When I experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a car accident, and proceeded to exacerbate it by sustaining two subsequent concussions, there were times when I felt as though I had suffered a great loss, the loss of who I thought I once was. My mental health and sense of self took as much of a blow as my head did. The sense of loss was accompanied by anxiety, often extreme, and mood swings, from low to high multiple times in a single day.
There was a part of my original self that was still there, hanging on in the background while the rest of me wrestled with the sense of loss and other mental health challenges I suddenly faced. That part that stuck around, a source of positivity when so much was negative, was perseverance. I also think of it as stubborn resolution. I wasn’t functioning the way I was used to, but I realized that I was, indeed, functioning. I had goals even though I wasn’t all that sure I was being effective in working toward them. Yet the goals were there, the desire was there, and the perseverance was there. I didn’t want to give up, so I stubbornly resolved not to.
Healing and change didn’t happen in an instant. I came to realize that they didn’t have to. Once I allowed myself to internalize the fact that I was truly living my life despite setbacks, a liberating shift occurred. I began to see my TBI not as a loss, but as an opportunity. I had a chance for a fresh start.
Once I realized that yes, I had suffered a loss of my original sense of self, but yes, I was still functioning in spite of it and therefore could move forward toward new goals, my perseverance solidified into what positive psychological researcher Angela Duckworth terms grit. Grit involves the knowledge that we as humans have resilience, courage, and endurance. Although we suffer losses and experience things like non-diagnosable mental health challenges or full-blown mental illness, we aren’t defined by them. We therefore can see adversity as opportunity to grow and to redefine ourselves.
It was grit that let me to seek counseling and then, when that was insufficient because my injured brain needed more intense treatment, to find and admit myself to a behavioral health hospital—not just once but five times. It’s not weakness that causes people to be admitted to behavioral health hospitals; it is strength and determination. It is that voice inside each and every one of us that whispers you can create yourself anew. It is the gut feeling that despite a TBI or a diagnosis of mental illness (for me after the brain injury, anxiety disorders and bipolar disorder) or other losses and adversities, that we have an opportunity to redefine ourselves and our goals.
No one wants to suffer a traumatic brain injury. No one wants a diagnosis of mental illness. No one wants to experience a loss of his/her sense of self. But everyone can find that part of them that is functioning and has goals. Everyone can use this positivity to persevere, to develop grit. No matter what, we can all use adversity as an opportunity to create ourselves anew and rise.