Everything changes – let’s get past the guilt

Just look around… Seasons change, the world changes, political movements rise like tides – or tsunamis – and people change.

That includes people with traumatic brain injury. When you injure your brain, whether you know it or not, something has changed. Sometimes the change is extreme and immediately noticeable, and sometimes it’s hidden and the changes emerge only after weeks or months, even years. And if that change has been gradual and practically invisible (either because the physical changes evolved over time, or the TBI survivor is not well able to detect those changes on their own), it can be incredibly daunting to understand just what those changes have been, and what you can do about it.

At times, it may seem like nothing  can be done about it. Especially if the changes are gradual and fundamental — personality changes taking place over time in ways that you can’t exactly pinpoint when/where/how it all started. Going from being an even-keeled, easygoing individual… to an anxious, agitated person with a hot temper that will come out over nothing at all just when you least expect it. Going from mellow and easygoing to uptight and raging is a pretty extreme change, and it can look like it’s impossible to ever make it back to mellow.

But things change. People change. I’ve changed an incredible amount, just in the past three years. In the past six years, actually — the first wave of change was a result of my TBI in late 2004. And the second was as a result of my rehab. The first wave of change was unexpected and constantly traumatic in large and small ways. The second wave of change was planned and hoped-for, but to be honest, I’m not sure anyone but me really expected it to happen.

Those closest to me who saw the initial extreme changes in my behavior after my fall in 2004 were deeply skeptical about my recovery. They had to live with me on a daily basis as I became increasingly erratic, agitated, and withdrawn (and a little bit dangerous, to be honest). They were the ones who had to deal with this new person I’d become for reasons they could not understand. They were the ones who bore the brunt of my erratic behavior, my temper outbursts, my hurt and rage and fear and anger and lack of impulse control. They were the ones who had to deal with me flying into a rage, throwing things, attacking them verbally, and doing things that hurt them on a much larger scale — losing my good job and not being able to hold down steady work for longer than a year or so, not managing money, not taking care of the house, not being a present and responsible family member.

All the while they couldn’t protect themselves from that, because if they said anything, I would fly into a rage with them and become even more unpredictable.

The ones who were affected like this have had the hardest time seeing the potential of my recovery. They have hoped for precious little, to be quite honest, having seen how bad I could get. They got into the habit of handling me with kid gloves, treating me like a mentally impaired loser who needed to be coddled and kept cool at all costs. They had gotten used to the routine of carefully checking me out to see how I was, and then walking around on eggshells to keep me calm and non-agitated.

The human brain is an amazing thing. It watches for patterns, it identifies recurring dangers and situations, and it reorganizes your behavior in order to minimize risk and maximize safety. And the brains of those closest to me had become reorganized around the idea that I was pretty much a lost cause who would generally give things a good effort, but would never really amount to anything, and who would — as likely as not — end up in a temper flare-out that ended badly for everyone.

You know, it’s interesting how nobody really seems to talk about mood problems and anger/temper outbursts with traumatic brain injury. At least, not while the person is alive. One of the remarkable things about reports about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s that has been found in the brains of former pro football and hockey players — as well as a student football player), is that just about everyone talks about crazy-ass mood and behavior changes taking place after the person is dead and gone. But while the person is alive, there’s nary a hint that something is amiss.

Take for example  Shane Dronett, Bob Probert, Dave Duerson, and many other players who have posthumously been diagnosed with CTE. During their downward spirals, their situations didn’t make the news. Part of that, I’m sure, is because their falls from grace — erratic, violent behavior, business failures, unemployment, ending up living in their cars, in and out of jail — are not the sort of thing that people want to think about. Especially if it’s apparent (as it often is) that their situations arose from their former jobs of keeping us entertained by sacrificing their bodies — and brains — without any regard for their own safety. There’s a guilt that is never quite articulated by society at large, not to mention the families and friends of those in trouble.

Society has a hell of a time accepting these sorts of dissolutions. And friends and family too often feel responsible, as though they’ve somehow brought the violence and outbursts and erratic behavior upon themselves.

