Changing Sense of Self

One of the biggest challenges people talked about is how their injury makes them feel inside and changes to their sense of self. Participants described feeling uncomfortable in their skin, frustrated, angry, and even afraid. Some said their injury led to career changes which impacted their self-esteem. Others described a disconnection to hobbies they once enjoyed, feeling less social, or changes to their mood or temperament.

Not being able to do what you once could

Many Veterans described the difficulty of not being able to do what you once could, “feeling like an idiot” when they couldn’t remember what they did 15 minutes ago, having more limitations than before their injury, or being “at a deficiency compared to most people my age, my gender and my working class.” 

 

John says that for many of the younger guys, it is like going from Superman to half man.

John says that for many of the younger guys, it is like going from Superman to half man.

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But initially, it’s the fact that you feel like an idiot, because you can’t remember your family’s name, you can’t remember what you did fifteen minutes ago, and words escape you, words you know, and you’re like and you can’t bring a word up, and then you lose it entirely. So, you go through that, and then eventually, you know the brain’s pretty talented, it starts to reconnect some of the synapses so you get better. I think for the young guys the hard - I was 41-years old when it happened - for the young guys it’s going from Superman to half man, and I was a little bit more mature so it wasn’t easy for me, but it’s got to be devastating for them. Because things you should know and should be able you don’t know. You can’t remember, you can’t keep a coherent thought for even a short period of time, and concentrating actually will cause you, the stress, causes you headaches, so you suffer from headaches.

 

Before her injury, Jessica says she felt like a superhero who could do all and see all, but now she has a lot more limitations.

Before her injury, Jessica says she felt like a superhero who could do all and see all, but now she has a lot more limitations.

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I felt like superhero in some ways, before I feel like I could do all see all. There’s nothing that I couldn’t do before, and I feel like I kind of left that girl on the pavement. I was going to school, I was working full time, I was joining the army, I was doing a whole lot of things at once and since then it’s been a little bit harder. I’ve learned there’s a lot more limitations after you’ve had a head injury. So yeah, it’s a lot harder is the biggest limitation. Limitations.

I: Yeah what do you think are the things that are, what are the biggest limitations?

Um, clearly there’s a lot of physical components that go along with it. A lot of emotional components that go along with it as well. I just feel like, I don’t know, I don’t know that I can pinpoint one particularly I just know that I have to take things one thing at a time now instead of doing everything at once.

 

Richard describes feeling like damaged goods, but learning to accept his strengths and weaknesses.

Richard describes feeling like damaged goods, but learning to accept his strengths and weaknesses.

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I got in touch with my mortality, and I was pretty messed up for a while.  Coming to that realization was not easy, at all. I have a lot friends who helped me. And, yeah, without them I don’t know what -

I: Can you tell us a little bit about the ways that they helped?

It’s not unusual, after you suffer serious head injury, to become suicidal and I became suicidal. And, I have become suicidal since. You know, it’s just you’re damaged goods and you have to accept that. I’ve got some strengths and some weaknesses. Yeah, I’m a pretty good writer, and keep that going, yeah, so…

Impact on career, self-esteem, and identity

Some Veterans talked about needing to change careers or give up on the career they had hoped to pursue. Although he had planned to become a teacher once retiring from the military, one Veteran told us that “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. And they said, ‘Even if you did graduate with your Master’s degree, how good of a teacher would you be if you can’t remember anything?’” Others talked about needing to alter their career plans, or not being able to keep up with the demands of their job, which led to diminished self-esteem and confidence.

 

After coming home, William didn’t feel capable of finishing his PhD, which really hurt his confidence level.

After coming home, William didn’t feel capable of finishing his PhD, which really hurt his confidence level.

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So, I just had a rough go at it and it really hurt my confidence level. Coming back, I already knew I was brain damaged enough. You know, I knew I was diminished in my capacities and I really wanted to finish my PhD and I couldn’t. I don’t feel capable of doing that. So I just got an article published recently about Iran and its involvement in Iraq. And when I write, I’m about to publish a book too. But when I write, it takes me forever to write. Not just the emotional, but the cognitive ability is diminished. So I have an editor and she’s, she’s just a big asset to me. But she’s basically – because I’m a blown-up vet - I mean she’s helped me that way. I mean, my writing sucks and it’s really hard. And I miss words and you know, it’s not just the vision but it’s just difficult in my writing. In my job now, once I left the ROTC – I just quit. I just like – can’t deal with their shenanigans and it’s not worth it for me to deal with that kind of stuff. So I just walked away.

 

Margaret felt like she lost her sense of self-esteem after giving up her career as an ER nurse.

