When You Don’t Know … that You Don’t Know

Finding the Blessing Tangled up within the Burden

Living with a brain injury is challenging enough without the added confusion caused by the inconsistency of ability to accurately assess and logically reason.

Eighteen years ago, I frequently experienced episodes when “I didn’t know … that I didn’t know.” I was clueless to recognize things that normally occurred to others. Remembering the first time I cooked a full meal after my brain injury, I was puzzled when my son giggled at the sight of the meatloaf I placed on the dinner table. He said, “Cute.”

I didn’t understand my husband’s remark either, “How do you shrink a meatloaf?”

Only after the boys brought it to my attention, did I recognize that the meatloaf looked tiny. It never occurred to me when I mixed the ingredients together and put the meatloaf in the oven that it looked abnormally small, nor could I offer them an explanation.

Not until the following morning when my daughter opened the microwave to cook her instant oatmeal did we solve the mystery. She screamed when she came face to face with a bloody mess. While defrosting the ground beef the day before, I had scraped the outer layer of ground beef away, and forgot that I had put the frozen center back in the microwave to finish defrosting.

Fast forward seventeen years to August 2007. I’m standing alone in an elevator at the Cornhusker Plaza in Lincoln, Nebraska. After waiting a short while to ascend to the 6th floor, a thought occurs, “This is taking a long time.” Patiently waiting even longer, a panicked thought follows, “I wonder if the elevator’s stuck?” Logical reasoning comes to my rescue, “I don’t recall even moving.” My instinct prompts me to summons help, so I approached the panel of buttons. Not until that very moment did it occur to me that I had not pushed the number 6 button for my floor.

Humiliated about the elevator confusion and exhausted from handling the travel and pre-conference details, it finally occurred to me that no matter how hard I had tried over the past two years, I frequently experienced situations where “I don’t know … that I don’t know.”

My discovery tormented me, “Should I tell my husband Larry or not?” Many times he had expressed his concern about the drain and strain my speaker business imposed on me and even insinuated that I wasn’t holding up well.

I feared that history was repeating. Countless times since I had sustained a brain injury, I took on projects I thought I could handle, and later found I was unable to maintain my ability to continue them. I felt my confidence unraveling and a familiar heartache setting in.

My passion and determination to be a speaker pushed me to seek professional help. Here’s what I learned:

The “burden” when I don’t know … that I don’t know – Because my ability to accurately assess and logically reason fluctuates depending on several outside influences that I frequently can’t control, I am not initially aware that my thinking has been affected. The inconsistency of my cognitive ability forces me to constantly rely on the help of others to understand and evaluate situations.

The “blessing” when I don’t know … that I don’t know – Since I’m accustomed to experiencing difficulties and it doesn’t immediately occur to me that I’m dealing with more than “normal challenge,” I don’t discourage quickly. I keep trying and eventually figure things out.

The “reality” – It is unrealistic for me to expect that I can anticipate every situation that could happen or instantly know how to manage them. I need to apply the same learn-as-I-go process to develop systems and strategies to work my speaker business as I did to manage my brain injury challenges.

This condition is not isolated to persons living with a brain injury. The world moves so fast with too much noise and an over-load of information to navigate through that everyone experiences moments where “they don’t’ know … that they don’t know.”

Here are some precautions and preventative measures:
Three situations that make you more vulnerable:

when your brain feels fatigued
when you are learning or doing something new to you
unfamiliar or challenging environments
Increase your capability by following these seven guidelines:

Expect to experience some unexpected difficulties when you break your normal routine, do activities that require long periods of deep concentration, expose yourself to a new experience or a new environment or start a new venture.
Be well rested before attempting to do things you’ve never done before.
Plan for a recovery period after your new experience.
Work with someone who can help you accurately assess the difficulties you encounter and assist you in preparing strategic solutions.
Re-assure your self-confidence by acknowledging that it is not always realistic for you to pre-determine difficulties or equip yourself with strategies in advance.
Know that each “new” difficulty can be overcome by developing “new” systems and strategies to compensate for brain injury deficits.
Accept your reality – persons living with a brain injury periodically need help to adjust to new environments or new experiences.
The daily challenges of living with a brain injury compound whenever routines are varied or activities are expanded. Don’t allow the fear of failure nor the fear of humiliation when “you don’t know … that you don’t know” hold you back from trying new things. Surround yourself with the help that is available “if you ask” and experience a new adventure.

Article Signature:
Lois McElravy, Lessons from Lois, entertains, inspires and motivates audiences with humorous keynotes, workshops and adversity trainings. She provides life-changing insights, humor strategies and practical solutions gained from her personal experience of adjusting to a sudden life change when she sustained a brain injury nineteen years ago.

Her signature story provides family members, care-givers and professionals with a deeper understanding of brain injury from a survivor’s perspective. Lois inspires hope and motivates survivors to accept their new reality and redefine their life purpose. She equips them with strategies to manage their challenges, improve relationships and feel happy.

©2012 Lois McElravy, Lessons from Lois – Permission to reprint or repost this article is granted by including the above byline and Lois’ contact information. http://www.lessonsfromlois.com