Catastrophe to Progress

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Moving from Catastrophe to Progress, through Acceptance

Have you ever considered about how you would feel if you woke up and didn’t know why you were, wherever you were?    I’m asking if you’ve ever been betrayed by your memories.  All of a sudden, you are unable to do what you remember.  Your life terrifies you.  You trust no one and you can’t remember needing the assistance that you now require.  How do you survive?  What do you have to do differently now and in the future?

Over 45 years ago, in November of 1971, I was, I was an active, liberal, rebellious college student.  I was very social, well-organized, intelligent, goal oriented and fiercely independent with just the right touch of passive aggressive resistance to authority figures.  I remember laughing a lot and handling stress without much thought or anxiety.  I was able to manage multiple demands with ease.

In a split second, my career changed from one of a special education teacher to an entry level position in the field of brain injury recovery.  This was a result of my being a passenger in a very small Italian sports car that collided with a very large American vehicle.

That afternoon an impressive set of credentials was awarded to me.  My right wrist was crushed; both my eyes would never again work together and I sustained a severe brain-stem injury.  Fortunately, the driver of the other car was a physician who immediately began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to restore my breathing.  I was rushed to the University hospital in Ann Arbor, where I was placed on life-support.

From November of 1971 until February of 1972, my memory does not exist.  My first recollection is waking up in my bedroom at my parents’ house, wondering why I wasn’t at the University of Michigan where I was a student.  I had scars on my body and a cast on my arm.  The words rehabilitation center and catheter were suddenly in my vocabulary.  Confusion and terror set in and everyone was asking me how I was feeling.  The very sad thing was, that I had no idea why.

Once I was discharged from the Rehabilitation Institute, my mother took over.  Guided by her own beliefs, she developed a program for me.  She took me shopping where I had to evaluate and make choices about clothing, which she later returned.  Three days a week, my mother took me swimming to strengthen my body and to re-establish coordination and sense of balance.  My mother’s strong orientation for results made me achieve goals.  She insisted that I try to do things for myself so that I would develop some degree of self-sufficiency and confidence.

In the beginning of 1972, I was concerned with learning to walk without using furniture for support, go up and down stairs, cook my meals and set my hair.  Things that I unconsciously do today were very difficult and required deliberate efforts.

One thing at a time became my new mantra.  Having a conversation and eating could not be done together.  I used to hesitate between groups of words so often, that I was told I sounded retarded.  As you can imagine, this did not make me very happy.  So I started listening to how people in the mainstream talked and I copied them.  I also had no idea how to interact with people after my catastrophe, so I watched how others did that wherever I went.

My role models were chosen from the people I liked and respected.  A goal for me was to become the type of person who got treated the way I wanted to be treated.  Somehow I knew I had to treat others the way I wanted to be treated.

I had no work experience before my trauma.  Nobody told me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t succeed.  My job had been as a student getting an undergraduate degree.  Therefore nine months after my accident, I returned to school.  One year later, I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Education.

After graduation my first job lasted only two weeks.  The position required a lot of things that I simply was no longer good at.  Upon failing at my first job, I decided to do something where I knew I could be successful.  Therefore, I decided to attend graduate school, out of state, far from the safety of my parents’ home.  I applied to schools of Social Work where I wanted to live and that didn’t require the graduate exam.

Graduate study posed few problems.  As long as I was able to concentrate on one thing at a time, school went well for me.  Still there were difficulties with my statistics course and maintaining friendships because I didn’t know my own boundaries.

Six months after graduation in 1976, I got my first social work job at a suburban Detroit hospital.  Six weeks later, I was laid off and to this day, I’m not sure why.  Nine months after that. I obtained another social work position, but was unable to perform to the standards set for this job and it went by the wayside as well.

Please understand that in a job interview, I could present a very capable, qualified image, but I was just unable to live up to it on a continuous basis.  I wasn’t aware of my deficits and I believed myself capable of doing anything that I set my mind to.  From that point in 1977 until the end of 1979, my job expectations and experiences deteriorated.

A Michigan Rehabilitation Services counselor sent me a therapist who did occupational, psychological and vocational therapy in my home for two hours, twice a week.   This therapist helped me prepare for a secretarial position, which I held for 11 ½ months.  By that time, it became clear that I hated the work and my boss terminated my employment.

After exhausting my unemployment benefits, I started a private practice in social work so that no one could fire me!  This is the time; I attended my first Head Injury Alliance meeting.  It became clear that I could help others who had experienced trauma, reintegrate into the mainstream because I was getting good at that myself.  The practice was sporadically successful for two very trying years.  When my last automobile insurance terminated, my practice and I both collapsed.

