When you suffer a traumatic brain injury people will tell you two things:
- Don’t think about recovery as “getting back” to the way you were before, but rather as “discovering the new you”; and
- Recovery isn’t a straight line.
Over the past three years, I’ve learned that you can hear, understand, and even preach these messages to others without actually internalizing them yourself. Without coming to terms with what it means for you and the life you imagined. Accepting and being really, honestly okay with the “new you” is a lot harder than just saying the words.
I injured myself in a fall during the Obstacle Course Racing World Championship (OCRWC) in 2017.
I tried to keep working for seven months, until my family, doctor, and employer all agreed I couldn’t keep going. Don’t get me wrong, I was still performing (traveling internationally, facilitating workshops, all that over-achiever stuff) but the cost was immense. Blinding headaches, exhaustion, confusion. No energy for anything beyond getting through one more day at work.
I was off work for two years, and during that time, things got better. We pared my life back to structured simplicity with no big cognitive demands (other than writing, which I could take at my own speed). Of course, me being me, I sometimes (often) overdid things and crashed, but overall it felt like I was seeing a steady improvement; my endurance got better, the crashes became less frequent, and I could do more of everything.
I could even run. A lot. Physical exertion didn’t work my brain, and without the exhaustion and fatigue that mental work brought, I had the energy to push myself in other ways. 2018 and 2019 were good race years. Not great – I had to be careful with which obstacles I attempted, and a lingering shoulder injury kept me off the rings and ropes – but good. We did our first 50k and started making plans for longer distances.
Then, in May 2020, I returned to work, and everything changed again. The fatigue came back like a blanket of wet cement, and it hasn’t really lifted since.
And I’m mad. SO, SO MAD.
I’m angry and frustrated that my body has let me down again and what I could do in 2018 and 2019 – both post injury years – I can’t do now. That I’m so tired every single day that I can’t even run 5k, let alone 50. That some days I can’t even fold the damn laundry by the time work is over. And that sometimes it feels there’s no end in sight. After all, we need my salary.
On bad days, I really hate the current version of “new me”. I know I can’t get back to who I was in 2017, before I fell, but what about 2019 me? She had a brain injury too, but she was way fitter. She had energy to run.
On good days, I keep hoping things will improve. I’ve changed jobs, and my new employer is serious about accommodations. Maybe once I settle in, my energy levels will get better.
I don’t know, and that’s the hard part. I don’t know if I’ll ever know. Brain injuries with lasting symptoms are like that. Unpredictable. Up and down. Better one day, worst the next.
No straight lines here.