Sunday, June 12, 2011

Navigating a Social Life After a TBI

I was trying to describe to my neuro-psychologist how difficult things became at work after my surgery. After one or two disastrous run-ins with co-workers, things went quickly south. All it takes is making one inappropriate comment or misunderstood joke, for people to be on the look-out for the next one. Once that started, I was doomed. I started to feel uncomfortable because of the confrontations. I realized that there had been meetings about me with the principal before any meetings with me. Combine this with not understanding exactly what was being said or what people's intentions were and I was totally on guard. When the other teachers glanced at each other while I was talking, I became very anxious. Even worse was when nobody would look at me at all. The anxiety made the confusion worse and lowered my ability to maintain self-control. I began to dread meetings days in advance, working myself into full-blown panic attacks before they even happened. If anyone dropped by my classroom unannounced, I was terrified of what I might say or do to worsen my situation. This past year I asked to be excused from all department meetings because after three years of trying to make amends by being overly obsequious, I had only made things worse. My absence was interpreted as snobbery instead of total terror. "I'm not going to share my plans with Alyson. She won't even come to our meetings."

I bought every book on how to improve my relationships at work. I tried giving sincere compliments praising their work. I recognized birthdays and other celebrations by buying gifts and cards. I brought in food for my colleagues and left it in the staff room. I made myself smile and say hello and how are you and how was your vacation. I shared supplies, bought books for others without being prompted, and offered to do errands like copying or making labels. I said thank you and wrote appreciative emails detailing any positives and ccing the principal. I admitted defeat and asked for help until finally it was just too much. How attentive could I be with a TBI? Well, not attentive enough, as it turns out.

I likened the experience, for my therapist, to defensive driving. That is how it felt. I had to be on, on, on all the time to avoid careening into oncoming traffic. The aim of defensive driving, according to Wikipedia, is to reduce the risk of driving by anticipating dangerous situations, despite adverse conditions or the mistakes of others.

The level of vigilance it took me just to get out of the house prepared for work and on time was already taking a huge effort. Being in front of a group of children trying to convey math concepts, build confidence, nurture skills, and empower children to reach their potential was also hard. Now, add in my effort to incorporate all my defensive driving strategies despite accident after accident. Eventually, I realized there was nothing I could do. I just watched the inevitable car wreck as my twenty-two year teaching career burst into a flames and skidded off the road.

Defensive driving strategies seem more accessible without the stress of work. So, I will share my approach to social situations here.

One strategy is to leave plenty of space between you and other drivers. This is good advice both physically and metaphorically. I am sometimes impulsive and if someone is wearing a fuzzy sweater or clothes with an intriguing texture, I am apt to suddenly touch a sleeve or shoulder without warning. This is not cool. Most people do not like it. I do not like when people get too close to me either so this works both ways. It is also helpful to remember that I do not need to share everything that pops into my head with the other people. Keeping some of it inside maintains distance.

I am tired so I will continue tomorrow.

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