Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog

January 31, 2017

THAT’S when my brain was messed up…

Filed under: Uncategorized — karaswanson @ 4:10 pm

Today is the 21st anniversary of my brain injury and, as the years have gathered and clustered and bumped into one another, I have gained so much insight into what I’m celebrating and what the reality of my life was and is.

Most of us, I imagine, come from a place where we measure when we were well against that date we were hurt.  That date when our brains got messed up…

But I look back now and I was 31 and so successful and Society smiled upon me and told me I was thriving and climbing and I had this and that to hold up as evidence.   Nice house, nice car, nice suits, good money…

But, as I sit here today and look out upon that January snow coming down and I recall that day so many years ago now, I am more convinced than ever…

I don’t lament that time.  I don’t covet it.  I don’t long for it.  I realize now that-

THAT’S when my brain was messed up!

Oh my.

I was told when I was young that working those 80 to a hundred hours a week meant I was driven and successful and accomplished and goal-oriented.  Executing on four hours a sleep so many nights and changing in my car so I could go from catering director to coach and then back again.

I didn’t have time to even look at life.  To look at myself.  To realize how unbalanced and dysfunctional I was.   Here I was in a town I had moved to where I didn’t know anyone, far away from friends because I had left an abusive relationship.   I worked so much that I barely even decorated that new house.  When my mom started having her strokes, I didn’t take time off.  Instead I got up and went to the hospital at 6 in the morning, off to work at seven, sneak to the hospital after lunch events were done, back for dinner events, off to the hospital once more before heading back to set up for the next day’s events.  Walking in at three in the morning…

Everyone told me I was such a success when really I was just living a life of pretty chaos.

It didn’t take this brain injury to make my life fall apart.  It took this brain injury to get my head on straight and to start putting together a real life that I took the time to actually want.

Please don’t waste this opportunity!  Brain injury comes at us like the Boogey Man and it throws all sorts of horrific distractions in our way.  It makes us feel like it is the worst thing that could ever have happened to us.

In reality, these injuries of ours are crossroads.  Intersections.  Pivot points.  Yes, I get that, for so many, the devastation is beyond repair….But, for so many of us, it is our opportunity to walk away from what almost killed us and to actually, finally, start living.

I pray you are as fortunate as I am this day.  To know that it was that damned injury I have to thank for now 21 years of real success in things that actually matter to me.   Something of lasting value.  Something worth living for.  Love, peace, joy, doing things I love, being with people I love, appreciating life…

Happy Birthday to me.  To all of us.  To be born is to be given the gift of life and we have each received this now twice.  What are you going to do with yours?

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January 28, 2017

They Just Play The Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — karaswanson @ 9:48 am

My friend Linda has been teaching piano for over forty years now.  Over all those decades, with literally hundreds of students, she has developed many tools to reach and teach people of every age and learning ability.  To give them the robust gift of music.

I had always wanted to play but, even before my brain injury, I had never learned to read music.  To me it was like Statistics in college….like some foreign, frustrating language that everyone seemed to be able to speak except me.

I had taught myself to play some over the years.  With a handful of guitar chords that I practiced over and over and with some easy chord books and song selections that included just the few chords I knew, I was able to strum a little guitar here and there.  Never anything great but enough to enjoy it and actually recognize the few songs I was trying to play.

Linda knew I had always wanted to play piano and the idea kept returning to me when I was recovering.  I kept coming across evidence and testimony of music as a useful tool to help unlock cognitive potential in recovery.

I think she, too, was curious about the challenges a TBI survivor might face when trying to encourage the brain to execute the many simultaneous demands in order to play.  You have to be able to read the notes, process them and apply them to fingers which are attempting to find corresponding keys.  You have to read two sets of notes in order to play the right hand and the left hand and have all of those things happen together, over and over, throughout a song and within the confines of time measurements.

For someone like me who cannot, some days, manage to pair two simple things together and execute them at the same time for even a moment, the idea of stringing those skills together over the course of an entire song felt almost impossible, really.  I didn’t imagine it would be much fun if I couldn’t keep up with the processing speeds and one simple song would take ten minutes to play.

Didn’t sound like too much fun.

Linda knew, too, that, when I used to play guitar, I would come across a tough chord that I hadn’t mastered and just play a G.  I told her, “Yep, just play a G anytime you don’t know a chord….”  For an award-winning, classically-trained professional, I’m sure she was aghast.  Laughing here.

We decided to give it a try and just see.

Linda searched the myriad strategies that had served her so well in helping the countless students she had taught.  She realized that, when we hit roadblocks that TBI had made so frustratingly distinct to my potential, she threw out the playbook and literally rewrote the language of music in a way that my brain could actually recognize, organize and process quickly enough to stay in a song.  We stuck to songs I knew so that the familiarity might add to the processing speeds.  We drew pictures in the margins of the sheet music and found ways around the demands that I simply could not execute.

And I played the piano.

The other day Linda was telling me about her new piano students.  Two of them are just six and seven and she reported how well they are doing and how quickly they are picking it up.  I told her I was a little embarrassed by how hard it was for me, even before my brain injury, and she said something interesting that made a light go on for me.

