Last year on February 13, my husband, Wyatt, took me out for a Valentine’s Day dinner. He and the kids gave me cards that morning. I was on cloud nine. Who would have thought that five days later my husband would be fighting for his life and our families would be turned upside down?
God has taught me many lessons this year. Most of all, I’ve learned that earthly possessions mean nothing. Sure, they make one happy for a while. But no gift, flower bouquet, or box of chocolates could take the place of what I have today. My husband is still here! Oh, how happy it makes me to be able to say that!
He may not realize that it’s even Valentine’s Day. Nor will he walk through the door with a gift, BUT I still get to hug him. The kids and I still get to tell him how much we love him. That, my friends, is irreplaceable. Don’t just sign that sweet card or have those beautiful flowers delivered. Show that person how much he or she means…not just today, but every day!
(Disclaimer: The views or opinions in this post are solely that of the author.)
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On December 31st, I will have lived with a traumatic brain injury for 38 years. I have used several strategies for co-existing with and minimizing the effects of my TBI. I know now that the brain-injury recovery process is ongoing and that there are four major areas to work on during recovery: (1) Getting Organized, (2) Being Responsible, (3) Following Through, and (4) Moving On. I learned a lot over the years, and I want to share my experiences. I have listed 38 tips (one for each year) that could be helpful to you.
1. Regain trust in yourself and in others.
2. Try not to be critical of mistakes you make. In the early years of your recovery, there will be too many of them to count. Learn from these mistakes and move on.
3. Find purpose and meaning in your life again. This will make it easier to get out of bed in the morning. Having a sense of purpose and meaning will give you something to live for and will help you feel worthwhile, help motivate you, and improve your recovery process. You will start feeling better about yourself.
4. Keep stress and anxiety to a minimum every day. Reducing stress and anxiety will increase your self-esteem and make life easier. Stress and anxiety trigger the fight-or-flight response in the mid-brain. You don’t have any control over this response because it is part of the Emotional Nervous System. When the fight-or-flight response is activated, it increases confusion and makes it harder to process information.
5. Regain your self-confidence and self-respect.
7. Stay focused, calm, and relaxed as much as possible. This will make it easier to think, and you become less dependent on others to remind you. Becoming more responsible for yourself will build good habits on your part and will improve your self-esteem and self-confidence in the long run.
8. Get a large calendar. Put it up on your wall and use it. Make sure it’s in a location where you will always see it. An iPad (or clone), a smart phone, or a note pad with a calendar and alarm does the same thing. A calendar will also relieve stress and anxiety by helping you stay on task and not forget.
9. Get a key-holder and put it by your door to put your keys on when you come home. Do this every night so you won’t have to look for your keys in the morning. Starting your day off on the right foot will make your day easier and help to relieve stress and anxiety.
10. Make a “To Do” list to help you stay organized. iPads, iPhones or other smart phones, and note pads work wonders with this. The list will help you and make you feel good about yourself.
11. Making a list before you go shopping will save you money by cutting down on impulse-buying. It will also help you become more responsible and less dependent on others. Being less dependent on others improves your self-esteem.
12. Get lots of rest, and slow down. Many times we try to do too many things at once, and nothing gets done. Sleeping on an issue or concern can be the best way to help you figure it out. Getting enough rest will give you valuable energy to think better and solve difficult situations. Sufficient rest will also relieve stress and anxiety.
13. Set up a routine and stick to it. A routine will make it easier for you to follow through with what you have planned for the day. By doing the same thing every day, you will start building trust in your capabilities again.
14. Eat healthy foods, and get lots of exercise. Doing these things will help you get the blood with its oxygen circulating to your brain.
15. Get a dog and take it for walks. In my case, I have nine dogs, and they take me for a walk every morning and night! They also give me the unconditional love and companionship I need to feel good about myself and be happy.
16. Find ways to relax that aren’t counterproductive to your well-being. Abusing alcohol and drugs to “relax” is counterproductive. Long walks, yoga, and Tai Chi are much better for you and will make processing and problem-solving much easier. Stress and anxiety will be reduced.
17. Be patient.
18. Pay attention and become an active listener. Actively “hearing” what people have to say is more important than passively “listening” to what they say. Watch their body language. When I get distracted, sometimes it is harder to understand what a person is saying. Stay relaxed and focus. Take deep breaths – nothing works better than getting oxygen-filled blood to your brain.
19. Be around positive people and people who care about you. Nothing is more depressing than listening to someone who’s always complaining about his or her life or about what is going wrong in the world. Become active. Don’t just sit around hoping things will get better. Quit talking about a problem, and do something about it instead.
