Life After Traumatic Brain Injury-Goodbye Me, Hello Me
20th Feb 2011 | Posted in: PTSD, TBI 0

So that we may all better understand our veterans with invisible wounds, reach out to learn more about what it means to live with a traumatic brain injury.

By Pam Hays Severe TBI Survivor


The Arms Forces

On September 13, 2000 I experienced both death and life. But, I didn’t even realize all this until months later. I had no consciousness of what was going on in my brain as it was slammed repeatedly against my skull as I flew 20 feet into the air. That day in September, my broken, bleeding body lay in the middle of The Blue Ridge Parkway in West Virginia. I have learned in my post-injury years of having a traumatic brain injury that death of your old self must occur, before acceptance of your new self can begin. When death happens, usually that person is grieved by friends and family members. The memory of the way they were stays in the minds of those who love them. With a brain injury, the person that received the injury has died of their old self, and is also going through a grieving process along with their loved ones. All the usual steps of grief have to be taken by the survivor, before finding life on the other side of the brain injury.

 The steps to grieving have been around a long time. But, little did I know that they could be applied in my situation. I must be clear and tell you that I didn’t even realize I was going through these stages of grief as I was dealing with my injuries. It was about three years after my accident that I associated my feelings and reactions to the stages of grief that people go through when experiencing the death of loved one. I was not very accepting of the fact that I was grieving myself, who I was before the accident. That fact, of not accepting, made me realize I was still in the denial stage. This first stage of grieving is where you act like everything is the same. You don’t accept or even acknowledge the loss. I had very little exterior injuries. My back was broken in eleven places which caused me extreme pain and difficulty with physical issues, but it was what was going on inside my head that was so hard to accept.

 After the rehabilitation of the physical issues, it was the traumatic brain injury that brought me to tears. Who was this lady that was afraid to go to the grocery store, who couldn’t read a book properly, sometimes starting at the back and going right to left for a chapter without realizing her mistake? Just a bad day I would say to myself. Why did I say “I love teeth” at Thanksgiving dinner when referring to the turkey? This got a big laugh, as did some of the other non-sensible things that came out of my mouth which are a story in themselves. Just an honest mistake, I thought. Anyone could do it, denial. Why couldn’t I, the woman who loved to bake, follow a simple recipe for cookies? Just tired, I would claim, denying the truth, again. Music being played in my car sounded like 20 bands playing at the same time. No good music these days. Denial. When someone spoke to me, after a few sentences I had no idea what they were saying. Too embarrassed to say anything, I fumbled with trying to act like I got it all. Denial.

 When in denial, I kept trying things over and over the same way as before. Of course, that led to the same outcomes until one day I left denial and went into bargaining. It is usually step three of grief, but everyone is different. Anger is usually number two, but anger is not an easily reached emotion for me. But, it did come later. Bargaining is interesting to do with yourself. Usually in grief, you bargain with a loved one, spouse or whoever. But, I told my new self if I could just do some things like my old self I would be happy. Wrong. Being happy with what I was able to achieve the first few years was not enough.

I wanted to be able to think, read, and live like I did before the accident. After a few more years of pushing myself to be and do things like the “old me”, I found it impossible and I became angry. And then, I went to step four, depression.

 Listen to excerpts of the talks I had with myself. “You could always do many things at once, just push yourself”. “Slow down brain, just let me get this”. “Why did I volunteer, I will never be able to follow through on this”. “The kids and grandkids” must be sick of seeing me this way”. “I am so nauseous and my head kills, this can’t be my life forever”. “Why? Why can’t I just be like I was before? I remember when I could …” “Is this the way it is always going to be”? “I am so tired. What is the point of trying?” This was a long step for me. My personal life was falling apart and fear and hopelessness was all I could feel. Then I couldn’t feel anything. Scared and lost, I struggled in this stage wavering from mild to severe. Gradually, I tried more things, and I became more confident by reading about others in my same situation. The realization that there were others struggling from the same issues I was, was comforting. That seems a strange human nature, but nonetheless, true.

  Ah, the final step, acceptance. This is the luscious dessert after a horrible meal. This is what you have to savor in your life. Acceptance does not mean giving up on who you lost, nor does it mean that once you reach this step you are done. Acceptance comes in bits and pieces the rest of your life. For me, I accepted that I was never going to be me, the way I was before the accident. But, I also realized what good came from losing the old self. I was free to take what was left of my pre 9/13/2000 self and blend it with who I am now. I have to slow down, or my world becomes so chaotic. But, slowing down has helped me see things I might have missed before. With loss, certain events and details of your life try to slam you back into depression. But, with acceptance you know out of the pain comes comfort and learning. You realize that you can hurt and miss and cry without becoming hopeless.

 And, you learn to have a good laugh again. What is not to laugh about, when you ask for the salt and pepper and say “Will you please pass the hammer and nails?” Ah, brain injury, such a medical mystery. It is good to be alive. It is good to be me.

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