Giving hope its due

Okay, now that I’ve riffed on despair, it’s time to dwell on hope. And healing. And the good things that come along with brian injury.

I can almost hear you thinking, “What good things that come along with brain injury? What are you – nuts? Head trauma sucks, and long-term after effects of even a mild brain injury can be so debilitating as to ruin lives, destroy families, trash careers… and more.”

I agree. Brain injury is a national health crisis and it’s a tragedy and a disgrace that something so common (see the stats in the sidebar) is so little understood and its impact so under-estimated. It’s a travesty, in fact. Last night, I was reading the book Confronting Traumatic Brain Injury by William Winslade. The Amazon review says

Author William J. Winslade suffered from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a 2-year-old, when he fell from his second-story porch and landed straight on his head. He’s one of the lucky ones who’s recovered fully, both physically and emotionally; his only souvenirs of the fall are a three-inch scar and a dent in his skull. He warns that of the 2 million Americans who suffer from TBI each year (most of them from car and motorcycle accidents), up to 100,000 of them will die prematurely. More than 90,000 of them will face up to a decade of extensive rehabilitation, at a cost of up to $4 million each. Even a TBI as seemingly minor as a concussion can have devastating long-term physical consequences, causing seizures, memory loss, learning disabilities, and more. However sorry these problems may be, he writes, “the truly debilitating deficits” are the less-obvious emotional effects, “such as social isolation, [which] take their own insidious toll.”

Which is all very true. I can personally attest to it. And that book is ten years old. So why don’t more people know about this stuff? Why is our country — and the world — still forced to cope with so much trouble relating to brain injury. From violent crime to domestic abuse, from learning disabilities to physical limitations, to series of progressively more debilitating re-injuries over the course of lifetimes, brain injury plays a whole lot of havoc with our world.

The thing is — and I’ve read pieces by Dabrowskian therapists saying this is why they became interested in his work — the information we have (and we do have plenty of stats about TBI) isn’t always conducive to knowledge.  Perfectly intelligent people with lots and lost of information at their fingertips continue to overlook and ignore or downplay the impact of head injuries, and refuse to take steps to prevent it. What’s (perhaps) worse, is that perfectly intelligent people, who are capable of understanding the objective impact of head injury, persist in treating TBI survivors as though there’s something wrong with them, that they’re deliberately doing the things they do, that they’re intentionally screwing up, that they’re cheating the system, slacking, taking advantage, and doing any number of other things to “milk” a supposed injury.

Check the blogs of TBI survivors out there, and you’ll find more than a few accounts of difficulties with friends and loved-ones who refuse to factor in brain injury in the TBI survivor’s behavior.

Now, I could circle back around and delve into despair, but I’m choosing a different tack. Why do intelligent people neglect taking the facts about TBI into consideration? Why? I suspect it’s because brain injury isn’t just about facts. It’s about harm done to the singlemost important organ in the body. It’s important not just because nothing works without the brain, but because even if it is functioning somewhat well in a physical sense, if it’s not operating at peak performance, it deprives us of something even more vital to the human soul than motor function or control of our bodily functions — it deprives us of our humanity.

Truly, brain injury is terrifying for most people, because it hits us where we live, in the deepest, darkest part of our souls, where we are most vulnerable. Especially, I think, for intelligent, intellectual, fact-driven people, the emotional impact of brain injury — just contemplating it, to begin with — can be so unsettling that it causes higher reasoning and analytic function to slow, if not stop. Pondering the impact that head trauma can have is, well, traumatic. It kicks off our most basic survival responses. And our fight-flight-freeze response tends to make us abandon high reasoning for the sake of just getting away from the thing that threatens — or just frightens — us.

I suspect that this, more than anything, is what keeps brain injury from being adequately apprised and addressed in this country. And it appears that the only thing that will make us sit up and take notice are tens of thousands of returning veterans — trained warriors, wounded warriors — who are reintegrating into a society that is woefully unprepared for them… but will need to change that, if we’re going to get by in this new century, this dawning millenium.

And that’s where I think hope can help.

Certainly, hope is necessary in any tough situation, but especially in the case of TBI. Mild, moderate or severe, brain injuries certainly leave a mark on survivors and their family, friends, co-workers… often without them understanding why and/or to what extent. But we don’t have to let that keep us down. Yes, there are problems. Yes, there are issues. Yes, there are tremendous difficulties. But with the brain, you never know what’s going to happen next. Some recoveries last months, years, decades longer than anyone expected them to. But abilities can sometimes be restored, where the experts were sure they were gone for good. And where some abilities are lost for good, others can arise in their place — or show up where they weren’t before. Plenty of people have survived trauma that marked them “certainly” for death, and they’ve battled back from the brink. And I’ve heard stories of people who sustained significant brain trauma, only to find that suddenly they could paint like nobody’s business. Or they started writing one day for no apparent reason.

Looking at some of the most brilliant minds of the past thousand years, the brains inside their heads have not always been “standard issue”. Einstein was missing part of his brain. I’ve also heard that Thomas Edison’s brain was malformed. (Note: I’ll have to do more research that one — I’m not finding information about it right away.) Gifted artists and writers have been epileptic, as have some of our most effective leaders and gifted actors and athletes.

And I suspect, the more we learn about brain injury, the less afraid of it we’ll be. The more we realize that it is NOT a death sentence, that it is surivivable, that it can actually impart or uncover abilities and gifts that might otherwise go unnoticed and undeveloped, the less traumatic the mere consideration of it will be. I don’t mean to diminish the suffering of those who have really struggled with the after-effects. And I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of it. I’m just saying, there are two sides to this story — the tragedy and the triumph. And when we can pay as much attention to the triumph as we do the tragedy, and accept them both as possibilities… as parts of the whole of human experience, we might stand a better chance of confronting the challenges that go along with brain injury, and learn to integrate the experience into our collective storehouse of information… and for once, let facts — not fear — govern our understanding of the injured brain.

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Head injuries make a big difference

I’ve been looking around a lot, lately, at all sorts of different materials — in books as well as online — about how the brain and the body interact with each other. The gray mass inside our heads is getting more and more press, as people pay closer attention to the after-effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and hear about how so many vets are affected by TBI.

I can’t believe we had to have two wars to figure out that TBI — whether it’s open head or closed head wound, whether it’s mild or severe — can have a substantial impact on people’s lives after the fact.

I can’t believe we don’t know more about this. People have been getting hit on the head since time immemorial. Why is it we’re only starting to take it seriously now? People have been recovering from blasts for generations. Why is it that we’re only starting to study it now? What is up with us, anyway?

I am also more than a little incredulous that the human race — which is defined by its brain — doesn’t know more about this thing that everybody has. I mean, come on people. What’s taken us so long to start paying attention to this common organ of ours? And why does it take war and injury and extreme circumstances to perk up our attention sufficiently to realize we don’t know nearly enough about this thing called the human brain?

What is up with that?

I mean, so many different societal ills can be traced back to head injury — domestic violence, violence in general, social dysfunction, emotional problems, even mental illness, financial woes, crime, illness… there are just so many ways head injuries can totally screw us up, and an awful lot of people experience them — check the stats on the left side of this blog, if you’re not convinced.

Head injuries do have an impact. A big one. And as our tens of thousands of troops return from Iraq over the coming 18 months, we’re probably going to be seeing even more impact — not to mention a whole lot of PTSD fallout throughout this country. I’m trying to be hopeful, but I must say I’m worried.

I just hope we can figure out that head injuries matter, and that PTSD is something worth treating, before we have to learn too many lessons the really hard way.