A Conversation with Mike Strand, TBI Survivor and author of Meditating on Brain Injury

Barbara Stahura

A Conversation with Mike Strand by Barbara Stahura

December 31, 2012

In 1999, Mike Strand began writing short essays about living with brain injury and the lessons he has learned. He began writing to help others understand their own brain injuries but soon found that his own self-understanding was growing too. Now his essays have been collected in Meditations on Brain Injury from Lash and Associates, a small but powerful book valuable to anyone who wants to learn more about living with an injured brain. 

Did you write before your brain injury?

 No. I considered myself a writer, but like a lot of people who say that, hadn’t actually written. 

Do you keep a journal? 

No. My alternative to journaling is to write these essays. I originally wrote them to help others, but they helped me. I take my vague notions and use the essays to put them into concrete form. They spell out what I know subconsciously and take a more coherent form. 

You make excellent use of metaphors in your essays. For instance, there’s one about how having a brain injury leaves you feeling as though you’re trapped under the ice of a frozen lake, where, you write, “I’m still okay but I can’t get a message through.” Why do you use metaphors? 

It’s pretty effortless for me to make these metaphors. Especially with brain injury, if you’re telling people “It’s like…”, it makes it easier for them to get it. With writing, I can come up with good metaphors. I can occasionally make them up in conversation, but it usually takes extra time, which is not a luxury I have when talking to people. 

You write that “Wellness isn’t just a catchy phrase for me, but a moral imperative.” That’s an intriguing statement. Please explain why this is true for you.  

For a lot of people, “wellness” is a generic term meaning, “I want to feel healthy.” For me, it’s a much more intentional step-by-step process. Successful people say you have to have a plan—write it down. So after a brain injury, you have to write it down, what you want to accomplish. 

Why do you say “post-TBI” rather than “recovery”? 

Just saying “recovery” is too limiting and not really accurate. Post-TBI, you’re not even going in the same direction, it’s like after your accident your car was facing another direction, and driving straight back is never going to get you where you were. You have to find acceptance. If you’re trying to recover, you’re not accepting. Recovery is impossible because you’re changed. Take stock of what you’ve got, look at where you want to go, and start working toward it. 

In the “About the Author” section in the book, you write about yourself, “His life before his brain injury was spent consistently under-achieving based on his abilities, and over-questioning in lieu of accomplishing. Brain injury recovery was the challenge that finally lit a spark in his soul and dared him to do better.” That’s very honest and beautiful.  

I cobbled that together bit by bit. I looked at what my strengths are and how has brain injury changed me. Before, I used foolishness in lieu of accomplishing. I didn’t have that luxury after the brain injury. 

I like that you say in one of your essays, “Who you are is a dynamic process.” Please explain, especially in terms of post-TBI.

It’s because so often with TBI, especially early on, you feel like you have so far to go. So you have to accept that you’re growing and changing at all times. If you define yourself in a static sense, it’s self-defeating. You need to look beyond “Who am I?” to “Who am I becoming?” 

You write, “Brain injury is an opportunity to design yourself all over again.” How have you done that?

I wouldn’t have said that early on. But I remember a conversation about what I would do if I had to do it all over again—I’ve been given that opportunity, whether I like it or not. So how do I choose to view this? I’ve done all these things because of my brain injury. 

One change that happened for you post-TBI is that your heart compensated for your brain, as you describe it. How so?

Because before the accident I considered myself very intellectual, which made me dismissive of others. Since the brain injury, I don’t feel that way. I have received such kindnesses, and if you’re a human being, you reflect that back. I began seeing the world in a kinder light. I had to. I needed there to be warmth and friendliness. And I have no regrets. 

In the essay “Real Healing,” you list three steps to healing after brain injury: accepting the brain injury, getting over it, and finally finding value in the experience. What kind of value can there be in a brain injury?

It’s a hardship to be overcome, like you overcome any hardship. You can take pride in that. Nobody says they’ve always had an easy life. In my case, it is very challenging, and there are gifts in overcoming all these hurdles if you want a valuable life. 

You recommend gaining strength through enlightened self-interest. Please explain. 

