63: Mind Your Words

63: Mind Your Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Mind Your Words

Patience and diligence, like faith, remove mountains.

~William Penn

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered to my friend as my phone rang again. It was ten-thirty at night and we’d just put her son to sleep. I had already talked to my husband Nathan a half hour before, so why was he calling again?

I slipped into a room furthest from the bedroom and answered quietly, “What do you need, babe? Everyone is asleep.”

“Where are you? Why aren’t you here?”

I pulled the phone away from my ear to soften the yelling. Was this a joke? Was he angry about something? “I don’t even know what you’re saying. It’s too late to joke around. What’s up?”

“I want to know where you are. And where am I? Something is wrong. Something is very wrong and I’m scared.”

My mom-radar kicked in as I tried to process his words. If he wasn’t joking, then where were the kids? Where was he? I tried to calm him down and get the answers, but I couldn’t. He went into hysterics and said his head was bleeding. I was two hours from home and didn’t have a clue what was going on. I finally convinced him to put my oldest son—who was nine—on the phone. Adrenaline kicked in as I listened to the role reversal on the other end of the line—my son parenting his father, trying to convince him to sit down and relax. My son trying to reassure me. My son asking if he was supposed to call the cops.

The two-hour drive home was torture. Nathan was Life Flighted out of our home. My children went to a neighbor’s and I headed to the University of Virginia’s hospital. That night commenced a journey that would consume the next two years of our lives, and then leave traces of change even today.

What I found out was that my husband tripped over a jar left on the basement stairs. His head slammed into an exposed metal corner and a stud on the way down. The police officers who had responded to his accident had seen a similar fall just a year prior, except that victim had been found dead. My husband was very much alive, but incredibly confused about his existence.

A few days after his accident he was sent home with the diagnosis of a traumatic brain injury and a sheet of paper that was supposed to equip us for the next phase of life. It said:

Personality changes are possible.

Memory retention is difficult.

Patient may speak exactly what is on his or her mind.

Sleep patterns will change and insomnia may occur.

Headaches of varying degrees can be expected.

Symptoms may last between twelve and sixty months.

Nathan is a pastor and his office was currently at home. This was a blessing for his work and rest routine, but incredibly difficult on our marriage.

When he slept, he awoke with splitting headaches. He spent hours each day alone in the bedroom with the curtains drawn. Before his fall, he was the fun parent—the one who got the kids all riled up before dinner and wrestled on the carpet with them before bed. After the fall, he would yell downstairs about the noise and how it exacerbated the pain in his head.

When he finally started driving again, he called one day to ask me where he was. He had been on his way home from town, stopped at a stop sign, and forgot which direction he was supposed to be going. Nothing was familiar. He wasn’t even sure if he was still in Charlottesville.

Work situations that would normally stress him out suddenly sent him over the edge. He struggled with severe depression. One evening, I found him in the kitchen with a knife, sobbing because he didn’t want to live like this. Another time he called me from the road, desperate for me to talk some sense into him; all he wanted to do was to drive his car into a tree and make the pain stop.

And while these situations were intense and demanding, they were nothing compared to the new style of communication which entered our marriage following Nathan’s brain injury.

We were upstairs one afternoon, folding laundry together, when something small set us both to arguing. Before the injury, I was the hot-tempered spouse. My past was rough, and often I’d find myself spewing toxic words with the intent of harming my husband. He was always the one who watched what he said. Before the fall, he might match me in volume, but never in volatility. However, on this afternoon, I was forced to accept the fact that my husband as I once knew him might not be the husband standing before me.

I approached the argument in my normal manner, with a lot of words and logical reasoning which were intended to back Nathan into a corner. As I spoke, my husband’s hands pressed against his temples, but I didn’t stop. I kept right on “reasoning.” Suddenly he exploded. “You b—!” he yelled. “You’ve been driving me crazy for years. Can you please stop talking? I can’t stand it anymore. I haven’t been able to stand you since before we married.”

I did exactly as he asked and stopped talking. Never in my life had I heard him speak like this about anyone, much less to anyone, and never to me. Who was this man?

I raced down the stairs and out to the car. I hadn’t even made it a quarter mile when the Lord had me pull over and look into a mirror.

This, my child, is why you must learn to tame your own tongue. He lashed out at you once, as his brain fights to heal and restore and make new connections. How many times have you lashed out at him over the years?

My husband’s words reflected my own illness that had permeated our marriage long before his fall. I turned the car around and went back home. While Nathan’s injury continued to affect his personality for the next eighteen months, I resolved to still my tongue and began to practice the art of responding in an argument rather than reacting.

Today, he continues to have headaches and still fatigues easily. By the end of the day he is not in the mood for chaos and noise (which in a family of seven is almost guaranteed), but he has returned to being the encouraging and loving man I married. He is my biggest cheerleader—the same as he was before his accident—and I am his, which is where the real healing has been found.

~Marian Green

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