By JoAnne Silver Jones
“How are you?” Dr. C. asked, as she always did at the start of my appointment.
She accepted me as her patient about eight months after I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. For the first few years, she concentrated on finding the right medications to help manage my ice-pick headaches, grinding fatigue, and depression. I would ask the same questions each time, trying to understand what had happened to my brain and what might happen to it next. She patiently answered my questions, soothing my constant fears.
When I was more stabilized, she focused on what I could do, and what I should not do, to increase my agency over my own brain health. On this particular day, she listened to my litany of concerns and worries and then said, “You need to find your bandwidth, and then stay in it.”
Hmmm. “Bandwidth.” What did that mean?
An image of two thick parallel lines separated by some space flashed in my mind. At the time of her bandwidth comment, I had been living with traumatic brain injury for seven years. I knew the limits of my energy; I understood what sapped my strength and what was calming. I could identify the stressors in my life.
The idea of bandwidth gave me a map, with guidelines to follow, and an understandable way to explain, not justify, what living with TBI looked like in my life. I knew, without being told, that I had to stay within those boundaries that held the limits of my physical, mental, and emotional resources, or I would significantly jeopardize my brain health.
As I write this essay, I’ve lived with traumatic brain injury for almost eleven years. Let me introduce you to my bandwidth.
- Time: Time equates to energy.
By 5 or 6 pm, my energy is mostly depleted. Though I’ve become more able to be productive during the day, and I have less need to take a long nap, I limit evening commitments and try to make sure that I don’t go out on consecutive days. I no longer apologize or try to explain why I limit my commitments. I simply decline graciously.
I try to make sure that I have periods of quiet every day, time when I’m not engaged in any form of paying attention. I used this time to meditate, practice yoga, take a walk, or simply sit quietly outside.
- Voice: Expressing your needs increases the possibility that they will be met. I now identify what I need and what I find stressful, rather than grit my teeth through a situation, sulk because I don’t want to be someplace, or hold my closest family members responsible for somehow intuit what I need.
I have become increasingly aware of the kinds of situations that are stressful for me. I’m learning how to absent myself from those situations, limit my involvement, or practice ways to reduce the stress I’m feeling. Wherever I am, I can stop and breathe slowly for a minute. I can acknowledge feelings of anxiety and seek support (usually from my wife) in strategizing ways to reduce the anxiety.
- External environment: Your milieu can contribute to healing or exacerbate your stress. Your milieu can be amended.
Sometimes remaining in the bandwidth means removing external barriers.
I had a lovely home but found, after TBI, that the demands of homeownership were too stressful. My wife and I sold our home and moved into a small apartment. I got rid of the preponderance of my possessions. I created external order because my brain could no longer process so much competing stimuli. I had to change my environment to one that could fit between my lines.
I try to stay away from noisy spaces, crowded places, flickering lights, and events with many conversations happening at the same time.
Living within my bandwidth, for me, is neurological decluttering. I am more relaxed, accomplish more, and feel more content as I take responsibility for my own needs. Live between the lines.
JoAnne Silver Jones
JoAnne was a college professor and is now a TBI survivor and author.