Brain Health

Eighteen Years, Eleven Months, Three Weeks

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When I first met a person who’d lived with brain injury for twenty years, it seemed so far into the future for me. I could barely comprehend living with brain injury that long. I expected to be fully recovered by that point, myself. Roll eyes here. I was working hard on improving my health, pursuing treatments I could afford, and with the help of a therapist from Community Care Access Centre (CCAC), increasing my functionality more and more.

Eighteen years, eleven months, and three weeks after my injury, I’ve lost the CCAC help due to government cutting back on health care for brain injury to pay for administrators. I’ve suddenly regained reading comprehension and am practicing most days to keep progressing back to my old reading ability (one of my health care providers doesn’t think that’s possible). I’ve lost all the gains I made in my functionality — I’m still hanging on by sheer willpower to writing a novel every November. And I’m trying hard to keep up Psychology Today blogging even while I can’t remain consistent in writing here or on my political blog. I’m facing the horribly unbelievable fact that I won’t have fully recovered by twenty years. The grief is real.

Brain Power

Reading Evaluation Results for Comprehension Issues After Concussion

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I wrote last time about my reading evaluation. This post is on my results. When you have a brain injury and rehab tells you that you can’t read anymore, you assume that they’ve done a thorough assessment and analysis of your reading cognition.

You’d assume wrong.

Reaction

In 2005, five years after I was told I wasn’t reading the ubiquitous mass paperback in my hand, I had a qEEG done, which told me the neurophysiological basis for why I had so much difficulty reading. The first week of June 2018, I underwent three hours of testing over two days that assessed my auditory, visual, and language foundations of reading; my fluency; my comprehension; and my concept imagery.

Reading illustration of how we read

Huh? Yeah, I’m still learning these too. They match with my experience, but they introduce concepts that I haven’t heard of before or only knew about from a different perspective. I learnt more about where my reading difficulties lie.

My very first thought was: why did I not have these tests done during rehab in 2000? Why did the medical system not assess all my cognitions with full, appropriate qEEGs and these kinds of reading, writing, and math tests?

If I had been properly assessed, not just given a neuropsychological test people with high intelligence can ace, injury or no injury, I would have had a complete picture and been given a precise scientific and medical explanation of why I couldn’t read anymore, not just a general statement of you can’t read.

I also don’t even know how to process the fact that when I asked my neuropsychiatrist for help with reading that the reading expert he consulted pointed to the aphasia website and didn’t tell him that I should have all these tests done, the ones I’ve just undergone. It’s been bad enough I had to wait twelve years for a reading “expert” advice, but to have not known about these tests for a further six years because the medical and “reading research” community are so intellectually lazy is beyond egregious. I’m pissed. And upset. And filled with hope that finally I’ll get my book time back.

I’m still processing my results.

Results

It’s difficult to explain what one is only just starting to grasp. Lindamood-Bell who conducted the evaluation, normed all results to my age and gender.

  1. My reading rate is too slow. I’m in the 16th percentile. That means 84 percent of women my age read faster than me. I believe this rate is about double what it was in 2001. Wow! Some progress!! sarcasm
  2. My foundations are solid. These are the ability to hear phonemes, the sound parts that make up words. The ability to recognize and pronounce high-frequency words. The ability to figure out an unknown word within the context of known words.
  3. I rely on my vast knowledge bank and familiarity with language to prop up my comprehension. When I cannot see a word but only hear it and I have to pick out an illustration that best represents the word, I cannot rely on my ability to decode a word from its roots to figure out what it means. And so I don’t do so well. Based on results from standard vocabulary tests, I drop about ten percentile points, maybe a bit more, when given the same vocabulary test when heard, not seen, and using pictures instead of words to “define” the word spoken to me.
  4. My accuracy in reading words is very high.
  5. Fluency is rate plus accuracy. So my fluency is not at the level that my reading foundations indicate it should be. (Slow reader.)
  6. When I can rely on my knowledge bank and ability to decode words, my comprehension is good. When I read new or lengthy material even text at grade six level, where I can’t rely on my knowledge of content and language, my comprehension drops a lot.
  7. Concept imagery is the ability to conceive a word, sentence, or idea as a whole in a kind of picture. I don’t have it. It’s sort of, uh, depressing . . . more than that . . . grievous and devastating to see one rated as having a mental age of 14.5 or 13.5 years in these tests after eighteen years of rehab, active treatments, and passive home treatments. On the other hand, they confirm I’m not imagining my reading problems. I have real difficulty despite the fact that I’m “articulate” and can read words no problem.

