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Moments of Joy and Hope Fuel Perseverance

Personal Perspective: Noticing joy allows one with brain injury to keep going.

Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy
Source: Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy

Difficulties assail people with brain injury in their everyday lives. Whether it’s struggling to rise out of bed after another non-restorative night of sleep; remembering to eat breakfast; expending cognitive effort in daily reading practice; straining to put on an acceptable social front; or being patient with the need to pace and rest regularly, these activities, which many adults take for granted, comprise layers of continuing difficulties that only gradually over the years attain automaticity, one layer at a time.

For example, brushing one’s teeth requires memory, muscle strength, coordination, energy, stamina, patience, and concentration to finish the job properly. Purchasing an electric toothbrush may remove the muscle strength layer, and brain biofeedback the concentration layer, but the other layers remain until they, too, heal one by one over time.

Brain injury turning life into a daily endurance marathon can crush us, wear us out, or demand that we find a way to persevere. One of those ways is to notice moments of joy and signs of being seen. I wrote about some of these moments in my memoir Concussion Is Brain Injury: Treating the Neurons and Me:

“I sat down at my kitchen table, mind blank, and two cardinals flew by my window. I stood up and walked over to watch them.”

Moments of joy arrive unexpectedly. You see them when you’re open to noticing. When these cardinals flew by my visual field, enormous fatigue was burdening me so much that taking a medication whose side effects included fatigue didn’t bother me. Yet I hadn’t lost my ability to notice things like that flash of bright red on a bleak winter day.

The cardinals “hopped up to a higher branch, bopped back down to a lower one. They flitted further away, then hopped closer to face me fully. I waited for them to fly off as cardinals were wont to do. They didn’t. A thought crept into my head: photograph them. Malaise kept me rooted, but the cardinals didn’t leave. I frowned. So unusual of these red birds with their black masks. They stuck around for about an hour, long enough for me to move my feet at last, find my camera, and photograph their upended tails, their aggressive stares, and finally their beautiful profiles. Awe and hope filtered into my soul. The two angels in bird form launched into the blue sky then and disappeared.”

That year, 2007, began with intense fear from my body doing strange things that had landed me in the ER and doctors not knowing what to do other than to put me on prednisone briefly and a beta blocker. The medication didn’t do anything for my thermoregulation dysfunction; the beta blocker only eased my anxiety and kept my heart rate down for a few hours in the high double digits. Seeing these cardinals gave me hope in a way that the medication hadn’t.

That hour with the cardinals reminded me of the early years after my brain injury. I’d walk home alone, exhausted from rehab and medical appointments, and I’d look up at the blue sky. It was the only good thing in my life at that moment. You know your life sucks when you have to deliberately make yourself look up to find a moment of gratitude in the sky being blue.

Years later, I'd walk in the rain after challenging weekly appointments, relishing the way the cold sky water scattered people off the sidewalk and out of parks, leaving the park benches all to myself. And I watched celestial events from my tiny corner of the world like millions of others. If you have to be isolated because society excludes those with disabilities, you might as well extract a measure of joy in some part of it. Today, I carry my smartphone to snap photographs of flowers. Whether I upload them or not, the act of photographing them lets me notice their color, their scent, their shape, and the way they beautify autumn’s dead leaves.

I couldn’t have persevered through this one-year-shy of a quarter century living with brain injury without being able to notice aspects of life that give joy: spring flowers after cold rains; brown creepers hopping swiftly up fat tree trunks; clouds folding among themselves to create magnificent skyscapes; a follower on social media expressing gratitude for what I’ve written; squirrels squeaking madly at each other; a squirrel bombarding another with acorns; cats winding their way toward me; dogs pulling their owners over to say, “Hi!”; and the grand arc of a blue sky.

I can’t tell you how to notice. All I can say is that from my own experience, I know it’s not tied to the ability to concentrate. When my hyperactivity was extreme, I still noticed these small, hope-giving moments. Maybe carrying a camera or opening your smartphone’s camera app is a way to tell you, “Notice the joy!” Let this moment tell you quitting this brain injury marathon isn’t permanent; it’s merely a placeholder in recovery’s persevering journey.

These moments don’t prevent quitting and brain injury grief. But they can allow you to pick yourself up and keep going through the long haul of brain injury recovery.

Copyright ©2024 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy

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