Why We Need to Talk About This Little-Known Link Between Brain Injury and Depression


Depression and apathy are symptoms of brain injury, and all too often overlooked and dismissed by the medical community.

Before my brain injury, I don’t recall struggling with depression or anxiety or sleeplessness — except for the occasional butterflies in my stomach before a big presentation, or not being able to sleep the night before a big trip I was excited about.

For the past two weeks, I was in a deep, dark funk. I cried at the silliest things, I felt emotions swell up to the surface and I had zero tolerance for others. I kept myself locked away in my house, not wanting to inflict my funk on anyone else. I avoided self-care and hygiene as it consumed too much energy and apathy kept me paralyzed in place with a lack of motivation to get things done.

Casual acquaintances tell me “oh that sounds like PMS,” or “you must be perimenopausal,” or “it’s just the moon cycle, I get like that too.”

I know me better than anyone, and I can tell you I have never experienced this prior to my brain injury. It’s an all-too-common side effect of hitting my head — scrambling the motherboard, so to speak.

I haven’t felt this dark since the first year after my accident. The first year was filled with more days in a funk than not but has since leveled off. So this particular episode of funk caught me off guard. I would start feeling better after a few and then slip back down into the hole of despair.

If you’ve never experienced it, it’s super complicated and hard to comprehend.

People assume one should be able to just “get yourself out of it” and shake it off, but it’s truly not that easy. I am a positive person and know the exact steps one “should” take to bring yourself out of a funk, yet when I am in one it’s so freaking hard to do. Apathy (a neurologic problem that causes one to lack motivation) gets the best of me in times like these.

I’m pretty sure I know what tipped it off. I had traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for health care, followed by another trip to Columbus, OH for the Concussion Health Summit in which I spoke for three hours the first day, plus talked with a lot of other attendees and vendors. I pushed myself too hard, and my body shut itself down to conserve energy.

In the early days after my injury, I wouldn’t shower for days. You have no idea how much energy taking a shower and getting dressed takes until you have limited supplies of it. It was such a daunting task, and I would not say this was depression — this was simply a lack of energy issue.

And that is exactly where I think medical professionals get it all wrong.

Doctors treat us for depression, when in fact we’re exhausted or overstimulated. They try to put us on antidepressants. I am not saying meds are bad as some people truly need them. But in my case I knew they weren’t what my body needed, and I knew they would hinder my recovery.

Now, I am three years out and for the most part, I have more good days than bad. I am feeling pretty good, even though I still need to nap and have had to learn how to pace myself. However, when I have pushed myself, my body, and my brain too far, the funk returns.

I’ll say this again because it bears repeating: for me, the funk “depression” is a symptom of my brain injury. It requires rest, self-love, compassion and maybe a box of chocolate (or two).

When you notice a friend or loved one with a brain injury start to pull away and become disengaged, this is a sign that they’re in a funk.

Don’t tell them to “get over it” or say they’re being lazy. What they need is support and acceptance. Instead, give them a big hug and tell them how much you care about them. Ask how you can help, or better yet, jump in and help (laundry, cleaning, making meals, etc). When we are in a funk these tasks become way too much for us, and then they build up over time making it that much more daunting.

Listen to my recent podcast on apathy, or read more of my work on Huff Post.

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

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