Fourteen years after my injury, I finally realized that I couldn’t do everything I wanted.  With that awareness came my clinical depression and I began to grieve the loss of a life that was never to return.  Another Michigan Rehabilitation Services counselor sent me to a sheltered workshop as an evaluator-aide.  I stayed for more than three years because I could do the job and I was unaware of other opportunities.  One morning, I got up for work and the next thing I knew my boyfriend, who is now my husband, was picking me up off the floor.  It was determined that the cause of my fall was a seizure.

Needing to find a new way of life and a new place to work, I again sought the help of Michigan Rehabilitation Services.  The Head Injury specialist there sent me to a Brain Injury Rehabilitation program.  Eighteen years after my trauma, life lessons began to flood my mind.  I learned what behaviors were reasonable to expect after a brain injury.  With that information, I began to understand that I wasn’t totally at fault for all the jobs that were now in my past.

What a relief that was to learn!  There were things beyond my control that contributed to my losing so many jobs.  I began to understand that I wasn’t a failure just because of my inability to work in the mainstream.

Today I work as a Trauma Recovery Expert and Disability Life Coach.  The activities that tend to deplete my energy are those that I just don’t do.  Every day, I need to remember that: I lead an interdependent life and I must be comfortable asking for assistance when I need it.

I have lived with my difficulties for more than 45 years and I’ve learned that:

  1. It’s in my best interests to confront rather than avoid my problems,
  2. It helps to think of myself as having a battle with the deficits created by my difficulties.
  3. As long as I remain ignorant of the status and combat capability of my problems, I will be unable to avoid or reduce my own suffering.

When I familiarize myself with the difficulties that might occur, my distress seems to be reduced as well as my fear and apprehension toward life with all my problems.  When I no longer need to be afraid of what might happen, I can better prepare myself for the Success Strategies that need to be made.

Another life change for me has been to have goals.  Those goals must be realistic and attainable.  I need to have an ultimate goal for my future, while recognizing my difficulties in the here and now.  As I strive to overcome challenges, it is important for me to make an effort to create gradual changes that will lead me to my ultimate goal.

Making a sustained effort is important when bringing about genuine change.  My experiences have taught me that it takes determination, effort and time to modify behavior.

I wrote a book that I created for rehabilitation professionals and for survivors.  The book is titled Acceptance Groups for Survivors,  A Guide for Facilitators. It is written in a structured group format that is designed to help people accept themselves and their new life circumstances.The book is offered on multiple pages on this site

Acceptance Groups for Survivors has 9 objectives.  They are:

  1. Grasp the concept of acceptance as a three-step process:  Recognizing problems, admitting deficits and accepting the reality of the present moment.
  2. Become invested in one’s own recovery.
  3. Build an understanding for Healthy Interdependence.
  4. Explore feelings accompanying disability.
  5. Understand that personal worth is not determined by ability to function.
  6. Deal with loss and be able to learn how to grieve and let go of disappointments.
  7. Become aware of personal strengths and weaknesses.
  8. Build a solid framework of realistic goals.
  9. Learn problem-solving skills.

Since people learn through repetition, each meeting begins and ends in the same way.  Before each group, a participant reads:

Recovery does not mean that you wake up one day and you’re fine.  It does not mean that your memory becomes intact.  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/illness.

Recovery to a person with an injury/disability/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.

At the end of every group meeting, all participants name a positive change that they’ve made since their trauma or they make a positive self-statement.

Does Anyone Live Free from Suffering and Loss? I don’t think so.  Is Recovery Worth the Struggle? It absolutely is.  My life has taught me that I was not singled out for the terrible misfortunes that I have experienced.  That insight alone doesn’t eliminate or minimize my problems.  It simply reduces the suffering that comes from struggling against the unfortunate facts of my life.

Let’s Review:

  1. When faced with an obstacle or challenging set of circumstances, what
    message(s) do I say to myself in order to keep from feeling defeated?

    • Recovery is not only making progress, it is taking one step.
  2. Why is setting goals important?
    • If you don’t set goals or visualize a picture of where you want to
      be, you will probably lose momentum.
    • Genuine change will require a sustained effort. That’s why it’s important
      to keep goals realistic and attainable!
  3. In order to recover, what qualities are required?
    • Recovery demands commitment and a sustained determination to overcome
      obstacles and attain goals.
    • It takes determination, effort and time to modify behavior.