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July 6, 2009 / Mark Kerrigan

Facing the Giants. Don’t Give Up Until You Got Nothin’ Left

People who have sustained head injuries tend to have a difficult time in conquering their addictions—whether they be chemical, food, or habits/lifestyle. While chemical addictions are the most common, they are only part of the larger equation of addiction + head injury.


Under this category, I’m grouping all illegal drugs (crack, meth, etc.), alcohol and tobacco. While I’ve never engaged in any illegal drugs, I presume that they provide a similar buzz that alcohol and tobacco.

I have experience with alcohol and tobacco, though. Before I had my car wreck, I had only ever shared a menthol cigarette with a friend. Sure, I had people offer me a smoke, and I’m sure I could have come across all sorts of chemicals (like beer and alcohol), but since I was on the varsity wrestling team for my high school, I was trying to take care of my body so that I would be able to be the best I could.

About a year after my wreck, I had a cigarette at school. It was a full-flavored Marlboro. From that point on I was hooked on the buzz, the light-headed feeling I got when I fully inhaled the smoke. And though I’ve attempted to quit permanently many times, the most success I’ve had doing it was when I took Chantix—a prescription pill which would actually stimulate the brain to release the same chemicals that the nicotine caused. In addition to having those endorphins in my brain, it actually would “clog up” the nicotine receptors in my brain. Therefore, when I did “slip” and smoke a cigarette, I would feel as though I was sucking on a straw—I’d get nothing from it.

However, though I had been smoke-free for about seven months, one afternoon I was under tremendous stress, and started smoking again. I felt like I needed that crutch—but I didn’t.

As far as alcohol goes, it’s pretty much the same story, but I wasn’t able to get away with it as easily. I started drinking when I was at college, and because my brain wouldn’t handle the alcohol as well as a non-injured brain would, I would usually wind up stumbling back to my room at a very early hour, and fall asleep on the bed—only to wake in the morning with a tremendous hangover. And because of the horrid hangover, I either didn’t make it to my 8:00 chemistry class or was too distracted to focus on the subject.

While my friends were able to go out and drink until they couldn’t see straight, I was always a very “cheap date” and would be ready to call it a night by about 9:00. I remember that the neurologic rehab staff always warned me that one drink to a person with a head injury was the same as two drinks to a non-TBI person. So, in essence, I was and still am, eternally in “Happy Hour!”

I had a psychiatrist once explain my propensity to engage in addiction behavior thus: The frontal lobes in a person’s brain are like the front brakes on a bicycle. Since my accident damaged my frontal lobes, my brakes didn’t act as effectively as they should. That’s why, with whatever behavior, whether it is chemical-based or other  (such as gambling), I have a difficulty when it comes time to stop doing whatever it is I’m engaged in at the time.

There has been a great deal of noise on the internet about Chantix and it being recalled because of possible side effects.

Food Addictions

When someone sustains a head injury, they often lose the ability to sense when they are full. This is the reason we (TBI survivors) can become addicted to food. Very often what happens is we keep eating, which stretches our stomachs, until we actually vomit—usually not at the table, but if the ride home is an unusually twisty one, we get carsick.

As a result of our stomachs stretching, we are constantly able to eat more and more food before we become sick. So, guess what happens—we get plumper and plumper until we are fat—sometimes obese. I went to the gym last year and found out that I was not only fat—as I came to call myself—but I was OBESE! Being told that sent me into a minor depression for a couple of days, almost like I was resigned to the fact that I was clinically obese.

A day or so later, I decided I would start working out as if I were on the hit show The Biggest Loser.


I began going to the gym for about two hours every day of the week except Sundays (because it was closed). I rode my bicycle almost everywhere I needed to go—to the dentist, to the pharmacy to church, to the coffeeshop and to the gym. I had become obsessed with fitness. People were commenting to me that I had quit smoking and lost weight while most people gained weight when the quit cigarettes.

I was getting this endorphin high on a regular basis and what wound up happening to me is I overdid it. I didn’t have someone like Bob or Jillian, with a team of doctors and nutritionists to make sure I was eating the proper amounts of protein, carbs, and vegetables. While I was eating well enough, I didn’t know when to say, “Okay, let’s make this a light day,” and I pulled my back.

This injury made it hurt to walk, but more importantly, it got me out of the habit of going to the gym. So, once again, I became soft in the middle.

In Conclusion

The crux of this post is to warn or encourage other TBI survivors to stay abstain from the use of habit-causing substances. Whether it’s tobacco, drugs, alcohol or even excessive food intake, we have more difficulty in stopping whatever habit we pick up because our brains work as the brakes for our lives. They may not be totally gone, but they have been injured and just like you wouldn’t drive in a car race with a if your brakes were shot, so you shouldn’t treat your brain like it has the ability to stop whenever it needs to.

I’m interested if this rings true with any other survivors or their families out there.


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