Growth is painful; always and without exception. In our TBI recoveries, we can think of growth one of two ways. First, we can think of ourselves as victims of a stretching that is something akin to the medieval instrument known as the “rack,” which was excruciating, torturous and slow. Surely TBI recovery feels that way sometimes, especially in the beginning. But we can also think of growth, as a stretching that is something akin to a sapling that is being pulled into two directions; digging it’s new roots into the ground, and growing new branches as it reaches towards the sun. On bad days, life certainly feels like the former. On the good ones, perhaps the latter. But in both cases, there is a pulling in opposite directions, and an expanding beyond the space, bodies and worlds we knew to be home. In order to continue recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury, we must embrace the expansion, and the breaking open, or risk collapsing in on ourselves like dying stars.
I am in a constant state of awe watching Patrick embrace pain, in order to experience growth. Throughout his recovery, there have been countless times that he could’ve turned away from the challenge and simply said, “No Thanks. I’m comfortable here.” Whether it was learning to use his left hand again, going through countless surgeries to restore his skullcap, facing his drum-set again, giving up his wheelchair for a walker, or his walker for nothing at all, he has stood in the face of the tremendous unknown, which riddled him with fear, only to say… “Yes. I’m in.”
I like to think that my encouragement, and unmovable belief in his unlimited potential, had a pretty big impact on his desire to keep growing. In that way, we’ve made a pretty bad-ass team. But all my hoping, dreaming and encouraging would have amounted to absolutely nothing, without him stepping up to do the big, scary, painful work.
Even now, at almost three years post, Patrick could decide at any time that he doesn’t want to continue his recovery. For instance, he now walks, but his balance is poor. He could argue that he’s done enough, that his brain is injured, and for everyone to back off with trying to improve his gait. Yet despite his IMMENSE frustration, and the outbursts and arguments, he still practices his walking when I ask. He still has a hunger to improve. He still remains open to the process.
To me…openness and willingness, are the two biggest spiritual components to recovery for both caregiver and survivor. Willingness says… “yes. I’m in.” Openness says “I will go where I have never been before.” This is how Patrick can enter a yoga studio without any experience and embrace the learning process of it all. This is how he gets back up onto a horse (after being rejected a year prior for not being strong enough), and ride. This is how he can lay on an acupuncture table and be stuck with needles, despite his deep fear of infection. This is how he even embraces his deep fear of isolation and abandonment, by allowing me to go off and do things on my own, open to the promise that I will always come back.
Although I have always encouraged him to keep pushing, I’ve also told him many times that he could stop at any point, and I would support him in his decision. I wanted to reassure him that I loved him exactly as he was at each stage of recovery, and that he didn’t need to progress further to “earn” my love or commitment to him. Now, deep in my heart I knew that I’d be devastated had he given up pursuing his health, because it would have had huge ramifications on my life and future, but I didn’t share that with him. He couldn’t enter the ring of recovery every day out of fear of losing my love. He had do it for love of himself alone.
As a result, it is as if we have each in our own ways, grown into (using my previous metaphor) mighty oak trees. Our branches are still reaching and splintering off in new directions towards the sun, while our roots are becoming stronger and more intertwined together below the surface. Still, the pain of growth remains a bittersweet arresting of our bodies, minds and hearts. It always hurts. But being torn open in this way is also somehow beautiful.
All of this openness, pain and growth has turned both Patrick and I into people that we never were prior to TBI. I was a woman who truly put my value in what I accomplished. I was not someone who knew how to “trust the process” of life. Today, I’ve learned the meaning of surrender, and find I am able to lean into it with much more ease. As for Patrick, he was a tremendously closed off person before his TBI. His life was dictated by fear, and in an effort to combat it, he exhausted himself trying to control everything and everyone. Today, his fear remains, but he enters it and faces it head on with stunning grace. He has an open heart.
My only wish is that HE COULD SEE and recognize what an amazing person he is, and how much he has accomplished. Despite everything, my Patrick only recognizes his short-comings and weaknesses, and often identifies with the dark version of himself that no longer is represented by the person he is today. I wish that I could hold up a mirror that would allow him to see what I see, what you see, and what others see. I have never known a person who attracts people so easily, who is so easily lovable, or who inspires more people than Patrick. Every therapist we have worked with, has developed a special bond with Patrick. His first therapist at Memorial still refers to his inpatient room as “Patrick’s Room,” three years later! His therapist at Brucker keeps in close contact with us, and has gone out of her way to try and keep on his track with therapy from over 1,000 miles away. And his new-found yogi has often expressed that she has never met a person more willing to try… than Patrick. He is inspiring.
We are victims of tragedy… it’s true. We are survivors. But we are also receivers of a tremendous, unexpected, unholy mess of a gift; the gift of paramount growth. There are no trees that stand as tall, strong or glorious as that of a TBI survivor, and the one who loves them the most. Do not fear being broken open. It is the only way to uncover the new you.
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Thank you. All our love, Anj & Patrick)