Tom

Age at interview: 29
Outline:

While deployed in Baghdad, Tom suffered a concussion when his vehicle was blown up by an IED. In the weeks following his concussion he experienced twitching, rapid blinking, jaw pain, trouble with his vision, and a constant need to relieve the pressure in his ears. Later he and six other members of his unit would be diagnosed with TBI. To cope with symptoms such as migraines, difficulty with memory and organization, as well as tinnitus, Tom goes to therapy and his local Veteran Service Center for support.

Background:

Military branch: Army 

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Tom remembers seeing a strange spark in a vehicle driving ten meters from his just before everything went into slow motion. While deployed in Baghdad, he was working as a bodyguard when an IED explosion blew up his vehicle, leaving him with a concussion that would later be diagnosed as a mild traumatic brain injury. Six other members of his 20-man unit were also later diagnosed with TBIs. Tom has since watched the video footage from the checkpoint where the incident took place and he is amazed he survived.

Although he feels lucky to be alive, Tom is still reminded of the incident every day. In the weeks following his concussion he experienced twitching, rapid blinking, jaw pain, trouble with his vision, and a constant need to relieve the pressure in his ears, “sometimes 100 times a day.” Over the ten years since the incident, Tom still deals with issues stemming from the explosion and concussion. He has tinnitus, a ringing in his right ear that never goes away and frequently suffers from debilitating migraines. He has difficulties with organization and retaining new knowledge, which is frustrating for him. “I could retain some of the words, but I couldn’t complete a sentence and retain it in my head,” Tom says of his difficulties reading since suffering a TBI. “I would read a page and then be like, what did I just read?”

Upon returning from Iraq and retiring from the military, Tom spent years taking various prescribed medications to treat his pain and other symptoms but has since gone off medication because he felt it was “masking a problem instead of healing” and feels being off has made a difference for him. Instead of using medication Tom goes to therapy, receives services through his local Veteran Service Center and relies on his friends for support. He says the biggest impact of his injury is his inability to relax and that he is “constantly shifting or popping my ears, or just tense internally.” To cope with this Tom tries to focus on outlets he enjoys like painting, drawing, and sculpting, writing music and poetry, and performing in a band.

 

Tom describes the experience of feeling something pop in his brain and losing control emotionally.

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Tom describes the experience of feeling something pop in his brain and losing control emotionally.

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One night, I was at home. I lived off post with a couple of other buddies that I served with. And I had this headache when I woke up, that was so bad all I could do was just curl up in a ball on the couch, and it wouldn’t go away. And I just tried to clear my mind. And then all of a sudden everything was really quiet, really still. And like I, I noticed that everything was just, something was different and I could, I was aware of it cognitively but I couldn’t like make the thought on it, and then I felt something pop in my brain, like a physical burst. And I’ve told so many doctors this and none of them seem to really have that much interest in it. They think that I’m being metaphorical, but I’m being literal when I felt that it was about the force of shaking a coke can and slamming it on the ground that happened from the pit of my brain. And, then I felt this warm sensation rush over the back of my head. On the, internally, not on the surface, not on the skin, it wasn’t like getting hair standing up. It was internally I felt this warm liquid feeling comb over my brain and my eyes like swirled open, like the beginning of James Bond, you see that swirl. That’s what happened with my vision.

And then I lost all emotional control and I was just balling and crying for hours and hours. And sobbing, just hysterically, and I couldn’t make a sentence. I couldn’t talk. Like I couldn’t call for help to my roommates. All I could do was cry and sit there on the couch and it was dark and, so, like after, I don’t know how long it was of feeling this, but I finally could like put two and two together to grab my phone. But, I could see things in there but I couldn’t make sense of any of it, I couldn’t like, make out a name. But I somehow like, I could recognize my girlfriend’s name, beyond anything, and, so I called her and she said, at the time, and we’re not together anymore but I, I’ve talked to her about this a few times since, and she said it was just like four hours of me doing that and she couldn’t get me to talk or say anything and all I’d did was just cry and sob and. And I finally, I guess, fell asleep.

And I woke up the next day from a phone call, from my sergeant yelling at me for being late to PT. And all I could do was sob. And he couldn’t get me to say anything. And eventually he got out of me that I was at home and, and then eventually told me to just get the fuck to work. So I put on a dirty uniform, and went to work, and it was really difficult to get through the day and drive and, like, I couldn’t even turn my radio off. Like it was blaring when I got in. I couldn’t like -  somehow I got to work and then left my keys in my car with it cranked, and my lights on in the parking lot, and then he tried to tell me to go move some bricks and I just fucking snapped and I was like, “you’re not fucking listening to me, something’s wrong.”

 

 

After a lot of practice, Tom regained his ability to read and says that writing and creating a structure of his own helped.

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After a lot of practice, Tom regained his ability to read and says that writing and creating a structure of his own helped.

