Brain Injury, marriage, relationships

The Dial Tone

I distinctly remember the moment I realized my spouse’s ABI was making it impossible for us to have a meaningful conversation on an important matter. I had tried saying the same thing in many different ways, yet he wasn’t getting my point. He was sitting on our couch and I was standing, looking down at him. I recall how he looked up at me, a bewildered look in his eyes, yet the rest of his face was expressionless. I simply stared at him for a few moments while I took it all in. Our conversation, at that time, was too hard for him to follow. Too many nuances. Too many emotions. Too many ideas. I could see both the pain and the asking for relief. As if he were saying “please stop my pain of trying to keep up with you”. And I stopped, frozen by this new realization that it was unlikely that we’d have a deep conversation anytime soon. I wish I could say that I rushed to embrace him, to tell him it was okay. I was not so noble at the time. I was angry. Who was I supposed to have these conversations with now instead of my life partner of many years?

It would be several years before we learned how to have deep, intimate conversations again. The brain is slow to heal, but it does find a way. My heart was slow to heal too, but it too found a way. But for a long time instead of meaningful conversation we just had a dial tone. At least we could both hear the same dial tone. Everyday chit chat was workable, but anything that required multi layers of logic and simultaneous analysis was a stretch. Filling the void of meaningful verbal exchanges was essential to me. I wrote out a list of ways he already carried me, many of which were simple, everyday gestures. This list is still taped by his mirror. Instead of meaningful conversation, simple touch gestures became our way of reaching deep into each other’s hearts. We didn’t do this intentionally. He would reach behind him to hold my foot in bed, cradling my heel in his palm. I would gently touch his shoulder as I walked by, just to say I’m here. If I didn’t, he’d get scared and think I was angry with him. We would reach out to welcome each other back to bed if one of us had to get up for the bathroom or our beloved but annoying cat. When he’d drop me off at work, our tight good bye embrace was coined a FedEx by him. He was wrapping me up tight like a package to be safely delivered. He’d hold me tight with both his arms, my face happily nuzzled into his chest. We may not have been talking a lot, but we were communicating. We were saying “I’m still here”.

Eventually, with this safety net of comfort, we attempted to talk about some difficult things. I learned to slow our conversations down, which really wasn’t hard for me to allow him that space, as I’m a naturally thoughtful and careful speaker who weighs each thought and chosen word before they meet air. Our meaningful conversations now follow a slow rhythm with the necessary silence in between. It hardly looks like we are having a conversation sometimes, but we know each other’s pace.

In times of extreme stress such as when he’s unintentionally offended me, we resort to texting each other to sort through the conflict. It gives us both space to gather ourselves, our thoughts, and our emotions. It also keeps us from saying something we might regret because we have to see it in print. And somehow, the written word is easier for both of us to process. I just miss that I can’t reach out and touch his hand, but I text him that is what I’d do.

We’ve learned we need a lot of quiet when we want to talk. Not even just quiet, but silence. He genuinely wants to pay attention, and any distraction makes that harder. We’ve also learned when to recognize that he’s reaching his limit, and we can wrap things up without me taking it personally. Before, he used to just bail without any explanation, leaving me hanging with my words unheard like an old fashioned telephone that had fallen off its cradle, the coiled receiver cord dangling loose.

While I realize that many of these difficulties in communication such as distractions, overwhelm, and just plain misunderstandings are common whether you have a brain injury or not, their impact on the marital relationship leaves a crater sized hole where only a gap might be in a marital relationship where both partners are healthy.

While I’ve never forgotten that look of sheer bewilderment in my husband’s eyes, neither will I ever forget the feel of his palm cradling my heel as we fall asleep side by side.