Living With Brain Injury – Part III: The Isolation Challenge

Isolating yourself from the world is an all too common occurrence among those who live with brain injuries, myself included.

For those who know me from a distance, this acknowledgement on my part may surprise them. I give speeches and facilitate workshops and seminars and so forth, but other than that, getting out of the house and into the world around me is no easy task, and, in the world of brain injury, I have a lot of company.

There are reasons I have three dogs and a vegetable garden. They all get me outside and once I am outside, away from home, and engaged in a task of some kind, I’m fine and enjoying myself. I love wonderful conversations and bookstores. I hope, for example, that heaven itself is a book store and there I will find an endless supply of books not published  on earth written by Dickens, Tolstoy and Steinbeck and others. I love the sound of laughter, especially the sound of a baby giggling; I’m not sure there is a sound anymore heartwarming than that.

But it is breaking the isolation barrier and getting out of the house in the first place that can be the “Mount Everest” challenge.

When I work with others – and on myself – the are some basic Life Growth tenets I teach. Life Growth is a life-management philosophy and protocol that gives back to the person their individuality and identifies the challenge – not the person – as the opponent. For example, I am not my brain injury. I have a relationship with it and I am the one who deserves to be guiding my life, not the injury. It is the same with isolation. It is not who I am, none of us who struggle with it have our character and worth defined or diminished by it. But, like in any relationship, we do have some say.

The very first step for those who face the isolation challenge is to accept that the challenge is real. It seems to me that any hope of gaining freedom from this or any challenge slips from our grasp if we don’t accept the reality of the challenge in the first place. I would not be celebrating seven years of sobriety this month if I did not accept that I deal with the disease of alcoholism. I would not be able to write these words to you if I did not accept my eyesight was getting bad and, as a result, got me some glasses that let me see the damned words in the first place. (Are you smiling? I hope so. There is no reason for sadness as we discuss this. Isn’t it kind of nice that we get to connect with each other like this, through words, isolation or no isolation?)

The emotional equation goes like this: You have to accept it in order to manage it and you have to manage it in order to get free of it.

What those of us who know us should not do is judge us. We get trapped in isolation for a reason,  not because we are lazy or weak and need to simply snap out of it.

As to why the challenge of isolation is so prevalent for those of us with brain injuries, I’m not sure there is any one set answer, though there may be. Part of the answer for many of us, I think, is this. When you are traumatized with a brain injury, no matter the cause, your it can’t happen to me syndrome is gone. The task then becomes taking part in life knowing these things can happen, so it is no wonder so many of us hunker down in the perceived safety of our homes and stay there.

But then here’s the question, the key question in my book, if we surrender to the isolation, then the very trauma and presence of our injuries now robs us of taking part in life.

Let me ask you, who do you think deserves to be in charge of your ability to take part in life, you or the injury? I vote for you – and – by the way – for me too.

 

WE OUGHT TO JAIL FEAR

I live in fear every day. Some days more than others. Like the London fog, it rarely leaves. And when it does leave, it hasn’t gone far. Fear can be crippling. It is a master thief. It robs us of more than we realize.

An extraordinary song by Marc Cohn, an e-mail exchange with a loved one, and a recent discussion with a group of trauma survivors has me pondering the presence of fear in far too many lives. Like the song, “One Safe Place,” by Mr. Cohn reminds us, we all deserve a sanctuary.

Life happens to us whether we like it or not. Life, unlike people, knows no bigotry. It visits all of us. It brings us its greatest rewards if we stay open to them: the love of a fellow human being, the joy of loving another human being, the sweetness of a soft morning mist, a baby’s laughter, a piece of music that sends chills of joy riding up and down our spine and wets our eyes. Life brings fear too. There is a Life Growth phrase that says, It’s okay to be afraid, don’t let is scare you. The phrase seeks to help someone discover they have a relationship with the fear and thus have some say in the relationship. The idea is to wrest as much decision making power from the fear as possible by going towards and through the fear. Believe me, I am not always able to do it. But when I do, the results are not as horrifying as I thought they would be.

Not long after I was shot in the head in 1984 I was held up again at gunpoint and did what any sane person would do, I retreated into my home and did not leave it for nearly one year. Fear had me by the throat. It robbed me of participation in the world around me. How did I get free of it, at least to the point I could leave my home? Acceptance. Acceptance does not, I repeat, does not mean giving in to it. The equation goes like this; you have to accept it in order to manage it and you have to manage it in order to get free of it. You have to go through it.

We can be a spoiled lot at times. We want short cuts. Smokers want to defeat the cigarrette habit with a patch, hypnosis, nicotine gum, or accupuncture (I’ve always thought there should inaccupuncture too. Fairness, you know). In other words, they want to kick the habit without going through the experience of, well, kicking the habit (bet you didn’t see that coming).

There are some common sources of fear: violence, disease, death, loss of employment, end of relationship, of marriage, and so forth. But there are other fear-laden landscapes where the master thief robs more from our lives: fear of loving someone fully and allowing someone to love you. Fear of following your dreams: going back to school, picking up some paints because you’ve always wanted to paint, learning how to play an instrument because you think you’re too old or lack talent, and so forth.

We ought to jail fear every chance we get. The only way to jail it is to move through it. Will it be easy? No.

Hear me. You go through the fear and you will come out the other side. You will notice that you made it. You’re still breathing. It didn’t kill you (that’s what we think it wants to do, isn’t it?). You are alive and face to face a new kind of glory – you. Each time you go through the fear you erase more and more of its ability to control you and rob you of your dreams in life. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll paint that painting, play that instrument, love that person and let that person love you. Impossibilities become possibilities. And one of the last things in the world that deserves to rob you of your dreams and your possibilities is fear.

Remember, it’s okay to be afraid, don’t let it scare you. Remember to live.
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