To honor Brain Injury Awareness Month, our Head Noggin' Leah Chyma shares her personal recovery journey and techniques that helped overcome some of her post injury challenges.
The Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) leads the nation in observing Brain Injury Awareness Month in March each year. The theme chosen for the 2021 to 2023 campaign is More Than My Brain Injury which really speaks to me and my journey. It seems fitting to honor the month of awareness by writing a bit about my personal recovery in hopes we can share empathy for the millions of people across the country are struggling from this sometimes invisible injury.
5.3 million children and adults in the United States are living with a permanent brain injury-related disability. That is one in every 60 people.
When a near death experience changes your life, it is a hard struggle to not become defined by that injury. A brain injury can be an isolating & lonely experience as a lot of your injuries, pain and struggles are internal and not visible to others yet 5.3 million children and adults in the United States are living with a permanent brain injury-related disability. It's mind boggling to think one in every 60 people experience some form of a brain injury yet many struggle silently.
I personally avoided talking about my injury as long as I could after my accident for many reasons. Insecurities about the way I spoke, fear of judgement, not remembering things I felt I should, PTSD and anxiety all contributed to the fact that I did not want to talk about my accident. Upon reflection, I realized I did not want to talk about my injury because I did not want to be defined by my injury. I now know that I am NOT identified by my injury and below I unpack how I came to this understanding.
*Trigger Warning: below is an image of me unconscious in the ICU*
I've never been a fan of labels as I believe we are always evolving and the idea of identifying to a specific label, way of living, diagnosis or system has never appealed to me. So you can imagine getting the diagnosis list including; traumatic brain injury, multiple skull fractures, multiple brain bleeds, post traumatic stress disorder and memory loss, to name a few, was a lot to take in.
When I awoke in the ICU after being in and out of consciousness for days, all the things that made up my identity at that time were immediately stripped from me. That reality took over a year to fully grasp and when I got to the rehab hospital I was began to experience what would be a full on identity crisis. All the aspects that made up my life were flipped upside down. I wasn't able to work for months which was my main source of identity at the time. I was running four teams in two different cities, opening a new market, organizing city wide events and logging 60-70 hours of work weekly. My colleagues were my closest friends and support system but all of the sudden I was now unable to fulfill my roles within my circle. As far as exercise was concerned, I became a baby deer learning how to use his legs for the first time. I couldn't run, which was my favorite way to exercise for nearly two decades. I also had lost the strength to do basic exercises that I taught others how to properly complete on a daily basis. I'll never forget attempting to do a squat with the physical therapist and being unable to do it. I shed many tears in that gym. And my creative brain, the reason I felt I existed, was healing from a traumatic event that almost destroyed me. It took me triple the time to create art which was my absolute favorite way to create, relax and dream. When I did begin a project, I was exhausted after an hour and needed to take multiple breaks leaving me feeling frustrated and feeling helpless wondering if my talents would ever return.
I was struggling with wanting to bounce back as quickly as possible to "get back to my normal life" when in reality there was no going back. Looking back 2.5 years later, I am SO happy there is no going back. Did you miss the part that I was mourning not working 70 hours a week, leading 4 teams and unable to commit to the constant stress that had become my day to day?
How did I come to this epiphany, you ask? Let me unpack my long winding road of recovery.
Therapy, Recovery and Loving Myself
Recovery is a journey, a beautiful process if you look at it the right way. The habits I picked up will stay with me my entire life and i genuinely believe I am a stronger person mentally, physically and spiritually because of them. The most influential practices I cultivated, and continue practicing, during my recovery journey include hyperbaric oxygen therapy, EMDR therapy, getting myself a puppy who is a certified emotional support animal, daily mediation and yoga. Below I will dive into each topic, the science behind them and how they are beneficial for many types healing.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT)
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) involves breathing almost pure oxygen in a special room or small chamber. The body’s tissues need oxygen to function, and additional oxygen can help damaged tissue heal. Oxygen at high pressure can enhance tissue function and fight infection under certain conditions. A few days after I left the hospital I arrived at my first HBOT appointment unsure what to expect. When I first saw the same chamber I was going to be in for 90 minutes, this claustrophobic lady almost bolted but the amazing staff at ATX Hyperbarics quickly made me comfortable by educating me on the science, process and ways to escape if the situation arose. I spent the next few months at the center nearly every day. After the first few treatments my constant migraine, from the three breaks in my skull and pressure from the blood on my brain, became less severe and after a few weeks I began to actually feel the healing happening.
