Saba’s tips for holiday survival


The holidays are a tough time for everyone, and this is especially true for brain injury survivors who are often dealing with issues such as chronic fatigue, pain and cognitive fatigue.

Here are some tips I’ve come up since acquiring my brain injury a few years ago on how to get through two of the more challenging parts of the season: holiday dinner and shopping.

Saba Rizvi


Surviving the Holiday Dinner

Please let your host, or a trusted family member know about any concerns you may have, such as if you require a break during the event. Do not let the idea of being a ‘burden’ take over, as family and friends should be more than happy to help out.

Find grounding techniques that help you deal with your anxiety or pain levels, such as drinking lots of water and deep breathing when necessary. These little activities can make a big difference and help you sort your thoughts when things get overwhelming.

Don’t forget to take your medications with you in case you need them.

Holiday Shopping

Santas in a mall
photo credit: shaggy359 Which one’s him? via photopin (license)

Malls tend to get very overcrowded, and the increase in light displays and music does not help!

In order to deal with the crowd, you can take a friend with you and have a list of the stores you want to visit, along with where they are located in the mall. That way, you have both support and direction during this process. Having direction while shopping helps you navigate through the crowd and noise by putting it in the back of your mind.

You’re essentially making it secondary to your goal. You can also wear sunglasses or a brimmed hat to help with the light, and earphones or earplugs to reduce noise. If you would prefer to skip the mall altogether, you can shop for your gifts online, but time’s running out for that option quickly.

Again, have a list of the things you need and where you can buy them, and have a friend help you shop online. Happy shopping!

Saba Rizvi was in her second year of medical school when she sustained her Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). She has navigated her way through her TBI with the support of her family and friends, as well as from her knowledge of psychology and medicine. Saba has previously written blog posts for BIST and is currently a peer-mentor at the Brain Injury Association of Peel-Halton (BIAPH). She also promotes positive mental health via her artwork, and curated posts & articles. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Mistletoe madness


I spent most of my childhood and young adult years feeling out of place; I didn’t think of myself as a normal kid. I could not understand why I had such a difficult time with things that seemed to come so easy to the others.


I was six-years-old when the viral infection made its way into my brain, and it was many, many years later that I was diagnosed with a brain injury. Living within the unknown made things that much more challenging. Bottling up my emotions and refraining from telling anyone about these difficulties didn’t help much either.

There were many things I thought of that might give me some of that ‘normalcy’ in life, but I could never figure out just how to go about getting them.

Enter the mistletoe, a small leafy object that got its recognition during the Christmas holidays. I had witnessed its use in movies, on television, and even in person. I had read and heard stories about its magical aura. As per

The tradition of hanging it in the house goes back to the times of the ancient Druids. It is supposed to possess mystical powers which bring good luck to the household and wards off evil spirits. It was also used as a sign of love and friendship in Norse mythology and that’s where the custom of kissing under Mistletoe comes from.

So getting kissed under this cheery decoration, I thought, would signify my ‘normalcy’. Well, at least it was a step toward becoming one of the guys, right? I mean getting a kiss, a girlfriend, that’s what being one of the guys means, right?

The idea of some amazingly cute girl kissing me with her lovely lips was a beautiful thing. It was also scary – very scary in fact! So why did I become obsessed with making sure we had this small plant in our house every year?  To this day, I’m not exactly sure I know the answer.

pexels-photo-170383See, I would make sure this delicate Christmas object of affection was put up in just the right spot, and then, I would do everything I could to avoid that spot. I’ve said nothing about this to anyone until now, despite I repeating this ritual for several years.

It was somewhat counter-productive when I look back on it all. It was as if something in me was saying, ‘This is how you become normal,’ while another voice inside said ‘That’s a load of crap!’

These days I no longer bother with the mystical object meant to garner a kiss. I know a kiss won’t make me ‘normal.’ I don’t need anything to make me normal, because  I am normal already.

A kiss is not going to turn me into a prince

A kiss is not going to make me a better person.

But, that doesn’t mean I would refuse a lovely lady.


