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When People Say I'm 'Too Smart' to Have a Brain Injury


With as many as 1 in 45 Australians experiencing an acquired brain injury, it would be easy to assume that its effects and variations are well known and publicized. Unfortunately this is not always the case. This was most recently demonstrated to me when I returned to university and was greeted by blank stares and reiterations of “I’ve never even heard of that.”

While the primary reaction is often one of confusion or complete ignorance, once I explain in simple terms what exactly an acquired brain injury entails, I can be met with looks of disbelief. In the most literal sense, an acquired brain injury refers to any damage to the brain that occurs after birth. It can be triggered by everything from tumors, to strokes, to accidents and alcohol, to neurological diseases.

In my particular case, I have an acquired brain injury as part of my post-encephalitic syndrome. Due to a virus, my brain became inflamed and some of its functions were impaired or changed. That same virus has left me with a number of physical conditions, some of which relate back to the brain relaying incorrect signals to systems in the body.

Personally, I seem to exist in some sort of paradox: not only do I have an acquired brain injury, I am also extremely bright. It seems impossible for some people to accept that my brain can both malfunction and also work extremely well. That I can debate animatedly about highly intellectual concepts at university and then suddenly be unable to even find my way to the train station.

My intelligence was untouched by my brain injury, leaving me with a malfunctioning body and brain but with the clarity to be often completely aware of what is happening to me. My memory – I have been reliably informed – is at least as good as many of peers; my writing is still eloquent, my general communication excellent.

In being both bright and brain injured, I pose a problem to many perceptions of brain injury. Many people assume that anyone with a brain injury is somehow intellectually less capable. When I inform someone of my brain injury – whether in education or in passing – the
response is always that they would never have guessed it because “you’re so smart.” If it’s not a comment on my intellectual abilities, it’s a comment on my presentation; apparently it’s considered unusual for someone with a brain injury to be out wearing makeup and a pretty dress.

My brain injury did not change my intelligence, but it did and does impact many other areas of my life. I am easily fatigued, to the point where after a day at university I’m so exhausted
I can’t even speak. I deal with chronic pain. I have a movement disorder that means I have lost the ability to walk automatically and have to consciously exercise every muscle in my legs. I struggle with migraines, vertigo and seizures. My eyesight has been permanently damaged. All of these things come under the umbrella of an acquired brain injury.

My sense of self has also been impacted. At times I have difficulty recognizing the person I am today, who has lived through so much but carries on anyway. That my intelligence remains with me feels like a gift that could so easily have been taken away. I am exceedingly
aware that this may not be the case for others, but I still wish to challenge the perception that those with brain injuries are in any way intellectually less capable. Many of us exist and function in society invisibly and anonymously; we go to work and school, we hold down jobs, we write novels, we do everything anyone else can.

The hope that accompanies acquired brain injury is the possibility of recovery. Hard-won progress can be achieved as neuroplasticity can allow the brain a capacity to recover what may have been lost in ways other organs cannot. I have seen the proof of this with my own eyes. Two years ago I couldn’t read for 15 minutes; now I can read for several hours. I’m still
not where I was before I had encephalitis, but I am more than capable of keeping up with my peers.

My personal prognosis looks good. I may never completely shake the effects of my brain injury, but I will in all likelihood return to most of my abilities. It may take several more years – and be extremely hard work – but for my brain, it may be that not all injuries are permanent.

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Thinkstock photo by Pecaphoto77.