Looking back on my life and comparing notes with others, I realize more and more how much my experience has been impacted by the TBI’s I experienced. I was a pretty wild child — hard to handle and harder to discipline. I tried to be a good kid, for the most part, but I got turned around a lot, and it didn’t work in my favor.
I had real difficulties with keeping facts straight — I thought I had things right, but I was turned around and/or missing vital pieces of information. And in the process, I often looked like I was making things up to get attention or just plain lying.
Head injuries sometimes result in a phenomenon called Confabulation — the formation of false memories, perceptions, or beliefs about the self or the environment as a result of neurological or psychological dysfunction. When it is a matter of memory, confabulation is the confusion of imagination with memory, or the confused application of true memories.
I couldn’t tell jokes to save my life. I would usually forget the punchline, or I’d get the joke all turned around. I would get mixed up in the middle of telling long stories, but I wouldn’t realize it, and my brain would fill in the blanks, itself, so that each time I told the story it was a little different — but I didn’t realize it. In some cases, I actually believed that the inaccurate details I was providing were very true.
I have very clear memories of my parents questioning me over and over about the details of a story I just told them, but I would get confused, the more they questioned me, and they would end up — gently or brusquely — telling me that I wasn’t supposed to fib or lie. I wasn’t intentionally lying. In fact, I had no awareness that the tale I was telling was anything other than the truth. But I came across as an intentional “fabulist” instead of a confabulating kid.
I also had a perception of myself as being really good at sports, when I was little. But I was actually very uncoordinated and klutzy, and I was often picked last — or almost last — at schoolyard games. For some reason, this didn’t sink in, and I was able to convince myself that I was very, very good at the sports my other siblings found easy to play. I wanted so much to be good at sports, to be part of things. Both my parents were athletic and active, and I wanted to be, too. All the other kids could kick the ball in kickball… why couldn’t I make contact? It didn’t make sense to me. As far as I was concerned, I was perfectly athletic and able to perform.
Now, on the up-side of this “athletic confabulation”, this skewed perception of my physical skills, my oblivion to how uncoordinated and klutzy I was made it possible for me to keep at all the practicing, until I acquired some skill. One thing I will say for my parents is that they never discouraged me from playing sports, even when I looked like a dork and made a fool of myself. They just told me to get back in there and keep trying. Eventually, I would get it. And when I moved on to high school and started running cross country, I was the team captain two years in a row and led my team to the districts and state championship competitions. We didn’t win states, and we didn’t win districts, but we placed high enough to be serious contenders. And this at a time when running was not all the rage, and we were just a rag-tag bunch of kids in shorts and sneakers out on the open road…
When I was little, I also got roughed up a bit by kids who were bigger (and meaner) than me, but I told myself they had done it by accident. I wasn’t very good at deciphering what other people were thinking/saying about me — I was a lot slower in many ways than I admitted. But looking back now, I realize that a whole lot of social information went right over my head because I had such a skewed view of myself — I didn’t realize that I wasn’t following, so I never stopped to ask people what they meant when they were talking to me. If I hadn’t been head-injured, I might have been considered delusional. But I’d fallen and gotten hit in the head, and that definitely had an impact.
It had an impact on my perception of myself. It had an impact on my ability to track information and keep it straight in my head. It had an impact on my socialization, as I was often seen by my peers as a bragger or an exaggerator and ostracized over the years… simply because my brain was giving me false information.
I remember one time, in particular, when I was in fifth grade. My family had recently moved from a small city to the country, and I was acclimating to a rural environment from an urban one. I was desperately homesick for “the city” and I was angry a lot with kids around me for not having the same mannerisms as I. One day in class, I was telling everyone about my favorite thing to do — drive across a bridge that spanned a wide river. My dad had told me that it was very long — I think he said it was something like a mile wide? But my brain translated “very long” to “seven miles long” and I was convinced that the river was seven miles across and the bridge was too.
When I told the class that, my teacher tried to correct me, but I refused to be corrected. My brain told me the river is very wide — very wide means seven miles across, and that’s how it is. Nothing that anyone said could convince me otherwise. Not logic. Not reasoning. Not authority. I was convinced that I was right, and there were no two ways about it. The rest of the class thought this was hilarious, and didn’t hesitate to laugh at me. I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong — only that everyone was mocking me, and once again, I was an outsider without a clue.
Looking back, I think that this confabulation business made my childhood a lot more difficult for me than I ever realized. My whole family is full of story-tellers, and they love to share their experiences. I’m the same way. I love to tell a good story, and I have lots of unusual experiences under my belt. I always have.
But time after time, when I would tell stories about my day in school or something that happened to me, I would get turned around, miss details, turn facts around, get mixed up, and generally make a mess of things. On good days, people realized I was just confused. On bad days, they clearly thought I was lying. And I could happily go the rest of my life without my parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, (and nieces and nephews) looking at me like I’m making stuff up “again”.
Yeah, it was kind of rough, living with that undetected weakness. And being treated like I had done something wrong (intentionally) when I honestly didn’t realize that something was wrong, has probably stymied me more than just about anything in my life. In fact, one of the dominant themes in my life has been feeling like I was being punished for no reason that I could understand — and being disciplined for “lying” and having others laugh at me, roll their eyes at me, and generally treat me like I was a pathological fabulist who couldn’t be trusted with the truth was a regular part of my childhood experience. I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted to tell a good story. I wanted so badly to do the right thing and get it right, just once… But I failed. Time after time, my broken brain failed me.
And the times when I did get it right, well, that didn’t really count, because that’s what I was supposed to do. What did I want — a medal for just doing things the same way everyone else could?
Now, I’m not looking for pity or sympathy — please just understand what that experience was like. Especially if you know a kid who has had a head injury … or who just looks like a pathological liar/fabulist, but doesn’t appear aware that they’re doing anything wrong. Chances are, they are not trying to lie. They might be, but then again, they might just be confabulating. Like I was.
Again, they might have no clue that they’re doing anything wrong. They may just need some extra help understanding that they’re turned around and they need extra help figuring out the way things really are… the way things should really be said/told/expressed. If they’ve had a head injury of some kind, it could be that their broken brain is hiding from them the fact things are amiss… and they can’t figure out why everyone is always laughing at them.
Or what they’ve done wrong. Again.