Building a life around a traumatic brain injury
This is the second in a two-part series about TBIs in honor of Brain Injury Awareness Month. Find the first part at tetonvalleynews.net.
Jeff White was riding bikes with a buddy in the mountains above Bishop, CA, 43 years ago—some time before you could just walk into a shop and buy a bike helmet (although he did have one on order). He crashed hard while speeding downhill and broke his skull and eye socket, knocked out teeth, left skin on the trail, and sustained tissue damage. He spent ten days in the hospital before being released to his family and then-fiancée, Annette.
They were married soon after the accident. “The wedding photos weren’t pretty,” Annette remembered.
Even though he gradually recovered from his external injuries, Annette observed lasting changes in Jeff. “Back then, and even now sometimes, doctors don’t talk to you about possible brain injuries. But I knew right away that a lot of damage had been done.”
As she saw him exhibit behavioral changes and PTSD-like symptoms like depression, anxiety, and an intense fight-or-flight response in overwhelming situations, Annette thought Jeff had psychological damage of some sort. “I thought about it in terms that I knew, that the crash had ‘messed with his head,’” she said. “I’d never considered that there was physiological damage in his brain. There’s a big difference to thinking of it that way, it tweaks your understanding.”
Jeff remained a strong collegiate and graduate student and seemed to be a different person in the office, where his coworkers found him to be genial and a good listener. “It was like he could sublimate most of his symptoms at work to get by, and then couldn’t keep that up at home.”
Annette learned to maintain a quiet, calm household even with three kids, and to manage her own stress and responses so as not to trigger Jeff. “When you have PTSD it’s like your nervous system is stuck in a constant place of high alert,” she said.
The couple explored some of the possible causes of Jeff’s maladies, wondering if he had a family history of depression, but it wasn’t until around 2010, when a new eye doctor gave Jeff a retinal scan and discovered scar tissue that indicated a head injury, that the root cause was revealed: a decades-old traumatic brain injury.
As Annette paid attention to new revelations about Gulf War soldiers coming home with PTSD, and NFL players suffering from brain degeneration after repeated head traumas, she recognized some similarities to Jeff’s experience.
The couple, both in their sixties, retired to the Tetons, where Annette has family roots, and now enjoy a life of biking and skiing ("Wear a helmet," is Jeff's advice to anyone out on the trails or slopes), although retirement brings its own stresses.
“My experience has not been so much physical caregiving as understanding instances where he has yet to make a work-around,” Annette said. She was happy to find the local TBI support group, where she and Jeff can share their story and hear what other caregivers and people with brain injuries are going through. (Email email@example.com for an invitation to the group, which meets remotely on the third Thursday of each month.)
“Everyone handles things differently. It took a lot of years to figure out how to handle our situation, and we’re still learning. That’s typical of any marriage—all of us are just a little bit broken.”
She has her own ways of protecting her mental health while accommodating her husband. “I’ve found good friends, and support through my church. Thank goodness, I’m pretty practical-minded. It takes love and patience. Caregiving is about treating someone like you’d want to be treated if you had an injury, and remembering the person you fell in love with is still in there—and if they’ve changed, you can love that person too.”