Whether you are close to someone affected with the aforementioned affliction or perhaps had only the briefest of encounters, your treatment of them ought to have been the same.
So why was it not?
Why is it that these so called ‘brain damaged souls’ are largely pitied, or even ostrasised by the majority, most commonly on the charge of being ‘weird’ or ‘not normal’? Why do regular folk perceive those with brain injury as people to be avoided? Is it our innate fear of the unknown coming forth? Or is it just that most people are ignorant bigots? The thing is, head injury patients are really no different from you or… well, to be fair, I am the result of a severe head injury.
Around six months after my release, my honourable discharge from Burwood Brain Unit in Christchurch, I still wore the façade of a brain-dead zombie – the façade. While on the surface I might have appeared vacuous, while the words I used to project myself were laboured and slurred; while it might have looked as though my rubbery exterior assimilated and felt nothing, this was an erroneous assessment.
At that time, amid an evening at the local pub, glazed, glassy as my eyes might still have been, unreceptive as people assumed that I was, I witnessed the covert glances of wonderment, pity, or even guilt at not possessing the gumption to actually approach and speak to me. (This for the same guy who you used to admire and respect but now that shit’s happened, he’s changed; he’s different.) Worse still, I heard the people whispering questions, inane inquiries to my nearby siblings – as if it had not occurred to them to come and ask me, as if the response of zombie would not prove credible among a jury of drunkards.
There is nothing more demeaning as a 17-year-old, recently head injured lad, than to see a girl you’ve fancied for a long while, knowing that she also has been holding a candle for you, catching her eye, seeing her make her way over, feeling the elation, the anticipation rising within you, then only to have what you had initially detected as a sultry smirk, drift downwards into a face torn by compassion, lined with concern; punctuated by a stinking, putrid heap of pity. (Men often joke about the perils of falling into the ‘friend rut’, given that the chances of later extricating oneself from therein are slim. So guys, how much chance do you reckon there is of pulling oneself from the ‘pity rut’?) This beautiful girl who for many years had been the centre of my affections, from then on, could only ever see me as a charity case to be pitied.
As the night wore on, as drunkenness became diffuse and inhibitions became scarce, the most frequently asked question that would come from beneath a furrowed brow of compassion/confusion: “Ah, hi … do you remember who I am..?”
Chalk that one up to television. The one recognisable deficit resulting from brain injury. Memory loss. The thing that those shows always neglect to cover is the rest of it. The brain is everything, not just the head. Sure, speech and basic motor function are commonly affected facets, but what about the other stuff? What about the less glamorous side of it, the rudimentary tasks? What about cutting your toenails; what about squeezing your pimples; what about wiping your arse?
Also, no one wakes up from a nine day coma, rolls over, yawns, then with a look of profound dissatisfaction, coherently mumbles a charming statement referring to something he had been doing just prior to the onset of his coma. It doesn’t work like that. Granted, all head injuries manifest different symptoms but after a nine day coma, one would be lucky to recall anything of a day or two before the injury and chances are, the slate’s going to be wiped clean for at least the next couple of weeks. When somebody awakens from a coma they don’t immediately start registering everything around them thus memory, in the beginning, does not exist. It takes time.
Good old TV. According to its writers brain trauma only lasts a handful of episodes, or at most, two omnibuses; then following that, reintegration comes as second nature to these stricken people.
Probably the most infuriating thing experienced by head injury sufferers is the lack of knowledge, or awareness, on the topic. It’s not a sufficiently common problem to be widely accepted but nor is it noticeable enough to be easily observed. This can leave those afflicted feeling trapped in their own head, with the knowledge that in the outside world, with the rest of the population, simply, they do not measure up. Whether or not this is true makes little difference. A damaged brain thinks what it wants to think.
Any mental shortcoming, disability, issue or illness – no matter the nature – should be managed by those around it with care, grace and reverence. Personally, detest pity. Presumably, so do most other brain damaged souls. Be normal to us, and we’ll be normal back. (Normal of course, being an entirely subjective term.)
Article by Mit Reklaw
Photography by Indie Head
Edited by S Crew-Luce