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Friendships and Relationships After Brain Injury

by Linda W. Arms, January 29, 2014

After a brain injury our relationships with others change.    Very often in the first years we are too overwhelmed with daily living to give much thought to anyone else.   We devote our brain energy to getting ourselves through the day.    The little energy we have to interact with others is usually reserved for those very close to us, like our immediate families and perhaps very close friends.    As a good friend of mine told me after her brain injury, she put people away in drawers to get back to in the future when things were better for her.    I know I did this myself.   Some people are still in drawers or, without sounding rude, they have been discarded.

After my brain injury, other than my husband taking me to my office to gather my personal things, I didn’t reach out to anyone I had worked with, even those I knew for over 15 years.    I didn’t reach out to most of my extended family, friends or acquaintances.   I declined most invitations to anything.   I felt best, safe and most functional at home in my cocoon of quietness.

I put most everyone I knew away for many reasons.   Most of all I did not have the energy to interact with others.    Everything was overwhelming.    Just doing a little to get myself ready such as showering, drying my hair, and choosing my clothes were often more than I could deal with.    My body was weak and my brain was not working well.   Having to ride in a car was awful.    Trying to understand a conversation was challenging – people talking too fast, too complex, too loud, using facial expressions, gesturing with their hands, walking about as they talk, noise in the background….     It was hard, hard work for a long time.   Our brains have to process everything that is going on during that interaction and many of us just can’t do it until our brains have healed more.     When we try to take part, we quickly fade and lose more of our ability to comprehend and speak.  We become very fatigued and overloaded.    As someone once told me, your brain is then like a glass that you are pouring water into.    Someone keeps pouring in the water until it overflows.    That is what happens when we receive too much mental stimulation or input after a brain injury.   We just can’t hold everything that is coming into our brain to process.

My immediate family received most of the brain energy I had to spare in those early years.   I wanted to participate in their lives.   I wanted to take part in what they wanted to do as best I could even when it was not what I really wanted to do.   It was just too difficult.   My parents saw much less of me during the early years because I just didn’t have enough brain energy to spare.    Slowly I spent more time with them, helping them the best I could given my own limitations.

Next I started taking people out of those drawers that I stashed them in.   I started seeing or talking to people who I had relationships with that didn’t include me as a professional who had many business skills and knowledge.    I couldn’t find those skills and knowledge in the early years, they went into hiding in my brain.   I wasn’t the same person.    I wanted to be with people who knew me outside of my profession.    I started with just a couple people who could relate with what I was going through, had compassion or understood enough about how to interact with me.    There were a few people taken out of the drawers for my family’s sake but often those people were challenging to be around – they were a brain energy drain.

Slowly in the last years, I have taken more people out of those drawers and I can say I enjoy my time with them.    There are some who still are overwhelming for me and cause me to be exhausted for a day after being around them but I really like them.  There are some who I decided I would no longer include in my life because they just weren’t worth the energy I was spending on them.    They didn’t have nice things to say or our lives just took different directions.

I find I am much more selective in who I spend my time with.    I prefer being around people who are nice, have compassion and have values I can support.    After a brain injury, many of us cannot afford to use up our energy for toxic relationships or uncaring people.   We have to reserve our energy for those most important in our lives with ourselves being the first in line.     I’m still working on getting more people out of the drawers who I’ll reach out to when the time is right.    I’m working on expanding my world and the people I interact with.   I expect many of you are doing the same thing also.    We just need to remember that we have to leave enough brain energy for ourselves to stay healthy and functional.

“I don’t know what it is but I don’t find myself vibing with a lot of people these days. I realized that I’ve slowly and subconsciously filtered people out of my life who bring nothing to it. 

I no longer have the energy for meaningless friendships, forced interactions or unnecessary conversations. If we don’t vibrate on the same frequency there’s just no reason for us to waste our time…”  —  Joquesse Eugenia

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13 Responses to “Friendships and Relationships After Brain Injury

  1. Shaylee

    I am literally in tears right now. I have not really had an outlet to connect with others who have had a brain injury to see that I’m not the only person going through this. It’s as if you took the words right out of my mouth. This gave me a great reminder that it takes time, and that it’s ok to feel all of the things I’m going through, and most important I’m not the only one. Thank you for these words. I will carry them wit me on my journey to recovery!

  2. Pam McPhee

    Well said. That’s me to a tee. Thank you.

  3. Courage

    Thank you so much for this, Linda … Our relations change fundamentally after brain injury because we, ourselves, are changed. I’m 4.5 years post-injury and the question “Who am I?” has taken on a completely new depth.

    One change: I experience a deep dissociation in relation to anyone who is not directly with me. It’s as if my awareness of others’ existence just … stops. It’s hard to describe.

