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July 30, 2009 / Mark Kerrigan

Head Injuries May Cause Problems With Appropriate Language

oxcgn-swearing-jpeg1After enduring a head injury, many people—myself included—find they have a problem with all aspects of language, from the mechanics of speaking to volume control and even when it’s appropriate to use more “colorful” language such as curse words.

The first time after my car wreck that I remember wanting to speak but could not actually make the words come out of my mouth was when two upperclassmen came to visit me in Baptist Neuro Rehab.

It was after school had been let out, and I lay in my hospital bed watching television to keep my attention. Two guys who were on the wrestling team with me came to see me. Unlike many people who have undergone neurosurgery, I instantly recognized them. As they stood at the foot of my bed talking with my mother—Dad was still at work—I found myself wanting to talk to them.

But the problem was that I was unable to make the words come out. I remember having a vague sense of what I wanted to say, but I didn’t have the words to say it. The best way I can describe it now—some 20 years later—is like having a dream in which you scream, but you don’t make a sound. Now I remember feeling that way.

Volume Control

When I finally did relearn how to speak, I remember having my speech therapist, Cindy Macon, help me with volume and cadence. A transporter, as they were called, would push my wheelchair into Cindy’s office and we’d begin. More than once, she had brought a joke in for me to tell, and retell, until I had my delivery down cold.

At least at the beginning, I spoke very softly—almost in a whisper. I don’t remember the reason, but I know for weeks Cindy would encourage me to shout, “Oh, no! The building’s on fire!” and then she’d open the door and explain to anyone who was outside that there was no fire, that we were just working on a drill.

In my flat, nasally, monotone voice—absent of any emotion—I would say, “Oh, no. The building’s on fire.” Think, “Bueller? Bueller? Anyone? Bueller?” Yep, I was giving Ben Stein a run for his money.

Several weeks after working on my volume control and inflections and intonations, we began to concentrate on reading words—Calvin and Hobbes, in particular.

“Colorful” Language

As I remember, no one ever told me that cusswords were fairly common among brain injury survivors, but I have a feeling that they told my parents that profanity was one of the first things to return to a TBI survivor.

I remember saying, “I gotta take a dump,” to my parents while still in a wheelchair, just as if I had been talking to some of my wrestling teammates. At the time, I thought they might find my use of the word “dump” unacceptable, but I was willing to chance it.

Until that time, I had never said anything like a curseword in front of either of my parents. Not that I never said them, I just made sure my parents weren’t around.

When I was at Timber Ridge Neuro Rehab in Benton, Ark., I quickly became aware that cusswords were customarily thrown around the cabins, and for the most part, no one seemed to make that big a deal out of their usage.

There was a young woman confined to a wheelchair that shot out of her room one morning shouting, “GOD D*&^@! I JUST F&#**&% WANT TO WEAR MY F&#**&% SHIRT SO MY F&#**&% T*^S DON’T FALL OUT!”

I kept thinking, Oooh, she’s gonna get in trouble! But the only thing I heard said to her was that she wasn’t speaking like a lady, and ladies don’t use that kind of language.

In Conclusion

I suppose the crux of the post is that no matter what we hear ourselves say in public before our head traumas, the filter between our minds and our mouths does not exist or is a bit inhibited.

So, my advice to those who read my blog is to cut the survivor a bit of slack when you hear something coming from his mouth that is totally uncharacteristic. I know I’ve said some things I didn’t mean, or that I would take back if I could.

Have you experienced this or have a family member/loved one who has suffered a traumatic brain injury? I welcome any comments you’d like to make and would love to hear your stories.



Leave a Comment
  1. dgrrrl / Jul 8 2010 8:32 pm

    Sorry this is a bit late – I just stumbled upon your blog. In 2001 i had a left temporal lobectemy (left hippocampus/left amygdala included). When i woke up, my first word was “f*ck”. I went through some speech therapy, but still have some difficulty with nouns (just output, not intake, thank goodness)…but the cuss words are all right there for the picking, as it were!

    • onthemarkwriting / Jul 9 2010 12:25 pm

      I’m sorry to hear that you had a lobectomy back in ’01. Your first word when you woke up made me chuckle, as did your statement that “the cuss words are all right there for the picking, as it were!”

      I remember going through scads and scads of flashcards to help my mind think of what the names of the objects were. Almost like when I learned Spanish–flashcards of an umbrella–paraguas, a fork–tenedór, shoes–zepatos, sock–calcetines, well, you get the point…

      Even though I haven’t used those words in years, they are still at the ready. You might try something like that, just to see if it helps. You may also want to post a question to the Medpedia knowledge platform ( and see if there are any other suggestions from people there–most people on that site are professionals who work in the medical field.

      I hope this helps!

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