According to the Brain Injury Association of America, an estimated 2.5 million people in the United States sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year. If you run those numbers real quick, that’s almost the entire population of Kansas.
Chances are, you’ve met someone with a TBI. And chances are, you had no idea.
As you might imagine, brain injuries are hard to spot with the naked eye. Scars can be hidden, and symptoms are often nuanced. TBIs are sometimes referred to as “the invisible injury,” as it is impossible to tell from seeing someone on the street if they have one or not.
I, for one, am very good at hiding my TBI. Looking at my mop of curly hair, you would never know that hiding underneath is a 3-inch scar from a brain surgery.
In 2014, at the beginning of my teaching career (the fifth day, to be precise) I had a cerebral brain hemorrhage. What does that mean? It means my head exploded. Well, leaked, to be fair. I had a slow-motion stroke, and after a terrifying diagnosis, I was sent home on bedrest to see if the blood clot would miraculously crawl back to wherever the hell it came from.
My brain chose not to do this, however, and over the course of a month, I could no longer walk, I lost twenty pounds of muscle mass on the left side of my body from muscle atrophy, was seeing double full-time, and lost most of my taste buds.
Invisible injury or not, if you had seen me four years ago, you would have known something was wrong.
Today? Well, after that nifty brain surgery and several months of rehabilitation in an intensive therapy center, I can proudly report that I look normal. Just your typical short white gal living her best life this fall. My vision has corrected itself for the most part. I got those taste buds back, and along with those twenty pounds (and then some), which went right to my hips.
So, what does all this brain stuff have to do with our friend, Mr. Thomas Jeffrey Hanks?
A lot, actually.
I’ve always loved Tom Hanks. Besides the fact that he’s an extremely talented actor, he’s the world’s nicest guy. He collects typewriters, and sends fans hand-typed letters. He photobombed a wedding shoot while he was jogging in Central Park. He befriended a taxi driver and invited him to his Broadway show. Do I really need to go on?
The guy’s a national treasure.
What you might not know is that a lot of his movies accurately depict what it feels like to have a traumatic brain injury.
Here’s the many times my head injury was just like a T. Hanks flick. You’re welcome.
“Houston, we have a problem!”
Those may have been my exact words upon learning of my brain hemorrhage in a tiny ER room at 3AM with my mother beside me.
Much like Apollo 13’s liquid oxygen tank exploding, my brain hemorrhage changed my mentality from “I’m going to walk on the moon” to “SHIT, I’M GONNA DIE” real quick.
A League of Their Own
You know the scene I’m talking about, right? The one where lil’ Blondie does something silly on the baseball field, and Hanks yells “THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL?” It’s probably one of my favorite scenes, ever.
When I arrived at a brain rehabilitation center after brain surgery, I misunderstood what the word “rehab” meant. To me, I was being rolled into a restful day spa. Not so! I looked at the pressure cuffs and itchy white hospital sheets and sobbed, “THERE’S NO CRYING IN REHAB.”
But there was.
At 22, I’d found myself confined to a wheelchair, eating hospital pudding as therapists tried to reteach me 3rd grade math problems. I was devastated, emotionally wrecked. Sometimes I’d cry because I was frustrated that my legs didn’t work. Other times, for no reason at all.
There was a lot of freaking crying in rehab.
Sleepless in Seattle
With a TBI, every relationship feels like a transcontinental journey to find a guy with an 8-year-old son with a teddy bear backpack at the top of the Empire State Building that will love me for who I am unconditionally.
Because I almost died, I look at dating differently now. I had just gotten out of a five-year relationship (with a promise ring, yikes!) right before my head imploded. There was no romantic love-interest in my hospital drama then, and if I’m going to date someone now, he had better be willing to go the distance for me.
My physical therapist had to talk to me about “sexual activities” after brain surgery.
If I got dizzy, I should stop. If I got a headache, I should stop. If I stopped breathing, I should…um, go to the emergency room?
I’m all good now, by the way. But I have acquired a new safe word. “Cerebral Cortex.”