And then there’s the guilt of those who ARE in trouble — the confusion, the frustration, the anxiety, the depression. The constant trying to make it better, followed by recurring failures. Guilt and shame. Resolutions to try again… and then abject failures that can’t be explained.

One of the worst things about TBI is how it can strip you of your dignity. And when the people around you see — and are horrified by — your descent into behavior that is so “unlike you” that shame and guilt can be well nigh impossible for anyone to get past. People look away from what makes them uncomfortable. They distance themselves from aberrations. Want to become invisible? Present as someone with a disability of some kind, and watch people avert their eyes. Like Kevin Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects, if you exhibit some sort of behavior that makes others uncomfortable and you don’t seem to be able (or willing to) change it, you can find yourself marginalized pretty quickly.

The problem with all this is that with TBI, one of the most important elements to recovery is social interaction. Connection with others. The ability to have community and connection with others. We are social creatures. We crave connection. Our brains are social organs that grow and change and adapt, based on social interactions. And when we are pushed to the side, marginalized because of our perceived differences, it just makes matters worse. It doesn’t give us a chance to come back to a place where we can be the persons we want to be, instead of the persons the TBI ushered in. It doesn’t give us a chance to practice our “social chops” and grow and improve and change for the better. Without feedback of some kind that tells us when we’ve succeeded or fallen short, recovery stays elusive. The traits and qualities that head trauma ushered in have a way of cementing themselves in place, essentially becoming the “us” that others decide we are.

That’s probably one of the most unfair phenomena of TBI — having others make up their minds about us as being a certain way after TBI, and deciding we’re not going to change, and they need to just get used to us being a certain way. When others do this, and they decide that we’re not going to change, we can get locked inside a prison of human making. It may feel safer for the people around us, if they develop these defense and coping mechanisms, but in the long run, it just makes matters worse, because it allows no room for recovery, and it locks everyone in a pattern of behavior that is far less than it could be.

It’s true — we will probably never get back to the person we were before. But that doesn’t mean we can’t become a different person of our own choosing and our own making. When we decide things aren’t going to change, and we resign ourselves to “accept the new normal” of limited options and curtailed activities, and we stop looking for what else is possible in our lives, we are neither fair nor honest with ourselves. And when we decide that injured others are permanently disabled and need to be handled with extreme care, we are giving up and consigning them to a prison of our making.

Change happens. Change is constant. And people change as much as politics and economics and fashion. We change in relation to events, but most of all in relation to others.  We mirror others. We connect with others. We evolve with others. And even in the aftermath of events that harm and hurt and kill, we can continue to change. Grow. Improve. Worsen. Deepen. Become more complex. Become more simple. We change.

But we need to be connected somehow, in order to do that.

Brianline has a great slideshow about a young woman named Freda who sustained a traumatic brain injury in a freak accident – click here to watch it. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it, is how Freda’s friends rallied to keep her integrated into their social life, even though she was far removed from the flow of everyday life. Her family stayed with her. Her friends didn’t ditch her. Her teachers and healthcare providers worked to educate her peers about TBI. The community came together around her. And she came back.

For me, the connections that have kept me going  have been largely virtual. Connecting with people online — just about the only place I could find others who understood what I was going through — as well as one single neuropsychologist who didn’t treat me like a drug-seeking insurance fraudster who was just trying to get over on the system. I couldn’t really connect with my friends and family, because they were — and still are — really put off by the very concept of brain injury, and a lot of them had made up their minds about me a long time ago and still remain quite dependent on that interpretation of who and what I am.

The other way I’ve managed to connect is through work — the people at work, as well as the work itself. In that controlled environment, where I actively interact with others for 8 hours a day, five days a week, doing work that refines and educates me, I find a connection and a purpose that often eludes me beyond the workplace. When I haven’t been able to stay on for very long (because my anxiety level was getting so high, I couldn’t think straight anymore), I’ve been fortunate to be able to find new work, different work, to help me along. In the workplace, where I am required to interact with others, I find connections that often don’t present themselves in the rest of my life.

