Learning to Love a Stranger

Brain Injury Blog by Janet Cromer

February 21, 2011 

Learning to Love a Stranger

Valentine’s Day is not the only time we think about love and long for a deep connection with a partner. After a person has a brain injury, especially a moderate-severe injury, there may be changes in personality, memory, and communication.

These changes can add up to the kind of distressing differences that make the family caregiver say, “Who is this person?” After my husband Alan had a severe anoxic brain injury, he went through months of wild emotional responses coupled with learning to speak and get his thoughts across to us. His personality was changed in many ways. I loved Alan and spent many hours doing rehabilitation with him daily. But at night I called my friends and whispered, “I don’t know who this man is who is pretending to be my husband. I want my old husband back.”

In the beginning, it’s hard to predict if the changes are temporary or permanent. There were a few essential parts of Alan’s personality and personal style that remained. I could detect his former witty sense of humor and curiosity about everything around him. He knew I was his wife and expressed affection long before he got my name straight.

I decided to build on those aspects while getting to know the new Alan who was emerging during the first year after his injury. I tried really hard not to treat Alan like my child as he was learning to do everything all over again. Treating him like an adult meant that we had “dates” to practice his skills. Alan loved our “coffee dates” in the hospital cafeteria where he practiced selecting and paying for our lunch.

Alan’s brain injury wiped out his memory of his life, including our marriage. I wrote a list of six simple facts I wanted him to know about me. David Letterman has ten items on his lists, but I knew that would be expecting too much. For months I drilled Alan on the “Janet List” until he could tell me how we met, what I did for a career, and why we loved each other.

Over time, I found new qualities to love about this Alan. I felt so much respect and admiration for his courage, hope, resilience, and determination to recover as much as possible. He looked at relearning how to navigate our neighborhood or use the telephone as high adventure. I don’t think I would have been half as resilient if I had the brain injury. For Christmas I gave Alan a love letter titled “Twenty Things I Love about You Now.”

Many of our favorite social activities weren’t an option after the brain injury. However, we gradually found new ways of having fun together such as walking in a park with an ice cream cone. Many evenings we watched Alan’s favorite Broadway musicals on DVD and sang along with Frank Sinatra.

Our new marriage wasn’t always peaches and cream by a long shot. However, we both made a deliberate choice to get to know each other and build a different kind of marriage that worked for us. The love that we cultivated fortified our life going forward.

Five More Tips to Keep Love Alive:

  1. Acknowledge and grieve the changes and losses before deciding to commit to a new relationship. I found it helpful to talk honestly with a psychotherapist during this time.
  2. Appreciate and celebrate small steps forward together. Sharing the journey of recovery/healing can create a strong bond and shared purpose.
  3. Find mutuality in other relationships. The person with a brain injury may not be capable of knowing and supporting you in the mutually affirming way we expect of mature relationships. Consider finding mutuality with close friends or other family members, rather than holding an expectation the person can’t fulfill due to brain injury.
  4. Be open to new and different reasons to love this person.
  5. Be willing to exchange roles sometimes. I was often the teacher working with Alan on his reading or kitchen skills. We both enjoyed it when I was the student and Alan taught me how to make a craft project or walk our dog his way. We all gain esteem from sharing what we know.

Janet is the author of Professor Cromer Learns to Read: A Couple’s New Life after Brain Injury. Visit Janet’s website at http://janetcromer.com/ and her blog at http://janetcromer.com/blog.

7 responses to “Learning to Love a Stranger”

  1. Marie G. Cooney says:

    Dear Janet,
    Thanks for including “long for a deep connection with a PARTNER” while talking about changes in your marriage. Your husband is so fortunate to have someone so devoted and understanding, even if you expressed frustration to others. (Good idea.) I lost my partner of ten years after my first BI. After sustaining a second work related TBI, I wondered if I’d ever date again, let alone have another partner. Time will tell. This much is true, communication is key! Almost six years post-TBI, I am dating again, and a wonderful woman made this Valentine’s Day so special!

  2. Janet Cromer says:

    Hello Carolynne,
    Yes, I remember what that early experience was like for me. I wrote about the long process of building a new relationship in my book. You are welcome to contact me at janetcromer2@gmail.com.

  3. Carolynne Tovell says:

    Janet, my husband suffered a severe brain injury on New Years Day this year he has been in hospital ever since. I empathise with what you are saying totally and really need to talk to someone who has been through/going through the same experience. I am frightened and really do not know what to expect. I have read loads of things on the internet and understand this is part of the recovery phase but really it doesnt make it any easier. The husband I had has gone and been replaced with another person. I still love him but it is so strange and hard. Im sure you understand what I am saying. Regards Carolynne

  4. Janet Cromer says:

    Thank you, Debbie. We all reinvent our marriages as we change and life changes over the years, don’t we?

  5. Janet, A truly inspiring story–unbelievable love. A lesson for all of us, brain injury or not– “deliberate choice to get to know each other and build a different kind of marriage that worked for us.”

    Thank you!

  6. Janet Cromer says:

    Thank you Barbara. Recognizing that we can make choices is a good way to regain a sense of control when everything has changed. Alan and I shared a good sense of humor and vivid imaginations. That helped as we fell in love again- just as it does in any new romance!

  7. Janet, what a beautiful, inspiring blog post! Making deliberate choices, as you did, to relate with a spouse changed by brain injury is a wise thing to do. It takes time and effort to do it right, but well worth it.

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