Making the Most of Life after a Traumatic Injury

Helen Rudd, who has used Stoicism to cope and flourish with the effects of a traumatic brain injury, reflects further on her experience of Stoicism. She had not originally intended for this piece to be published on the blog, but having received messages of support from the blog’s readers yesterday, wanted to share the next stage of her journey today. 

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about stoicism over the Christmas period, largely due to the really encouraging emails I’ve had from Christopher Gill and Patrick Ussher. 

Just before I went down to Somerset with my Dad, I tried to think how a ‘normal’ person could employ stoicism in order to feel happier and to gain a sense of achievement.  I then remembered the feeling I had when singing in a concert with people who have Parkinson’s earlier in 2013.  It was the first concert I’d sung in since my accident, and halfway through I suddenly had an amazing feeling of yes, I love doing this, it’s just where I want to be and I feel so proud to be singing with these really brave and friendly people.

So at the end of the year I found myself remembering this intense feeling, and I thought that the way to employ stoicism is to think of how I COULD have felt.  This could have included why do I now have to sing with unwell people, some of whom were sitting down, why do I have to sing using words only instead of words and music which is what I was used to, nobody in this choir can read music like I can, I used to have Jane the conductor and soloist for singing lessons and I could be doing a much more highbrow concert than this…

When I write these things now I feel horrible for expressing them, but it’s a good example I think of realising that you can feel good about something that otherwise could be terrible.  My plan would then be to notice how you feel about a situation, and then if it’s positive think about how it could otherwise be negative and thereby know that you’re employing stoicism.  Similarly, if you feel negative you could think about a positive way of looking at it and try to feel the way you’ve thought of.

I used this technique when travelling to Somerset in the car, and it worked!  We go through Salisbury which is where Glenside is, the brain injury rehab centre where I lived for a year, even though I don’t remember it.  In the past I’ve had to close my eyes as we drove past it because it reminded me of what’s happened.  So before getting to Salisbury I thought of how I’d be able to feel positive about it.  My thoughts were that I could think well, I used to be there but now I don’t have to be, I’m coping in the outside world and it shows that I went to the best place for me.  So I deliberately kept my eyes open and asked my Dad to point the building out to me.  I thought about these positive things and it was the first time I’d been able to look at Glenside ‘in the flesh’ as it were.  I’m not saying it was easy, I can still remember how hard it was, but it worked.

Now as 2014 begins, I’ve adapted the way in which I’ve tried to think positively in everyday life.  A few months ago I decided to note down three good things about the day just before I went to sleep, a contrast with the diary I kept 2 years previously about the bad things.  As this has led me to automatically thinking about the good things, and not the bad, I decided yesterday that there’s no need to do this any more.  Instead, on 31 December each year, including this year, I’m going to write about happiness and why the year has been happy for me.  I found it very rewarding to do this for 2013, a chance to take stock.  Who knows, there may come a time when I feel there’s no need even to do this.

I need to make the point that, in my case, I’m only able to do this now, some seven years after the accident. Before, I was in no fit state to employ stoicism.  I was too devastated by what had happened to me, a deep sense of shock and disbelief even.  In the past year however I’ve discovered that I seem to be stoic subconsciously so it can be done, even in terrible personal circumstances, provided the person concerned is ready.

8 thoughts on “Making the Most of Life after a Traumatic Injury”

  1. Dear Helen,

    Thank you for sharing your story with all of us – obviously you have deeply and positively affected many of us. I thought the Helen pre-accident sounded so inspiring, and the Helen as you are today is even more so. It goes to show you have an enduring and powerful spirit, and I think Stoicism (a way of life you have so naturally followed) is the key for all of us to find inner strength through living with virtue. If we do, no matter the circumstances, we can fall asleep knowing we approached our day the best we could, and helped our inner strength, and that of others, flourish. Your virtue has certainly uplifted me.

    Last year for my best friend’s birthday I made her a gift of a special bottle with painted words of inspiration covering the surface. I told her to write on small pieces of paper happy and positive moments and events throughout the year and to place them in the bottle to open at the turn of the new year, 2014. She, like many I know, had a difficult 2013 – she was wrongly dismissed from her position at work, had her long term relationship fall apart, was dealing with her mother’s breast cancer, and her own issues with bulimia. However, I was with her on New Year’s day, and she cried with joy at reading all the special moments she had experienced and had forgotten over the year. We tend to focus on the negative in life and that is debilitating, if we focus on what we have strength to affect – what is in our power – if we focus on being positive and productive, I’m sure our bottles of special moments will begin to overflow 🙂

    1. You have captured the essence of both Stoicism and happiness – Mondays evening text for reflection Seneca Letters 12.9 – the bottle of special moments is a really helpful tool. Thank you.

    2. You’ve added to my happiness with your reply, thank you so much. When I first heard Christopher Gill being interviewed on the radio about the stoicism experiment I remember the interviewer being cynical about whether it could work. Our experiences, and others I’ve read on the blog, prove that such techniques do work. I absolutely love the way you’ve been able to help your friend. Nothing forced on her, not over the top, just letting her feel the experience and re-live special moments

  2. I loved reading your message Angela, and yes, the little things in life mean so much and often stay in your memory. I love the way you still kiss your 40 year old daughter goodbye. I think that what you’ve written about getting your children to tell you the best part of the day shows how stoicism really helps – concentrating on the good things. And you putting the bad things right. I certainly will give an update later, and I’d love to sing right now but I’ve lost my voice!

  3. Dear Helen – oh how right you are. Life changing experiences do just that – they change your life for ever and nothing will be the same as it was before the event. But acceptance is the hardest thing of all but the bridge to happiness. When my children were little and we had read bedtime stories we used to ask them what had been the best part of the day and why and what had been the worst part of the day and why. My husband and I joined in this sharing as well and it was very revealing. Usually the worst bits were of our own making when we did not do what we should of done but one example sticks in my mind when my seven year old said “it was when Mummy didn’t kiss me goodbye when I went to school this morning” it never happened again and even now she is 40 I always kiss her goodbye – little things mean a lot. The best bits were usually small personal achievements. We were living in Africa at this time and I started writing a Christmas Round Robin letter to update friends on the past year. This was in the 1980s and I still send one each year. I always keep a copy and over the years they have become a potted history of my family life. When I feel lonely and depressed I get them out and read them and reflect on the wonderful life I have been given and how lucky I am. Do keep us updated on your progress Helen and sing your heart out at every opportunity!

  4. Bravo to you too Carolyn. I think we have both shown that thinking about, and employing, stoicism can become life-changing. Helen

  5. I very much respect and admire the courage that Helen Rudd has shown and it is interesting to see that she says ” a stoic subconsciously “. The trick is to lose the “sub” , having had two very difficult years finding through Stoicism Today the means and direction to come up for air and look at myself, my fears and sorrows in a very positive way has been , or rather is becoming a life changing experience.
    Bravo Helen

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