If you are a friend or family member or a significant other of someone who has sustained a head injury, you definitely have a unique set of challenges. Head injury is a terribly intrusive and disruptive condition to deal with — it can be extremely difficult for the survivor to deal with, and it can be utterly maddening for the people around the TBI survivor.
They got hit on the head, sure, but it wasn’t a bad injury, from what the doctor said. They weren’t even admitted to the hospital! They were foggy and groggy for a little while, but that passed. As far as anyone can tell, they should be back to normal, no problem. But all of a sudden, the person you once knew and loved — who may seem perfectly fine on the outside — is changed. Their temper is shorter. They forget things. They make stupid decisions and don’t even seem to understand how dense they’re being.
Subtle little differences can sneak in from out of the blue, and you sometimes can’t quite put your finger on it. They seem… different. You know they’re the same person they always were. But they’re not quite themself. And no matter how long you wait, no matter how patient you are, no matter how much you try to reason with them or walk them through things, they don’t seem to be getting any better.
Or, you can definitely see how they are different. They fly off the handle over nothing. They freak out over stupid things. They sleep all the time. Or they can’t seem to get to sleep or stay asleep more than 5 hours or so. They complain of constant headache. They complain of that blasted ringing in their ears. They suddenly grow aggressive, even violent, and they just “go off” for no good reason. They can’t seem to keep their act together and they keep getting in trouble with authorities – teachers, bosses, the police. Nothing anyone says seems to make a difference, and they don’t seem to learn from any of their mistakes.
For a loved one of a TBI survivor, standing by and watching someone seemingly self-destruct… or at least struggle terribly with things that used to be easy for them… must be terribly frustrating. And dealing with someone who used to be so sweet and loving, who’s now a pure terror when they’re tired or stressed, can be quite frightening. I, myself, have frightened lots of people I loved over the course of my life, due to my quick temper and a sometimes violent streak. I’ve never struck anyone I loved or lived with, but I have thrown and broken things and given people good reason to feel very afraid.
As a TBI survivor myself, I really feel strongly about what an important role loved ones can play in helping a head injury survivor not only recover from their physical injury, but rehabilitate behaviorally. True, the inside of our heads — our fragile, sensitive brain — has changed permanently, and some abilities we may never get back. Some of our cognitive challenges just can’t be helped. But when it comes to our behavioral issues, something can be done. I’m convinced of it. I’ve managed to overcome some really serious behavioral difficulties, and because of my relative success in this area, I’m able to find and hold down regular work. In this economy, you can’t put a pricetag on that capability. And most importantly, I haven’t done it alone.
Perhaps the number one TBI issue I have, is my temper. The inner storms that come up for no good reason really tear the crap out of me, at times. For the most part, I can keep my act together. 7 out of 10 times, nobody knows what a hard time I’m having dealing with something as simple and basic as dropping something or flubbing up. But it’s the 3 out of 10 times that get me in trouble. And it’s not good.
In my case, I am blessed to live with someone who is pretty demanding. They are that way by nature — they have very high standards, and they expect people to live up to them. I have been constantly pushed and prodded over the years to improve myself as best I can, to not misbehave, to not be lazy, to not be lackadaisical, to not just give up. They have “ridden me” very hard, over the years, sometimes nagging and nagging and nagging until I thought my head was going to explode. But at the end of the day, when I did what I promised I was going to do, or I finished a job I’d started, or I’d done what I was supposed to do, or even when I’d tried and failed, the fact that they’d stayed on me turned out to be more good than bad.
Their encouragement has sometimes been gentle, sometimes strident, sometimes impatient, sometimes overly demanding. But even when they’ve been too hard on me and have given me all kind crap about things I couldn’t control – like my difficulties with remembering things, or hearing them when they were talking to me, or being slower on the uptake than they expecte me to be.
One of the things that’s made our life together more challenging over the years is that we didn’t factor in TBI in our interactions and my shortcomings. But when they started to learn more about TBI, they started to change the way they interacted with me, and they have been far more helpful than ever.
Once upon a time, they pushed and pushed and cajoled and nagged and cursed and hounded… with different levels of success. Now, they understand that patience and encouragement can go a long way. But they — and I — also know that sometimes I do need to be yelled at, in order to get my attention. Sometimes, I’m being so slow and dense, I can’t “get” what’s going on, unless it’s expressed at the top of someone’s lungs.
I don’t take the yelling personally, when situations are tight. I actually need to be yelled at. Or I’ll miss an important cue, I’ll run over that pothole, or I’ll do something that can get me hurt. The important distinction for me is that the yelling happens before an event, not afterwards, when it’s too late to do anything about it. If someone is yelling at me, because I am being dangerously slow and they’re trying to protect me, well then, please, by all means, yell at me.
For me, it’s important that people not handle me with kid gloves. My brain has been rattled a number of times over the course of my life, and in some ways, I’m really, really dense. I can’t be coddled and accommodated and treated like some victim by the people in my life. And I also can’t be given carte blanche to just do and say whatever I damn well please, ’cause I’ve had bunch of brain injuries. It doesn’t help the people I love, to let me run roughshod over all of them. And it makes me feel terrible, when they let me do that.
