Hays: An invisible woundWritten by Pam Hays | | email@example.com
Wearing a mask is a tradition for children each October as they go door-to-door in search of treats — and for adults attending masquerade parties. It can be fun to play being someone else for a night and live out some fantasies. At the end of the night, the mask comes off and life goes back to reality. But for many veterans who have a traumatic brain injury, the mask they wear every day is not fun and games.
Imagine for a moment that a person who’s lost a leg would have to wear pants to cover their very visible wound, because people did not believe that the limb was missing. Imagine the person with no leg having to leave their cane at home because they were constantly being asked why they have a cane, even though their leg was clearly not there, and they were tired of the questions.
Imagine the person without a leg staying home and avoiding people more and more because the understanding of their wound was not there and the ability to put on “the mask” of being OK, when life was quite the opposite, was too much to bear.
It would be odd for someone without a limb to be scrutinized for their injury. But, for the rapidly growing number of veterans who have a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, the “mask” of pretending to be coping starts as a survival mechanism, but can become a life sentence of denial and never finding their true, new self. TBI is one of the invisible wounds of war and military service. It is an injury that others can’t see; from the exterior, sufferers appear OK. But from the inside out, the view of life has drastically changed for the survivor.
How would you feel if one day, for one moment in time, you could comprehend sentences and then couldn’t? Or you could enjoy reading one minute but suddenly it became exhausting? Or you could laugh at your favorite type of comedy, but then without warning you couldn’t quite get whether someone is joking or serious? Or if you had lots of energy to complete your tasks, but then staying on track with conversations felt like a full day of work?
There are many life changes associated with surviving a TBI, many more than I could write about in one column. But one of the greatest challenges that survivors face has more to do with the people around them than what is going on in their own brains.
The lack of understanding about TBI puts survivors in a position to explain themselves time and time again.
I remember hearing after my devastating injuries to my brain and other parts of my physical body, “Well, you look good.” These words were so difficult for me to hear! I didn’t care that my outside physical self looked good in their view; I was very depressed and sad and horribly confused about the view I had of myself from the inside out.
I may not have served in a war or the military service, but as many of the veterans I serve through our organization tell me, “You have been in the foxhole with us, Pam, because you know what it is like to put a life back together after invisible wounds.”
I can’t begin to tell you what that kind of understanding means to me! There is no “recovery” from TBI. I know that goes against the language used in many recovery programs, but recovery is a word that suggests a TBI survivor can always go back to the person they were before the injury. That is not true. But I, and the veterans I assist, have come to a “joyful renewal” — a place of acceptance of who we are now and a passion to be the best we can be and move forward with a joyful spirit. Remember, those who look like they don’t have a care in the world may be fighting some of the most difficult battles of their life. O
Pam Hays is president and founder of The Arms Forces, www.thearms forces.org; (419) 891-2111; Facebook.com/thearmsforces.