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Healing the Bitterness

Personal Stories

Healing the Bitterness

Bitterness is a trap we brain-injured people can easily fall into; it's entirely understandable, but it doesn't help the healing process. There is something particularly embittering about copping a brain injury, something appallingly undermining. For a start, there's the stigma, the social taboo - the fact that to some people, you are now an embarassment, and some of them show it.
On the inside, it's a horrible feeling of vulnerability and helplessness to know that you've had some functions seriously impaired, and you can no longer be sure what they were or precisely what you're missing. You suspect that you will never again get in your head the complete picture or experience of what it's like to be a fully functioning human being. At best, you know you'll never be quite "normal" again; and in a herd-mentality society that runs on the fragility of constantly questioned and reiterated ego dependent on social acceptance, that is a bitter pill indeed.

This feeling of being vulnerable, confused, a bit lost, still happens to me every day after more than fifty years. I copped my main injury at age three, and the first function damaged by the bruising and the catastrophic toxic cascade was the emotional self-regulation centre in the right orbital-frontal area, damage I have in common with most "mild" brain injury survivors. I could no longer produce appropriate emotional responses on meeting other humans, and that led to another disastrous cascade effect - I lost contact, became withdrawn, and fell off the cumulative ladder of socioemotional learning. The other damaged faculty, I later found out, was middle-level executive skills, which helps explain why it took me so damn long to put the full story together.
To this day, I have significant impairment in the socioemotional skills. I can't be sure I am reading people's signals accurately. Indeed, often I know I haven't, even before they become guarded and then pissed off - I'm not at all sure I fully understand what they are saying, especially if they are circumlocuting, "being polite", trying to imply something rather than saying it straight out. I need direct, literal communication: and on this cagey, dodgy planet I seldom get it, which means that much of the time I can't be sure that I did in fact "get it".
I often have to ask for clarification, which can lead people to think that I am a "please explain" duh-brain; it also leads to conflict because they think I'm just being awkward in not accepting what they think they have said, or not coming back with what they deem the appropriate emotional response. At such times, my underlying high IQ is not obvious to the casual observer. This can all add up to a very embittering feeling of insecurity - the feeling that I am condemned to a position of permanent and humiliating disadvantage, of seeming to be a bit of an idiot.

Bitterness can set in and take over after a brain injury. The cumulative frustration and
perplexity, and the enduring sense of loss, can add up to a strong sense of betrayal, the feeling that one has been dealt an unfair hand in a stacked game. There are cases of people brain-injured in traffic accidents, for example, who have sued the responsible party for damages: and in a her-word-against-his case, the victim's recall was imperfect, the perp lied through his teeth, and the victim walked away penniless. In such cases, you wouldn't be human if you didn't feel furious anger and bitterness at the blatant unfairness of it all. And if your process of grieving is slowed by that or any other obstacle, you can end up hanging on to the festering poison, and becoming more and more bitter.
Is it possible to leave the bitterness behind, to work through it to a sunnier place? I hope so. I'm still working on mine: here are some ideas I've found helpful.

The first point is one that actually elongates the process rather than shortening it. I have often been told that I need to forgive, to let go, to move on. That is true: but it is utterly pointless trying to do that unless we have first fully, honestly and laboriously worked through all the negative feelings, all the grief we have about the very real losses that have been violently imposed on us. It is vital and indispensable that anyone who is permanently injured (us dinted ones especially) has the absolute right to go through our own grieving process in our own time, and let go of it all only when we are REALLY ready to do so.
Forgiveness is not an instantaneous action, a simple stroke of volition. It is a difficult emotional process, and it simply doesn't work if we try to jump stages. It is easy to say we must forgive, let it go. Yet we cannot forgive until we have let the anger up to the surface and expressed it; and with damaged emotional control, that often takes much longer than for an undinted person. And don't ask whether or not your feelings are reasonable - feelings are never reasonable. They are not meant to be reasonable: feelings are feelings, not rational ideas. Don't get the two confused, they are very different phenomena.
Thus, to get to the stage of being able to forgive, we must work through all the powerful stages of grieving - the denial, the depression and hopelessness, the slowly mobilising anger, the growing reconciliation to our new, impaired daily reality, the radical reassessment of our goals, life experiences and interpretations. It takes time, often a lot of time - and we need to allow ourselves to do it in our own impaired time, not on a schedule suggested by well-meaning (or otherwise) helpers.
When we have worked through the grieving stage by stage, then it may be possible to finally forgive, forgo judgment, relinquish our desire to punish or get compensation from whoever has done this terrible thing to us, and let the past go. But it often happens that the process cannot start until we have at least resolved to desire to let go, even if that mental resolution sits uncomfortably against our feelings. It's like walking on two legs: the intention is necessary to start the emotional releasing, but is useless without it.

