I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my career path, lately. As I settle into this job, that’s not quite new anymore, and is starting to feel familiar, I think about all the years I struggled — for no good reason, really.
I really believe one of the biggest reasons I’m able to succeed where I’m at today, is because I’ve gotten away from the people in my past who treated me poorly because they didn’t understand why I was the way I was. Looking back, I had so many hopes and so many dreams, but people around me — parents, teachers, friends — who saw me stumble and fall over and over (because they thought I wasn’t trying hard enough or I was just being lazy), actively discouraged me from moving forward with my life and doing something truly great with it.
What a waste that was. Having trusted people tell you, “Well, just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at it,” was truly debilitating. I gave up on so many things, in part because people who claimed to care about me told me there was no way I could do them.
Stupid. If they’d realized that the reason I was failing at things was because they were too easy for me, they might have told me very different things.
Don’t get me wrong – I had plenty of reasons to struggle after each TBI. And I did have real problems with attention and extreme sensory sensitivities. But the fact of the matter is, things were made so much worse by actions, behaviors, and circumstances which lingered for years past the time when I was experiencing the worst of my symptoms. Those actions, behaviors and circumstances were created and cemented in place by the attitudes of people around me, how they treated/perceived me, and how I treated/perceived myself in return.
By any measure, TBI can be quite confusing and confounding to deal with. There are so many unknowns, so many surprises, so many setbacks, so many complications. It’s hard to know what’s going on and what to expect in the long term. The place where some of the biggest, most persistent problems arose for me, however, was not with the injury itself, but with the cascade of consequences that came from it, and the resulting anxiety and agitation that followed, long after the worst of my symptoms had either resolved or I’d come up with some compensatory techniques for dealing with them.
See, here’s the thing – TBI issues tend to resolve unevenly over time. Below is the progression of the different kinds of issues I’ve had with my TBIs.
They start off primarily physical and functional, then gradually took on more of an emotional and mental quality. Why? Because of all the chaos that was involved during the first 3-9 months after my injury/-ies, when my behavior became increasingly erratic and inexplicable, and the people around me became less and less tolerant of my difficulties — and so did I.
After all, none of us understood why I was behaving the way I was. And everybody — including myself — ganged up on me, trying to “train” me to behave and perform better with consequences, punishment, etc.
Now, with TBI, the whole consequences-based behavior modification approach does not work. Why is another post for another time, but bottom line is, behavior problems with TBI have their origins not in personal willpower and/or lack thereof. They have their origins in underlying neurological issues that need to be proactively managed with rest and awareness and mindfulness.
What happens when you get into the whole punishment thing, is that you’ve got a survivor who’s constantly being punished for things they didn’t intend to do, in the first place, and they become increasingly insecure and anxious about making a move, which is a huge drain on their cognitive resources. Worry and anxiety and constantly second-guessing yourself is exhausting, even without a TBI. But when a brain injury is involved, it can be cumulatively catastrophic.
In the diagram above, you can see the breakdown of issues over time. And you can also see how much energy the brain devotes to each aspect. Later on, when physical issues have resolved somewhat, the bulk of the issues are really around emotional and mental circumstances. At least, that’s how it is for me.
Which is where I come back to having a fighting chance after TBI…
If, after TBI, you take punishment and consequences out of the equation, and you manage the issues proactively with proper rest and coping strategies AND you resist the temptation to “beat up” on the TBI survivor (or yourself, if you’re the survivor), you give that person a fighting chance to get themself back together over the long term. If you remove the emotional burdens of confusion, self-doubt, insecurity, and anxiety over what might happen if you do something wrong, you free up a lot of mental energy for just living your life.
TBI has a way of slowing down processing speed, as well as cutting back on reserves of working memory. And it can manifest as forgetful and “mindless” behavior that others often interpret as “not caring” or “not trying”. When you stop haranguing a survivor (including yourself) for not getting it right… again… and you just let them work at things in the way they feel is best, giving them the support they need, amazing things can happen.
Including not burdening them with the sick, sinking feeling that there’s something wrong with them.