One of the important differences between work and my outside social life, is that there’s no room for guilt. There’s no room for sitting around feeling self-conscious. If I’m going to do my job and be fully effective, I have to engage with others on a regular basis. I have to get over my personal crap. I have to be a part of things. Or else. There’s not a lot of room for self-pity and drama. I know plenty of people who do indulge in those things at work, but for my own purposes, I can’t afford it. I have too much to do. I have too many things on my plate, to get caught up in personal dramas. It keeps me busy and it keeps me honest, and I have to constantly improve, or I sink like a rock.

The nice thing is, others at work can see I’m actively working at this. TBI doesn’t factor in at all in our interactions, because I have never discussed my situation with anyone at work, and I never will. It’s not something that needs to be part of that equation, and the last thing I need is to have to field all sorts of ignorant biases about what brain injury does to a person. It’s enough that I do my job and I do it well. The rest of it stays to the side.

And it’s tremendously freeing. Because I’m not locked away in a box made from other people’s assumptions about me and my prospects for change and growth. I’m not living under the shadow of my wary spouse who detects agitation in me and automatically begins to act like I’m a menace. I’m not constantly trying to prove to my loved-ones that I am capable of change, and that they don’t have to give up on me.

I can be who I want to be. I can be the person I choose to be, not the person others decided I was, 5… 10… 20 years ago.

People change. TBI changes people, but we can continue to change for the rest of our lives, regardless of initial setbacks. We may never go back to being the person we were, but that’s what happens with everyone, traumatic brain injury or no. Ask anyone about the kind of person they were when they were 20 years younger, and they’ll likely tell you they’ve changed a lot since then. If they haven’t, they were either uniquely evolved in their youth, or something has stunted their growth.

It’s in our nature to change. It’s in our nature to grow. It’s in our nature to improve, should we set our minds to it. With TBI comes a host of problems and issues — many of them emerging and sticking around, weeks, months, years after the injury itself. The guilt and shame and embarrassment can be pretty intense — for everyone. When you’re “not supposed” to do/say the things you are doing/saying, it can be pretty distressing for everyone. But you can’t let the distress get in your way. You just have to keep steady, keep an open mind, and keep following through to learn and grow and change for the better.

TBI does bring change. But it needn’t be a death sentence. Mild TBI needn’t derail your life, for no apparent reason. Blast injury has its own set of unique issues, but doesn’t need to destroy your future. And concussion can be profoundly disruptive, but it needn’t isolate you from the world for good.

Stay steady, stay open to change. And find out what else is possible for you and the ones you care most about.

The difference between sports concussion and blast injury

Great video over at BrainLine

I learned a lot from this, namely:

  • Blast injury involves both compressing the body and expanding it — during and after the blast
  • Gas bubbles can end up in the bloodstream as a result
  • Hollow organs like ears and lungs are especially vulnerable
  • Blast injury shares elements with sports concussion, but it is much more complex

Great video – worth a watch. Check it out here:  http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1670076667?bctid=110843714001

 

 

Or, perhaps more accurately, can LIVES be saved?

I had some feedback from one of my posts yesterday about Bob Woodruff’s recovery from TBI.

I didn’t like the article at all – in fact I felt it did a HUGE disservice to brain injury and rehab – it gave the impression that there were these wonderful cognitive programs that could restore people to their regular functioning in a relative reasonable period of time, that these services could be tailored to everyone’s particular needs, and that so much has changed that brain injury is ‘curable’.

The reality:

The is little funding still for most services, most insurance plans cover very little especially in cog rehab – which may be needed for years to be helpful.

Recovery of any kind is YEARS – not months, not a year or two but YEARS.

