In my ongoing recovery and reclamation of life, I have found myself, at times, thinking, “Well, I’ve done this before, but I’ve never done it with brain damage.” Sometimes this thought was followed by a sense of fearful insecurity, “This will not go well…” At other times, it might evoke a dreary sense of duty, the kind I felt when, as a kid, I had to mow our one acre yard with a push mower, “Let’s get it over with…” Recently however, I have been responding with a sense of optimistic curiosity, “Let’s see how this goes!” Mulling over these events, these “first time with brain damage” type of occasions, it’s occurred to me that I’ve marked, for the second time, many of the major milestones of growing up. The chronology and significance of these incidents is uncanny:
Being Born: Okay, so I wasn’t really born all over, but this new life with brain damage did, like life in general, begin in a hospital (Some sensitive souls will state life actually begins at conception, so, to keep the parallel in tact, I will likewise counter that this second life for me began prior to the hospital as well, also at a point of impact). Like a newborn, I received lots of attention, I was pretty gross-looking for the first little while, and I was swaddled in a bed I eventually peed in. Finally, I left the hospital to much fanfare and celebration, with nearly all the promise and stress of a child.
Walking: Bear with me for a moment while I address this pet peeve of mine. People who need rehabilitation to walk will say, quite incorrectly, that they had to “learn how to walk again”. I didn’t need to learn how to walk, I simply wasn’t able to. I already understood the principles of balance, motion, and momentum, I just lacked the strength. Even so, in the process of attempting to walk again, I looked very much like a child navigating those first steps. I treaded quite gingerly and painfully slow at first, so much so that I was told by my physiotherapist to take larger, faster steps to appear normal. Like any child, my balance improved along with my technique, and walking was soon just as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.
Speaking: In the hospital, when I was conscious yet couldn’t speak at all, I understood how frustrating can it be for a baby who cannot vocally indicate needs and requests. A tracheotomy ruled out talking while I was in the hospital, and nerve damage to my vocal chord meant it was another six months before I was speaking clearly. Before the surgery that would restore my voice to its usual pleasing timbre and resonance, I sounded like Louis Armstrong with laryngitis. Unlike children who grow up and continue to yell and scream, my vocal volume remains limited and singing, for better or worse, is essentially a health hazard due to the ensuing light-headedness.
Eating Solids: In rehab I was limited to a few different types of stews, pudding, and yogurt. Additionally, because I was unable to keep liquids from going down the wrong tube, my only drink of chice was thickened apple juice. On my first weekend leave, I asked my speech pathologist at GF Strong if I could have hamburgers, anticipating the BBQ that weekend. She replied in the negative, highlighting the choking hazard presented by lettuce and fluffy buns. Once in the car, I promptly requested a trip to McDonald’s where the cheeseburgers have neither lettuce nor fluffy buns.
Going to School: My first attempt at school was much like the first day of school for any student, regardless of age. I may or may not have laid out my outfit on the floor, in the shape of a person, with all the excitement and anticipation of a 6-year-old. That first day, like many unlucky kids, I quickly found that I was not one of the cool ones. I was one of the weirdos, one of the dorks who seemed to be off on another planet. I wore outdated clothes, I drove a weird car, and I said the wrong thing. I was certainly not as cool as I felt I was the first time around. Fortunately, I’m through the worst of it. I like to think I’m not so weird or strange now, but I recognize that even on my best day, I’m out of the ordinary (but that can be good or bad, depending on how much sleep I get).
Driving: For the second time, I was once again relegated to asking others for rides, co-ordinating my schedule with those more fortunate (read: legally allowed to drive, less brain damaged) than myself. I know it’s frustrating for teens who need to get picked up and dropped off for every event, and I would venture that it’s even more frustrating for their parents. Consider then, the frustration of being an adult and arranging rides with fellow adults to get anywhere. I did make a few trips outside the law, but they were short, and only as a last resort. With the help of a driving service usually reserved for the elderly or physically handicapped, I attended a dozen lessons with Young Driver’s and ultimately re-attained my driver’s licence a year after the accident. I wondered if standard transmissions would be an issue early on, but as you can tell from my right-side drive Delica, I’m very capable of driving.
First Job: In a way, my current job at the bike shop is my first real job post-brain damage, but getting there was a fairly sheltered, risk-free foray into the work force. For instance, I volunteered there for six months, effectively working my way into a job. Because of a government program that subsidized half my wage, keeping me on after my training in Colorado Springs was a bargain for the shop. In other words, my current job was not attained because of the skills and abilities I had. I was free help at first, subsidized help later, and for a new business, those are big perks. With that subsidy program coming to a close, and my hours at the shop decreased as a result, I’ll be looking for additional bike work elsewhere. But this job search is for real now, without the advantage or luxury of offering free help, a wage subsidy, or even disclosure of my brain damage. I won’t hide my head injury, but I won’t lead with it either, instead relying on my personality and skills as a mechanic to get a bike mechanic position. It’s a little nerve wracking, much like getting my first job years ago.
As Anya and I pursue our respective careers, there will be many more “first time with brain damage” kinds of events. It looks like I could have a job in Montreal next fall, and we may well end up there. We’ve moved seven times in the last seven years, but we’ve never moved out of province. That kind of change will be a huge challenge for me, but my response remains, “Let’s see how it goes!” The challenge gets me excited – the challenge to battle the cognitive and psychological tendencies that inhibit my growth – but even more exciting is this newfound optimism that I will excel and thrive by meeting every challenge head-on.
So that’s how I’ll do it this time.