Beyond acting out and behavioral challenges, there’s another way that an impacted Sense-Of-Self can affect you after TBI, and it’s psychological – and very much internal. It’s the constant nagging voice in the back of your head that’s always whispering (or yelling) about how you got this ‘wrong’ or that ‘wrong’… how you screwed this or that up, just like last time, and you’ll never get it right.
When you’re accustomed to doing things a certain way — thinking at a certain speed or able to perform at a certain level — if that is affected (or goes away), it can feel like everything is wrong. Wrong, all wrong. It can set you up for a constant stream of nagging insecurity that puts you on edge, pumps you full of panicked, anxious stress hormones, and drives you with a seemingly insatiable urge to GET IT RIGHT.
Even if what you’re doing isn’t technically wrong, still, a part of you thinks it is. It must be. Because you’re used to doing things a certain way. And anything different from what you’re used to — even if the differences are small — feels foreign and threatening. In a very real sense, our very existence is threatened, since the person we have always depended upon for survival, no long seems to be around. And if we aren’t the person we thought we were, well, who the hell are we?
I suspect this is even more pronounced with people who have sustained TBIs later in life, when their habits are set and they are accustomed to having a certain type of personality. With someone like me, who has experienced a number of concussions / mild traumatic brain injuries over the course of my life, I’ve been forced to alter my understanding of myself plenty of times. Sometimes not sure exactly who I am. But that doesn’t stop me from living my life. I try to stay flexible. It works for me.
But still, having your customary actions result in something very different from what you expected, time after time… having your internal experience not match what you expect, over and over… expecting your brain to think one thing and then having it think something different, from day to day, gets to be a drain. Who are you, anyway?
Without a familiar Sense-Of-Self, that nagging sense of uncertainty can really do a job on you. It can make you paranoid, hyper-sensitive and hyper-vigilant, and it can disrupt your sleeping patterns, which is about the last thing you want. Lack of sleep just makes everything worse, and so the worry about being somehow wrong or damaged feeds into the regular messages we get about ourselves, making relative small problems into huge deals — largely because of our interpretation of and reaction to them.
Let’s get back to Junior…
Junior starts hanging around with the wrong crowd. They’re the pot-heads and partiers who hang out after school at a playground not far from his house. He’s not going to football practice, and his buddies don’t know what to do with him, but he needs some sort of social interaction. Those “losers” he used to laugh at and beat up, are now the only people who actually make time for him. When he’s hanging around with them, nobody cares if he’s stupid or slow. All that matters is that he drinks and smokes pot and hangs out with them.
That’s easy enough to do. And his new friends realize that this clean-cut football player dude would probably do a pretty good job of getting hold of some beer for them on the weekends. He looks respectable, and with a fake id, he could probably pass for 21, if the light in the bar is dark enough and his id is good enough. They hook him up with a fake id, and drive him out to a bar a few towns over. They drop him off and tell him they’ll circle the block and pick up him up with the sixpack of beer he’s supposed to buy.
Junior takes a deep breath and steps into the bar. It’s smoky and dark and he’s never done this before. When he produces his id, his hands are shaking a little from all the adrenaline in his system. As he fakes his way through purchasing “a six” suddenly all the fogginess disappears. Adrenaline rushes through his veins, and he feels a clarity and a focus that he hasn’t felt in months. Suddenly, all of his senses are ON. He’s not dense, and he’s not retarded. He finds himself actually able to carry on a conversation with the man behind the counter, who is clearly skeptical about his age, but begrudgingly sells him a six-pack.
Feigning nonchalance, Junior tucks the six under his arm and saunters out to the street, where his friends are just now coming by to pick him up. Beneath his casual veneer, he’s feeling more alive than he can remember feeling in a very long time.
He did it! They drink the six-pack and toast their buddy, while driving around on back roads. For the first time in a long time, Junior feels like he actually achieved something useful. He’s part of a team again, and the adrenaline rush, the focus, the intensity of it all… well, it feels a little like old times. Except this time, it’s real-life, not just on a football field.
This time, too, the payoff is a buzz from the beer, on top of the adrenaline — and by the time his buddies drop him off at home, he’s feeling more normal than he has in a long, long time. In real time, it’s only been a few months of feeling “off”; in teen years, it’s been like half a lifetime.
But now he’s back.
Junior becomes very popular. He gets a reputation as somebody who’s willing to dare walking into a bar or a liquor store to buy booze, so more and more kids befriend him. Before long, he’s more popular as a “supplier” than he ever was as a football player, and the rush he gets from buying beer and liquor is bigger, better, and badder than anything he ever felt on the football field.
Plus, his fans are more passionate, more vocal, and where his community and support in playing football only happened during the season, now he’s got friends who seem to care about him and accept him, all year ’round. On top of that, the rush he gets isn’t from playing a kids’ game — it’s from doing something that is very, very adult. Even if it is with a fake id, he’s still participating in a man’s world, interacting with the men in the bars and liquor stores as a peer.
It doesn’t matter to him that he’s involved in illegal activities.It doesn’t matter to him that his
“friends” really care more about whether he’s willing to buy them beer and a fifth of Jack Daniels, than who he is as a person. It doesn’t matter to him that he’s putting his own safety and future on the line for his friends, or that he’s putting those companions in danger by giving them alcohol to drink while driving.
All that matters is that he once again has a sense of belonging. And every time he walks into a bar or a tavern or a liquor store, the rush he gets from being there in the line of fire, makes him feel more alive than he ever did as a varsity football player.
And when he’s not taking risks and pushing his chances? The dullness in his head, the numbness, the feeling that he’s always 15-30 seconds behind everyone else… it never goes away. He gets tired — so tired — and he gets confused. When he gets confused, he gets angry, and when he gets angry, he lashes out.
Yelling. Hitting things. Breaking things. Hitting and hurting people. Flying off the handle and then sinking into a pit of depression that lasts for days on end. When things are pushing him over the edge, all he can feel is his own pain, his own confusion, his own vulnerability that makes everything around him dangerous. A threat. Something to be fought against — and hurt, before it hurts him. When he’s not pushing his luck, going well over the line of safety, with his “friends” cheering him on, he’s either numb and dumb, or he’s on edge in a state of threat. Neither is good. Neither is how he wants to be. It’s not who he was raised to be, and it’s not who he used to be. Now he’s walking around in a stranger’s body, uncertain and uncomfortable. He would gladly go back to how things once were, but he just doesn’t know how.
This, then, is what losing your Sense-Of-Self can do to you — in this way, and in countless other ways.
It’s crushing. Absolutely crushing.