I Kept My Head Injury Secret – & Lost The People I Loved

Photographed by Flora Maclean
“Is that it?” wasn't quite what I was expecting to hear as she brazenly pointed at the bandage that serpentined my left leg. An acquaintance at best, we’d never spoken a word to each other until now. I’d been in a road collision a few months previously, and this was my first day re-entering the world after several months of recovery. The complexity of the accident is not easily relayed in a few words, so I won’t go into details, but at that point, I was yet to discover the impact of my other injuries, particularly to my brain.
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Dissociated and fawn-like, I had so very little to say about so very much. Least of all to someone I barely knew. In true early-teen form, I shrugged, excused myself, and headed in the direction of the beach, desperate to locate some familiarity to grasp onto. 
I, like many others, went on to keep the intricacies of my injuries private for many years. There are currently over 14.1 million people in the UK living with a long-term illness or disability, and the decision to disclose this to others is nuanced and individual. 
Recent research uncovered that 17% of disabled adults had a job offer withdrawn after they disclosed it, and disability equality charity Scope found that 67% of British people feel uncomfortable around disabled people socially, often choosing to avoid contact altogether. With discrimination still permeating both the workplace and personal relationships, is it surprising that many choose to keep it to themselves?
In the years following my accident, simmering amongst the normalcy of teenage angst, excessive hair bleach, and self-exploration, I privately lived with pain, inexplicable exhaustion and anxiety that I couldn't make sense of. I’d pause to rest in doorsteps when out with friends and joke that it was laziness. I also experienced what I referred to as ‘brain pains’ (sophisticated and chic terminology to describe post-accident neurological symptoms). I now know that these are to be expected with brain injuries. 
Perhaps not too dissimilar to grief, there are a few stages involved in the processing of a traumatic injury. Shock, denial, fear, eventual acceptance, to name a few. What I told myself was a healthy – albeit temporary – boundary, was in fact an isolating coping mechanism steeped in disbelief. 
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In my early twenties, the source of my avoidance and denial peaked, and I found myself curled up on the living room floor awaiting an ambulance. I’d been eating some leftover birthday cake, (a lemon drizzle loaf with obnoxiously large blueberries on top), when suddenly my chest became tight, and I began to lose my vision. The sound of the usually lively traffic outside was waning, and I could faintly hear someone saying that my lips and face were purple. 
A few months prior to this, following a succession of frightening incidents, I had started a treatment for the ‘brain pains’. This involved injecting myself daily with a medicine which eventually caused that severe cardiovascular reaction, and yet still, this information barely left the walls of that little house on the busy road. Two people were privy to what had happened (as they were there) but I told no-one else.
This time, my supply of grin-and-bear-it was depleted. I was undoubtedly traumatised, desperate for some support from people I loved, but I had become so accustomed to shutting down when things escalated, that I no longer knew how to reach out. So, this also remained, private. 
It’s taken time and a lot of self-work to ascertain the complexities of my choices during this period of my life, including the act of 'protecting' a sense of self I wasn’t ready to let go of. The version of myself that I felt at home in. At the time, vulnerability felt synonymous with abandonment of that. I didn’t know then that my identity was, and always will be, my choosing.
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I was undoubtedly traumatised, desperate for some support from people I loved, but I had become so accustomed to shutting down when things escalated, that I no longer knew how to reach out.

In the short-term, processing a trauma alone can be okay, but doing so forever may have significant consequences. The research of James W Pennebaker, a social psychologist, found that those who experience a traumatic event, but keep it a secret, are significantly more at risk of both minor and major illness compared to those who are open about their traumas. According to a 2013 study that involved over 12 years of follow-up, suppressing such emotions actually increases the likelihood of developing cancer by 70%. So for the nominal over-sharers, research suggests that you’re making the healthier choice.
My silence and absence gave others the ability to create a narrative that bore no semblance to my reality. One of the people I loved the most felt abandoned by me and manufactured false stories in ways that I cannot comprehend. I inadvertently robbed myself of my own truth during this time. 
The resistance to 'relive' a traumatic event is another reason some choose to bury recognition of its existence entirely. In the throes of discomfort, I find it helpful to recognise that no matter how saturated and cellular they may feel, past experiences no longer exist in the shape they once did.
I accidentally fell in love during my season of denial. I knew his favourite book and the funny thing he did with his hair right before falling asleep. One evening we were at a theatre sitting on spongy velvet couches when suddenly the 'brain pains' started. I quietly excused myself to use the bathroom and instead crouched on the pavement in the side road willing it to stop. Spoiler: No love can negate such sustained concealment.
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“Often the root of the issue is fear and shame," Dr Gemima Fitzgerald, consultant clinical psychologist, explains to R29. "Hiding such an important part of your life can have many negative effects and can even cause depression. Shame has been shown to negatively affect the immune system and can activate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to increased anxiety. Being vulnerable is a relational risk, but the potential reward is that a far deeper connection could be made.”
Losing love of any kind to denial is not something I intend to repeat. To form sincere connections, I’ve learnt that vulnerability isn’t interchangeable with loss of self, and instead, is part of the discovery of it. I have to show up fully, we all do, even if this takes time. Slowly building lots of tiny bridges is better than nothing but vast water between us. 
As I write this, a part of me still knows that it would be somewhat easier to look at the words as if they are someone else's. Yet each time I choose to ignore the noise of those tired old patterns, they fade a little further, and it gets a little easier to return to myself.
While the specifics are no easy feat to tie into a bow, at some point I realised that endlessly navigating discretion and solitude had developed into the feeling of a single breath held for too long, stark and painful. Suddenly, it felt right to start to let go, to finally begin to exhale. 

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