There has been a lot of talk about the correlation between traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. All the new information has got me thinking about my own situation, and examining why things have been the way they have been for me over the last 40 years.
Although the month I spent in a coma made it abundantly clear I had experienced a brain injury, neither me nor anyone else knew exactly how that brain injury would affect me. Having had my accident and coma in the mid-70’s meant there wasn’t much knowledge of brain injury around, and there were few resources available to me. The timeline for me was this: one day I am a carefree college student, driving down the road enjoying summer vacation. Then, wham!! I am unconscious for a month. I wake up. I learn to walk, talk and tie my shoes. Finally, I am discharged from the rehab hospital with the “big goodbye,” a slap on the back, and a hearty, “You’re on your own, kid.” Despite the celebratory atmosphere and new-found sense of freedom, I knew things would never be the same.
In a nutshell, that’s my story. But, as we all know with brain injury, there was much behind the obvious, and my trip had really just begun.
I knew then that my memory and thought processes weren’t as good as they had been, but I made the decision to muddle forward as best I could by returning to school quickly. Also, I didn’t know about all the other stuff that came along with my brain injury, such as the extreme anger I would show at certain times. That anger was really crazy, and I feel like I should have realized something was up, because I would fluctuate between being passive and then suddenly being extremely angry.
The first time I remember getting angry and blowing up was when I was living off campus and had a question/complaint about my electric bill. I can remember being in a phone booth on campus (we didn’t have a phone), getting very angry with the representative on the other end, and just completely losing it over a very small issue. You’d think I’d walk away from that phone booth cursing under my breath about the electric company, but no, I distinctly remember hanging up and walking away with a wonderful sense of relief and a great sense of calm. I guess one thing I learned from that particular episode was that my angry outburst would pass, and it could make me feel relieved and much lighter.
I did learn over time that, although these outbursts could take place anywhere under any circumstances, there are certain situations I needed to avoid in order that I not have one. One of these places where I am more likely to experience an outburst, is when I am in a closed in area, like a car or a phone booth (see call to the electric company above). In other words, they seem more likely to happen when I am in a place I can not easily get out of, something I liken to being trapped in a coma.
Being trapped not only applies to the notion that I am physically closed in, but it also applies to my being mentally hemmed in when feeling powerless, assaulted, frustrated and backed into a corner. At these times I lash out like a cornered dog, with my outburst seemingly coming from nowhere. For the most part they happen when I become confused or overwhelmed and feel I can’t escape.
I don’t know if this is truly PTSD, but it seems to me there are similarities. In the end, though, this is not about putting a name on something I have been doing for a long time, because it doesn’t really matter what I call it, unless giving it a name helps me to better understand what I can do about it.
Most of the press coverage of PTSD is of the episodes people have where others get hurt or die. The fact is, almost all of the PTSD episodes are smaller, everyday reactions in homes or at work; impossible to be explained, and scary in their own way to those who are living through them. Many of them, taken individually, can almost be glossed over and tucked away as an unusual occurrence. Taken together over time, however, it is clear that these outbursts are unacceptable, and symptomatic of a larger issue.
In order to avoid these situations, I focus on preparation, avoidance and awareness, with awareness being the most important. Until I am aware and able to recognize and accept what is going on with me, I will not be able to do anything about my behavior, no matter what I decide to call it.