Okay, let’s go deeper into this “ocean” of loss. I’ve talked a bit about the abstract, theoretical reasons why Self matters for TBI recovery. I’ve talked about how it’s critical to have a Sense-Of-Self, so that we can continue the work of our recovery, and just living our day-to-day lives. I’ve talked about how we need it, to be part of a community and share our lives with the people we love and need.
Now I want to to talk about the importance of restoring strong Sense-Of-Self in terms of the negative impact it can have on us, when we don’t have a strong sense — and the not-so-great things we’ll do to strengthen it. And I want to talk about it in terms of physiology, as well as psychology. The physical aspects of a disrupted Sense-Of-Self are, I believe, key contributors to mood disorders, behavior problems, poor choice-making, and the kinds of risk-taking activities that can not only get us in trouble socially, but can get us brain-injured all over again. I would even go so far as to say that a damaged Sense-Of-Self is one of the prime motivators that compels injured folks to engage in activities which almost guaranteed to injure them all over again. And if people tasked (officially or informally) with responding to head injuries / concussions — such as coaches, athletic trainers, teachers, doctors, family members, co-workers and employers — don’t address these core issues, the chances of the brain-injured individual putting themself in harm’s way can be pretty high.
See, here’s the thing… Let’s take a student athlete for example — a junior in high school on the football team. (I’ll call him Junior.) Suppose Junior has been having a difficult time — in school and in life. Like most kids, he’s a bit confused about life. His body is going through changes, and socially he feels inept. He’s had a couple of girlfriends, but he can’t seem to keep them for long. His friends all seem to have girlfriends, and he’s worried about his sexuality. The last thing he wants, is to be “queer” but girls don’t seem interested in him, and it always feels like he’s running an obstacle course, anytime he has to interact with them.
He’s a good football player, a really capable offensive guard on first string, but it’s the quarterback, tight end, and the wide receiver who get all the attention and glory. His dad isn’t around much, and when he is around, he’s pretty rough on Junior, who gets good grades — but his dad hardly notices. His football coach is the closest thing to a real “Dad” he has, and he really seems to care about Junior and how he’s doing in school and on the gridiron. The trainer and everybody else on the team are like extended family, and the only time he really feels like “himself” is when he’s playing football, practicing, spending time with the team. When football is out of season, there’s not much left for him to do. He’s got a part-time job as a night stocker at a local department store, and he’s active in local charity work, but there’s nothing like the feeling of being part of the team. He and his football buddies hang out in the off-season, working out at the gym and following the NFL season all winter long.
Then one day Junior gets concussed in a critical game. A teammate’s knee catches him on the temple, and he goes down briefly. Everything goes a little dim and quiet, then “the lights come back on” and he sees his buddies standing over him, asking him if he’s okay. They seem genuinely concerned — but more about continuing the game. Not wanting to be a wuss and let his team down, Junior jumps up, says he’s okay, tightens his chinstrap, and jogs back to the huddle. He sorta kinda hears what the next play is, but when he’s getting set to go, he’s not really sure what he’s supposed to do, exactly.
So, he just does his thing, blocking and tackling. A fiery new surge of energy pulses in his veins, and even though he misses blocks by a yard, and none of his tackles make direct contact, he feels as though he’s made them all, and nothing can touch him. Nothing at all. When the ball changes hands and he heads off the field, the coach and trainer look at him strangely, like there’s something wrong with him. But he gets a drink of Gatorade and sits down, like there’s nothing wrong. When it’s time to get back in the game, he jumps up and hustles out on the field ahead of everyone.
But he’s still not playing 100%. It’s becoming more and more apparent. He still feels juiced, but it doesn’t match his performance. His reaction time is slowed, he’s clumsy and misses blocks and tackles, and he has a few more hard falls that leave him dizzy and disoriented when he gets up. Junior struggles to understand what’s being said in the huddle, and if he didn’t have other players around him to cue off of, he’d have no idea what to do with himself out there. He’s bound and determined to stay in the game, however. It’s who he is. It’s what he does. He might not be the biggest star on the team, but he’s an integral part of the offense, and he can’t let his team down.
Next time the ball changes hands and he heads to the sidelines, he can see his coach and trainers looking at him with real concern. The trainer comes over and asks him a few questions. When he replies, the trainer tells him he’s got to sit out the rest of the game. They didn’t see him get hit, but he sure as hell acting like he got his bell rung, and he’s not 100%. He’s done a good job, the trainer tells him, but he’s got to sit out the rest of the game.
Junior is devastated. The men he looks up to, who are just about the only reliable father figures in his life, are doubting his ability to play. He’s letting them down. His teammates look at him askance, when they hear he’s benched, but he shrugs it off and tells himself that somebody else needs a chance to get in the game. Watching from the sidelines, as his team advances down the field to win, he cheers along with the rest of the team and celebrates their victory. But he’s not feeling completely “there” and the celebration feels weirdly remote to him.
In the locker room afterwards, the lights overhead are blinding and the loud echoes of cheering, roughhousing teammates are more than he can take. He puts a towel over his head to block the light and tries to shut his ears, but he can’t get away from the glare and the deafening roar. The trainer comes over and tells him he needs to see a doctor, because he might have had a concussion. Then the trainer calls his mom to warn her. His dad isn’t home — he’s traveling for business. And instead of being one of the jubilant players who helped his team to victory, he’s now a mama’s boy who’s pushed to the margins and can’t be part of the celebration.
The only good thing about this, is that his dad isn’t around to give him shit about being getting hurt and being a wuss who couldn’t suck it up.
The doctor visit results in the worst news possible : CONCUSSION. “Probably a mild one,” his doctor says, but Junior wonders what’s so mild about this killer headache, confusion, the killer light and noise, and gradually feeling like he’s been run over by a Mack truck. The doctor prescribes complete rest for a week — no television, no reading, no activity of ANY kind, including physical activity. Definitely no football. Not till his symptoms clear.
Junior sits it out. He stays home from school, chafing under the change to his daily routine and the loss of his friends around him. Some of his teammates come over to the house to visit, but he’s so tired and out of it, he can’t spend much time with them. His symptoms don’t seem to be going away, no matter how much he rests. No screens – no television, no iPhone, no video games. No homework, either. He never thought he’d miss homework, but he does. He’s going out of his mind, climbing out of his skin, and he can’t seem to get his bearings. He feels slow and stupid. Dense. Retarded.
He’s not himself, and the tenuous hold he had on his evolving identity, is slowly slipping away. His friends are all busy doing what they do, and his team has moved on to post-season play, with a chance at the championship. He tries to adjust to things, tries to stay positive and up-beat, sitting on the bench at football games for moral support. But without being part of his team as an active member, he feels like he’s been set adrift on a raft in a vast sea, as all the other boats sail right past him and leave him in the dust. His teammates start giving him looks that say, “What are you doing here, loser?”
He stops going to football games completely.