As I understand how Lindamood-Bell conceives of reading, reading comprises decoding and comprehension. Decoding is done in the reading foundations aspect of reading. There are three parts to reading foundation: auditory, visual, and language.

“. . . thinking that reading is decoding a word but reading is being able to comprehend.” Nanci Bell

Auditory

The ability to hear phonemes, the sound parts that make up words.

Auditory processing illustration

Visual

The ability to recognize and pronounce high-frequency words. The ability to spell high-frequency words, that is, words that are used often in everyday reading. And the ability to image symbols, that is, letters or letter combinations.

Visual processing illustration

Language

Vocabulary. And the ability to figure out an unknown word within the context of known words.

Language processing illustration

Encompassing these three foundations of reading is comprehension.

“If there’s weak comprehension, … frequently teachers and parents don’t really know perhaps there’s weak comprehension. . . . If it’s really severe could be labelled hyperlexia there’s a gap between ability to read words and ability to comprehend. Or if it’s weak enough, it can fall into the label of autism.” Nanci Bell

Comprehension

Comprehension illustration

Lindamood-Bell uses Dual Coding Theory to explain how what we decode while reading — either text or listening to the words — is turned into comprehension by our brains. In dual coding theory, the symbols — words on text or words heard by the ears — the auditory, visual, and language parts of reading — are turned into non-verbal concepts that we can picture. A painting represents a thousand words and all. (Wikipedia notes it was a Canadian who posited this theory. Why is it then Americans, not the Canadian rehab centre I went to, that knows about and uses this theory to rehab reading?!!!!)

Dual coding theory illustration

As part of that theory, they posit that concept imagery is how we understand what we’re reading. When we read or listen, we create a picture in our mind of what we’re seeing or hearing.

Concept imagery illustration

Nanci Bell, co-founder of Lindamood-Bell, explains the comprehension and concept imagery side of reading in this video below. Note that what we often think of as reading issues, eg, dyslexia, occurs on the decoding side of the ledger. The comprehension side isn’t usually talked about. It usually doesn’t even have labels like the decoding side does. I personally don’t think labels are always useful, but in our current milieu where everything is labelled, a label gives credibility. I think that’s why when people with brain injury say they have trouble reading yet can read words and use some or a lot of their vocabulary, health care providers, family, and friends don’t believe us. But as Bell says, vocabulary is not comprehension.

Now comes the tough part.

Restoring Book Reading

Lindamood-Bell said: “we can restore your book reading.”

Pause.

“What’s so tough about that, Shireen?” you might ask.

This is like where I describe in my book how I met clinicians in 2005 who knew what I wanted — to heal my brain — and said they would help me do that and could. It’s so hard to describe in a blog post what it’s like to be neglected medically, your angst and desires dismissed, and told to accept diminished functionality for years and years and then be told you can be helped significantly — and then you find out the help was available at the time of your injury; it’s just that the people entrusted with your care didn’t know about it or “believe” in it and your loved ones never searched for you.

Once again, I’m being told the unbelievable, that what I’ve wanted for years is in fact doable. It feels untrue. I asked:

“When you say I’ll be able to read a book like I used to (before my brain injury), do you mean a book at the level of an Agatha Christie? A PD James? Neuroscience article? And/or philosophy of mind textbook?”

They answered:

“In creating your recommendations for instruction, the goal I had in mind was your ability to read and process literature at the level of your potential, and at the level that would support research and continued learning for your writing. Especially with the full recommendation of 120 hours, I picture your ability to access all of the examples you provided in your original question. Our instruction may start at a lower level, but over the daily and weekly sessions, you’ll see an increase in the amount of language (text) you are processing as well as the complexity.”

Basically it would look like an ascending ladder of difficulty.

