On the outside, not even looking in
One thing that has been a consistent problem with me for many years, is understanding what people are saying and being able to hold a reasonable conversation that I could then remember later. Yesterday someone found their way to this blog by searching for an answer to why their brain injury makes it hard for them to understand what’s happening on t.v.
I kind of glossed over it — I was tired and I was running out of steam. But now luka wrote something in the comments that really summed up a lot of things I was unable to think of or put into words, yesterday. His words are in bold.
This difficulty in trying to understand what people are saying has been one of the hardest things for me to handle. There came a time I wanted only to be in another culture, so I’d have an excuse for just not “getting it”. Now I’m with my roots and I feel their hidden disdain for my existence. And I’m not running. I’m too tired and too old now. They’re stuck with this smart, retarted man. And I will take to isolation more and more, but I won’t be out sight out mind. But communication at times baffles me much more than one could tell. Well, not sure if it’s denial or pride, but I think for the most part it has been an area that has bewildered me. It’s that it fluctuates some and in my compensation and extreme need to focus and to remember, I can, at times, be more aware than anyone about what is being communicated. The problem is that there is usually a lag time. And in mid flight I’m stuck on details and snippets in the conversation that makes me miss much meaning that gives life meaning to our social species.
I can relate to what he says on so many levels. The lag time when people are talking to me… feeling like I have to constantly scramble to keep up — either working overtime to stay engaged in the conversation, or simply recall what someone said to me a few minutes ago. A lot of the time, it’s gone — for good — and I have to make it up as I go along, but I don’t have the energy to keep track of everything, write it all down, and sort things out in my head. So, as often as not, I just go along and pretend I know what’s happening.
I struggled with this for a long time — feeling stupid, feeling retarded, feeling lame. And I tried to address it with my neuropsych, who has really helped me to figure out how to hold a conversation. Now I can converse with people and be witty and whatnot. The only thing is, I’m still lagging. I still have the processing delay. My most recent test results show that my speed of information processing has NOT improved in the past 8 years. I’m two standard deviations below what would be expected of me, given my overall intelligence.
So, I’m literally not making it up. It’s not something I’ve concocted in my head to feel badly about myself or come up with a reason to get pity. It’s a thing. It’s a real, genuine thing. And the fact that my neuropsych keeps downplaying my irritation with it, just adds to the difficulty.
So, I have effectively learned how to make do in conversations with my neuropsych. I’ve learned how to fake it even better than before. I can hold my own pretty well and conduct a conversation, and I am even comfortable now, saying, “I don’t understand — can you please repeat what you just said?” I never, ever did that before, because I was too busy trying to keep up to stop the conversation to get clear on something that was lost along the way.
It’s not genuine improvement — it’s functional improvement. That means to me, I can function better, I look better to other people, and I have better outcomes from interactions with people. But I’m still in the dark. I’m still struggling. I just don’t show it.
The most painful thing, is that my neuropsych flatly refuses to believe that I still struggle with this. They seem to believe that by telling myself I’m fully functional and can do anything I can put my mind to, I can achieve the world. Or at least a significant part of it. They can be very strange that way, like someone who’s bought into a whole Great American Mythology of Anything Is Possible If You Just Try Hard Enough.
I hate it when people who should know better, fall prey to their own mythology. My neuropsych believes (truly) that you can make yourself into whoever and whatever you want to be, and if your experience isn’t turning out how you’d like it, you just change your definition of what constitutes a good experience, and voila — you’re a success. I’ll spare you my rant on that. It’s just a distraction.
I’ve actually been trying to speed up my processing, I’ve been trying to work on my distractability, I’ve been trying to strengthen those areas where I have demonstrated problems. But years into my rehab, five of the six areas of significant difficulty remain unchanged.
At least, that’s how it was in 2013. I may have actually improved since then.
Anyway, yeah, there’s the whole thing about people seeing your innate intelligence and then not understanding why you’re so stupid at times… that’s all too familiar. The sidelong glances when you say something unexpected… the subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints… the teasing that has a nasty edge to it… I understand why people do that. It’s because it makes them uncomfortable, and it’s not consistent with their image of who you are and how you should be.
People are neurologically and biochemically invested in us being a certain way — it tells them how they should be around us, which stimulates certain neuro and biochemical pathways. How we are, makes others who they are. And when we are “not who they think we are” in predictable ways, it’s an existential threat. So, they feel endangered. And they lash out at us without even knowing it. We frighten them — Simply by being different from what they expect. And they feel the need to defend themselves and their understandings of who they themselves are.
But even if I understand why people are this way, I am so sick of it. I’ve been sick of it for over 40 years. I’m just about to turn 50, and I started having TBIs when I was 7 years old — probably even before that. Heck, I might have had an anoxic brain injury when my mother left me in the care of a neighbor kid who was “special” and put a clothespin on my nose to see what would happen. (I’m swearing in my head, but I won’t write what I’m thinking.) People have been really unkind to me for a long, long time, because of TBI-induced irregularities in my behavior and performance, and even to this day, the spotty nature of my abilities makes me absolutely nuts.
