Traumatic Brain Injury: The Corner and The Uphill Climb

I wouldn’t want to perpetuate any kind of mythos that a person with a brain injury is the mental equivalent of a two year old. Through a alchemic combination of physical memory and stubborn will, I also accomplished some pretty major things while I was ill.

I performed at a cowboy poetry event three weeks after my accident. I started painting figurines and selling then at craft fairs. I didn’t go to school, but I kept up with all my school work (which I think says more about my school than it does me). I had moments of lucidity, times when I was on top of my game. But the strain was enormous. I slept 18 hours a day. I had a pretty wicked Advil habit. I took a million and one herbal supplements (often 60-100 pills at a time, 3 times a day). I would promptly forget any decision or instructions I received.

I don’t know when you could say I turned the corner. I know that by the time I was assessed by insurance for my “permanent disability” I considered myself “cured”.

What I had actually developed were a rather stellar set of coping mechanisms. I became a list-maker and a notetaker, (this is true of many people with brain injuries) because it was a lot easier for me to read and reread the things I had to do, than it was to have to hear it from anyone, no matter how organized.

I got really good at selectively tuning out streams of stimulus. Perhaps the hardest thing for me to do, though, is to differentiate between what is desirable stimulus, and what is undesirable. I cannot tune out a television. If it is on, I am glued to it, no matter how inane the programming. It’s not that I like it, it’s that I cannot block out both the flashing light and the noise. If my husband and I have a conversation, the radio or the TV must be muted, because I cannot selectively tune into him, and tune out other auditory stimulus.

When I watch TV, I prefer to have captions. I don’t absolutely need them, but it improves my comprehension of shows that are heavily verbal. I hate making phone calls because the interpretation of sounds without visual cues is fairly difficult for me.

I have lost most of my sense of smell. I still smell something but I have trouble identifying them. I do still have physiological reactions to smells though– the smell of lavender relaxes me, vinegar makes my nose wrinkle, and the scent of my husband is comforting.

I pretty much have lost any ability to multitask. This is not really a negative, though. I am easily overstimulated, and my threshold gets lower as I get tired or stressed.

I have trouble articulating thoughts sometimes. This is because thoughts start as a conceptualization that get clothed in words when you have to share them with others. So even though I can clearly visualize what I want to say, it’s difficult to articulate. I have to sneak up on it; start at the end and work my way back, describe concrete nouns in a way evocative of charades, sometimes literally press pause on the conversation until the words settle out.

The coping mechanisms I use mean that most people would never notice my shortcomings.The lists make me super-organized; many people have told me they wished they could be as organized as I am. But if you can’t trust your brain, you have to be able to trust your system.

I’ve become a good listener, especially short term memory. Because comprehension can be elusive, I will repeat back sections of people’s words: “When you say, “xyz,” what exactly do you mean by that? Is it like this?” This kind of close attention to their words makes people nervous sometimes, but I find it prevents costly mistakes from miscommunications. However. once, a conversation is over, particularly if there’s nothing I need to record from it, it goes straight into deep storage. It’s in the vault, baby.

For instance, if I have a phone conversation with my mother, we chat about this and that, and then I hang up, my husband will often ask, “What was that about?” My response is nearly always, “What was what about?” It had no bearing on anything I was required to do, so it had been archived.

If he presses me, I repeat the conversation back, word for word. Without preparation, i can’t encapsulate it, I can’t even tell you what topics we touched on. I have to play it back to know what happened.

When I say I’ve lost the ability to multitask, I see that as a good thing. It means that my monofocus on what I’m trying to do is highly efficient. My biggest downfall is that I am easily distracted. If my attention is swayed from what I’m doing, I’m lost. I might as well just go do whatever captured my attention. Like a dog, there’s a certain little ritual I have to do to “settle down” into a task. If I get interrupted, there’s a 10-15 minute window where I circle the dog-bed again and get comfortable.

One thing that I have lost, something I miss, is my music. I used to big pretty big into music, especially medieval and renaissance folk music. I sang and played a few instruments, and i also did musical theatre. What I’ve lost, i think, is discernment. For the most part music is just more noise, grating away at my nerves. Live music is better. I think it has something to do with sound quality. Listening to music while doing something else constitutes multitasking, and overstimulates me. Occasionally, I’ll listen to a video on Youtube while I read columns or something, or I’ll sing to myself while I do the dishes or something. I don’t even keep audiofiles on my computer.

Considering what I’ve gained I don’t mind much of what I’ve lost. But I’ll tell you more about that next time…

Did you miss part one and two? Next article, and the follow-up


2 thoughts on “Traumatic Brain Injury: The Corner and The Uphill Climb”

  1. I have lost most of my sense of smell. I still smell something but I have trouble identifying them. I do still have physiological reactions to smells though– the smell of lavender relaxes me, vinegar makes my nose wrinkle, and the scent of my husband is comforting.

    I have many questions: How does that work exactly? As in, how long does the memory of a smell last? Do you mean something like… you have to be told anew what the name of this or that scent is? If you spend the morning enjoying your lavender plant, and then you go to town, say, and walk into a store permeated by the smell of lavender candles, are you going to need to be reminded what that is? Is your sensitivity to and appreciation of smells diminished, or just confined to a subcognitive awareness?

    I don’t know enough about how the olfactory receptors work to understand what’s going on in the brain as you process a scent, but I know I have some sort of memory of various smells, though not in the same way as other senses. I can “see” someone’s appearance, and I can instantly “hear” a song in my head by thinking of it, but I can’t “smell” a favorite scent, though the act of trying to consciously do so stirs some sort of feeling of recognition in my brain, one I can’t explain.

    You know how important music is to me, and how I’d rather be dead than deaf, but a conscious appreciation of smell is almost as important. I’ve long been interested in the way it acts as an intensifier, the way memories and thoughts become stronger and much more vivid when associated with a certain smell. For me, it’s much like a mystical thing, to use music, smell, and a visual art like photography or painting to achieve some sort of benignly altered state. The thought of losing that in any capacity is truly horrifying to me.

  2. Actually, I use the memory associations to identify smells. I don’t smell mint; i smell toothpaste. Thats how i know it’s mint.

    The smell is keyed very precisely. if it’s a different type of mint, sometimes I “smell” those little pink scotch mints, candycanes, etc. This weekend i met an herbalist who gave me wild mint to try; It smelled like a certain section of our creek where there is a large patch of wild mint. Vis a vis your question about lavender, lavender candles smell nothing like a lavender plant. I hate candles and artificial scents, because I simply smell the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I know that there are artificial smells present because of the type of headache I get.

    But, as soon as that memory trigger fades, I don’t smell anything again. When it’s new, the brain rates it higher in terms of bringing it to my attention, because it might have meaning. I’ve often thought it interesting that epileptics reportedly smell burning toast before a seizure. It’s the brain’s way of reporting a wiring issue. Scent used to be one of the most important senses in terms of survival, and it’s actually the one that TBI survivors lose most often, followed by sight.

    My ability to differentiate between smells is fairly limited if I don’t have a memory trigger to help me identify it. I identify the smell of burning, the smell of cooking, the smell of flowers. Only reason helps me to differentiate any further, and the information is not stored in visceral memory; i won’t remember for the next time that a sweetgrass smudge smells a lot like pot; i’ll just wonder who the hell is burning pot in a public place.

    Interestingly, taste is not affected (i don’t think) At least, I don’t find food bland and have to oversalt it, as I’ve heard that other people with no taste do. I do like complex tastes; I’m in raptures when I discover an interesting taste combo like granny smith apple slices and mustard on porkchops. Try it! It’s awesome.

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