Affect can be a fickle mistress. When affect works as it should, we are unaware of its role. We laugh, we cry, we snort, we sigh, we get serious, and we devolve into silliness. And we do it all as normal responses to the vagaries of life. But woe to your affect when you suffer a brain injury and worse to you and your affect if trauma rides along.
Brain injury can obliviate your affect. Every now and then some neurons may short circuit and fire and your affect will rise like a wounded lion. Then it will disappear again. The idea of affect consumes your mind, as in this is weird, where did it go, why can’t I feel, will I feel again.
With treatment, yes, you will. But affect becomes fickle. Affect will disappear on a whim or it will go off in unexpected directions. You never quite know how you’ll feel; you never know if you’ll be able to laugh with others or not; you never know how you’ll react to unexpected situations (which for me are often crappy though I try to talk about and reminisce the less-frequent good situations to drown the crappy ones). And trauma adds its own fun dimension to the latter.
Trauma changes you so that you can’t trust, and the dates of your trauma become imprinted in your body such that you never know how the anniversary(ies) will affect you. One year, you’re fine. Your affect ticks along in happy mode except for the day itself and maybe a few before. Other years, you’re in bed with a man cold for a month or you develop a weird skin thing for three months or you land in the ER.
After a decade, and now coming up to 14 years for me, you get the sense that people are a tad tired of your affect diving around the time of your anniversary. This reminds me of someone I knew before my brain injury. This person had a particular issue stemming from childhood and that was also a current problem for them. Invariably our conversations would turn to this issue. At first, I tried to advise after I listened awhile, as I’m wont to do. But after a couple of years, I realized that the person was stuck, they weren’t for whatever reason able to resolve or come to terms with their insolvable situation, and all they needed was for me to listen. So I did. On my bad days, I’d get a bit impatient but tried to keep that to myself. The problem I had wasn’t listening to the repeating track this person was stuck on but other people’s reactions to me listening. They wanted me to break it off; they said there was no point, this person was too needy. Yeah. So what? The critical ones may not have been as needy in their own minds, but they leaned on my listening talent as much as the needy person did. At the time, I could handle it. I had the empathy and patience and concentration to listen. It didn’t cost me to listen but time. And I could manage time so that these conversations didn’t affect my own deadlines or work or other relationships (other than I was on the phone when others wanted to talk to me, like right now). Except for people who hold down multiple jobs, time can be managed if you choose to learn how. Listening is a mindset as much as a skill.
The neediness of this person became a problem after my injury. I lost all those skills and talents, and “I” was gone while still being physically present. And from the first anniversary of the injury on almost everyone left as a result, one by one, and they continue to do so. After all, now I’m supposed to be better, right? Isn’t that what all these treatments are supposed to do: make me normal, able to function fully independently? But the expectation of me from the beginning was that I would hurry up and get better, be positive, look on the bright side, get over myself, move on — pick your favourite deny-reality phrase so that the needy person (me) will shut up already and stop rocking the reluctant listener’s comfy boat or requiring unending help. So when I hear those same kinds of reactions today — even the look-how-much-you’ve-improved (like I don’t know) cheering up kind — I hear them echoing from the past into the present. Affect killed in the past now that it’s alive again demands to be felt. And on anniversary days or in anniversary weeks or months, trauma adds its own clangour call, and all you want to do is emote it and be heard.
I get that people have an innate desire to cheer up their fellow humans and often that comes in the form of trying to get them to stop “whining” and to focus on gratitude moments, but sometimes, paradoxically, the best way to cheer a person up in the midst of trauma and/or also in an anniversary week, is to listen and empathize and perhaps share similar experiences and show small gestures of kindness, for as long as it takes. Kindnesses go a long, long way. Then call their therapist or doctor up and tell them to up their game.