Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It's not whether you get knocked down...

It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get back up.
-Vince Lombardi

My dad kept a board game on the floor next to his desk in our living room. Once in a while he would pull it out with a grin, and try to get me and/or my brother to sit down with him. Maybe it was the two-dimensional, abstract nature of this game that didn't appeal. It's not really a kid's game. Or maybe I just wasn't that into football.

Being female, I never had to go public with this heresy. In high school, as a sporty girl I did a few stints on the sidelines, running chains. The players were hitting each other hard, a lot harder than it seemed from the bleachers. Sweat (and sometimes blood) flew off their bodies when they hit, and this movie had a disturbing soundtrack too. It was not just the groans, or surprised "oof" sounds when players made contact and their lungs compressed. It was also the unmistakeable crack of helmets hitting each other.

You might be aware of the concussion lawsuit facing the NFL. The question at hand is whether the NFL knew more about the danger of concussions than it was communicating to players. Another question is whether the league did as much as it could to help players recover from concussions after the fact. (Anyone who knows the details, feel free to add or correct using comments...)

Wondering what this has to do with Route 66, a journey? Well, going public with my head injury and writing about recovery has brought some interactions I never predicted. Two in particular, relate to this NFL lawsuit. There seems to be some strong emotional reactions to the legal case...

  • A medical provider told me forcefully that suing the NFL was unreasonable. He said the players undertook the risks themselves and they alone were liable. Thanks for volunteering that point of view! Would this have anything to do with your fear of litigation, when trying to help survivors of brain injury?

  • Last week, someone in a position to help grant funds to SBI had a different strong reaction. This person just flat-out denied that my symptoms were caused by TBI. They were, like, normal forgetfulness. Wow, awkward! As you can imagine, the meeting with this football fan to discuss funding for SBI was over at that point. I went home feeling ashamed of my story.

I don't mean to be unkind; imagine if your religion were under fire. You might lash out, too. But the danger comes when we allow religion to cloud our professional judgment.

From a psychological perspective, these are interesting examples of defense mechanisms. The first, blaming the victim, is a textbook example of denial (by projection?). The second is a shining example of reaction formation, a Hail Mary to suppress the truth at all costs.

I thought, what about football made these people so defensive? And then I thought, it IS attractive, isn't it. The image of ourselves as conscious, powerful agents. We have options in life; playing football (or riding in a car, or being attacked) is just one among many. We choose. We know we are likely to be permanently disabled at some point, but we fully and sagely accept the risk. Life is a game.

Lots of people forget a water bottle when going through airport security. The fact that we forget something every time is not TBI, it's normal. No one is good at multitasking, no one is perfect. The cluster of TBI symptoms is probably temporary, it is because we are aging, we are human. No one is responsible.

Back in the real world, why did these 2 people vent emotions to me? I am neither a football player nor a fan nor a lawyer. Because of my head injury, they might view me as vulnerable, unlikely to fight back. On some deeper level, they might feel guilty for participating. Perhaps they know they are complicit.

The truth about head injuries has been known for a long time. Now the science is catching up, and the role of science is to make incontrovertible what we already knew. In blaming the survivors of TBI, we let our feelings knock us down. When the blaming stops, we can get back up and face the music.


  1. :( I'm so sorry they felt it was not only right but appropriate to go after you. Shame on them.

    1. Thanks for the support Rachel, it means a lot. I wanted to show what happens out there in the world when people perceive you as different, and/or threatening. These folks didn't mean to hurt anyone, but the truth is not going away. A shoot the messenger strategy won't change that. I wonder how many folks with TBI just give up looking for help because the helping framework is not straightforward. And along the way they run into this kind of thing, just as I did.