On Loss and A Volleyball

A couple of weeks ago, we saw the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips. And I thought to myself, “Man, I really love Tom Hanks.”

Now, I have no idea what he’s actually LIKE. For all I know, he could be the worst human being on the planet in person…but I like to think not. And, he’s in one of my all-time favorites, Forrest Gump (which STILL makes me bawl).

Though, you have no idea what it was like being a “Jenni” in the ’90s when that movie came out. If I hear, “Run, Forrest, run!” one more time…But, I digress.

The other day, I was thinking about loss. October is such a mixed bag of emotions for me now. I have always loved the month and all its accoutrements. Fall. The leaves, a fiery hue, streaming to the ground like little meteorites. The scary movies (!). And clearly, the excuse to eat way too much candy.

But, October has also become a season of loss to me. I suppose technically it has always been that way – the excitement for fall layered with the sadness of watching summer slip by. And yet, now it
is literally a time of loss, as we mark the one year anniversary of losing my dad and the way of life I knew before losing him and before my injury.

You may thinking, “Okay, Jenni, I’m with you here, but what does Tom Hanks really have to do with anything?”

Does anyone remember Castaway? Maybe it wasn’t your favorite Tom Hanks movie, but I bet you remember that volleyball (why, by the way, you can apparently purchase, fake bloody handprint and all). There was nothing quite so sad as watching poor Wilson float away from the raft,
and nothing likely mocked so much after as Tom’s character screaming after it.

You know, people made fun of that scene. Why be so upset? It’s JUST a volleyball.

And that’s the issue here, really. When we start prefacing our speech with “JUST,” we sort of miss the point, don’t we? It doesn’t matter if it was just a volleyball to you. To his character, at the time and given the circumstances, it was the biggest loss he could face.

Conversely, making these type of justifications or comparisons lessens our ability to emphasize with other people who we feel have it “easier” than we do. Saying, “It’s JUST a ____ (fill in the blank – horse/house/cat/car/whatever)” just isn’t fair.

On the hand, constantly comparing your own loss to someone else who you feel may have it a lot worse can sometimes make your own feelings seem invalid. But they’re not.

There is a very entertaining gentleman in my local “Back to Work” support group. He has a lot going for him. He seems to be very bright and his speech is quite clear. People might wonder what he’s doing there. But when asked how his disorder has impacted his employment, he was very specific. For the first time, he can no longer walk into a group of colleagues and feel proud, self-assured.

In this case, his loss was one of confidence.

It’s okay to be grateful for what you’ve been given–life–but still want more. The loss is very real even if other people think it’s JUST a “something.”

I feel like I am constantly chasing my own Wilson – the version of myself that stopped existing on June 4th this year. I feel that it always within reach, but depending on the day, the tides change. And that’s okay.

The important thing to remember is, just about everyone is riding the same ocean – the circumstances might be different for each one of us, but we’re all chasing after something.

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Up in the Air

I’m not scared of flying, per se. I am one of those weird people who actually enjoys airports and the travel process (though granted, the two or so times that I actually fly per year is a lot different than someone living life Up in the Air).

I enjoy the rush of take off but especially love the relief of hearing the wheels touch down. I have watched the sun set over the clouds, seen lightning illuminate the stars, and marveled over how rural Raleigh actually looks from the air.

No, I’m not scared of flying – I just prefer to be on the ground.

Why?

Likely the same reason that many other people feel, whether or not they can put their finger on it – I don’t like the loss of control. I can never fall asleep on the plane, and really, it would be nice if I could. Nothing is more amusing to me than seeing someone conked out on a plane, mouth hanging open. Maybe a little drool here and there.

But no, I must stay awake and hold the plane up in the air by sheer force of will (I’m completely kidding, here…please don’t report me to the psych ward).

Everyone knows that planes were meant to fly. Planes want to fly. But the idea of not being in control – well, that can be scary.

Similarly, not being in control of your own body is scary.

The human body is an absolutely amazing thing, really. We as humans are so resilient – and the human body can survive and bounce back from some pretty horrific things, whether it be an illness or injury. Just like a plane wants to stay aloft, our bodies want to find a way to survive.

But what happens when it can’t? Or when it has been irreparably changed?

I’ve had the opportunity to think about this in different ways over the past year, both after my dad’s stroke and with my injury. And, of course both had very different outcomes.

With my dad – well, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t wish something into being just by thinking about it really hard, being tenacious and making it happen. No amount of work, praying/good thoughts/what have you, or anything I could do would ultimately change that outcome.

