Your Invisible Illness Is Valid
Sam Escobar

Reading The Numbers

“Can you please read me the numbers from last semester’s training budget?”

Read the numbers. It was a simple request. My eyes were already resting on the familiar symbols. All I had to do was spit them out.

Come on. Read the damn numbers.

My heart began to race. I could feel my body temperature rise as the steel gray office walls seemed to move closer to the chair where I was affixed. Frozen, I frantically blinked a few times, praying that would help.

When it registered that I had no other choice but to list off the line items and their corresponding costs, I took a deep breath and convinced myself that my mouth could verbalize the numbers that I was so desperately attempting to process. After about fifteen minutes of sheer torture, I excused myself from this new type of hell, utterly relieved that I had booked a late afternoon meeting with a student.

It had been four months since my accident; four months since it felt as if I’d left my previously high-functioning brain on the driver’s seat upholstery, mixed with the newly oxygenated red blood that had dripped from my mouth and nose. The months continued to pass and I would be left to battle with the effects of a traumatic brain injury caused by a late night collision on the I-405 in Encino, California.

And nearly four years later, here I am — still waging war.

Millions of people live with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). A TBI can be the result of incidents such as a serious fall, physical abuse, a combat injury, or a car accident. The symptoms can be relatively mild and can present themselves occasionally, all the way to extremely severe, causing a serious disruption to past means of functioning. Many of the people who’s symptoms appear to be far less tragic allow their diagnoses to live solely in the confines of a confidential medical file, never disclosing the ailment to anyone outside of a doctor’s office.

Everyone has met these individuals. It may be noticeable that it takes them a few seconds longer to process something that has been said, or it may stand out that they choose to transcribe every minute detail of an assignment at hand. They may have a difficult time recalling past events or even remembering something they said only a few seconds before.

It’s also highly possible that those around them don’t recognize a single struggle.

What’s important to note is that even if no one picks up on these delays, memory lapses, or self-imposed accommodations, it does not mean that these individuals are symptom-free. Many people suffering from TBI’s spend hours and hours with professionals in the field, trying to come up with ways to cope with, and to disguise, their injury. Their determination proves not only their strength, but also that they refuse to be defined by a trauma that has the potential to be debilitating.

Not a day goes by where I don’t think about my accident. Initially, I assumed my most glaring reminder would be from the discolored scar awkwardly present on the tip of my nose. Yet oftentimes, it is how my brain functions (or fails to function) even before I look in the mirror that takes me back to that frightening evening. It’s the imperceptible scars that influence my daily life in far greater ways than any cosmetic flaw ever could.

While initially my most painful injury, the broken nose caused by my accident quickly became the least of my worries.

Living with an invisible illness that can sometimes be crippling is a heavy weight to carry. I have good days, bad days, and some dreadful days. Yet while I may be left to struggle through processes that I used to complete without a second thought, it is far better than the alternative — being included in a highway fatality statistic. It also allows me to celebrate small victories that I had never considered before, such as remembering a location change for an important meeting, recalling the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, or reminiscing with dear friends over a hysterical memory from high school.

Or simply by reading the numbers.