I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the things I’ve left behind over the years. The people, the places, the things… as well as the abilities and interests that have gone away, due in large part to TBI. With Thanks-giving fast approaching, here in the U.S., and travels to old haunts and family activities on the horizon, I have been thinking a lot about how things are different now than they were before — as well as how things might have been different, had I not fallen in 2004 and gotten screwed up with that head injury.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about how I handle my life now, compared with before, due to my TBI recovery work, and my discussions with my neuropsych. The professional I see for rehab work is not very big on acknowledging or dealing with the losses I’ve experienced — in part because my perception of those things has been pretty heavily skewed, and it isn’t always accurate. And my NP is there to get me to move forward, not stay stuck in the past.
In any case, they don’t seem to believe me when I tell them about how things were before my injury. Like so many people, they make up their minds about who and how I am, and they use that as a reference point for dealing with me. Their reference point isn’t always accurate — but then, my own reference points are not always accurate, either. So, between all these different reference points, without having any confidence in specific details about Who I Really Am and How I Used To Be, I just keep moving forward, keep living my life, and I
don’t try not to worry about.
But aside from the general haziness of who I really am and how I really am, I have been dealing with a lot of sense of loss, lately. I have immediate family members who have either passed on, or are in their late-late golden years and may not be around much longer. I also have family members who make what I consider really un-healthy decisions and are locked in a constant struggle with drama they have invented with their own personal choices. All in all, it’s pretty depressing to go visit my family, because there is so much unhappiness — due in large part to people making decisions that are not healthy or helpful for them and those around them. The worst part is, they can’t seem to see any way out of their decisions, as though they “have” to do those things that hurt them.
Am I being vague? Here are some examples of choices by loved-ones that depress me:
- Moving in with someone and then marrying them, despite the fact that they have a drinking problem… then being stuck in a marriage that looks great on the outside to everyone who cannot see that your spouse is structuring their entire life schedule around getting drunk — and you’re stuck in that schedule, too. For years. Till you leave them and start living with someone else who doesn’t seem like a much better choice.
- Losing your spouse to cancer at a relatively young age, when you have two young kids, and never getting those kids proper counseling help for their loss… and marrying someone who looks exactly like the spouse you lost and you don’t really love, but is a good parent for your kids… and burying yourself in a very extreme religion to dull the pain of your choices.
- Having a lot of health issues that are directly related to lifestyle — eating foods that are bad for you, keeping a schedule that is unhealthy, and ignoring the warning signs your body is giving you — and being progressively more crippled each year from the foods you eat and the way you live your life.
- Spending your life in a profession that is combative and antagonistic, and bringing that combativeness and antagonism into the home where you verbally attack anyone who disagrees with you, hurting and pushing people away “on principle”.
- Choosing to marry for practical, popular reasons instead of love, then spending the rest of your adult life pining for a deep emotional connection with your spouse that has never been there, and never will be… refusing to accept responsibility for your choice in partners… and being on heavy-duty meds to dull the pain of your choices and your refusal to make different choices in your life that would suit you better but be less popular with others… Basically medicating yourself to avoid taking any responsibility for your life.
I don’t mean to be cold or unkind — my frustration comes from knowing just how much better life can be, and feeling great pain for the individuals I love and care for, who seem so stuck in the ruts they’ve grooved into their lives. We don’t have to be victims! I want to pick them up and shake them and let them know there is a better way. But it’s like we’re living in parallel universes and speaking in a different language, and they cannot hear or understand what I’m saying.
Now, I know life is never going to be perfect, for sure, and there is much pain and struggle for all of us. Most people struggle with inner demons that no one else can see, but we fight with daily. But the fight doesn’t have to be miserable. We can see it as a regular part of life that can bring us some freedom and relief — and help to define and refine our characters.
So, there is hope. At the same time, there is so much grief and loss and pain. This time of year is very hard for me, because I lost some important people around this time of year, and the autumn-time experience of loss still stays with me to this day. It’s like it’s in my cells — and I re-live it each year, even decades after those losses.
