Can you actually recover from a traumatic brain injury (TBI)?
A couple years ago during a conversation, someone said, “It’s amazing that you’ve overcome your TBI.” While I knew they meant, “you’re pretty f-ing awesome given what you’ve gone through [my interpretation],” there has been this continual idea of “overcoming” or “recovering” from a TBI that I’ve seen pop up in TBI groups online. People want to know how long it takes to recover, what people have tried to help with the numerous challenges, and how to get back to who you used to be.
According to my neuropsychologist, the brain is physiologically done healing within two years post injury. So why do so many traumatic brain injury survivors have problems for years to decades later? It depends on a plethora of variables, and each individual. When you incur a TBI, numerous parts of your brain get damaged. Depending on the severity of that damage and what got damaged, regaining full function is sometimes possible, and sometimes not. Your neurochemistry changes, and often aspects of your personality do, too.
Brain damage affects every aspect of your body and life. What I know working with my clients and helping people realign their bodies through Structural Integration and yoga is that someone may “recover” from an injury or trauma, but that doesn’t mean that they have recovered efficiently. Take two identical broken objects. Wrap one with duct tape instead of getting to the root cause of the problem and you’ll know what I’m talking about. One is efficient, one isn’t.
You cannot compare a broken bone to a damaged brain with the idea that they are similar. Indeed, they are not. They are two very different tissues (yes, bone is a tissue, and a very dynamic one at that). Your brain controls most functions in your body and how you show up in the world (ie personality). A broken bone is significantly simpler than a damaged brain. You can put a cast on a broken bone and it will usually heal quite well and be very functional in a few months. You can’t exactly put a damaged brain back together in that regard. Through numerous treatments/modalities and self-care (all found in Head of Hope) it is possible to regain function: balance, motor control, emotional regulation, memory, speech, etc., but to what degree no one can say for sure. We know that new neuropathways can be formed, and that brains have neuroplasticity.
According to William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR in his article on medicinenet.com, neuroplasticity is:
“The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.”
This means that brains can change and make new connections, even in the face of disease or injury. This is great news, and at the same time, to what extent you or I will develop these new connections is unknown. While hopeful, I’m also very realistic. Yet in my 13 years of helping clients in my practice, I know that anything is possible and always hold space for that.
So do you actually recover? Physiologically, yes. Your brain heals from the actual damage, but healing or recovery don’t necessarily equate to function. I work with a lot of clients who have “healed” from an injury or trauma, but have plenty of dysfunction until we work together.
What I believe describes this journey more accurately is that you adapt.
Adaption and Acceptance
As I mention in Head of Hope, it took me years to even begin accepting my “new normal.” I so badly wanted my life to be exactly the way it was before my brain injury. But you can’t erase it. When I used to bill auto insurance companies for clients seeking my help after an auto accident, the insurance company would always want to know when the person returned to “pre-accident condition.” I despise this term because it implies that trauma can be completely eradicated, as if it never happened. This, however, is not the human condition. Our physical scars (seen and unseen) also leave emotional scars that can never be completely erased. To imply that one could wave a magic wand and *poof* -good as new, as if nothing ever happened- would be in denial of reality.
Per dictionary.com, to adapt means “to adjust oneself to different conditions.” A traumatic brain injury certainly qualifies as a “different condition.” In my five and a half years of living with a TBI, one thing has proven true: you cannot go back to who you were. This may at first seem like a huge let-down and bad news, but keep reading, because it isn’t.
When you begin to accept and process this trauma and its impact and get the help you want, you can begin to adapt. Adaptation is what allows any living organism to continue on. Failure to adapt usually means death in the natural world. No one said adapting was easy. It is not. It can be one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of your life.
Since you can’t erase your injury and the fact that it happened, you can choose every day to either stay where you are, or move forward in some way, even if it’s a metaphorical micrometer of forward movement. Instead of trying to make it all go away and disappear, what if, instead, you found ways to adapt and make this life work for you as you are in this moment, while at the same time holding space for possibility? This, honestly, has been very difficult on days when I’ve have no energy, can’t get off the couch, when clinical depression was at its worst, and I felt like crap. I still have shitty days when I wish this would all go away, but since that isn’t an option, I remind myself that I do have a choice in how I respond to it, and so do you.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and I would add the caveat, “when it makes you feel inferior or ‘less than.’” When you continually compare yourself to how you “used to be,” and it makes you feel bad: stop. It is easy to get sucked into this vortex of victim mindset. Be real with what is, absolutely. Feel your feeling and never discredit the challenges, but have the awareness to pull yourself out of the negativity and comparison vortex and bring yourself back to the present. Focus on gratitude and complete the short exercise on gratitude found in the book.
To honestly answer the question, “Does you ever overcome or recover from a traumatic brain injury?” In my opinion, no. You are forever changed. You are stronger, more adaptable, and wiser than you have ever known, even if you don’t realize it yet. Your journey of adapting and creating your best life with a TBI takes even greater courage, energy, determination and tenacity than any recovery. You are not “less than,” my friend. You are more than you know.