20. Don’t take criticism personally. When people don’t understand things, they criticize them. Constructive criticism can make you a better person in the long run.
21. Keep an open mind. Remember that your family and friends want to help, but sometimes they don’t know how. Many people don’t understand what you are going through, so don’t hold them responsible for this.
22. Stay calm; stay relaxed; take deep breaths; and move on!
23. Be careful of those you hang out with because they will set the stage for how you act. Friends who judge others and criticize you aren’t “friends.”
24. Grudges will only hold you back. They will be like anchors and keep you from being able to move on.
25. Lighten up on yourself, your family, and friends who want to help you.
26. Worry less and smile more.
27. Be content with what you have. Others have it much worse than you.
28. Find ways to stay active and be less isolated. Get out of your head and into the outside world.
29. Don’t give up – embrace adversity. Have adversity give you the resolve it will take to get better and improve your life. This will be up to you and no one else. People will be there to help you, but all of the work will be up to you. Use it or lose it!
30. Take ownership of your recovery. Remove the word “can’t” from your vocabulary.
31. Life is hard for most people. Life after a brain injury will definitely be hard, but not impossible. It will get easier over time – be patient! Make the best of every day and move on.
32. Thinking too much about a problem or issue can cause depression. This will trigger the fight-or-flight response, and you will be like a dog chasing its tail.
33. Be good to yourself.
34. Don’t take life too seriously.
35. Don’t let the little things get you down. When you think about them too long, they seem bigger than they really are.
36. Don’t beat yourself up over things you can’t control. This will only increase your stress and anxiety and trigger the fight-or-flight response.
37. Be happy with yourself and don’t try to live up to others’ expectations.
38. Most importantly – don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. Be strong. Find hope – because with hope, anything is possible!
Stop by the Brain Injury Radio Network to hear Ken. His show airs every 1st Thursday of each month from 5:00p to 6:30p Pacific Time.
Thank you, Ken Collins.
Any views and opinions of the Guest Blogger are purely his/her own.
SPEAK OUT! George Visger (former player for the San Francisco 49ers)
Survivors SPEAK OUT! George Visger
(former NFL San Francisco 49ers player)
(originally published July 7, 2014)
Donna O’Donnell Figurski
#74 NFL San Francisco 49er, George Visger @ 1981
1. What is your name? (last name optional)
2. Where do you live? (city and/or state and/or country) Email (optional)
Cypress, California, USA firstname.lastname@example.org
3. When did you have your TBI? At what age?
I was first injured – had surgery – at age 22 during the 1981 Super Bowl season with the San Francisco 49ers.
4. How did your TBI occur?
I had a number of concussions throughout my 12 years of playing organized football. My first serious concussion occurred at age 13, during my third year of Pop Warner. I was hospitalized on that one. My final, and most severe, concussion occurred in 1980 against the Dallas Cowboys. I suffered a major TBI in the first quarter, yet I never missed a play by the use of over 20 smelling salts during the game (or so I was told later in the week when my memory returned). I also never missed a practice. Several months later, early in the ‘81 season, I developed hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and underwent emergency VP (ventriculoperitoneal) shunt brain surgery at Stanford. I have since survived nine emergency VP shunt brain surgeries, including five in a nine-month period in ‘86-‘87 while completing my Biology degree. I have also had several gran mal seizures, and I have been on anti-seizure meds for over 30 years.
5. When did you (or someone) first realize you had a problem?
I realized I had a problem during the ‘81 season. I developed major headaches and projectile vomiting. I saw balls of light in front of each eye each night. The team doctors diagnosed me with high blood pressure and prescribed diuretics for over two weeks, until I suffered focal point paralysis of my right arm. The team doc diagnosed me in the locker room with a brain hemorrhage. I drove myself to the hospital, where I underwent emergency VP shunt brain surgery.
6. What kind of emergency treatment, if any, did you have (e.g., surgery,
I have had nine emergency VP shunt brain surgeries since then. They drilled a hole in my skull and installed a permanent drain tube, which runs to a pressure valve in the back of my head. They plumbed that to drain into my abdomen. I am also on Lamictil for seizures.
7. Were you in a coma? If so, how long?
Nine months after my first shunt surgery, the shunt failed while I was fishing in Mexico with my brother. It took him a day to get me home, and I was in a coma from the pressure on my brain. I had two more brain surgeries ten hours apart and was given last rites. I was 23 at the time.
