woman looking out window

My Traumatic Brain Injury Is an Invisible Injury


I had to walk away. My daughter and her boyfriend were engaged in a game of passive-aggressive argument due to the fact that he invited a rather gorgeous Cali chick to meet them at the Santa Monica Pier. Pitch black, the only light emanated from the Bubba Gump restaurant sign behind them. I turned and moved towards the other side of the pier, determined to go back to the Bombino concert and calm.

“Are you OK?” the Sabrett hot dog guy asked as he attempted to pull me up. Face down, blood pouring from my open lip, it was impossible to respond. A man handed me a bottle of water and got down on the ground next to me. “You are really hurt. We need to get the pier police,” he murmured into my ear.

I was lying on a plastic couch as a police officer hovered over me. “Try to stay calm, OK. I’ve called the fire department and they’ll be here soon. We need to transport you to the hospital. Are you with anyone?” I nodded and told him that my daughter was standing in front of Bubba Gump.

I remember the EMTs talking to me. The one driving was flirting with my daughter and her girlfriend. Later my daughter would tell me that the firemen and EMTs were “hot.”

“You took quite a fall,” the ER doctor said. “We will have to stitch up the lip and put a brace on your knee. Looks like you might have hit your head pretty bad, too.”

My stepmother, her purple hair filling my line of sight, tried to make jokes, but I don’t remember them being funny.

On the plane home to New York, I wore a Warner Brothers hat in the hopes that no one would look at my face. My face was swollen, covered with scabs and bruises, stitched up. I was a walking Frankenstein.

For a month, I felt OK; things were healing and I was going about my daily life. Then I started to do strange things. I started the car engine and attempted to pull out of a garage whose door was closed. Lost keys, lost clothes, lost words. Suddenly, I was unable to understand anything people said to me. My hearing went. Going to the grocery store was impossible as the lights, the aisles and the shoppers would bring on a panic attack. Focusing on anything was impossible as nothing made sense. The inability to do the things that I had done before the fall became a cause of frustration and concern, especially since I was due to return to work as an English professor within the month.

My neurologist told me that I had suffered severe frontal lobe damage and had cognitive issues. She sent me to Burke Rehabilitation Center, the same center that Christopher Reeve had received treatment. At Burke I underwent two weeks of testing, two weeks of difficult work.

“Ellen, I’m afraid you have some serious deficiencies and that you’ve done some damage to your brain,” my doctor said. “You’re going to have to learn new ways to do things in order to get through the world. And you’re not going to be able to teach ever again.” My IQ, something I was always proud of, was that of a child. My brain, the thing with which I made my living, had been totaled.

My entire life up to that point had been focused on intellect, on reading and writing, on analyzing, on educating others. The doctor’s words were nothing short of a death sentence.

Learning how to think again meant learning how to let go of the me that used to be. I went back to teaching but was honest about my difficulties. During the fall semester, I taught in the wrong classroom and admonished students for not doing their reading. When they told me they were not my students, I played the absent-minded professor card.

Every day I had to input what I had taught in each class to avoid reteaching the same lesson plan the next class. Post-it notes covered my desk at home and my desk at work. Not only did I have two hard planners, I had two computer planners. I begged my colleagues for help remembering how to get to locations on campus. I shared with my students my aphasia, which was at its worst during my 8 a.m. literature classes. I apologized when I forgot names, when I forgot to grade papers, when I couldn’t understand their questions.

I got angry quickly and could not identify why. My tears fell without warning and my emotions couldn’t be controlled. There were days of pure exhaustion, days of pure energy. There was a week of wanting to die followed by a week of cutting my arms with a scissor.

traumatic brain injury is an invisible injury. You cannot see that my brain has been severely injured, that my frontal lobe has suffered irreparable damage, that my ability to find words and to understand them has been altered. My brain no longer allows me to go to the mall, to be in crowds of people, to comprehend much of my daily life. Refusing to give up teaching means that I must create tools that allow me to work on a minute by minute basis.

Do not ask us why we are depressed, why we seem angry, why we cannot find the words or understand what you are saying. Do not ask why I cannot focus on a movie or sit through a lecture. Do not ask why we are no longer comfortable in crowds or why we have everything delivered. Do not ask why we no longer call you every day or why we say no to going out. Those of us with this injury are warriors, fighters against an enemy that only we know.

The stitches served to repair the outer appearance but the inner trauma has not, nor will it ever, be fully healed. The brace on my knee allowed me to walk, but the brace I’ve created (i.e. the new tools) has allowed me to live on a daily basis.

I will never be the person I was before I walked away from my daughter and into the darkness of the Santa Monica Pier on August 8, 2013. For me, and for those with such injuries, the world we live in now is no longer the world we once resided in. We did not ask for this new life but we do ask for understanding and patience and love.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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