What is it like to have a traumatic brain injury?
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What is it like to have a traumatic brain injury?
For Will Carter having a traumatic brain injury meant living in the moment through a series of disconnected vignettes: restlessly focusing on the future, the possibility of recovery.
To be honest, I’ve never really been good at living in the moment. When I was a kid, I always had an answer to, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For the longest time, strangely, it was an astronomer. But after experiencing a traumatic brain injury in October 2007, while a senior at Roswell High School my perspective on the present and on the future changed.
I have always spent a great deal of my mental energy in the future, dreaming, planning, and thinking life will be so much better than it is now. Of course, the future arrived, the future is also moments from the present. Whether it was high school, after my brain injury, college, grad school, marriage, child, job, and then it gets pushed farther forward to another time.
I have an odd relationship with dreaming about the future. See, life after a traumatic brain injury means you are always looking forward to that time of healing. Doctors tell you that you will never be fully healed, but you think, “As long as I can feel mostly healed.” This is what it is like to have a traumatic brain injury.
You think, “As long as I can feel like myself again.”
You believe, “If I just work hard enough, if I just put in enough hours, I will be myself again.”
I’ve written about this before, this yearning for a future time when you will be happy with who you are. As we all muddle through this time of waiting in self-isolation, it has continuously been on my mind. Waiting is good. Stillness and slowness are positive in the time of the coronavirus, it is just that I’m not very good at any of it.
However, after my traumatic brain injury, I have become quite skilled at restless waiting. The kind of waiting where you do everything you can to achieve the thing you are waiting for. At the same time, you wait for this thing to happen. The type of waiting where the pulse of your brain beats with a quick and steady thump, thump, thump to the tune of this desire of the waiting.
I’ll do all the work. I’ll prepare; I’ll put in the time. I’ll apply; I’ll punch; I’ll fight, searching, seeking, beating. I can. I will. I must. Thump, thump, thump. Waiting but restlessly clawing and scratching at the object of the wait.
When people ask what is it like to have a traumatic brain injury, I don’t often think about that moment I was injured or the medical journey. I focus on what I was thinking about in my early recovery. About holding onto this belief that there is a direct connection between the restlessness I was feeling in my mind and the ability to be who you were, to be who you so desperately want to be.
I don’t like who I am now after my traumatic brain injury, but I know I will like who I am going to be.
What is it like to have a traumatic brain injury? It means hating the awkward silence created by my mixing up things, forgetting things, or trying so frantically to fit in and be the person people like and enjoy. The person people genuinely smile at, not sympathetically at.
Even though you keep working after a brain injury, you falter and fall; you fail your first papers; you struggle to make friends; you get back to driving, and you wreck; you wreck, and wreck again. In that first year after the traumatic brain injury, your life after the accident, you feel like a wreck. Am I just a pair of headphones? Meticulously untangled, and then seconds later, a knotted mess?
You say, “One day, I’ll be back. I’ll be able to enjoy the day when the day is tomorrow.”
Now today, I have healed a great deal. God has blessed me immeasurably. There is great joy in my life. I have a glorious wife, a wonderful little girl, a great job, but still…tomorrow beckons to be the object of my desire, “Won’t it be so nice when..?”
Do you have a dependable, regular job? A house? Your debt is paid off? When you can sleep? When you’re able to write? When and when and when and when and when.
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Still, God has been hitting me with encouragement.
Psalm 118:24 says, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
The grubby hands of our minds are constantly tugging at candy wrappers, “I want, I want, I want, I want, I want.”
But, today is here, and your day is glorious. I think the tense here is incredibly important.
“THIS IS the day that the Lord has made; let us REJOICE and BE glad in it.”
Not, this will be the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and will be glad. No, and not, this was the day the Lord made; we rejoiced and were glad in it.
I have lived in both of those last two. I will be able to rejoice, or I wish I had what I had. Because man, I sure did rejoice then.
But it’s a lie!
Then, I was living in the future just as much as today. The then, I thought back to what was my senior year of high school before my accident, before my life after a traumatic brain injury. I was so consumed with my AP classes, extra-curricular activities, my college applications that I yearned for graduation and college.
Yesterday is not the day the Lord has made, and neither is tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow will be glorious, but he has made today, and I have everything I need to rejoice and be glad. Today it is even more glorious than tomorrow, and it sure as life is more glorious than yesterday because it is shimmering and sparkling right in front of you.
As we wait through this weird time of Corona, and we all wait for this virus to leave us. It’s important to remember that living in the moment more is a promise we will never truly keep. For me, this is what is it like to have a traumatic brain injury. Never truly being able to live in the moment.
But as the day dawns, you can stop promising yourself that you can make yourself a new version of yourself that you are okay with.
You are a beautifully and wonderfully made creation, and you of tomorrow doesn’t hold a candle to you of today, because you are here, living, breathing, and shining bright.
Accept that, live it, and shine brightly into the hours of today, you glorious art of life.
And I know my words are easier to write than do. But I can only hope.
Will Carter is a native of Roswell, Georgia. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in October of 2007, while he was a senior at Roswell High School.