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February 22, 2013 / Mark Kerrigan

To Deny or Not Deny?


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Over the past two or three years, I have become increasingly more vocal about my brain injury. I didn’t hide it before, but I was content just letting people think I was a little weird when I did things which were slightly inappropriate.

I remember when I returned to high school after having the hole in my skull replaced in October 1989 someone asked me what had happened. At that time I was more than happy to tell him what had occurred to cause me to be the center of attention. I told him that I had been in a coma for a month, and that I had to relearn how to walk and talk. “So did you have any brain damage?” he asked. Well, duh, I thought, but I asked him what kind of brain damage he was talking about.

“You’re not stupid are you?” Immediately, I assured him I was not. I don’t think I ever saw him again, but I have never forgotten his insensitive inquiry. So that’s kind of the way I was treating my brain injury (BI). I was willing to tell people that I had a car wreck, but I was unwilling to admit to myself or anyone else that I wasn’t as smart as I once was. Not saying that I’m stupid or slow now, but I feel that there are some areas in my life where I have serious problems. For instance, I have a difficult time managing my anger—especially on the road. Before my car wreck, I never had a problem with anger. About the time I was 25, I broke my hand by punching a cinderblock wall. Like I said, I had a problem with anger.

And for years, I’d deny the existence of that problem. I would always count myself as having an excuse to show my butt when someone pissed me off. Only within the past two or three years have I acknowledged and accepted that I had a problem.

When I was attending a neuro-rehab in Arkansas, I heard one of the counselors say that after a head injury, you (meaning those with BIs) change. “Other people don’t change, you do.” Having some serious issues regarding impulse control, I took that to mean that we needed to change. I can remember thinking, “I will change.” Sadly, I didn’t pick up on the fact that what the counselor was intimating was that our families are not the ones who have changed their behavior or have gone crazy—it was us who had “lost our minds.” I’m not saying that people with BIs are insane; we aren’t. But for a few of us whose situations are especially stressful or chaotic, sometimes we act like we’re insane. I know I have been there, but I got through it, and I’m not in that place anymore.

The problem with people with BIs is that often we don’t see that we are any different than what we have always known. We think we can drink as much as our friends, we think that we can run as fast or that we can handle as many stimuli as any non-injured person can. Some of us can, but for the most part, we cannot.

However, just because I have a BI, it doesn’t give me a clean slate or a blank check to do whatever I want. There has to be sometime which I will assume responsibility. BI survivors I’ve met have all said they wanted to be treated just like “normal” people. You can’t be treated like everyone else and still expect to be given a built-in excuse for your behavior. Most people with whom I’ve worked have not known I have a BI. I’m high-functioning, so even the people whom I’ve told about it forget that I’m not the same as everyone else. I’m attractive (according to my wife), funny, reasonably smart and kind, so it’s no problem for me to get a job…. This fact cannot be denied. I’m impulsive. I have a hard time thinking about all the possible consequences there are to my actions. For that reason, people are truly floored when I do something impulsively.

Forgetfulness is another thing which cannot be denied. I have a pretty good memory—better than average—but when there are loads of stimuli, I have a difficult time remembering the most basic things. I worked with a blind man who had several vending machines in multiple places across Middle-Tennessee. I drove, and he told me what to put in the machines. But the thing that I did which aggravated the snot out of him was that I had a hard time remembering to get either the clipboard (which I needed at every stop) or my pen (which again, I needed every time we went into a building. But I must have had a mental block preventing me from remembering those simple things. I guess it was the fact that I was thinking about so many other things when I got out of the van. Not only was I trying to remember to walk while leading a blind man, and all the appropriate actions, but I was also trying to remember where the machines were and how many of each item needed to go into the machines. And most of the time, I had a good bit of caffeine coursing through my veins and brain, so it’s a wonder that I only forgot the clipboard…

When it comes to acknowledging our limitations, we find we are happier and more pleasant to be around.

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