The backdrop to our wedding was the Atlantic Ocean, with a few sailboats filling the scene and sails billowing from a light summer wind. On a nearby island, a classic New England lighthouse watched the boats pass by, and a few puffy white clouds adorned a deep blue sky, as if for effect. We were much younger then and looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together, in an uneventful life.
But as life often does, it threw us a curveball, of sorts, when the unexpected became our “new normal.” Just after our first wedding anniversary, our lives changed forever, when I was hit by a car driven by a teenage driver. My injuries were catastrophic and included broken bones, lacerations, torn ligaments and tendons, and a traumatic brain injury. While not life-ending, my injuries were indeed life-changing, and still affect our everyday lives, over a dozen years later.
I began that November day back in 2010, as a self-employed professional, but by day’s end, I would begin the next chapter of my life as a disabled adult. Sarah’s life was also forever changed and she would take on the role of a caregiver, a role she never expected.
Roles in a marriage were something I never really thought about before everything changed. At the time of our wedding, we had been together for many years, and had a deep liking for each other. Before my injury, I saw us as equals, each a stabilizing and supportive force in each other’s lives. In two ticks of a clock, everything we knew was removed from our lives, and it was a catastrophic event that pushed our relationship to the limits.
While it pains me to admit it, I was no longer self-sufficient after my brain injury. With brain injury comes a complicated new reality. My short-term memory no longer worked as it should, so I could not be counted on for simple tasks, like turning off the oven or stove. Brain injury also brought profound personality changes and the loss of both verbal and emotional filters. I was inclined to speak my mind at any time, often at inappropriate times, and became an embarrassment to take out in public for a couple of years.
As much as I would like to say that Sarah jumped right into her role as a caregiver, that was not the case. Both of us were independent people before my injury, and watching over me with the same eye she would use for a three-year-old caused never-ending stress. We were no longer equals, and the personal and life stresses began to take their toll. At one point, Sarah shared that if it hadn’t been for our many years together prior to my injury, our relationship would most likely not have survived. The thought of this remains devastating.
The years passed, and slowly over time I regained a new footing as someone living with a disability. It’s commonly said in the brain injury community that recovery is measured in years, and that has been the case for me. As I moved toward my new normal, we found ourselves getting our feet back under us. There was no “aha” moment, no bolt of lightning, just a deep commitment by each of us to do what we were both capable of to make our lives work. And as we both grew in our new lives, the arc of the pendulum swung slowly away from constant caregiving and towards keeping a watchful eye over me.
Together we identified new strategies to compensate for what I had lost. Simple things like setting an alarm on our Google home device reminding me to turn off the oven, helped in destressing life. Rather than trying to remember events and dates, I started noting anything of importance on my calendar, no longer taking for granted the fact that I would remember birthdays, anniversaries, or other noteworthy dates. Having lost the ability to discern the passage of time after my injury, I started using a smart watch. A quick turn of my wrist would let me know the day of the week, something I never struggled with before. As we moved forward over the years, problems became opportunities to find solutions, and in those solutions, life became easier, and I became more independent.
Sarah has always faced challenges head-on. When I needed a hug after a tough day, she was there. However, there were times when I was consumed by self-pity and looking for sympathy. She knew enough to let me know that I had to “suck it up” and keep moving. At the time, I didn't see it for what it was, but today I see it as exactly what I needed, and I am grateful for it.
As my challenges became less overwhelming, we began to settle into a new life – one that was unplanned but still very rewarding. These days, we are both reasonably self-sufficient and we support each other. Sarah accepts me as I am, and I do my best to honor our relationship with my thoughts, actions, and deeds.
Recently, Sarah had to go on a business trip, several days and over a thousand miles from home. Unlike a business trip shortly after my accident, which left me in terror at the thought of being home alone, her recent trip went smoothly, and I wasn’t overly concerned. While some couples are forced into caregiving roles they never expected, we are fortunate that this is not our continued fate.
For many years, she kept a watchful eye over me, and helped me to live my best life possible with my disability. Today, we are back to living as equals. Yes, I still sometimes leave the oven on, but the toughest years are behind us. As we age, we don’t know what fate has in store for us, but I can say wholeheartedly, that together we can get through whatever the future holds.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David A. Grant is a freelance writer based out of southern New Hampshire and the founder of the Brain Injury Hope Network, one of the world’s largest online communities supporting those with brain injury. He is also the author of Metamorphosis, Surviving Brain Injury and a contributing author to Chicken Soup for the Soul, Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries as well as a regular contributing writer to Brainline.org, a PBS-sponsored website.
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