Stories

How injury changed my brain

One day Meg Fozzard’s brain was working properly, the next it wasn’t. In conversation with three people who have had similar, life-altering experiences, she explores the huge impact of brain injury and if there’s any such thing as a ‘normal’ brain.

Words by Meg Fozzard|photography by Kathleen Arundell

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Photograph of a woman with shoulder length frizzy brown hair, wearing a white elbow length top and leaf patterned trousers, seated in a wheelchair in an outdoor space. She is pictured from the waist up at a three-quarter angle, her arms and hands are resting the right hand armrest of the wheelchair. She is looking off in the distance to camera left with a calm neutral expression. Behind her is a low concrete planter wall within which are many green trees and shrubs. In the far left is a small section of the brickwork of a building.
Meg Fozzard, Photo: Kathleen Arundell. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

An “acquired brain injury” is one caused some time since birth. The reason might be something like a fall, a road accident, a tumour or a stroke. One day you have a ‘normal’ brain and the next you don’t. This is exactly what happened to me.

I was a healthy 26-year-old. Then I had a cardiac arrest, suffered a hypoxic brain injury and my life completely changed. I am a different person compared to who I was before. I am now a wheelchair user. I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night. I am tired pretty much all the time, except for when I sleep for nine hours. I can’t write with pen and paper properly.

Until now, I’ve never really met anyone else with an acquired brain injury or had a conversation about our experiences. I wanted confirmation that there are other people who feel the same way I do.

Photograph of a woman with shoulder length frizzy brown hair, wearing a white elbow length top and leaf patterned trousers, sitting on the side of a double bed. Her arms are loosely folded across her lap. She is looking off in the distance to camera right towards the light from a window. She has a calm neutral expression. The duvet cover and pillow covers are also have a green leaf pattern, echoing her trousers. Behind her the wall is white and visible behind her on the left hand side is a small white bedside table and an open fronted wardrobe with clothes folded on the shelves.
Meg Fozzard in her bedroom at home, Photo: Kathleen Arundell. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

“I am a different person compared to who I was before. I am now a wheelchair user. I am tired pretty much all the time, except for when I sleep for nine hours.”

Alister was walking in the park when he was hit by a cyclist. He suffered a massive head trauma, including a bleed on the brain. John fell off a building, hitting a concrete block head first. Mike was in a motorcycle accident. Like me, one day their brains worked well, the next they didn’t.

Brain injuries affect everyone in different ways. For me, I have had a few personality changes. I can no longer stand, or seemingly understand, physical affection. This has been difficult to work through in my relationship because I used to be affectionate. I also have anxiety, which is something I never experienced before.

Mike told me that he doesn’t take risks anymore and is very shy with others, while John explained he is more emotional now. “Watching a silly romantic film or something like that,” he says, “I'll end up practically crying, whereas I can't ever remember doing that before.” Alister told me his brain injury has “had a huge impact on my family and myself. My mood, mostly. I have little patience now.”

Photographic diptych. The image on the right shows a closeup of a man and a woman holding hands whilst seated pin a brown leather sofa. The woman on the left is wearing a white elbow length top and leaf patterned trousers. The man on the right is wearing grey jeans and a green and red patterned floral shirt. He also has several woven wrist bands. The image on the right shows the same couple from above, looking down onto their laps, closeup. They are both holding photographic prints of a young woman whilst camping and at the beach.
Meg Fozzard with her boyfriend, Xander, Photo: Kathleen Arundell. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

“I know that my brain doesn’t work well for me. I can’t do half of the things that I used to, and I am still coming to terms with this.”

This emotional impact is often harder to deal with than the physical symptoms, such as limited mobility, speech problems and fatigue. According to Headway, a charity that works with brain-injured people, “For many families, the worst consequence of brain injury is feeling as if the person who was once known and loved has somehow slipped away… For the person with a brain injury, losing a sense of their own identity is traumatic and frightening.”

But why does a brain injury affect our emotions? I spoke to Vaughan Bell, a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist. Vaughan specialises in understanding and treating brain injury, mental distress and psychological impairment.

“A brain injury can affect people emotionally in two important ways. The first is by damaging the brain circuits that are involved in the regulation of mood and emotion,” he says. “The second is by experiencing a serious life event that may involve a huge change in circumstances, disability or loss.”

