The exact cause of Helen Bray’s brain injury remains unclear 19 years after the event that changed her life forever. In 2002 at the age of 21, she was found in her garden shed after an evening out with friends, with marks on her body and neck, a fractured skull and damage to the left and right frontal lobes of her brain.
Police and doctors believe that she was attacked outside her home, but with Helen’s memory of the events wiped out by brain injury, the questions of that night will never be answered.
In the years that followed, Helen, now 41 and living in Wiltshire, endured a long period of misdiagnosis, mental health-type problems and family turmoil before finally finding the right support.
She said: “At the time of my injury I was living in Cornwall with my four-year-old son Macaulay, who was about to start school.
Following the brain injury I stayed in hospital for about two weeks, then I was allowed home on condition that I went to live with my parents.
Helen was under the care of a neurologist for 12 months before discharge, and now knows that a letter was written to her GP explaining the brain injury and that she would continue to experience cognitive difficulties.
However, with the family not receiving a copy, very little explanation of what to expect and her GP seemingly not finding the letter, Helen had no way of knowing that the difficulties she would go on to experience were related.
“I kept going to see my GP about my symptoms - short-term memory problems, mild dysphasia (a problem generating speech), anxiety, lack of motivation, difficulties with multi-tasking and overwhelming fatigue. I asked if it could be related to the brain injury, but it was diagnosed as depression.
“I was given medication, which did not solve the problem. I hadn’t heard of Headway and had no support.
“Over the next few years I got married and had my second child Emmie, who is now 12. We moved to Hampshire to live in an army garrison. I thought I would cope well with this lifestyle because a large majority of my family are involved with the army, but the marriage fell apart after my husband returned from a tour of Afghanistan.
“He was trying to cope with the aftermath of Afghanistan while I struggled with my mis-diagnosis, and with very little support from neither the army nor NHS, our marriage broke down.
"I didn’t understand why I could not deal with everything, I felt like a failure. Each time I went to the GP I was given the same advice and I tried to take my own life multiple times.
My mum, Shirley, came to live with me to help after my dad passed away but home life was difficult and we were arguing a lot.
Helen had another breakdown in 2019 and was taken to A&E, where she saw a nurse who raised the possibility that her symptoms could be related to the brain injury. She also discussed the effects of alcohol and PTSD after brain injury, which had never been mentioned before. It was at this point that Helen was given the number for the Headway helpline and decided to make the call.
“Ringing the freephone helpline changed my life. I received lots of information on brain injury, and while I was reading through it with my mum I just kept saying ‘that’s me’ – things finally made sense.
“I took the information to my GP and was referred to the neurology team in Bristol. I also contacted Headway Salisbury and South Wiltshire, where mum and I had some fantastic sessions with a support worker who worked to build up my confidence to attend the meetings. But then Covid happened!
“My cognitive symptoms are made far worse by stress and fatigue, but with the correct support in place and using new coping skills, I have learned to control this.
“I try to take little steps now and not push myself too hard. Last summer we went bowling and had a lovely night out with just one game, a meal and then home, whereas before we would have planned too much and worsened my fatigue for a few days afterwards.
It has made such a difference to me, my mum and my two children, who have been able to adapt and support me since they got more information about my injury.
As the Covid restrictions changed over the last few months, Helen found that wearing a mask caused intense feelings of anxiety, shortness of breath, and made her coordination difficulties worse.
Despite qualifying for an exemption, the judgments of other people were difficult to deal with.
“I bought myself a Sunflower Lanyard to wear around my neck but found that I still got looks from others, so I applied for Headway’s Brain Injury Identity Card and now attach it to the end of the lanyard.
“Having the card on display has really helped. People no longer judge me and many are interested in what caused my brain injury - it’s amazing what questions people ask you!”
It is now 19 years since Helen sustained her brain injury and armed with a new-found understanding of her condition, she finally feels able to speak out to raise awareness.
With her Forces background she knows that many injured military personnel may be going through a similar experience and hopes her story will help them to find the right support.
But for Helen and her family, life has improved immeasurably, and she is even about to start a new part-time job.
“If I’d had the right support in the early days, I don’t think I’d have experienced anything like the mental health problems that I have,” said Helen.
“I feel that many GPs sadly have a lack of time nowadays, and often little knowledge of the long-term effects of brain injury. I believe this contributed to my misdiagnosis and would like to see things change.
I am very lucky to still be here, but now I accept the ‘new me’ and I’m working to rebuild my life.
If you are struggling with the effects of brain injury, including psychological effects, contact the Headway helpline on 0808 800 2244 or firstname.lastname@example.org for information, emotional support or a listening ear.
You can also contact Samaritans on 116 123 if you need support with your mental health or coping with emotions.
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