Coming out as vegan might have been harder than coming out as gay, but coming out as brain injured is even harder. I was reminded of this today whilst filling out a ‘limited capability for work’ form for the dwp: one of the categories on the form concerned itself with asking about my social life, or more specifically how I survived ‘coping with social situations’.
Now, it may come as a shock to some people who know me, but the truth is I have a significant lack of self-confidence when it comes to going out and meeting new people these days, and this is largely because I’ve learnt from the mistakes I’ve made and the dicey situations I’ve gotten myself into in the past when I’ve been out.
Deciding whether or not to disclose my brain injury to new friends and acquaintances is and always has been a major cause of anxiety for me: usually, if I disclose my brain injury, people either feel sorry for me or they avoid me because they don’t want the burden of being around someone who has a disability. But if I don’t tell people, then interacting with them becomes awkward because I constantly have to make excuses as to why I don’t have a job or children or any of the other normal things that most people my age have in their lives – the only saving grace is that people often (wrongly) assume that being a lesbian is the reason I don’t have a family.
In the past, I have played down reoccuring problems such as getting lost (sometimes for hours) inside pubs or night clubs; and I’ve often made jokes out of my inability to being able to find the toilet or the bar on my own. And sometimes it is funny. But sometimes it’s just not.
It’s even worse when people I am socialising with decide that they want to change venue while we are out. When this happens, I am faced with an entirely new dilema: I can either make my excuses and go home early (like a right killjoy), or I can follow them to a place where I am in potential danger because of my topographical memory impairment*. In the past, I have gone along with others’ suggestions on the basis that someone else has said they will help me to get back home, and as a result I have ended up seriously lost and bewildered (because although a lot of people mean well, they just can’t grasp that I really don’t remember how to walk to my bus stop or that taxi rank we passed that is just two minutes walk away; and they’ll often trot off and get drunk and then forget all about me). Because of this I don’t go out at night on my own or to places that I haven’t been to before.
Sometimes when people later find out from someone else that I’ve had a brain injury, they often become annoyed, hurt and offended because I have hidden things from them and lied by omission. I’ve been called ‘irresponsible’ for not making them aware of my memory deficits, and perhaps they’ve got a point. But why should I have to come out?
No matter what I do, I often feel socially isolated.
* Topographic memory involves the ability to orient oneself in space, to recognize and follow an itinerary, or to recognize familiar places.