My brother suffered an extensive anoxic brain injury in 1997. I’ve been struggling to come up with an adequate description of what it’s like to live with him. In short, it’s a bit like living with someone who is perpetually vacillating between the ages of 10 and 13, with occasional brief flashes of lucidity in which it is realized that said individual is actually 25 and suffering from the lingering effects of brain damage. For my brother, I’m sure it’s like perpetually living in Bizarro World. For us, it’s like a brief personal Hell, punctuated by moments of hilarity–like the time my dad took him to a local sheesha bar, where my brother entertained a group of college kids who thought he was just some weird stoner kid. Everyone got a laugh, but moments like that aren’t frequent, and my brother’s mannerisms usually make even the most banal situations (like shopping for groceries) awkward.
Today, on the way home, we passed by our neighbor’s Christmas yard display. It’s an inflatable nativity créche, complete with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, some animals, and even a little roof overhang with a star to complete the scene. It’s all very cute and cartoony, but evidently the designers wanted it to have some element of realism, because Mary and Joseph have loose head-coverings that fly about in the wind, and occasionally they get tangled in the rest of the decorations. I pass by this every day, and for the past week Mary’s head scarf has been blown over her face, giving the scene a bizarre Christmas with the Taliban look about it. I admit I’m rather obsessive about neatness and organization–my own books were organized according to category, then alphabetized by author’s last name with compilations coming before the general set. (I hadn’t the time to organize them by Dewey Decimal, otherwise they would have been organized as such). My CDs are likewise categorized and alphabetized, and even the clothes in my closet are organized according to item (pants, skirts, jackets, sweaters, tops…), sleeve style (short, long, half, quarter, et al), and color. I like being organized, and when things are out of place it bothers me. Driving by that créche every day and seeing that scarf covering Mary’s face bugs me, but not enough that I would be bothered to stop and fix it. My brother said nothing, so I assumed he hadn’t noticed and didn’t care.
Now, my brother has his own obsessions, largely brought on by his brain injury, and it’s not always apparent what will trigger an obsessive event. Sometimes, he gets into my car and obsessively wipes down the dash, picks up any miniscule pieces of trash, and demands that I pull over so he can clean my car. (Even though it’s like self-inflicted torture, I’ve started keeping a little trash in my car–just crumpled paper, mostly, and an out-of-place umbrella–because yes it IS still fun to tease my younger brother.) Other times, he’ll obsessively scrub at just one spot on his arm trying to clean off some sort of unseen spot of dirt. Today, I managed to largely escape the cleaning drama when I took him to run errands with me. When we got home, though, as soon as I pulled into the garage he jumped out of the car and announced that he had to go down the street. Before I could stop him, he was already walking down the end of the driveway and heading down to the end of the street. I asked him where he was going, but he just kept saying, “I need to go down to the end of the street.” Numerous attempts to get him to come back failed, so I grabbed my purse and followed him.
Normally, a situation like this ends in disaster–he gets upset, has a tantrum, and it takes both of my parents (and occasionally the police, and once a team of EMTs) to get him calmed down enough to come back inside. We’re constantly trying to find the right balance of medications to prevent this, but it’s not always possible. So naturally, I’m really nervous when I see him walking off, and I get my mobile phone out just in case I need to call my mom or the police (dad is in Houston today with our foreign exchange student). But this time, since my brother is obviously not having any kind of outburst, I decide to follow him and see what he wants to do. We walk down the street and I ask him, “Do you want to go back so I can put on my Chucks? We’ll take a walk around the neighborhood.” I’m thinking maybe he just feels cooped up and wants to get out for a bit. He says no, though, and says he just needs to get to the end of the street. I ask him why and he tells me, “I don’t know. I just need to go to the end of the street.”
We get to the end of the street and he heads straight for the créche and I start getting nervous. Sometimes, he gets it into his head that he wants to do something juvenile, so I ask him what he wants to do thinking he might try to fart on the baby Jesus figure. (While I’m generally not opposed to laughing when he grabs the boobs of the mannequins at department stores, I do draw the line at sacrilege.) Instead, he heads straight for the Mary figure, whose head scarf has blown over her face, and pulls the scarf aside to look at what’s underneath. Now I know why he’d headed over here, and it’s the same thing that had been bothering me. The difference between my brother and a normal person, though, (and I use the term “normal” loosely) is that he lost most of his inhibitors from the frontal lobe damage. “Inhibitors” are basically those synaptic responses that develop in the brain in response to social training: it’s what tells us how to act in different social situations. I drive by my neighbor’s nativity créche every day, but I don’t get out of my car and rearrange Mary’s head scarf every time it’s blown in her face by the wind. Normal people probably wouldn’t even notice it; an obsessive personality might notice but not do anything; my brother notices that something is out of place and because he lacks those inhibitors, his automatic response is to fix whatever he sees as being out of place.
My brother didn’t fix the scarf. Whatever is missing in his brain often prevents him from finishing tasks, so he’s perpetually caught in a situation wherein he walks to his room, opens a drawer, and then forgets why he was upstairs in the first place. Or, to use a reference from popular culture, he’s similar to the underpants gnomes from South Park:
Step 1. Steal underpants.
Step 2. ???
Step 3. Profit!
The difference with my brother is that he often remembers Step 1 or Step 2, but remembering Step 3 is always nearly impossible. Today, all he knew was that there was something out of place at the end of the street, but he wasn’t sure what it was or what he should do once he got there. He shrugged and walked away from the créche, looking as though he couldn’t quite remember why he was outside, so I walked up and fixed Mary’s head scarf and headed home with my brother.
The brain is a funny thing. It’s been hard living with my brother for the last twelve years (it’ll be thirteen in April), and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some resentment and anger over lost opportunities (I was forced to choose UH over UT because I was needed at home, even though UT is a mere two hour drive from us). But lately, I’ve noticed that the more time passes, the more flashes of lucidity I see in him, and the easier it is to understand–briefly–what’s going on in his mind. Today I had one of those revelations when we went to the créche. It’s not always this easy to deal with him, but at least it makes it easier to understand what he’s going through.