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shatteredI wanted to share something that is significant for me, which is my relationship to the world and how a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) shifted everything. I hope this offering will provide some insight for someone who lives with TBI, or has someone with TBI in their lives.

In 1995 I was in a serious car accident. I had been a busy and successful practicing massage therapist with a private practice in Boulder Colorado for 5 years. I was on the edge of burning out and a single mom. I went to my dad’s home in North Carolina for the holidays, and was driving home. I was rear ended on the highway heading West in Alabama by a brand new, shiny blue 18 wheeler carrying fuel with a Christmas wreath on the grill. The driver was going about 73mph when he tried to pass me. I was going 68mph. He clipped me. I spun out of control, jumped the median, flew through the air and landed. My son was in the back. He was 6 years old. Upon impact to the driver’s side front corner of the car, my neck was completely rotated to the right as I had my arm over the front seats to try to secure and watch my child in the back seat as we were spinning. When we hit, I  suffered a whiplash in a strained neck rotation to the right with my left ear practically hitting my chest. My son was in shock, and after tests at the hospital he was released at 100%. I was seemingly fine. I had no broken bones, no blood loss, yet something dramatic had shifted. I felt as if I had walked through the looking glass.

What I ultimately learned after all of the tests was that my brain was more or less slammed against the inside of my skull. It was also suggested that some issues in my neck were responsible for the symptoms. The initial stages of my injury and the recovery pulled the rug out from beneath every aspect of my life for a period of 2 years before I stabilized. I suffered a lot of musculoskeletal trauma with constant pain, and I eventually recovered about 70% from that. I have a great deal of scar tissue.  I was told by my health care team that I had suffered a traumatic brain injury specific to my frontal lobe, and the goal was to become functional in life with it. For a period of time, I slept about 12 hours a night, could not remember beyond the normal things we forget and I was a disaster. Losing my keys, not being able to drive, forgetting to turn off the oven, losing my car, missing appointments, forgetting names of people etc. I lost 40% of my vocabulary. The greatest rip off is I feel that I missed my son’s 2nd and 3rd grade years. They are a blur. I can’t remember anything but the struggle of survival during that time. No one understood what I was going through.  I was suffering from PTSD, was dealing with lawyers, insurance companies, in a brutal battle with the trucking company, and was in various recovery treatment 25 hours a week. There was every type of therapy and tons of it. I had become left side dominant, and there were some difficult symptoms that required a lot of new life skills. I have never fully recovered, but with the help of my doctors, specifically the neurologist and neuropsychologist I had learned how to cope with my new brain. Some of my greatest breakthroughs were getting filtered ear plugs to help with focus issues, doing crossword puzzles daily, drinking coffee, and using a computer to hold the memories and important information I could not. Photographs became very important to me.

I also had a lot of musculoskeletal dysfunction and pain from the trauma and I got a lot of bodywork and massage which I could not have made it without. That is another story, the brain injury is what I’d like to focus on for this essay. Many people live with varying degrees of this condition. How your brain is damaged will determine who you are. I have a list of symptoms. I have a short term memory which can be embarrassing and give the impression that I don’t care to remember or that what others shared with me was not important to me. This is completely untrue. I do care. My perception of reality is different. I feel like I’m always half way between a dream state and an awake state. This has never changed since the accident. There was “reality” before the accident, and “reality” after the accident, and my perception of these two realities were vastly different. My sense of smell and hearing is so strong that what these senses are picking up can be completely distracting and maddening. People don’t understand. I can hear everything and it annoys the hell out of me. If I am trying to focus, and I feel bombarded by the hum of my computer, the refrigerator making ice, animals breathing, people clicking pens, etc. It can be crazy making and my anxiety rises. If I am not being mindful of my reactivity, I could be short with one of my kids or husband. I can become extremely agitated if I am interrupted because I’m sure to completely forget what I was talking about.  If I am in a room where someone is wearing oils or perfumes or hairspray it can distract me to the point that I can’t keep my thoughts straight. I FEEL a lot. My list of “A LOT” goes on and on. The reason for this is I have lost some gate keeping. This is not easy to deal with. I feel that I live in the now more than I did before the accident, and I don’t hold back like most people do. This has been a great gift and a great curse. I feel I lack normal self-restraint at times, so I will often take on things reasonable people would not. This has resulted in great accomplishment… and big mistakes. I found my brain was working in different ways. I was using a computer a great deal and I could learn to use programs with ease. I could see, understand, and write HTML. I was able to accomplish sick amounts of work in a very short amount of time, still do. I could see things in life that were normally flat, in dimensional layers, for example, music. When I hear music now, I’m not just hearing the music, I’m hearing the 8 or 9 or 12 layers of the music. My massage therapy palpation perception was suddenly worlds beyond what I had ever experienced before which greatly improved my ability to serve my clients. If it were not for my TBI, I would not have the same accomplishments that I have now. I forgot a lot too, and some of the memories I forgot were those that resulted in victim identification from events in my young life. I had identified completely with self-pity from troubled events in my childhood, and that was suddenly not an issue anymore. I was forced to reinvent myself, and even though I had to repair and rebuild which was painful and difficult, I do feel that my TBI was one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me.

It does not always go that way for people, however. Do you know the many ways a traumatic head injury can affect a person? Have you or your loved one been hit in the head at some point in life? When people begin to explore TBI, it is shocking to consider how many people could be living with a TBI and don’t even know it! Especially children. That issue you have with your child could simply be a misinterpretation of their perception of reality. People with TBI are trying to make it work here in the face of life’s normal expectations, and are often misunderstood. It can be really hard just to feed and shelter yourself.  We don’t have a big bandage on our heads, and so when we don’t meet the normal expectations of others, we can be thought to be self-absorbed, or uncaring.

Everyone with a TBI operates at different levels of functionality. Coping can turn into the opening up of a different kind of brainpower, hence the gift/cursed new reality, and some people hurt badly for the rest of their lives and will need complete support. Consider our homeless veterans. How many of them are suffering from PTSD and possible TBI?

I am lucky. My noodle was twisted just right. I know that if it were not for my TBI I would not have been able to accomplish the work I am today, and I’m grateful for the change that has occurred in me. I hope by sharing my personal experience with TBI someone will be better supported in their journey toward healing and functioning. Here are some other resources if you would like to explore further.





Jill Kristin Berkana

Jill Berkana LMT Founder/Director Berkana Institute of Massage Therapy and Bodywork Passionista