Many people have told me that I had autism, but over the years, I am more convinced that it was the result of traumatic brain injuries. Some have said that they see it as absence siezures. And the psychologists see it as dissociation. People point to all that I accomplished in the world’s terms. As if it is proof I should see the last 25 years as a success. They point to pictures when I am smiling. And point out that I am “witty” and that wit takes intelligence. I feel dumb as I struggle to get around their idioms and block out sensory stimuli.
And in the past, I, too, was told I was on the Autistic spectrum — people who met me for the first time would actually tell me that it was okay if I was autistic. I didn’t need to be ashamed of it.
For a while, I was under the impression I’m an “Aspie” with Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s not a stretch — many of my family really look like they’re on the spectrum, and I’ve got nephews who could be quickly taken for Aspies. After much research into the nature of Asperger’s Syndrome and autistic spectrum (AS) issues, I realize how much TBI folks have in common with them. Sensory issues are a major component of the AS, and they are certainly an issue for brain-injured folks. The ticks and the soothing and the behaviors that I exhibited in the past, when my sensory issues were unacknowledged and unaddressed (See The Deepest Day) were very much like autistic behavior.
But they stemmed from another source. Once I learned what that was, and how to address it, a lot of that resolved.
I also in private and on many nights, wish that I did not wake up December 1991. I see my life as a complete flop. All my dreams passed me by. They see me as having lived the good life and wasteing my God given talents. Just a squanderer who needed a kick in the ass. I see myself as someone who needed much patience and understanding and encouragement. But one who got that from a special few docs and friends and in the end my precious daughter knows truth of her father who so many told her was crap, but I can’t say people and docs didn’t try; many did but the end, they grew weary and the very best one, discarded me. And down deep I gave up the medical scene. Doctors’ offices are now triggers for ptsd. How sad given all they did do for me even if they diagnosed me wrong. I’m finally saying screw everyone who looks at me as a failure or a nut case. I’m taking a little empathy that I bring to others and going to start giving it to me. I’m 52 and shunned by many. Behind my invisible injuries, seen as con games or character flaws, is a person whose not just had dreams shattered twenty-five years ago, but stopped knowing what I had dreamt of. What constantly hurts me is that I almost pulled it off. At age 39, while on lamictal, I had started to see how far I’d come and started to have live dreams for me. I even learned what “love” in the romantic sense could be as I knew it before 1991. But in early 2000’s I had another brain injury and now I feel that it’s too little too late. And I don’t have much energy to pretend anymore.
Amen to that, for sure. All my dreams seem to have dissipated… though I’m still working on them and still have hope. I’m pretty bummed, though, that I’ve lost so many years to this injury — years I will never get back. Along the way, I have had some help from people who were genuinely compassionate. But one by one, they all lost patience with me. As though their compassion were conditional and intended to gently but firmly bring me through to the other side, where I would start living up to my true potential.
Yah. That was never going to happen. None of them knew sh*t about TBI, none of them knew sh*t about the brain. And a part of me says “screw them all” with a bitter sneer, because their compassion just turned out to be fake.
One after another… concussion after concussion, TBI after TBI… one bad choice after another. But I’m still here. So yeah, screw them.
But as disappointed I am with my life, I do think that I have a responsibility to use the compassion gained by losing my identity to siezure epileptus/coma state. Compassion and empathy are so desperately needed in these times. I cannot waste these byproducts of TBI and PTSD. Aside from the high level anxiety and depression, I feel very brave and strong in a way that I never gave myself credit for and with others yelling in my ear to “wake up” or “schizo” and me not even getting that, but knowing on some level I was the scorn of those around me. Maybe that is an added bonus of surviving, I know the truth and it is good enough for me. I will die knowing I did my best when they thought I was squandering. God bless.
And here is the key — the gold at the bottom of the bucket of mud — compassion and empathy and the ability to reach out to others and help. All the experts in the world are not going to make the world a better place, a more compassionate place, a better informed place. That can only happen through the efforts of everyone “on the ground” who is in the trenches of human experience, day in and day out. I, too, feel a responsibility to use the compassion I’ve gained — and yes, is so desperately needed. I can still contribute, in my “partial-ized” state… my many-times-fractured, many-times-healed state of mind and body.
I too have known what it’s like to have people yelling “wake up” and “crazy” in my ear — so loud, it was painful. People close to me, who were supposed to love me. People who were supposed to be my friends. And I also know what it’s like to not get that — it was just yelling to me, and it took me a little while to figure out what they were really saying, and why.
Yelling at someone who lives with a brain injury will literally not do any good (so why do people do it?).
In the end, it’s the truth that matters. The truth of our experience, the trust we have for ourselves. Finding the value in our difficulties, and offering a helping hand to others. These days, we have greater ability than ever before, to make a positive difference in the world, and even if we think we can’t — I can promise you that you really can. Every interaction we have with others gives us a chance to make a positive difference of some kind. It may only be inside our own heads. It may even be a “fabulous fake”. But so long as we don’t cause harm to others or ourselves, there is always a chance that our words and our work will matter in ways that we never fully understand.
And with that, I wish you a very happy Friday. Thank you luka for sharing what you wrote.
Be well, each and every one of you.