So, the theme for my life during this time of year is mourning. If I don’t do something constructive, the grief just takes over. I know I have many, many reasons to be thankful — and maybe that’s the thing that will save me — Thanks-giving — yet I cannot seem to shake this grief, this sense of having lost so much over the years of my life, thanks to TBI and the results of it, starting in childhood and on into my adult life. I cannot help but wonder, what might have been possible, had I never gotten hurt like that… had I gotten help… had people known about TBI when I was a kid, and given me half a chance. I cannot help but wonder, what might have happened, had I told someone about my head injury when it actually happened in 2004, instead of lying about it and then watching as my whole life went to hell for no apparent reason.
But no, it didn’t happen that way. And I am bereft.
This is something that I think many people fail to see and address — the losses of TBI, the importance of recognizing and mourning of those losses, and dealing with the deep grief that comes from knowing that once upon a time you could do better… that once upon a time, you took certain things for granted… that once upon a time, so much was possible… but now it’s all different. It’s not like that anymore. Maybe somewhat, somehow, but not exactly. And you have to start from scratch in many ways, and fight your way back to where you want to be — if you can ever get there at all.
Sometimes, you can’t get there as quickly as you’d like, or not at all, and then you have to let it go. You have to just cut your losses and move on.
But “cutting losses” doesn’t factor in the pain that comes from those losses, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
When I try to explain to people what it was like for me before I fell in 2004, I get blank stares.
When I try to tell them how I used to be able to just pick things up — new programming techniques, new ideas, new information, they just look at me like it’s no big deal. When I tell them how I used to be in the thick of craziness on the job, day in and day out, without any real negative side-effects, they almost don’t believe me, and they cringe if I tell them what it’s like for me now (if I even do – because nowadays, I don’t).
When I try to tell them how fluid my approach used to be, before I fell — I would see a challenge and I would rise to it without giving it a second thought — they almost don’t believe me, either.
And when I tell them how much money I used to make and how much money I was worth, the flat-out disbelieve me. Because that would be impossible for someone my age without a college degree, doing the kind of work I used to do.
This is partly because they didn’t really know me before. They didn’t know the line of work I was in, and they didn’t know what it was like to work for my employer. They don’t come from the world where I work, each day, and they have no idea just how good things were for me, and how well I could function in those circumstances, and how rewarding it all was. For people who know me now but didn’t know me before, my accounts of how things used to be just sounds like confabulation — or me making things up. Because the difference between now and then is so dramatic and so extreme, that they probably could not begin to imagine me as I once was.
As I believe I once was.
See, there’s the rub — maybe I was that way, or maybe it was my perception of how I was. Maybe I was “all that”, and maybe I wasn’t. I may never know. My memory plays tricks on me all the time, and the best that I can do, some days, is muster a “feeling” about the past that seems true.
I know things used to be different for me. I know I used to be different. Looking at my bank account, and considering the kind of work I do today, compared with 10 years ago, there is a radical difference. Like night and day. And the fact that I am struggling terribly with money these days, just maddens me. It was never like this before. Never. Ever. But now it’s a daily challenge to keep my finances in order and keep myself on track. I manage, but it’s not nearly as easy as it once was.
Money doesn’t lie. That’s the bottom line. And what my money says, is that I’m a very different person than I was before.
Hence the sense of loss. A profound and sometimes debilitating sense of loss. And I am pretty much alone in this sense, because either nobody understands what it’s like to have so much, and lose it. Or they don’t believe I ever had what I once had, in the first place. Or (even worse) they think that nobody deserves to have what I had before, so it was a kind of karmic justice that now I have such troubles.
Loss. Lonely, lonely loss.
But I cannot stay tied down in my depression. I am working my way out of a hole, and I have to handle this alone, so I have developed ways to deal with this whole grief thing.
The first thing I do, is to acknowledge it. Not minimize it. Recognize the experience of loss and grief and mourning as very, very real. And very, very important.
The next thing I do, is understand what it is that I am mourning the loss of.
