I’ve previously spoken about what not to say to a person with a brain injury but what should you say as an alternative to…
1) “You’re so lucky!”
Try putting yourself in their shoes, they have had a brain injury which is such a devastating lifelong thing to happen to someone and their family. My brain didn’t work properly anymore, I was experiencing anxiety on another level to what I’d ever known, and I was constantly thinking my life was over. I used to think about all the things I would never be able to do, I was just devastated. Then someone comes along and tells me how lucky I was. Come on, surely you see how that was not a great thing to say?
Having been through such a trauma usually means they have an interesting story to tell, ask them about it! They have likely survived something that a lot of others wouldn’t have - tell them how you admire them for it!
2 - “Yeah, I know what you mean, my memory is bad too!”
Even if you’re just trying to relate then you shouldn’t say this, so many people that are in recovery from a brain injury complain about this very thing. They’ve had this massive change to the way they think and process information, they’re trying to explain it and you’re saying its nothing and you experience the same thing. Even if that’s not your intention, that is often how it feels. You also don’t want to get into a conversation where you are feeling sorry for them, because it makes the conversation negative.
Instead ask them about it, have they tried any memory aids? I always thought it was good if people made an effort to research brain injury for themselves rather than making assumptions. If you’re reading this then you’re obviously doing that.
3 - “There’s nothing wrong with you, you look fine!”
As long as I’ve lived with a brain injury I have wanted to fit back into normal life. For a long time, I’ve lived with constant anxiety about how I look and sound - Am I walking weird? How is my speech? Am I boring people, the person I’m talking to must be feeling awkward and want to get away from me.
The brain injured person has probably been doing their best to look normal. If they look fine then they have succeeded! Don’t be negative and suggest to them you think they are a fraud (they will be worried about this). Instead, be positive and compliment them on how well they look.
4 - “There are people much worse off than you!”
So what? There are but there are people a lot better off as well! They are struggling to come to terms with a devastating event in their life, so the last thing they need is more negativity.
Instead, ask them what they would like to do. You go through a period of time whilst in trauma and early recovery when you just take from the system and it was really good for my mental health to give back. Suggest something they could do for sponsorship for a brain injury charity (or any charity) - I ran a 10k which really helped my mental health. That was a goal I set myself and actually took me a long time to build up to. I understand that not everyone can do that but everyone can do something, it doesn’t have to be fitness related.
5 - “It’s time you moved on; the accident was years ago!”
A girl that I went on a date with said that to me once and it bothered me for years. That shows ignorance; brain injury unfortunately is with you for life, you can recover so much but it’s unlikely that they will ever make a full recovery. Damage to the brain is often permanent and you ‘recover’ simply by finding alternative ways to overcome life’s obstacles.
There is a lot of psychological damage which takes many years to move on from. Saying such things only increases the length they are affected by the trauma. You can’t see inside the head so you can’t tell how much they have moved on.
If it bothers you that much then get to know the person, perhaps suggest going for a walk with them or taking them somewhere. I have always found that a change of scenery and a bit of fresh air does me the world of good. If you’re not that interested then don’t make such comments, they have enough negativity in their life.
6 - "Don’t refer to brain injury as a 'mental illness'"
Brain injury and mental illness are actually two different things, although symptoms of a brain injury can lead to poor mental health so it’s best not to encourage that.
I struggle with my mental health 15 years later. I frequently feel guilty, feel inferior, I’m constantly thinking about what I should have done better or what I should have done instead.
7 - "People with traumatic brain injury are not 'thick'
We’re not thick or lacking in intelligence, we just take longer to process information. Think of the brain as a machine used for thinking, in this machine most of it is working fine but a couple of the cogs are seized up.
I’m now so easily overwhelmed by too much information at any one time. Its best to drip feed the information i.e., don’t give them a big chunk of information but break it down into steps. It’s not a lack of intelligence but a lack of speed in ability to process information.
Equally as important is the environment - the best environment for me to function in is somewhere well lit (with natural light if possible), quiet with no distractions.
8 - "When are you going to be better?"
That totally depends, the answer is often ‘Never!’ but that is not going to start a positive conversation. I used to ask myself that every day for at least ten years. I’ve now given up on that, but it still gets me down.
If you don’t want to help, then just say nothing, but if you do then talk to the person and get to know them ask - them what their likes and interests are. I found running after 3 years and really wish I had been introduced to exercise earlier as it does wonders for both my confidence and mental health. Rather than expect someone with a brain injury to take the initiative, sometimes they need to be shown. Even now it is unlikely that I would run alone, I always do it in a group or attend a parkrun on a Saturday morning.
Don’t focus on what they can’t do but focus on what they can do. If they express an interest in a particular area then encourage that, perhaps look for a club or encourage them to find a buddy to go along with. If it bothers you then you could do it. You could learn a new skill much better than making a negative comment.
9 - “Let me do that for you”
Bit patronising this but also extremely tempting. After having a brain injury everything felt suddenly quite different leaving me feeling overwhelmed and lacking in confidence. Everything seemed to be difficult and such an effort someone. If someone offered to do something for me then I actually really appreciated it and would accept the offer. This is very tempting in the short term but obviously does the person no good in the long term. There is no other way to relearn the skills you have lost than to do it yourself.
10 - "You’ve hardly done anything all day!”
Speaking from personal experience, I can be quite productive then other days I can be completely useless. The difference is having direction and making plans, I need a pre-planned list of tasks to achieve in a day or probably won’t achieve anything and I am 16 years post injury. With anybody who has been injured more recently, then it’s likely to be much worse.
Again, don’t be negative as it helps nobody, if it bothers you then offer to help. Brain injured individuals are easily overwhelmed by too much information and too many tasks will only cause anxiety.
I started off doing something suggested by my sister which was to do one thing each day. This obviously didn’t overwhelm me and gave me that satisfaction of ticking something off (which is much more satisfying/confidence boosting than you will know).
Again. if it doesn’t bother you then you can always be quiet.
In summary, don’t assume and consider what you say before you say it as they may have heard it a million times already and it may be insulting. What may be a throw away comment to you may really affect someone. if it concerns you then do a bit of research first.
You never know what another person is going through so be a decent person and be kind!