Like it or not, there are sides of me that need to be disciplined, that need to be kept in check. And they need to be called what they are — unacceptable — by the people who are affected by them. Including myself. There are certain sides of me that need to be called out and stopped, before they do damage. My temper is hot and precipitous and often flares up with out my realizing how or why or that it’s in the process of happening. And when I’m going off over something that doesn’t warrant my level of rage, I need to be told to be quiet. I need to be told to calm down. I need to be told that my outburst is not appropriate, and I need to step away and calm myself down before I can be around other people. I need to be called on my crap, and I need the people around me to refuse to accommodate bad behavior.
There really is no excuse for bad behavior. There are plenty of reasons for it and my TBIs have not helped, but there’s no excuse for letting myself get out of hand and stay that way. Left unchecked and unstopped, temper tantrums, yelling fits, being snappy and course and crass and obnoxious is disruptive to everyone, hurtful to others, and it’s embarrassing to me. After all, I have to live with me, too. It’s not just about my loved ones. It’s about me having to look myself in the eye every morning when I get up. It’s about me being able to hold my head up, having self-confidence that comes from knowing I can manage my behavior, and having the pride of knowing I’m in charge of my own fate, even if my brain doesn’t always cooperate.
But I need help managing. I need help from my partner, who constantly amazes me with their patience and their intelligence and their willingness to stick with me — as well as their strength in keeping me from running roughshod over them. I need help not only with encouragement, but also being pushed to see what all I’m capable of, to see how far I can go in life, and to keep tabs on my inner situation as I go. And my partner has given me that regularly over the yeras.
Most of all, they’ve helped me by keeping me honest, by refusing to tolerate my bad behavior, my laziness, my eagerness to just give up. They have “kept on me” about so many, many things that I wanted to just let drop. They have prodded me to do right, when I wanted to just quit or do wrong. And they have flatly refused to put up with my crap, threatening many times to leave my ass if I didn’t get my act together and stop being such an a**hole. They have told me in no uncertain terms that the tone I was taking was verbally abusive, or that I was frightening them, or I was getting out of line with my snarky comments. They have yelled at me, cussed me out, made me sleep in the guest room, refused to cook me dinner, given me the silent treatment, taken away my credit cards, and nagged-nagged-nagged me till I did what I was supposed to do, anyway. And I have never once doubted that they loved me, and they were doing all of that not because they were mean-spirited or wanted to hurt me, but because we both have standards to live up to, and they weren’t going to let me off the hook that easily.
Now, sure, there have been plenty of times when I’ve railed against their behavior. I’ve moaned and bitched and fussed over their demanding streak, and how hard on me they could be. I’ve wept bitterly and angrily over things they’ve said and done, and I’ve yelled back plenty of times. But in all honesty, I have to credit them and their unwillingness to tolerate my TBI-induced stupidity, aggression, and stinkin’ thinkin’ for much of my success.
And I also have to credit myself. Because frankly, I wouldn’t be with this person — and I wouldn’t have stuck with them for 18 years — if I didn’t have standards of my own. If I didn’t agree with them about the range of acceptable behavior, and what is and is not allowed in our marriage, I wouldn’t be able to tolerate their level of demanding-ness. Rather than finding their standards annoying and aggravating, I find them good and positive reminders of things I already know, but easily lose track of.
Of all the things that make successful TBI recovery possible for me, standards of behavior — and the enforcement of those standards — are some of the most important. Understanding that some kinds of behavior are good and allowed, while others are not, is key. Having a code to live by. Having a set of internal guidelines. Agreeing upon rules about what is and is not okay. And submitting to the discipline of being policed — both from within and without — is key.
And my partner has played a huge role in all of this. If they had been inclined to hold back and not engage with me… to be the silent suffering type who just let me go off as much as I liked, and didn’t challenge me… to put up with my crap and then go talk to friends about how hard I was to live with… to not face me down and make me behave myself — or else… to do like so many people I know, who don’t understand what’s going wrong and don’t want to make waves and piss other people off, so they do nothing besides take the brunt of their loved-ones’ anger/rage/temper/sharp tongue… If my partner had been like that, I would not be as well-off as I am today.
Now, make no mistake — my life is no bed of roses. I’m really struggling, these days, with job stuff, learning difficulties, job performance issues, and extreme fatigue. I’m almost beside myself with frustration and agitation, and I am having a hell of a time sleeping. But I have no doubt that all these things would be catastrophic for me and my career and my living situation, if I didn’t abide by very strict guidelines about what is and is not acceptable, what is and is not okay to do/say/outwardly express. If I just cut myself slack, or if I lived with someone who suffered silently while I went off on tears all the time, I probably wouldn’t be here.
I’d be in jail.
Or on the streets.
And I would be alone.
I’m not kidding, and I’m not being facetious. I don’t say any of this lightly.
So, it may sound a bit overly controlling to some, and it might sound like borderline BDSM, but discipline is one of the biggest keys to my success. I’m not advocating loved ones of TBI survivors being strident harpies who give no quarter and drive their brain-injured loved ones to the brink of madness with an unending string of impossible demands. But there is something to be said for demanding that people do/be/talk/relate better than they are at the moment — and better than they think they can.
Ultimately, I think that we are all capable of far more than we think we are. And the first step towards being/doing/living better, is refusing to be/do/live worse than you have to.