The most important healing tip I’ve learned from my own brain injuries (TBI & concussions)

I just saw an interesting piece on the importance of sleep on the NBC morning news show, which reminded me of the most important thing I have learned from experiencing a traumatic brain injury and a few serious concussions. That is the amazing healing powers of sleep!

I’ve always been a pretty good sleeper and enjoyed every minute of it, but now I see that sleep, whenever you feel like you need it, is your best brain restoring behavior. When we are younger we may try to get away with less sleep than we need, but, as we age, deep REM sleep is essential to brain health and memory retention.

After my traumatic brain injury fourteen years ago, I had no choice but to sleep quite a bit for months afterwards. I also had fractured ribs and breathing problems. That kept my activities to a minimum. But my brain did slowly heal itself over a few years. It literally re-wired itself to work well again.

It was only after a recent serious concussion in April 2021 that I knew that I must take it really easy on my brain and rest whenever I felt fatigued. Then I read Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s amazing book “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientistʼs Personal Journey” where she explained how she slowly healed from a terrible stroke. There she re-emphasized the need to sleep as soon as you feel any need for it. In this way I have slowly regained clarity and stability over the past year and a half.

We must all stop fighting sleep and ENJOY IT! It has such a healing effect on your brain and every other part of your body. If you don’t believe me, believe the Dalai Lama:

Brain injuries and a misdiagnosis of apathy

One of the results of my recent psychological and memory testing was a diagnosis of apathy. I thought about that for a few days and then spoke to a friend I’ve known for almost twenty years about my supposed problem.

His response? “No, you are absolutely not apathetic!”

So what is apathy? According to Oxford, “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.”

Signs and Symptoms of Apathy:

Lacking the effort or energy to do everyday things. Dependence on others to plan activities.

No desire to learn new things, meet new people, or have new experiences.

Lack of care about your own problems. Tendency to feel no emotions when good or bad things happen.

After further thought I realized that this type of testing mistook “apathy” for a natural sadness and frustration when someone with a great brain experiences multiple assaults on their brain health. I would challenge anyone to experience what I have in the past fifteen years, and not feel sad and frustrated.

The most reassuring book I have read about brain injury is: “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. There I learned how slow the brain recovers from injury, but it certainly can rebuild itself eventually! My first brain injury, a TBI in 2008, taught me that. The most important thing to remember is that your brain will tell you when it’s tired and you really MUST STOP when it tells you that. For me now, an hour or two of any type of total concentration exhausts my brain. So when I took a two hour focused memory test I failed and came across as suffering from apathy, when in fact I felt total brain-exhaustion halfway through and after it was over I slept for over twelve hours straight.

I find myself excited and enthusiastic about many things like plants, gardening, photography, writing, old movies, music, new foods and learning something new everyday. I have just learned to pace myself to give my trusty brain plenty of space to recover with endless hours of restful sleep. Few understand my specific needs these days like I do. My brain will simply shut down if I don’t respect its messages to me. I certainly expected a brain specialist to understand that!

Unfortunately, it seems I must continue to educate “the experts” what brain injuries are all about. Perhaps they don’t know, but one of the best benefits of brain injury is the full realization that we MUST make the most of every single day we’re alive!

“Do we really need much more than this? To honor the dawn. To visit a garden. To talk to a friend. To contemplate a cloud. To cherish a meal. To bow our heads before the mystery of the day. Are these not enough?” — Kent Nerburn

Boomer health is failing earlier than our parents

In a very roundabout way, I learned recently that we Baby Boomers are the first generation in American history to have worse physical and mental health than previous generations. Disturbing huh. Along with celebrating my Mom’s 89th birthday this week, I got some results back from a two hour test of my memory, a baseline for future understanding of how my memory is changing. One of the most concerning findings to me was that I suffer from apathy and depression. So, like a good researcher, I started checking to see how common these feelings are among my own generation. Come to find out:

“Americans born between 1948 and 1965 are more likely than the generations that preceded them to have multiple health problems as they age. Many develop two or more health conditions up to 20 years sooner than folks from other generations…” according to the articleCohort Trends in the Burden of Multiple Chronic Conditions Among Aging U.S. Adultsin the June 2022 issue of The Journals of Gerontology

It seems our apathy may be showing… This study classified people, based on the generation they were born into, like this: Greatest generation (born 1923 or earlier); early children of the Depression (1924 to 1930); late children of the Depression (1931 to 1941); war babies (1942 to 1947); early boomers (1948 to 1953); mid boomers (1954 to 1959); and late baby boomers (born 1960 to 1965).

