Rekindled Affect Requires Kindness in Trauma Recovery

Listening requires patience towards returning affect with brain injury recovery.

Posted Jan 14, 2019

Shireen Jeejeebhoy
Source: Shireen Jeejeebhoy

Affect can be a fickle mistress. When affect works as it should, we are unaware of its role. We laugh, we cry, we snort, we sigh, we get serious, and we devolve into silliness. And we do it all as normal responses to the vagaries of life. But woe to your affect when you suffer a brain injury and worse to you and your affect if trauma rides along in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Brain injury can obliterate your affect. Every now and then some neurons may fire up and your affect will awaken and lunge like a wounded lion. Then it will sink into the void again. You never quite know how you’ll feel; you never know if you’ll be able to laugh with others or not; you never know how you’ll react to unexpected situations. And trauma adds its own fun dimension to the latter. The idea of affect consumes your mind, as in: This is weird. Where did it go? Why can’t I feel? Will I feel again?

With treatment, yes, you will.

But without it, maybe.

PTSD changes you so that you can’t trust your affect, and the dates of your injury, of your post-concussion traumatic experiences become imprinted in your body such that you never know how the anniversary(ies) will affect you. One year, you’re fine. Your affect ticks along in happy-neutral mode except for the day itself and maybe a few before. Other years, you’re in bed with a cold for a month or you land in the ER. Or, as happened with me following the eighteenth anniversary of the day drivers gave me a traumatic brain injury, it lasted all year.

After a few years, you get the sense that people are a tad tired of your affect diving around the time of your anniversary. They prefer you to look on the "positive side" of life.

This reminds me of how people viewed someone I knew before my brain injury. This person had a particular issue stemming from childhood. Invariably our conversations would turn to this issue. At first, I tried to advise after I listened awhile, as I’m wont to do. But after a couple of years, I realized that the person was stuck, they were unable to come to terms with their unsolvable situation, and all they needed was for me to listen. So I did. On my bad days, I’d get a bit impatient but tried to keep that to myself. The problem I had wasn’t with listening to this person's repeating track but other people’s reactions to me listening. They wanted me to stop, to break off the relationship. There was no point, they instructed me, this person was too needy. "Yeah. So what?" was my response. These judgmental critics may not have seen themselves as needy, but they, too, leaned on my listening ability as much as the stuck person did. Prior to my brain injury, I had the empathy and patience and concentration to listen. It didn’t cost me to listen but time. And I could manage time so that these conversations didn’t affect my own deadlines or work or other relationships. Except for people who hold down multiple jobs, time can be managed if you choose to learn how.

Listening is a mindset as much as a skill.

Kindness is an attitude towards others who need you.

After my brain injury, I lost my listening ability, all my skills and talents. “I” was gone while still being physically present. From the first anniversary of the injury on, my network essentially took the advice of the judgmental critics: almost everyone left, one by one.

Brain injury had turned me into the neediest person.

My network felt that I was taking too long to get better. I needed to be positive, to look on the bright side, get over myself, move on — pick your favourite deny-reality phrase. Some also voiced the truth of how they felt about my lack of affect: a little freaked out. People don't want a needy person to rock their comfortable boat; they don't want to learn how to be a friend to a person with the strange changes brain injury brings; nor can they conceive that accompanying a person with brain injury on their long, arduous path to recovery rewards both. They preferred to take the easy way out, and they did so while my affect was mostly off. Paradoxically, what freaked some out, protected me from the severe emotional distress of being abandoned.

However, because of treatment, my affect is returning. It still turns off unexpectedly; still suddenly spurts into life then dies back again when it's off. But it's more or less normalizing. Unfortunately, the memories of events I lived through while my affect was off are now making themselves felt as if they are happening now with me being able to experience the emotions. It's like my brain needs to reconnect my memories with the emotions I should have felt at the time. I needed expert guidance in this part of the journey and didn't receive it, so it's been a rocky few years.

So when I hear those same kinds of deny-reality reactions today — even the look-how-much-you’ve-improved (like I don’t know) cheering-up kind — I hear past judgements echoing into the present. Affect killed in the past now that it’s alive again demands to be felt. The denial and minimizing of my very real suffering need to be acknowledged as traumatizing. On anniversary days, like January 15 for me, or in anniversary weeks or months, all you want to do is emote trauma's clangor and be heard.

I get that people have an innate desire to cheer up their friends, which often comes in the form of trying to get them to stop “whining” and to focus on gratitude moments, but sometimes, paradoxically, the best way to cheer a person up in the midst of trauma recovery and/or also in an anniversary week, is to listen and empathize and perhaps share similar experiences and show small gestures of kindness, for as long as it takes, as I did for that stuck person. Kindnesses go a long, long way. Then phone their therapist or doctor and tell them to up their game.

Copyright ©2019 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.