There are no miracle programs – this is slogging through a lot of really frustrating activity, going round in circles, making mistakes over and over and over, training yourself to be disciplined about organization, planning, memory skills, rethinking your life career etc

While  I appreciate the Woodruffs bringing attention to the issue Bob Woodruff got top ranked care – the vast majority of people DO NOT receive ANYTHING like that – they may get a few months of cog rehab, some PT, and a year of neuropsychological counseling. The existing services for TBI are terrible, un-coordinated, cookie-cutter, short term, and severely underfunded. 90% of the survivors DO NOT get any thing that is customized – most do not get even half of what they need that would truly empower them and enable them to have productive lives with true quality of life
VERY little is still understood about tbi – especially mild tbi. There are probably many many people who have TBI’s and don’t recognize it as such – they are just considered ‘moody’ or easily distractible or have other issues in relationships etc. We know virtually nothing about how the brain works and organizes data, repairs itself or re-organizes after a trauma. Much much more research and money is needed to allow professionals  to understand tbi, provide better tools for helping people recover (whatever that may mean), better ways to diagnose and to eliminate the stigma involved. 80% of tbi survivors do not recover their previous employment levels, and equal numbers experience loss of spouse, family and or friends, NO ONE wants to tell a prospective employer they are a survivor. Most tbi survivors do not write books or go on tours or have understanding supports – they end up financially destitute or in severely reduced circumstances, alone, struggling and often develop addictions as a result.

The article presented a rosy cheery picture of tbi – just like having a hip replacement  – tbi is a life-changing event and is underfunded and not understood. there are no ideal treatments and many people end up overdrugged – even by the ‘professionals’. I get frustrated by such articles because they mislead.

Some folks in advocacy agree with me and others don’t. Some feel that any attention  to TBI is helpful and that at least by making it less strange it encourages people to accept that many people do have tbi’s and are ‘normal’.  So I admit that my opinion is not universal. I will also say that this was the second brain injury article by that paper that focused on a well-connected individual who got amazing health care – and in this other case that person did make a phenomenal recovery – again, the kind of recovery that 99% of tbi’s do not make. So some of my frustration is also based on that. I would love to see a “Ordinary Jane or Joe has a tbi” story – and what it means to lose your career, to lose your home, to have a changed marriage, to try and re-create a self, to have 3 months of cog rehab and told you are ‘fixed’ because your insurance ran out – to struggle in school, at work, to lose your job – all these things that are what happen to most Americans – including our Vets.

Healthcare is a critical issue in this country and tbi is part of that. It will be ignored and forgotten if the true loss of lack of care is not made clear.

You know… it’s true. The vast majority of us who sustain these types of injuries never get the help we need — many of us never even realize we need it… until too late (or almost). Personally, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have put two and two together before everything fell apart for good. I was awfully close to the edge, now that I think of it. I dodged a bullet. And I am incredibly grateful for the combination of fate, the world wide web, and my local Brain Injury Association chapter, for helping me put this together… as well as to my various therapists and friends and strangers who had the right info at the right time, who kept me from tripping and tipping over that very precipitous edge.

Not all are as lucky. And I have been lucky. I am very much aware that I could easily have ended up in much tougher straits than I am, right now. It was almost a fluke, that I even got a clue that I needed help. And while I have had to work my ever-loving ass off to get the help I need, and it feels like it’s been a long time coming, and I still have a long way to go, at least I have had the personal resources to launch into this quest for clues.

A lot of others don’t. They just get lost. Pushed to the margins. Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck.

I hate to say it (and I’ve felt a bit guilty about thinking this), but I’ve never been that comfortable with Bob Woodruff’s story and the way he’s been portrayed as a kind of “poster child” for TBI recovery. It’s like they’re not telling us the whole story — like how he really is at home, what his moods are like, what his interpersonal skills are like, what his memory is like.  He’s an attractive public mainstream figure, who has received the best treatment possible and works in a field where his performance is not only scripted beforehand, but edited between the time he does it and when it is aired to the rest of the world.

