March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, and as someone who lives with a brain injury, I feel like I would be remiss if I missed the opportunity to help educate the public. I’ve written about this before, but it’s time to do it again.
My injury occurred December, 2010. I was trying to prevent a fight in the school’s computer lab, lost my balance, fell, and hit my head on a computer table, as I went down. It took several months, and many conversations with students before I fully realized what had happened. At first, I thought I had hit my head once and had remained conscious. Over time, I learned that I actually hit my head twice – once on the table top and once on the metal leg brace – and lost consciousness momentarily.
At the time, I was training for my very first triathlon. I rode my bike 3 miles to the city pool every morning and swam 1 mile before riding through the parking lot to my teaching job. My teacher friend, Molly, ran every day with our students, while I rode along on my bike. That week, I think we were up to 8 miles. After school, I would ride my bike home, stopping for any quick errands I needed to run.
The day of my injury, I didn’t ride my bike home. I had to wait for school to let out, and then have my daughter Tori pick me up and take me to the doctor. Everyone figured it was a “bump on the head” and my life would return to normal shortly. That is, after all, what we are all raised to believe from books, movies, and TV shows. That, however, is not reality.
I was diagnosed with “mTBI” or mild traumatic brain injury. The “mild” simply means consciousness was only lost momentarily, if at all. Many mild injuries also don’t result in bruising, bleeding, or swelling in the brain. They shake the brain, damage nerves and neural pathways, and cause many issues that may not immediately be attributed to the brain injury.
While every injury is different, these are some of the main symptoms found even in a mild injury:
- Sleep disturbance
- Sensitivity to noise or light
- Balance problems
- Decreased concentration and attention span
- Decreased speed of thinking
- Memory problems
- Depression and anxiety
- Emotional mood swings
Interestingly, some of these take some time to show up, and some hang on longer than others. I’m lucky, and so is my family, that I haven’t had any real issues with irritability. I think that has made everything else a lot easier. Fatigue seems to be my primary focus. I feel like even saying that makes it sound like maybe I should “just get over it.” But here’s the thing…See that whole list of symptoms? If I get worn down, all of those issues are worse.
So many things that used to be automatic, now take my full concentration. I use an electric toothbrush at home, but a manual toothbrush if I’m travelling. I recently visited my dad, and every single morning found myself waiting for my toothbrush to turn off. Just today, I got lost in town because I couldn’t remember how to get to Angel View. This is more involved than it may initially sound. Angel View was the go-to thrift store in Palm Springs for years. I’ve been in Monroe, WA for 2 years now, and we don’t have an Angel View. We have a Goodwill. I could have driven around forever looking for Angel View. I finally drove past the big Goodwill sign, and remembered that was actually what I was looking for. All that thinking and forgetting and remembering takes a lot of effort, and wears you out fast. Think about if you’ve ever had to take a long, difficult test. The level of concentration that required, is the level of concentration I require to get through the day.
I wear rings to help prevent myself from chewing and tearing at my fingernails. I read book series to help keep track of characters. I don’t remember peoples’ names (something I used to be very good at), and sometimes I walk away from a conversation and don’t realize until later that maybe the conversation wasn’t actually over. I have what’s called “emotional lability,” which means I may break out crying at any moment, for no reason. Some people also have uncontrollable laughing, but I haven’t had that yet. I have to read the aisle signs at the grocery store to find what I’m looking for At the end of every aisle, I have to take a minute and look both ways to determine where I am in the store. I’m also more sensitive. I went to the wrong car in the parking lot one day, and a lady chuckled at me a bit. She wasn’t being unkind, and I’m sure she meant no harm, but that didn’t matter at the time. I was devastated and sobbed the all the way home because “that lady laughed at me!” I have panic attacks, and some days don’t get out of bed because it’s just too hard.
If you look at me, or any other brain injury patient, it’s easy to think, “she looks fine.” Think about it. Most of the things I’ve just described, nobody is going to notice. If I’m going to start crying, I remove myself from the situation. My family keeps an eye on me, and helps me out if I get in a jam. Brain injuries are one of those “invisible injuries.” If you know someone with a brain injury and they seem fine one day, but the next day tell you they can’t do something, they aren’t faking. That’s just the way it works.
The life we’ve built since my injury is not something we ever thought we’d be doing. The dogs wake me up every morning, then I’m greeted by the alpacas, chickens and ducks. I feed everybody, collect eggs, and work on whatever project I’ve taken on. I’m surrounded by peace and beauty. Unless the grandbabies are visiting – then I’m surrounded by giggling, chattering, hugs and kisses.
Many brain injury patients lose their friends and families, because it’s so difficult to understand somebody who doesn’t understand themselves. Years ago, I joked that Charlie was like my own personal seat belt. Today, that’s even more true. He takes care of me and protects me in difficult situations, but still ensures I can do everything I want to. I’m so lucky that the people in my life have taken the time to learn what I need, and stood by me, and we’ve worked together to build a life that is truly a blessing.
For more information about brain injuries, visit this website: