I’ve been working on Book 4, and I’ve already established that Will was a frightful accident and is suffering from the effects of a terrible brain injury. Many times, people who have had a head injury display subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in their personality.
I established in Book 1 that Will has a temper. During the Gulf War, he very nearly shot his Platoon Daddy, an event that didn’t occur because his friend Max, standing right behind him, put his hand on top of his and told him, “He isn’t worth it!”
In years to come Will thinks he’s beaten that maddening impulse, which he calls “The Animal.” He believes he’s caged the Animal and it will never be part of his life again.
Well, he’s wrong. The Animal is still very much a part of him. Worse, it seems to have learned to pick the lock on the cage Will thought he had confined it in. All of this courtesy of a bad car wreck.
Surprisingly, personality change reported in a lot of cases of people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury. Some of the survivors might have increased agitation, maybe more prone to engage in verbal attacks, or even physical aggression.
Others may go the other direction. They may become more withdrawn, docile even.
One famous person who suffered this was General George Patton. History tells us Patton had a temper. His friends said he always had one. But following an accident when he was thrown from a horse (and yep, you guessed it. He landed on his head and was out cold for several minutes), his temper took on epic proportions. If you read the biography of the man, you also see he made some stupid choices, both in his personal and military life. Some of those choices cost him dearly. How much the injury had to do with that remains unknown. He was also difficult to get along with, something that also seemed to be more manifest after the accident.
When we see this, it’s a sure bet that the part of the brain that govern what we call the “Executive Functions” were impaired. These functions refer to skills we use to plan, make decisions, solve problems, monitor ourselves, make sound judgments, and associate with others.
The point is, if you’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury, don’t expect to be the same person you were before. And those around you should (hopefully) understand that as well. After my accident, some of the abilities I had before were gone. I used to be able to do complex equations in my head. I can’t do more than a few steps. I used to be able to memorize things easily. Not anymore. For several weeks after the accident, I struggled to get my emotions in check.
To make matters worse, some of my physical coordination was gone. Toss me a ball and I might not even react to it. As a police officer that can be dangerous.
Also, what used to be simple things could suddenly feel overwhelming.
I ended up having to do is what behavior therapists call the A-B-C method.
A is for antecedent. Is short, what is the trigger? Despite being an intelligent person, I can find myself being overwhelmed with stuff. A simple example. Christmas. We tend to celebrate it in a big way, and big means lots of trees, lights, and so on. It can all become very overwhelming.
What I’ve done to overcome it is to compartmentalize things. I break the task down into pieces and take time.
B is for Behavior. The task was so overwhelming, I actually got to the point where Christmas wasn’t enjoyable to me. I tended to withdraw from those around me.
Since I compartmentalized everything, I made an effort to enjoy it. Part of that involved some reprogramming, so to speak. When we decorate we do it with music, goodies, and so on. I want it to be a festive occasion, and so it is.
C is for Consequences. If I retreat from everyone around Christmas time, guess what I’m missing out on.
A lot of recovery was learning new skills. I had to learn to recognize when things were starting to get a little tough. My wife and I have both learned to talk openly about it, and if it starts getting hard, we sit down and chill out for a bit.
Something that really helped was physical exercise. I’ve always known that, but it helped rewire the brain a little. Some of the physical coordination I’d lost is back. I hung a tennis ball up in the garage and the idea is to punch it, let it come back and punch it again. I want to get a pendulum type motion going. That exercise rewired my hand eye coordination. It also burns off stress, and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, that won’t work for everyone. Some folks have lost certain physical abilities because of their injury. But what will work is to do the best with what you got.
I pray a lot, especially for self control. I know the Animal is still there, but I also know that my faith and trust in God keeps it in check. I’ve also learned that it’s not something to be afraid of. Because of the Animal, I’m more driven than ever. Don’t believe me?
I’d never have written without it.
But there is a flip side to the things I used to do but can’t anymore. One, I’ve learned the value of checklists. I used to carry it all in my head, but can’t anymore. Checklists also help planning, which in turn builds better performance. I’ve learned that if astronauts (who are usually the smartest person in the room at any given time) use them, why shouldn’t I? It’s not about appearing silly, stupid, or whatever. It’s about making sure everything is done right.
I’ve also learned about learning. I do something, then I write it down. That helps me more than all the memorization in the world ever achieved because it reinforces what I just did and retain it longer.
I actually read. Rather than skimming stuff like I used to, I read the book. I savor each word, and I have a better appreciation for it now.
Biggest benefit, it’s slowed me down to understand people. I’d say in a lot of ways my injury made me more outgoing and open to friendships, something I wasn’t before.
I do believe Will Diaz is going to have an interesting recovery time ahead of him while he faces some of the biggest challenges of his life. It will be interesting to see how well he copes with it all.