TBI can certainly make life interesting… in the sense of that old Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times”. One of the “interesting” things about TBI, is how it can screw with your sensory perceptions, as well as you interpretation of those sensations.
Anybody with TBI can probably tell you how life takes on an unreal quality when you’re hurt. Things slow down. Or speed up. Things that never bothered you before suddenly become unbearable. Things that you used to not care about, suddenly take on all the importance in the world.
And life can seem pretty unreal.
Our lives are turned upside-down in a number of ways.
- We may not sense our environment the way we used to. First off, our attention can get wonky — TBI often makes you more distractable, which means you’re not paying consistent attention to the world around you. And your short-term working memory (the short-range stuff that makes it possible for you to talk to people and remember what they said earlier in the discussion, or that lets you start a task and complete it) can be messed up, too.That means you don’t pick up all the clues you could, or you drop the ones you get — and never know it. I had a hell of a time with holding conversations for many, many years, because I didn’t realize I was losing track of what people were saying — and I never took corrective action until after I found out. (I’m much better, now, by the way.) Distractability can also affect your perception of the world around you, keeping you from sensing. It’s not uncommon for me to walk into furniture and never see important details and also not hear what I should, thanks to distractability. So, the world around us is literally changed at the very first point we contact it.
- The information that does get through to us can get distorted along the way. Within the body, between the synapses, there’s this thing called the “synaptic cleft” — a space between the synapses that electrochemical impulses need to “jump” to transmit information. Per Wikipedia, it’s
An electrochemical wave called an action potential travels along the axon of a neuron. When the action potential reaches the presynaptic terminal, it provokes the release of a small quantity of neurotransmitter molecules, which bind to chemical receptor molecules located in the membrane of another neuron, the postsynaptic neuron, on the opposite side of the synaptic cleft.
There are 100–500 trillion synapses in the human brain alone — and considering that there are also neurons elsewhere in the body (the gut, for example), that’s a lot of tiny little spaces that signals have to get across. On top of all those
billionstrillions of connections that need to be made properly for info to get across, TBI can mess with your biochemistry, your neurochemistry, either increasing or decreasing neurotransmitter action, so that very sensitive, very fine connection that needs to get made… just so… stands a pretty good chance of getting at least a little mucked up.
- And then we come to our brain. The very thing that got hurt. Our brains may not process what comes across in exactly the same way they used to, and our experience of the information that gets through may be distorted. The stories of light and noise sensitivity are myriad, along with accounts of sensitivity to touch, the inability to tolerate certain scents and sensations after a brain injury. With me, even years later, some days can feel like my whole body is going haywire. And I can’t deal. When I’m tired, when my brain is taxed, when I’ve run out of steam… yah, all of the above… and more.
- Our interpretation of those experiences may be messed up, so we interpret what’s happening completely wrong. I’m especially prone to this. And the armies of TBI/concussion survivors who are impacted by this, are legion. In my own personal case, my mood and emotions are strongly impacted by how I feel physically. When I am in chronic pain, I tend to get depressed and feel like there’s no way out. When I am exhausted and feel physically ill with fatigue, I can slip into a state of mind that doesn’t care if I wake up in the morning. When I am just feeling physically worn out from the stress of dealing with the day-to-day, and I have to work extra hard to interact with people, I tend to interpret that as not being good with people, being anti-social, and generally being socially useless. It has nothing to do with the facts of the matter. I’m just feeling that way, and I’m letting that feeling hijack my judgment.
So, TBI hits you on a number of levels that can progressively screw with your entire perception of yourself and the world around you. It’s a whole-system head-trip, and the end result can make us feel / think / act like we’re crazy.
Which may seem like bad news… but it doesn’t have to be.
See, the thing is… even without TBI, our bodies can play tricks on us that eventually affect our minds. We ALL have those days, when we’re distracted and not paying attention to the world around us… which causes us to miss important pieces of information. We do it all the time. We’re paying attention to our phone screen and miss the last sentence someone said to us. We’re fiddling with the car radio and miss our turn off the freeway.
And all the other conditions apply to everyone, as well:
- Everyone’s neurotransmitters need to jump the gap, every time our senses communicate what we do manage to detect, and neurotransmitters can vary without needing an injury to complicate them.
- Everyone’s brains need to decode what comes across, and the human brain is notoriously inconsistent — especially when it comes to fatigue, poor diet, illness, and other factors that screw up our cognition.
- And of course, we’re all subject to flights of fancy and delusions, where we misinterpret what we think has “come across the wires”. People are extremely good at reading meanings into situations — regardless of whether those suspicions are valid. Most people are walking around with a made-up version of what’s happening around them, and most of us are wrong in many subtle ways. Basically, we’re so good at forming our own meanings and inventing stories that make sense of an often senseless world, that countless people are cognitively isolated and living in their own private Idahos, even while thinking everyone else is living in that same state with them.
The benefit of TBI, is that it accentuates all these conditions and can make them so exaggerated, that even we can tell we’re full of sh*t. Which is a helpful place to start from. Think about all the people walking around who think they’ve got it all figured out — and are making life a living hell for themselves and others. Now, TBI can absolutely blind you to the wrong spots in your thinking and process, so that can be a problem, but for those of us who understand that our brains have been impacted and our minds have been warped by this thing called traumatic brain injury, we’re actually a bit ahead of the game.
If you want to live well, you need to understand your own limitations and factor them in — and not take yourself so damn’ seriously. Being ultra-familiar with your own feet of clay is a good place to start from, for having no clue of how clueless you are can make you downright dangerous — to yourself and others.
Knowing what’s busted is the first step to fixing things, and far from being a liability, it’s ironically a very strong place to start from.
After that, anything is possible.