Mark’s passion to lend a helping hand, offer advice and give back has developed into a moral and social responsibility with the goal of sharing, inspiring and growing – for others as well as himself. His experience as a survivor, caregiver, mentor and writer has led to his credibility as an ABI Advocate and author of his life’s story, Challenging Barriers & Walking the Path. Follow him on Twitter @Mark_Koning or go to

Having a hard time this holiday season? Let it be – here’s your playlist


Here we are, well into December and the holiday season is really here. It’s been around for a while, of course. As usual, the Halloween pumpkin decorations were hardly packed away when the giant Santas, the garlands and the holly came out, decorating the department stores and just about everywhere else. I heard Michael Bublé crooning It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas on November 8th.

Charlie Brown talks to Linus about being sad at Christmas

Music is a big part of the holiday season, and much of the commercial variety is upbeat and exuberant in spirit. We are urged to ‘deck the halls’ and go for sleigh rides as we spend time ‘walking in a winter wonderland.’

Ideally, the end of the year should be a time for spiritual renewal, a period set aside to pause and reflect, and with any luck, to reconnect with family and friends. Yet so much of what surrounds us doesn’t exactly inspire mirth or good will. Retailers ask us to buy, buy and buy some more, yet too many of us are on fixed incomes, underemployed or unemployed.

For those of us who are dealing with the challenges of brain injury – be it our own or of a family member – the holiday period is an immensely challenging time. The cold and dark month of December demands much from us, a great deal more than many of us are capable of – or willing – to do.

The poet William Congreve once wrote that “music has charms to soothe the savage breast” but for many people, the traditional music surrounding the period has little meaning.

As an alternative, here’s a list of songs that may help you get through until the brighter days of January begin.


Get Me Through Decemberwritten by Gordie Sampson and Fred Lavery, and preformed here by Alison Krause, the lyrics speak of the challenges we face during this cold month and a hope for better times ahead.

 New York City Christmas – Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty fame penned this song about the ongoing need for peace and compassion in the big city.

Those Silent Nights – a song written especially for those who have recently lost loved ones by Jacob Colgan and Aileeah Colgan.

Find Your Voice – Sarah McLachlan’s advice at finding pleasure in simple things.

Angel – Because McLachlan is good enough to play twice.

Strength, Courage and Wisdom – From India Arie’s first album, Acoustic Soul, this song will make you feel like your strength, courage and wisdom have really been inside of you all along.

It’s Gonna be Alright Sara Groves is a Christian singer known for writing powerful lyrics. In this song, which is non-denominational, Groves gives hope to folks who are going through hard times.

So Small  Carrie Underwood’s song from her 2007 Carnival Ride  album is about seeing the big picture, and remembering what to be grateful for.

Little Wonders – Well before the Frozen theme song appropriated the phrase,  Rob Thomas created this song about ‘letting go’, (ironically) for another Disney movie, Meet the Robisons..

True Colours – Cyndi Lauper’s gay rights and anti-hate crimes anthem, written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, and was originally a tribute to Steinberg’s mother. Proof that True Colours is all about unconditional love.

Takes a Little Time Amy Grant’s song, written during a time when she was having difficulty in her marriage, is about having patience to get through hard periods in life.

Sound of hope projectYou’ll want to find out more about these amazing artists who hail from American Samoa after listening to this beautiful colaboration. Written and produced by whitcombemedia, according to, this song is dedicated to all the people of the Pacific Islands.

Imagine – The John Lennon classic, and we’re still imagining a world free of hate.

Never give up – Whitney Houston’s motivational song, released after her 2012 death, is as inspirational and is it is a bittersweet, final message from this amazing singer.

Let it Be – Speaking words of wisdom, the Beatles can help you get through the holiday season every time.

My advice to those who find themselves a little overwhelmed by it all is to slow down, nothing can be so pressing that it has to be done immediately. Take time to stop and enjoy the decorations – they’ll be gone soon enough.

Stop and give some change to a homeless person, or buy a copy of Outreach. Practice kindness in public – open a door for someone, or offer a seat on the subway. Reconnect with friends and family – people are more important than things, and should be treasured. Take a moment to reflect on those no longer with us – if it means shedding a tear, so be it- they deserve it. If you don’t accomplish everything you set out to do, don’t beat yourself up – we’re only human.