To pass the time in the chamber I brought in books and ended up finishing multiple which I was very proud of. Small victories were huge for my healing process, especially that early on my journey. As an added bonus, I discovered my favorite book in the process which i'd hightly recommend, "You Are Here" by Thich Nhat Hanh.
After the initial treatments, I found a non medical grade facility to continue my treatments. I now go to HBOT 2-4 month as a maintenance therapy.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)
It took me a few weeks and some neurological appointments to be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. I was recommended to explore this therapy after my PTSD diagnosis. I went to Psychologytoday.com and entered in what I was looking for in a therapist. I wanted someone who focused on holistic methods to treat my symptoms and one that took my insurance and this website was very helpful! Once I was partnered with Eva and we built a report, we dove into EMDR. During the EMDR therapy we tackled the emotionally disturbing material in brief doses while focusing on an external stimulus, in my case this was following Eva's finger with my eyes. We used directed lateral eye movement which is the most common external stimulus but others include hand-tapping and audio stimulation. EMDR helps the mind heal from psychological trauma as much as the HBOT helped me recover from physical trauma. Some of the EMDR sessions were emotionally exhausting and left me feeling very raw and down but it was so worth it because after about a year of work, I no longer suffered from the diagnosis of PTSD!
My Emotional Support Dog
Meet Silo Blue. He is the best roommate I've ever had, sorry Jen and Nate but it's true. Little Silo snuggled himself into my life at just 5 weeks old and hasn't left since. I registered him as an emotional support animal in order to let him live and travel with me with less red tape. An ESA is a type of animal that provides comfort to help relieve a symptom or effect of a person's disability and in my case Silo helped me get out of my reoccurring thought patterns that kept me in mental distress. I wrote an entire blog post about Silo and how he helped me heal from the PTSD and other psychological trauma from the accident. To learn more about him and Emotional Support Animals, check out the post here.
Mediation & Yoga
I could write an entire book on how both mediation and yoga have enhanced, and continue to enhance, my life on a daily basis. But I will keep it short and to the point for now. I dabbled in meditation and yoga before I was injured but never at a consistent level and now that i've cultivated the discipline I cannot imagine my life without them.
According to craighospital.org, meditation has been shown to increase emotional self-regulation, concentration and attention span, working memory, productivity and coping strategies. Meditation can have wide-ranging benefits for individuals recovering from spinal cord injury or brain injury at a physical and psychological level.
The hardest part about meditation is getting started. The best way for me was to start with a guided meditation app that taught me exactly how to sit in stillness. I found, and still use, Headspace. They have meditations ranging from 3 - 20 minutes on all sorts of topic and for all different experience levels. Some days I feel a genuine sense of bliss and understanding and other days I can't shut my brain off and this is completely normal! Going into meditation with non judgement and just showing up is the most important part. Since adding meditation into my daily routine I have found myself more calm, less stressed and genuinely more happy.
As for Yoga, I cannot suggest the practice of yoga enough for anyone reading this. Studies have shown that yoga can have positive benefits for people with several types of mental health conditions, including depression, ADHD, anxiety and PTSD and I for one can back up those claims. To celebrate my year sur-viv-a-versary (what I called the day I survived my accident) I traveled to Costa Rica to earn my 200hr Yoga Teacher Certification. When I was there I learned about Love Your Brain Yoga. The LoveYourBrain Foundation is a non-profit organization that improves the quality of life of people affected by traumatic brain injury and raises awareness about the importance of brain health. This organization is incredible and solidified my belief in the power of yoga to heal. Yoga helped me heal from the inside out and now that I am certified, I can help others do the same and this is a huge blessing. I continue to practice yoga nearly every day for the physical, mental and emotional benefits.
Brain injuries differ in type, severity and disabilities and so the different types of therapies and recovery techniques will differ from patient to patient. My hopes in speaking from a place of vulnerability and sharing the techniques that have helped me thrive are to assist in the awareness and advocacy of brain injuries and those living with them. I also hope to shed some light that with empathy and love we can help each other overcome the curve balls life throws at us and discover new passions, techniques and ways to enjoy ourselves fully.
Lead with Love,