Erik

Age at interview: 32
Outline:

As a combat engineer in the Army for four years Erik was exposed to numerous blasts during his five-month deployment in Iraq in 2003, leaving him with noticeable cognitive issues including memory loss, migraines, and tinnitus. Erik also noticed that he would become irritable much more easily than ever before and that the more stress he took on the worse his symptoms would be. To cope with the symptoms of his condition Erik keeps to a strict routine and does everything in a certain order each day.

Background:

Military branch: Army

See full story

As a combat engineer in the Army for four years Erik was exposed to numerous blasts during his five-month deployment in Iraq. While on the deployment he fell from a vehicle shattering his arm and breaking his back and “probably pretty likely hit my head at the same time” although he doesn’t remember. That incident got him sent home and although his wounds have healed he is left with a bad back and an “arm that’s not fully functional.”

Erik was also left with noticeable cognitive issues, which became apparent to him when he took a job at a company after leaving the military. After eight years of work he had to leave that job when his memory issues started to impact his work. “I started having some real bad problems with remembering customers’ orders, remembering SKU numbers that I’ve used for years. Counting money wrong.”

Besides forgetfulness, Erik struggles with migraines, has tinnitus, and can be more irritable than before, noting that “the more stress I’d take on, the worse it got.” However, the biggest impact for him is his memory, a symptom he copes with by following a strict routine. “I get up and do everything in the exact order I did it the day before,” he says.

Erik had hoped to be a teacher when he finished his military service but during his TBI screening it was recommended he look for a different career when his doctors asked “how good of a teacher would you be if you can’t remember anything?” He has since started a Veterans group that makes it possible for disabled Veterans who “can’t wheel because of a disability, or you know, are struggling with PTSD” to go off-roading in a safe and comfortable environment.

To others struggling with the effects of concussion and brain injury he says “I’d tell them to be patient. That it’s going to take time to adjust,” and that they shouldn’t be afraid to reach out and call someone if they need help.

 

Erik suffered multiple concussions during his time serving as a combat engineer.

Erik suffered multiple concussions during his time serving as a combat engineer.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

OK. Well, there’s several instances. Of course, we never knew it was an issue until years after I got back from overseas. But I suffered multiple concussions overseas. The main incident, the one that they have on record is when I fell fifteen feet off of a truck. Broke my back, shattered my arm in two places. And they’re not sure, but probably pretty likely I hit my head at the same time. But other than that, I was in very close proximity to an incoming mortar that actually sent me airborne. That was a pretty big concussion. And my job as a combat engineer, I did a lot of explosives and sometimes we didn’t always get as far away as we would have liked to. So, the shockwave can do a pretty hefty amount of damage if you don’t – if you’re blowing up thirteen thousand pounds of stuff and you can’t get far enough away, it’s not fun. It’ll hit you. One time in particular, I remember, we did it and you could see the shockwave coming and it, we were - all the roads over in Iraq are built up on berms or levies, so we were taking cover behind that. We would have liked to have gotten further back, but that was the closest, well that was the only form of protection, of cover and concealment we had. So, going further back would have actually been – more likely we would have gotten hurt by any kind of projectile or anything that, you know, fragmentation. So that’s where we were and the shockwave came and actually moved the road. And everyone – my guys either lost their bowels or their bladder or – it was a pretty hard concussion, shockwave when it hit us. So those are the main instances of when I had, you know, head injuries.

 

Erik talks about getting an “acute TBI” diagnosis and not knowing what it meant.

Erik talks about getting an “acute TBI” diagnosis and not knowing what it meant.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

And, and the more stress I’d take on, the worse it got. And that’s when they initially screened me for TBI and, you know, all the red flags were in place. They just said “acute TBI,” is basically the only answer I got. I don’t know much about TBI and I try not to dwell on these things, so I just leave it at that, you know? The first time I even heard the term “TBI” was last year. So yeah, 2012 when they diagnosed me was the first time I had heard of it. The only thing I know about TBI is they sent me disability screening, saying, “You have TBI, acute TBI.” That’s the extent of what I’ve been told about TBI.

And then my wife of course, you know, looked into it a little bit because she’s concerned. But she says you know, “Other than traumatic brain injury, obviously concussions,” you know? That’s all we really, you know? Yes, I’ve had lots of concussions. You know? It was a rollercoaster. I mean, I mean at least within me because it’s like, okay, now we have a definition. But you might as well have said it in a different language, because I don’t know what the heck that means, you know? So, it’s, it’s like – another great example, it’s like going to family dinner with my wife, because her family all speaks Cantonese. And so, I understand a little about what they’re talking about, but not enough to be in the conversation, you know? And that’s after eight years. So, with TBI, and I’m only three, four years into it, I’m still learning two or three words a month here.

 

Before his TBI, Erik was really social, but now he spends most of his time by himself or with other Veterans.

Before his TBI, Erik was really social, but now he spends most of his time by himself or with other Veterans.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Before my TBI, I was really social. I didn’t have time – I loved working on cars back then, but I just didn’t have time to because I was so social. And so, but now it’s kind of the opposite. I need to be more social, but I find myself being solitary because I don’t feel embarrassed when I’m by myself. You know, there’s no one to, no one to let down, or – I feel like a lot of my friends, they feel sorry for me and I don’t need their pity. I, I know I’m screwed up. We all know I’m screwed up, but I don’t need the, the kid gloves, you know? So that’s why it’s more comfortable being around Veterans because they’re in the same boat I am with their own issues.

