Brain Injury and Substance Abuse: One Woman's Story

Jan Brown talks about her experience with substance abuse following traumatic brain injury.

Transcript of this video.

In terms of introduction to alcohol, I was introduced very young, probably between ages 4 and 5, by an older sibling. So that was well on it's way before I had my brain injury, my first brain injury. And then I was introduced and started smoking marijuana when I was about 8 or 9 years old. . Quickly, it became a problem, but I was, for the most part, pretty successful in school and in athletics and things like that, so was able probably to hide a bit better than most. My father is a career military officer, so very successful, and the expectations for my brothers and myself were pretty high. So I went to the military academy for a bit over 2 years, and that was my first time getting to go to treatment. After my second year there, my behavior, my alcoholism, was pretty out of control by then, so I went to treatment and came back to the academy and was permitted to be discharged from the military. I kind of went on my way for a bit, stopped drinking for a while, and then switched and started using prescription drugs for a bit. That's actually how I got to Williamsburg. I enrolled at the College of William & Mary, and was able to stay sober for a very short time, not so much because I wanted to, mostly just because. I started doing very well in school again. Even the first time I went through treatment, it wasn't so much because I thought I had a problem; it was because I didn't want to get in trouble and I didn't want to get kicked out of school. So when I was here, it didn't take very long. I think it was probably a semester or two before I started drinking again. And eventually, what that led to was I had done away with some friends for a weekend, and I fell down a flight of concrete stairs. It's kind of a strange thing. I often think that it actually saved my life in a strange kind of way because had that not happened to me, I would have continued to drink and do drugs, because that's really what I wanted to do. I thought all that time that I was just really having fun. It wasn't about I wanted to hurt myself or any of those kinds of things. I just really wanted to be high. I just wanted to get high. And the fall that I took, was what finally propelled me into treatment. So I started kind of that second go-around of treatment. I was in treatment for 16 months for my alcoholism and addiction. And during that time period, I had all of these really odd behaviors and I didn't make progress, I guess would be the word, like other people did. I didn't understand; when they would say, "Jan, you can't do this," I would look at them very innocently and say, "Yes, I can. I just did it." So I just didn't--there was just so many gaps, and I had all kinds of physical problems and challenges through my withdrawal, and what no one knew was that I had sustained a traumatic brain injury. It was actually several years before that was discovered. After I got out of treatment, I took a few jobs and wasn't very successful because I had lots of problems with mood swings, with my temper. I would get very confused very quickly, and things like that. So I bounced around in between jobs for a few years, and then I took a job as a physical therapy aide at one of the physical rehabs in Newport News. What was neat about it--I was working on the brain injury unit, of all places, and I kept watching the patients, and they behaved like I did. So it was really quite curious for a long time. So finally, as I guess I cleared, I asked one of the speech therapists, I said, "These people behave like I do." So she got me tested. I had neuropsych testing, and they made the diagnosis that that's what indeed had happened to me. I'd had a traumatic brain injury. So good fortune, since I was working there, I was able to begin to get the therapies and to get some of the medication intervention and the things that I needed. I was able to begin to work full-time, my mood was stabilized, and things like that. And kind of on the addiction side, I was very involved in my personal recovery, so I had managed to be able to stay sober once I finished that treatment experience. One of the things that, for me--they taught me that if I drank I was going to die-- or use drugs--and I didn't want to die. So it became very simple, really, that no matter what, you just don't drink. People gave me all of these kinds of rules to live by and taught me things that it's not negotiable. So I was like, "Okay." And I'm very good at following instructions once I make my mind up that I'm going to do that, so I haven't looked back in a way like others have. A lot of the slogans that I've learned through the years, though I hated them in the beginning, are things that are very much a part of my life today. This week it's been funny because one of the things that has been really alive is, "First thing's first." You do this, and then you do that. It's like, "Okay. I'll do this, and then I'll do that." So that was my first kind of experience with brain injury. I've had two. I became very active and involved in the Brain Injury Association in the Virginia Survivors Council. I did a lot of those kinds of things. Once I was able to return to work, having no good sense in terms of boundaries and things like that, I started chasing money. So I thought I was going to be the best worker and the hardest worker and things like that. I can remember working--I was on the advisory council for the Ohio Valley Center, and they were doing all of this research about how once you've had a brain injury, we're at greater risk to have another one. And I didn't believe them, and I told them that I was going to be the exception and all those kinds of things we say. Sure enough, 9 years after my first one, I was working and I swam headfirst into the wall of the swimming pool. What we know now is that it wouldn't have been as bad had I not had the first brain injury. So I think for me, though, it was far more devastating than the first one because the first time I didn't know what I had lost. I was just so out of it that anything that I got to do, I was pretty pleased. But the second time, I knew what I had lost, and I was really angry because today I was able to do these things, and then all of a sudden I wasn't able to do them. Once again, I did get fabulous care in terms of my needs for my brain injury. I stayed clean and sober throughout that process. I had wonderful support from the larger recovery community. It was a long, long journey back, though, from that second one. I was unable to work for a period of years and was on disability. For a bit, I was not able to drive. I had to turn in my driver's license, so that was quite challenging. And it was a race; my doctors didn't want to take it, and one day I kind of woke up and said to my conscious that I would never be able to forgive myself if I hurt somebody. So I went to the DMV and said, "You all need to have my license instead of me." Fortunately, I've been able to earn all of those privileges back, and it was actually a good thing. I understand today that driving is a privilege and not a right of passage, which, to me, I had thought because I was active in my addiction when I first got my license. So I think that's--it's just been an amazing journey, really.
Posted on BrainLine March 16, 2010.