Don’t be surprised. Concussion, or mild traumatic brain injury — or any brain injury, for that matter, including stroke or some other brain “attack” — will do that to you.
Why? Because the connections in your brain have been rearranged a bit. Sometimes they get really rearranged, sometimes they shift a little bit. But often it’s the little shifts that make the biggest problems.
Because everything is “off” just a tiny bit, and it can create a huge amount of insecurity and anxiety and stress in your life, trying to figure out why the hell everything is working wrong, all of a sudden. On top of your own confusion and frustrations, you’re suddenly surrounded by a whole truckload of people who also wonder why the hell you’re “off” … and whose patience is getting shorter by the day (sometimes by the hour).
What – did you suddenly become an idiot? Did you suddenly get stupid? What’s wrong with you?
Actually, there’s nothing wrong with you — your brain has gotten its wiring scrambled a bit. The old connections that you built up over years and years have been disrupted, and your brain has to work all the harder to find new ways of making those old connections to do its job. It tires you out. and when it tires you out, it makes your brain work even less well than before. Everything’s messed up, and nothing makes sense. And the worse things get… well, the worse things get.
Of course it all makes perfect sense, in a way. The brain needs energy to function, and when it’s spending all its available energy on trying to things the same old way, when the same old way is exactly what’s not working, it’s exhausting. It’s like you’re beating your head against a wall — ramming up against it, time and time again, getting more and more frustrated with your failures, and working overtime trying to overcome the obstacles. But the obstacles aren’t moving. The harder you try, the worse it gets, and you spend your life marinating in a daily biochemical soup of stress hormones, adrenaline, epinephrine, cortisol… you name it … that tenderizes your life into a big piece of raw meat. It’s the ultimate paradox — the very things that should be made easier by trying harder, actually get harder. And the things that you normally don’t have to think about at all, you have to give a huge amount of thought to.
So, your brain gets completely depleted, drained of all energy… and hope… and nobody is the wiser for how this has all gone so wrong.
For those who understand, it’s quite logical. (I saw the new Star Trek the other night). But for those who can’t see and don’t know, it’s a huge problem. Why are you screwing up? Why can’t you get anything right? Why do you seem so dumb, all of a sudden?
Well, think of it this way — all those connections in your brain — the synapses — are like roads and bridges between the different parts of your brain. You’ve spent a whole lot of time building up the right connections, building the right bridges, paving the right roads. TBI is like an earthquake or a tsunami that tears through those connections and wipes them out. Maybe they get rebuilt over time, maybe they don’t. The point is, for the time being — who knows how long — those connections are frayed, the old bridges and bypasses are damaged, sometimes severely, and you have to do a combination of figuring out how to go around the wreckage and/or repair the damage.
It’s literally like the aftermath of a storm, the hours and days and weeks after a concussion or traumatic brain injury. Looking at pictures of the recent storms in the northeast, I’m reminded of TBI challenges. From house to house, from block to block, from town to town, you just don’t know till you investigate or go there, how much damage has happened. And you sometimes can’t tell from looking, what kind of infrastructure damage has taken place. A structure that looks sound may have significant cracks in the foundation. Or a bridge that looks like it’s out for good might be easy to repair.
You just don’t know till you try to travel the old routes in your brain. Then, by experience, by trial and error, you find out.
And it’s the finding out that’s the problem. Because as you go along, when you’re not expecting problems and they come up, it’s stressful, no doubt about it. It creates confusion. Frustration. Stress. It causes all these chemicals to be released into your brain and body that do not help you with your recovery. The more anxious and stressed and agitated you are, in fact the harder it is to recover. Because when you’re in fight-flight mode, parts of your system get shut down to conserve energy for basic survival. Your body doesn’t know any better. It’s just trying to protect you. But its way of protecting you is actually hurting you. It’s making you less capable of recovery, just when you need to be more capable.
So, here’s the thing — after concussion, after TBI, after brain injury of any sort, you’ve got to stay pretty chilled out. Relax. Not get bent out of shape over things. You have to find some peace, some calm. And that can be very difficult, indeed. You have to keep your system mellow and stable, so it can repair the damage.
Of course, the problem is, you’re all jazzed up and revved up, and your body and mind are going into overdrive, trying to correct the damage as soon as possible — ’cause your body and mind detect imminent danger, and their natural impulse is to fight it or flee it. So, you end up in this loop, this messy, messy loop of one problem after another, with no apparent way out.
But if you can see through to understanding that the connections in your brain are like roads and bridges after an earthquake… and if you can “get” that you need to either rebuild or divert the traffic in your synapses… and if you can find a way to test out the roads and bridges and see what’s going on there without getting too bent out of shape over it… you can start to rebuild your life and find new ways of dealing with this.
This is not to say you necessarily need to resign yourself to a “new normal” of disability and disadvantage. For a while, I myself thought I was going to have to do that. But then I chilled out, found someone to talk to regularly, and I was able to build back my abilities over time. And that’s good. It’s really good. I can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do things exactly the same way I have — and why would you want to? You’re your own person. But I do think that with the right approach, and an open mind, people can overcome a ton of stuff that they never thought they could.
It’s all about in the infrastructure. So keep on going. Concussion doesn’t have to make you crazy.