Looking over the horizon. (Image from swissre.com ad.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about the changes we all go through in the course of our lives. Especially in context of TBI / concussion, we are routinely forced by circumstances to create a new understanding of ourselves and our world.
When you’re dealing with a life-altering event, such as the loss of a loved-one, a new job, a change or loss of residence, or a sudden illness, you need to find new ways to understand your life and your place in it. In some cases, you need to reconstruct or replace what you lost. In other cases, there’s no way to replace what’s gone away.
Things and money can be replaced, but people and the things we love most… well, once they are gone, we may literally need to reconstruct our lives in many ways, large and small, to make sense of our lives again.
In thinking about what we lose in TBI / concussion, we can lose not only our “self”, but also the sense of who we are — our Sense-Of-Self. It’s disorienting, distressing, traumatic. Walking through life without a clear sense of yourself and who you are or where you belong… maybe not even having a clear sense of familiarity with many of the things you used to take for granted… it’s tough. And it brings its own sort of trauma with it.
On my Saturday morning hike this morning, it occurred to me that one of the things that makes this so difficult, is the rigidity that often comes with TBI. Check out Stuck in a Thought Tunnel: Rigidity after Brain Injury for a great discussion of this. Here’s an excerpt from that blog post:
What is Rigidity after Brain Injury?
Imagine you wear blinkers that prevent you from seeing to either side of you.
This is what rigidity can look like – blinkers keep you following a line without being able to take in other information around you.
The difficulty with rigidity is that it is easily mistaken for more deliberate acts. It may be thought of as stubbornness, being obstructive, being stuck in a rut, or bloody-mindedness.
Inflexibility or Rigidity after brain injury, from any cause, means you are not able to adjust your thoughts or actions in response to changes that happen to you, or in your environment.
Rigidity after brain injury is not deliberate, it is an outcome of the damage to brain cells.
So, brain injury can make you stubborn, narrow-minded, brittle, inflexible, and give you tunnel-vision. And that’s a tough place to be in, when you need to be flexible to re-learn about your life post-injury.
In my mind, brain injury recovery is all about learning — our brains need to re-learn how to do things (often simple, everyday things), our bodies may need to re-learn how to move and function. We may need specialized training in things that used to be so simple for us, because the connections of our brains that used to run those things have been bumped out of place, like power cords being bumped out of their respective sockets.
Anyone who’s ever been vacuuming and accidentally pulled the cord out of the wall, knows a little bit of what it’s like to have a brain injury. One minute you’re ON, the next, you’re running out of power… and you’re OFF.
The thing with all this learning and re-learning is, it’s nothing new for our systems. We are constantly learning, constantly re-learning. Every waking moment, we are primed to learn, to take information about our world, and then put it to practical use. When we look at the weather and memorize the hourly forecast for Saturday, we are learning. When we meet someone new and they tell us their name and something about them, we are learning. When we read something new online and then share and discuss it with our friends, we are learning.
Learning is nothing new. We are built to learn.
Likewise, creating “new normals” is also nothing new. Every time something different happens in our lives and we adjust to it, we are creating a new normal. We begin to date someone we just met. We keep dating, and they become part of our lives. New normal. We decide to move in together, or to get married. Transitions ensue. Adjustments. New normal. Maybe we have kids. Or we get a dog or some cats or a bird. We have to rearrange our lives around our new dependents. New normal.
In the course of our lives, things are constantly changing. People and jobs and situations come in and out of our environment… one new normal after another. We get used to things being a certain way, then they change without our expecting. New normal. We are always, always re-inventing ourselves. Creating new normals is really nothing new.
Now, if you throw TBI into the mix, it gets interesting. Rigid thinking rises up and bites us in the ass. We get scared. We resist. We don’t want to do things a new way, because we think the old way is just fine. Well, maybe it is. But we may need to re-learn how to do it all over again. And we may find ourselves slipping up, here and there, trying to rely on old habits that no longer serve.
Kind of like how a widowed spouse will start talking to their “other half”, realizing too late that they’re gone. And they are alone in the house.
A new normal needs to develop. It’s not always welcome, but it needs to be created.
The point of all this is that when it comes to brain injury recovery, we as human beings actually know how to do it. We know how to learn. We know how to adjust. We do it all the time. We just get stuck in our foggy-thinking ways of resistance and not seeing clearly what needs to change. We get scared — and that’s normal. At the same time, if we stay scared and let it run our lives, we miss out on the chance to find out what else is possible for us in the big, wide world we call home.
New normal is not the enemy. Nor is it anything particularly new. It’s just what we do.