I recently realized that I can group my losses into two different categories:
- Invented Loss – the “loss” of things that I once-upon-a-time decided that I wanted and needed, but I never really did want or need. These are losses like:
- false friends (who I once thought were my real friends) who ditched me when I stopped having so much money
- possessions that other people told me mattered, but I just didn’t care about
- 100% devotion and dedication to employers who were more than happy to pull the rug out from under me when I ran into trouble, and
- public approval and a sterling reputation, regardless of how sleazy the people were whom I wanted to respect me, regardless of what I needed to do to uphold that reputation
- Genuine Loss – the true loss of things that I really did want and need, but couldn’t hang onto, like:
- being able to read things and understand them immediately
- constant abundant energy
- clear, quick thinking and definite decisions
- my ability to earn top dollar almost without thinking about it
- my ability to learn new things quickly and use what I learned quickly
- confidence in my memory – things didn’t used to seem this foggy before (I’m not sure if this is a genuine or invented loss, however, because it could be that my memory was always spotty, I just wasn’t aware of it)
In some cases, it’s hard for me to tell whether my losses are genuine or invented. My memory is a classic case — it really wasn’t until I started working with my neuropsychologist that I realized how spotty my memory was. And in fact, when I think back, there are big parts of my past that I don’t remember — people always assumed that it was because I had been traumatized as a child and I blocked a lot of things out, but more and more I think it was a lot of other things, including a spotty memory during childhood, thanks to repeated head injuries.
Furthermore, human memory is notoriously unreliable, even with people who have no history of TBI. Just ask the cops. People who see the same thing will have different interpretations, and each person will be convinced that they’re right. That’s just how we’re built. It’s just how we are. TBI or no, memory is a tricky thing, so it doesn’t make that much sense for me to be upset over the crappiness of my memory. Who’s to say that anyone’s is any good?
But still — I think the thing that gets me the most is the loss of my old confidence about who I was and what I was all about. So much changed, so much has altered with me in the past years — 8 years, since my fall down the stairs a day or two after Thanksgiving in 2004 — that some days I don’t know who the hell I am, where I’m going, or what even matters to me.
Some days, I wake up a complete blank — I have no point of reference, I don’t know what day it is, what I should be doing, what I want to do… anything. It’s like everything has been wiped clean. Then I’ll sit for a little bit, re-orient myself, look at my lists, and it will come back to me. Some days, it feels like I’m starting from scratch. Completely. With no experiences from before to guide me.
And I miss that old feeling of knowing who I am and what I’m about and what matters most to me. The things that used to drive me — reading and writing and studying and grasping the secrets of my universe… the subjects that used to absolutely drive me are just not there anymore. What’s left? Other things. New interests. Different subjects that draw me in… if I can remember them.
Ultimately, that’s probably the biggest loss I deal with — losing my sense of self, who I am vs. who I think I was — and losing my confidence about who that “self” once was, and now is. The second-guessing, the not-knowing… it’s a lot to learn to handle, and it’s a lot to learn to manage. I will manage, somehow — I AM managing somehow — and do that keeps my mind off my troubles. But some days, it just gets to me.
Like today. Like right now. I have this deep and abiding sense that I have lost something very important to me, but I’m not exactly sure what that is. I’m not sure if it’s one big thing, or if it’s a lot of little things, and as much as I am determined to build back my life, I just don’t know if/how/when I will be able to do that to my satisfaction.
Because building “back” is a point of confusion, to begin with. My memory of how things once were is not great, so where’s my point of reference? My memory of how I once was, is also not great, so how do I know if I’ve even gotten “back”? I think the thing for me is having the old feeling again — having a sense of who I am and where I am and how my life is… getting that old sense back. If it’s even possible.
Of all the issues that come with TBI, the grief business is probably the most difficult to handle, because it is so hidden, it is so personal, and it’s hard to find others who understand the extent of your loss. Everyone wants you to move on. Everyone wants you to focus on the positives. Everyone wants you to get back to normal and quit feeling sorry for yourself. But TBI can take from us the very things that make us who “we” are — and when you lose that… even if it’s just for a while… it can be vastly unsettling, and it can linger at the back of your mind, like a jabbering monkey, making it hard to just get on with your life — and do the things that will bring you back to where you want to be.
I’m not saying it’s the end. But grief and mourning for the things we have lost — especially realizing that the loss does matter — is an important part of recovery. And until we really look at it and find a way to deal with it constructively, it can overtake us and run our lives without our even knowing.
That’s what I think about it, anyway. And now, it’s time for me to stave off this depression and get my circulation moving. Time for a walk — perhaps in the woods.
Onward. To the future.