Spending time with my family was a study in contrasts, this past weekend.
On the one hand, I have relatives who are quite old, who have made it through amazing challenges and trials, and have come out on the other side with incredible strength and fortitude.
On the other hand, I have relatives who are elderly, who have been through many challenges, themselves, but they seem to have suffered, rather than gained strength. They struggle with the after-effects of life, even though their lives have not been appreciably more taxing than those of my relatives who have prevailed.
One of the big differences seems to be neurological. To say that my family is “neurodiverse” would be an understatement. There are folks on the Autism spectrum, folks who have serious issues with OCD and hoarding, folks who have such profound anxiety, that they cannot deal with pretty much anything and they run away from any challenge.
And then there are those relatives of mine who are just… different. They’re not like the people I live around every day. There is something quite different about their world view, their orientation to life, and the way they relate to others. It’s very clear that their brains have been shaped differently by the environment they live in, which is a close-knit community centered around their religion and their own particular set of beliefs.
Seeing them in action is ample evidence that we can — and do — change our brains, every waking moment of our lives. My relatives and their social circle are radically different from the rest of the world, because they have been thinking and acting and believing differently from the rest of the world, all their lives — for generations. They have specific thought patterns, they have specific beliefs, they have specific priorities and routines and rituals they go through every day, every week, every month, every year of their lives, from the cradle to the grave, and they are — each and every one of them — defined and refined by that particular mix.
And if they can create identities and senses of who they are that are radically removed from “the world”, developing their brains in ways that set them apart from some and pull them closer to others, then by God, anybody can do it.
Seriously. I do not not spring from a long line of rocket scientists. They’re simple people. Not stupid, for sure, but not clever and brilliant in the ways that we associate with geniuses and, well, rocket scientists. They have a different sort of intelligence that they have cultivated over the years, which they constantly reinforce by repeating certain “truths” to themselves over and over again.
- Things shall be done this way — not that.
- These — not those — are our values.
- You must answer to your neighbors if you step out of line with how you maintain your house and yard.
- You must answer to your church, if you step out of line with your lifestyle and habits.
- There is a right way and a wrong way, and while the choice is yours, you can’t stay on as a member of the community unless you follow the right way.
While I don’t ascribe to most of what they believe, anymore, still I have benefitted from the tenacity and resolve they have, and my TBI recovery has been very much shaped by the routines and rituals I have developed in place of the old ones I was raised with. And the fact that I am doing as well as I am — keeping it together during the trip to the family, as well as keeping it together now, getting plenty of rest yesterday, following through with plans and necessary activities — has every bit to do with that discipline and rigor of my upbringing.
And looking at how differently my relatives have developed — in some ways not so healthy — I cannot help but believe with all my heart that the same principles of brain “re-wiring” that apply to them and the generations of my ancestors before me, apply all across the board, to all of us who have brains (including animals).
We change. Our brains change. Our habits of thought and action shape us, and our focused attention directs the ways in which our brain connections fire together — and wire together. Everything we do, affects our brain, and even after injury, the brain can still rewire itself in ways that nobody thought possible. The more we learn about the brain, the more we realize we have yet to learn, and as far as I’m concerned, all bets are off, in terms of what can be accomplished after a brain injury.
Five critical ingredients, I believe, are:
It takes a lot of energy and dedication to turn your brain (and your life) around, and you have to keep your motivation up. You have to want it, like nothing else. You have to find reasons you’re doing it — reasons bigger than yourself, which pull you out of your funk and move you forward.
Motivation has a way of running low, though, so you need more than that. In the absence of motivation, you have to be extremely disciplined — each and every day — to ensure that your brain is getting a regular dose of proper training.
Rest comes next. You cannot grow and heal without rest. The body needs to clear out the leftover junk from your brain, and sleep does that. And your motivation and discipline require fuel. Rest provides that.
Next up, is humility, because restoring yourself, your abilities, and finding new ones you never knew existed, can be a humbling experience. Things you used to have “down pat” don’t work anymore. Things you used to know and be able to do easily … well, they may be gone, either temporarily or permamently. You can have a humiliating experience, or a humbling one. Choose humility, and you make it easier on yourself. No one has all the answers. Humility makes it possible to learn things from scratch, which is just part of the deal after brain injury.
Last of all is faith — it can be religious, or it can be just a faith in the process, that whatever comes will have some greater purpose, and that all challenges are opportunities for growth. Faith is the thing that keeps us going when everything else fails. The motivation and discipline, rest and humility, that you depend on, may be in short supply, so you’ve gotta have faith. It’s the only way.
Ultimately, I believe that the key to a quality TBI recovery is consistency and repetition. Our brains have gotten scrambled. Our wires have been either disconnected, or frayed beyond recognition. Sometimes whole parts of our brains are out of commission. But now we know that critical parts of the brain can be destroyed, or never even in existence, and it doesn’t need to stop us from living our lives. We can regain functionality. We can continue.
TBI recovery means a lot of different things to different people. Some folks even maintain it can’t be done.
Those people have no imagination, apparently. Plus, their science is off. Certainly, there are parts of our systems that will be gone-baby-gone, but I’m not talking about replicating the exact same functionality of every affected part, so we go back to being exactly as we were before. We’re talking about recovering quality of life and abilities of many kinds — recovering from the loss, the shattered self, the damage to our ability to live and function and be a part of a larger community. NONE of those things need be lost. It may take time, but they can be restored.
During my last trip to see my family, I was able to look people in the eye. I was able to think through options and weigh choices, as well as map out plans based on numerous scenarios. I was able to “be there” for my parents in ways I’ve never been able to, before, and I kept my cool for the most part, except when I was so drastically tired, that I couldn’t even think (and wasn’t being very patient).
My experience and personal expression is dramatically different from how it’s been over the years past, and I have TBI recovery to thank for that. Anybody who says TBI recovery is not possible, needs to revise their world view.