And the question becomes why? Why did someone who did everything “right” that he could, ultimately end up dying?  I understood intrinsically what happened. What I didn’t understand was how his body could just fail him. It seemed like some cruel joke. Sort of like when a drunk driver walks away from a horrible accident without a scratch.

On the other hand, I know “why” my injury happened – I got kicked. Wrong place, wrong time. Here, the “why” meant something different. The why became one of circumstances – why did this happen to me? And more so, why now, after everything else?

But all of these questions came down to one simple fact – none of this was within my control.

Now, if you smoke two packs a day for ten years, you probably shouldn’t be all that surprised when your doctor has some bad news for you.

But, every day things like what happened to me – things beyond our control – just happen.

Interestingly, we celebrate things that are beyond our control when they bring good things – we call that luck. We are a series of paradoxes, it seems.

What is funny is that we readily accept luck. We welcome this loss of control because it brings us good fortune. But you can’t deny that life is a balance of both the good and the bad.

And because we can’t change it, we can only adjust our way of thinking about it. I’ll never completely understand why I had to lose my dad so soon or why I happened to be standing where I was when I was kicked.

But I would also be amiss to ignore that fact that I was incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful father. And that I’m lucky every day I get to wake up and enjoy a life that could have been quite different just under five months ago.

Don’t Panic!

Don’t push the red button.

Don’t think about the fact that you have to pee.

Don’t think about that one song you REALLY hate.

(What’s the one?)

Human nature dictates that you will inevitably think about the ONE thing you shouldn’t. You don’t have to be a psychologist to figure that out. 

That’s why super strict, extreme diets don’t typically work – at least, not in the long term. Deprivation over moderation is never the answer.

Similarly, too frequently we focus on the physical and simply ignore the other very key piece to recovery – our mental health. Despite the push for physical health (there always seems to be a new diet fad or cholesterol drug out), there is very little focus on what we can do to care for our mental health. So we quash it, ignore it.

I will be forever grateful to the excellent staff at UNC for putting my head back together and giving me the best possible chance for recovery. However, it occurred to me recently that while the doctors and staff did the best job caring for my physical health, no one ever stopped to really ask me how I was doing on the inside.

Sure, they assessed me. They tested me. They made note of my neurocognitive health and progress. But I didn’t really need to spend a half paycheck’s worth to know that my speech is slow, I suck at math, and that writing is my best strength.

Those things have always been true – the TBI just made it all a bit more defined.

It’s not that the doctors and staff didn’t care about me and how I was doing. Rather, it’s just that entire facet of my recovery was never broached. Highly skilled nurses monitored my vitals. Doctors and various specialists came and went. Different therapists–OT, PT, RT–inquired about my likes, dislikes, goals, etc.

But no one ever came and just sat down with me.

“Hey, Jenni. How are you feeling about getting a hole kicked in your skull? How do you feel knowing that the surgeon had to clean the bits of skull out of your brain? What about the fact that your husband spent hours not knowing whether you’d come through the same Jenni as before?” And such, and such.

Don’t get me wrong – I had a wonderful support network, including Paul, family and friends. But because no one ever really asked me to think about what happened–and I was so busy trying to recover–I never gave it much thought.

I did a whole lot of talking about my accident and not a whole lot of actually sitting down with myself and working through my feelings about it.

It was odd, then, that starting a few weeks ago, I started experiencing fleeting moments of real anxiety. There was no specific rhyme or reason. It just happened. Driving down the road, out at dinner, sitting in a CPR class.

No one else would ever know what was going on, but inside I felt panicked. I felt trapped, scared that something else would happen to me and that I’d have to wake up in the hospital completely helpless again. It wasn’t rational, but regardless, I felt it.

Now, it won’t surprise anyone to know that I’m type A and sometimes, being that way can tend to make a person a little OCD or anxious (I’m generalizing, but you get it). However, these were completely new feelings for me. And they let me know that I wasn’t taking care of myself. I had been focusing so hard on my speech and physical recovery. Now it was time to start working on healing my mind.

I saw a therapist who deftly pointed out what I already knew but needed to be told–what happened to me was scary, plain and simple. To be well enough to finally understand what happened and everything I went through was eye-opening. For the first time, I realized that I’m mortal and survived a situation that could have had a very different ending. Thinking about that alternative was difficult.

But I’ve learned that, in the end, being strong and surviving doesn’t mean ignoring your fears. Sometimes, facing your fears or emotions can be more difficult than the physical because they are intangible and sometimes nebulous. Yet, they often go hand in hand with your total recovery.

It’s time we as a whole started focusing more on the big picture. I suppose it’s really more akin to a puzzle – finding that one missing piece is difficult, but you’re not totally complete until you squeeze it into place.