Margaret felt like she lost her sense of self-esteem after giving up her career as an ER nurse.

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I think that the major, major blow to my lifestyle. You know I had to give up my career. I was a nurse. And that’s a blow. I liked being a nurse.

I: Did you end up going on disability or how how did that sort of -

How did that come about? No, no, not for this. Hu uh. Uh uh.

I: Did you do other work?

I ended up being able to do, I was a telephone advice nurse for a while, so I sat at a desk with headphones and, yes, I did that and I could do that. Yeah. But it, but I’m an action person, I mean I’m an ER nurse, I’m used to getting in there. And now I’m sitting, giving advice to people about their headache. Excuse me, but, it was a big, big change. I wasn’t happy. I lost, I felt like I lost my sense of self-esteem, you know. I was no longer the - I don’t like to call it that but you know - the, hot shot kind of nurse. Now that’s all gone. That was gone.

Impact on hobbies and finding new interests

Others described not being able to pursue hobbies that they once enjoyed due to changes in their physical or mental capacity, or not feeling an emotional connection to the hobbies and interests they had before their injury. Several Veterans described trouble with depth perception – discovering that they could no longer do things like hit a baseball or other moving targets - that made it difficult to participate in sports. Others described having trouble developing new skills and interests since their injury.

 

Jessica talks about no longer having an emotional connection to the hobbies and interests she had before her injury.

Jessica talks about no longer having an emotional connection to the hobbies and interests she had before her injury.

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So, and that I think goes along with the art and music, I had all of my belongings in storage and I didn’t go in there for a couple years, and I remember unpacking boxes and my very, very first major was baking of pastries, and I remember unpacking boxes and saying to my family, I bake? Like with a question mark, like, and then I was like oh I baked but I have like no emotional connection to the pre-head injury interests. So, everything like afterwards that I started doing I have strong emotional connections to, like I know that I did show choir type competitions all my life, like I know intrinsically like I did all these things but like I don’t feel a strong emotional connection to all of that but I do have an emotional connection to all of the post-head injury.

I do attribute quite a bit of it to the head injury only because I did lose a lot of that emotional connection because I was still, like I tried to double major for a little while and I was going to school and enlisting and doing that all at once, so I feel like I was able to maintain that balance of a life style before. And I feel like I lost a little bit of me there. Like I really don’t think my ex-husband would know me now. Like even talking to him sometimes he tells me stories about, about me and I’m like “oh yeah, I am that way, oh yeah I do feel that way.” It’s always so shocking. To think that it’s like, oh you were a bleeding heart for animals, like I know I am but I feel like I’ve become a lot more callous. I never thought I could work with homeless people, like I used to cry when I saw a panhandler and now I work with homeless every day, so. It’s a crazy shift in my personal views and everything, like it’s really strange.

 

After his injury, Andrew was embarrassed when he discovered he could no longer hit a softball.

After his injury, Andrew was embarrassed when he discovered he could no longer hit a softball.

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It shows in embarrassing ways. For instance, after I had my TBI I think it was a couple - it was like 1992 or something - I hadn’t played baseball in years, and all of a sudden, we went out to play softball and I could not hit the ball. I can’t do it anymore. There’s something about the way I perceive it that’s gone, and that was really embarrassing. Everybody’s laughing, “Strike out,” and you’re like - you can’t tell them, “Well I have TBI, and that’s why I screwed up.” You just kind of suck it up and say, “Yes, okay. I’m worthless,” and then you find a different sport to play. Because I used to be pretty good at softball or baseball, but now I’m - I don’t know. You get tired of telling people, “I have TBI,” or, “I have diabetes.”

 

Jason has adapted by finding new things to do, but says that everything feels a “lot more bland.”

Jason has adapted by finding new things to do, but says that everything feels a “lot more bland.”

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It’s got, I mean it’s gotten a little bit better since then, but for the most part I’ve been kind of, for the most part it’s just trying to find a new, just new ways of doing things. And just trying to, because there’s certain things that I’m not going to be able to do, so I’m just physically not going to be able to do. As far as career, a lot of career thinking things, so it’s finding, it’s adapting and finding your crutch I guess is the best way to kind of put it. You gotta kind of find your crutch.

I: Has it sort of changed, the things that you like to do in life, like in your spare time, and sort of your overall sense of just well-being?

Yeah, in some ways. I like to think I have, you know, a fairly healthy well-being mentally but a lot of the things that, you mean as far as my level of enjoyment or?

I: Yeah, yeah. Just sort of how you’re feeling in life?

