Friday, October 23, 2015

Brain Plasticity in Real Life

In order to grow new neuro-connections, we have to do the things that are hard. We have to stretch into the uncomfortable places. Our brains want to automatically take the familiar road. But the easy path is not how we grow, either emotionally or biologically. (One of the cool things about experiencing a brain injury is that you really understand experientially that emotions are biology, There is no separation, but that is a different blog post). So let's just say for now, that mentally, emotionally, and physically, we only grow by being challenged.

In order to grow a new track in the brain, you have to get out of the comfort zone and do the hard stuff. The stuff that feels impossible, makes you irritable, and makes you want to cry. Regrowing brain pathways after a brain injury or stroke is hard, irritable, frustrating work. Do you remember doing the hard math problems in grade school and feeling frustrated with the impossibility of it? Do you remember how eventually, after enough tears, something clicked and you got it? That click is a new neuro-connection being formed. It is a new physical connection in the brain. After that, it was so much easier that it was hard to understand why it seemed so hard moments before. The brain is biology.

Post-TBI, we have to grow those neurons back, one by one. It is a long, often agonizing, marathon. For me, the hardest Neural Reconstruction Project has been moving my eyes, my head, or tolerating any motion around me.

I am feeling nostalgic today, remembering a year ago. I was back in the ugly hospital basement at Brain Injury Rehab, desperately pleading for help from the best balance specialist in Vermont. We had spent four years trying everything. We had elevated my seasickness intentionally, every hour, for months, and years, trying to grow a new brain track that would allow for movement. We had gone through countless indignities: taping paper blinders to my glasses, having my friends wheel me around the house in an office chair, wearing blindfolds on busses, having me sit by a road and watch traffic. All of this was in 30-second increments. It was still all I could handle.

"Walk down the corridor", my PT instructed that day. Scrambled up under the florescent lights, I anxiously obeyed. "Now faster!" I felt so sick. "Now turn your head and walk." I proudly accomplished four slow head turns, and then fell against the wall, beyond dizzy and sick.

"Are you okay?" she asked. I could not respond. "Let's go lay down", she offered. Internally I rebelled. I was no wimp. I could do this! I could do FIVE head turns! I was not giving up!

I unglued myself from the wall to keep going, and instead realized that no matter what my brain-as-willpower said, my brain-as-biology said "NO WAY". I leaned on my therapist, unable to walk alone, unable to open my eyes, tolerate any more input, or find any words. She led me by the hand to the familiar old plastic mattress to rest.

After ten minutes, my brain could settle enough to listen. "How are you feeling?", she asked. "Like my b-b-brain is s-s-scrambled into a million p-p-pieces", I managed to get out the words, anxious to hear her next brilliant creative solution to get me off this Highway to Hell.

"Nathalie, I don't know what to say to you. I have tried everything with you. Nothing is working. I have nothing left to offer. I am going to discharge you from Rehab."

The kick in the gut was compassionate and swift. How in hell do I go through life like this?! Unable to move my eyes! I had spent weeks and months sitting or lying in total stillness and darkness, unable to move, and unable to process vision without utter nauseousness. I was a paraplegic who could move. I was a blind person who could see. Perhaps worst of all, I looked normal. No one could understand my loneliness and despair. Paraplegics and blind people got help. I was on my own, not qualifying for any support. I had just spent four years trying to empty a dishwasher with as few eye turns as possible before needing to rest for long periods. How does one embrace a life of this?

Resistance reared like a wild horse, ready to fight or run. "Run like hell!" yelled my adrenals. "How do you run from yourself?" wondered my logic.

When life brings what we don't want and there is no way out, there are only the questions:

  • "How do I embrace this too?"
  • "How do I find the good in this?"
  • "How do I accept what is?"
  • "How do I still remain open to miracles... without counting on them?"
  • "How can I allow for happiness even if this situation lasts forever?"

Sometimes miracles happen when we are open to the possibility. I did not give up. I have found my Miracle. One year later, I am walking without walking poles. I am riding in a car more comfortably.  I am driving short distances. I can even empty the dishwasher and cook, my impossible dream just a few months ago. I have fewer days where I can only sit in dark stillness.  The neural pathways are being created even when I was told years ago that was impossible. Never listen to never.

I am enjoying life again.

My next dream is to dance.

                                           Thank you for your comments below.


  1. Natalie. This is a wonderful post. All of us csn benefit from your wisdom and experience here. I would love to link to this from my blog. Would that be okay with you?

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  3. I am so happy to hear of your improvements. After my brain injury, recovery didn't happen nearly fast enough, but it DID happen - it took YEARS. Keep going. I'm betting you will see more improvement. I am still seven years out.

  4. Thanks, Natalie. I'm getting a bit better each day with new hope and enthusiasm. Taking breaks, hydration, dry erase boards, and learning to laugh a little that "rare" things happen to me fairly consistently.


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