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Reclaiming Intimacy After Brain Injury

It was one of those quiet moments just before we both drifted off to sleep. The kind of quiet talk that almost never leaves the bedroom.

“No one ever seems to write about challenges with intimacy after a brain injury,” I said, sleepily.

“Then do it,” said Sarah. Her voice had a degree of conviction that almost kept me awake.

Almost.

Talking about love, sex, and intimacy can be like unraveling a tangled web, even to those without a brain injury. Add a brain injury to the mix and these difficult to discuss subjects can look insurmountable.

Prior to my traumatic brain injury, Sarah and I were equals in every sense of the word. In fact, those who knew us before my brain injury often called us one of the most happily married couples they had met.

One of my fondest memories of life “before” was a question we used to get four, five, six or more times a year: “Are you two newlyweds?” Sarah and I have long been fond of living an immersive, present life. We have always loved to travel. And before my brain injury, we had more than a decade of walking through our days, hand in hand like newlyweds, experiencing so much that the world has to offer.

Always holding hands — her hand fits most perfectly inside mine — we apparently have the look of a couple of people who really like each other. So, up would come that question again: “Are you two newlyweds?” We’d walk into someplace small, quaint, and intimate. It might be asked at the Pink Pig Café in Sedona, or perhaps that little coffee shop on the edge of Moab, Utah, just outside of Arches National Park. I’ve lost count of how many times in 15 years that a random stranger pops us that question.

Such is the outward manifestation of the love we share inwardly. We are blessed to have found each other. Even more blessed to know what we have.

I share this so you can get a bit of a real-feel for who we were before my brain injury.

Professionally, I was a web developer and a blossoming writer. Sarah has a career in telecommunications. We were two successful, very independent people who found great joy in just being us.

You already know what’s coming next.

Then “it” happened. The driver who broad-sided me while I was cycling was only a child of 16.

And our life — all that we knew, all that was familiar, all that was intimate — was torn from us in two ticks of a clock in a mangled wreck of steel and broken glass.

A large part of the David that Sarah knew, the David that Sarah fell in love with and married, a large part of who “he” was and who was one half of “us” no longer existed.

From an equal, I became her ward. I was under her guardianship. And for a time, our status as equals was gone.

Relationships without a brain injury are complex enough. Add a brain injury to the mix and most everything is unpredictable.

Intimacy is most natural when two people love each other, body, mind, and soul.

Many years ago, I heard sex defined as “an outward manifestation of inner love.” It’s a definition I have come to love.

But brain injury is an intimacy game changer. The first dynamic affected comes from changing roles. During that first year, I became dependent on Sarah for so much. She became my caregiver, making sure that I took care of myself, ate, rested, and set limits based on my new disability. The list goes on.

To be able to simply jump into our old roles as equals after the lights went out was simply not possible. As many people with brain injury know all too well, mental exhaustion leads to physical weariness, which in turn leads to instant sleep when head hits pillow. Hardly a recipe for intimacy.

Add the complexity of changed relationships, and it’s easy to see why many marriages don’t survive the pressures of a brain injury.

At one point, Sarah said, “If we didn’t have as many years together as we did, we probably would not have made it.” At the time, it felt like a bomb dropping.

But made it we did. Thankfully, the hardest times are behind us.

Everything about me has changed. Yes, I look the same; I know you understand that. But under the hood, everything is quite different. I react more openly to life. I laugh more than I ever have. I cry at just about anything. I am a different husband, partner, lover, and hand-holder than I was before.

But, I know, too, that at the core of me, deep inside, I am still, and always will be, David. Thankfully, Sarah sees and understands this, often even more perceptively than I do myself. She has the ability to see through my brain injury and see the person with whom she originally fell in love.

Life today is similar, but also significantly different.

We still hold hands most everywhere we go. Not because of some sense of obligation. Rather, it’s because we feel close with even a small bit of physical contact.

And those who know us as a couple, who really know us, know that it’s not been easy. But they see that love covers a lot of ground. And they see the look we have in our eyes as we gaze at each other.

Slowly, we are rebuilding a new “us” on the same foundation that worked the first time: mutual respect and a deep love for each other. We have found that open, sometimes raw, occasionally awkward conversations about love, sex, and intimacy are critical in helping us come to understand, embrace, and live in the “new normal” of our relationship.

Nothing beats the realization that you can get through just about anything with your best friend by your side. And at night, when all is quiet … well, we’ll just leave it at that.

 

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