MTBI 101: Friendships after a Brain Injury

In Brain Injury, MTBI 101, Recovery by Emerson Jane Browne10 Comments

Group of friends watching sunset

Thanks to Nazka @ for the generous sharing of your photos


The 4 Categories of Friendships:

Essentially friends of most brain injury survivors fall into four categories with a small amount of overlap:

  1. Friends who knew you before your brain injury;
  2. Close friends who are seeing you through the brain injury and recovery;
  3. Friends who met you or got to know you during the brain injury and recovery.
  4. Friends who are getting to know you after the brain injury and recovery.

NOTE: Though I will use the word “Friends” and “Friend” throughout this article you can add in the word “Family Members” because family members will and do fall into the same categories discussed here.

Before Brain Injury Friendships

Before Friends are the ones who knew us at work, through our hobbies, in our neighborhood, at our place of worship, etc.

They knew you as a capable, clear thinker. They knew you as a friend who was fun to be around. They knew you as someone who could get things done.

And especially they knew you as a friend who was like them.

“Like Me” Before Friendships

Many of the Before Friends just cannot handle the changes they see in you from the brain injury. Some friends split fast. Others try to hang on but end up drifting away.

Who are those people? Yes they really were your friends, but the basis of the friendship was that you were similar to each other – the like them factor.

We are different now. It is not that these people wish us ill. It is that we are no longer like them so the like them bond is broken.

“True” Before Friendsships

And then there are the Before Friends who stick around. They hang with you through thick and thin. Your friendship becomes deeper and richer.

These “true friends” live the adage of “That which doesn’t kill a friendship makes it stronger”.

They will be some of your best supporters over the long haul because they can remind you of who you were and cheer you on (and razz you) to get back there.

Sometimes those “true friends” are the ones who have known you the longest. But often it is surprising who turns out to be one of the caring friends who sticks with you.

Through Brain Injury & Recovery Friendships

The key thing that makes someone a Through Friend is that they are with you; physically with you, seeing you often. Or they are at least on the phone or Skype with you very frequently.

They have to be close enough that they are able to experience and notice the small improvements; to watch you change over time.

“Through friends” may be family. They may be people who knew you pre brain injury. Or they may be people you have met since the brain injury.

These friends and family are close enough to see you grow into your “new self”. They adjust to the incremental changes along with you. They know and understand when you are able to take on new responsibilities.

This is a critical distinction from the During group below. The During Friends know you during the same period as the Through Friends but they are not close enough to really be able to grock the brain injury healing process.

During Brain Injury & Recovery Friendships

During Friends are ones who did not know you pre-brain injury, or at least did not know you well. They get to know you while you are injured and in the recovery period.

The key thing about this group is they are not close enough to you to understand much about your brain injury (or brain injuries in general) in the first place. And they are not close enough to see and realize the changes that are occurring as you heal and recover.

During friends become friends with you thinking “this is the way she/he is”

I think the like them factor crops up again in the During Friend category. The basis of the friendship is, once again, that there are interests you share in common, or community – like a place of worship or club. They are friends that you see socially. Friends that you may work with in your recovery period.

During Friends can also be attracted to your disability. They can be people who like helping other people. They can be people who feel good about being “more together” than you.

You can explain to the brain injury to your During Friends. You can comment about it frequently. But they just will not get it on the level that the Through Friends do. They cannot fully understand that you were very different before the brain injury or that you are incrementally becoming a new you.

After Brain Injury & Recovery Friendships

Brain injury recover is a very slow process. The healing changes are small but cumulative. They build on each other. Recovery takes years! But it happens. The more you stretch and grow, the more your brain remaps.

The After Recovery Friends” are friends who get to know you after you are well into your recovery. They know you as you are now; the new you.

Friendships at Risk after Brain Injury Recovery

So which of the above friendships is most at risk as you become a new, capable you? As you regain the skill and talent you had pre-injury?

The During Friends!

They became friends with you thinking “this is the way she/he is”.  They are not close enough to you to see and celebrate the small changes. And they did not know you pre-accident!

Your changing upsets the balance with During Friends. 

Think of a mobile hanging in perfect balance. If you change one item on a mobile all the pieces move and jerk around until a new balance is restored.

The balance in your friendships with your during friends is similar to a mobile. If you change and become someone different from who your during friends expect then you to be upset the whole balance that they have come to count on! People do not like their balance upset so they try to push you back into “your place” in the friendship mobile.

I don’t think they mean to try to keep you small or injured. They just never knew you pre-injury so did not know you could change as much as you have!

And I also do not think that having them be naysayers is necessarily the end of the friendship. But I do think that the friendship will either adjust over time or end.

You cannot play small to please them.

My experience of Before & Through Friendships

In my case the Before Friend category is especially marked because I moved to a different state soon after I had the “main event” brain injury.

Most of my adult, professional life was spent in the Denver/Boulder area of Colorado. I moved to Seattle and suffered an additional brain injury a week after arriving. Though I have stayed in touch with friends from Colorado, they were not in a place to move into the Through Friends category.

Since returning to Washington, I have been graced with developing a few very close friendships and reconnecting with an old friend and deepening our friendship. Plus, recovering from the brain injury has also strengthened my relationship with my two sisters.

These people are my Through Friends. They have seen me through all the years of recovery. They totally get how much I have healed and how much I am back to full-force capability.

It is the reaction of other friends – my During Friends – that caused me to write this article.

New Job and Friends’ Reactions

I recently was hired into an interim position at an executive level. I am very capable of doing the job and extremely excited about it, even though it is only interim.

My Through Friends are rejoicing with me and cheering me on. They know I am ready to make this step.

My Before Friends are happy for me too. Since I moved right after my brain injury, most of my pre-injury friends never knew how bad off my brain was. They knew I could not work for a while, but for me to be hired at an executive level seems normal to them. I was working at that level in Colorado too.

My During Friends are people who I consider good friends. Most of them are social friends I see often. I thought they understood how how hard I have been working at recovery. I thought they would be supportive and excited about my new position.

But that isn’t the case. It is not that they do not wish me well. I think they do.

But their reaction to my new job is more like a “You’ve got to be kidding me” shock response and a “Who do you think you are!?!” look or maybe the look is even “You can’t do that! Why on earth did they hire you?”  I also think some of them do not believe it is a real job.

In hindsight, I understand.

Since they did not know me pre-injury, I don’t think they understood how injured I was when they met me. Therefore, they did not look for, nor see the changes that were occurring as I healed. And since they had no idea what I had been like pre-injury, they had no idea who I was working to reclaim.

I told them what was going on for and with me. I thought they had understood.

Now I realize that they thought it was ridiculous that I did not have a “regular job” for so long. They totally did not get what I was working on (both healing wise and work wise).

I do not feel I have to entirely give up on my During Friends. They are good friends who I enjoy socially. However, I do feel I need to “encapsulate” them.

It is not important to me that they someday see me in a different light. But it is important that their wishing to put me back into a small box is unsuccessful in how I view myself and how I operate in the world. I cannot play small to please them.

What changes have you seen in friendships since your brain injury?

(Please share in the comment section below.)

Emerson Jane Browne
I am Emerson Jane Browne. I write about Brains, Apps, & Productivity, and many other aspects of Life. I speak to TBI support groups, speak and teach workshops at tech, music, and writer conferences. I consult with organizations on strategic planning and building a strong community.