What Brain Injury survivors want you to know
I need a lot more rest than I used to. I’m not being lazy. I get physical fatigue as well as a “brain fatigue.” It is very difficult and tiring for my brain to think, process, and organize. Fatigue makes it even harder to think.
My stamina fluctuates, even though I may look good or “all better” on the outside. Cognition is a fragile function for a brain injury survivor. Some days are better than others. Pushing too hard usually leads to setbacks, sometimes to illness.
Brain injury rehabilitation takes a very long time; it is usually measured in years. It continues long after formal rehabilitation has ended. Please resist expecting me to be who I was, even though I look better.
I am not being difficult if I resist social situations. Crowds, confusion, and loud sounds quickly overload my brain, it doesn’t filter sounds as well as it used to. Limiting my exposure is a coping strategy, not a behavioral problem.
If there is more than one person talking, I may seem uninterested in the conversation. That is because I have trouble following all the different “lines” of discussion. It is exhausting to keep trying to piece it all together. I’m not dumb or rude; my brain is getting overloaded!
If we are talking and I tell you that I need to stop, I need to stop NOW! And it is not because I’m avoiding the subject, it’s just that I need time to process our discussion and “take a break” from all the thinking. Later I will be able to rejoin the conversation and really be present for the subject and for you.
Try to notice the circumstances if a behavior problem arises. “Behavior problems” are often an indication of my inability to cope with a specific situation and not a mental health issue. I may be frustrated, in pain, overtired or there may be too much confusion or noise for my brain to filter.
Patience is the best gift you can give me. It allows me to work deliberately and at my own pace, allowing me to rebuild pathways in my brain. Rushing and multi-tasking inhibit cognition.
Please listen to me with patience. Try not to interrupt. Allow me to find my words and follow my thoughts. It will help me rebuild my language skills.
Please have patience with my memory. Know that not remembering does not mean that I don’t care.
Please don’t be condescending or talk to me like I am a child. I’m not stupid, my brain is injured and it doesn’t work as well as it used to. Try to think of me as if my brain were in a cast.
If I seem “rigid,” needing to do tasks the same way all the time; it is because I am retraining my brain. It’s like learning main roads before you can learn the shortcuts. Repeating tasks in the same sequence is a rehabilitation strategy.
If I seem “stuck,” my brain may be stuck in the processing of information. Coaching me, suggesting other options or asking what you can do to help may help me figure it out. Taking over and doing it for me will not be constructive and it will make me feel inadequate. (It may also be an indication that I need to take a break.)
You may not be able to help me do something if helping requires me to frequently interrupt what I am doing to give you directives. I work best on my own, one step at a time and at my own pace.
If I repeat actions, like checking to see if the doors are locked or the stove is turned off, it may seem like I have OCD — obsessive-compulsive disorder — but I may not. It may be that I am having trouble registering what I am doing in my brain. Repetitions enhance memory. (It can also be a cue that I need to stop and rest.)
If I seem sensitive, it could be emotional lability as a result of the injury or it may be a reflection of the extraordinary effort it takes to do things now. Tasks that used to feel “automatic” and take minimal effort, now take much longer, require the implementation of numerous strategies and are huge accomplishments for me.
We need cheerleaders now, as we start over, just like children do when they are growing up. Please help me and encourage all efforts. Please don’t be negative or critical. I am doing the best I can.
Don’t confuse Hope for Denial. We are learning more and more about the amazing brain and there are remarkable stories about healing in the news every day. No one can know for certain what our potential is. We need Hope to be able to employ the many, many coping mechanisms, accommodations and strategies needed to navigate our new lives. Everything single thing in our lives is extraordinarily difficult for us now. It would be easy to give up without Hope.
Created with the assistance of the "Amazing" Brain Injury Survivor Support Group of Framingham, MA.
Excerpted from Lost & Found: A Survivor's Guide for Reconstructing Life After a Brain Injury by Barbara J. Webster. © 20ll by Lash & Associates Publishing/Training Inc. Used with permission. Click here for more information about the book.
Rest, no background noise
I would love to have my own quiet room. I need more rest than before. If there are still children living at home, it is nice for them too to be able to go on and invite friends for example in their own space.
I would appreciate it if you often use headphones for the TV or radio when I'm in the same room and not watching the TV. Conversely, of course, it is also nice if i put headphones on when you do not want to watch TV or listen to the radio. I'm easily tired of background noises..en indeed sometimes irritable.
I would like you to guard that not everyone is talking together at the same time. Maybe you can ask people beforehand and if it happens anyway, just raise your hand and help people to remember that I can not stand it.
