeing my whole way of relating to others fall apart — getting all jumpy and antsy and aggressive — and never being able to really predict how I would be, on any given day…

One experience after another happened, to make me doubt and question who I was, and take me farther and farther from my Self. Some people turn to religion or spirituality to find their way back themselves again. For me, any religious or spiritual feeling was gone, baby, gone. I had always felt a close connection to God, Spirit, Creator, Higher Power (whatever you may call it), but after my fall in 2004, I just couldn’t be bothered. People around me would want to pray and meditate, and all I could do, was roll my eyes and get irritated.

That all takes a toll. Especially when your behavior is nothing like what you want it to be. And how I was, did not resemble me in the least. I found myself doing and saying things I regretted even before I started — but I was helpless to stop it. The worst part was, I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about it, because it was so terribly painful for me, and I would start to cry, when I thought or talked about it. I was deeply, deeply ashamed of my behavior. I knew better. Why couldn’t I do better?

I just pulled away from people, over several years after my fall in 2004. Only after I started regularly seeing a neuropsychologist in 2008, did things start to turn around. They got me reoriented in the right direction, and after a few years, I started to be responsible again. I got my act together, bit by bit, and things really improved for me, all across the board.

But there was still a missing piece of it all, a missing part of me that made me feel like a stranger in my own skin — uncomfortable with myself, not feeling like I recognized myself. I tried discussing it with my neuropsych, but they didn’t seem to realize the dept of my distress — maybe because I kept it wrapped so tightly under this veneer of capability, that they never could have known how wrecked I felt inside.

In any case, they never directly addressed my dissolving sense of Self with me. They were more focused on how I perceived myself in relation to myself and to others. Maybe they knew all the time that I had to reconstruct a sense of who I was, in order to fully recover. Or maybe they just didn’t seem to think my identity crisis was that big of a deal.

In any case, the net result of it all, was that I ended up spending a whole lot of time coming up with ways that I could make sense of my own life in my own way. Keeping this blog has been a big piece of it, as well as finding new things that got me interested in my life again — things that I felt were brand new discoveries. Even if I had “discovered” them before (sometimes several times), the fact that they felt new to me, kept me going. It kept me curious. It kept me looking and searching. It kept me engaged in my life.

And it gave me the feeling that I wasn’t just rediscovering my old self, but I was actively creating a new one. As I reduced the stress in my life, I found myself able to enjoy things again. I didn’t worry about whether those things “mattered” or not — or whether I was really fully appreciating what they were about. I didn’t care if I didn’t follow everything in the scientific papers I was reading. That wasn’t the point. The point was about reading something that intrigued me — even if I didn’t actually understand 100% what was being discussed.

I also found myself able to learn new things, albeit slowly. I taught myself to juggle, and that gave me a huge confidence boost. I figured, if other people could learn it, why not me?

I got involved in different projects and different undertakings, and I even did a live presentation that was broadcast to a special interest group. I never went back to the group after that. The point was that I did my presentation to begin with. I made art. I took photos. I did volunteer work. I created picture books and animations about topics that intrigued me. Just for the sake of doing it.

And all along, when I felt like I was in uncharted waters or things were unfamiliar to me, I treated it all like a learning experience. A series of teachable moments. A time to not only discover parts of myself I had never noticed before, but to create a new understanding of myself that was bigger than the rigid ideas I had about who I was and what was possible for me and my life.

At some point, I realized that the more time I spent trying to recreate the lost parts of myself from before, the less time I was spending on creating new experiences and discovering new parts of myself. And I also realized that the more I focused on the new and interesting developments in my life, the less I was bothered by the troublesome new parts.

When I was totally focused on something fascinating in front of me, the light and sound sensitivities didn’t make me nuts. When I was caught up in doing something that mesmerized me, it brought my brain to life, and I felt like I could think again. When I was actively learning new things, I had a sense of hope that drowned out all the bad feelings from meltdowns and blowups that really wrecked my peace of mind.

I didn’t just want to restore what I’d lost — like filling up divots in a golf course. I wanted to go explore a whole new part of the countryside, far away from those mucked up 18 holes.

In a very real way, my restored Sense of Self is a result of things I did to recreate it — to have a new and bigger understanding of myself in the context of my life. Over the years, I’ve developed some really helpful techniques to help me just stay chill and calm, so I can pay attention to the things that really matter in my life — the things that I can control and manage. I find that as long as I take care of myself and I keep showing up, my recovery progresses. There are always set-backs, but eventually things come together, and I’m stronger than before. And I find new ways to redefine myself and my place in the world.

So, I’m going to stop writing now and go read some more works about identity after TBI. It turns out, there’s a ton of stuff that’s been written, and some of it is very good. I find people talking about people “rediscovering” their identity after TBI, regaining a sense of who they are, and so forth. For me, creating a bigger and more durable identity is so important — it’s not just about discovery, it’s about actively taking a role in re-making yourself in the ways you choose.

I’ve always done this. That’s what I need to remember. Ever since I was a little kid, and I got moved around a lot, shuffled from one school to the next, from one peer group to the next. I’ve always had to adjust and redefine myself. And adapting after TBI is no exception to that rule. The stakes are higher now, and I have no real safety net, so it’s even more important that I take responsibility for my Sense Of Self.

I hope what I’ve learned can help others, as well.

We’ll see…



Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

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