The Invisible Beast

The Invisible Beast

A few years ago, I suffered a traumatic brain injury that changed everything. Those who knew me before my injury know that while I’m the same person, I’m also very different.

I talk differently, walk differently, think differently, and even look different. I’ve become less social, more closed off, and it takes me longer to gain enough trust with someone to share anything beyond the surface level.

A good friend once said that he’s almost forgotten how I talked before, and this is just “normal” now. Although it may seem like it’s business as usual to an outsider looking in, it feels anything but to me, having to live with my thoughts, hear my own voice, and feel my restrictions.

For the first two years following my injury, I was focused on rehabilitation. I made it my sole mission to get better, to 110% of how I was before, avoiding distractions from the unimportant things around me and the path far ahead. I was looking at where I was planting my foot with each step.

People were telling me left and right what I could or couldn’t do, but I wanted to prove them all wrong. I couldn’t do a lot of things normal people did, but I pushed myself to try and be stronger, fitter, and smarter than someone without a critical injury. Now, it’s come to the point where I’m no longer able to ignore my reality. There are some muscles that can be worked with pull-ups or squats, but the brain is not one of them.

This healing process for the brain is a function of plasticity, and will be a lifelong journey. Dealing with a traumatic brain injury or concussion can be most difficult. Not only is it invisible to others, but a different experience for everyone going through it. A close friend and mentor put it in a self-deprecating and humorous way, but I agree with the premise of it. When someone asks how your day is going, “there are bad days and there are worse days”. Although a negative outlook on life, there is truth to it.

While I believe that having a positive mindset is the number one most important thing when faced with a challenge, it’s okay to have bad days. I certainly do, and a bad day for me may not be a bad day for someone else. If you’re having a bad day, it’s okay to cope with it, in whatever way works for you. Although stoicism can be admirable, it can oftentimes mean pushing down legitimate emotional responses to an objectively terrible situation. Instead of just “carrying on”, surround yourself with supportive, understanding people with who you can call or grab coffee, and simply talk about the things you’re dealing with. It doesn’t make you soft or weak.

Not communicating what you’re feeling can turn a little problem into something that tips you over the edge. My path may have been similar to friends’ and co-workers’ before my injury. We had similar goals and aspirations of doing the most we could to serve, but now my purpose has pivoted. Today, I may not be able to physically kick down and be the first through the door, but I want to be there to support those who do when they need help. I often find myself needing reminders to focus on where I am and where I need to be. Rather than harping on yourself for not reaching a big goal, it’s important to take note of the little victories you’ve achieved.

When you find yourself veering from the path, remember to never compare your behind-the-scenes with someone else’s highlight reel. Being envious of someone else’s situation doesn’t help anyone - you don’t even know their situation. Remember your own path and stay focused. Finally, no matter what you’re going through, always try to see the goodness in people, and be kind to strangers. Not everyone will know what you’re going through, but people who care about you will try to understand.

If you can’t directly relate, use the opportunity to practice empathy. Being empathetic takes a lot of strength, while being dismissive or judging is easy, and a sure sign of weakness. With a TBI, I might be a bit slower, but just like your rolled ankle or sprained wrist, my brain is another physical part of me that’s injured, and that injury is being healed.

-DW, Royal Westminster Regiment

Cpl Billy-Joe Laliberte

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