8. Did you do rehab? What kind of rehab (i.e., In-patient or Out-patient and Occupational, Physical, Speech, Other)?
I was never offered rehab. In fact, I was forced to sue the 49ers for Work Compensation just to get my second and third brain surgeries paid for. Until now, it was brain surgery, out the door, and “See you next shunt failure.” I did use Vocational Rehabilitation Services when I returned to school in ‘86 to complete my Biology degree. But, I was on my own to rehab after each of the five brain surgeries that I had while finishing my degree. I discovered B.R.A.I.N. (Brain Rehabilitation And Injury Network) founded by Sue Rueb in Cypress, CA, last year while speaking at a TBI conference. I literally moved there last August to get daily treatments – first treatments I have ever had. I do neurocognitive therapy and Yoga therapy, and I counsel other TBI survivors, which helps me as well.
How long were you in rehab?
I’ve been rehabbing since August 2013.
9. What problems or disabilities, if any, resulted from your TBI (e.g., balance, perception, personality, etc.)?
I have gran mal seizures, MAJOR short-term memory issues, poor judgment, anger-management issues, loss of direction, poor concentration, problems getting my words out or thinking of the right word, numbness in extremities, constant headaches, vision problems when my shunt goes out, diminished hearing, personality changes, problems handling finances, and brain seizures from alcohol, to name a few.
10. How has your life changed? Is it better? Is it worse?
I completed a Biology degree in 1990 at age 32 after eight brain surgeries, and I followed my second dream to be a wildlife biologist. I have never let my injury define me, and I thank God for it. I wouldn’t be where I am now had I not been injured. But recently, things have begun to spiral out of control. I lost my environmental consulting business (Visger & Associates, Inc.) in 2009, and I lost our house in 2011. My wife of nearly 19 years, and the mother of my children, and I are going through a divorce. It’s been too much for her.
11. What do you miss the most from your pre-TBI life?
I miss my family. I miss being The Giant – the guy who “could do anything,” as my wife used to say. I miss being able to remember things. I literally do not remember numerous out-of-state bow-hunts, months of my life, kids’ activities, etc.
12. What do you enjoy most in your post-TBI life?
I enjoy being able to use my injuries to help others. I feel it is my God given mission in life now.
13. What do you like least about your TBI?
Loss of my marriage
14. Has anything helped you to accept your TBI?
I’ve been helped by my belief that God has a plan for me and that “something good comes out of everything.”
15. Has your injury affected your home life and relationships and, if so, how?
It has destroyed my marriage, and I lost my ability to provide for my family.
16. Has your social life been altered or changed and, if so, how?
Social activities were impacted, as I liked to drink back in the day. Now the only impact is that I will forget to attend a social outing. I have never been embarrassed about my injuries. I’m just as goofy now as I was before my injury.
17. Who is your main caregiver?
I was single until my late 30’s, and I have been my main caregiver ever since. My mom stepped in for a few days during surgeries, and my older brother, whom I worked with, kept an eye on me. My wife has done what she could over the years, but she has never been through a surgery with me.
Do you understand what it takes to be a caregiver?
I understand better than most what it takes to be a caregiver. I also understand what caregivers go through. I call it the “Ripple Effect.” My family members and caregivers have taken a worse beating from my TBI than I have. It is much harder on our loved ones than it is on ourselves.
18. What are your future plans? What do you expect/hope to be doing ten years from now?
I founded The Visger Group – Traumatic Brain Injury Consulting in 2010, and I have spoken all over the country. I coordinate directly with the NFL on rule changes to reduce TBIs in football at all levels. I have spoken at congressional hearings, conduct motivational talks at schools and businesses, and currently am working with our veterans suffering from TBI. I am also suffering from frontal lobe dementia, and I hope to kick a few butts and rattle a few cages while I can, in hopes of changing the way the medical field treats TBI survivors and families. In ten years, I expect to be working with government agencies, our military, academics, and sports leagues. I plan to be leading and speaking at TBI-recovery groups.
19. Are you able to provide a helpful hint that may have taken you a long time to learn, but which you wished you had known earlier? If so, please state what it is to potentially help other TBI survivors with your specific kind of TBI.
George Visger #74 4th row from bottom, 2nd from right @ 1981
In football, there is a saying: “Short, Choppy Steps.” If you over-stride, it’s easy for someone to knock you on your butt. You want to keep your butt down, your head up, and take short, powerful 12-inch strides. Forget about breaking long touchdown runs. Get the little things done each day, and you will reach your goals. If a football team only got four yards each play – no more, no less – they would never lose a game. Think about it. They would get a first down every three plays, and they would score every time they had the ball. Life is no different. You need long-term goals for sure: score a touchdown, win the game, win the Super Bowl. But, you will NEVER get there if you don’t get your four yards a carry. We sell wrist bands on our website (www.thevisgergroup) that say “Short, Choppy Steps” and another one we give to coaches and players that says “Use your head, DON’T use your head.” Focus on small daily victories, and you’ll win the game.