A life-changing experience

It’s hard for people with brain injuries to accept that our lives have changed forever. Right before my brain injury, I had been working at a charity, creating video content for them. I’d recently graduated from the National Film and Television School and was beginning my career.

Photograph of a man from the waist up standing outside in a park like environment. He is wearing a flat cap, a white shirt and black jeans. He is looking towards the ground to camera left with a neutral expression. His hands are sunk into his pockets. Around him are lush green foliage from shrubs and trees. In the middle distance is an expanse of water and then in the far distance is the shoreline on the other side, with more grasses and trees. He is framed by the leaves of an overhanging branch beyond which is a small patch of blue sky.

“Alister was walking in the park when he was hit by a cyclist. He suffered a massive head trauma, including a bleed on the brain.”

Before his accident, Alister had trained to be a chef at Buckingham Palace and was working with some high-profile clients. His work since has been affected. “It damaged the nerves responsible for my taste and smell, which has still not recovered fully… [and] is a big nuisance in my job,” he said. He now has to rely on his instincts when it comes to seasoning.

John told me about his career. “Not being too boastful, but I used to run companies, big companies. I used to run them and handle it all,” he said. “Now I have a hard job trying to run myself. In fact, without my two daughters’ help, I wouldn’t be able to do that properly either.”

What does it mean to have a ‘normal’ brain?

Photograph of a man in full length standing outside in a garden like environment. He is wearing a flat cap, light blue short sleeved shirt and a pair of blue jeans. His hand are clasped behind his back and he is looking straight to camera. Either side of the path he is standing on are green shrubs in bloom with colourful flowers. In the distance is a small wooden shed and a glass and grey metal building.

“John fell off a building, hitting a concrete block head first.”

“I don’t think I had a normal brain before I had the accident,” says John. “I don’t regard that as a statement anyone can answer, even without a brain injury. What is a normal brain and why is it abnormal? I’ve got no idea.” When I ask Alister, he says he considers himself to have an “almost normal” brain.

“‘Normal’ has many meanings – some of which are purely statistical, and some of which edge into being value judgements,” says Vaughan. “Instead I prefer the question ‘What does it mean to have a brain that works well for you?’ This allows us to think about what we want in life, and how our brains, no matter who we are, help or hinder us in living that life.”

I know that my brain doesn’t work well for me. I can’t do half of the things that I used to, and I am still coming to terms with this. I asked everyone I spoke to the same question: If you could get your brain magically fixed, would you? They all said yes.

Photograph of a man and a woman inside. The woman is seated and is looking up at the man who is stood behind her, leaning over her. His right arm is wrapped around her, holding a mascara brush near her cheek as if he is about to apply the make-up to her face. He is looking directly at her with a concentrated expression. She is look at him with a loving smile and a hint of nervousness. Behind them both is a plain white wall, a section of a bookcase with objects and flowers on top, and a section of wooden door.
Meg Fozzard with her boyfriend, Xander, Photo: Kathleen Arundell. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

“The question ‘What does it mean to have a brain that works well for you?’ allows us to think about what we want in life, and how our brains help or hinder us in living that life.”

Like John, I didn’t know a lot about brain injuries until I had one. “It wasn’t something I gave much thought to,” he told me. “If you break your arm or something, after a while it heals. And sometimes the way it heals makes it stronger than it was before. So it's only a temporary inability.

“But with brain injury it's completely different. You might mend the outside of the head, with the cracks and bangs and all the rest of that. But you can't ever repair the inside of it. There is no repair, nothing you can do. You’ve only got to try and work with what you've got.”

Thank you to Headway East London for their help with this article.

About the contributors

Black and white photograph of Meg Fozzard

Meg Fozzard

Author

Meg Fozzard is a freelance journalist and producer who mainly writes about disability issues. She can often be found trying to put the non-disabled world to rights on Twitter and Instagram.

Photographic head and shoulders, black and white portrait of Kathleen Arundell.

Kathleen Arundell

Photographer

Kathleen is a freelance photographer working in the culture and heritage sector. She works in a range of museums across London, and loves all things science and art.