Those of you who have been following my blog know that I was in a car accident a few weeks ago. It’s actually more like four, but hey, who’s counting? The doctor says I had a concussion, even though I didn’t actually hit anything. Apparently my brains sloshed around inside my skull. I am much better now, but I still say and do things that are a bit off, and get really tired by about 5 PM. While I took the doctor’s guidance seriously, it’s been hard for me to do less, move less, and think less. I am not reading, except short news stories, and not exercising much. There are things I have to do: I have to water my plants, and answer emails, and keep up with projects and clients related to work. As for the rest of my normally productive, busy life, I’ve had to put it on hold. What happens when life slows down?
First of all, some things didn’t get done at all. What are these things? Are they the unimportant things? Hard things? Complicated things? I realized early on that I only had so much energy each day. About two hours of concentrated work was it for the day in terms of brain energy. I took a lot of afternoon naps, whether planned or not. And, I did watch a lot of TV on low, because there just wasn’t much else to do except stare at the wall. I didn’t really go anywhere. Driving was very stressful in a rental car. As a passenger I found myself getting carsick, something that had never plagued me before. And then there were the almost constant headaches.
The plants got watered. If you don’t do that, they shrivel and die. The dogs got walked and I took the garbage container out to the curb on trash day. I took a pass on most socializing including book group. This is a chatty group and trying to keep up with multiple voices gave me a headache. If I drove I didn’t go far. I hadn’t realized just how much concentration driving requires. You have to stop at lights and stop signs, look in your rearview mirror and make sure you don’t speed. Then there are pedestrians and bikers and people who want to pass you or jump out from a side street. When you have a healthy brain this is all second nature.
This felt like a good time to reflect on what my life has been like with a brain injury. First of all, while I did accomplish the critical things, a lot less got done. Some things were postponed or delayed. Others just didn’t happen. It felt that life was passing me by. All around me people were going to work and living full active lives while I mostly sat quietly and hoped that the next day would be better. Instead of getting five or six or ten things done in a day, I was lucky to do one or two. Then I had to take a nap. Or two Advil. Or both. More importantly, I had to rely on others as I did not have enough energy or concentration to lead my life. My husband came home a few days early from his overseas trip to help out so I could rest. I was more emotional and often cried at seemingly inappropriate times. Weirdly, it started to feel normal to me to shed tears during the sad parts in Downton Abby episodes or at stories about lost puppies.
Some things were completely undoable. I got some paperwork from the insurance company and just looked at it as if it was directions to split the atom. Even writing a check was a challenge. Did I have the right number of zeros? Had I signed it? Lastly, my friends and family felt very sorry for me. Everyone wanted to help me and sent sympathy. Can we help? Do you need anything? Can we come over. Having them come over to chat was actually not helpful at all, but they meant well. I got kind emails and texts and one friend brought me some fresh bagels. Now that was the gift that kept on giving!
My appetite was off and I had very little energy. I would go for large parts of each day without eating and then realize that I had forgotten a meal or two. I gained weight and I lost weight. I slept late and I had insomnia. I had very very strange and complex dreams. Everything was different. Would I ever get back to my normal life?
What if you don’t get better?
And then something occurred to me. This is what life is like if you have a permanent disability. Life then becomes not about healing but about adjusting. Every day means opportunities lost. But does it? What is life like when everything becomes difficult? How hard is it to adjust to a new normal?
Let me set the record straight about my recuperation. I was not in any danger. I did not go hungry and I did not lack the resources to fill my days. Having friends who were there when I needed them made a huge difference. Without that, life would have been isolating and lonely. Sure, it was different. It was quiet and calm. I made my own fun and filled my days. During my monthlong doctor imposed isolation I was happy and content because I knew it wouldn’t last. What if this was my life? What if I couldn’t just get in the car and drive or go out to eat or listen to a concert or attend a large gathering? What would that be like? Would I still retain my optimism and positive outlook? How would I reshape my life? Instead of a short-term respite at home with HBO movies and putting my feet up and hot cups of coffee and afternoon naps I would be faced by endless questions.
How do I work?
Who will want to hire me?
How do engage in an active social life?
Will anyone love me?
Then I gave myself a figurative slap in the face and told myself to snap out of it. You are one of the lucky ones. You got out of the way and avoided a much more serious accident. You will go back to your normal life. It gave me a greater appreciation for the tremendous challenges that face people with disabilities, whatever they are. Everything is harder and everything takes longer. You can’t wear a sign on your chest that asks people to be patient with you. They don’t know. How can you tell them?
We make judgments about other people all the time. They don’t move quickly enough or listen when we talk or do what we expect. I was on the receiving end of some of these judgments. I gave blank stares and needed people to repeat things multiple times before it sunk in. This led me to stay home even more, to avoid human contact. I learned that being disabled does not mean that I am less deserving of respect or love. As they say, until you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, you will never know what it’s like to live in them.
What is it like when life slows down? First it’s disorienting. Then it’s kind of nice. In the end, it can be isolating as you feel separated from your former life. If it lasted longer I would have had to find new ways to do things and interact with the outside world. I’m pretty adaptable, I could have done it. But you know what? It was kind of nice doing nothing, resting, and not working. I enjoyed taking a bit of a break and feeling what it was like when life slows down.