Nov 102010

It doesn’t take much to derail a person with a brain injury. There you are, trucking along, feeling pleased with how functional you are, how productive, how much better you feel, and your dishwasher breaks down and you’re a puddle on the floor.

Well, not quite that bad this time. Coping, problem solving, decision making: these are all skills a person with damage to the prefrontal cortex either does not have or don’t work well. So when the slightest problem crops up, the brain freezes, the person feels overwhelmed, and shut down happens. It’s compounded by the fact that concentration may be missing, compromised, or easily disrupted. Being able to remember the sequence of events, what has happened, what must happen for the dishwasher to be fixed or the Internet to go back up is also not so hot. Hence, notes in daytimers and notes in phone notebooks. When more than one unexpected problem happens, the likelihood of meltdown increases. I had three, and all just days before my week of rest to prepare for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) when I planned to write my next novel. Needless to say, there was no rest.

In the earlier years of my life with brain injury, it didn’t take much to derail me. Spilling a glass of water all over my book, and I’d be spilling tears too, for there is an emotional component to all this cognitive failure. It’s like the sky has literally fallen on your head and you don’t know how to get it off. On the other hand, a big problem would result in no emotional response at all. Cognitively, you’d struggle to figure out what to do as the problem is growing in front of your eyes and you’d pretty quickly devolve into non-responsiveness. You’d have to wait 48 to (in later years, as I got better) 12 hours for your brain to start working again and provide a solution or make a decision or just respond by, for example, calling the tenant and say, you agreed to do this, you need to do it. The first inkling you’d get that your brain had unfrozen was that you’d be yelling at the walls or bawling in the shower. After that was done with, you could think. At first, thinking involved calling up every person I knew so I’d know what the situation really was, what I should think about it, and what kind of decision I should make. Today, I still have problems with decision making but I can do it on my own. Honest.

But though I respond quicker, and I can even think in real time (very useful when negotiating a deal) what I still cannot do is continue my routine when a problem crops up, like the dishwasher not working and the Internet going down. It freezes my brain; it consumes what little is working; and I cannot focus on anything else for quite some time. But what I have discovered is that if a problem goes on and on like the bloody Energizer bunny, I can start to resume my routine, albeit limited by my diminishing energy – whatever is left after coping with the problems, I can use for writing. However, there are health consequences, and it does result in going backwards. It sucks sulphurous eggs, but what can you do. At least in the end, I did begin NaNoWriMo.

  • The brain is our most complex organ. It controls our breathing, our senses, our movements, our responses to stimuli and thought processes. It is so delicately balanced that any injury to it can affect our ability to communicate, process and even function. Yet injuries to the brain are easily sustained in incidents at work, vehicle collisions and other accidents that can occur every day.