Making Progress – Recovery through Acceptance, 1971 – Now
I’d like to request that as you read this story, you think of something that you have trouble doing. That could be anything, from riding a two-wheel bicycle to dancing with a partner or holding a full-time job. We all have difficulty doing something or we have trouble being a certain way. That’s just life!
I want to tell you something that I know better than anyone else, because it’s what happened to me. Imagine you are somewhere in the middle of this country and it’s the fall of the year. You’re on a serene college campus, where leaves are changing from green to red, gold & brown.
It’s the early 1970’s. Your primary means of transportation is walking. You travel between massive, stately old buildings and more modern construction, on your way to classes, the library or the student union. Your most pressing concern is attending classes and writing term papers. All you need to do is fulfill academic requirements and then, your future will nearly be guaranteed. Life is wonderful and you are very happy!
Then one fall day, there is an interruption in your life’s plan. It really wasn’t an interruption, it was more like an explosion! On November 11, 1971, when you were 20 years old, you were a passenger in a car that was in a head-on collision in the Ann Arbor area. In that split second your career changed from one of a Special Education teacher, to an entry-level position in the field of brain injury recovery.
You got an impressive set of credentials that afternoon. Your right wrist was crushed, both of your eyes would never again work together and you sustained a severe closed head injury. Fortunately the driver of the other car was a physician, who immediately began mouth to mouth resuscitation to restore your breathing. You were rushed to University Hospital in Ann Arbor, where you were put on life-support.
There is nothing magical about you or your story. You’ve worked very hard, for a very long time and you’re still working to maintain the gains that you’ve made. You don’t remember anything from the middle of November, 1971 until the end of February, 1972.
You can’t recall anything of the visits from your friends or the daily vigil of your mother, who spent her days talking and reading to your comatose form. You remember nothing of your transfer to the Rehabilitation Institute in Detroit that December.
Your first recollection is waking up in your bedroom at your parent’s house, wondering why you weren’t at the University of Michigan, where you knew that you were a student. You had scars on your body and a cast on your arm. The words catheter and rehabilitation center were suddenly in your vocabulary and you weren’t sure what they meant. You were terrified and very confused.
You continued outpatient physical, occupational and speech therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute for 3 months. You were frightened by that place, because you hadn’t yet realized that you had been in a very bad car accident. So, you insisted that your mother sit where you could see her at all times. The doctors and therapists did all they could and they told your mother, that she could expect to see improvement in your condition over the next five years.
At that time, it was 1972 and in five years it would be 1977. That’s only 45 years ago and your recovery was nowhere near where it is today. That awareness simply supports your belief that recovery builds on itself, it just happens very, very slowly.
After you completed your out-patient therapies, your mother took over. Guided by her own beliefs, she developed a program for you. She took you shopping where you had to evaluate and make choices about clothing, which she later returned. She took you swimming three times a week to strengthen your body and reestablish coordination and sense of balance.
Your mother’s strong achievement orientation made you achieve goals. She insisted that you try to do things for yourself, so you would develop some degree of self-sufficiency and confidence. If you tried and failed, then she would assist. She always believed that you could do more and in time, you learned to believe that too.
In 1972, you were concerned with learning to walk without using furniture for support, go up and down stairs, cook your own meals and set your hair. Things that you unconsciously do today were very difficult and required deliberate efforts.
You could only do one thing at a time. You couldn’t eat and carry on a conversation. You used to hesitate between groups of words so often, that you were told you sounded retarded. You didn’t like that at all, so you started listening to how people in the mainstream talked and you copied them. You also had no idea how to interact with people after your trauma, so you watched how others did that wherever you went.
Different people who you liked and respected became your role models. Your role models changed as your needs changed. You decided to be the kind of person who got treated the way, you wanted to be treated. Somehow you knew, that you had to treat others, the way that you wanted to be treated.
You had no work experience before your injury. Nobody told you that you couldn’t or shouldn’t succeed! You were a student and your job was to get your undergraduate degree. So nine months after your brain trauma, you went back to school. You were able to do that, because as a senior in college, you were already specializing in your chosen field of interest.
In 1973, you got your Bachelor of Science degree in Education. You never pursued getting a teaching certificate, because you knew you couldn’t manage 30 little sources of stimulation, elementary school students, who would all be making demands of you at the same time in a classroom. You knew that would be just too overwhelming!
