Things just aren’t the same after brain injury and it takes a long time to figure out what’s going on. I’ve been living with brain injury for nearly four decades now and I’m just beginning to understand why social situations, especially unexpected encounters with people I haven’t seen in a while, leave me speechless.
For a long time I got mad and beat myself up for being so stupid when I couldn’t talk like a normal person when I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a while. Eventually, I began to blame others (“people don’t like me”) and I avoided people because of the emotional discomfort I felt. This is pretty typical for us. I’ve often heard from members of my support group about losing friends and becoming isolated after their injuries. Now that I understand what’s going on, I’ve tried to explain that sometimes it’s us and not always them. There are things we can do to take control and normalize the situation.
For example, on Saturday I was out with my daughter-in-law and her toddler when I had a close encounter with that old-friend discomfort. We were walking in Williamsburg’s Merchants’ Square when we decided to step into the Carousel, an upscale children’s clothing store. I’ve known the store owner since we were much younger. Now nearly 60, I doubted that we’d see her in the store, so it would be “safe.” But there she was.
How are you? What are you up to? What are your children doing? How old is Elizabeth’s daughter? When was the last time we’ve seen each other? Are you still working at the same place? Remember that aerobics class? And when the Carousel was first opened? And our daughter’s weddings were on the same day!
The comments and questions came one after the other and I was having trouble keeping up and answering appropriately. I fought against the tendency of my brain to blank out entirely.
Slow processing is a big problem for me, especially as I age and one would expect to find social situations a little more challenging because of hearing acuity and normal wear and tear on aging brain cells. But slow processing has been a problem for me from the age of 22 because of diffuse axonal injury (DAI).
In my 1977 motor vehicle crash my head rocked back and forth after my car hit another car and my head cracked the windshield. It was thrown backwards into the headrest, forward into the steering wheel, sideways into the door window and on and on until it came to rest. The other driver found me in the floor of my car, in a day before seatbelts were the rule, with my head bleeding. This type of head injury pulls and twists the white matter pathways and networks as the brain bounces and twirls around inside the skull. The long cellular wiring, the called the “axon” between neuron nuclei and synaptic ends, where one neuronal cell links to the next, is pulled or twisted or snapped in two. One or a bunch of neurons stretch, tear, or rip apart. Damage to the axon wiring is diffuse, all over the place. Some DAI will heal; frayed and broken wiring will not. With practice, a work-around may be patched together.
It is for this reason that messages transmitted around the brain for decoding and processing for appropriate replies are slowed by skips and stops and track switches. I have difficulty thinking of the right word. I have trouble starting and stopping. I have that “deer in the headlights” look after you ask me a question. I ramble off in the wrong direction when I get nervous or upset. The more complex the sentence structure or older the information, the longer it takes to figure out. I’m slow on the uptake and the last one to get the joke. I stammer as I struggle to pull up a reasonable reply.
When was my granddaughter born? I don’t know yet but it’s coming. Give me a second. I’ll tell you after I finish thinking about my son and what he’s up to. Let’s take it one question at a time, please.
I felt ambushed when I encountered my well-meaning old friend in the Carousel. I do my best to avoid situations like this, but sometimes you just have to go shopping with your daughter-in-law and take a big chance!
A few years ago, I finally got some help understanding this phenomenon. After nearly three decades with a brain injury I didn’t know I had, I started to learn more about brain injury. In fact, I got so excited about what I learned that I went back to school and got a degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders. I wanted to help other people with brain injury learn about the role that their amazing brain plays in effective communication – listening, thinking, and speaking. It doesn’t just happen: it takes a lot of cells, chemicals, and structures working together in just the right combination with just the right timing.
Learning to cope in social situations is perhaps one of the most critical skills the person with brain injury wants to rehabilitate. That is, they want to know how to fix it after they accept that the discomfort they feel in social situations is a by-product of brain injury. It’s not their fault. It’s not the other person’s fault. It’s not anybody’s fault.
It is something, however, that they will have to work hard to improve. And feeling safe about running into old friends is something that’s worth taking a chance to enjoy.