I can not filter background noise and cannot follow a conversation with background noises. I can become very tired, even over-stimulated (that feels like sick), or irritable. I also forget much earlier what has been said. Someone called it an "energy drain".
Things NOT to Say to Someone
with a Brain Injury
Here are a few things you might find yourself saying that are probably not helpful:
1. You seem fine to me.
The invisible signs of a brain injury — memory and concentration problems, fatigue, insomnia, chronic pain, depression, or anxiety — these are sometimes more difficult to live with than visible disabilities. Research shows that having just a scar on the head can help a person with a brain injury feel validated and better understood. Your loved one may look normal, but shrugging off the invisible signs of brain injury is belittling. Consider this: a memory problem can be much more disabling than a limp.
2. Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough (you’re lazy).
Lazy is not the same as apathy (lack of interest, motivation, or emotion). Apathy is a disorder and common after a brain injury. Apathy can often get in the way of rehabilitation and recovery, so it’s important to recognize and treat it. Certain prescription drugs have been shown to reduce apathy. Setting very specific goals might also help.
Do beware of problems that mimic apathy. Depression, fatigue, and chronic pain are common after a brain injury, and can look like (or be combined with) apathy. Side effects of some prescription drugs can also look like apathy. Try to discover the root of the problem, so that you can help advocate for proper treatment.
3. You’re such a grump!
Irritability is one of the most common signs of a brain injury. Irritability could be the direct result of the brain injury, or a side effect of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, sleep disorders, or fatigue. Think of it as a biological grumpiness — it’s not as if your loved one can get some air and come back in a better mood. It can come and go without reason.
It’s hard to live with someone who is grumpy, moody, or angry all the time. Certain prescription drugs, supplements, changes in diet, or therapy that focuses on adjustment and coping skills can all help to reduce irritability.
4. How many times do I have to tell you?
It’s frustrating to repeat yourself over and over, but almost everyone who has a brain injury will experience some memory problems. Instead of pointing out a deficit, try finding a solution. Make the task easier. Create a routine. Install a memo board in the kitchen. Also, remember that language isn’t always verbal. “I’ve already told you this” comes through loud and clear just by facial expression.
5. Do you have any idea how much I do for you?
Your loved one probably knows how much you do, and feels incredibly guilty about it. It’s also possible that your loved one has no clue, and may never understand. This can be due to problems with awareness, memory, or apathy — all of which can be a direct result of a brain injury. You do need to unload your burden on someone, just let that someone be a good friend or a counselor.
6. Your problem is all the medications you take.
Prescription drugs can cause all kinds of side effects such as sluggishness, insomnia, memory problems, mania, sexual dysfunction, or weight gain — just to name a few. Someone with a brain injury is especially sensitive to these effects. But, if you blame everything on the effects of drugs, two things could happen. One, you might be encouraging your loved one to stop taking an important drug prematurely. Two, you might be overlooking a genuine sign of brain injury.
It’s a good idea to regularly review prescription drugs with a doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask about alternatives that might reduce side effects. At some point in recovery, it might very well be the right time to taper off a drug. But, you won’t know this without regular follow-up.
7. Let me do that for you.
Independence and control are two of the most important things lost after a brain injury. Yes, it may be easier to do things for your loved one. Yes, it may be less frustrating. But, encouraging your loved one to do things on their own will help promote self-esteem, confidence, and quality of living. It can also help the brain recover faster.
Do make sure that the task isn’t one that might put your loved one at genuine risk — such as driving too soon or managing medication when there are significant memory problems.
8. Try to think positively.
That’s easier said than done for many people, and even harder for someone with a brain injury. Repetitive negative thinking is called rumination, and it can be common after a brain injury. Rumination is usually related to depression or anxiety, and so treating those problems may help break the negative thinking cycle.
Furthermore, if you tell someone to stop thinking about a certain negative thought, that thought will just be pushed further towards the front of the mind (literally, to the prefrontal cortex). Instead, find a task that is especially enjoyable for your loved one. It will help to distract from negative thinking, and release chemicals that promote more positive thoughts.
9. You’re lucky to be alive.
This sounds like positive thinking, looking on the bright side of things. But be careful. A person with a brain injury is six times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than someone without a brain injury. Some may not feel very lucky to be alive. Instead of calling it “luck,” talk about how strong, persistent, or heroic the person is for getting through their ordeal. Tell them that they’re awesome.
Written by Marie Rowland, PhD, EmpowermentAlly. included on this page with her consent. www.brainhealthconsulting.com.