I tried to remember the words I wanted to speak. I couldn’t recall their meaning, so I went looking for paint. I thought maybe the colors would describe how I felt. The color I was looking for perhaps did not exist. So I was left mute, grey, without substance or adequate description; transparent—no, semi-opaque, glisteningly absent, like a spirit that couldn’t let go. Floating, yet drowning.
Aphasia is a language impairment, affecting comprehension, speaking, reading and writing. It presents as a result of brain injury—most often a stroke—but it can also arise from a concussion or an infection.
I sustained both a brain infection (meningitis) and four concussions. Fortunately, I experienced a very minor form of anomic aphasia, and the associated comprehension deficit presents itself as what I call “a bad word day”. No, it’s not a day full of expletives (or perhaps it might be, depending on the day); rather, it’s a day when I misidentify objects and descriptors. While my comprehension is fine, I can’t retrieve the names of objects, and I have difficulty putting words into sentences, replacing missing words with ‘thing’ or ‘that thing’. I slur my words, and I have to repeat myself to ensure I’m understood.
For the longest time after my injuries, I felt incredibly stupid and inarticulate because of this, and seven years after my most impactful injury, I still experience these lapses. These days, they usually only occur when I’m tired or stressed, but they remain unbearably frustrating.
The pressure to articulate complex information was part of my job, and I felt incredibly inadequate for months after my accident. I would avoid meetings when I could, because I would begin speaking and then completely lose my ability to find the words I needed. I worked in an industry where we used significant jargon, and it usually rolled off my tongue. Although my intellect and my creativity were intact, I would be struck dumbfounded. Then, my frustration would often lead to tears—and my inability to control my behaviour (also as a result of injury) meant I was deemed ‘emotional’ and ‘difficult to work with’ by my colleagues.
Many folks in brain-injury social media networks report the same experiences. Aphasia is quite common after concussion. Aphasia can improve over time; the brain is a wonderfully flexible organ and we can learn to circumvent the ‘dead-end’ roads to comprehension and communication. But there are ways you can help yourself when your symptoms arise.
Tip: As with any brain injury, it’s important to know your own limits. Rest—and in particular, quality sleep—seems to help with aphasia symptoms. Don’t attempt to present a thesis or lead a meeting when you’re tired, or you’ll end up frustrated and deflated.
Tip: If you find yourself forgetting words in a meeting, stop and take a drink of water. Not only does it buy you time, the water will make you feel better.
Tip: Don’t hesitate to explain your situation to your coworkers or social contacts. I describe it as ‘knowing the answers but having to mentally flip through file folders to access them’. This visual cue helps alert others to how hard your brain is working.
Tip: Carry notes, and use them. Don't be afraid to create them in large print and highlight the most important points.
I learned that when I was presenting, my 'audience' appreciated my honesty when I explained that I refer to notes because I have a brain injury. I'd say something to the effect of, "My notes? I'm old school and I'm brain-injured. I forget words. So, unless you want to spend the next 30 trying to guess what word I'm thinking of, you'll be happy I have them. This is how I roll."
That usually elicits a laugh or two, and everyone--the audience and the presenter--can relax and enjoy what comes next.
About the Creator
I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.
I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.