She said, “Kids just play the music.  Adults have a lot going on in their heads.  They bring a lot of baggage.  Kids don’t ask why.  They don’t second-guess the music.  They trust the music and they just play.”

As soon as I heard that, I thanked her for my new blog subject.

In any life I think we all get caught up tripping over the baggage.  In our own heads, we complicate the simplest of notions, of gestures, of evidence.  We deplete ample.  We muddy. We can take a beautiful ice sculpture of an eagle and keep chipping at it and finding flaws and seeking perfection until all we’re left with is one big honkin’ ice cube.

Admittedly, with a brain injury, we may have to rewrite the music a little.  There might be drawings in the margins and notes and skips and end-arounds in order to allow ourselves the gift.  But the gift is the music.

We gotta just play it.  We just gotta hold tight to the simple truth that it is a good thing to play it.

Giving ourselves the most extraordinary gifts of life:  love, music, compassion, forgiveness, wellness, inclusion, support, peace….is worth every note in the margin.   For those of us with TBI in our lives, those gifts are worth every strategy, counsel, learning, medication, and compensatory tool to get us there.

I cried that first time I played Silent Night with two hands, chords and all.  I cried.  It was a little slow and admittedly a simple version, but it was Silent Night, nonetheless.

Thank you, Linda.  Thank you to all of you out there willing to help us enjoy life’s most beautiful gifts.

I played Silent Night.  And into that Silent Night, I poured music.  Into the dark still where sometimes hope flickers and falters, I poured hope.   And flames of tomorrow’s possibilities sparked tall and bright, crazy into the night.

Just play the music.

January 1, 2017

The Pine Needles Hurt

Filed under: Uncategorized — karaswanson @ 11:22 am

Growing up, my family adhered to ages-old traditions of celebrating Swedish Christmas from December 13th through January 13th.  I never questioned it.  That’s who we were and that’s how it was.  We celebrated life and love and loved ones around those trees.  My Mom carefully placed the hundred-year-old ornaments from Sweden near the top where the kids and enthusiastic cats “hunting in the wild” of our tree branches couldn’t reach.  There were more than a few birthdays of mine on the 15th of January that included a Christmas tree.

As you can imagine, though, by that second week in January, our poor tree was dropping its needles and long-suffering after a month of standing tall and strong in a house with the furnace on and a fire going.

By the time we managed to drag that poor tree out each year, it was so painful to touch those branches and, oh, how they scratched!  The needles fell like rain and we were still getting poked by the occasional rogue needle, stubborn in the carpet, long into Spring.

My parents are gone now and, when I moved into my condo, friends gifted me a lovely lit tree that I pull out each Christmas and plug in and enjoy just the same.

It doesn’t hurt.

I still honor my parents and our heritage in personal ways, in my heart, from the beginning of Swedish Christmas until the last but it is so apparent to me that…

When we drag the past on for too long and into a future it was not meant for, it hides and it waits and it pokes and it hurts.

This New Year’s morning is mild.  Right smack dab in the middle of winter, we here in Michigan are enjoying beautiful sunshine and are looking forward to temps near 50 tomorrow.

It is a new year.  A new year!!!

I am giddy with this extraordinary gift given again-a new empty slate upon which I will create the next year of my life.

As we get older, it becomes so glaringly clear how precious time is.  Time.  Sweet time.

Some, I imagine, like George Michael and Carrie Fisher, thought there was so much more of it left.  Others, stricken with illness or dire prognoses, understand how it is now counted with a different perspective or in smaller measures of years, or in months, or even in breaths.

Time.

We are so often careless with this treasure.  We waste time.  We lose time.  We kill time.  We fill it with people we don’t love and in jobs we can’t stand and we note that years fly by unremarkably.  Sometimes without an earmark.  Without a difference.

Without extraordinary.

My wish for everyone this new year is always the same:  good health.  With good health, we are free and able to mold and shape and fill and celebrate our time.  Our particular time.

This go around, maybe we can figure out the parts of our lives that are like those poking pine needles and stop dragging them into a new year again and again when they are best left to the past:  relationships that worked better back then, traditions that fit better then, perspectives and beliefs and opinions that thrived in a world we don’t see outside our windows now.

Maybe it’s time to plug in and light up better solutions and better strategies so that we actually enjoy this gift we’ve given.  Our time.

It’s a new year.  It’s a clean calendar.  It’s a blank slate.  Most of us will return again a year from now and we will know if we chose to spend more of our precious time with people, in jobs and doing things we simply don’t like, love or want anymore.  If we chose to simply keep slogging, keep complaining, keep hating, keep dreading, keep dragging dead trees behind us…

Or did we choose, finally, to really hold that time up precious and close this year?  Did we choose, at every turn, to share it with people we love and enjoy?  Did we give parts of it to fun-seeking adventures, new learning opportunities, great relationship and neighborhood and planet and people-saving projects, and sweet moments of love and of healing and of grace?

Did we make time and find time and give time so that we actually enjoy our lives?

Let’s choose that.  :)))))

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