Unstoppable: How Charlene Gethons of The Mindfulness Journey Has Redefined Success While Navigating Society With Traumatic Brain Injury
It’s called an invisible injury for a reason — If you looked at me you would have no idea of what I’ve been through and how my disability affects every moment of my life. One of the ways that my injury affects me is that I am now very sensitive to lights. After my accident, I changed all of the main lights onto a dimmer switch. I was leading a workshop on mindfulness for other brain injury survivors and the first thing that I do is adjust the lighting. I remember, there was someone attending who was surprised at the lighting and how dark it was until I explained that the lighting was set up in consultation with the members. It’s the little ways like that that people miss because it’s not always so obvious.
As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlene Gethons.
Charlene Gethons is the founder of The Mindfulness Journey. A mental health and wellness advocate, she is a Psychotherapist and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher. Charlene gives talks and runs workshops on the power of mindfulness and meditation for healing and managing anxiety and stress.
As an adult, Charlene suffered a traumatic brain injury that required her to rethink her life and find a new career path for herself. It was during her healing from her brain injury and subsequent neurosurgeries that Charlene received her Masters in Counselling Psychology and first started learning and practicing mindfulness.
Charlene credits mindfulness with helping her to navigate the challenges of her chronic illness and traumatic brain injury. This experience was so impactful for her that today, she is passionate about sharing that knowledge and empowering other brain injury survivors.
Charlene created The Mindfulness Journey to help others learn how to get out of their heads and into their lives. These days she works with other entrepreneurs with chronic illnesses empowering them to create a sustainable business that fits their lifestyle without letting imposter syndrome take over.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Growing up in Toronto, Canada, I always found myself drawn to helping people, particularly children and youth. After getting my undergraduate degree in Psychology, I went into a post-graduate Child & Youth Worker Program so that I could enhance my skills and get some work experience before deciding whether to pursue my Masters or not. Then one night in January 2013 everything changed in an instant — I was coming home from the movies when I was hit by a bus. In the accident, I sustained several skull fractures and a traumatic brain injury and I ended up requiring multiple neurosurgeries over the years.
At the time I was working with children & teenagers with special needs and the one constant from my team of doctors was that with my injury and disability this type of work was no longer feasible. I had no idea what to do next with my life. The accident, my injuries, and subsequent surgeries put me on a path of rediscovery which ultimately led me to start practicing mindfulness and starting my business.
Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?
Sure. I was heading home from the movies and as I was crossing through the crosswalk, a bus was making a left-hand turn onto the one-way street I was crossing. I have no memory of most of that night or the first week afterward until after my first emergency neurosurgery to remove a piece of my skull to reduce the pressure on my brain. I remember feeling like I could finally think again.
With the bone out, I was at risk of falling and my decision-making was compromised, which meant that I needed 24hour care. I remember being convinced that I could still attend a concert a week after I was supposed to be discharged from the hospital because I would have had enough time to rest and recover from it, haha. It was 6 years before I was able to attend my first concert post-accident. There were a lot of moments like this in the first few months after the accident and it actually took me a few years to fully understand the ramifications of the accident and the impact that it had on my life moving forward.
I was incredibly fortunate in that my parents were retired and as my mom used to be a registered nurse, they decided for me to move back in with them for my recovery. What we thought would be 6 months turned out to be 2 ½ years due to experiencing complications and infections that resulted in additional neurosurgeries (4 in total at that time plus more since).
My language, communication, and memory were all impacted plus I had a lot of anxiety and panic attacks after the accident. I had trouble remembering things for more than a few moments. At night time I would ask my mom if the doors were locked and would make her go down and check several times because I would forget that I had already asked and that she had gone down to check. This went on for months but in time, and through working with my care team I was able to learn strategies to help with my memory and anxiety.
I was lucky that I was very quickly put in contact with a team of people who helped me with my recovery. My Speech & Language Pathologist (SLP), Occupational Therapist (OT), and social worker combined with the care of my mom were instrumental in helping me navigate this challenging time.
It was during this time that I first heard the phrase, “Suffering can make you bitter or it can make you better. You choose.” I spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital during this time, witnessing other individuals on the neurosurgery ward and seeing firsthand how lucky I was despite everything that I was going through. I was able to find a sense of gratitude that helped me to choose better over and over again over the years. This phrase became a mantra that I continue to use to this day to remind myself during the difficult and challenging moments that I can choose to let these moments make me better.
Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?
It was during this time that my SLP encouraged me to take some online courses to help retrain my brain. I started small with classes similar to the work that I was doing before deciding to get my Masters in Counselling Psychology through a virtual program that was designed for full-time professionals. It was perfect for me as it let me work at my own pace taking one class at a time and I was able to graduate in 2017. There were a lot of times that I would be reading from one of my psychology textbooks while waiting for a CT scan or MRI.
I also started practicing mindfulness meditation, in particular the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, at the suggestion of my social worker. Learning mindfulness changed my life in so many big and small ways. I knew pretty quickly that everyone needs to learn the power of mindfulness and meditation and that I was meant to teach it. I ended up taking 2 semesters off from my graduate studies to undergo the teacher training program before heading into my practicum and my final semester. After finishing my practicum and graduating I spent 6 months working as a Psychotherapist — something that was always a dream of mine — before leaving to focus more on continuing to heal from my injuries and the subsequent complications and surgeries that I’ve undergone in the last few years and to focus on my business The Mindfulness Journey.