That, I would say as far as my ability to enjoy a lot of things, it, it makes, things aren’t as, experiences are a lot more tasteless, I guess everything’s a little bit bland. I wouldn’t say that everything’s gray or dark or anything but it, my capacity to, to feel a lot of intense emotions and stuff like that, or my capacity to be able to feel, you know, extreme happiness or connections in a lot of ways, that I know for a fact is lessened. It’s a, there’s a lot of a, like I said, everything’s a lot more bland.

 

Sam talks about his difficulty learning new things and how that impacts his ability to develop new hobbies.

Sam talks about his difficulty learning new things and how that impacts his ability to develop new hobbies.

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So, information that I retain before I went to deployment, because I was twenty-four when – twenty, no I was twenty-two when I started going on to Iraq. And information that I retained before doing that, I still retain it and I retain it pretty well. Like it’s compartmentalized and all this other stuff. So, any hobbies that I developed before I was twenty-four is very easy to do. So, like working out, going outside, running around, hiking, videogame playing, reading fiction, you know, books, sci-fi books and stuff like that. Like I never, I still don’t find it hard to do. Like it’s easy to do all those things. It’s when I’m trying to develop new stuff, like learning to cook better, or learning to do art and all this other stuff. I’ll have like moments of brilliance, and then like I’ll come back and try to replicate that brilliance and it’s not there. And I’ll be like, “What happened? I was doing so well.” And so, it’s, it’s almost like a weird re-learning thing? It’s like my hand thinks it knows what it’s doing sort of thing, like whatever’s controlling my hand to make it do these shapes is doing it well, but my brain’s just like not able to put it into the right way that it was before. Maybe that goes with art, but then with cooking like I try to replicate what I did before, don’t remember, stuff like that.

Changes to mood and temperament

Several participants discussed changes to their temperament and feelings of frustration leading to outbursts of anger, sometimes irrational or uncontrollable. One described having frequent “anger flashes” and another said that “he used to be a mellow guy” but since his injury he can go from “0 to 60” quite easily and explained that “when your heads gets rattled a little bit…things fire differently.” One Veteran said that his constant feelings of anger were “doing nothing but tearing him up inside, and it affected my family, it affected my relationship with my family because being angry at them for something that was totally not their fault, just being angry at the world.”

 

Sarah talks about having severe mood swings and feeling like there is a “switch” that goes off that makes her “see red.”

Sarah talks about having severe mood swings and feeling like there is a “switch” that goes off that makes her “see red.”

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Really severe mood swings beyond just like I’m anxious and upset. It’s like a switch. Like when I get - and it doesn’t even have to be anything serious. It’ll be something just really like small that like normal people don’t get super upset about, but like I will see red, and it’s just like an instantaneous switch, and then afterwards I’m like “Why, why did I get so upset about that?  Like that shouldn’t have been something that triggered that”

 

Matt has noticed differences in his temperament, including being more watchful and easily angered.

Matt has noticed differences in his temperament, including being more watchful and easily angered.

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My, my temperament. I was easily angered. Always super watchful. After a time that kind of has eased a little bit. Kind of figured out how I need to do it to control my anger. Because usually if somebody did something that would irritate me I’d just lash out right away and now I’ve gotten to where I can actually sit there and take a breath, think about it, you know, is this something worth getting totally irritated and pissed off about?

…I just don’t like large crowds because it’s usually large crowds where something bad’s going to happen.  I’ve had incidents over in Afghanistan where part of our job was to inspect vehicles before they came to base.  Found rockets, grenades, land mines, whatever, set up in the vehicles. Sometimes you could check a vehicle, Bob could check it, and would catch nothing. Then it goes to the next gate and gets checked and they could find, they could hit on something totally different.  Had incidents where I’ve had to, actually because I’m probably like one of the smaller guys there, I had to stick my arm down in a gas tank and feel around for a land mine or something, where it did show up on the screen as something in the gas tank, so it’s like well, got to check it out somehow. I’ve just seen too many incidents where things happened and possibly could happen. I just don’t like being in places where I can’t control my surroundings that much.

Others noted changes in their desire to go out and be with friends, explaining that they tended to isolate themselves and didn’t want to talk about their struggles with others. One Veteran told us that he mostly stayed at home playing video games after returning from his deployment, while another Vet recalled not socializing for a whole year and spending most of her time in her room smoking cigarettes.

 

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.

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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.

(See also: Impact on Cognitive Function; Ongoing Physical Symptoms; Impact on Work; Navigating Social Relationships; Internal Coping Mechanisms; Coping with impacts on Memory & cognitive function; Services & programs for Veterans; Positive Changes, Moving Forward, & Finding New Meaning)