The researchers looked at nine chronic conditions: heart disease; high blood pressure; stroke; diabetes; arthritis; lung disease; cancer (except skin cancer); depression symptoms; and trouble with memory and thinking skills. Among adults with multiple chronic health problems, arthritis and high blood pressure were the most common for all generations, higher rates of depression and diabetes drove the surge in chronic conditions seen in boomers. Some links can be found between the introduction of fast food and television:

“Fast food restaurants became very popular during the 1950s because families were busy and they needed a place where they could quickly pick up food; people also wanted to be able to get quick food that they could eat in front of their new TVs.”

In other trends, American baby boomers scored lower on tests of cognitive functioning than did members of previous generations, according to a 2020 nationwide study. Findings showed that average cognition scores of adults aged 50 and older increased from generation to generation, beginning with the greatest generation (born 1890-1923) and peaking among war babies (born 1942-1947). These scores began to decline in the early baby boomers (born 1948-1953) and decreased even further among middle baby boomers (born 1954-1959).

 What was most surprising to me is that this decline could be seen in all groups: men and women, across all races and ethnicities and across all education, income and wealth levels. Results showed lower cognitive functioning in boomers was linked to less wealth, higher levels of loneliness, depression, inactivity and obesity, and less likelihood of being married. Could this also be linked in some way to how many of us have tried to live up to our parents’ demands and standards and failed?

The biggest concern is that these apparent trends in lower cognitive functioning in those in their 50s and 60s, could lead to a higher rate of dementia as we age. Among the aging population in the United States, we are already seeing an increase in the number of Americans with dementia. This may continue in our future.

Gratitude for Internet Friends!

With so many nasty things happening on the Internet these days, I would like to call attention to a few marvelous friends I have made over the years and recognize a wonderful source for these friendships. The “Women of Midlife” group on Facebook was started about a decade ago to attract and assist women writers with support and friendship. I joined as soon as it formed, and through the years, as I read the writing of various other women past age 40, I developed online friendships. But I had no idea how much these women meant to me until I ran my last post about aging faster than my friends.

I wrote there about friendship loss as we age and our health begins to fail and was astounded by the response from the friendships I have developed over the years on “Women of Midlife.” These few women have watched me grow as a writer and as a woman over the years and therefore understand best my frustrations with brain injury and how that is now limiting my abilities to communicate and connect with others. They also seem to know that it has been quite difficult for me to make any real friends in my new environment in rural southern Colorado.

One message in particular hit home for me:

“Laura, you have always been tenacious in your hold on life. Your connection to nature often pulls you through. Your love for those in your life MAKES YOU YOUNGER than many. And finally your mental strength. I believe when we lose some of the physical the mental takes over. That is certainly the case with you.”

Blessings, Beth

I had no idea Beth understood my struggles so well and yet continue because of my desire to keep pressing on in spite of multiple challenges. I knew that some women, whom I have known for years but have never met in person, do care for me, but this response was unmistakable in its understanding, love and concern.

Thank you to “Women of Midlife” for fostering these kinds of close online friendships!

P.S. I also just learned what ‘ghosting’ is from one of those friends. Shame on those who do it!

What it feels like to age faster than my friends

Recently I have begun to realize that what I am experiencing at age 67 is what most in my age cohort will experience later. Because of my present health concerns, lung disease and a few serious brain injuries, I feel now what most in my age group may not feel for a decade or two. This has come home to me with a few recent occurrences.

First is my upcoming 50th high school reunion next summer. At first I got confused about whether it was this year or next year, and when I realized it was next summer that they were trying to schedule for, I had to respond with, “I’m not sure if I’ll even be here by then…Either way I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to come.” 

I have also recently heard from a few friends from decades ago. My best friend from high school wrote out of the blue to “catch up.” She is probably a typical 67-year-old who recently retired, loves to travel, and is proud of her children and grandchildren. They seem to have very few health problems. I told her the truth about my situation. I didn’t hear anything back, period.

Same with a lover/friend from my mid-20s. He sent me a brief e-mail in April saying, “Hope all is well.” I sent him a summary of my life now and received stark silence in return when I told him the truth about what is happening with me.

One thing is for certain, my life experiences in the past decade or so have changed my outlook on life. One cannot suffer a traumatic brain injury and fractured ribs, with periods of unconsciousness over 24 hours, without seeing life differently. Now I see that experience as a gift, one which greatly raised my appreciation of life while showing me that death is truly not so unusual or scary. We may simply experience an accident, lose consciousness and it’s over. Is that so bad?

Losing my ability to breathe without oxygen has taught me compassion for those who lose any basic ability that others take for granted. I know now how others can suffer from judgments from others and how harsh I may have been by unconsciously judging those with limited abilities through no fault of their own.

These challenges and insights I face now are the same as many in my age group will face eventually. I’m just getting an early start. I find my experiences so revealing about disability and aging. I try to face all new experiences with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Too bad others seem to want to avoid looking at my life now and possibly their our future.