Hidden disability is an “interesting” phenomenon. On the one hand, a person can have real and serious issues with interacting with the world around them, be it due to a neurological issue or a physical one. But on the other, the rest of the world cannot see what’s going on, and because people tend to be very visual — especially when they first meet someone — and they work off visual clues to figure out how to interact with someone, if they cannot see your difficulties, they may have a hard time:
- believing you have something going on with you
- figuring out how to interact with you effectively
I have heard of an individual who was legally deaf — couldn’t hear a thing — but had become so adept at reading lips, nobody believed they were deaf when they first met them. And stories abound about people who are autistic or have some learning differences, who are not recognized as having difficulties by the mainstream, and so cannot get the help they need.
Having a brain injury can be about the most extreme form of hidden disability I can think of — and that’s not just because I’ve had ’em. Think about it — the brain is something we ALL take for granted. It’s perhaps(?) THE most important organ in the body, when it comes to regular functioning. Yes, you need properly functioning lungs and heart and other internal organs to stay alive. But the brain is what pulls it all together and keeps us off life-support and a (semi)vegetative state.
Our brain is what makes us human, in my own estimation.
And yet, we know so little about it. I’m dumbfounded by the degree of ignorance that prevails about how our brain works and what it does. We all have one, we all rely on it, we all use it constantly. Yet, how many of us truly understand our own brain? And how many of us are prepared and equipped to explore its inner workings? It just amazes me, that we don’t know more about it, in this age of digital imaging and info gathering. We can collect moon dust and photograph stars and new planets in distant galaxies, but we don’t know how our friggin’ brain works? What’s up with that?!
Anyway, I’ll redirect my outrage, now… Hmmm… what would be a more productive use of my energy? I know — I’ll get back on topic! 😉
Anyway, when the brain starts to malfunction — especially after a relatively long time of behaving normally — things can get very difficult, both inside and outside. The rest of the world can’t necessarily see that you’ve got hurdles to cross in your daily life — cognitive issues, physiological issues, emotional issues… And when you slip up, people can be pretty hard on you. If they can see that you’ve got a limp or you’ve lost an arm, they can adjust their interaction with you (tho’ lots of people don’t do a very good job of adjusting in a positive way, and some mean-spirited people just use that as an invitation to be cruel or ignorant). But if they can’t see you’ve got issues, then your interactions with them can become… well, problematic.
Now, let’s add to that mix some of the interior problems that come with having an impaired brain.
Take, for example, the condition called “anosognosia“. This really fascinating condition is literally not knowing that there is something wrong with you. The injured brain doesn’t register that there are difficulties in its experience. It won’t realize that, for example, the left side of the body is not moving, that you’re not taking care of one side of yourself, that you cannot do certain things, that your judgment is impaired… all sorts of things can slip through the cracks of an injured brain that’s “anosognosic” (I think that’s how you’d describe it). It’s a pretty common, but not very well-understood condition that some people are studying and have written about. One of the folks I’m a real fan of is George Prigatano, M.D., who (I believe) works out of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona. He’s written a fair amount about anosognosia, and I really like his style. He also seems like a decent fellow — from his photo and his writing style. (Then again, as with most things, I could be wrong — my brain could be playing tricks on me)
So, when your own disability is hidden even from you, it can make things really interesting… frustrating… confounding… infuriating… confusing… amusing… hazardous… adventurous… you name it. With brain injuries, everybody in the mix can be at a loss about what’s going on with you, and how best to handle things.
I’m thinking in particular about many conversations I’ve had with people over the course of my life that went very badly due to my penchant for confabulation. Confabulation is when you get the details of a story wrong, when you think you’re getting it right. You think you’re being 100% accurate, but you’re actually missing important details, getting them turned around, or whatever. I would be talking to someone and I would get the facts and figures turned around — like times I was at a place… or things I did… or people I saw… or the progression of events. I would get so turned around, without even knowing it, and by the end of the conversation, I sounded like I was either a pathological liar, a fabulist, or I was trying to impress them with bogus information.
All I wanted to do, was relate an interesting story or tidbit, and I ended up looking like an idiot.
Now, until about a year ago, I had no clue that the head traumas I’ve experienced over the course of my life had affected me the way they had. I didn’t realize A) that I had issues, and B) why that could be. I figured I just wasn’t trying hard enough to think things through, and I really beat myself up over this stuff a lot. No one else realized that I sustained multiple tbi’s, either — it wasn’t something I talked about, and it wasn’t something I thought was worth mentioning. And no one around me seemed to realize that my confabulation issues were possibly neurological, and not character-flaw-based.
So everyone in the mix — myself and others — went around with the belief that I had trouble telling the truth at times. And that’s a hard thing to bear. Especially when you don’t mean to mis-speak.
Yes, the doubly-hidden disability of brain injury can complicate things in so many logistical ways, when it comes to interacting with a world that cannot see the problems you’re having… and you yourself cannot tell what the problem is (if you can even tell there is a problem).