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I didn’t pick up a book for months after that, and I wasn’t, I wasn’t on the internet or anything talking to my family. And I tried to read a book that somebody sent me and it was just like, “what the fuck is this, like what,” and that, I can’t make sense of any of this. It was like I could read some of the words, but I couldn’t complete a sentence and retain it in my head. And then it was like I would read a page and then be like, what did I just read? And I’d have to go back and read it again and it was just really difficult to have any kind of retention. And certain words were very difficult for me to process. And I was reading at, I mean I was reading John Grisham when I was in the third grade, not, well not that that’s anything difficult, it’s high school reading level or eighth grade reading level probably, but I was in the third grade and, I would sit around reading dictionaries and encyclopedias all day, seriously. I’m very well read but like for years it’s been very difficult to do so. I’ve just now, over the past few years, gotten to where I can sit down and actually read through a book and, and retain a few chapters at a time, but it was, it was not that it, it was almost like, I mean I’m not dyslexic, but I almost would describe it like that because it was just everything started just like blurring together and like becoming really confusing as I just tried to like organize the information in my head, so it took a lot of practice to get back to. I think writing helped a lot with that. Like, creating a structure of my own.

I: How did you get back to it, to being able to do that, you, you mentioned you taught yourself again but were there other things that helped or was it all sort of you working at it?

Practice. Yeah, a lot of practice and I think like, just having to, like, do the job that I did, had to take notes every day, so little scratch notes were easy, those like, I think, made it a lot easier to build back. And, you know, it was, it was really interesting, because it was almost like looking after myself in this way I hadn’t really done before. And I didn’t want to talk to anyone about that because it was really embarrassing, you know, like, when I pride myself on my intellect it’s, like it’s not an easy place to accept some sort of defeat, you know. Which made it really difficult in school. The first couple of times I tried going back to school, I mean I walked out of so many classes and dropped out so many times.

 

Tom is always tense physically and his biggest frustration is now knowing how he will feel from one moment to the next.

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Tom is always tense physically and his biggest frustration is now knowing how he will feel from one moment to the next.

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Just being, just relaxing. Usually my toes are curled like this, or, digging through the souls of my shoes, or, constantly shifting like this, or, popping my ears, or, just tense internally. Just always tense physically, even when I’m trying to relax myself, and I think that’s made me uncomfortable for so many years that in a way I’ve gotten used to being uncomfortable and that’s probably been, like, the biggest frustration is that, you know, one day it’s OK, one day it’s not OK, one minute its OK, one minute it’s not OK.  You know, I feel fine now, but when I leave here, I may not, you know. And that sucks. Inconsistency, it’s destroyed relationships over and over again. And friendships. And, and I don’t mean just like significant others or anything, but you know it is a really hard growing up experience, being 17 and leaving for the military and having to deal with a lot of this on my own since, because I don’t have really any support from family. I do from my dad and my step mom, but we weren’t talking for years either, before, and now I’m not talking with my mom or my step dad and I think that’s probably been the worst part is that it’s been very isolative in my head. Isolation and to even be me, with me, is fucking difficult, every day. It’s really hard to keep level.

 

 

Tom says his injury has given him a desire for something more - he taught himself to read again, is in a band, and writes songs.

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Tom says his injury has given him a desire for something more - he taught himself to read again, is in a band, and writes songs.

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I’m very intelligent, I know that. I’m not a genius, but I’m very fucking intelligent considering I have a TBI of some sort and still be able to maintain 4.0 if I’m in college, because I want to, without reading any of the college text that they provide. Just based off of working on my memory, like I feel accomplished. And, with all these things that happened, and make my life difficult, I’m still, still making it. I’m still doing OK. I’m in a band. I write songs. I started writing songs the day after that happened, when I was on bedrest. And I’m, like I’m making my dreams come true in that way, and, or my goals come true rather. And so I feel like, like the positive sides of all this, or it’s given me a desire for something that I’ve never felt and I don’t really know what that is, but I’m seeking it vigorously and tenaciously and persistently. And, but I had to teach myself to read again. That was really difficult, because I love reading. I taught myself to read again while I was in Baghdad.

 

Tom had trouble getting work and keeping up when he first got out and it took years for him to return to some state of normalcy.

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Tom had trouble getting work and keeping up when he first got out and it took years for him to return to some state of normalcy.

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So it took seven months though, to get out, and I got out in August 2007. I had three days, I had three years and three days I was in the service and, it was like from there on I had difficulty getting or obtaining decent work. I was getting fired from very simple jobs, like working in a kitchen or at a fry station or even as a dishwasher or as a server. I couldn’t really keep up with anything. I couldn’t remember much. And, then they had me on just so many fucking pills. When I was in that hospital, they had me on 2,700 milligrams of Depakote, 300 milligrams of Seroquel, well no 350 milligrams of Seroquel, four milligrams of Risperdal and they had me on Clonipine twice a day and they were giving me something because my liver wasn’t processing everything and it was still high strung. I don’t take any pills any longer from VA. It’s been years, and I feel that’s been a big part of me getting back to some state of normalcy, but I’m not the same person that I was. Personality wise, I have very different beliefs and behaviors and traits of how I carry myself. And how I interact with people. It’s very different than when I was a teenager.

 

Tom’s ex-partner would get frustrated when he would forget things she had told only ten minutes before.

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Tom’s ex-partner would get frustrated when he would forget things she had told only ten minutes before.

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