In 2008, I was like most dynamic women: running on life’s treadmill, overbooking myself, pursuing all my passions at once.
Ha. Trying to “live my best life” almost stole it from me.
I almost died from a brain aneurysm. My husband found me on the floor, collapsed and unconscious. Emergency scans revealed a ruptured aneurysm had caused a severe brain hemorrhage. After surgery, doctors had no idea what my brain damage prognosis would be as I lay sedated and on a ventilator in ICU. I spent six weeks in the hospital, blind from retinal damage that had also occurred.
It turned out to be a gift: The hectic pace of my life finally caught up and it was time to make a change.
My recovery was amazing, according to doctors. Eye surgery improved my vision and I spent a long time getting my strength back, learning rehab therapies for the unseen cognitive and psychological deficits common to brain injury. I later learned to use my experience, voice and writing to become a patient advocate, dedicated to educating others about the surprising effects of brain injury and teaching doctors how to improve the patient experience. This drive to inspire led me to share my journey through my recently released memoir, Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life.
As I worked through my gradual recovery and adapted to the New Me, I realized that many lessons I teach my business clients played a huge healing role. I saw that the very same strategies that a business owner needs to build a strong brand, create a transformational organization, and save her sanity also apply to our lives at large. Especially when life smacks you full on in the face and you need to reboot and reframe the conversation if you want to get back in the game.
- Lesson One: Focus
With my cognitive issues, I could no longer multi-task the way I once could. Tasks that used to be more automatic now take more time and concentration as I retrained my brain to make those connections again.
With my brain injury, my brain’s “filter” suffered some damage. I now get overwhelmed by too much stimuli coming at me at once and, like water hitting an electrical device, I can short-circuit. I had to learn how to focus my time and energies on one task at a time, which is really not a bad lesson for any of us to learn in this uber-connected day and age. My new mantra has become quality over quantity.
Focus on your priorities. There is no such thing as work/life balance. But there is such a thing as prioritizing who and what needs your attention more at certain times. Things will ebb and flow and you can tackle every single one of your dreams and ambitions: you just don’t have to do them all at the same time.
- Lesson Two: Be Authentic
You can be who you are but also evolve as times change. During all those months of recovery and dealing with those cognitive issues, I had to accept the fact that there was a New Me, a new sheriff in town. I had to work and play in a whole new way. Never let anyone define you by your deficits. Play to your strengths and promise them to the world instead.
Don’t try to be something you’re not – in your life or in your work – or even cling to something you used to be. Evolve, adapt, flow. You don’t want to run into the disappointment both you and others will feel due to unmet expectations. Promise what you can deliver and deliver what you promise.
- Lesson Three: Count on your Tribe
It’s crucial to build a tribe before you need it and lean on it when times get rough. I had to rely on my husband for a lot; our roles in our house changed from equal partners to a dynamic of caregiver and patient and it was really hard. As I regained my strength, site and health, I had to rely on him for the cooking, the cleaning, the driving … which, come to think of it, doesn’t actually sound that bad, does it?! Seriously, though, it was hard to learn how to be completely dependent on somebody – and do so graciously.
I’ve always been an independent gal and getting used to asking for help on a continuous basis went against everything I am. But, you can’t live your life effectively or build a successful business alone. You’re not an island. Seek out friends, experts, and cheerleaders when you need them. It’s smarter, less painful and way more efficient. Make the right investments in your life and your business to accelerate your progress and take off.
- Lesson Four: Practice Patience
Patience never used to be part of my vocabulary. I don’t think anyone would ever use that word to describe me! But patience smacked me in the face during my recovery and I had no choice but to listen. Even though I lay in a hospital bed after just fighting for my life – shaved head, no vision, poor memory and bony, weak body – I did not fully grasp the severity of what I’d been through. I was ready to jump back into my life again and I thought I was going to just pick up where I left off. But I needed time to recover and adjust to the changes.
It’s not about being lazy or not doing anything at all. Patience is not about stagnation. Patience is about understanding the realistic steps it’s going to take for you to get somewhere and measuring your forward progress along the way. As long as you can measure the steps along the way and you’re moving in the right direction, then you can keep charting the course. And eventually you’ll get there.
- Lesson Five: Learn to Say NO!
Many people, women especially, were never taught how to say no gracefully. Obviously, with my cognitive impairments, the fact that I had to manage my blood pressure and my frequent overwhelm at taking on too much, I had to make choices and turn down things I might otherwise have added to my plate.