After graduation, you got your first job and was fired after only two weeks. You were stunned and absolutely mortified! The job required skills that you were no longer good at performing. You had to do a lot of phone work, which required you to speak, exchange and record information very quickly. You also had to keep yourself well-organized and you had to prioritize.
After failing at your first job, you chose to do what you did well. So you decided to go to graduate school, out-of-state, far from the safety of your parent’s home. You applied to schools of social work, in places that you wanted to live and where the graduate record exam was not required. You did that because since your injury, you were no longer good at taking tests. Two schools accepted you, and you chose to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Graduate study posed few problems. As long as you could concentrate on one thing at a time, you did fine. You did have difficulty with establishing and maintaining friendships, because you didn’t know your own boundaries. It’s pretty peculiar that you could attend a prestigious university and earn a graduate degree, but you couldn’t function fully in the mainstream. If a healthcare professional was observing your behavior at this time, that clinician would have to say that you had adjustment difficulties.
Six months after graduation, you got your first social work job at a suburban Detroit hospital. Six weeks later, you were laid off. Nine months after that, you got another position in alcohol treatment and was fired from that one too.
Please understand that you could present a very capable, qualified image in a job interview, but you were not able to live up to that on a continuous basis. You were unaware of your deficits, and believed that you were capable of doing anything that you set your mind to. From that point in 1977, until the end of 1979, your job expectations and experiences deteriorated. You either quit or got fired from jobs that you didn’t like or couldn’t do.
In 1978, you “ran-away” to another state where you knew no one, to see if you could start a “new life”. You tried to leave of all your horrific accident related experiences in Detroit and start over. Unfortunately, you couldn’t do it. Your injury had become the dominant factor controlling your life. You returned home in early 1980.
Michigan Rehabilitation Services sent a therapist to your home to do occupational, psychological and vocational therapy for two hours, twice a week. That therapist helped you to prepare for a secretarial position that you held for 11½ months. You simply hated the work and got into a disagreement with your boss, who fired you.
After exhausting your unemployment benefits, you started a private practice in social work, so that nobody could fire you again. You felt that you could help other survivors to reintegrate into the mainstream, because you were getting very good at that yourself.
The practice was sporadically successful for 2 very trying years. When your last automobile insurance client terminated, you fell apart and the practice collapsed. Fourteen years post injury, it’s now 1985, you finally realized that you couldn’t do everything that you wanted. You became clinically depressed and began to grieve the loss of a life that you could never have.
While continuing to work on your recovery, another Michigan Rehabilitation Services counselor sent you to a sheltered workshop as an aide to the Evaluator. You stayed there for 3½ very long years because you could do the job and you were unaware of other opportunities. The staff at the workshop changed and so did the demands of your job. You found yourself trying to learn the skills that your new responsibilities required.
The strain of trying to meet the radically changing requirements, at the rate at which they occurred finally took its toll. One morning, you got up for work and the next thing that you knew, your boyfriend, who is now your husband, was picking you up off the floor. You’d had your first seizure.
The doctor in the emergency room ordered a CAT scan and sent you to a neurologist. After experiencing a second trauma, first the brain injury and now, a seizure you were furious at yourself. You were angry because once again, you had to find a new way of living and a new place to work.
So, you did what you had done in the past and looked to the state for help. Because the driver of the car in which you were a passenger, had no car insurance (it wasn’t until after your accident, that having car insurance became mandatory), you didn’t have enough money to pay for brain injury rehabilitation, because it’s so expensive.
Michigan Rehabilitation Services sent you to a Brain Injury Rehabilitation program in 1989. At age 39, you learned a lot. You became aware of the behaviors that you could reasonably expect after a severe closed head/brain stem injury. You also learned that there were things beyond your control that contributed to your losing so many jobs.
Today, you are over 66 years old and you’re working in your chosen field of interest, with clearly defined guidelines and goals. You now, pay better attention to your strengths and weaknesses. You have been working as a Trauma Recovery Expert/Disability Life Coach for some time now.
As a Life Coach, your primary purpose is to ask questions and provide modeling, motivation, structure and support to other survivors and those who care for them. Discovering someone’s hopes, dreams and aspirations are critical elements for establishing any kind of coaching relationship. As a Life Coach, you listen for things to clarify, magnify, and examine more deeply with those you serve.
Your greatest strengths are in group work. You have not only written a book and created a support group, but you’ve also written an eBook, for Caregivers & Survivors. The primary purpose of everything you’ve done, is to develop attitudes and teach skills necessary for successful INTERDEPENDENT LIVING. You have attained personal and professional goals post injury. In groups, you encourage your fellow survivors, to learn and relearn the skills necessary to achieve their goals.