20. What advice would you offer to other TBI survivors? Do you have any other comments that you would like to add?
Keep in mind everyone has a cross to bear. Carry your cross; don’t let it carry you. All of us TBI survivors have a lot to give to everyone. Turn your negative into a positive and touch people’s lives. Focus on your positives. Work hard, and put it in God’s hands. It will all work out.
That’s all anyone can do.
You can learn more about George Visger on his blog and these YouTube videos.
Can TBI Unleash a Talent That We Didn’t Know We Have?
TBI survivors are usually defined by others in negative terms. Survivors are often seen as people who are no longer able to do something they once did easily or as people who are physically disabled. It has become strikingly evident from the interviews on this blog (Survivors SPEAK OUT!) that TBI survivors, once they have accepted the new normal of their lives, often show immense courage and determination. They have aspirations and exhibit motivation that is intensified or that wasn’t even known to exist. Here are two videos that show a positive outcome from TBI.
The first video is long (1 hr, 5 min), but it is mesmerizing. In it, neurologist Dr. Darold Treffert discusses (with videos) the “savant syndrome.” It is thought that some abnormality in the brain unleashes a skill that normal people find to be phenomenal. At 29 min 20 sec into the video, Dr. Treffert discusses “The Acquired Savant” – a person who has become a savant after a brain injury. Although becoming a savant after a brain injury can happen, it’s rare. But, any model of the brain has to be able to explain the savant syndrome. Dr. Treffert suggests that the brain comes “fully loaded with software” and that the normal functional brain eventually suppresses much of its intrinsic “software” to reduce stimulation. This means that we all may have suppressed talents.
The second video is much shorter (15 min) and is relevant to all TBI survivors. Ann Zuccardy redefines what it means to be smart. A person may define himself or herself by a certain talent or ability. Does one’s life then become unfulfilling when that skill is lost as the result of a brain injury? Ann Zuccardy, who was affected by a brain injury, tells us that the loss of a dominant skill allows a person to nurture and/or develop other skills that may have been ignored. These other skills can be as useful as or even more impressive than the dominant one was.
David and I met on the dance floor when I was 16 years old. He was 17. We fell in love under a strobe light. Through our married years, we danced at weddings and at parties, but when David’s Traumatic Brain Injury left his body as limp as Raggedy Andy, I never dreamed that David and I would ever dance again. But, during a recent trip to Westport, Massachusetts, to spend time with our son, Jared, his fiancé, Emily, and her family, we found ourselves staying in a mansion … only feet from the Atlantic Ocean. Our host, Susan, was beyond gracious, concerned about our every comfort. On our second night there, she threw a big family party on her extensive patio and even more expansive grounds overlooking the ocean; and she invited us. We stopped in about midnight.
The partygoers were huddled around the fire-ring … music still blaring. Jared and Emily began to dance on the patio. I swayed. David sat in a tall patio chair. Then the unthinkable happened. David asked me to dance. I hadn’t expected that! David can barely walk – dancing had not been on his radar for more than seven years. I looked at him expectantly. Was he kidding, being facetious? No! With a huge grin, I answered, “Yes!”
We didn’t Cha-Cha or Swing, as we had learned in our Ballroom Dance classes. We didn’t attempt the Fox Trot, or even the Waltz, though Paula, our dance instructor after David had his TBI (another story), would have been proud of us if we had. But, we did our own dance. We swayed back and forth – never moving our feet. We call it the “TBI Sway.” We swayed with my head resting against David’s shoulder and his hand gently placed at the small of my back. We swayed with David holding on to me for dear life … for balance. We danced under the stars to an old favorite, “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers, with the sounds of ocean waves lapping the shore, with smiles on our lips, and remembrances of days gone by … and the promise of our days ahead.
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More than eleven years ago, eighty-six-year-old George Russell Weller confused the gas pedal for the brake and sped through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. He struck seventy-three pedestrians. Ten people died.
I sustained life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured spleen and multiple fractures. Due to the nature of my traumatic brain injury, it wouldn’t be until three years after the accident when a neuropsychiatrist diagnosed me with a TBI.
During the early days and weeks of my recovery, weighed down by pain and the unthinkable – that others died while I survived – my brain lacked space for anything heady like the notion of forgiveness. Years later, when I possessed enough emotional fortitude to unearth the new articles I had collected about the accident, I decided I needed to find a way to forgive Russell Weller. I’ve been told that forgiveness is overrated, that you don’t have to forgive to heal. While that might very well be true, my want to forgive others for any wrong committed is part of my constitution. So I had to at least make an attempt to forgive Russell Weller. Otherwise, I’d be infected with a case of chronic bitterness and cynicism and worried I’d be contagious. Who wants to hang out with someone with a transmittable illness she has the capacity to heal?