Visualizing and verbalizing program illustration

They continued: “Since our vision for instruction will include increasing the volume of information you are processing, our goal is to decrease your fatigue, by systematically and consistently reinforcing independence with visualization for increasing lengths of language. Just like any foundational skill (ex: learning a new language, learning a new instrument) practice and continuous exercising of the skill, makes it more automatic. Instruction will stimulate and strengthen this process for you, but practice outside of sessions and beyond instruction, will also be key. You may still need to take breaks, but I anticipate the length of breaks and the frequency of breaks will diminish as you, on a daily basis, start reteaching your brain this visualization process.”

I’ve consulted with some of my health care team. They believe I will benefit, that I need this hope. There is some skepticism that reading books like I used to is achievable; but no matter what, given all the brain work I’ve done, how my brain is now used to training, and how I do the work given me, I will benefit. My reading will improve. Dr. Lynda Thompson at the ADD Centre, who referred me for evaluation, was impressed with the time they gave me answering my questions and liked that they would show the objective learning curve not rely on subjective feelings and measure the gains.

I’m not sure how I’d be able to handle it if I didn’t achieve reading like I used to, though. That’s why I’ll need all the support I can get from my neurodoc. We’re patching things up; I’ve enforced pursuing my goals, and only my goals.

The normal intensity of instruction is four hours per day, Monday to Friday, for four to six weeks. Because of my fatigue, we’ll cut that down to two hours per day, five days a week, for eight to twelve weeks. It seems that I would need the whole three months and would have to practice daily on top of instruction as well as continue daily practice after instruction ends. Whew. That’s a heck of a commitment to work! I worried that the whole thing would be a moot point if I didn’t find a way to pay for it. I need help since the cost is way, way beyond my means. So I’m borrowing. What else is new.

OHIP really should be paying for this. This is what cognitive therapy ought to encompass when acquired brain injury clinics talk about what they do as cognitive therapy. It should also include brain biofeedback and audiovisual entrainment and long-term talk therapy. But first we need to get the medical system to assess cognitive functioning and brain injury properly. And to get anyone working with people with brain injury to take their reading problems seriously. We live in a knowledge economy after all — if we can’t read volumes of information, we can’t work.

Concept imagery underlies comprehension. Comprehension not based on having an adequate vocabulary nor ability to hear phonemes. Nanci Bell: “What they struggle with is the concept or the whole. And if you don’t have the whole, you can’t do higher order thinking skills such as main idea.” They call it in the U.K. aphantasia, the inability to visualize. Higher order thinking: From what you pictured— not what you think — what comes next in this story?

Lindamood-Bell trains to the client’s potential not what falls into the average range. This is significant. Brain injury rehab is about working to the average of what they’ve done since the 20th century, not for what is needed for independence, satisfying functionality, and most importantly, the person’s potential.

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Sketches courtesy of Dana Kernik-Theisen, Center Director, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, Edina, Minnesota, who generously gave of her time to explain my results, recommendations, and reading theories.

Health

Two-Headed Monster of Brain Injury and PTSD

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Two headed striped caterpillar on milkweed

The weather gods jumped our temps from jacket cool to sweaty tank tops. Pretty soon, we’ll be seeing caterpillars munching on flower buds and leaves as this two-headed monster was on a milkweed flower last year.

Brain injury and PTSD are like a two-headed monster sitting on your psyche, slowly munching on your sanity. When one head gets fed alternative fuels to calm it down, the other chews harder on your brains. There are days when there seems to be no solution.

I think I’m supposed to give you hope at this point, talk about how a kind psychiatrist can soothe one head while the other gets calmed and then switch to the other head while the one they was soothing is fed. Or talk about how psychologists advanced in treating brain injury with 21st century technologies can calm both heads at once. Or maybe talk about how inspirational quotes make the heads feel great. Or perhaps talk inspiringly about endurance and grit as psychologists keep feeding and psychiatrists keep soothing the monster.

I have nothing. I’m tired. An old friend reminded me I hit these plateaus. True. I’m still tired though. I think I just need kind listening and supporting as the two-headed monster grows a third head called grief and all three masticate my brain.

Brain Health

Neurodoc Chronicles: Reading Rehab and Unheard Brain Injury Grief

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I emailed my neurodoc a long time ago a tweet about what reading means to me. He’d repeatedly said my emails were important; he understood they were my way of communicating what I needed to talk about during our sessions. He printed, signed, filed it. And he wonders why he isn’t succeeding with me.