 

Erik struggles with memory loss, debilitating migraines, tinnitus, and confusion.

Erik struggles with memory loss, debilitating migraines, tinnitus, and confusion.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Memory, massive migraines. Just debilitating, knock you down, screaming and yelling kind of migraines. Tinnitus. Yeah, confusion. If I get a lot, a lot of stress I get confused. It’s funny, it’s not so much confusion as in – there’s two – to every Veteran, especially combat Veterans, there’s always two parts, there’s the part of you that’s always a soldier and was trained to be a solder, and there’s part of you that desperately wants to be a civilian. But when I get my confusion and I get disoriented, my body automatically switches back to soldier mode. Because, so I’m always hyper-vigilant and very irritable, kind of, you know. So, it’s – yeah.

 

At work, Erik had problems remembering customers orders and miscounting money.

At work, Erik had problems remembering customers orders and miscounting money.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

And when I first got back, I started having some real bad problems with remembering customers’ orders, remembering SKU numbers that I’ve used for years. Counting money wrong. You know, I got to the point where they thought someone was trying to steal out of the cash register, so they secretly put a camera over the cash register. And they found out it was me. I was miscounting the money all the time.

 

Erik talks about forgetting things, like picking his daughter up from practice and people’s birthdays and anniversaries.

Erik talks about forgetting things, like picking his daughter up from practice and people’s birthdays and anniversaries.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

I, I forget sometimes, like day-to-day schedule, when my daughter gets home from school and what her extracurricular activities are. I mean I’ll forget, you know. The, the kid that’s waiting at the soccer field three hours after practice, you know, that’s, that’s my kid. But not because I’m getting drunk, I just simply forgot. You know? So. And the nice thing is that she’s a good kid, she realizes that, she understands that her dad is a little different than everyone else’s. So, it’s tough. It’s tough. I’m, I, with the TBI I tend to not remember important things. You know, people’s birthdays and anniversaries and – you know, like my niece, I was there when she was born, but I couldn’t tell you what her birthday is. You know? And luckily my brother, he is just the coolest guy in the world as far as I know. He doesn’t care if I remember. I’m his brother, that’s the end of that, you know? Nothing will ever change that. So, but other people take it a little more seriously.

 

 

Erik says that hardest things about his TBI are the loss of memory and the excruciating headaches.

Erik says that hardest things about his TBI are the loss of memory and the excruciating headaches.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

It’s tough between the, the loss of memory and the headaches. The headaches are intermittent, they only happen every so often, but they’re so excruciating and they’re so terrifying for everyone in my family to see me go through. But on the other hand, the memory’s all the time.

But it’s not debilitating. It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s not, it’s not hurting me, you know, physically. So, it’s the pain or the memory.

 

Erik talks about how his injury has made his daughter more compassionate.

Erik talks about how his injury has made his daughter more compassionate.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Yeah. My daughter is the most amazing little person, because she knows her dad’s half-crazy. And she knows between my headaches and my forgetfulness and my bouts of anger and everything because, you know, I’m constantly dealing with my own issues. And she, most kids at eleven years old are quick to point out someone in a wheelchair, or quick to point out someone that’s different, mentally or physically. And my daughter is like, “No way, because my dad could be that person.” So, she is like, “Can I help you?” You know, if there’s someone being mean to a kid on the playground, she’ll be like, “Let’s hang out,” you know? Because of my disability, that’s why she is that way. So, I’m just like, “Yeah.” So, she’s much more tolerant of people that are different.

 

Erik feels best when he spends time on his own or with other Veterans.

Erik feels best when he spends time on his own or with other Veterans.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Just have me time. I’m a solitary person. And I think that’s because in, unless I’m around Veterans who are similar to myself in injury, both mentally and physically, I tend to feel awkward because of how my brain works. I can’t, there’s a few of my friends from before the military that I’m still friends with, but a lot of them have gone away just because they can’t interact with me anymore. It just doesn’t – our brains aren’t on the same wavelength anymore. To me it’s like, “Man, he’s.” To them, I’m the one that, I did, I changed significantly and they can’t quite understand how my brain works. So, we kind of moved apart from each other. But I try to hang out with my Veteran friends if I’m not being solitary. If I’m being solitary, then it’s working on cars or, you know, something of that nature. Something that I feel like my brain still has a grasp on. Something that I could do to make me feel normal.

 

Erik has good friends and family who help him.

Erik has good friends and family who help him.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Luckily, I have good friends and neighbors and family that kind of all are aware of me in one way or another. They don’t know all my stories, but they’re aware of who I am and they help me. They’re good people.

I: How, how have they helped you?

Well, you know, like my friend Mark and his, his TBI issues. You know, he’s always trying to help me remember things; I’m always trying to help him remember things. We borrow each other’s brain, for what it’s worth. And so that kind of helps, just having your friends there. You know they, “I know what you’re going through. By the way, I remembered that you were supposed to do this thing. Did you do it?”