A few years ago, my friend Julie was out visiting, and this picture was us having a blast at the Blossoms of Light show at the Denver Botanical Gardens. Back then, I loved this time of year. However, the “new” me can’t wait for the holidays to be over. It makes me sad to say that, but it is true.
‘Tis the season for overstimulation. This time of year can be brutal for people with TBI. All the lights, music, decorations, and social gatherings can be challenging. It is supposed to be a time of year full of excitement and happiness, and instead there is dread, fear, and a sense of isolation.
For me, doing something as simple as walking my dog around the neighborhood after the sun goes down, and the Christmas lights come on, is miserable. I try to make sure to take him out before it gets dark, or he has to wait until Josh gets home from work. Occasionally, if Josh is stuck at work late and the puppy is getting desperate, I have to brave the lights and take him out. So if you see someone walking in the dark down the middle of the street with her eyes closed, please don’t run me over. I’m simply trying to get as far away from the oh so festive, glaring, horrible, nauseating, cheerful lights on my neighbors homes.
It is very common for people with TBI to come across as rude, socially awkward, incredibly shy, or simply disinterested. I find myself not wanting to socialize with people I don’t know, because I don’t want to come across this way. Maintaining enough focus to engage in conversation is taxing. Over the weekend Josh and I attended a dinner party with some folks from his office. There were only 6 people, including us, and I was wrecked by the end. At times there were multiple conversations going, and when this happens I struggle to follow anything, and I desperately want everyone to stop talking. There is also a sense of anxiety and distress as the general overstimulation sets in. As the night went on, I was only catching snippets of what was said; answering questions briefly and stopping mid-sentence, forgetting what I was talking about. There is frustration knowing that I must sound drunk, or stupid, or just self-centered because I will answer a question, but don’t ask any questions in return. It isn’t that I don’t care about getting to know them, but that I don’t have the energy to try. When I reach that point of mental exhaustion, what I really want is to go home and go to bed, or at least just be left alone to sit there in the background and let Josh do all the talking. Honestly, I think I was more mentally exhausted after that dinner party than I was after my 100 miler, but at least my feet were in better shape.
There are many things that can be done to make social gatherings easier, but we didn’t plan ahead. We need to accept where I am in my recovery. There is no point in setting myself up to be miserable either by expecting my brain to handle too much or by avoiding social gatherings altogether. Brainline.org posted an article entitled 15 Tips for Surviving –and Enjoying–the Holidays with TBI. I think their most important tip is the first one “Identify — in advance, if possible — a quiet place to go at gatherings if you are feeling overwhelmed. This gives you a chance to take a break, and lets your loved ones stay involved in the festivities.” This is easier to do when you host the party, or if you are with close friends and family. It is harder to ask someone you just met if they have a guest room so you can go lay down for a few minutes. There is only so long you can sit in the bathroom before people start to wonder if you are okay. Both the person with the TBI, and their primary caregiver need to set realistic expectations for social gatherings, and making a plan ahead of time will make things easier.
A couple of weeks ago, we did host our annual Christmas costume party, which we have done for 7 years. This year the theme was BLING. It was crazy, it was fun, and it left me spending the entire next day in bed feeling miserable, but some things are worth the price. Social gatherings are easier when I’m spending time with close friends, even if it is a lot of them. They know me, they know what I’m going through, and I don’t feel obligated to maintain conversations. I can simply be present (with my earplugs), enjoy their company, and sneak off to sit in my bedroom for a few minutes in the dark when I need to.
So if you are looking for me over the next few weeks, I might be hiding somewhere…hopefully with a tray full of cookies.