In my case, my problems are often not obvious to everyone around me. I they “seem fine” but I’m not processing information as fast as everyone around me. I tend to think visually, using pictures and “little movies” of past experiences to understand what’s going on around me. And that visual processing — while it’s more in-depth and full-spectrum than purely verbal thinking for me — takes longer than just thinking in worlds. Or I might be having trouble with sensory processing — when I’m not able to tolerate the lights/sounds/smells or other stimuli that everyone else is fine with, and I can experience a lot of distress that others cannot relate to because they just don’t have that experience. If you have light sensitivity or you’ve got high tactile defensiveness, you know what I’m talking about. If you seize when you hear certain sounds or smell certain things, you now what I’m talking about. But most of the neurotypical world, which isn’t subject to such disruptive experiences, may not be able to fully grasp what it’s like, which makes it hard to figure out how to relate to someone like me.
But how does it look?
I’ve been thinking hard about how to express the dynamics that take place between a person with hidden disabilities interacts with the ‘normal’ world. A picture’s worth lots and lots of words, so I’ll try to illustrate. Using my own experience as a guideline, here’s how I conceptualize my own situation:
I’ve got all these different internal parts of me that are unique to me and that take up space in me. They aren’t ALL there is to me, but they are significant parts. Things like mood volatility (lability). Things like slowed mental processing speed. Things like non-verbal social communication preference and difficulty decoding auditory input. Things like not being able to take a lot of noise and light. Things like needing to rest more than most people I know. They’re not bad things, per se. They just are. But they do make up a substantial part of me.
Enter the world…
People around me have a different “color” to them, a different “shape” to their lives. They seem different to me, and while I recognize them and relate to them as other forms in the world, they are definitely different than me. Of course, everyone outside of me, being “shaded” they way they are, with their own “hues” of perception, have plenty in common with others, but they don’t always realize that I’m not like them.
And so they tend to encroach on me…
I don’t think they necessarily mean to encroach on me and impose their own specific sensibilities on me, but that’s what they do. I think that’s what most regular people do with everyone they meet. People need to feel included. They need to feel like they’re part of something. They need to feel a connection with others. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s one of the things that makes us human, and it’s good. But a lot of times, in their intention to include others in their circles, they jump to conclusions about how other people are — how they should be — how they can be. How I should/can be.
They make a lot of assumptions about who I am and what matters to me, and what I want to do with my time and my attention. They tend to impose their views on me, thinking that I’m just like everyone else. What they don’t see, is that the shapes that make up my inner life are not shaded like theirs with the same hues. I am a “different color” than them, but because I don’t have the same hue as they, my own personal “flavor” of personality is invisible. And they don’t realize I’m not like them at all.
But I do.
And sometimes I need to “take my space” and carve out a piece of the world that is mine, all mine.
I am often so busy trying to decode the sensations and stimuli and hidden clues of the world around me, that things like politics and economics and gossip and star-studded newscasts are either too much for me to take, or they’re so extraneous and irrelevant to my daily functioning, that they’re an annoyance at best and a draining distraction at worst.
I just have to block it all out, to remember who I am, and keep on top of my processing and functional difficulties… to just maintain a daily way of life without becoming completely exhausted and depleted, and then screw up my life all over again.
So, sometimes, I have to just come right out and tell people, “I don’t understand a word you’re saying.”
Or… “I would like to join you for drinks after work, but I’m exhausted. Yes, I know it’s only Thursday, but I’m really beat.”
Or… “I know you’re really excited about seeing that movie on opening night, but I can’t take being in a crowd of people waiting in line for tickets… and then being in a closed dark space with lots of different smells and sounds for hours on end.”
Or… “I have absolutely no interest in what you’re discussing. I really don’t care about American Idol, I really don’t care who gets voted off the island, I really don’t care about someone’s clothes, I really don’t care about their hair. I don’t care who is best-dressed and who is worst-dressed.”
Of course, this doesn’t always sit well with the rest of the world.
Sometimes people react with surprise. Sometimes they react with offense. Sometimes they’re amused and have to admit they secretly agree with me. But whatever their reaction, I can tell that it sets me apart from them.
Regular people who aren’t dealing with disability, I’ve found, sometimes really dislike being told that their pet peeves and attachments are not essential to me.
They may feel invalidated, and they don’t like being invalidated.
They don’t like being excluded from the world of others — from my world. They want to interact with me, but I just can’t…
They don’t like feeling dismissed, and sometimes when I brush them off they seem to feel that way. They don’t realize that I just don’t have the bandwidth to be interacting with them the way they need me to.
And some especially insecure folks really dislike having it brought to their attention that they are not necessarily in the right all the time, and some people have other things to think about, than all the stuff we’re fed on a regular basis through the news and media.
So, people tend to get mad at me. They get upset that I’m not validating their fears and insecurities. They get upset that I’m not participating in their conversations. They get tweaked that I’ve got other things to think about than American Idol and Survivor and the Atkins Diet. They can’t see why I don’t compliment their car or their clothes or their job title.
