Stream of Consciousness: An Experiment

I’m having a hell of a time right now. I have things I want to process and write down but I can’t figure out the words for it. This happens every time I write so this isn’t unexpected – this is the “difficulty with concept formation” part of my brain damage. Typically, I slog my way through this murky process until I have something that meets my standard. Today, however, the wheels are spinning like mad but I can’t get get any traction. So I’m just gonna write stuff down, edit sparingly, and see what happens.

I was gonna title this piece Me: A Case Study because I just finished reading “An Anthropologist on Mars” by the late Oliver Sacks, a great neurologist and professor described as the Poet Laureate of Medicine. This collection of stories shares the lives of his patients living with autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Tourette’s and other neurological conditions. The title is a phrase used by Temple Grandin, a professor and consultant living with autism, on how she feels observing the general public around her.

I like reading about other people who also have atypical brains. It makes me feel, I don’t know, like I’m part of a clan. Maybe a neurologically impaired tribe isn’t the best one to be a member of – we’re all here involuntarily and we can’t really leave – but reading about my teammates helps me understand me.

At the same time, identifying as part of the neurologically impaired group doesn’t come quickly or easily. It’s like my self-image, my projection of myself to myself hasn’t updated. It’s still running on me circa 2000, listening to Dave Matthews Band and wearing cargo shorts (I kept DMB, lost the shorts). Maybe it’s because the whole goal of my recovery has been to recover that guy from back then. I liked that guy, I thought he was cool. Maybe it’s not even that guy, specifically, maybe I just want to be not-brain-damaged. Maybe it’s just plain old regular unleaded denial.

If this carefully constructed denial was two litres of Diet Coke, Sacks’ book was like dropping a pack of Mentos in it. I tend to read really fast. Some sections, however, just stopped me in my tracks and I had to pause to process the implications of what I just read. Sacks’ report of one patient’s struggle with memory was a near perfect description of my experience and evidence of damage to both temporal lobes. As I alluded to in a previous post, my borderline impulsive need to make puns and jokes is characteristic of frontal lobe damage.

I know some people will want to say, “Jay, you’ve always been jokey and funny, come on…” This bothers me, it takes an oppositional position to what I’m saying, as though I am wrong about this. Yes, I’m a funny dude and pretty much always have been, but there is something else there too – a feeling that wasn’t there before, a sort of urgency – in other words, a compulsion. It’s not a major one, and it doesn’t lead to inappropriate behaviour, but there is something different now and it’s been different for a while.

For an head injury that’s nearly seventeen years old,  the confirmation I encountered in this book took me by surprise. I think what’s happened is that I understand my current state differently. I think I used to consider just the PTSD aspect of my journey and glossed over the brain-damage par of it. I viewed my cognitive deficits in the most general terms, attributed to a general cause, the car accident. I know I have brain damage but I can fool most people most of the time, primarily myself. With the specific examples Sacks offers in his book, I am seeing my injuries, my current state, in more specific terms. Instead of this general diagnosis, I can identify specific injuries. My temporal lobes have been pretty significantly damaged, my frontal lobes, perhaps a little less so. 

I don’t know, it’s weird to think about. Sometimes I wish there was a clear photo, or chart, or some other gauge to measure how badly things are up there. Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about football players and chronic traumatic encephalitis (CTE). A quick Google search will bring up images of shrivelled brains, the result of multiple concussions (read: head injuries) and I wonder what mine looks like. I wish there was some type of PET scan, or MRI, or anything so I could see the parts of my brain that aren’t working properly and why. I think that maybe if I had a clear comparison, between my brain and a typical healthy brain, maybe I wouldn’t put as much pressure on myself to be a certain way; to do this more, or do that less. If I could show this side-by-side to people, maybe I would feel more understood.

Maybe. Maybe not.

In two months it’ll be seventeen years since the car accident – seventeen years of brain damage and neuroplasticity; of reorganizing, rewiring, and recovering. Strange how doing something for that long can still feel so foreign. 

To conclude this writing experiment, I will say I feel better having gotten some thoughts out onto screen. I was researching what a particular recurring dream could mean and one of the interpretations was that I was feeling restrained, that I wanted to speak but couldn’t. Maybe I’ll stop have that dream now. Then again, another interpretation was that good things are coming and I have lots to look forward to. Maybe they’re both right. Whatever, dreams are weird.



About jaybrandsma

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3 Responses to Stream of Consciousness: An Experiment

  1. Mandi Gunn says:

    Jay! I Love your blogs. One thing I will tell you is that you’ve always inspired me by your crazy amount of intelligence. You are so uniquely smart, aware, vulnerable, insightful… You’re also right about the fact that you’ve always been funny, but compulsions are challenging to control and that must be something you have to continuously be conscious of and battle against to stop yourself from doing… but what would happen if you didn’t stop yourself. If you just did YOU. What’s the worst that could happen….. My point is, you’re such a strong human being. You are not only faced with the aftermath of that car accident still 17 years later but you’ve since battled a lot of other things that a lot of people wouldn’t be able to in addition to that. Don’t be hard on yourself. Keep being exactly you because you’re a rad guy and this world needs you in it. With or without any compulsions.

    • jaybrandsma says:

      Thanks for this, Mandi. The compulsions are secondary to the effort I spend just trying to focus, to remember what I was doing, what I was saying, or even what I was thinking. When my train of thought is interrupted, even by another brief thought, I have to backtrack to what I was originally doing or thinking to remember what the next step is. It’s kinda like meditating. It’s one thing to focus on your breathing when you’re sitting in your room with zen music playing softly. It’s another thing to do that while kids are tugging at you, the TV is too loud, and you’re looking for your keys. That’s something like the concentration I need to have even just to write this comment. Things are constantly falling out of focus and I’m continually trying to hold them in focus long enough to do what I need to do. That’s the result of damaged temporal lobes, I understand that now more clearly. The frontal lobe damage, the disinhibited wordplay, doesn’t manifest to nearly the same extent. Maybe it does, but I just forget the joke before I can say it… Anyway, thanks for taking the time to reply – woohoo ;)

  2. Gloria Brandsma says:

    Jay, I love what Mandi wrote back to you and I love what you write, the insights and your struggles. You are courageous, smart, inspirational, and sometimes way too hard on yourself. I think our brains are in fact the most fascinating, intricate, ever amazing part of our bodies that God created. Whenever despair hits, remember how much you are loved both pre and post 17 years ago. Love G and B

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