Base selfishness is doing what makes you feel good, like sitting in front of the TV eating cookies. Enlightened self interest is doing what makes you feel good about yourself, like turning off the TV, leaving the cookies in the kitchen, and going for a walk. 

You write about having a purpose in life after a TBI. Please talk about purpose and what it means to you now. 

It goes hand-in-hand with what is the meaning of life. Why should I get out of bed? I see now why people who talk about purpose talk about helping others. If you’re only doing something for your own personal gain, it’s hard for that to feel fulfilling. The cool thing about finding purpose in your life—and it’s almost always when you’re giving—is that it gets your focus off yourself. We have to be hard judges of ourselves if we want to improve, but no one wants to be like that all the time. Helping others takes the focus off ourselves. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?  

Reading this interview you might get the impression that I’m a pretty driven individual, and in some respects I am, but the things I say and the things I write are ideals to which I strive, frequently unsuccessfully. Writing essays, like journaling, helps me keep my focus and achieve my personal goals. 

Recommended Reading

Meditations on Brain Injury

By Mike Strand

As a survivor who has lived with a brain injury since 1989, Mike Strand’s short book offers a perspective on the ups and downs – triumphs and challenges – of not just survival but living life fully. Unlike books that chronicle recovery day by day, he uses a format of short essays that provide insight into his personal struggles. They will cause readers to pause and reflect on the meaning for their lives.

You can get to know Mike better by reading his great blog titled Mike’s Big Brain Blog

3 Responses to “A Conversation with Mike Strand, TBI Survivor and author of Meditating on Brain Injury”

  1. Mike says:

    I’m not a neurologist, but I know that damage to some areas of the frontal lobes can result in poor decision making capabilities and these sorts of deficits do not show up in standard tests. The reasons are complex and have to do with the way the brain formulates emotions and how it responds to such emotions. There is a book called “Descartes Error” by Antonio Damasio which is where I’m getting my info. It could basically explain why you made those horrible choices. Which then implies it is not something you should beat yourself up over (I know, easier said than done).

    No solution I can give you is going to seem like anything miraculous. I do share your discomfort over taking drugs. That doesn’t leave any good options, all I can tell you is what I would do based on what I understand about your situation. Take an inventory of where you are at. Your strengths and weaknesses. Decide where you want to be. Put together a plan on how to move towards that goal. Take baby steps and put as much as possible into a routine. It doesn’t matter how far away you are from your goal. The objective isn’t the goal, the objective is to move towards that goal.

    That is as good as it gets. I have made piece with that in my life.

    BTW, I am sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I was going to, and then it slipped my mind.

  2. Mike says:

    First off, I wouldn’t say any answer is going to be easy.Do you/can you exercise? Getting out and walking is huge, it can really make a difference. Even stretching, as you lie in bed before you get up in the morning can help get you started. During the day, just take a moment to reach for the ceiling, really stretch up and then describe a large circle with your fingertips as you lower your arms. I’m writing all this in the command form, but I’m really saying that this is what I do. Nothing else seems do-able to me until I stretch a bit.

    Most motivation issues for me stem from the fact that I have executive function deficits, as in “what am I going to do?” or “what shall I do first?” The way I overcome this is to write down a list of tasks and when I want to do them. I don’t put down anything for the day I’m writing these things down, as that would be to overwhelming. I also don’t put too much on my plate for any one day.

    You know, this gives me an idea for an article about this very topic. Hopefully It will be in an upcoming issue of The Brain Injury Journal, because what you are describing is a demon everyone with a brain injury must face. Thank you for asking!

  3. Kerry Mischka says:

    Dear Mike-
    I am a 44yr old female that survived a severe TBI in August of 1997. I got married and divorced twice and am living on disability….my biggest problem is motivation. I was motivated for many years post injury and then by making impulsive horrible choices, my life has taken a turn for the worst. Unable to find answers anymore, frustrated, and sick of all of it…I have pretty much given up. My frontal lobe was torn and I’m pretty sure I have major hormonal issues and self-esteem issues. Already took the anti-depressant route and that just masked the real issues. Do you have any ideas for me? I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. Major depression is a huge problem, but don’t want to spend my life on medications…feel like I am on a rollercoaster with up and down days….Thanks…Kerry Mischka

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