'It's All In Your Head': Intimate Partner Violence And Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

I watch, fearfully, sadly, and angrily as evidence of everything she said my father did to her slowly reveals itself to me.

[Content notice: intimate partner violence, traumatic brain injury]

The physical issues go unaddressed — because, presumably, it's “all in their heads.”

I hate this article that I am about to write. With every fiber of my being, I hate it.

Yes, I am a truth teller. Yes, I tell people they can ask me anything and that my life is an open book.

But the reality of that statement is that if my life is an open book, it's an open book with pages I’ve removed for the sake of preservating myself, my own sanity, and his positive attributes that are also uniquely me.

And if I’m going to be completely real with you, I have removed the pages that you have never known to ask about (up until now) because I have a desperate need to preserve the few happy memories I have of this man. They are few and far between, but they are the last things I have.

However, the reality of who my father was is staring me in the face every day, and apparently this is the universe’s way of saying it’s time.

And so, I must address it: My father was an abusive man, plain and simple.

That wasn’t all he was, but to my mother, that's who he was. He was a controlling individual who perhaps took the scripture, “Wives, submit to your husbands” a tad bit too literally — and when my mom didn’t submit, she paid the price. Often with a blow to the head.

I am not sure if this was his attempt to “knock some sense into her” or to kill her. It terrifies me that the latter may have been the case — and that he still might get his wish after all.

On December 20, 2015, my mother was admitted to the hospital with a crushing headache, dizziness, and vomiting. Light was all but intolerable for her, and she had become incontinent. Now, her relationship with my father ended in 1979, but she also did not have a history of naturally-occurring migraines. These symptoms were completely out of the blue. That night, the hospital sent her home with a diagnosis of vertigo and some medication to ease the symptoms.

Two days later, she went back with the same symptoms and was sent home again. This time, the diagnosis was “a severe migraine,” and more medication was given. The next morning — Christmas Eve — I got the call: Your mom's back in the hospital, 10 times worse; get there as soon as possible.

That was December 24. My mom didn’t come home until February 2.

Diagnosis? “We don’t know for sure, but we think it could be psychosomatic. You just need to not stress out so much.”

Now, I’m not going to lie. I partly went along with this notion as well because I know that stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways. My body treats stress as a virus, and my joints swell up, chronic fatigue sets in, and my lower extremities are in extreme pain. So, not thinking about my mother’s history of head trauma, and not yet seeing any other symptoms, I went along with this and just tried to keep her as relaxed as possible.

Then the symptoms set in.

Forgetting names for ordinary items. The repeating of conversations held five minutes prior, with zero recollection of having had it. Random dizziness with an uneven, swaying gait. Vision issues.

When she brought these issues up to her doctor in follow-up appointments, he once again indicated that it was psychosomatic — in her head. She brought up her history of head trauma suffered at the hands of my father, and he wrote her a referral to a psychiatrist.

A PSYCHIATRIST.

It is a known fact, both socially and medically, that constant blows to the head lead to traumatic brain injuries. This was the focus of Will Smith’s recent movie Concussion, as well as the reason the NFL is currently in so much hot water.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is real, and ex-athletes are killing themselves because of it.

But what if you’re not an ex-athlete who took blows to the head through the padding of a helmet? What if you are a woman who took repeated blows to the head, without a helmet, from fists, tools, and pretty much anything else that was nearby?

What if you didn’t die, and you didn’t kill yourself — but years later, all those blows started catching with you (just as it does athletes), causing debilitating headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and memory loss? What would you call that?

The Brain Injury Association of America (BIA) says that these are symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury:

Of the 46 women, a total of 71 separate cases of physical assault were reported. Thirty-eight percent of the women reported multiple assaults. Overall, 35% of the survey participants were identified as possibly having sustained a mild traumatic brain injury and were referred to appropriate services.

They also stated that 67% of the women in their study reported symptoms associated with mild traumatic brain injury (headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and memory loss) and that “the majority of women reported experiencing more than one symptom of traumatic brain injury.”

These symptoms are real — not imagined — and they have an actual diagnosis: postconcussive syndrome. So, if this condition and its symptoms have been known and documented, why was my mother referred to a psychiatrist, instead of being encouraged to follow up with a neurologist for treatment?

BIA notes that “historically, most of the research pertaining to domestic violence has focused on psychological issues.” Additionally, as Tara Culp-Ressler of ThinkProgress writes:

Victims of intimate partner violence typically face high levels of stress, which can exacerbate any chronic health conditions they may have already had. After they separate from their abusive partner, they remain at risk for mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In layperson’s terms: Historically, survivors of domestic violence who complain of physical symptoms are often treated solely for the psychological damage they endure.

The physical issues go unaddressed — because, presumably, it's “all in their heads.”

So, here I sit, 37 years later, watching this brilliant woman who always challenged me to be better struggle to figure out what she needs to do to feed my daughter lunch. I watch her trip over things that are not there, when she once pirouetted across a stage and leaped through the air with ease and grace. And I watch, fearfully, sadly, and angrily as evidence of everything she said my father did to her slowly reveals itself to me. It is the truth I have struggled to accept; it is the truth that her doctors refuse to accept. They say it’s in her head.

It’s in her head, all right. It was put there 38 years ago — that is the ugly truth.

If you are a woman involved in an abusive relationship, please seek help and refuge immediately. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.7233, or 1.800.787.3224 TTY. If you are experiencing any symptoms like the ones listed here, and you believe they could be the result of traumatic brain injury as a result of domestic violence, please seek medical help immediately.

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