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What Gives You Meaning After Brain Injury?

Personal Perspective: Meaning doesn't come from ability or job titles.

Michael Heuser/Unsplash
Source: Michael Heuser/Unsplash

We grow up being asked what we want to be when we’re older. We answer, “Doctor!” “No, lawyer!” (if you’re from a background like mine, Zoroastrian). Or maybe we answer, “Teacher.” “Carpenter.” “Truck driver!” Our answers fall into the category of job title. They’re not about our becoming — e.g., affectionate, patient, self-controlled — but about status, skills, or talents we either believe we want or others train us up to accept.

As a child, I cycled through different job titles every year. I wanted to be a nurse like my mother, later a doctor like my father. The latter came to my mind when I saw my grandfather lying white and drawn in the hospital’s cardiac care ward.

But by second year university, I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor — a neuropsychiatrist being the only area that appealed to me. I didn’t dare at that moment think about calling myself a writer. Only when I quit the job title, “doctor,” did I begin to broach the idea of writing.

But I still didn’t think about what kind of person I wanted to become or, explicitly, what gives meaning in life, beyond how I could use my talents to help other people and explore our existence, the chief question being, “Why do people act the way they do?”

Brain injury has a habit of concentrating your mind on the essential question: “What will give me meaning?”

Initially, you seek full healing for your brain injury. That’s a meaningful goal. Many years, decades, passed as I healed in stages. Because I was a guinea pig or a pioneer for a variety of neurostimulation and neuromodulation techniques, I didn’t receive a comprehensive treatment program in one go. Having years pass between stages, as research in new techniques led to clinical work that I was then enrolled in, meant that healing came in fits and starts and wasn’t integrated.

Through it all, I wrestled with questions: Why am I still alive? Why do I still exist? What is the meaning of all this nightmarish life with brain injury?

I think health care professionals who prefer to stick with comfortable strategies and rest instead of learning about and using neurostimulation to heal their patients don’t stop to think about how that choice consigns their patients to managed hell in which a person struggles to find meaning.

What meaning exists when reading had centered your life pre-injury and now you can no longer read, yet standard care won’t heal the neurons and neural networks involved in reading? Is it good enough to say, “Forget the old you, unpack the new you,” when the new you cannot remember, concentrate, has no physical or mental stamina, and turns on and off like a malfunctioning light? When society considers a person to have value only when they earn their own living?

That’s the crux of the problem.

Although I regained so much, I didn’t get back my health enough to work and earn an income, to earn back a job title. And so I must separate income-earning ability from meaning in life. Job titles as descriptors of who I am no longer apply. Culturally-defined physical, cognitive, psychological, and emotional states no longer apply, either.

What was normal for me physically cannot be tied up with my value as a human being nor my meaning in life. The same goes for all the other states.

Without doing as much as they can to heal neurons and neural networks through appropriate diagnostics like qEEG and effective treatments like brain biofeedback, healthcare professionals leave their patients in a place where meaning must be artificially manufactured and despair papered over with medications and inspirational quotes.

But the honest search for meaning comes only after medical professionals have pursued every available treatment option for their patients. The ability to find one’s personal meaning hinges on acknowledging and addressing brain injury grief, as I discuss in my book Brain Injury, Trauma, and Grief: How to Heal When You Are Alone.

This is the point I’m at now.

I bushwhacked my way through prickly grasses on the edge of meaning when I shared my brain injury journey. What was the point of going through this nightmare, I thought, if I didn’t share what I’d learned to alleviate it bit by bit?

But as much as the brain has fascinated me since my University of Toronto days when my neurophysiology professor taught us that the brain can regenerate — and I sought to learn more than the pathetic one-page descriptor of organic brain injury — my separated mind beckoned to me after brain injury. By separating my brain from my mind, brain injury had lead me into the hard problem.

“The hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers 1995) is the problem of explaining the relationship between physical phenomena, such as brain processes, and experience (…consciousness).” Scholarpedia, Hard Problem of Consciousness

I feel obligated to continue advocating for full healing of brain injury, both through these posts and my website. After all, sharing what I’ve learnt and continue to learn provides a purpose.

Yet I yearn to explore uncharted territory, discussing it with others, and discovering what is mind. This kind of exploration is divorced from income-earning potential and has no job title. Since society doesn’t want me, I might as well clear an interesting path for myself. It keeps me from the despair of not being able to regain those two societal demands. I’m not sure if it provides meaning and authenticity, but it does provide a reason for existence because exploration forms the heart of human endeavor.

What do you pine for that provides you with meaning, which would release you from the anguishing societal straitjackets of income-earning ability and job title?

Follow that yearning.

Maybe it’ll help you grasp effective healing and pursue a life with real rewards.

Copyright ©2023 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy


Chalmers, D. J. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2: 200-19.

Howell, Robert J. and Alter, Torin (2009). Hard problem of consciousness. Scholarpedia, 4(6):4948.

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