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The Exhaustion of Mental Fatigue After My Traumatic Brain Injury

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I’m 14 months post-car accident, which is how I sustained my second TBI (traumatic brain injury). This time around, I had a mild injury, versus the moderate one I experienced 22 years prior in another car accident. With no broken bones or internal bleeding, I returned to work in less than a week. Of course, I didn’t know, nor could the doctors predict the extent my TBI would change my life going forward.

Two months after my brain injury, everyone rang in the new year while I went to bed for the night before dinner time. Most new years mean new changes, especially in corporate procedures. I struggled to keep up with the new demands my job required. I had so many post-it notes up to remind me how my situation had changed that my desk looked the polar opposite of what it did before. I’m a very organized person, and I tend to take a lot of notes, but this felt different.

I struggled to keep up at work. I don’t doubt that I irritated my co-workers by continually asking the same questions because I could not wrap my brain around anything other than what the weather outside was that day. I couldn’t understand why I was having such a difficult time learning new ways of doing my job. Somehow, through the grace of God, I made it through the workday without having a panic attack. Instead, as soon as I got through the door at home and kissed my husband hello, I went to bed for the night. Sometimes, I would skip dinner altogether. Maybe I would shower, maybe not.

In those early months after my car accident, I realized these new behaviors of mine were becoming patterns, not just something I was experiencing as an off-day. I did a lot of crying. I tried to keep up with my love of Jack Daniels, but somehow that was affected by my brain injury as well because it no longer numbed me. I didn’t understand what was going on in my head. Why was I in bed every night before 6:30 p.m.? The max words I could carry on in a conversation with people were probably 20, that is, if they could even understand the terms through my crying.

I was tired. Driving on the road exhausted me, sounds exhausted me, lights exhausted me, talking exhausted me, thinking exhausted me. Life exhausted me. Coffee was my go-to, but not anymore. I couldn’t drink enough to keep me going mentally or physically. I seriously thought I was losing my mind. I quickly forgot things that before were almost second nature to me.

One day, I almost set off the alarm to my house because I stood at the alarm panel for 58 seconds before I could recall the code, the code we’ve used for the past 10 years. Another day, I couldn’t remember how to get home from work. Sometimes I still forget if I fed my dog or not. My brain was overloaded and it needed to reset. “Have you tried unplugging it and plugging it back in,” was my comical thought. Not that I even laughed these days anymore, at anything.

Four months after my brain injury, I agreed to an in-patient, 28-day stay at a psychiatric hospital. I unplugged from the world. No more career demands, watching my son play high school sports, babysitting my grandson, washing laundry, trying to keep an active social life, and all of the other things that were mentally and physically draining me. My hospitalization didn’t solve all the struggles I was dealing with, but it did allow me to disconnect and reset.

I decided not to return to work and was committed to reevaluating commitments and relationships. I wasn’t yet at the point to know how my mental limitations would shut me down physically. I felt unreliable to my family and friends, and mostly to myself. How much can I handle in one day? How many errands are too many for me to endure before I shut down and have to hide in my bed, crying until tomorrow? I had to learn who this new person was that existed within me and how much she could take.

I didn’t understand that mental fatigue was a real thing until I read an article about it regarding brain injuries. I felt like I had just won the lottery by learning this new information. My brain was tired. I did need to rest it. It’s a real thing, and now that I have an explanation for it, I can move forward in my life, trying to manage it the best way possible for myself and my family.

The changes I’ve had to make have turned me into a different person altogether than I was a year and a half ago. I now limit the time I spend out of my house running errands, going to doctor appointments, visiting friends for coffee, watching TV, and even how much time I can spend around children. Too much mental stimulation overwhelms and drains me. I aim to do these things in the early mornings because around 2:00 p.m., I start slowing down significantly. I have limited myself to only doing two tasks away from home a day and no more than that. If I’m not careful and I overdo it, I’m in bed by 5:00 p.m. that night, and sometimes the entire following day. I’ve named it a stimulation-hangover. My poor husband has eaten so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner because I don’t have it in me to cook anything.

I’m slowly learning how to navigate this new life I have and what my limits are. My husband continually reminds me that I have to stop over-committing myself. I easily forget what I can and cannot do. It’s difficult to absorb and accept my new limitations. Some of my friends and family have had a difficult time getting on-board with who I am now and what I can and can’t do. It’s frustrating to me, but I have to remind myself that they don’t live in my head. I look the same on the outside, yet I am very different on the inside. I’m still stying to grasp who I am; how can I expect them to remember I’ve changed so drastically?

Every day is a new day, a new battle, a unique learning opportunity. It’s met with loads of frustration, but this is what I have. I’ve certainly learned to be more comfortable and more forgiving with myself. Maybe this is a journey of self-care and discovery, something I’ve neglected for decades and can no longer avoid.

Getty image by Ssplajn.

Originally published: January 1, 2020
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