How I Healed: My Traumatic Brain Injury and Journey Back from Depression

young woman hiking

In 2015, I fell off of a cliff. I faced a long recovery from orthopedic and internal injuries, but thankfully, I made it out alive.

From gaining strength and mobility to walk again to learning to live with a traumatic brain injury, each step of my healing journey presented a new set of challenges.

What I didn’t know then was how common it is for patients with a traumatic brain injury to experience depression. As someone who had never dealt with depression before, it came as a shocking and sudden reality. And it took years before I would even admit it to myself.

Nearly one-half of all patients with a traumatic brain injury experience depression within the first year of injury. Within seven years of injury, two-thirds of individuals with a traumatic brain injury are affected by depression.

I first felt tell-tale side effects of depression a few months after my injury. Depression can impact individuals in different ways. Symptoms of depression can include changes in sleep or appetite, feelings of hopelessness or guilt, and fatigue.

I found excuse after excuse to blame my sadness on anything else so I would not step outside my newfound identity of being a strong survivor.

For the first few weeks after my accident, I lived in an inpatient rehabilitation facility. I had hours of therapy each day — physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and talk therapy with a psychologist.

At that point, I thought the work I put into my daily sessions would be the hardest part of my recovery. Learning how to walk again, learning skills to accommodate my traumatic brain injury and other tangible things like that.

It turns out, that was the easy part. While an inpatient, each day I had a purpose and a plan. Then, when I was discharged and moved home, I sought to rediscover my “normal.”

That was nearly impossible because I was working through complex and incomprehensible changes in my brain and body. I understood the physical changes, and I knew exactly what I needed to do to gain strength and confidence in my body again. But, I never really understood what a traumatic brain injury would mean for me.

I would return to the hospital daily for outpatient therapy and was always praised for how good I looked and how well I was doing. But why couldn’t I see that? Outwardly, I was making tangible and measurable improvements. But inside, a whole different story was unfolding. I didn’t feel like this heroic survivor my community made me out to be.

My depression came in stages. I remember the first stage hit, and I felt overwhelming sadness and helplessness. These were intense feelings that I had never experienced in my mind before.

I had some life changes to look forward to, which helped me move past that first stage. But it wasn’t over.

The next stage was a bit different. I went into full-in isolation mode. I felt so “different” and struggled to find my place. I had a really hard time connecting with others. I was only comfortable alone and felt guilty for being unable to shake that feeling. This stage lasted a few years before I decided I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Every healing journey starts somewhere. For me, the first step was very basic. All it took was me admitting to myself that something was wrong. I don’t like to talk about the things that I am not proud of. But when I finally did, I was able to step into an entirely different part of my healing journey — healing my mental health.

Here is how I healed:

Journaling

Write it out. This really helped me to be honest with myself and helped me face the problem head-on.

My journal is a judgment-free space. If I needed to put some of my darkest thoughts into words, I would. If I just needed to write a list of three things that stood out to me that day and draw pictures of animals to fill the rest of the page, I would. Nobody was ever going to see it, so why not?

I challenged myself to be completely honest and real with every entry. I would not sugar coat things or give excuses as I would in my day to day life.

If you’re new to journaling, try out these prompts:

How do I feel today? How do I want to feel today?

What are the top three things I am grateful for today? Why am I grateful for those things?

When am I the happiest? How can I incorporate those things into each day?

It’s okay if the thought of filling up an entire page of writing seems daunting. Writing out lists or short, incomplete phrases can be just as beneficial.

Therapy

After I made the commitment to face my depression head-on, I started weekly appointments with a social worker. Just talking through my past and my history with a non-biased person was so cathartic.

Therapists can help you set realistic goals to create an identified path of recovery and help you pinpoint ways to accommodate any future depressive episodes. There is no shame in admitting you need help and seeking help from a therapist.

The therapist I worked with would let me lead the conversation and talk about whatever was on my mind. Through this, we were able to find the common thread and really get to the root of the issue. From there, we had a defined focus and would work on a different coping skill each week until I was confident I could handle it on my own.

Movement

After falling 50-some feet from a cliff and shattering half of my body, I am lucky for the mobility I do have. Once my doctor cleared me of restrictions, I took on my next big task: running. I was a runner before the accident and was excited to incorporate it into my life again.

Once I gained the strength and confidence, I was able to hit the trail again. That accomplishment alone brought me so much joy and clarity. Exercise increases blood flow in your brain, which, in turn, lifts your mood.

Movement can be much more than running. It could be hiking, yoga, swimming, dancing, or whatever gets your body moving.

To sum it up, healing is a long, roller-coaster of a journey, and every journey is unique. You have to start somewhere. If you’re honest with yourself, things can change, and healing is possible. It won’t always be easy, but if putting in the work can improve your quality of life, I think it’s worth every second.

 

About the Author: Sophie Hillmeyer is an online journalist turned freelance blogger. Her own healing journey fuels her passion for creating content for mental health and wellness brands and advocates. When she isn’t writing, you’ll find her outside hiking or running, or inside cooking or reading.

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