TBI Issue #5 – Trouble understanding

What’s going on out there? What’s going on in here?

So, I had a pretty good Thanksgiving. It was good to be with everyone, but I also burned through my money on gas and incidentals. It was cheaper than flying, but it’s still expensive to drive all that way.

Anyway, now I’m back and I get to resume my regular routine. I can get back to my daily work and start eating the foods I prefer to eat, at the times I prefer to eat them. I can get back to my usual “grind” which isn’t a grind at all – it’s quite pleasant, actually. I have refined it and honed it, to where I am pretty productive everyday, but at the same time, I also have room to move and breathe and make plans and preparations for what’s next in my life.

I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the issues I have understanding others. I have especially been thinking about the time, back around 1988, when I was in a car accident, got hit on the driver’s side of the car, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me. It was especially difficult with people who had non-American accents – when they were talking to me, it sounded like they kept “clipping out” — like an old movie that has a choppy frame rate. In and out, in and out, getting only small pieces of what they were saying.

It was a big problem especially because they were my boss, and I could not understand what they were saying at all. So, I quit. It was a temp job, anyway, but to quit work… that’s something that was very unlike me.

That’s one kind of trouble understanding – just not being able to hear.

The other kind of trouble understanding (as I think about it) is needing enough time to catch up with what someone is saying to you. That’s what I’ve got going on now.

I often have to ask people to repeat what they said, because I need a minute to switch gears and catch up with them. I’m not stupid. My brain just processes information a bit differently, and that takes a little more time. I’ve tried to speed things up, but it doesn’t always work. It’s especially bad, if I’m in an “open environment” at work, where there are so many, many distractions. That is truly maddening with all the visual and auditory stimuli crowding me, and it makes it really hard for me to understand what people say to me right away. I usually have to ask people to repeat themselves.

I used to never do this. And it was a huge problem for me. In fact, not being able to hear — and never asking others to repeat what they said — had me blocked into a dark corner, where I was pretty much guessing all the time at what people were saying to me and what we were talking about. I have to admit, I’ve gone back to a bit of that — faking my way through. But this time, I’m aware of how spotty my working memory is, and I’m aware of what a hard time I have understanding people the first time they say something to me, so I really work at making up for the lapses. I take steps to actually “get” what others are saying to me.

There are several factors that come into play with me:

  1. Not being able to make out sounds, the first time I hear them.  I actually can’t hear the sounds if I’m not listening closely — it sounds like a garbled jumble of noise, and I have to really attend closely to get what others are saying.
  2. Being subject to tremendous distraction in the environment I’m in. Especially at work, where everything is open and countless sights and sounds are competing for attention. Having visual distractions actually makes hearing harder, because it distracts me from what I’m listening to. It’s really hellish, and as much as I’d like to make the best of my current situation, there is no way. No way in hell. In the spring, I have got to go, if they don’t reconfigure the environment.
  3. Slower processing speed, thanks to multiple concussions/TBIs. It’s bad enough when you can’t make out sounds, and when you have to deal with heightened distractability. But when your processing speed is slower than you’d like… triple-whammy. Everything slows down – it’s just crazy. And it’s exhausting, because I have to work so hard at processing everything. I sometimes feel like people avoid dealing with me, too, because I have to slow them down and our conversations can be so plodding. What fun is that? Not much for them, and certainly not for me.

Small wonder I’ve gone back to faking my way through a lot of conversations. It’s just so laborious at times, and I feel like such an idiot, not being able to “get” things right away. I can fake it through many situations, but eventually people tend to figure out that I’m fudging my way through, and then things start to come down around me.

Small wonder, I do so well with computers and prefer them and their company to real-live people who have no knowledge or compassion about my situation. A computer won’t yell at me and force me to “keep up”. It just says “yes” or “no” and always gives me another chance.

Others try to reassure me that I’m doing fine, that I am not impaired but they cannot see or feel how slow it is for me, and how hard I have to work at things. I try to explain to my neuropsych, but they cannot imagine what it’s like because we always meet under ideal conditions — in a quiet office without any distractions or pressure, and no terrible consequences for screwing up. I would venture to say that I am a very different person in my NP appointments, than I am in the outside world. I just wish I could communicate that to them.

Well, anyway, my work day is about to begin. I am working from home this morning — have a few conference calls I need to make, which requires a lot of listening and understanding. The thing that works in my favor is that I’m talking to folks outside the USA, and we ALL have trouble being understood. In a way, my difficulties make me easier to work with, in that respect, and I can offer my colleagues a lot of leeway they don’t get with my other American colleagues, because most people don’t understand what it’s like to have trouble understanding what others are saying to you.

But I understand. Very well, in fact.