Happy Holidays.

May peace be with you – and here’s to better times ahead.

How to have a merry family Christmas after a brain injury


Today as I write this I want to scream, “Yes! You can have a merry Christmas after a family member’s brain injury!” I want to shout it out from the mountain tops and let everyone know.

But today, after all, is a good day for me.

Barb's son Chris home for the Holidays after his brain injury
Barb’s son Chris home for the holidays four months after his brain injury

Now ask me on one of my many not so good days, and it might only be a whisper of a yes, but it would still be a yes!

This will be our fourth Christmas after my son, Chris’, brain injury, and this year we are stepping away from our holiday traditions and going on vacation as a family.

I would like to say we all wanted to ‘skip’ Christmas and go away this year, but it was my idea. After all, I am the one who does all the preparation for it and I did not want to spend my limited time, energy and money on gifts and decorations.

I wanted more time to rest and enjoy my family. We will still participate in the real meaning of Christmas while we’re away, but we are saying goodbye to the materialistic, unnecessary work and clutter that comes with the holidays. So basically, this is just another idea I had to avoid caregiver burnout!   

Christmas year two and three post brain injury were very different. For one, we stayed at home, and we were not ready to host a dinner like we normally do. Lucky, our families took us  in.

One of the big ways my son’s brain injury has affected the holidays is that it takes attention away from our daughters. The focus is always on the person with the brain injury, holidays or not. My son is now over the age for getting gifts in my family, but he still gets them, and the siblings take note. I hope noticing this has developed empathy in them and and not jealousy, envy or, worse, anger.

The hospital bed in the living room
The hospital bed in the living room at Christmas

Of course my son’s brain injury slows the family down. It takes longer to do anything, and sometimes once you get there, Chris wants to leave because the noise and chaos are too much.

The extreme fatigue from the brain injury no longer lets us swing by more than one event in a day. And preparation is mandatory, because with the brain injury, there is no room for flexibility.

My son hates change and gets frustrated with anything different from what he’s been told about in advance. We never surprise him with last minute changes and plan nothing else on a day of a big event. Easy and simple, right?

suitcases packed for a vacation

But writing this really reminds me of our first Christmas together post brain injury. Let me give you a little background of where we were. Our son had been catastrophically injured in a car accident on Aug 20, 2011. It was a miracle that he survived, and then was able to walk with a walker at seven weeks.

At about three and a half months, he was able to start eating on his own, and get off the feeding tube. At four months he was coming home. It was planned for Dec 21, 2011. According to my son Chris, that was his best Christmas present ever – to come home to his family.

Now I, on the other hand, was doing everything I could to keep him in over the holidays. Why might you ask?

Well first, it meant I was now responsible for him. I did not feel ready to take this on at all. Was I a nurse, a doctor or a feeding expert? No! I was none of the above, but I was in charge of him. Everything shuts down over the holidays, there’s minimal staff at support agencies and doctors’ offices are closed. I was terrified to become my son’s full time nurse, taxi driver, rehab worker, you-name-it worker.

Did I mention I was scared? I did not know how to care for a brain injury. What if something happened? I was not even thinking of Christmas, only of my fear and lack of ability.

What could we do but grin and bear it? We had to rush to get prescriptions ordered now that we were in charge and before the doctor’s office shut down for the holidays. We rushed to get a tree and decorate it, and find room for it, as the living room now housed his hospital bed and the dinning room table was his rehab/nursing station.

plane flying into the sunset

I can assure you there was not a turkey served in our house that year, and there were no parties or socials. Luckily, our extended family prepared a holiday dinner.

That Christmas was all about quiet visits from close friends at Chris’ bedside, and us. It was the best Christmas I could have imagined. After all, we had our son home.

Turns out Chris was right, and I was wrong. I got caught up in the all the work and fear. I forgot what the real message of Christmas means to me – God’s love sent through a small helpless baby named Jesus. Helpless and weak, that was our son too. And God showed us His compassion through Jesus for us.