I’m reluctant to say any more about him, because I am not thoroughly familiar with his work, and what I’ve seen of him has been positive. No-way, no-how do I begrudge the man his recovery or his restoration to broadcasting work. He’s covering some really important stories that I enjoy watching. But I wonder how much similarity his experience actually bears to my reality. Or to the reality of countless other tbi folks. I wonder how his irritability/anger management is, if he has constant ringing in his ears or constant headaches or other chronic pains. I wonder what truly goes on in the privacy of his own home, where no cameras are rolling and no editors are deleting the segments where he’s struggling to find the right word or remember what he was going to do when he walked into the next room. I wonder what his life is really like.

One of the things that I think may have helped him get back to work, is the fact that he works in broadcasting. Being involved in broadcasting, myself, I know how helpful it is to have a script to go by, when you’re doing your job. I often create and use “scripts” in other situations, like when I go on job interviews, or I am leading a meeting and following an agenda very closely. Having a scripted line of work (or work that follows specific guidelines, like strict meeting agendas, or has a heavily-project-managed element to it) makes getting back to work — and re-integrating into society post-injury — a lot more straightforward, in my mind.

It’s never easy, of  course, but if you know what you’re going to say and do ahead of time, and you have ample opportunity to practice, and you don’t have to be “on” for more than the length of the take/recording… and you get to edit out the parts of your performance which aren’t that flattering… well, I can see how you could present a really excellent picture of miraculously restored health after what was supposed to be a fatal accident that would — at best — leave you a vegetable.

Thinking back to the positive tbi-is-fixable article in Parade, I’m struck by the emphasis on the idea that outside therapies are capable of restoring functionality post-tbi. I don’t doubt that having someone work with you can be of tremendous help, but from what I’ve seen and experienced, what you do for yourself, with yourself, by yourself, can be a critical factor in the degree of your success.  Of course, it is important to get outside help — especially from trained professionals who have made the study and treatment of tbi their life’s work. But I also agree with the Give Back Orlando materials about outside therapy only going so far — at some point, the insurance gives out or the prescribed treatment runs is course, or therapy is no longer available or an option for you.  You then have to step in and run things for yourself, or you’re just not going to get that far. Reading about long-term efffects of TBI, what I’m struck by is that folks may improve over the first several years post-injury… but look at them 10-20 years later, and sometimes they’re really struggling. I think the critical piece in this is self-reliance and the ability to do self-therapy.

Personally, I suspect that my own self-reliance has been the secret to my repeated recoveries over the years — never having any help, and being forced to fend for myself. Not that I had any choice, mind you. My first injury was 36 years ago, and nobody had a friggin’ clue about mild tbi, back then. A year after that, when I had another more significant injury, it was worse, but not bad enough to send me to the hospital, and they probably would have just sent me home again, anyway. I’ve been hit on the head, fallen down stairs, fallen out of a tree, been hit from behind in several different cars, and I’ve had my bell rung more than once while playing contact sports, over the past 36 years. If anyone should be marginally functional and struggling in vain with basic stuff, it would be me.

But I’m not.  I do struggle terribly at times, and I do have some pretty problematic issues, but I usually manage to figure a way out of my predicament… eventually. I’m not destitute, and all my friends and family haven’t fled from me. I am not homeless, I am not out of work, I am not that terribly marginal — except to the degree I pull myself out of the mainstream frenzy to keep my balance and sanity. Best of all, I am not in jail (granted, I dodged the bullet of arrest a bunch of times, but hey – at least I dodged it, right?) Given just slightly different reactions and choices in many of my life experiences, I could easily have ended up in an institution of one kind or another. My own parents tried to get me committed due to my “inexplicable” behavior, about 20 years ago. It didn’t work, I’m happy to report.

Maybe I’m just too stubborn and too averse to acting/living/thinking like someone who’s brain-damaged. Maybe I’m too proud to give in. Maybe I like having a regular life too danged much to let go. Whatever the reason, I’ve been self-reliant and headstrong and stubborn from the start, and I credit my tenacity and determination to just keep going, regardless of whatever the heck life throws at me, with keeping me in the game.