#TBIProblems

I was never a huge boy band fan. I mean, I’d be lying if I tried to deny ever dancing to “Bye, bye, bye” but don’t please don’t judge. I was 17 when it was released, okay?

Anyway.

I never got that whole obsession. It’s not like these guys were like the Beatles.

Similarly, I never got the whole obsession with hashtags on social media. It’s my limited understanding that they imply some sort of desire to have something “trend.” Is that correct? And what exactly does this accomplish? Is the fact that you just ate 20 hot dogs or slipped on the “uneven bricks” on campus at UNC (points to whoever remembers where that’s from) really THAT important? If I navigate to Yahoo after your Tweet or whatever it’s called, will I see #thosecageybricks trending on Yahoo?

Imagine my surprise when two things I don’t understand – boy bands and the free-for-all use of hashtags – came together in a perfect two minute blend:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57dzaMaouXA

First, two questions – when did Justin Timberlake become so cool? And really, when did hashtags become #thesymbolformerlyknownaspound?

At any rate, since this blog is centered primarily around my recovery from the verbal apraxia and aphasia that resulted from my TBI, it occurred to me that my TBI may be feeling envious. Perhaps it’s time to pay a little attention to all the other #TBIProblems, if you will.

Now, the thing about TBIs is they can be so very individual. No two people may have the exact same recovery, and it seems that while there are several commonalities among people with a TBI, the duration and degree to which someone experiences these varies widely.

First, ostensibly, I was unable to speak.

#Everyhusbandsdream

But, did you know I also lost around 16 pounds? Don’t be jealous. I lost a great portion of my appetite after both surgeries due to the anesthesia. After the first surgery, I worked HARD to eat because I frequently got “head rushes” and passed out a few times. The extreme head rushes just recently faded in the last few weeks, after my cranioplasty.

Falling with a TBI, which I managed to accomplish a handful of times thanks to my lack of appetite, is bad. So ladies and gentlemen, please eat. I don’t foresee the TBI becoming a popular diet fad.

In addition, while I couldn’t talk initially, my hearing was incredibly amplified and my sense of taste was skewed. I drank everything out of a straw and cut my food (what I ate) into such incredibly small pieces you would swear that I was 80 years old.

Why?

#Ichokedoneverything

Fortunately,  after a few weeks, I regained my ability to swallow relatively normally.

Also, people with a TBI, depending on where the damage is, may experience loss of mobility in their extremities. I located a very odd picture of myself in the ICU doing what appears to be the Vulcan salute from Star Trek (yes, I had to look up that terminology). But I was apparently trying to get the fingers of my right hand to move.

Luckily, I was able to walk okay and quickly took to shuffling about the hospital like my 80 year old self (that’s not fair, really, I’m generalizing and probably walked a lot more slowly than your average 80 year old). Out of the hospital, I became very adept at taking walks around the neighborhood, since I couldn’t ride.

I quickly regained mobility in my right arm and hand, going from a limp fisted high five to fairly passable. However, I am recalling one day while still an inpatient, I was in physical therapy and had to do the peg board.

The peg board is an evil, sadistic “game” in which you use one hand to pick up a bunch of metal pegs individually and place them in the peg board. There are several rows of this to be done. The first time, I could barely get through 10.

Not rows. 10 pegs.

After that, I continuously dropped the remaining pegs, got a horrible headache and had to take a break.

Perhaps the most humorous (but not really?) thing is that the right corner of my mouth is still numb. While I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding the huge blobs of food that would attach themselves when I ate after leaving the hospital (#Ilookedlikeahamster), I still have a propensity for drooling.

Yes, just in case you doubted my comparison to being 80. Okay, let’s say 90.

To this day, if I’m not paying attention, and I’m looking down, I just might drool.

And you would have probably never known about this, because I’m extremely careful when I’m out and about. But Paul has been the lucky recipient of witnessing this more than a few times. And I have no shame.

Other little things that no one else would know: my sneezes have changed! I went from ALWAYS sneezing these teeny little multiple sneezes to occasional giant blow-outs. Snot and everything.

#TMI?

I am extremely lucky in the realm on TBIs that my personality is the same, and I am of course still making improvements in my speech. While the sensation in my right arm is still off, I’ve stopped throwing my Starbucks drinks on the ground (clearly not on purpose). I never take my improvements for granted. However, I hope that I’ve given you all a little taste of some of the other things I’ve dealt with over the past four months. Why should speech get ALL the fun?

Now, I’ll never use another hashtag again.

#Really