Now I'm Just Somebody That I Used to Know

Accepting that there is no going back to a future that can't exist.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

Since my car crash eliminated the future me in 2014, I have been on a difficult journey to find myself. In fact the first step of this journeyand one it took me years to take—involved realizing I was lost. The car crash left me with a brain injury, something I've addressed here before, that altered my functional capacity, affected my memory, and changed my personality. Once I made the shocking discovery that I was a different person, I realized I despised the perceived deficiencies and weakness of the one who I had become.

I didn't want to be this different person yet found there was no way back. I spiraled into self-hatred, clinical depression, and suicidal ideation. Just before I hit rock bottom I found my way to begin to accept what had happened to me and who I had become. This remains a daily struggle yet it is a journey that I am committed to continuing.

To continue accepting the implications of my brain injury and exploring my current and future capacity is all can do. Evidence suggests that acceptance of loss of functional ability due to psychological disability or physical trauma is a key correlate of resilience. This is also related to the concept of psychological flexibility which, amongst other things, comprises recognizing and adapting environmental demands with the ability to shift mindsets and behavior.

Yet, like so many things in life, real acceptance can be much easier said than done. My own acceptance has been difficult to implement since I used to be at a very high level of achievement professionally and personally. Acceptance requires an intrinsic ability to yield to what is actually occurring. It has taken me a long time to accept I am worthy of being after brain injury stripped away my powers and took away who I was and could become.

Despite all of the above, I've done my best to remain open to gathering inspiration and motivation from whatever sources are at hand. And, since I use them so much in my science communication efforts, this means lots of comics and superheroes!

In Captain Marvel #11 "Falling Star", writer Kelly Thompson perfectly captured how I had been feeling when she wrote about losing powers this way:

"It's hard to go backward. Once you've been powerful, once you tasted that, it's hard to let it go...there's a reason people who go through trauma don't want to fall asleep, it's because in sleep you often forget, and it's glorious. But then you wake up. You remember. Then it hits you like a truck." 

Ironically, given that my books use comic book superheroes as metaphors for human achievement, I felt like I had gone from being a superhero to becoming a shadow of my former self. Like the superhero who had been de-powered and is moving backward. Some kind of semi-Superman after a steady diet of kryptonite.

While watching (for the 4th time) Avengers Endgame I connected with a line I'd heard before but the importance of which had somehow previously eluded me. Academy Award nominated screenwriters Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeeley have Thor’s mother Frigga (played to great effect by Rene Russo) say: 

“Everyone fails at who they're supposed to be...the measure of a how well they succeed at being who they are.”

It struck me that I really still was trying to be someone I thought I was supposed to be rather than who I actually was. That the person I was currently was, in fact, the only person I could ever be. And maybe, just maybe, that could be okay. The idea of being de-powered is really just the idea of change. Things are different now for me. In a comparative frame of reference many things are worse but some things are better. And in the end it's irrelevant because things are the way they are.

So I decided to stop failing at who I thought I was supposed to be. To instead succeed at being who I actually am. To be okay that the pre-crash person is really now just somebody I used to know. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, to be happy that part of my life happened, not sad that part is over and in the past. My journey continues, along a different route, and towards some different destinations than my past projections indicated, but it's still of value and worth the effort.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2020)