Phil's Accident and Life with Brain Injury

I was in a hang gliding accident when I was 20 years old. I crashed into a tree and, as I was trying to climb out, I fell. I was in a coma for three weeks. My parents and friends were fantastic and helped me through it all – they were my inspiration to get better.

I did speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy over the next year and a half, which got me back to my old job and my part-time university degree. I kept that up for a while, but then I found that I really needed to study full-time – it just wasn’t possible part-time because of the delays from the accident and full-time work and part-time study became just too hard. I finished it, though, and joined the workforce.

Unfortunately, employment has been a long and tortuous trek for me. I’ve got the same issues as all the regular people in the workforce have, as well as the extra ones a person with ABI has. It’s been a struggle, but you’ve just got to do the best you can.

All through my life I’ve seen myself as ‘normal’, because I see that being normal is a big range. But, because of how people with brain injury often see themselves and how the community perceives them as different, it’s definitely harder finding and keeping work.

As everyone knows, it’s tough in the workplace. There’s so many people lining up for each job. I do my best to keep the effects of my brain injury and the fact that I’ve had an ABI secret – that’s why I’m sharing my story anonymously. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. I gave up telling employers about my ABI – I felt that I was a marked man.

Unfortunately, my career direction doesn’t allow me to keep a low profile – I’m in a role where I have to ask tough questions of management, and that can ruffle feathers. And I’ll acknowledge that I’ve had struggles in the workplace. My memory has funny lapses and my speech isn’t 100%, which I feel particularly stands out. I’m still very competent in my profession, but dealing with people is often not easy.

My greatest problem is not getting up people’s noses. I remember, after my injury, giving a colleague a hard time about the car he drove, to the extent it completely damaged my relationship with him and I didn’t survive in that job. It’s those kind of fixations, tendencies to mistake situations, and inability to keep my thoughts to myself, that have caused me problems.

I got in touch with Synapse a while ago because my wife is having difficulties with some of my behaviours – misreading situations and being more awkward than I need to be. My wife has been very patient, but she wants to get on top of this.

I met my wife, Abbie, at university. She now has a senior role and has had her own work challenges in recent years, alongside us trying to do some major modifications at home. To be honest, it’s just been too much for me; I’m struggling. We’ve been seeing a psychologist, but I feel that’s been a waste of time because she doesn’t understand the effects of my injury.

It’s hard for Abbie, I appreciate that. But we do our best. I’ve tried to be the best husband and parent I could be for the kids. They’re going great guns – it’s just a normal family life, which is very important to me. It breaks my heart to see families falling apart. That’s why Abbie and I got involved with 4WDriving as a hobby we can share; it’s done wonderful things to keep our marriage happy, helping with our communication and forging closer links with each other and a group of great people. Our church family has been great too. I like to mix with people who accept me as I am.

I see so many people with ABI who struggle through marriage. I’m committed to not letting that happen to us.

Abbie's Journey with Phil and Brain Injury

My husband has always wanted to keep it quiet that he had a brain injury  – he’s never wanted anyone to give him any kind of dispensation. Phil has always wanted to be what he thinks of as ‘normal’. I don’t know how true his view of his pre-injury self is though. You know the way we always like to think of ourselves as being thinner and smarter than perhaps we ever were? I wonder if the same applies to the perception of his capability pre-injury.

I think he’s had a tendency at times to veer towards the ‘what if’, believing that his life could have been much different. But who knows? I’m sure that’s in part because he’s felt a huge amount of pressure to achieve as though there never was an injury. His father, I know, was deeply disappointed when he had the accident – he was made to feel that he still had to be the family flag-bearer. That’s a lot of pressure.

I think Phil’s injury has made him more self-centred and selfish, because he feels he’s always coming from behind. For me, I’ve had the juggle of career and family and then when we made some bad financial decisions it all became too much. It’s not his fault, of course, but I do feel as though his injury makes him overly trusting. And then, because of his capacity, it feels as though it falls to me to fix everything. It’s often easier for me to quietly do things myself than to deal with his stress and frustration; I think we need to choose a simpler life.

We went to counselling and they identified that he just wasn’t supporting me to the extent that I needed. When you’re sitting there and everything is calm, he says ‘yes I can do it’, but when things get stressful – in the heat of the moment – I don’t think he’s able to put things into practice.

For my part, I’ve got to realise that I don’t deserve this, that it’s not my fault and I can’t take it out on myself – he is who he is, and I can’t change that. I know he loves all of us very much, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.

I do feel that I prop him up a little bit, for him to achieve this ‘normalcy’ that he wants. So that cost is borne by me. I often wonder how life would have been if we’d just accepted that he is different, and not tried to pretend it hadn’t happened.

Phil’s not thoughtful, he doesn’t remember what you say, he gets overly tired and he’s extremely impatient and short tempered; he’s not coping so we all just have to live with his behaviour. He has a defensive personality – any time something goes a bit wrong, it rises up in him. He’s lost jobs over the years because of his temper – his need to say whatever he’s thinking. He gets carried away in the moment and can’t identify that he needs to calm down. If something goes wrong, or something gets in his way, he’ll throw it or knock it over. He doesn’t have any insight into how he appears to other people. In public his outbursts are embarrassing and in private it feels emotionally abusive.

I had to do the lion’s share of parenting and, to be honest, I do think we could have done better. One of our daughters is less forgiving of her father’s challenges than her siblings. Her view is that if he wasn’t up to the job, he shouldn’t have had children. But, as the youngest, she’s been around for a lot more of the difficulties we’ve faced in recent years, and has seen me struggling to shoulder the load. The eldest always swoops in to take over and ‘fix’ things for us. In hindsight, I definitely feel that we could have done things differently.

If I’d known the impact of Phil’s injury, I’d have thought very differently about our life. I suppose I took for granted that his desire to be ‘normal’ was realistic. I wish I’d said, stop for a minute, let’s really look at what the implications of your injury are likely to be, rather than going along with it blindly. I think we would have made a few different choices, but who knows?

I guess when you’re young and you’ve fallen in love, you think you can overcome anything. I’m not perfect, but when there’s a brain injury in the equation you need to think about the realities more than we ever did.

*names changed to protect identity