Another anniversary

Thanksgiving is fast approaching. At least, that’s how it seems. And Thanksgiving is the anniversary of my TBI in 2004. It’s hard to believe it’s been 12 years…

Some days, it seems like yesterday.

Other days, it seems like it never happened.

I’m very thankful for both points of view, because the first keeps me honest, and the second keeps me grateful.

It’s wild, how much can change so quickly after a head injury.

But recovery IS possible – I’m living proof.

And as Thanksgiving approaches, I have all that much more to be grateful for.

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Discretion is the better part of valour

(British & Australian, literary, American & Australian, literary)… means that it is better to be careful and think before you act than it is to be brave and take risks.

I have to re-learn this periodically… sometimes the hard way, by screwing up and remembering that sometimes inhibitions are good!

it’s particularly important for TBI survivors (or anyone dealing with a stigmatized, misunderstood, chronic condition).

As much as we may want to reach out and help others, when it comes to revealing details about ourselves and our lives, tbi survivors need to be especially careful. The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily understand what it’s like to be head-injured and still be functional. There’s a lot of prejudice out there. And if people have information about you having had a tbi, it can work against you.

I recently heard a story about a tbi survivor who posted a comment online identifying themself with first and last name. Unfortunately, they were job-hunting at the time that they posted about having had a tbi, and people they were interviewing with Googled them and found out about them… and their job search got that much harder.

That’s truly unfortunate. I’m sure it happens all too frequently. I know someone whose successful father went through his entire adult life needing to hide his epilepsy because of all the stigma and the negative effect it would have had on his ability to provide for his family.

Sadly, this is still the case with so many conditions. The ADA is supposed to protect people like us from discrimination, but there are so many ways for employers and lenders and other folks in power to get around the laws, that even if we are discriminated against, the burden is on us to prove it. And if you’ve got a cognitive deficit and you can’t afford a decent lawyer, well, then you can be pretty much out of luck.

Some Poor Person’s Strategies for Preserving Autonomy and Human Dignity are…

  • Silence. Period.
  • Strictly closed lips about your condition unless you’re in the company of close confidantes who can be trusted.
  • Obsessively guarded health information that is Never Ever shared with others who may use that information against you. That includes co-workers or colleagues who may be competing with you professionally, at some point on down the line.
  • Making sure you surround yourself with family and loved ones and friends and supporters who can defend you, no matter what.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where something as random as a head injury can have such a dramatic impact on your life and livelihood, but it happens. All the time.

With this in mind, I’ve disabled the setting on this blog that requires a name and email address for each comment. I hope this may help others like me avoid the situation that hapless job-hunter had to deal with.


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Thanksgiving anniversary #2 — 2004

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Thanksgiving holiday, lately. It stands to reason, since I really got in touch with the impact that my TBIs have had on me, last year around this time. You wouldn’t think that a history of at least six head traumas (most of which knocked me silly and one of which knocked me out), and a lifetime of cognitive-behavioral issues, a spotty employment history, and a see-saw of a personal financial history would escape detection, but I never put it all together and realized that my car accidents, concussions, falls, and blows to my head could have had a cumulative effect, till last year, this time.

But if you consider that head injury has a way of disguising itself (like alcoholism is a disease that tells you there’s nothing wrong), it’s not entirely unlikely. My cluelessness can be explained.

It wasn’t until I saw the long laundry list of tbi-related cognitive/behavioral/physical issues in one place, and made a realistic and honest assessment of my life history, that I realized there was something really, really wrong. I’ve never received medical treatment for my issues. I never had them even identified — till this past year — as something other than “sinfulness” or “character defects”. It never occurred to me that they might be physiological/neurological in nature. It never occurred to me that I might not be BAD… I have just been INJURED.

Anyway, I’m going to quit feeling like a complete and total idiot, and get on with talking about my fall down the stairs in 2004… the most recent time my life was changed by a head injury…

A day (or 2) after Thanksgiving, 2004, I was getting ready to leave my parents’ house after the holiday. I was standing at the top of the stairs at my parents’ house (very steep staircase, about 20 stairs or so), packing bags and carrying them to the car to head home

I was going to walk down the stairs, when someone called to me from the bedroom. I was standing at the top of the stairs, no bags in hand, my head all over the place with thinking about making the trip back.

I turned to listen to what they were saying and see what they wanted me to do, and my feet just went out from under me. I was in stocking feet, which wasn’t the smartest thing, since the carpeted stairs have always been slippery, and the 20 stairs or so are very steep.

It was so surreal… My feet just went out from under me, and I landed on my back and I felt the back of my head hit hard on the top 3-4 stairs, as I went down. My head just bounced off the top stairs, and it took a few impacts before I realized I was even down, and that I was headed for the ground floor. It all happened so quickly — a split second, it seemed like. I’ve always had fast reflexes, so I had the presence of mind to lift my head up as I tried to stop myself by putting my hands and feet along the walls. But I was moving too fast, and I couldnt’ get a grip. I couldn’t stop my fall, and I ended up sliding down the whole flight.

When I got to the bottom, I was dazed and drew a blank. What had just happened to me? Why was I at the bottom of the stairs? I may have actually been “out” briefly — maybe a few seconds. I don’t recall exactly. I do recall there being a bit of a gap in my thinking at that time — things may not have gone completely black, but they did get very faint and dim. I didn’t immediately know where I was or what had happened to me. I remembered going down… falling… sliding… but I still didn’t know why I was at the bottom of the stairs.

