Who am I?: Coping with Identity Loss after a Brain Injury

With one blow to the head, I lost a part of myself

It was 2 years before I started to feel more like myself. Immediately after I accidentally struck my head into a wall at my office, I knew something was terribly wrong. In my next meeting of the day I could not focus. I couldn’t seem to get information to stick.

With one fateful blow, I lost a career and a lifetime of training. My vocabulary was compromised. My memory was shot. My vision was malfunctioning. My head was filled with unrelenting splitting pain. I bumped into things, and drifted over to the right side of the lane whenever I drove. I slept for 3 hours a night, and could not remember my neighbors’ names, much less an entire sentence I had just read.

Needless to say, I couldn’t work as a writer and editor as I had been. I quit my job after a painful two weeks of trying to make it work, which was a disaster for my recovery. I went back to work too soon and did not know the ins and outs of proper rehabilitation like I do now.

Underneath this work crisis was a horrifying devastation of not being myself that the injury caused. Not only had I lost my identity as a crafter of words and reader of books, but I didn’t recognize myself internally. My brain didn’t operate the same. There was a huge block in my mental processes that was just. not. me. My brain couldn’t hold several topics at once and mentally play with them. Whenever I tried to do that my emotional brain would go into overdrive and I would end in a puddle of tears.

I basically had to stop thinking and reading and doing what I normally did. All the mental energy I had went to figuring out what was going on inside my brain and hunting down appropriate treatments.

What do you do when you’re not yourself?

Since that two-year mark, I’ve started to feel more like myself by degrees. But I still struggle with not being the same internally. Getting information through that damaged spot in my brain feels like forcing a stream through a narrow funnel. My brain gets tired after reading for 10 minutes sometimes—especially if it’s something like poetry (my specialty). That’s a huge frustration for someone who got a master’s degree in religion and literature from Yale. Language and reading comprehension was my thing.

I have needed to grieve over this again and again. Recently I went through another wave of sorrow at having lost such a huge part of my identity that I wasn’t sure I would ever get back. It was a death of myself that was not visible and that no one could fully appreciate because I looked fine. Outwardly I sounded like myself. Inwardly, I was a chaotic, confused mess who could not use her intellectual gifts the way she had been trained to use them.

Yet, how could I grieve something that no one around me acknowledged as real or as devastating as it really was?

How to Cope

I’m still learning how to allow myself to feel all the feelings of loss that such a massive change entails. I have seen great improvements, and I have a strong hope that in time I will be able to regain full function of the faculties that were injured. I know that’s a privilege that not everyone with a brain injury has.

I still don’t know the complete answer for how to cope. No doubt it’s different in ever individual circumstance. But I do know there are things to be done. I’ve compiled a few of those ways in this video.


I’m here to tell you that your pain is real, and also that it does get better. Just because your brain injury was the end of the world as you know it does not mean it’s the end of the world.  I believe that even if you never fully return to your old self, you can see huge gains and offer many valuable and beautiful contributions to the world.

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