A few weeks ago, I stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people, shaking like a mother@#$%!&, and shared my story of “Surviving and Thriving” at the annual brain injury conference held by the Brain Injury of Association of Vermont. I also listened to others, including mental health providers and rehab specialists – share their experiences with TBIs. As the theme of the conference, “Surviving and “Thriving, came up over and over again, I began to think about what that phrase really means for TBI survivors, and others. I wasn’t looking for the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” kind of answer (I’d like to see someone take on that impossible task, literally.) Of course, precisely how each one of us survives and thrives differs, but I came away from the conference realizing that a common denominator does exist: Human emotion. Because we’re human, we’re vulnerable and experience grief, anger, jealousy, anxiety, and so on. That being the case, I’d like to share some takeaways from the conference, tidbits offered by Psychologist Laura Basili, which define, at least for me and hopefully for you too, the nitty-gritty of “Surviving and Thriving”:
1) A willingness to remain vulnerable. Being vulnerable is part of “Surviving and Thriving,” though we tend to equate vulnerability with weakness, and who wants to be perceived as weak? But, alas, like I said, we’re all vulnerable, like it or not, and it doesn’t mean we’re weak at all. If you don’t believe me, maybe the poet David Whyte will be more convincing: Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding under-current of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to be something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.
The operative phrases, which are worthy of repeating, are in the last two sentences: To be invulnerable is … to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.
So why not wrap your arms around vulnerability, walk alongside it, or invite it into your home?
2) We first need to understand grief before we can grieve what we’ve lost – maybe it’s the loss of independence after a brain injury or the death of a loved one from a TBI, or any other kind of loss. But grief doesn’t only come in the form of sadness; it also presents itself as anger, denial, guilt, fatigue, desperation, hyper-vigilance, resentment, and anxiety. So when you’re socked-in by one of those emotions in the aftermath of a loss, know that you’re doing what humans do: grieving. To grieve is to grow, meaning you’re “Surviving and Thriving.” As Laura does with some of her patients, if you’re struggling with grief, you might want to try drawing a picture of suffering, then drawing one that resembles hope. I’d love to see what you come up with.
Oh, I almost forgot one more tidbit, something that brain injury survivor Hannah Wood shared during her keynote address: Do one thing every day that scares you. That doesn’t mean you have to free climb up the face of Half Dome in Yosemite or go skydiving. Maybe it’s applying for that dream job you’ve been telling yourself you’re not qualified for because you’re afraid of being rejected. Maybe it’s making that phone call to a certain individual who has experienced a similar traumatic experience as you, but you’ve held off, afraid she’ll tell you she doesn’t want to talk about it. Whatever the scary thing might be, go for it! After all, as Laura shared with the audience from one of her clients, “The suffering is in the waiting.”