Teresa Conroy’s Story

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What can you tell me about your brain injury?

The brain injury was on June 23, 2015. We were moving back to Oregon after a year in Kentucky. I had the whole house packed up, everything was on a truck headed for Oregon, and I was returning the cable box because that’s what you do when you move. I was in my car, sitting behind someone who was trying to cross traffic. Someone else hit me from behind and I hit the back of my head on the headrest. The bump was on the back of my head but the damage seems to be in the front, so it was a contrecoup situation.

The first inclination that something was wrong was later when we were back at the hotel. My husband wanted to take the kids swimming, so he asked me where their swimming suits were. I knew exactly where I had packed them, and I was standing there and said, “they’re in the…,” and then no words would come out. I knew exactly where they were in the suitcase, but that was the end. I had no more words left and I panicked. My husband was a very cool cucumber and said, “It’s all right. You just have a concussion it sounds like, but you’re all right. We’re going to be ok.” Of course, at the time he had no idea what direction it would go, and I had no idea either.

How did your life change at that point?

This is something I tend to describe as “left of boom” and “right of boom.” They’re military terms for the time before and after a bomb goes off. Of course, the “boom” is the explosion itself, or in this case, the brain injury itself, the explosion of your life and blowing it to pieces. It’s just monumentally epic.

So, before the bomb went off, I was a full-time event fundraiser. I did auctions and golf tournaments and all that kind of stuff. I manned committees, spoke in front of people, had three kids, and my husband was in medical school doing his residency. The year in Kentucky I had my three kids in school and was volunteering a pretty solid amount of time with some charities. Then the accident happened and shut everything down. And like many people with brain injuries or severe concussions, there’s the initial . . . well, you go into a dark space for a long while.

Initially, I lost everything. I had a hard time speaking and my vision . . . I couldn’t read very well. I couldn’t really walk because of balance issues and overstimulation. I couldn’t put silverware on the table or make a sandwich. I couldn’t unload the dishwasher because I couldn’t identify what I was holding in my hand much less where it would be stored. For months and months and months and months, I was basically stuck in a room wearing sunglasses inside, mostly mute, and my husband was working three jobs at the time, so I had to have other people come in and be the parent to my kids.

How did you cope? Were there any specific strategies or tools that were especially effective?

I’ve had many therapies. Vision, full brain injury rehab stuff, speech therapy, occupational therapy, just regular emotional therapy. Getting through the emotional part was such a huge hurtle to getting the brain healed. One of the biggest things I got out of my regular emotional therapy was that my therapist and I came up with having an anger jar. It’s a mason jar with glass rocks in it, and when I was at the height of my grieving process in the anger stage, I would shake the rocks in the jar so loud and so fiercely. I would dump them out on the ground and mess them all over the place and make them go everywhere. And it was not helpful to my brain because the noise and the mess and the scatter, but it was more of a…screw it! A release. And I don’t care if this messes me up. I’m already messed up, and I’m pissed. And I would scream and yell and try to scream over the loudness of the rocks banging against the jar. And that jar still sits on my nightstand as a way to remind me that my anger has a place. I don’t have to carry the anger with me. It has a place to go. I don’t need to shake it anymore, but it’s a place for my anger to be, and let myself know that it’s ok to be angry.

Also, learning to accept my new reality was big. It was actually at Progressive Rehab that I came to that moment. You’re fighting and you’re fighting, and you’re trying to get back to the way you were, and then there’s that moment where you go, oh wait, I’m not going to be back to where I was. That’s not a thing anymore. It’s a slow, painful, awful process, but I had to get there, and then grieve that. And then I was able to say, all right, we’re going to rock this. We’re going to make it the best we can, and we’re going to adapt and overcome. I’m going to fight hard to do everything I did before. I won’t do it as quickly, but I’m going to try my hardest to do it.

Also, having patience with needing to repeat things over and over again. And celebrating small victories. I think the celebrating of small victories is important because there’s no way that I would have celebrated my ability to unload the dishwasher before this. Now, every time I do, it’s a win.

Are there any advantages to brain injury?

I think the best people to answer that question might be my kids. Before my brain injury, I worked like a dog. When I ask them now, “Are you sad about your Mom with the brain injury? Do you want your old Mom back?,” their answer is, “We like the new one better because you’re here.”

I’ve learned how to ask for a lot of help. I’ve learned that I don’t have to do everything to be good. My understanding and perspective of those with disabilities, the humanity of it, and that we’re all just the same has increased significantly.

Watching my kids turn into these amazingly compassionate, understanding individuals has been one of the biggest blessings of it all. My incredibly shy 13-year-old, Evie, was eight when the brain injury happened. We went to OMSI with my family — which is a terrible place for me! A lot of stimulus; a lot of echo and lights. I had to get food for the kids. My mom said, “OK, I’ll sit here with the kids. Are you able to go and get the food?” I said, “Maybe.” Evie jumped right in and said, “I’ll come with you.” She was eight at the time. So, she comes and we get to the counter. The pressure was high for me to say it correctly so that this person could get me our food. But, I got to the counter and I had nothing. I look at my eight-year-old and I say….”coffee”…and she said to the person at the counter, “Do you have coffee?” And I say, “fffffff,” and she said, “A fancy coffee?” And it went on like this. She was eight!

The way they take care of me is remarkable to see. Such beauty. And then watching them interact with the rest of the world, too. We since have had encounters with people with disabilities and it’s fascinating to watch how at ease they are with them. Another daughter took an autistic boy under her wing — the now 11-year-old — and she was his bus buddy. Helped him get on and get off the bus, feel comfortable while he’s on the bus, and it’s a beautiful thing. Who knows if that would have been part of her comfort or understanding if this brain injury had never happened.

Is there anything else that you want share?

Approach every day with patience because, when you wake up, you don’t know what your day will be like. Say, “This is where I am today,” accept that and make the best of it. I had to stop obsessing over trying to return to the former me and accept each day. A brain injury changes your life. It makes everything different. But you can make “everything that’s different” fantastic.