Now, I wouldn’t recommend following my tumultous loner’s path to anyone — tho’ a lot of us are in this “boat”. It’s lonely and confusing and confounding and can drive you half mad. It can also really piss off everyone around you and cost you jobs and friends and family, and you have to work twice as hard after the fact to fix things up again. But at the same time, a lonely, isolated path forces you to develop a self-sufficiency and skills that you might not have to, if someone else were standing by your side, walking you through everything, checking in with you regularly, and keeping you on track.

It’s kind of like that “restraint” training that some stroke survivors do — to train the hand/arm/fingers on their impaired side to function again, they tie down the arm on their able side, so they’re forced to use the impaired side. And they can progress at rates quicker than those who don’t use this technique. I’m not sure if I even have a lot of “un-hurt” parts of myself to tie down. I’ve been pretty roughed up, over the years. But I’ve forced the broken parts of me to keep going, regardless, and it’s paid off.

That being said, what I think helps me the most as a long-term multiple mild tbi survivor who is not just surviving, but thriving, is:

  • keeping my spirits up,
  • staying intensely interested in all of life around me,
  • staying positive and solutions-oriented, and
  • having plenty of access to quality information — both from the internet and neuropsychologists who are available to me.

I wish to high heaven there were head-injury-aware neurologists who were freely available to chat with the tbi survivor population — maybe I’ll check with my local BIA chapter to see if they know of any — because I’d love to be able to ask them a bunch of questions about brain function (particularly mine) without needing to clear it with my insurance company. I need information. I thrive on it. Even if I don’t understand every little bit of it, and there are pieces that get lost along the way, still… it gives me a general orientation in how to live my life. And that helps. I need information to save my life. Literally.

That’s what it really boils down to, I guess — not so much about saving my brain, as saving my life. Sure, of course, I want to save my brain, but there is much more to me than what’s between my ears. There’s what’s in my heart — and in my gut. There’s what is in my spirit, as well as the sum total of my past experiences and all the invaluable lessons that have come from that. My brain may have issues that need to be dealt with, but ultimately, there’s a whole lot more to me than just gray and white matter segmented into various lobes and cortexes (or is it “cortices?”). There’s a whole person in here, with a lot more going on than the electrical impulses and connections between synapses and neurons and dendrites and whatever else is up there (that they know about or haven’t discovered yet, which I suspect is a lot).

And I think that’s also what gets lost, a lot of times, when people deal with TBI. They are so focused on the brain, on the individual functions of the brain that need to be restored or changed or compensated for, or whatever, that they can lose sight of the rest of themselves that is so very vital in dealing with their new brain, their new personality, their new self. The old brain is gone. The old self is gone. It’s not coming back. It can be a terrible loss, and it does need to be recognized and grieved. But at some point, you’ve got to let go of the idea that things can be the way they were before. They can’t. You may be able to get back to a semblance of your former functioning, but the old ways of doing things are gone-baby-gone. It’s a tragedy. There’s no two ways around it.

But that’s not the end of the story. The good news is that for every old way that’s gone, there are lots of new ones waiting to be discovered and developed. The brain is an awfully big place (its size notwithstanding) with a wide, wide world of possibilities. The human spirit is enormous, with more capabilities than we can ever imagine. The body is also capable of incredible changes and adaptations that can compensate for plenty of problems. I’m not trying to make light of tragedy and loss, or make it out to be less serious than it is. It is serious stuff. And it is a terrible, terrible thing when it happens. But there is a whole lot more to us, than we can ever imagine.

And until we put our minds to it, we can never begin to find out just how much is in there.

So, while I do often wonder if brains can be saved, I’m ultimately much more interested in how lives can be saved. It’s not always about what’s in our heads that counts in life — it’s what’s in our hearts.

Beyond the Invisible – TBI Video for and about Military Veterans

I just learned about a 4-part series about TBI from the Brain Injury Association of NY Military Veterans Project. Check it out – it’s great!

Beyond the Invisible

Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5eWersQdRw&feature=related

Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwsGzRLTRqY&feature=related

Part 3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADC93aoVkP8&feature=related

Part 4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QBnACJ7eAQ&feature=related