By Ian Hebeisen
My mom never considered herself a morning person. I inherited her night-owl nature, and often the two of us will stay awake after everybody else in the house is asleep. She’ll work on a puzzle; I’ll work on a project of my own. My evenings serve as a time to myself to continue my progress on whatever it is I’m doing, while my mom’s time is necessary for her to clear away the day’s brain fog.
My mom has been living with a TBI for roughly seven years, and battles brain fog pretty much every day. Mornings tend to be the trickiest part of the day. Early morning brain fog takes time to clear, and if she doesn’t have a cup of coffee brewing, it can take upwards of two hours for her to really get going. Often, it takes that long even with the coffee.
Brain fog can recur throughout the day, usually after being overstimulated or finishing a long work day. My mom recalls one day at work when she was trying to learn a new software system. After a while, she struggled to speak, type words, and write notes, all due to heavy brain fog. “I needed to go home early that day,” she said. “I wasn’t improving or getting things done; being there was counterproductive.”
To my mom, brain fog feels as if her head is full of concrete. She feels fuzzy and numb, and her normal thought processes aren’t there. She can be sitting in a familiar room, but everything will seem out of focus.
Over time, she’s found a couple ways to manage her brain fog to the best of her abilities. Sitting down and resting help a great deal, and doing her puzzles soothes her mind. She’ll often play a familiar audio book or song she recognizes. Her brain fog is like a frosted windshield: she can chisel away at it to clear her mind, but it takes patience.
I asked her what my brothers and I can do to help ease her brain fog, and after some reflection, she replied, “The family has gotten so good at adapting; I no longer know what you do to adapt.” We discussed the situation further, and came to the conclusion she struggles most with tasks that require moving parts and decision making.
For example, she can load the dishwasher just fine, but emptying it overloads her head, and she gets that fuzzy feeling. Emptying the machine has too many moving parts — each dish goes into a different location, and the whole process ends up fairly sprawled across the kitchen. Loading, on the other hand, features moving parts all going into one centralized location. It’s a slight difference, but it makes a world of difference.
Another task that proves overwhelming is driving. If my mom needs to run errands, she’ll often ask for a ride — driving requires a lot of decision making and vigilance. Paying attention to merging cars and switching lanes can easily knock my mom out of commission, making a task like grocery shopping even harder. But if she’s in the passenger seat, she doesn’t have to worry about the other cars and can save her energy for the store.
It comes down to knowing limits and attending to needs. Learn about the little things that can make a survivor’s life easier; that simple action will go a long way. One positive action such as prepping their breakfast could mean all the difference later in the day for them, and give them the break they need to recharge.
Overall, be patient. Brain fog is a challenging symptom, fluctuating in severity from day to day, and recovering takes time. Listen to what your TBI survivor needs, and do your best to provide it. Your compassion and empathy will go a long way, and give them the support they need as they travel the road to recovery.
Ian Hebeisen graduated from Saint Mary’s University in May 2020, earning a degree in Literature with a Writing Emphasis. Now living in the Twin Cities, Ian writes comics, graphic novels, and poetry. In his spare time, he enjoys playing board games with his family.