Compassion and love for our son, that was all we had that year, especially. Wow, we had our son home for Christmas. There is no better gift. I thank and praise God everyday.

So yes, there is a Merry Christmas after a brain injury.

Barb Kustec is the mother of three – Christopher, age 23; Cassandra, age 15 and Samantha, age 12. She is married to her husband, Danny. This is her third article for Brain Injury Blog TORONTO.

How to reduce holiday stress and depression post-ABI


Now that we’re well into December, the holiday season has officially arrived and its many celebrations have begun. While retailers have been entrancing us with benchmark images of the perfect Hallmark Christmas for years, the advancement of technology and social media apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, filled with photos of happy people celebrating, can leave us feeling like we are ‘failing’ at Christmas and all the holiday cheer.

For those who are dealing with PTSD, ABI and/or difficult times – this feeling of not doing or being enough during the the holidays can lead to a cocktail of increased anxiety, stress, and depression with a side appetizer of isolation.


Common triggers to holiday stress and depression are:


Even in healthy families, holiday gatherings can stir up a whirlwind of emotions, especially if you have gone through significant changes in your life. Perhaps you have lost touch with friends and family and are facing the holidays alone. While society and media make the holidays about family – know that you can create your own (non-blood) family and that you can be your own friend.


It can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the added expenses of gifts, travel, entertainment, and hosting. Make a budget – and stick to it.

Physical and emotional demands

Attending social functions, shopping, hosting guests, preparing meals and cleaning can all start to take huge bites out of your energy reserve. Learn that it’s ok to decline invitations and say NO to things that may cause you stress, anxiety or just because you don’t want to do.

woman in santa claus hat meditating

Is the thought of attending family gatherings, exchanging gifts, holiday travel, hosting, or attending a social function taking the sparkle out of your holiday spirit?

This year keep your sparkle and add some glitter too!  Instead of letting your emotions and reactions get the best of you, during this time of joy and celebration, you may find it helpful to identify your holiday triggers and plan some coping strategies in advance. Try these tips to help you manage the demands of the holidays:


Are your expectations of how the holidays should be “realistic” or are you trying to create the social media/retailer version? It’s important to remember there is no ‘perfect’ way to celebrate and things don’t have to remain as they were last year. Families and friendships change and grow, circumstances change and traditions can change too. Be open to creating new traditions that reflect your circumstances and who you are today.

Stick to Your Budget

Encourage family to draw names instead of buying individual gifts, set a budget for gifts with friends, plan a day trip close to home, give the gift of time or skill or host a pot luck meal instead of doing it all on your own. Remember there are many ways to gift and have fun during the holidays which do not cost a penny.

Self Care

Letting go of proper eating, lack of sleep and being over committed can only add to your increased stress during the holidays. Make sure you are staying hydrated, eating healthy, getting sufficient sleep, are not over committing yourself and are being compassionate with yourself. Be sure to add walking or another activity such as yoga/stretching to keep your body moving and meditate for 10 minutes twice a day to give your mind an opportunity to rest and rejuvenate.

woman in Santa Claus hat looked stressed out

Connect with Others

If you are alone during the holidays or feeling isolated, reach out to organizations in the community and volunteer. Giving of your time is something that will not only help others; it will get you out among people and perhaps making new friendships.

Ask for Help

Sometimes no matter how much you try to prepare, feelings of sadness and anxiety can creep in, manifesting into a lack of energy for simple everyday tasks (i.e. eating, showering, dressing etc.) or insomnia, irritability and lack of interest in social interaction. Be sure to reach out to your family doctor or phycologist if you are feeling overwhelmed.

With a little planning and preparation, you may find that the Christmas and holiday season isn’t so bad, after all!


Celia MCelia is an ABI survivor who is dedicated to helping others move forward in their journey and live the life they dream of. She is the founder of the internationally read blog High Heeled Life – inspiration for living a luxurious and balanced life; featured author in Soulful Relationships part of the best-selling series Adventures in Manifesting; a Peer Mentor with BIST; a regular speaker for Canadian Blood Services – Speakers Bureau; certified Life Coach, certified Law of Attraction Practitioner and currently working on her Mind Calm Meditation certification. Learn more about Celia and be inspired: visit or


Mark Koning’s key to holiday happiness: the open house


So one of the things that I tend to shy away from most is the social scene – large crowds and too many people.