The real challenge, of which all the stages are an indispensable part, is to try to make sense of it all. That is an existential statement: after a brain injury, the whole point is that we can no longer make sense of the world or our everyday experience in the way we used to, so we have to construct a new story.
In the ethically questionable culture we live in, it is easy to slip into feelings of injustice and blame, seeking to make sense of it all by blaming the other person (if there was indeed one who caused our trauma) for his or her wrongdoing as the cause of all our catastrophes. Yet, if we do that, who are we really blaming? Is there not, underneath, the question of whether we are ourselves to blame for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, at least, and getting in harm's way? If we are freaked out and blaming, maybe it is ourselves that we really need to forgive first - to relieve ourselves of the terrible accusation at the back of our minds that this disaster was really all our own fault, that in some way we deserved it.
Final phase - the positive spiritual?
I have found it helpful, in the (hopefully) final phase of emotional healing, to seek some spiritual meaning for the whole process. Was this event one which I should bother to analyse rationally, seeking a legally framed story of cause and effect, or was it just one of the unavoidable hammer-blows of fate? Or was it, perhaps, a challenge from the gods, designed to shift me into a different mode of functioning?
The divine (if you can accept the possibility that it exists - and I may still be looking to blame God for what happened to me!) characteristically chucks us curly ones that throw our previous plans and understandings off balance. The difficulty of rising to meet such challenges is no different for us dinted ones than for the "healthy" - or rather, for us it may be easier. The healthies still have the luxury (or obstacle?) of being able to hold on to their comforting views of the world, of themselves, of the purpose of life: whereas we are pitched violently into a frightening new world in which we are reminded a hundred times a day that we cannot rely on those old props any more.
In the ethically questionable culture we live in, it is easy to slip into feelings of injustice and blame, seeking to make sense of it all by blaming the other person
But, could that become a strength? We dinted ones may be able to think outside the square - let's face it, we have little choice, since the square may now be closed to us. My need for literal and straight communication meant I had to be sceptical about anything anyone said to me, go back to first principles and seek truth with logic - an unpopular quest in a social milieu where the admisssion ticket consists of already knowing and accepting the consensus view, however illogical or untruthful it may be.

Can we, whom the gods have chosen to bless with this challenge, make any positive sense of what has happened, and painfully carve out a new direction? Was it a divine intervention to force us to learn new perspectives, create ourselves anew? Is it all karma for actions we perpetrated in a past life? Can we learn from our dire experience some new compassion for the suffering many?
I haven't yet completed the long process of making sense of it all, and it will probably take me some years. But I have found that it helps to keep myself open to the possibility that I needed to learn something, probably many things, from this deeply nasty episode - insights that will make me a better person in a spiritual sense, perhaps that the direction I had been headed in during my recent incarnations was in need of change, and that I needed to take on board some painful humility about the common suffering of humanity which will help me become a more giving, forgiving and compassionate person in the end. Maybe I had to become a smashed-up outsider in order to understand how it is for all the smashed-up, despised and rejected outsiders.
At all events, I try to keep one guiding principle in mind every day: the fact that I am brain-damaged does not make me less of a human being, does not detract from my human rights - including above all the right to make a positive contribution to the betterment of the human condition as a whole. It's difficult, especially in the face of constant adverse reactions from judgmental types - but maybe they too need to learn the lessons this disaster is trying to give me.
Comrades, what are your thoughts on these challenging ideas? Has anyone found a real sense of new purpose after brain injury? Could there even be dinted ones out there who have found so much new meaning that they are no longer sorry or bitter that it happened? If you too are grappling with these issues, pray email me at, and I will respond and compile the most enlightening stories into a follow-up article. Maybe if we combine our dinted brains, we can help each other through this enormous challenge.

© Jason Copeland


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