“I didn’t even know what an egg was,” Teri says, her eyes expressing the panic and disorientation that fourteen years ago came with a traumatic brain injury. Traumatic brain injury happened to her, as it happens to many, from every day events at unexpected times in their lives and leave them floating in a sea of confusion and isolation. Without the symbolic representation and acquired language that describes our experience, and connects us to others and the world around us, we are lost from our lives, and such is the case with TBI for many. But Teri’s story is very different, and for anyone suffering the effects of a traumatic brain injury, or living with loved ones with that condition, Teri’s story has much to contribute in how she made a recovery that was achieved by her decisions in response to her condition.
Knowing Teri as I have for the past thirteen years, I am only slightly aware of the traumatic experiences that defined her life and limited her participation for many years. We were in a warm and receptive course of study in Marin County together, the Wisdom Connection. And she and the women there were in an open space of trust and inquiry. I certainly experienced the degree of compassion Teri exuded, and the transition she communicated around her life’s events. That she had recovered from being outside what her life had been was not apparent to me. Traumatic Brain Injury now has volumes of discussion on the internet and in the media, of the recognition, treatment and recovery protocol to be followed. But Teri’s condition was unrealized for many years, and was not perceived since she walked away from the car accident with no treatment, and only a headache the next day.
That day had started as many had. Her public relations business doing so well that she kept her staff busy all the time. She was recognized as a super competent, professional businesswoman. She was on her way to a business meeting when she was rear ended at a stop light in Marin County, California.
“I was in the middle of one of my busiest days in my own Interior Design business. I had figured out that if people wanted to change their lives, changing their environment could potentially help them establish and create who they were, and how they were perceived in their community.” That is what Teri did for huge companies, or her private clients who relied on her specifically for her particular approach to the field.
Divorced from her high school sweetheart who she began dating at age sixteen in Richmond, Virginia, Teri established herself in her own right, demonstrating exceptional artistic skills in design that ultimately led her to having her own successful Firm. She had the life of her choosing, very good compensation, a staff, and had settled into an elegant Marin lifestyle.
That would all end in the blink of an eye one day when she was driving to Fairfax, saw the car in front of her coming to a stop, put on her blinker and slowed to a stop. Then an incredible force shook her as the car behind her was forced into her car, from a third car. Her car and the car behind her were totaled. Still, she walked away, calling her office to have her staff take on the appointment she was missing due to the accident. She intended to get a rental car and go on with her business day, but instead was picked up by a friend who insisted on taking her home as a precaution. The days that followed would accelerate a loss of herself that she couldn’t quite communicate when she visited the doctor.
Teri reported the headache, and by the next day, her symptoms were worse with loud ear ringing, nausea, and dizziness. She tried to keep up her work from home, but found that if she was on the phone for three hours working, she had to lay down for three hours. She went to doctors and chiropractors, and with the help of her staff, kept her business going. But her emotions were erratic, and she felt totally exhausted, anxious and angry as time went by. There seemed to be no answer to what was wrong with her.
Friends wanted to help, but weren’t sure what to offer. In frustration and a growing sense of depression around her condition, she shut down her business. She could feed and dress her self, but her cognitive skills went downhill. “It was a time when I couldn’t put my thoughts into words,” Teri says. All around her, she had good friends who were interested in, and supportive of her healing, but she was not getting ahead. She seemed to be getting worse. These years were full of a series of disappointments, and some of her friends drifted away from what they could not understand or help.
At her lowest point, Teri took back herself. She withdrew from the world around her, realizing she had to figure out what was next. There were still questions as to what caused the array of symptoms that seemed unrelated to the accident. She took a second look at the possibility of undiagnosed brain damage from the accident; though that consideration had been rejected years ago after the accident. That seemed to have been her first step toward recovery. Teri took on her life again.
After much searching, at a time when the internet was not the quick search tool it is today, Teri found the Brain Tumor Foundation. She called them, described what was going on in her life, and asked for help. “This was a time when there was very little advocacy for brain injuries.” She got reality that her symptoms could indeed be caused by the accident, but that alone did not help her or provide what she needed.
What she truly needed, was provided by her good friend Larry, a massage therapist. Larry had been a witness to what had been happening to her. He brought Teri into his communal house to live. Teri credits this step of joining a community of caring, engaged men and women, as the reason she continued to find her way toward a return to her life. She did this bit by bit, piece by piece, over the next seven years.
Still her anger and sense of betrayal would sometimes dominate her experience; as when she returned to work for an old client, The World Affairs Conference. She was forced to face her new limitations. Previously, she had been the person who not only met, but excelled at the challenges of her profession. Now she couldn’t count on herself. The confusing thing for her and her friends, was that there were times when she could rise to the occasion. Other times her emotions and anger would limit her thinking, and cloud her judgment. This was all the more painful because the medical help she sought did not direct her to the help she needed. There was no medical protocol for dealing with unrecognized traumatic brain injury. This was compounded by the fact that everybody’s brain injury is different. Weeks, months, and years went by.
Teri’s doctors would not give her an MRI. Her doctors and even friends with the best of intentions, were beginning to feel that Teri’s complaints might be psychosomatic. And so it went, until Teri made another direct change in direction. Teri took stock and came up with the recognition of a powerful truth. A truth she attributes, to this day, to her finding the path to full recovery.
Teri had participated very seriously in the EST training in the 1980’s. The level of personal responsibility emphasized there, was her orientation. She began to ask herself the question, “What is the gift in what I am experiencing?”
She began to observe that her response, if directed toward what she could do, rather than what she could not do, not only had her mood improve, but also she could do more, and do it to her satisfaction. When she became annoyed, irritated, angry, it slowed her down and reduced her energy. She began to specifically experience gratitude for everything that was working in her life. The days began to be knitted together; the pieces coming together. Each week that followed was better than the last. Even with the exhaustion of her bank account, the selling of her stock portfolio, and in heavy credit card debt, she kept moving forward
Teri’s eyes are bright as she recounts a big decision she made that brought her life to full value for her. She considered: “I could check out and end it.” For about a week, she considered that her life ws too hard, it was never going to get all the way better. “But…” Teri says – “It was then I decided to live.”
Nine years later, Teri got the help she needed from Stanford Traumatic Brain injury clinic that added to her progress toward what she considers to be a full recovery. The real gift, Teri says, was the recognition of the self wisdom and trust she developed, that led her to find the means to rebuild neural passages, and reconnect with her life fully. Teri offers her story to the many people who are on the confusing and chaotic path to recovery from TMI, searching for a way back to their old lives.
Teri married her husband Robert six years ago. They have an excellent community house, recently traveled to Cuba, have family in Italy where they travel, and have brought with their relationship an inspiration to friends and their many communities. In their sixties, Teri and Robert live with the sense of wonder at finding each other late in life, and in awe of the experiences that led to their meeting. This includes the years in which Teri rediscovered herself. The wisdom that led Teri to clear herself of the symptoms of TMI is what there is to work with for people in that circumstance. All brains are unique, and their responses may be different. Each person is on his or her own time line. Through her story, Teri hopes to pass on to others what she has learned. Namely, the nurturing and healing available in an environment of support, as well as the importance of choosing to engage in self discovery and experimentation with what works.
The connection between the brain and mind is of constant focus now in medical and neuroscience. The mysteries of the brain, the mysteries of the patterns of healing that come through how we think and what we feel, is the next paradigm, and ground to be gained for all those who like Teri find their way through the integrity of recovery.