As far as my neurodoc seems concerned, drugs and the DSM are the only answers. Using newer communication methods is, well, he’s not going to do it. Learning about 21st-century discoveries of the brain and brain injury aren’t actually to be acted upon. Working in a Toronto teaching hospital, one can’t be too forward thinking, y’know. After all his ABI expert colleague didn’t want to burden his brain with 20+-year-old knowledge of thermoregulation. Better to tell the patient to get on with their life than help them. But I digress.

Let me help my neurodoc figure out what to do.

He could’ve printed out that poster. At our session immediately following me sending that email, he could’ve shown me the poster and read it out to me then asked: “Tell me how you feel or what you’re thinking as I read that out to you?” I probably would’ve bumbled around or resented being asked how I feel since half the time back then I had no clue. So then he could’ve brought up each pictogram, maybe mused about what he thought, and drawn me into a discussion. That at least would’ve started my thinking. It would’ve brought up memories. And memories would’ve dragged up emotions and the grief — over time. Doing that only for one session would’ve stopped the process of my broken brain remembering, reconnecting memories to emotions, processing the grief. Sticking to that topic over the next few sessions would’ve continued that process. But, y’know, email.

My futile attempt at communicating some deep, hidden-to-my-conscious mind emotion I could barely talk about all began with an email. And since the Ontario government won’t pay for emails and Canadian physicians think emails are the devil’s work or way too innovative or something like that, my grief over losing my reading went unheard. This was one of many attempts I made to get reading rehab going, to have my grief over losing the core of my identity being heard. Telling him that being a reader who inhaled books like opium — well, that went unheard, ignored, dismissed, shut down, year in and year out while I dragged him like a dead weight to help me rehab my reading, one agonizing step at a time, with rising hope as I glacially made progress only for him to “forget” the rehab, forcing me to remind, nag, beg to resume again. I’ve put my neurodoc on hiatus. The emotional cost of reading rehab is no longer worth it.

Brain Health

Brain Injury Grief: The Experts Begin to Recognize and Define this Profound Loss

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The last time I tried to find some info on grief and brain injury, I found nothing helpful. This past week, I half heartedly looked again. I was surprised and heartened to find that brain injury grief was being recognized at long last. Skimming articles from the US and UK validated my belief that brain injury grief is a different and much more difficult beast than other kinds of grief.

Janelle Breese Biagioni wrote on Brainline: “Then we have what I identify as extraordinary grief resulting from a disease such as Alzheimer’s or a catastrophic injury such as a brain injury. This kind of grief is profound. People must grieve who they were, and the family also grieves the person who is no longer there, albeit physically present. Sadly, I think society as a whole is only beginning to understand how profound this type of grief is….”

I’m not sure society is recognizing it. After all when most health care professionals don’t and I see person after person having to subsume their grief or being labelled depressed, you know social work and psychiatric care hasn’t evolved in this area yet.

Biagioni continues: “Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s Companioning Model identifies potential grief responses as shock, numbness, disbelief, disorganization, confusion, searching, anxiety, panic, fear, physiological changes, explosive emotions, guilt and regret, loss, emptiness, sadness, relief and release, and finally, reconciliation and healing.”

I so relate to this list up to sadness. And brain injury does complicate it because it causes confusion, disorganization all on its own. PTSD also overlaps many of those listed states. How does one tease out the cause for each? How does one address multiple causes for one state and know which order to treat the causes or if best done simultaneously?

She continued: “If one is allowed to truly feel — to grieve, this will lead to mourning. Mourning is the process of taking those feelings from the inside to the outside. It is giving expression to how we feel. This may be done in a variety of ways, such as funerals, talking, writing, art, and music. Wolfelt describes it like this: “Mourning is grief gone public.”

I have to wonder if we need to develop new rituals of mourning for internal deaths, deaths like reading, identity, musical accomplishment, hobby skills, memory, specific identity memories, sense of humour, emotions, etc. And then also develop rituals when some of them return in part, distorted, not the same or maybe fully suddenly years and years later. The pre-injury person suddenly returning isn’t always welcome — it’s another change after having adapted to fundamental change and perhaps you’ve come to like some radical new parts of you, like I liked not being so self-controlled to the nth degree. It was so freeing.

