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Friendships After Brain Injury

This blog addresses a very sensitive topic for me post encephalitis and brain injury - friendships. It is very well documented that most survivors of brain injuries go on living with a life characterized by declining relationships. On top of all the physical and cognitive changes that occur post brain injury, declining relationships can lead to additional frustrations, feeling of loneliness, hurt and sadness. These often see the survivor further withdrawing themselves from social situations and relationships.

How does it apply to my situation?

Over the last few years, I have found that where some friends have distanced themselves or moved on with new friendships, other friendships have strengthened and I've also seen some individuals step up which is absolutely great. But developing new friendships doesn’t erase the fact that I still have to make peace with the declining ones. It doesn’t erase the fact that reshaping or parting with precious aspects of my life hurts, sometimes a lot. I don’t intend for this blog to be a criticism of how relationships were or are managed, I am hoping that by writing things down that I can better accept how things are or how friendships have changed.

Am I partly responsible for changes in relationships?

Off course I am, no relationship is solely one sided. I have made mistakes and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I could have handled some things in a much better manner. I also fully realize that because I can’t partake like before that I can’t expect others to also be stuck in the mud. That being said, I have to remind myself that there are also a lot of aspects of my life and weird wonderful brain that I can’t control anymore. I cannot party as if there will be little consequence for me the following day, I struggle to follow conversations in big groups which hinders my interactions, I do not feel like the confident self that I used to be, my brain can’t process sound like before, I get confused, I forget half way through a sentence what I wanted to say, my speech is slow and slurred and the list could go on and on really. All that alters my overall behaviour and I’ve had to modify how I approach life greatly. I’m not sure many people realize that and the effort it requires to move on in a world that feels completely foreign to me. I also want to acknowledge the fact that I am aware that others have to tweak how they would usually interact to give me a fighting chance to part take in discussions. This translates in an adjustment for them too. Unfortunately, that’s also where a lot of frustrations arise for me as I often feel misunderstood and as if my limitations aren’t taken into account.

The post-injury experience of friendship was broadly conceptualized as “going downhill” with four overlapping phases: losing contact, being misunderstood, wanting to share and hanging on.[1]

Because I have to step back and walk around with strict barriers in place due to my weird wonderful brain, it doesn’t mean that I am not noticing all those subtle changes that occur over time. In fact, because I have to step back and because I get less caught up with the hazards of life, I am probably in a position to notice them even more. Inheriting an acquired brain injury doesn’t rob you of your cleverness, but it does rob a lot from you. The losses from encephalitis and brain injury are present EVERY DAY and affect all spheres of my life. The friendship bucket isn’t excluded from the list. Of all the buckets that I try to fill, it’s probably the trickiest one to handle and the most sensitive one.

I work really hard on learning to be okay with all the changes that have occurred with friendships and for my own sanity, I truly want to be okay with them. However, some changes are harder to get over than others. Me struggling to move on doesn’t make me a bad person, it simply means that I care. If what I can still contribute to a friendship doesn’t bring the other party much value anymore, as much as it might hurt me, I have to respect how they wish to move forward. But please don’t pretend that things are the same when they aren’t, I haven't lost all grip on reality yet...

I am learning to appreciate the moments I do get to share with family and friends for what they are without additional expectations or strings attached. That being said, I'm sure everyone can be humble enough here and admit that this is a challenge in itself too. Years have gone by now since the original brain insult and I am handling the changes in friendships better than I used to, but every now and again, the hurt resurfaces and I just need time to process and get back in a place where, I too, am okay and comfortable to look at the relationship in a different light.

Things change, life changes and I have to keep adjusting to what this weird wonderful brain puts in front of me. Like most things in life, it’s a process and the nature of a process is that it is constantly evolving.

If you are a friend or a relative of a brain injury survivor and are a bit puzzled by how best to approach the whole friendship dynamic, I strongly recommend that you read the following resource from Headway: How brain injury affects relationships

Read other blogs on friendships when you have a chronic illness:

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