To forgive, one must first assign blame. But, as in Russell Weller’s case, if there is no act of intentional harm, where do you place blame and, therefore, how do you forgive? To add an additional elusive layer, how do you forgive someone you’ve never met? Is it even possible to forgive someone you don’t know? I reached out to Russell Weller’s family years after the accident, but they refused my request to visit him. In 2010 he died.
The following year, I enrolled in an MFA program. During my third semester, still befuddled as to how to forgive Russell Weller, I wrote my critical thesis on the topic: The Face of Forgiveness. I examined how a particular writer, who had sustained life-threatening injuries after a car struck him, navigated the indeterminate nature of forgiveness on the page. Because each circumstance varies, forgiveness cannot be defined in absolute terms. *Since forgiveness is a process, I arrived at the conclusion that it can be charted in stages:
1) Understanding of the accident/incident
2) Transference of anger and other emotions
4) Awareness of others’ suffering
These stages don’t necessarily occur sequentially. Like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief – denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – the stages of forgiveness may overlap, or one may become stuck in a particular stage. For me, I became stuck in one or two and skipped another one or two altogether. It’s also worth noting that the stages of forgiveness may not occur in a defined timeframe.
Stage 1: Understanding of the accident/incident
I dedicated months to reading news articles and investigative reports, parsing out the details of the accident: What Russell Weller was doing in the moments before he sped through the market, his medical history, his driving history, what bystanders witnessed at the scene of the crash. Somehow, I believed by reading those articles I would get to know Russell Weller and, therefore, be able to forgive him, or not. But written words weren’t enough – they seemed static on the page. Even though some articles included his apology – “I’m deeply sorry for any pain that everyone went through” – I could not hear his voice, hear his remorse, anger, or fear. And with all the contradicting statements about Russell Weller’s character and what people saw or didn’t see, I only became more confused. I felt like a pendulum – swaying dizzily between sadness and anger.
Stage 2: Transference of anger
As I read articles about the role the local entities had to play in running the market, any anger I harbored for Russell Weller quickly transferred to city officials who were responsible for ensuring the safety of pedestrians. I wondered why they didn’t have sturdy barriers in place, rather than wooden sawhorses. But, similar to my confusion regarding how to feel about Russell Weller, my feelings and emotions swayed – from judgment to understanding, from contempt to submission.
Stages 3 and 5: Self-pity and Avoidance
I did not become victim to self-pity – perhaps the perpetual warring dialogue in my head thrust self-pity aside. For the same reason, I skipped avoidance.
Stage 4: Awareness of others’ suffering
As I continued my dogged search to find meaning within the chaos, I could not help but be lured into an awareness of others’ suffering. I imagined the physical and emotional pain the other injured pedestrians endured and the rage and anguish that tore into the families of the deceased. I viewed Russell Weller as injured, too – emotionally, mentally, psychically. I imagined Russell Weller’s grief: plagued by nightmares, isolated behind drawn window shades, sallow from regret.
The judge who presided over Russell Weller’s trial said he “lacked remorse” Because he didn’t cry? Why is it that we have a tendency to forgive others only if they exhibit unequivocal remorse: falling to their knees, drooping, sobbing? But a display, or physical showing, of remorse is not necessarily what matters to those harmed. Of course, a sincere apology does not negate the harm done, but sincerely spoken words of remorse are what matter. The quality of the voice matters: is it harsh, tense, creaky?
In 2011, I finally obtained and viewed a copy of the videotape of Russell Weller speaking with police officers soon after the accident. I slid the video into the CD player, inched close to the television screen, so close I felt as if he and I were together in the same room. Though he did not cry, his full-toned voice quivered as he said, “I’m in trouble with my heart and soul.” His voice then quieted to a whisper, as if he were in church mourning over the dead: “God almighty, those poor, poor people.”
That’s when I forgave Russell Weller. That’s when I surrendered – to Russell Weller’s remorse.
*Stages of forgiveness conceived by Melissa Cronin
To learn more about Melissa, please visit her website/blog at Melissa Cronin.
Thank you, Melissa Cronin.
Any views and opinions of the Guest Blogger are purely her own.
When TED interviewer, Pat Richards, asked former Arizona Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords (who is recovering from a Traumatic Brain Injury caused by a gunshot wound to her head), if she wanted the “old” Gabby Giffords back or whether she was embracing the “new” version of herself, Gabby emphatically said, “The New One! … Better! Stronger! Tougher!”