In the early days of my closed head injury (traumatic or acquired brain injury), I heard many times the mantra that you only heal or heal the most in the first two years — whatever healing happens in those years is it for the rest of your life. In the June 2010 issue of the OBIA newsletter, a survivor’s spouse repeats the two-year mantra, writing “In the first two years after an ABI [acquired brain injury] has occurred is widely believed to be the optimum time for recovery.” May I just say now:
There is no two-year window, no two-year-only optimum time for recovery.
There has never been a deadline on healing after a brain injury.
The doctors are wrong.
People who buy into this mantra are wrong.
This is limited and limiting thinking.
I say this for four reasons:
- Way back in the dark ages of brain research, when I was studying neurophysiology at the University of Toronto (the irony!), when scientific knowledge knew only four or five neurotransmitters, researchers were perfectly aware that there is a cell whose function is to repair damaged neurons. And like any repair tool, this tool continues repairs until they’re done. They don’t stop because the repair cell says, “Oh look, it’s two years. Time for a beer.”
- It is well documented, although considered rare, that people wake up from comas after ten years or twenty. Now they could hardly have woken up unless there had been healing going on well past the two-year mark, otherwise why did they not wake up after two years? What were their brains doing for the other 18 if the first two were the optimum time to recover?
- Although doctors seem to be oblivious to the fact, psychologists well know that there are methods to heal and treat a brain injury — and that these methods are not constrained by time. When I began sessions with a psychologist about three months after my injury, he began using what he called neurofeedback, but which I now know as audiovisual entrainment (scientists do like to change the names of procedures). He told me that he’d had success with it in improving brain function even in clients who came to him up to 5½ years after the initial injury. In fact, it was about 5½ years post-injury when I began brain biofeedback, a method to treat not just compensate for my brain injury. It accelerated my brain’s healing (almost too fast) and put me into an optimal state towards real recovery, the kind that gives you the opportunity to rejoin society, not stay on its margins forever.
- Back to spontaneous healing. Although the brain may heal the slowest of all the parts of the body, like the turtle, it does get there. We don’t know which point in time was the most optimal for ultimate healing even if it’s easier to see healing at certain points than others. I’ve heard stories of those having a stroke and not knowing their family members suddenly call them by name ten years after the injury. I’ve read about survivors who spontaneously regained their old reading skills at three years. I personally started regaining my curiosity at six years. OK, that was because of the brain biofeedback, but from that experience, I believe it’s possible to accelerate spontaneous healing through treatment modalities like brain biofeedback and to temporarily wake up specific aspects of brain function, like focus or imagination, through audiovisual entrainment, and perhaps improve it permanently with repeated sessions over a long period of time. Almost three years after the end of brain biofeedback and more than ten years post-injury, I continue to experience spontaneous healing, healing so dramatic that, though not noticeable on the outside, not physically changing but physically challenging with dizziness, nausea, and fatigue, feels like part of my brain has gone way ahead and the rest of me is panting to catch up. Healing can be a bitch.
The doctors are wrong. And they’re harming countless people by repeating this mantra to them, that gives caregivers and therapists permission to forever sideline many with brain injuries while seeming to help them as much as possible. It’s not that they’re not compassionate, that they don’t care, but that they have very narrow ideas of recovery, that they don’t expect dramatic improvement after two years and don’t seek ways to effect that. They don’t work to regain the full potential of the individual as the mantra has limited everyone’s idea of that potential.
The next time they or someone else parrots the two-year mantra, tell them to stop right there. And to adopt a new mantra: the rest of a person’s life, any time in that life, is the optimum time to recover and rejoin society. OK, a bit wordy. If you have any ideas for a short, catchy one that says the same, please share it below!