Sarah’s voice shatters the calm in the yoga studio. “Straighten your right leg, Paul! Your right right leg! Your right leg! Now, put all your weight on the strap! All your weight! You’re not going to fall, Laura and I are here. We’re not going to let you fall. The strap will hold you. Trust the strap.”
I’m trying to focus on my breathing as I lean in towards the wall, my feet braced against it in a wide stance. I’m working on my flexibility, or should I say, inflexibility.
I hear Paul’s quavering voice. “I’m trying, Sarah. I am straightening it. It feels straight. Isn’t it straight?”
“Now, it is. Now, lean on it, and lean forward. Paul! I’m not going to let you fall, trust me.”
Her voice sharpens. “I don’t want to hear those noises from you! You can swear at me. You can yell at me. You can call me names. I’ve heard it all before. But you can’t moan. Tell me what you feel, where it hurts. Your moaning doesn’t tell me anything.” She adjusts his left foot. “Why is your leg buckling again, Paul? Don’t let it buckle! Focus!”
I want to tell her that of course Paul can’t focus on what she’s telling him to do. He can’t process all that information. Too much is coming at him too fast. He can’t focus on both the instructions and following them. I want to tell her to slow down, to keep her instructions simple, no more than two at a time. I want to explain that he’s overloading.
“Can I rest now, Sarah? I’m really tired.”
“Hold it for another fifteen seconds. Then you can rest. If you want to get better, you have to do this.” Sarah’s voice softened. “Okay, now you can rest.”
Paul, a stroke survivor, joined the yoga therapy class in a wheel chair. Now, several months later, he walks with a cane. Sarah gets results, and though, occasionally, to a casual observer she may sound like an evil witch, she’s actually friendly and well liked.
Before I move on to my next exercise, I amble over to Paul, whose sitting, his head hanging, completely drained.
I touch him on the shoulder. “It’s about processing. Your brain can’t process all that at once. It’s about sensory overload. There’s too much coming at you too fast.”
I explain that his inability to follow Sarah’s instructions isn’t a sign of inadequacy on his part, that it’s merely part of the brain injury package.
I often felt like the world around me was whirling at an impossible speed, and I couldn’t make sense of it. Until I learnt that I was suffering from sensory overload, I thought that I wasn’t handling the situation as well as I should be. I wondered whether the chaos and confusion in my mind meant I was going crazy. Until I understood the source of the problem, I had no way of addressing it.
Paul speaks of his frustrations. “I miss my old body.”
“Well, of course you do. You’re grieving. It’s to be expected. You’ve lost so much.”
Until a friend explained that to me, I was convinced that I needed to suck it up, that my despair was a sign of weakness.
During my first couple of years of recovery, having words and labels to explain my mental and emotional difficulties, made them more manageable. That’s why I started writing my book, and why I speak to brain injury survivors, to help them understand, to provide them with the compass that all of us so desperately need on our journey to recovery.