I wasn’t sure if I could move, and someone called to me, as though from a distance. They sounded worried… harried… concerned…

I answered faintly, then I got up and went into the dining room before anyone could come to check on me — I just didn’t want to worry anyone. I also didn’t want anyone pulling on me, while I was trying to get my head together. This has always been my way — to shake off others around me, while I collected myself. To refuse assistance, while I got on my feet. Some people have called it “pride”, but I literally cannot think when someone is all over me, talking to me, interacting with me… and I need to keep my head clear, if I’m going to ensure I’m okay.

I got up and went into the dining room to check myself out. I just sat, dazed, at the dining room table, for a few minutes, catching my breath and trying to get my head clear. Gradually, I realized that my back was hurt. I didn’t really think anything of hitting my head.

Someone came downstairs to check me out, and asked if I’d hit my head. For some reason, I said “No” – I’m not sure if I even realized it at that time, I was really dazed — but I do remember that I didn’t want to worry them, and I didn’t want to have to concern myself with that, because I didn’t trust the nearby hospitals. I was also concerned that the hospital would take actions that I couldn’t defend myself against, because I couldn’t communicate effectively. The last thing I wanted, was to be checked into a hospital I didn’t trust, in an area where I was uncomfortable… and miss work. I just couldn’t take a chance on bad healthcare.

I remember that I was more worried about my back being torn up – it really hurt. It had a big brush burn on it, and I focused on getting that taken care of. I had someone put some cream on it and cover the really raw parts with a bandage.

I recall being somewhat out of it, for the trip home, but I made it back okay. I don’t remember much from the days following, as that was a very busy time of year at work, and there was a lot going on. We were at year-end, and a mammoth project I was working on for the last year, was being launched. Tensions were high, and we all had to be 100% “on” — the last thing I could accommodate at that point, was a head injury. Or any kind of injury at all.

I think that urgency, that determination to not be “substandard” may have driven me in ways that kept me from healing. I didn’t get the kind of rest I needed. I didn’t take care of myself. I ate the wrong foods. I really pushed myself and took on too much. I think this is what happens with head injuries — at the time when we need more help and rest and care than usual, our injured heads tell us the exact opposite: that we don’t need as much rest, that we’re fine, just fine, and that we can do more than we realistically can. And because our injury is hidden, and others tend to hate to think we might be cognitively impaired, our drive is not only accepted, but sometimes rewarded by the very people who are also harmed by our injuries.

After that accident, I started having more trouble at work, relationships fraying and straining, not being able to keep up with my work, constantly feeling like I was falling behind, saying inappropriate (and insubordinate) things  in meetings, and becoming openly hostile and verbally aggressive towards others I worked with.  I just was not myself… people became afraid of me and started avoiding me and started pushing me away, marginalizing (or just outright ignoring me) in meetings and openly playing favorites towards others who were competing with me.

I went from being one of the top go-to people in my line of work, to persona non grata and being told I had to leave the group by July of 2005 (8 months after the fall). I’m surprised I lasted that long, but I think my past “stores” of goodwill that I’d built up over nearly 9 years of dedicated, quality service, spared me immediate repercussions.

When I was told I had to leave the group, highly-placed vice presidents offered to help me find a better position. There were people in positions of power who offered to help me, but my thinking was so fuzzy and my behavior was so erratic, that I couldn’t accept their help. I couldn’t understand the consequences of my problematic actions and behavior, and I decided to just take matters into my own hands — another bad idea, compliments of my head injury. I converted from a full-time employee to a contract technical writer at about 60% of my former pay. And four months later, I left the company permanently.

Thinking back, I can’t say that I miss the high pressure and stress, but if I’d had a clue about what was going on, and if I’d been able to manage myself and my situation better, I might not have had to part with hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock options and nearly a decade of quality recommendations and high-performance job history.

It ended on a very sour note… and it wasn’t until this past year that I realized — fully — that it wasn’t necessarily that “awful” company that was to blame for my crash-and-burn. It was my head injury.

So, this Thanksgiving is quite bittersweet for me — bitter because I now realize just how much I have lost over the course of my life, thanks to my injured brain and the ignorance of people around me and my inability to get the help I needed.

And it’s sweet, because I have a lot of love in my life, I have people around me who accept and support me and realize that I need help with my issues, not judgment for my shortcomings… I have my health, I have my sanity, I have access to a lot of quality information, and even though things are sort of dicey, right now, with my job and money, I have the determination and the stubbornness to hang in there till i figure it all out. I also have professionals who can point me in the right direction — whether in person or online — and even though I do have to overcome a lot of deficits just to function at a ‘normal’ level, I can still do a pretty good impression of a regular person… and buy myself time to figure things out for myself.

I never knew, until a year ago, just how much my head injuries had cost me over the course of more than 40 years. Now I know… now I have information… and I can now get help.

And so I shall.

I don’t give up. I just don’t. And for that persistent quality, that stubbornness, that inborn tenacity that refused to take “no” for an answer… that inner wanderer who wrestles with angels and refuses to let go until i am blessed… for all that, I give thanks.