It’s not that I don’t want to — well, sometimes I don’t — it’s that I am trying to keep myself stable in a world that constantly bombards me with all sorts of stimuli that I have a really hard time managing. People look at me and think, “They’re so together… they’re so mellow and calm and intelligent and thoughtful… ” And they interact with me as though I had everything together, because they cannot see the frayed wiring in my brain, they cannot detect the subtle clues that I’m having trouble with my sensory input, they cannot see the intense pain that simple contact with my clothing causes me. They cannot see the pain in my head that never, ever goes away.
They have no way of knowing what difficulties I’m having, and if they did, it would probably freak them out. If people knew half of what my daily experience is like, I suspect they would weep. I’ve done my share of weeping, but it’s not the most productive use of my time. I have a life to live.
And so I capitulate.
For the sake of navigating the seas of social interaction, I pretend to care about the details of their lives. I pretend to care about their hobbies, their travels, their children, their houses, their pets. I pretend to care about the stock market. I pretend to care about the election. I feign interest in their lives. I mirror their statement with carefully re-phrased repetitions of what they say to me.
It’s actually quite easy to do — all you have to do, when someone says something to you, is repeat it back to them in a different words, with a “punch” of positive emotion that validates them and makes them think you’re on the same wavelength as them.
Case in point:
Guy on the street says, “Hey – did you see the game the other night?”
I say, “No, but I heard about it.” (which is true, because he just mentioned it)
Guy on the street says, “The team is doing great this year!”
I say, “You bet! They’re kickin’ ass!”
Guy on the street says, “We’re going all the way! Can you feel it?!”
I say, “Go Pats!!/Go Lions!!/Go Bears!!” or “Go ________ (whatever team) is local!!!” and I give it a real punch, to make him think I’m totally on board.
Guy on the street goes his own way, feeling like he’s just had a personal exchange with another fan, and I go my own way, having had a successful interaction with someone who needed to connect with someone.
I don’t do it to deceive people. I do it to let them feel like they’re participating in my life. In some cases — especially if the interaction feels a little edgy or dangerous — I do it to assuage them, to pacify them, to make them think I agree with them, when to disagree might result in an argument — an argument that I cannot and will not win, and which may get me in trouble.
It’s not 100% socially accurate, but it works. They’re happy, I’m off the hook.
But in a more in-depth relationship, in my closer friendships and intimate connections, following this strategy compromises the parts of me that are true to me. It’s one thing, to have a casual conversation with people on the street whom I’ll never see again. But in my real life, in my deeper life, in my genuine life, this strategy just works against me, and I lose out.
When I “act the part” that other people expect of me, the parts of me that need special attention, the parts of me that are different and unusual and full of nuance, can get blurred and full of noise. And the parts of others that I try to emulate, as I’m pretending they’re part of me, are just blurred and full of noise
Ultimately, in the end, who is truly served by my attempts at simulating normalcy? In the outside world, it may serve to keep me safe and buffered from the dangers that come from being radically different and deeply defenseless. But in my real life, the up-close-and-personal sides of me, all that is achieved is that the folks around me who cannot — will not — recognize my differences, are placated and appeased and made to feel a little less uncomfortable around me, while I am left at an internal disadvantage in the world.
What I’d really like most is this:
That is, for people to recognize there are radical differences within me that prevent me from being just like everyone else… and for people to realize that every “normal” person has within them some aspects that are similar to me, that make them different from the norm. My differences do not make me a threat to others. My different information processing speeds and methodologies pose no danger to others — if anything, they actually help. And my sensory issues, while they are at times problematic and can exclude me from living a full life, heighten my abilities to detect certain details that just fly by others. My on-again-off-again coordination issues may disqualify me from professional sports, and they may cause me to knock lots of things off counters and break things I just try to pick up, but there are also lessons to be learned from slowing down and not flying around at a break-neck pace.
Ultimately, in addition to my accommodating the rest of the world by adapting myself (however superficially) to it, I would also like the “permission” and ability to carve out a space for myself in the world that is truly genuine and authentic to who and what I really am — a mild traumatic brain injury survivor whose experience is atypical and whose abilities vary from the norm. I want the right to express myself and my talents and my abilities in a way that is true to me and my essential nature. And I’d like others to find within themselves the parts of them that are not “normal” — and come to accept and integrate them as a regular part of human experience.
We all have differences, we are all varied creatures on this good earth. We all have our secrets and our hidden abilities and disabilities. My deepest hope is that we may someday create a world where all of us are able to participate in ways that make the most of our abilities and shield us from the pressures to compromise our safety and overstep our common-sense boundaries, in order to appease others or fit in with a world that cannot accept our warts along with our beauty marks.
I want a world without narrow-minded judgment… a world that has the good sense to find the best in each of us and bring that out, while forgiving us for our limitations. I want a world that cares more about its own survival, than keeping up appearances. I want something real. And I want something dignified. For all of us.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask.