So here we are again, creeping up on the 16th anniversary of my car accident, my acciversary. I’m writing this in the cafe at Vancouver General Hospital, my home for two months back in 2003. Various staff members dressed in scrubs are scattered around the lounge, one tries to nap with her hoodie on backwards to block the light. I haven’t wandered around the Intensive Care Unit or the Trauma Special Care Unit today, but just being at the hospital feels like tribute enough, and it is especially conducive to writing a blog post.
Yesterday I was having coffee with Jon, my good friend and former boss at the Cyclery. He sustained a significant head injury in a bicycle crash five years ago. When we aren’t laughing about puns and bike shop stories, or geeking out over woodwork and the latest gadgets from Makita and Festool, we swap thoughts and lifehacks for living with brain damage.
I have an 11-year headstart (headinjurystart?) on Jon in terms of living post traumatic brain injury and in our conversation Jon asked “So, what changes?” I took a moment then told him the anxiety decreases. I used to be crippled with anxiety, especially in social settings and large groups of people (note: large = 3 people). Anticipatory anxiety ruled the lead up to any interaction, social anxiety levelled me during it, and ruminating fuelled my anxiety afterwards. Anxiety was my closest and worst friend.
Today, as I told John, I haven’t had that level of anxiety in years. I’ve recovered from that particular aspect of injury and I’m generally pretty relaxed, just like I was pre-accident.
But I’m not like that at all.
True, I don’t get stressed out and anxious like I used to 16 years ago, or even 10 years ago, but that has nothing to do with recovery or some trait that I’ve returned to. It’s only because I’ve arranged my life in such a way that avoids the stress triggers I was, and continue to be, sensitive to. The thing is, it happened so gradually that I didn’t even notice. I look at myself and think, “Ah, I’m just not a people person…” and “I just really enjoy watching movies instead of doing stuff with people…” and “I would rather just chill out at home instead of going out, that’s just the way I am. I’m a mellow dude.” These statements are true, but they don’t describe innocuous, natural developments. The developments are a response, a reaction to an originating action: the car accident. Avoiding stress and anxiety was the first and only thing I thought of early on, and it wasn’t until Jon asked that I realized it still is. Whether it’s social anxiety, physical stress related to my spinal issues, or cognitive deficits at work, I instinctively arrange things the way I need them to suit me best.
For example, the whiplash that fractured my C-1 vertebrae also tore most of the ligaments on the left side of my neck. This one fact, alone, has caused a ripple of necessary interventions. I sleep on my back with my head tilted slightly to the left to engage the ligaments on the right side of my neck. If I were to fall asleep with my head to the right, it would settle in at too much of an angle (as if I were looking over my shoulder all night) and I would likely need a chiropractic adjustment. I can lay on my left side for a little while, my right side even less, and never on my stomach. Back when I was at school and even now at the movies, I take seats on the right half of the room so that I’m always turned slightly to my left to see the action up front.
I carry earplugs with me now. I put them in at coffee shops if it’s too crowded, at my sister’s place when the kids are vying for attention, at work when my boss’s dog shows up. It’s automatic and makes things less stressful. To me, it’s not weird anymore, it’s just necessary. These accommodations, and countless others, have become habit over the years, so much so that I forgot they were accommodations in the first place.
So what changes? The newness of everything changes. The challenges and deficits I encountered have become old news, the adjustments I’ve made in response to them, slightly less old. I see the effects of the car accident everywhere and nowhere at the same time, I’m just that used to it.
That’s what changes, Jon, you get used to it. All of it.