by Rob Ghio
I need to write about this, even though it doesn’t really fit the theme of any of my blogs. But since Mormonism and Zen both believe that all truth is part of one great whole, this seems as good a place as any.
I don’t do group activities, much less group discussions. The idea of sitting in a circle sharing experiences with other humans is about as attractive to me as sitting in a pool of piranhas with a freshly cut steak hanging around my neck. I don’t enjoy talking about my problems all that much, and Heaven knows I don’t want to hear about anyone else’s.
I once attended an Al-Anon meeting with a relative who was looking for help in dealing with her alcoholic father. That meeting was a nightmare. It was like open mic night at the stand-up tragedy club. Maybe too many of the people were there under court order, but there seemed to be very little good coming out of that meeting. I understand that one meeting isn’t enough to judge an organization or a process, but it was more than enough for me.
So when Daughter 4 announced that our family needed to visit a support group of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) survivors and their caretakers, I responded I was busy that day. Whichever day that might be. But then my wife gave me the “look,” and I decided to sign up for a session before I no longer fit the “survivor” category. But I announced up front that if there was anyone licking the windows, I was beating a hasty retreat.
Yesterday was our first visit. It was me, Daughter 3 (who was also in last year’s car accident and also had a TBI), my wife, and Daughter 4. The group meets monthly in Arlington and is affiliated with the First Baptist Church (I’m kind of assuming that: They meet in the Baptists’ building and mentioned God a lot). You start with a joint session (meaning everyone meets together; no grass was smoked), and then the survivors and caretakers break out into separate sessions.
I will respect the privacy of those who were there and the particulars of what was shared, but to give you a feel of it: One guy was as former drug addict who fell out of a window while stoned and earned himself a long coma and longer recovery; another had a stroke; another had an aneurism. One lady was the victim of a murder attempt. One had been in a work accident. Another was in a car wreck like we were. The nature of the accidents and the extent of the TBI were different for each person there. But there were some common threads among each person that participated.
First, there was grit. These folks have, for the most part, suffered with extremely difficult symptoms and have had to go through extensive rehabilitation just to have a semblance of a normal life. There was more fight in that room than I have ever been associated with. They don’t speak of their struggles with any drama. It’s just something they have been through. This wasn’t stand-up tragedy. This was a council of war against despair.
Second, there was genuine compassion. Although my TBI has created real difficulties for me, I was very blessed not to have experienced some of the disabling symptoms that most of them have experienced. But I did not feel like I was the odd man out. They understood that there were unseen issues that I was facing, and they were honest and compassionate and anxious to give tips on recovery. You could feel the love in the room, a bond created by people who all have faced, and continue to face, the same demons.
Third, there was hope. My neurologist tells me that whatever function I have now is about as good as I am going to get. These folks aren’t having any of that. They know from experience that there are things they can do to get better, even if improvement is incremental. And each of them is focused on the next goal: A Master’s degree. A job. Driving a car. They rejoice in their victories, even if that victory is something as “small” as braiding your own hair. These folks are not defeated. They believe that there are good things ahead of them.
Fourth, there was perspective. Every person who participated said that the TBI had made him or her a better person. They were more thankful for the good things in their lives. They had slowed their pace and learned to appreciate the small stuff. They were more patient and compassionate. You would think these people were actually thankful for their life-threatening knocks on the noggin. But it isn’t so much that. It is the understanding that in every tragedy there is some blessing, and they have each searched for, and found, theirs.
Finally, there is faith. These people, like me, attribute their survival and recovery to God. Their reliance on His enabling power is evident and acknowledged. They do not curse God for striking them down; instead, they thank Him for lifting them up. Their faith is uniquely powerful, undoubtedly because it has been forged in fires of adversity. It has been tested and found true.
I think my reaction to the group is influenced in large part by my own softening as a result of my TBI. I am much less judgmental of other people now, recognizing that everyone bears their own suffering. I am in no way grateful to have experienced a TBI. If I had to do it all over again, I would have stayed home in bed and skipped the whole experience. That said, this journey has allowed me to see other people at their finest. It has now also allowed me to meet and learn from people of uncommon strength, resilience and hope.