Mr. Long, please call me back right away. Your brain CT scan showed an anomaly.
My life changed forever last Thursday.
Thankfully, nothing is currently wrong.
But a routine visit to the doctor to ensure that a recent bout of cluster headaches was due to nothing more than stress revealed a shocking discovery.
The CT scan showed evidence of encephalomalacia – a thinning of brain tissue in a specific area of the brain.
I have brain damage.
Essentially, a small part of my brain is dead.
This is generally caused by one of two things…
- A stroke
- Head trauma
There’s no evidence that I’ve had a stroke in the near or distant past, which leaves head trauma.
And the doctor and I believe we can pinpoint the specific incident when it happened.
At age 12, playing baseball in my final game of Little League, I was beaned by a pitch just above my right orbital socket by a 65mph fastball. I was rushed to the hospital, where doctors were entirely focused on saving my right eye.
They managed to do so, but it now appears that they missed something else entirely…
…a brain bleed.
It also fits that I have a crystal clear memory of being hit, going down to the ground, the sensation of my eye swelling shut within seconds, being carried to the car by my dad, and being driven to the hospital.
I even remember something specific – on the way to the hospital, my parents argued about whether or not to flash the headlights and run red lights to get me to the hospital faster.
But my memories end there, and they don’t pick up again until 3-4 days later. I have no recollection of my time at the hospital (or even arriving there for that matter) or the first few days of my recovery.
I had always brushed this off as not being significant, but it now appears as though all of this was related.
The bottom line is that I have/had undiagnosed brain damage, and that a portion of the frontal lobe of the right hemisphere of my brain died during that stretch of days.
Everyone who knew me before and after agrees that I was a bit of a different person after that, but at age 12 and being in the middle of a summer between elementary school and middle school, it was assumed that the beginnings of adolescence and changing to a new school was the explanation for 3 new personality traits that didn’t exist previously:
- A complete inability to focus
- Sudden struggles in math
- Emotional instability
I went from being a straight A student, to being a B student. Math, which had previously been a breeze, was suddenly difficult and laborious.
I also found it extremely difficult to keep full control of my emotions. I would cry or get angry over just about anything. Later on as a teenager, I would famously rip the passenger side door completely off of my Datsun pickup truck.
Finally, and to me the most troubling part – I was completely unable to focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. As the years went by, my grades, which were perfect all through elementary school, slipped more and more each year. By my senior year of high school, there was some question about whether or not I was going to graduate.
I did. But almost predictably, college was a complete disaster.
Life as an adult with undiagnosed brain damage
Years went by, and as aware as I was of these limitations, I made very little progress in correcting any of them. Psychologists told me I had ADD, with one stating I had the highest score on the test of anyone she had seen in 15 years of administering the test.
The emotional control improved, but very, very slowly. I’ve had to measure progress literally by decades. My 40’s have been a little better than my 30’s, which were a little better than my 20’s.
My foundational math skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division – everything I learned before 6th grade) are rock solid. Anything more complex (percentages, square roots, basic Algebra) and I’m completely lost.
I went from being just slightly introverted, to being extremely introverted and socially awkward. I actually test out as having mild Aspergers Syndrome today. But anyone who knew me as a child would tell you that I had no such issues at that time.
A little shy, yes. But nearly unable to function in social situations? Not at all. I sang lead in my school choir from 3rd to 5th grade. Yet today, I become almost phobic if I’m in a room with more than 2-3 other people.
I took this week off from work to process this newly discovered information and work on some IM projects. I’ve been working non-stop in a motel room 450 miles from home for 3 days straight with almost zero interaction with anyone.
And I’m just fine with that. I could do this indefinitely. It would drive a “normal” person crazy.
Finally, I’ve only made a handful of friends in the past 30 years (I can count them on one hand). I’ve heard the whispers, that there’s something a little “off” about me. That people feel “uncomfortable” around me, but they can’t pinpoint why.
I’ve always felt the same way about myself.
Honestly, I’m truly fortunate…
I’ve told people for years that I feel like I’m “hard-wired” differently than everyone else.
But I always meant it as a metaphor…
…until last Thursday, when I was informed that my metaphor was in fact, literal.
My 12 year old brain, now damaged by a pool of blood in my frontal lobe, scrambled frantically to re-wire itself so that I would lose as little function as possible. I believe this relates to the 4 days of memory loss that I experienced.
By most accounts, it was successful. My issues are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, and had been reasonably explained away (to a point) for exactly 30 years.
It could have been so much worse. I could have died. I could be completely disabled. I could be living a life where someone has to feed, clothe, and change me.
Even though a small part of me is mourning what I ultimately lost and wondering “what might have been”, what I’m mostly feeling right now is extreme gratefulness that I function as well as I do.
But from that moment in June of 1982 until last Thursday, I always wondered why I seemed different than everyone else – why things that were true for the masses simply didn’t hold true for me.
I felt like a massive underachiever, because it was clear to anyone who spent any time with me that I was bright and had some talents, yet I could never seem to focus or stay in one place for very long.
The amount of constant change in my life was the subject of many jokes. To date, I’ve moved 37 times in 24 years. From 16 to 34, I owned 27 different cars. I’ve only stayed at one job longer than 24 months from my first job at age 16 to today at 42.
In retrospect, I showed most of the classic signs of someone with a frontal lobe brain injury, but I (along with most everyone else in my life) thought it was just “me being me”.
That takes a toll on your psyche after 30 years.
So why do I bring this up and make it public?
A few reasons…
- That your excuses are just that – excuses
- If you have something holding you back, whether you know what it is or not, you can still overcome it
Now clearly, my story isn’t as interesting, extreme or inspiring as Jon Morrow’s. But the basic message is the same. Whatever limitations you may have should never be enough to deter your ultimate success.
Jon overcomes the lack of movement below his neck by speaking everything into his computer.
I’ve overcome brain damage to be successful online by sheer force of will in the past, and with my new found knowledge I’ve immediately set out to find techniques that will maximize my productivity in the limited amounts of time I’m able to focus.
Whether your limitations are real or perceived, don’t let them stop you from becoming exactly what you want to be. Your particular demon doesn’t have to have a specific name, diagnosis, or even be fully understood by you or anyone else.
The bottom line is that you always have a choice. You can give in to your weaknesses – whatever they may be. Or you can choose to fight, and push, and kick, and scream, and never, ever give in.
You don’t have to be “whole” or “complete” to be the absolute best person you can be.
So what are you waiting for?