It’s been almost two and a half years since I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, and spoiler alert, it doesn’t get any easier – just different. As with most things, there are good days and bad days.
At first, when my doctor broke the news to me, it was at the insistence of my now ex-wife to resolve my ‘issues,’ or we were going to get divorced. I’d like to think it was out of concern, rather than exasperation, but I know I’d be fooling myself in this.
There was no conceivable way she could have known that I have what I have. The constant and perpetual awareness I need to have on myself and my surroundings must have also been incredibly draining for her. I know it was, and still is, for me.
Regardless, though, I’m incredibly grateful to her for the insistence.
As previously implied, we ended up getting divorced, anyway.
Despite this all too common tragedy, from the outside looking in, it appears I’m a success story: an international PhD student in the Mauro Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manitoba, focusing on infrastructures and cultures of peace; a masters degree in social entrepreneurship from Pepperdine University.
For anyone with a brain injury, or no injury at all, these are accomplishments. They are successes.
But this success is an incredibly painful one, ridden with chronic migraines, intense anxiety, depression, sensory processing issues (auditory, snowballing into all sensory inputs when neglected) and obsessive tendencies.
Some days my mind decides to just stop working. I could be writing a paper and/or speaking at post-graduate levels, thinking dynamically and acting in remarkably innovative and exciting ways, only to then start slurring my words, with my mind fumbling shortly behind.
In my downward spirals I sometimes may not even able to count down from the number 50. This can be incredibly frustrating and painful.
It wasn’t always this intense; I just broke.
Now I’m a new version of me; one with clear and ever-present needs and boundaries.
Before I knew I was missing a third of my brain tissue, I would whisper exasperatedly under my breath, “What’s wrong with me?!” as i found it near-impossible to complete tasks that came so easily to others: completing forms (even two pages), engaging in small-talk without drifting dreamily off to the architectural history and design of the nearest chair, or beam, or anything really. I can be dishearteningly scattered sometimes.
In this new version of me I also find I let people down. For instance, if I’m hit with a migraine, it’s usually days later before I can engage a topic/issue with the necessary energy.
My diagnosis isn’t something I shout from the rooftops, either, or share idly in conversation. In fact, at times I avoid conversation at all costs.
I share part of my story now so people know that we invisibles are out there; that mental illness is life-threatening, and part of stemming the pain lies in the responsibility of city and provincial leaders in providing the correct infrastructures to tend to it. Not paternal assistance, but innovative empowerment; struggling with, not working for.
Think healing circle.
According to Manitoba Health, Healthy Living and Seniors annual statistics, their last recorded year, between 2010-2014, there were 275,383 residents in Manitoba treated for mental illness. That ’s a lot in a province of 1.2 million.
Winnipeg contains half the population at 663,615. that’s 23.4 percent of the population over the age of 10 suffering from mental illness. Winnipeg has also had an influx of newcomers this past year, fleeing from war-torn areas who are suffering from post traumatic stress, with little to no assistance in their mental health.
What infrastructures are in place to stem the isolation? Who is reaching out, and how? And do the people assisting look like those receiving? These may seem like painfully obvious questions, but the obvious is rarely obvious to those caught at the top.
It can be hard to open up. To those close to me here in Winnipeg, if you know of my injury, you’re most likely in what I perceive as my inner-circle. I need your care, your company and patience.
At times, I’m barely holding onto sanity and I can find it near impossible to live with myself. I can understand the difficulty from your end, if just in part.
When I need the most help, I counter-intuitively withdraw into myself and actively push others away. I can’t be completely sure why I do this. It could be the easy target of hyper-masculinity, or it could simply be that I don’t want to be a bother. Some days I’m a walking-talking coping mechanism.
Everyone has their own problems, it’s all too common to feel apprehension in opening the darkest corners of our worlds.
And they can be dark.
At my darkest, when the anxiety and the depression are feeding in on themselves, telling me to give up, to end it, I’m curled up in a fetal position in a damp and dark corner, being brow-beaten and yelled at by forces within me.
These forces know my pain, and know where to twist the knife. simply saying, “It hurts,” doesn’t quite sum it up. But to those who dismiss mental illness entirely, as one on social media telling another to, “Just get over it,” is dangerously ignorant.
The pain is excruciating.
This pain, for me at least, is something I can never fully retreat from. It’s ever-present in my chest as a dull-ache on good days, and a hot knife on bad. It’s the headache or migraine that turns into an emotionally charged anxiety attack.
The only way I have managed to consistently come out of hell’s corner is by telling myself that these occurrences are chemical imbalances. That the pain and despair are real and out of my control, but the dark space is not, it’s in my mind, it’s an illusion.
When infrastructures aren’t adequately laid to tend to these needs, it’s the equivalent of telling someone with mental illness to ‘Just get over it.’
But despite these unicorns and rainbows, I find myself in the midst of some of the most amazing people here. Winnipeg is a surprisingly wonderful place to be. Kindness seems to simply be part of your unique prairie culture.
Case in point, just the other night I was with Michael Champagne, jenna liscious and company, who founded the Meet me at The Bell Tower Community in the north end, when we met down at the new southside bell tower meeting place. every person around the table was intent on creating spaces of acceptance and appreciation for everyone in the community.
And yet again, just the week before, I was taken under the generous wing of David Newman and invited to sit in on a Peace Days planning committee meeting.
Each person in these meetings is genuinely trying to help their communities and the people in them have their needs met, and to be their best selves.
For me, it’s in these kinds of interactions, interactions I’ve had with so many Winnipegers throughout the city – North End, South End, Wolseley and downtown – where the heart of Winnipeg is on full display.
I suppose this city speaks so convincingly to me because I find myself mirrored in it: a success story, maybe, but a story filled with enduring pain.