by the legal times staff
Many years ago I suffered a “mild brain injury” which resulted in a seizure disorder. It’s one of those hidden disabilities which are so popular in the news currently. I can function in a crowd, for short periods of time. Overload is an ongoing problem which I have used many different strategies to overcome. My comfort zone has been to avoid anything confusing, busy, noisy or new…but I am not one to give up.
Brain injury is a dilemma for those who suffer from it. You can’t take an hour to explain to people you meet what sets you off, or what overwhelms you. Most of the time you have to just do the best you can.
Some years ago I began Tae Kwon Do classes. During one of the first classes, in the midst of a class routine, I seized. I have the kind of petit mal seizures that allow me to still hear everything going on around me, but I lose the ability to respond. My instructor asked if I was all right and in a moment I was and went on with the class, slightly embarrassed that I just appeared to have something mentally wrong with me. It’s the sort of embarrassment that often defeats those with brain injury…but I prevailed.
I cleverly learned never to position myself where I could see the class in the mirrors…my mind couldn’t process the double load of visual information. I learned that even if I couldn’t absorb a complicated routine on the first run through when everyone else was getting it, the next time I would come back with the information totally processed and be fine. I learned not to panic when I couldn’t filter out the instructor’s voice in a room full of background noise. I became hyper-observant. Over time I developed very complicated coping skills all designed to hide the fact that something was “wrong” with me. I earned my black belt and a heightened control over the seizures, panic and need to withdraw which I started with.
Last summer it was sort of brought to mind again as I took my dog through agility classes. I would listen very carefully to instructions, overworking to filter out the noise around me, and then find that listening didn’t mean processing. It’s somewhat lucky I had a smart dog, she usually picked up on what expectations were before I did. We always came back strong the following class when we both were on the same page. It helped to have a dog to turn to when the overload became too much, she became a convenient time out. We would go home and I would crash, totally exhausted by having to be so hyper-attentive. Much like the exhaustion that came after a karate class.
I was proud of myself for working through coping strategies which enabled me to tackle some pretty major accomplishments. In the end, it didn’t make the brain injury disappear. In some ways it made it harder to live with. People look at the accomplishments and not the effort it took to get there against all odds.
What they don’t see is the toll those efforts took, the amount of “down time” needed to recuperate, the hours I spent in total quiet to give an overworked and low frustration level brain time to recharge. They see independence in the isolation I maintain. They don’t see the meltdowns from overload, because I maintain that isolation. They don’t see how one thing can throw me off track for days. I have learned to cover, hide, avoid and conceal very well. I have even learned it is better to be quiet, because the seizures aren’t so noticed when they do occur. I have hit upon a definition of “normal” that I can live with.
In a world where the press is finally addressing the devastation brain injury can have on an individual, I still wonder if the majority of those affected don’t follow the easier course of creatively coping with their deficits? After all, you’re not likely to advise a prospective employer of your lack of ability to concentrate or tell a potential date that you have a brain injury and sometimes have issues with emotional response. It’s not only a hidden disability, it carries with it the fear of being labeled as “different”. Social awareness is a two-edged sword when it comes to brain injury. The public has been given enough information to acknowledge it exists and not enough information to understand how profoundly it affects the individual living with it.