When we experience any major life transition, we are faced with the choice to redefine our sense of self, purpose, and direction in life. The alternative is to get stuck, not moving forward, but looking back at what might have been. Dr. Rolf Gainer has long been interested in one’s sense of a loss of identity after brain injury, and has recently begun to explore theories around resilience. Involved in brain injury rehabilitation program development and operation since 1978, he has seen countless individuals recover to live full lives post-injury through necessary specialized treatment. However, he has also seen those individuals who find it more difficult, if not impossible, to move forward with their new set of circumstances and capabilities. It has led him to the question of why some individuals seem better equipped to deal with life’s tragedies than others. This was a question he recently posed to Laurie Rippon, author of TBI to Life, in an interview about her experience with brain injury and rewriting the narrative of her life.
“I defined myself by my brain.”
Laurie eloquently described the feeling that she was no longer herself after surviving a brain injury.
”I was a huge reader…What my brain did, allowed me to be who I was…I was a great problem solver. I was confident…the idea that I could no longer do that…It’s what I trusted about myself. How do you even understand what happened when the seat of what happened to you is in your brain? How do you separate that?”
Losing the understanding of self and losing trust in oneself is commonly felt experience in the aftermath of brain injury. Laurie went on to explain that the aspect of awareness is crucial, “to work on becoming aware of how you function in the world and how you affect others.” When an individual is unable to empathize with others, they will often see the people in their life disengage. This leads to the social isolation so many individuals deal with post-injury.
“You lose the single most defining piece about yourself.”
Laurie describes the way life got increasingly complicated as she recovered from her brain injury, because the better she got, the more aware of her deficits she became. Her post-injury day to day life looks very different from the active social life and high powered career in publishing that defined her pre-injury. She spends a lot of time in her apartment alone, not because she doesn’t want to be around people, but in order to conserve her mental energy. She describes going through a particularly difficult time when counselors in her outpatient program suggested she find a way to disconnect mentally several times throughout the day. Before her injury, Laurie was able to move effortlessly from one task to the next throughout the day. Now, she needs to take several breaks a day to go for a walk. Learning how to ask for and accept help in dealing with the times she has felt as if she is “hitting a brick wall” has made all the difference for Laurie as she continues to build a life she believes in.
“You have a voice.”
Laurie’s cognitive coach helped her connect to her own voice and encouraged her to write about her experience in recovering from her brain injury. “Transition is the most difficult in any life at any point.” Finding her purpose in educating others about brain injury and working to advocate for survivors felt like what she just had to do. As she accurately stated, “We all need a purpose.” She connects with people in her local community through her work as a Peer Counselor in the Rusk program and serves on the Board of the Brain Injury Association of New York. She first began to trust her own voice as a writer, after her brain injury, and connects with people all over the world who find strength and understanding in her blog, TBI to Life. Laurie encourages all of us to celebrate each small accomplishment, since this will provide the necessary confidence we need to move forward and discover the next step.
We are so grateful to Laurie for giving of her time to be interviewed by NeuroNotes, Editor in Chief, Rolf B. Gainer, PhD, and look forward to continuing our relationship with her as she continues her important work.