I learned this lesson in stark detail with my first project back to work. Even though all my therapists said ‘Make sure your first project is organized, predictable, there are rules and boundaries’, I decided to take on a client project that was completely unstructured, completely chaotic, with absolutely no rules. It was not the smartest thing to do and I probably should’ve said no.
Going forward, I made a firm decision about the clients that I would accept and which ones were going to be time and energy sucks so that I could be the best consultant I could be for the clients I did have. This sort of goes back to the lesson on focus.
It’s hard to say no to anyone in our lives who we love or to turn down amazing activities. It’s especially hard for business owners to say no to clients, partners and potential revenue. But here’s the thing: If you’re spending your entire time saying yes to the wrong things in your life and work, when will you have the time to say yes to the right things? You have to clear the decks and make space so that the precious time and energy you do have can go toward the things that matter.
- Lesson six: Face the Fear
Oh boy, fear. I had so much fear given my new role as patient, given the trauma I went through, and given some of the personality and cognitive changes I experienced. I questioned who I was and what I was capable of doing. As I said, I’m normally a very independent gal and this new dependence on people was scary. I went through a period where I was very anxious and panicky when my husband wasn’t around, simply because I got used to him being there all the time. It was rough.
We didn’t go out very often at first because I wanted to stay in my comfort zone. I was stuck in this scary place because, as an extrovert, I’d never been the person who was scared to go out and live my life.
I realized that I couldn’t live that way. I couldn’t enjoy the life which I was given a second chance at enjoying if I simply hid out on the couch with my dog.
So I forced myself to go out; I forced myself to continue going to book club every month. I forced myself to meet people for coffee. I forced myself to dip my toe back into the networking waters and I figured if I kept acting brave, eventually I’d start feeling brave again.
Great things happen not because people aren’t scared, but because they push through the fear. You don’t want to let fear of the unknown stop you from being the person you want to be, trying new things or building the business you desire.
If you can embrace the fact that you’re supposed to be scared because you’re blazing a trail and just accept the fear and get on with it, you’ll succeed way more often than you fail.
- Lesson seven: Find the Humor
It’s trite but it’s true: laughter really is the best medicine. So much of the early days of my brain injury were tense and scary. Initially, my short-term memory was impacted by both the brain damage and the meds I was on. In ICU, I don’t remember the month of August 2008. But I hear events played back through my husband, family and friends. Given my brain injury, I kept mixing up reality with memories with dreams. I ranted about a lot of nonsensical things: conspiracy theories, imagined appointments and even manufactured hospital intrigue. All of this was normal for both ICU patients and brain injuries.
So my loved ones engaged in dark humor and found amusement amidst the fear as they dealt with the severity of my condition. They made light of some of my more creative ramblings, like thinking the hospital was a front for the TV show Gossip Girl (more in the book on this one!). They joked about my new inexplicable cravings: I apparently demanded ice cream and cranberry juice at every meal. And my husband gave me his own battery of memory tests about current events. Each day, I would forget what they were and react with shock and excitement when he would tell me the news again….and again…and again. He found this amusing, but also masked a deeper worry that it might be permanent!
All of these little moments were about finding the humor in a tough situation. Some may find this inappropriate or crass. But finding humor in adversity is vital. Humor helps keep your head clear so you can think and problem solve. If we get caught up in anger, frustration and worry, we’re not going to be productive. Finding the humor helps us take a breath, lower our blood pressure and move forward.
My hope for you is that you don’t have to face a brain aneurysm to apply some of these lessons to your work and your life. Hopefully, you can look at your everyday challenges and adversity as a way to reboot and reframe the conversation with how you approach your life, how you approach your work, and how you approach your relationships. Hopefully the big stuff doesn’t have to happen to all of us for the lessons to sink in and get applied.
I’m extremely fortunate that I’ve recovered to the extent I have and I’m able to share these lessons with other people. I feel like I’m the voice of so many brave souls with whom I was in rehabilitation therapy because I can share the story that perhaps they cannot. There are still everyday struggles that only I can see but that’s okay; I just need to accept that I’m still here and I have the opportunity each and every day to reboot, reframe and approach everything with a fresh set of eyes.
Learn from adversity, big or small. Find the gift. Only when tested by fire do we discover who we really are.
|Written on 5/31/2012 by Maria Ross. Maria is a consultant, author and speaker and creator of Red Slice. She’s the author of Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life.|