RECONCEPTUALIZING LOSS: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE

By Claire Smith

Twenty-one years after sustaining a severe traumatic brain injury, head injury surrounds my life once again. This time however, it’s a choice; I can use my own experiences to help other survivors, as well as their families, caregivers, and friends.

            Who am I? In 1997, while representing Canada on the Canadian Equestrian Team, I fell from my horse. For the first six months, I was hospitalized. Months of rehabilitation followed. During the entire time I was determined to resume my old life so, when I was finished rehabilitation, I did just that. Although it took almost a year, it eventually became heartbreakingly clear to me that I was unable to continue doing what I loved.

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            Thankfully, my goal-oriented, persistent self found a new purpose. Three years after the injury, I enrolled at the University of Ottawa in the Masters program. Initially, because head injury had thrown a curve-ball at my life, I wanted to have nothing to do with it. However, it soon became obvious to me that my personal experiences would lend a most unique perspective if I were to study any aspect of head injury. After conducting such research for my MA, I didn’t stop. Continuing on in the PhD program, I completed another study on head injury and was awarded a PhD in 2010. Much later, it occurred to me that one reason that I had immersed myself in studying head injury was because doing the research had been part of my healing process. I realise however, that, although I will be forever approaching the end of my journey of healing, it will never be over. 

Midway through the PhD journey, it became apparent that the head injury was not finished with me. Nine years after the head injury, Dystonia, a movement disorder that is in all likelihood a consequence of it, made itself known. Although I had cognitively completely recovered, the head injury, to that point invisible, became most visible when I started dragging my right foot. The psychological impact could have been devastating, but I didn’t let Dystonia interfere with my life until I had finished the PhD. Even though I used a wheelchair at my thesis defence I had, for at least 3 years leading up to that point, managed to successfully block the multitude of emotions associated with my compromised movement.

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            Eventually however, I had no choice but to deal with the psychological consequences of the chronic illness. It took a couple of years after the end of my PhD journey before I felt that I could emotionally and psychologically cope with Dystonia. A brace now covers my right leg. Because I can’t walk more than short distances, I use a wheelchair most of the time.

            High-level sport requires single-minded focus. After my injury, enrolling in university provided me with another focussed goal into which to sink my energies. However, when I graduated, I had to psychologically confront Dystonia. It was only after I had put this latest loss in perspective that I realised that my world was wide open. I love to write, so that’s what I do. It’s an occupation well suited to my limited mobility, and there’s always an article to finish or research to do. I constantly have a goal. My memoir was published last year (www.clairesmith-author.ca ) and has done very well. I also write academic articles and I’m starting on my next book. I swim, a form of exercise well-suited to my limited mobility.

            These days, I spend a lot time giving back. I’m on the board of the Ontario Brain Injury Association, and on the Leeds and Grenville Accessibility Committee. I’m a friendly visitor at a seniors’ residence. Until recently, I was a Board member of the Brockville YMCA and on the Board of the Wings of Phoenix, an organisation that raises funds for individuals who have sustained head injuries to access rehabilitation services. As a result of these volunteer efforts, I was nominated for the Amazing Person of the Year in Ottawa in 2017 (http://www.amazingpeople.ca/2017-amazing-person/ ).

            Life is good.

Jeff Brooks