    There are a few beloved ones who have stayed the course with me. Most of my relations have changed. Several friends have gone; two specifically told me that they “wanted space.” I know that I was altered — I became terrified of being alone (still am, though it’s gradually easing) and expressed vulnerability like a very young child. The two former friends were like sisters; we’d known each other for decades. Their choice to disengage from me broke my heart. Like you, Linda, I am just beginning to establish some new bonds, and finally am feeling a small sense of my essential self returning. The long and horrific isolation is beginning to open into new bonds.

  4. Katie

    Thank you! That is exactly what I feel and what U try to explain to folks!

  5. Elizabeth

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and sharing your story as many pieces are mine too. Still relearning Thank God !

  6. Beth Sorenson

    wow… I thought I was turning into an antisocial person since my TBI ~ after reading this I now know I am simply being the new me. Thank you.

  7. Wonder johnson

    This is soooooooo true, yet people that haven’t had brain injuries don’t understand us

  8. well said, survivor 🙂

  9. Hi Mina, thanks for sharing this.I can really relate to what you went through, as I’m a survivor too. I’ve always had problems with building friendships. Your tips really are eye-openers.

  10. I’m sitting in my room after 2 1/2 painful years of feeling so grateful, crying my eye out as I have since that split second my life was changed forever. I have been a Registered Nurse for 20 years. All I did was ER or ICU, I was hit while idling behind a van on my Harley so someone could get a crossed the street. No Blinking lights there, just a faded white path and sign clearly posted. The semi I got around about 2 or so miles before. It was 9 am and he was driving erratically. Before I put my feet down he was still about a block and a half behind me. Then I remember thinking as it happened. “He just hit me in the head”. That’s all. I calmed everyone (being always the nurse) and had no recall other then that. He had pushed me at 40 mph 43 feet and the van ahead saw him but didn’t see me. He was just moving to save his company van. I then realized I couldn’t pull my head off the ground. I had vertigo so bad I had that feeling of impending doom. I told the medics I wanted to go to a place I knew didn’t do Trauma however, they had ER docs we had trained. Nope, since my head went thru the grill, Regions it was. When I had to beg for Oxygen, not for breathing but explaining to the RN that wanted his 9 am coffee break, I needed a CT now, O2 to shrink the swelling and a line, Iv, so they could do their job in case I did die. And he was one of the first of the condescending people that that got so big I lost the will to live and methodically started giving people everything. . I felt like myself, and I couldn’t understand why everyone looked at me so funny., These were suppose to be my crew, my family, my support. One by one, they all ran. I wasn’t doing anything but trying to pretend I was ok. I lost half my hair and 30 plus pounds in 6 months I finally got relief from the vertigo and saw a spine that looks like a sidewinder. The pain was profound but the loss of myself, devastating. It wasn’t until nobody would look at me or talk to me that I finally felt shattered. Humpty dumpty but I wanted to be on the other end of the fairy dust that I was sure my poor neurologist had hidden. I know this is long but I’ve kept it in so long that my tears keep flowing and I realize that they are starting to dry. The loss of independence, who I was, I feel unimportant and unloved. I still weigh 104, my hair is thick again, but I stumble with math, short term memory, coordination and balance issues but I am still getting better. I hate medications except my love my Motrin. The tinnitus and occasional vertigo plague me but finding new meaning to life is hard. My own kids lost respect, they talked to me like my friends were, like I was a pain in the butt. I look normal on the outside now, this is their problem and maybe something will happen that will change peoples views. However, when one bad thing happens, you get back two fold. When HOPE and Faith left me, It was over for me. I had all these things to say but it was like having a stroke, they didn’t come out right. I didn’t understand the meanings of what was said sometimes. Still don’t, but now I can laugh at myself. How does anyone get through this alone is beyond me. Motorcycles don’t have a rider for crashes. No medical. I’m almost bankrupt, in many areas., I felt horrible asking for help, people really don’t want to and I assumed since my house was falling apart, they would pitch in not yell at me that they had better, more fun things to do.
    I can see now why they treated me different., I lost the will to live, didn’t care if I ever got up, and took out my anger toward a man in the semi , 0n the few that still loved me. I am still waiting for the fairies to sprinkle magic dust, for me fiction is a lot more fun then reality.
    I have a few that fought me and refused to take no for an answer, and I am so very happy that out of all the cesspool thinking , there are still stars to reach for, just don’t stop reaching for them.

  11. Kelly fairall

    You nailed it Mina! Thank you for this!

  12. Jayne

    Thank you for sharing your story, Mina. Please see stories of other TBI survivors at http://tbivoices.com/

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