Dr Rudi Coetzer on Headway U.K. wrote with great insight: “brain injury survivors and their family members often find traditional approaches and support networks are unable to adequately address the problem. Reaching the acceptance stage is difficult and by no means a certainty, but after brain injury things can be further complicated by the unfamiliar, complex and often unpredictable effects of the condition…

“From a more academic perspective, factors such as time since injury, awareness, family support, pre-injury personality traits, social networks, and severity of the injury can all influence the person’s experience of grief.

“Furthermore, there is often a focus in the literature on the loss of ‘how things were’, but again, as a clinician, working psychotherapeutically I also often hear about the grief regarding the loss of ‘what might have been’, were it not for the injury.”

Personal

Figuring out Brain Injury Grief

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I had to figure out how to bring my temperature down and stabilize my thermoregulation; I had to, have to continue, to figure out how to rehab my reading; I had to figure out how to persist in relearning skills, doing life in a new way long after bean counters in hospitals and insurance decided I no longer needed outpatient and community care. Do I have to figure out how to grieve brain injury, too?

In all things, I began with standard medical care, with learning the medical system’s usual way of approaching relearning, living with brain injury. When that showed itself to be completely inadequate, I sought better care that actually treated. They taught me things, but they too went only so far. After that, and also when I failed to find any help whatsoever for some problems, I had to seek the answer within myself from painfully pulling out old neurophysiology and psychology knowledge, willing my brain to absorb new knowledge from reading, and putting it all together through writing.

But I never thought I’d have to do that for grief!

I thought eventually I’d find someone who got it, who knew how to guide me through grieving the death of myself because they’d learnt it from experts and they’d worked with other people with brain injury. I was wrong.

Brain injury has been around for eons. Loss of self has been a known effect for eons.

So why is there no help‽

This is like hell ten times over.

There’s no help because the psychiatric model labels it depression. The neurophysiological model focuses on healing the physical brain. The therapist model extols the virtues of discovering who you are now. Friends and family model get sick of hearing the confusion, the pain, the repeating what-the-fuck-is-going-on-help-me! cry.

Eighteen years, two months, and seventeen days, and I’ve not had one consistent stretch of grief work. And I’m not alone. No wonder after a couple of decades of seemingly doing “well,” people keel over. Grief doesn’t disappear into happy positivity that the experts and family want us to leap into on the day of our diagnosis. It lurks until the work of relearning, of learning a new life, of becoming used to the routines of daily living, is done and brain space opens up. Or a bad event will throw the entire system into shock and grief flows back up like a magma flood.

What do you want, my neurodoc asked. I wanted my grief to be respected as real and different from depression and from grieving another human being; to be honoured with consistent healing work. I guess I’ll have to do that alone too. The only way I can think how is through my writing.

Personal

Running to Grief

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Watching 1 Mile To You. High school boy, runner. Loses his entire team in a bus accident. Girlfriend and friend, too. Runs to remember them. The faster he runs, the more he sees them. Remembers them. He doesn’t want to forget them.

His new coach asks:

What do you want? Your heart. The most important muscle in your body. Never rests. It remembers everything. I need your mind to know it. Your heart to know it.

He can look at pictures of his dead friend. Dead girlfriend. Text them. Watch video messages, see their smiles. And he remembers them.

He grieves.

But how do you grieve yourself? How do you grieve the reading slaughtered in the injury? How do you talk about lost reading like you talk about a dead girlfriend? Girlfriends who are gone don’t return distorted, damaged, done in. How do you grieve something you can’t look at, touch, watch, talk to, is a distorted, damaged, unfamiliar version of itself inside yourself? Not outside yourself. How do you grieve when you don’t want to remember yourself reading when it hurts so much? Yet the memory comes, and you remember you always saw yourself so long into the future holding a book, absorbed, silently slipping the pages over, one by one, living, breathing inside the story. You bang and bang on the doors of people to help you. To go back to that time when reading was just there and the future was certain. But no one can help though they try inside their own way.

It’s not coming back. You’re not coming back.

And then the expert calls it depression. Not grief.