Before having a brain injury I had never given any thought to what the internal process was that made me the person I was, I was just who I was and that was that, it would never changed, I was me, it was ‘hard wired’. Whatever ups and downs I might experience I would always be able to tackle them as me.
What once felt hard wired now feels as though it was built on foundations of sand. Over time I have made a good physical and cognitive recovery, I still live a life similar to that before the brain injury. OK I get more tired and stress and frustration come more easily but essentially the main pieces are back in play.
I appreciate that after a life threatening and traumatic experience I might have a different perspective on life but it’s totally different, and runs far deeper, than that. As explained in the ‘bizarre’ page its very hard to put into words, but seeing as words are the only tool available to me I will have a go!
However the crux of the matter is that these things happen on a subconscious level. Within the context of a specific situation we might tell ourselves to calm down or lighten up to have a fleeting influence on how we behave but our overall self is shaped, moulded and finished through a process we are unaware of. It’s just the way it is, that’s who we are, it quite simply couldn’t come more naturally. However as natural and effortless as it feels it is actually the result of the brain endlessly changing and adapting and continuously forming complex networks involving billions of neurons.
Before the brain injury you never stopped and thought that every second billions of neurons are firing to create a sense of who you are, if someone had asked you if you even had a sense of who you are you probably would have thought it a ridiculous question. However even as you walk down the street neurons are firing all over the place just processing information and deciding what information needs to be brought to your conscious mind, what you will react to, what will evoke an emotion in you, what is of no interest etc etc. Every waking second in every situation this process is going on. We are unaware of it and it is subtle to the point of being invisible, a seamless and perfectly honed machine.
However it is this machine that forms us, and who we are, for it is the things that are brought to our attention, and how we react to them that form our personality and therefore who we are. This is from the tiniest detail, for example if you acknowledge and like the shape or colour of a car that drives by. To things like your values and opinions, for example the natural way you react to things in the news depending on these values and principles. To how you deal with decisions and challenges in life, if you are quick thinking and pragmatic or take time to think and gather information, and everything inbetween.
It is this same process that controls what hormones and chemicals are released so when we are happy or sad, angry or relaxed, and in turn this forms our wider traits such as if we are confident or not, quiet or outspoken etc. And information from this overall process is used to make decisions, in a split second our brain will process incredibly complex data in a situation giving us information as to how different outcomes will impact on us allowing us to make the decision that best suits us. Again we aren’t aware that the brain is doing this, we naturally make decisions and most decisions are made instinctively, but again what feels like something instinctive that required no effort or thought actually had the worlds largest computer giving it its all to allow you make that ‘instinctive’ decision.
It’s funny in that now it seems so obvious to me that a brain injury is bound to rock you to your core as your brain is you, it is your everything, and it largely isn’t understood by either science, or ourselves in terms of the role it plays in our lives. Therefore we shouldn’t expect to be able to explain what is happening and those around us should be able to grasp the enormity or our situation. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that!
The problem is that if you weren’t aware of this process you don’t understand it, you can’t fix it or rebuild it. You have no point of reference as to how to deal with this. Something you never knew existed has gone, the foundation that was meant to be solid has crumbled. Furthermore you have an endless barrage of random thoughts, you can’t relax or settle down so it’s hard to actually know what you are really feeling as you don’t get enough peace to actually see that far into yourself.
Your interaction with people around you is a key part of your day to day well being and your overall recovery. People who are fighting addiction have a term for those that haven’t experienced addiction which is ‘normies’. This term is used in the context of people being unable to understand addiction if they haven’t experienced it. It is often used as a term of either endearment, or frustration, towards people who, through no fault of their own are unable to understand or relate to what an addict is going through. The hardest aspect of this for brain injury sufferers are that some people will think your problem has an easy solution and you just need to change your mindset, after all we all feel sad and stressed but you have to deal with it and move on. This is made worse by the fact that often you ‘seem’ fine, you are walking and talking and seem to have recovered well. When people used to ask my partner how I was she always wanted to say “he’s ok but he’s not OK”. Yeah to look at and have a superficial chat with he is fine but he’s actually very far from OK.
I always say that if this had happened to some else I would have been the worst person to support them, I would have been the first person to be saying ‘come on mate you need to be positive, you are doing sport again, driving again, back in work, its all good, just think about what you might have lost and look at what you still have’.
People could see I was hurting and wanted to do all they could to help me but it was generally help and advice given in the context of their own life experiences. This is natural and understandable as many of my symptoms were things others had experienced to some degree such as depression, stress and frustration, however others had experienced it within the context of a working brain, with some sense of self, a firmer foundation.
The hardest time for me came about 6 months after my brain injury when I was driving again, back at work, living in my own house and doing the hobbies I used to love. Up until that point I kept thinking that ‘once I am driving again I will feel like myself, when I have my old life and routine back and will obviously feel like myself’. Because pre brain injury that is your only point of reference for what will influence how you feel, what is happening in your external environment, how ‘good’ your life is.
As we all know it’s no longer that easy, language is woefully inadequate to explain what it is to live without the hard deck of a sense of self, something concrete on which we stand:
Foundations of sand..........................................................................................
So what is going on in there...
Our amazing brains are learning and changing throughout life and our personalities are changing too, being shaped by our lives and our experiences and the significant others around us that influence and inspire us. As time passes we are able to reflect on how we have changed as people and apply some form of reasoning as to why these changes have happened.