How do you love the man who can’t express emotions the way he did when you first fell in love with him? How long do you continue to gaze into eyes that don’t see your heart? How many times do you say, “I love you” to someone who doesn’t respond?
My husband, Hugh, experienced the “flat affect” after his TBI, and it lasted several months. He rarely spoke, and when he did, he spoke in a monotone voice. His face didn’t register emotion, and he didn’t respond to the emotional cues of those around him.
But I remember his dead eyes more than anything. They didn’t register, light up, or drink in the world around them. They didn’t delight in the sound of his daughters’ voices or soften at the sight of those he loved.
TBI incorporates so many symptoms into its repertoire that it’s impossible to understand the scope of havoc the injury wreaks on relationships, and flat affect, in my opinion, is one of the hardest symptoms to accept. It can lead family members to grapple with harsh self-judgments:
Why am I feeling sorrier for myself than for him?
Am I selfish for wanting more from him than he can give?
Do I love this person anymore?
These kinds of questions make family members feel shameful and blameworthy. I remember speaking to a psychologist about my disturbing inner thoughts; and no matter how much she told me that my feelings were normal and warranted, they felt reprehensible and unforgivable to me. Of course, I still love him, I told myself. But what if he never changes? What if he stays this way? Can I live like this? These questions hounded me because I feared the answers. It’s hard to accept a truth you don’t want to tell yourself.
Flat affect changes the dynamics of a person’s relationships to everyone in his or her world; but quite often, it doesn’t last longer than six months. It is not only caused by the physical trauma of TBI to the brain but can result from depression. So it’s worth having a neuropsychologist figure out this part of the equation.
These days, when I wake up each morning, I am grateful for the light that has returned to Hugh’s eyes, and for the meaningful life he now enjoys. And, yes, I was selfish. I wanted him back whole and complete and able to love me in return. His flat affect lasted nearly three months before we began to see significant improvements, but every minute felt like a year.
If your loved one suffers flat affect symptoms, I urge you to seek help from a professional. There are therapies that can help. Learning to cope with your emotional turmoil is an important first step, because while your loved one might not be experiencing or showing any emotions, yours are most likely running in overdrive.