None of this would have happened without my accident. The work I did to recover from my accident was hard. It was a long journey with plenty of setbacks and complications. It was hard and challenging but it put me on this path and opened up a whole new world for me. I had to do a lot of work on accepting the reality of life with a brain injury and what my new normal looks like. Everything in my life is different now. From the foods that I eat to the decisions that I make. I have learned so much about myself in the process and through sharing my journey and what I’ve learned with others I’ve seen how impactful my work can be.
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?
One of the core tenets of Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment. When you’ve gone through a traumatic experience as I have, can be very helpful. When my anxiety shows up and I worry about what might happen, I meditate and come back to this moment. Moment by moment you can get through anything. Like right now, I need additional surgeries, some of which are months away. If I were to focus on what’s to come I would very quickly get overwhelmed but focusing on today and what’s happening right now takes away a lot of the suffering and stress of what’s to come. There will be plenty of time to worry about the surgery on the morning of it and I can choose to come back to this moment every time my thoughts wander to the future. Like right now the only thing that I am focusing on is this interview question. Not the one that’s coming next, not the one that I just answered, this one. Breaking things down into this moment is the main thing that has helped me, and my students navigate society and their lives since sustaining their disabilities.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Definitely my mom, after the accident the hospital staff suggested that I go to a rehab facility and she was adamant that I would be coming home with her. We’ve always had a close relationship and having her by my side during some of the worst moments of my life played a big role in how well I recovered. When I went back for my Masters, she supported me through it. Part of my disability means that I have trouble with verbal fluency and word finding so she would help me out by proofreading my papers as I wouldn’t be able to catch some of the mistakes. My poor mother spent a lot of time reading long psychological papers where she would find the same mistakes repeatedly but she never once complained. While the program was virtual, the main headquarters of the school was located in Eastern Canada, so when it came time for my graduation ceremony, I of course brought my mom with me. Having her there to see me graduate was a nice full circle moment for us.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Inside The Mindfulness Journey, I teach brain injury survivors as well as entrepreneurs with chronic illnesses, how to use mindfulness strategies & practices to support themselves on their journeys. Being able to work with these communities fills me with so much joy. It’s a big passion of mine and I feel so blessed when my students share with me how much it has helped them when they see me modeling the use of these skills in real-time as I navigate my journey with a disability and chronic illness. Last summer I ended up in the emergency room needing another neurosurgery this time to remove my prosthetic skull bone flap. It was sudden and it’s a big surgery and recovery before my new prosthesis is able to go in. Even now, 9 months later I’m still waiting on this surgery due to other complications from all my previous surgeries over the years. I continue to be open and honest with my students/clients about this experience and what it’s like to show them that sometimes life can stop you in your tracks but that through mindfulness meditation you can learn how to navigate these moments with grace and a little bit more ease.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.
- It’s called an invisible injury for a reason — If you looked at me you would have no idea of what I’ve been through and how my disability affects every moment of my life. One of the ways that my injury affects me is that I am now very sensitive to lights. After my accident, I changed all of the main lights onto a dimmer switch. I was leading a workshop on mindfulness for other brain injury survivors and the first thing that I do is adjust the lighting. I remember, there was someone attending who was surprised at the lighting and how dark it was until I explained that the lighting was set up in consultation with the members. It’s the little ways like that that people miss because it’s not always so obvious.
- Trust that our boundaries are there for a reason — Since my brain injury, I’ve had to constantly adjust and adapt to what’s within my capacity and what isn’t. Trust me that if I say that I can’t do something — I’ve thought long and hard about it first. The majority of the people in my life understand this but occasionally people have been surprised when I say no to activities now that would have been a yes before. There’s a reason for it which usually is because saying yes would deplete more energy than I have to spare. Being in a loud crowded environment wouldn’t have bothered me before, but now, I find it too sensory stimulating and overwhelming.
- Don’t compare — I work a lot in the brain injury community and every single person’s story and how their injury affects them is different. I get migraines that can knock me out for days because of the pain yet I don’t need to isolate myself in a dark room like others I know even with my light sensitivity. We are all different and what is true for one person won’t necessarily be true for someone else.
- We are our own best judges — I’m pretty open about my accident, injury, and the many, many surgeries that I’ve undergone over the years. I share my story and what works for me as a guide to others while always reminding them that at the end of the day they know their limits and what supports them better than I ever could. If someone with a brain injury tells you that they can’t do something — believe them. We know what brings on our symptoms and how to avoid them better than others can.
- Ask Questions — People are often surprised to hear about my backstory and what it’s been like. I’m open about it because I use it as part of my teaching and to guide others. If something surprises you ask, I will answer to the level that I feel comfortable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Gabby Gifford once said, “Mile by mile it’s a trial, yard by yard it’s hard, but inch by inch, it’s a cinch.” Taking things down to this moment, this breath, and this inch makes it feel so much more manageable. When I first was released from the hospital having the day spread out before me felt HUGE and overwhelming. Focusing only on breakfast felt manageable because I wasn’t thinking about breakfast, my hygiene, and getting dressed. It was just breakfast. I continue to think in this way even now as I navigate running a business with my disability. This task, this email, this one thing. This moment, this breath, this inch.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
This is a tough one! There are many people that I would pick and I’m probably not the first person to say this but I would choose Oprah. Appearing on her program Super Soul Sunday is definitely an item on my bucket list.
Unstoppable: How Charlene Gethons of The Mindfulness Journey Has Redefined Success While Navigating… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.