So, now it’s time to go and put that knowledge to use.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

4 thoughts on “TBI Issue #5 – Trouble understanding”

  1. the first time I fell was 1971 -120 feet- and I could understand most of what I heard, but I couldn’t reply correctly. I’d try to say “Hi!” and say something like “ketchup” or whatever my brain found handy to use. Then, for years, I did fairly well with the exception of physical limitations. Only messed up enough for folks to notice when I was tired or ill. This summer I fell on the right temporal area. Now I have glitches – I’ll be going along fine, then suddenly dump all my info and be lost. After 34 years of teaching, they canned me. I have to try to survive on the $1,000 a month I get in disability retirement (Bush took SS away from Texas teachers when he was governor). I can’t afford my meds. I find I’ve put a used knife back in the knife drawer or my keys in the refrigerator. Very frustrating. I still have a persistent headache as well that doesn’t stop. I also fall asleep at odd times. I haven’t driven since the accident, July 11th. Luckily there’s a dollar store one block away. I sure wish they carried fresh produce! I don’t trust myself to do the right thing. A friend’s son stopped by with his 1 year old boy. Next thing I knew, he was gone and I had this child for the next 4 hours. I was so terrified I would mess up with him! I couldn’t understand how I was left alone with him. When my friend’s son returned, I told him not to do that again. I love kids, but I’m not safe! He said he had called and set it up with me a couple days ago. I can’t remember any phone call or agreement. In new normal mode, I would never have agreed! I can’t bend over and use a walker to go places. Luckily the little boy is a sweetie and really got a kick out of riding around in my walker! I have 3 master’s degrees, but I can’t remember names, dates, locations, etc. reliably. I’ve gone to the store in my slippers. I’m known for good advice and long debates. People often look at me like I just arrived from Mars in the middle of either. Don’t know what came out, but it obviously was provided courtesy of “swiss cheese brain”. I have several boxes to pack and mail to my kiddos that live 1500 miles away. I’ve had the contents for a while. I just keep blocking when it comes to sorting, wrapping and mailing. I don’t know why. Task aversion is one of my side effects. Other tasks I used to avoid, I’m gladly doing over and over. I can’t watch a whole movie with anything like catching the whole thing. Have to watch them several times to get the whole story. I owe nearly $200,000 in medical bills. I gave them everything I had, sold everything I could, now I just let them know there’s no way to pay. It’s hard after a lifetime of reliability. I’ve been measuring progress by how well I do on MSN games online. I’m no where near my old levels, but there is mostly consistent progress. When I am messing up a lot, I know it’s not a good day to handle sharp objects. I did cook the Thanksgiving feast this year as usual. I did start a couple days earlier than normal. Everything came out fine except I need to recook the apple pie. The apples are not very soft, but it tastes good. Nineteen people pigged out and took home leftovers with praises. I hope they were genuine! Ah well, I’m still above the ground and that’s a good thing! I have trouble understanding why I’m even alive some days. I can’t let my kids know how bad it is or take on my responsibilities, but I’m terrified I’ll get to the point where I am not the one making that decision. They have wonderful families and don’t kneed a lemon adult gumming up the works. TBI is weird stuff. Kind of shuffles all the file drawers in the brain. I truly hope I’ll be able to trust my brain again soon. It does make me laugh sometimes (like finding the dishsoap in my underwear drawer)

    Sincerely, Barbara Mulholland


  2. Wow, sounds like you have your hands full. I wish it could be easier for you. It’s good you’re doing the brain exercises, and you can see progress. It can be incredibly frustrating to lose what you once had – and not have others realize the loss.

    But this is a biggie. . . .

    Stay strong. Keep going. Don’t give up, and make sure you take good care.


  3. I have found it most helpful, when entering into a discussion with someone who doesn’t know I’ve at a TBI…and starts going way to fast….Just to say, “excuse me for interupting, but I’m a brain injury survivor and I’m not able to grasp all that you are saying. Can I ask you to please go back and speak a little more slowly and look at me as you speak. I sure makes it a lot easier for my to understand and keep up. Thanks”. I’ve not had a single person look at me like I’m stupid. Even executives where I worked (I’m retired now) would say yup, lets go back to the start. I’m sure glad you’re back to work. And we would have a good discussion.

    Barbara, I’ve gotten to where in any discussion I’m asked for something…I ask the other person, would you please e-mail that to me, or do you have a piece of paper you can write that down for me. I ask them to please date if for me and put their name at the top. I tell them, this is one of my compensatory strategies for being successful post TBI. It works very well, I don’t get taken advantage of now, because I have their request in writing or e-mail. Thus no one can say “I asked you a week ago”…no, if I dont’ have it in writing…then you didn’t. I’m not the best at keeping all the notes, so as soon as I get home, I empty my pockets of stuff, take any notes and scan them into my computer. Then I write them on my wall calendar and put them in my weekly To Do list.

    Very helpful, but not perfect.

    Keep on keepin’ on!!!


  4. Great tips! For those who can tell others about their brain injury, that’s a great strategy. I’m in a situation where I can’t tell folks about my brain injury issues, because it would seriously threaten my position at work and my prospects. So, I tell folks to send me an email anyway, because I am usually really busy, and they need to “get in line” with all the others.

    For those close to me who know about my TBIs, they actually tend to be nervous about taking it into consideration, so it’s one of those things that “goes without saying” – but they still factor it in.

    I have done worse and worse about writing things down and organizing them, in part because there is just so much, and it is constantly changing, because I get so tired and overwhelmed, and also because I have been so un-motivated at work for the past year.

    I’ve also done worse and worse about stopping people to ask for clarification – just a bad habit – also due to a lot of fatigue, and feeling like I’m dense, when I need to stop them and ask for clarification. When I’m not feeling dense and stupid, it’s easier for me to do it, but that doesn’t always happen.

    Like you said, keep on keepin’ on!!!


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