By Ian Hebeisen
When discussing changes in her life after receiving her traumatic brain injury, my mom mentions all sorts of physical symptoms: vision problems, nerve spasms, the whole nine yards. One of the most dramatic changes she describes is her lack of emotions.
My girlfriend and I recently adopted two cats, and during our search we found many pictures and videos of potential pets. While other people gushed over each photo, my mom stared blankly. The pictures didn’t spark any form of elation or admiration. We commented on her reaction, and she shrugged, saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel anything. It’s just a picture of a cat.”
Thus began our conversation on emotions. Following the car accident that gave my mom her TBI, her emotional spectrum sort of plateaued. She wouldn’t express joy during happier moments, or remorse during sad moments. Be it happy or sad, she’s simply flat. When I asked her if she felt anything during emotional conversations and situations, she said, “I really don’t. Nothing registers a response like that. Sometimes I’ll feel emotions when I look back on certain events, but it’s rarely in the moment.”
One example of this happened in February of last year. My grandpa (her father-in-law) passed away, and despite being surrounded by grieving people, my mom still felt very neutral. “It was frustrating to not experience the same sadness as the people around me. I knew I should be sad, but I was just flat.”
It appears my mom’s brain swapped emotional responses for thoughts without emotion behind them. Her brain goes into problem-solving mode instead of engaging in empathetic conversations, which used to come to her easily.
Recently, one of our relatives (my aunt, my mom’s sister) revealed she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and needed to go in for chemotherapy and surgery. My mom described her own response as “very factual and matter-of-fact.” She didn’t express any sadness upon hearing my aunt’s news, but instead started recommending possible solutions and offered to connect my aunt with one of our family friends who experienced something similar.
I asked my mom if she found it difficult to connect to other people, and she replied, “I don’t know if it’s harder for me to relate to people, or if it’s harder for people to relate to me.” She explained my aunt felt hurt by my mom’s blunt response to her news. “She thought I didn’t care because I didn’t express emotion,” she said. “That can be really hard. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s that my brain has changed. And people don’t always get that.”
This can create rifts in her relationships. The truth is, this affects others more than it affects my mom. They perceive my mom as apathetic, but it’s not that she doesn’t care. This lack of emotion is simply her new reality.
My mom has accepted this matter-of-fact response to life events. It’s the new way she addresses situations in life. “I don’t feel anything because I’m only seeing the event as it is – that’s life, it is what it is.”
When dealing with a TBI, it’s easy to get frustrated with your loved one due to behavioral changes, including emotional responses. But they’re still the same person. They’re just perceiving the world around them differently. It’s important to exercise patience and empathy, regardless of how “flat” they may seem. Things might seem hard for you, but I promise you it’s much harder for them.
Additionally, you never know what the future holds. As you try different therapies and treatments, their emotional plateau might start turning into a hill once again. While my mom comes off as emotionally checked out most of the time, she has moments of emotion that occasionally shine through. A few days ago, we showed my mom a video of our recently-adopted cats playing with a box. Our kitten had flipped the box over herself and was shuffling about like a hermit crab. And lo and behold, we got a smile and a laugh from my mom.
Hold on to hope, keep being patient, and maintain empathy. It’ll help you as you traverse the tricky road of caring for someone with a TBI.
Ian Hebeisen is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.