All survivors of any kind of trauma, share in the struggle to live as interdependently as possible. Your involvement in group sessions is not based solely on your being a brain injury survivor of over 45 years. It is also because you have developed your skills and have evolved into a competent, effective and believable role model. You bring unprecedented credibility to those who have problems and you’ve learned, success strategies that allow you to live a full and productive life.
Your recovery process began more than 45 years ago, when you were a patient at University Hospital in Ann Arbor. Three conclusions stand out when you think about acceptance and recovery. They are:
First) You chose one goal at a time to concentrate your efforts on. You were able to put a lot of small successes together and make them into large encouraging triumphs.
Second) You continuously chose different role models, so you could try out new ways to do things.
Third) You believed you could achieve your goals and refused to listen to anyone, who wanted you to lower your expectations of yourself.
Acceptance of your injury means that you own all the consequences of your choices, good and bad. You can’t live as active a life as you once had hoped. But, you can honestly say that you can do whatever you want, because you’re the one who has changed those wants.
Suppose a friend or acquaintance asked: How do you live as well as you do with a brain injury? You’d have to answer that you believed acceptance was the key to living well. At all times, you have to take three necessary steps. First, you must acknowledge that you have a problem. Then, you need to admit that fact to yourself. Lastly, you found that you had to accept where you were, so that you would allow yourself to take small, achievable steps to improve some aspect of your behavior.
Another thing that you must do, is to continuously learn new information and acquire new skills. Though it takes you longer than others, you absolutely refuse to give up, no matter how long it takes you to reach your goals.
In order for you to regain control over your life and your future, you first had to believe that you were a new person. Though similar to yourself, before your trauma, some important things were very different. You had new limitations which required goals founded in your new reality.
You were only able to accept your new self a little at a time. Immediately after your trauma, denial dominated your life. Repeated failure eroded this denial. Improvement was not possible until you experienced fully, what you had lost. When you were done grieving for each and every lost ability, you finally became ready to accept the loss and carry on with your recovery.
Your recovery required persistence through the most devastating defeats that you could imagine. The jobs gained and lost, along with constantly attempting to make a new start and failing repeatedly. All these pressures would lead to your inevitable collapse.
Because of your many failures, some people expect less of you. You can do nothing about other people’s expectations. You only worry about yourself and what you do. You are pleased to be able to say that, your story has taken a happier turn. Over twenty-eight years ago, you married your best friend and you began to pay better attention to your limitations.
You now know, that you are fine just the way that you are. You define what recovery means for you and you determine your own timetable for achieving goals. Recovery is not only making progress, it is taking one small step at a time.
Acceptance is fluid. It’s not something that you achieve and retain. Having an attitude of acceptance in one situation doesn’t necessarily carry over to the next. When you understand that acceptance is not something that’s fixed, then you can appreciate why a support group that spans 24 weeks was created.
The group is divided into four, six-week sessions. At the beginning of each meeting are the objectives for that particular session. Each group stands on its own, therefore it is not necessary for everyone to start at the same time or attend every group. Now, you’d like to review the Acceptance Group’s opening statement. It is;
“Recovery does not mean that you wake up one day and you’re fine. It does not mean that you don’t get confused, and it certainly does not mean you regain the life you had prior to the injury/disability or illness.
Recovery to a person with an injury/disability or illness is making progress. Making progress is ACCEPTING your deficits, learning success strategies to help you with those deficits and learning to love and value yourself.”
More than four decades have passed since you were hurt. You’ve made a lot of progress and you still periodically ask yourself, is it all worth the struggle?
You believe that it’s not a sign of illness or insanity to question your own existence in times of distress. It’s just one way of coping. Thinking about and acting on, are two very different activities. You can consider anything and not harm yourself or others. You can choose to act, only in your own best interests.
When you are stressed, exhausted or overwhelmed, you make a lot of mistakes. You think that you have little or no will-power. You blame yourself for your inability to act, the way you want to. All that you’ve accomplished means absolutely nothing, if you can’t overcome the obstacle that seems insurmountable at that particular time.
You’ve learned that with time, persistence and attention to physical, emotional and intellectual limitations, you can conquer that which is difficult. You have also learned to accept yourself with all your limitations and realize that recovery is not only making progress, it is taking one small step at a time!