After concussion – I’m not stupid, you just think I am

This is an extension of the piece I wrote years ago (January, 2011), called “After concussion – you’re not stupid, it just feels that way“. I’m writing this after seeing a physiatrist for a follow-up appointment regarding neck & shoulder pain/stiffness and tingling and weakness in my left hand and arm. They had given me a prescription for a physical therapist to get some help, but I never got PT help, because:

  1. Carving time out of my schedule is a challenge. I already have two standing appointments after work, each week, and a third (and sometimes a fourth) usually shows up, which doesn’t leave me enough time to rest.
  2. The one PT who I am interested in seeing has an office a good hour from my home, which not only makes it tough to find the time, but it also threatens to wipe out any benefits I get from them, while I’m driving home.
  3. It’s hard for me to explain what’s going on with me, because I get turned around – especially when I’m tired, and my symptoms shift and change. It’s hard for me to A) remember from one day to the next how I’ve been feeling, B) track how I’m feeling without it being disruptive, and C) put into words the impact of my issues. Not being able to explain — especially to people who do not know me, and who do not know how to parse out all the information in a meaningful way… it’s just a waste of time.
  4. The PTs I’ve worked with in the past have had no clue (I mean, NO CLUE) what to do with me, when they found out about my head and neck injuries. They either treated me like I was mentally deficient, or they got so in a tizzy about my different injuries and whole host of aches and pains and issues, that they were no use to me at all. They were so obsessed with being careful, that they achieved nothing at all.And what they showed me was stuff I already knew how to do.

So, no, I didn’t follow up with a PT, and I told the doctor a few of the points above. I should have written it down, but I didn’t get to it.

The doc was a little taken aback, probably because I had seemed so compliant and cooperative when we’d met. I explained to them that I hadn’t had good experiences with PTs, and anyway, I thought I’d try to fix the issue myself with some light exercises… which has worked. Strengthening my trapezius muscles in a specific way and also stretching my neck has resolved my issues. That, and being determined to not get hooked into a healthcare system that is A) clueless about me, and B) too impatient to be of much help to me.

In the end, we parted ways with them telling me that I was going to be fine and I guess trying to be encouraging. That’s fine, but it was also a bit infuriating, because (cover your ears and/or close your eyes) Jesus Fucking Christ They Treated Me Like A Goddamned Simple-Minded Idiot. They talked slowly and said “Good job!” a lot, like I was a goddamned puppy learning a new trick. They were complementary towards me for taking things into my own hands and being pro-active, but the way they did it seemed forced, like they were making an extra effort to accommodate my “disability”.

I do not have a disability. I have a history of injuries that have changed the ways I process information, and just because I’m struggling to find the right words — “X-ray”… “arthritis”… “traps” — doesn’t mean I’m not parsing all the information as well as the next person. My brain works differently — not worse. But every time I stopped to find a word or I had to work at putting thoughts into a sentence, they got a little more “accommodating” and remedial with the way they interacted with me. The worst thing was when I started to tear up over explaining why it’s hard for me to get help.When I get angry or frustrated, I tend to cry. And you’re right, if you’re thinking “How inconvenient… How infuriating.”  It is. And that makes me even more prone to tears. Arrrrgggghhhh!!!!! &(*$^%#*!!!!

I’m sure they were trying to be compassionate and empathetic and whatever, but their total affect came across like they had to talk more slowly and put ideas into small words and lower their communication level for the simpleton in the room (that would be me). It seemed like they thought that I was less intelligent and less capable of processing information due to my history of TBI, so they had to talk to me like a 5th grader. Plus, they kept saying that everything that’s happening to me, is just because of my getting older. They said that a lot, last time I saw them. And they kept saying it with this air of “professional resignation”, like that’s just how it is, and I was a mentally deficient person who was getting all paranoid with bad thought habits, thanks to my history of head injury.

The thing is, my 50 years on the planet might be a factor, but my family members regularly live well into their 90s and  past 100, so I’ve got another 50 years ahead of me. At least. It’s medically possible now to live till 120, so we’re probably looking at 150 being possible, by the time I near that. That’s my plan, and all this talk about “well, that’s just what happens when you get old” is not helpful to my plan. It’s just a bit resigned. Pessimistic. Cynical. None of the things that actually help me… or are consistent with my own attitude towards life and living it to its fullest.

Now, if I were going to see this doctor regularly for an extended period of time, I could do something about this. They would get to know me. They would change their mind about what “has” to happen as we grow older. They would realize that they don’t have to give me me special treatment – they just need to have a little patience while my brain coughs up the right word. And I’d be able to educate them about the ways in which I am strong – so strong – instead of just what they see with the verbal issues.

But I’m never going to see them again. I can deal with my issues on my own. I don’t need to be constantly told to adjust my expectations down, thanks to the inevitable march of time. And call me crazy, but adding an hour of driving, breaking up my work day, and spending $40 a pop to go see someone who is just going to talk down to me, no matter how helpful they’re trying to be… seems like a waste of time. It was a great lesson to learn — next time I’m not going to bother going back again, if I’m actually not having any more issues. Consider the lesson learned.

It’s best that I just steer clear.

And while I’ll never have to deal with them again, most likely, this is the thing that makes me NUTS about people and their cognitive prejudices. If you’ve got difficulties putting words together verbally, people assume you’re less intelligent or are “slow”. If you have little tics or fidgets, they think there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t answer them immediately with a definitive reply, they take you for weak-minded and indecisive, and they sometimes get angry to boot. If you get tired and distracted and lose track of what they’re talking about, they think you’re not interested in what they’re saying, and they get angry. If you can’t remember things that happened only a few minutes ago, they think you’ve got Alzheimer’s or some other degenerative condition that’s making you lose your mind, and they start “helping” you remember things.

Doctors are just as susceptible. They are human, after all, and medical education doesn’t always impart insight or interpersonal clue-fulness. Maybe this physiatrist has seen other folks with concussion / TBI, and they needed the extra help. But it’s really demeaning to treat people in that way — like children, or developmentally delayed “dearies” who just need love and understanding – not cold, hard facts.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have treated me like I was “special”. Like my inability to remember things marked me as less-than. Like my losing track of things and getting lost with directions meant I was functionally impaired.

I am not an idiot. I am not simple-minded. I am not intellectually impaired.

I have a handful of issues that get a lot worse when I am tired, in unfamiliar conditions, or under pressure. I have a handful of issues that I have learned to work around. I don’t need anyone’s condescension or “help”. I just need people to cut me a break, be polite, and treat me professionally. I need them to treat me like the adult I am, and with the respect I deserve.

Is that so much to ask?

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.