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My Brother John

Personal Stories
 
 
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My Brother John

Two years ago, my teenage brother was involved in a near-fatal car crash.

 

He was driving in his newly-acquired first car and on turning a sharp blind bend collided at 90kmh with a Toyota Land Cruiser. He was in a coma for about three days. Injuries were mostly to his face with many broken bones and cuts, a broken leg. With the extensive surgery involved a tracheostomy was required in case he couldn't breathe for himself. There was also the massive hidden trauma to the brain as the impact of the crash had been so great.


Seventeen at the time of the accident, my brother had just started his first semester at University and was enjoying the freedom and status his new car brought him. He spent five weeks in hospital with extensive surgery and after he had been stabilised, he was admitted to a specialist brain injury rehabilitation unit for six weeks.


I have to say that his physical recovery has been remarkable and he was very fortunate not to have suffered greater injuries. I suspect many would say the mental, emotional and social suffering can seem like the most painful part of the rehabilitation process. It can be incredibly challenging, particularly for young people, to get back on their feet as far as many of the mental and emotional functions we mostly take for granted, are concerned. Then there is trying to make it on the social scene after that, when you are already suffering the loss of parts of the person you knew yourself to be and losses to the lifestyle you once knew. So many young people feel the pressure to fit in to a certain, 'image' and want to appear as much like their peers as possible. Anything else just isn't 'cool' and can mean rejection and social isolation. At any age, that is not easy to handle but especially when you are young it can seem like a nightmare.

 

LOSS OF SOCIAL NETWORKS
In the summer following the accident, John and my parents travelled to England to give John a change of scenery and spend time with other family members. John was suffering acute psychological, emotional and social problems and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that we also really needed each other to help him work through the severe paranoia and auditory hallucinations he was experiencing.


John returned to Australia about six months later expecting to link-up with his old school crew again. But what he didn't realise was that during the time he was away, his mates had started drifting apart as a group. They had long left school and were all moving in different directions. John and his best mate, Paul and been drifting apart prior to the trip to England
and he had even less contact with other friends. Combined with the trauma of the accident and rehabilitation John felt very rejected and isolated.

 

THE PAIN OF EXCLUSION
John was always the sibling who we would hear the most social compliments about, how pleasant he was to be around and how easy he was to get along with. The ladies loved him because he was so sweet and he had a great sense of humour. It seemed he was naturally able to get on with lots of people of different ages and from diverse backgrounds. He didn't know why his friends were avoiding him and as a typical teenager, came to the conclusion that his friends just didn't like him anymore. He had felt so close to Paul that he saw him more like a brother than just a friend.


Paul's infrequent contact and his excluding John from party invitations and other social events, hurt my brother deeply. It wasn't that John's old friends never met up but the occasions were few and far between. The whole gang showed up for John's birthday but most of the time only stayed in touch by MSN. Paul rarely called and rarely came round even when he said he would which added to John's sense of rejection and mistrust.


SCHIZOPHRENIA
John continued to suffer from the effects of the brain injury in a way that closely resembled schizophrenia although he wasn't actually schizophrenic. He was constantly concerned that others were talking about him behind his back and would also mutter things under his breath when he thought someone had made unkind remarks about him. When he suspected it was happening, he became convinced it really was, even when he thought someone was shouting out an insult at him with us present. Trying to convince him that it hadn't really happened usually didn't work. He became more and more upset, more untrusting of others, even his own family and more and more paranoid. Depression started to set-in and at times, he would have outbursts of anger when it all got too much for him.


Over a year later John has recovered further. He no longer hears voices as often, is much less paranoid and to his credit, has really matured from the experience and chosen to take a 'positive mental attitude' to the problems in his life. He generally finds it easier to mix with others, to relax in their company and is now somewhat more confident in his social abilities. A lot of the improvements have come from John himself, his decision to reach out and try again and again - and again! and to create for himself, the sort of future he wanted to have.

 

GROWING THROUGH THE EXPERIENCE
Fortunately John feels he has got something for himself out of this nightmarish experience. After questioning his self-worth and self-esteem for such a long time and feeling so hurt, time and time again, wondering what on earth was so wrong with him, he is emerging as a stronger person from it all. From the knowledge my brother has gained, he is better equipped to face the future with more problem-solving abilities and coping skills than he had before and the resulting empathy and compassion he now has, can one day be an immeasurable gift to others who are still trying to cope. And I would say that is the number one need - people who are willing to take the time to get to know, listen to and understand those who are socially challenged because of an ABI. People who are willing to be real friends to those who aren't obviously, 'brain-injured' or mentally disabled but who seem to be in what I call, 'a relational no-man's land,' - one where you're so near yet so far.

 

THE RELATIONAL "NO MAN'S LAND"
However, John is still finding it hard to make new friends in his peer group - the type of friends he can really hang out with. One consequence of the ABI is that he still thinks a little slower than he used to and therefore is also slower at taking in what is communicated to him as well as in responding. That in itself presents a problem as I've never known patience to be a strong trait in those of his age group and my own experience at the grand old age of 30 is that, at times I've found it hard to resist the temptation to finish his sentences for him and I've felt like I wish he would just hurry up and say what he wants to say. How much more challenging would those who are 10 years younger find this, especially when they don't really know him? I don't know what the answer is and there seems to be so little to help young sufferers to re-integrate in to their peer group. It's not just a problem for youth but I think it's highlighted in that age group. You can't expect too much from teenagers - this is
the number one need- people who are willing to take the time to get to know, listen to and understand the sort of problem that tends to go in the 'too hard basket' but considering that 70% of ABI sufferers are young men who have been in motoring accidents, there must be quite a lot of struggling, isolated, dejected young people out there. And many could be in the same 'no-man's land,' John is in, where they aren't obviously suffering from an ABI but they just can't seem to fully re-socialise with their peer group either.

 

AN INVITATION TO LINK UP
More alarmingly, the same demographic group is known to have the highest rate of suicide. To successfully negotiate the transition in to adult life isn't easy but with the added problem of ABI, it can just seem too much for some vulnerable youngsters. What happens to those who don't have much family around them and what happens to those who seem like they are coping on the surface but are really hurting and depressed underneath?


I don't know when my brother will find himself in an accepting and supportive group of friends but I so hope he won't have to go through this for much longer. And as for those who are in some sort of a caring role, I know it can be extremely trying and having some support to turn to can be essential. If it really is true that, 'every dark cloud has a silver lining,' then maybe this article will help bring that silver lining more in to view, for us and for those who are in similar circumstances. It would be great if my brother could link up with others who feel they are in the same situation, for mutual support and companionship. And for us, I think it could be helpful to share experiences with those who are doing their best to help another young person, through this extremely unpleasant experience.

 

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