What’s the plot of this great Hanks masterpiece? A kid in an adult’s body.
Twenty-two and fresh out of college, I was training for a half-marathon and doing quasi-adult stuff like getting my first big-girl job. That ended fast. No more fancy teacher meetings for this gal! My injury left me looking (and feeling) like a toddler who needed close supervision during bath time and help going potty, two activities I was not allowed to partake in alone at the hospital.
Have you ever showered with a 57-year-old lady named Marge monitoring you as you shave your hairy legs for the first time in two months?
I didn’t think so.
The only difference between my life and Big is that instead of using a Zoltar machine to get back to normal, I had to do balancing exercises and practice using a fake kitchen.
Like a deserted island, a TBI can really mess with your emotional capacity to maintain healthy relationships with people.
We’ve got these things called “filters.” You may be familiar. It’s what keeps us from blurting out rude stuff or sucker-punching someone at the post office.
It was hard to relate to my friends and family because they didn’t understand what I was going through — I knew nobody knew what it was like to have a brain bleed in their twenties. I occasionally found myself screaming, “WILSONNNNNN. WILSON, I’M SORRY” if I lashed out at the nearest human (or volleyball).
Saving Private Ryan
Being in the Intensive Care Unit (or any hospital or ER) is a lot like a warzone. There are these loud sounds and blood and sometimes crying and screaming. You never really know if you’re going to end up like that guy next to you, the guy behind the curtain.
I’m 87% sure somebody next to me flatlined in the middle of the night.
For me, I was always waiting on a doctor. An important doctor. Who for some strange reason never seemed to be around. I had plenty of nurses, sure. But when it came down to treating my hemorrhage and getting me the hospital care I needed:
“Ah, Dr. Fitzpatrick. I don’t know anything about Dr. Fitzpatrick. I don’t care. The man means nothing to me. It’s just a name. But if… going to the ICU and finding him so that he can go to lunch. If that earns me the right to get back to my dog, then that’s my mission.”
Our brains have this cool feature called “executive functioning.” It helps us prioritize tasks and get stuff done. It helps us steer the ship that is our complex brain. I wouldn’t know what that’s like because it currently takes me twelve hours to send a single email.
Having a TBI is hard because — OH LOOK, SHINY!
I get distracted and off-task easily. If I have a plan to do something — let’s pick something simple like, I don’t know, doing the dishes:
Then I see I have a text message from my landlord so I have to go pay that rent real quick…also while I’m here I’ll do my taxes…now I’m tired and frustrated from looking at this screen and also broke so I’ll take a cat nap and delay adult responsibilities… oh, dang that nightmare was scary I should call my mom… wait… what was I doing… RIGHT. DISHES.
It’s pretty much like the scene where the bad guy gets on the ship and is like, “I’m the captain (of your brain) now (and I command you to get distracted every two seconds).”
In the weeks leading up to my brain surgery, I was told to go on walks. This sounds like an adorable soundbite of medical advice, yet to me it was like running cross-country for years on end.
I was losing the ability to walk as my brain swelled up, causing my mother to assign me “Mimi Handlers,” a.k.a. a group of my committed friends, to walk me around the block several times a day and make sure I didn’t stumble into oncoming traffic.
It became a game for me. I recreated the Gump Running scene. I meandered off into the distance, looked back to my friends behind me, and exclaimed, “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.” They were all really cool about it, and pretending like I’d just led them through a desert for five years.
I also relate to the scene where the braces break clean off Forrest’s legs when he’s running from those bullies with the rocks. That was basically what I looked like when I busted out of my wheelchair and tried running down the hallway to get to the breakfast buffet in rehab.
I got caught. My physical therapist didn’t throw a rock at me, but she was not enthused.
In his infamous Gump wisdom, Tom Hanks also said: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” And it rings true. Traumatic brain injuries are as unique and unpredictable as Gump’s favorite dessert. We don’t choose them, and we are often fighting invisible little battles every day.