Mark Koning takes a selfie by his Christmas tree

I realize that in certain aspects of this life large crowds are unavoidable, such as being on a subway or bus. I can handle crowds, if I have to – I’m not agoraphobic – though interacting with oversized groups does get to me. When multiple bodies fill a room I tend to quiet down and try to blend into the background. I find it hard to keep up with conversations, and I tire out. I want to get away and be alone. It is all too my much for my injured brain to handle.

Or is it?

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t gone and crawled under a rock. I don’t turn tail every time I get a whiff of a big crowd. I like spending time with my friends, having small (SMALL) get-togethers and hanging out. But I also know that I am sometimes missing out.

Over time, I have learned to face the challenge of those aforementioned awkward moments by taking control. Which comes in handy during this festive time of year when gatherings become a regular thing, be they office parties, community parties, open houses etc. There is music and food and laughter, but there is also congestion, exhaustion, a little confusion and moments of uncertainty. When I take control everything changes, which is good because I like this time of year, I like the decorations and the holiday spirit.

So I do one of the things I do best, I organize. Along with my family, I plan a Christmas open house. I plan who to invite, I create the invitation, make lists, shop, clean and help prepare. When the guests arrive I play host, I welcome people at the door, I tend to coats and boots and I serve food or drinks. I may stop and chat with someone at some point, but then I move on to check on others. I have a purpose and a goal.

At the end of the night, when the party is over, I am still tired, but it’s a different kind of tired. There is no confusion or uncertainty, no feelings of having been overwhelmed. There are no moments of misdirection in my head. And the best part is I got to share in the Christmas joy with others. I survived the crowd with few problems. I get to not ‘miss out’ and instead feel like I am taking part of what life is meant to be – a celebration with others –  fun, joyous and festive!

Mark’s passion to lend a helping hand, offer advice and give back, has developed into a moral and social responsibility with the goal of sharing, inspiring and growing, for others as well as himself. His experience as a Survivor, Caregiver, Mentor and Writer, has led to his credibility as an ABI Advocate and author of his life’s story, Challenging Barriers & Walking the Path. Follow him on Twitter @Mark_Koning or go to

How I handle the holidays as an ABI survivor


Isn’t that how the song goes? “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” But for some I think you could easily substitute wonderful with stressful or depressing.

pile of presents
photo credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL) via photopin cc

The days surrounding Christmas can be both joyful and stressful for many individuals who are out there listening to festive songs while fighting through the crowds at the mall. But when you factor in a brain injury things can become much more intense. I speak from experience as an ABI survivor when I say that the financial pressures we face, the family situations that come up, the social functions we’re expected to attend, and just the pace of the season can be a bit much.

I consider myself blessed because I have a pretty good family foundation and support system which keeps me staying positive, and doesn’t expect a lot from me. I help my mom with all of the decorations around the house. I write both as a therapy tool and to share with others. I have a social worker I can to talk to, and I’ve put in a lot of effort into trying to remain a positive person.

All of these things help me stay connected to others. I’ve learned the effort it takes to maintain these connections is easier than living with the challenges of being isolated. And I use the word effort because that is what it is, regardless of how much I do, it is an effort. It is an effort when others cannot understand what I live with. But for me, I really don’t see (or even understand) the alternative.

The opposite of effort is “hesitation, idleness, inactivity, laziness, or passivity” and then there is just plain old giving up, and none of these things are me.

The Christmas season can be a hard one to get through, no doubt, but don’t be afraid to speak up, look those difficulties in the face and push back. Be active, ask for some help. You never know what you may find. No one should be made to feel that they are alone.

Try to remember the real meaning, the value, of Christmas. A brain injury survivor may have to work a little harder for that smile to emerge on his or her lips, (or perhaps just in the heart is good enough) but it can go a long way. Things can get hard at times, but I keep reminding myself that this brain injury of mine does not dictate my happiness.