In the Presence of Catastrophe

The moral of the story – before the story has even been told

We must be present for each other

The trauma of brain injury can trigger what Kurt Goldstein[i] called a “catastrophic reaction.” Yehuda Ben-Yishay explains: It “is not a conscious phenomenon. Rather, it is the expression of the protective mechanisms of the organism… the behavioral manifestation of a threat to the person’s very ‘existence,’ due to the failure to cope.… By avoiding…new experiences and sticking to the familiar or the routine, [individuals with brain injury] minimize the chances for experiencing catastrophic responses”[ii]

As a survivor, you know only too well that brain injury can be catastrophic. You are vulnerable and easily overwhelmed by the world outside your safe comfort zone. When you do venture out, you find that your old “friends” have deserted you. You’re in pain, confused, and so, so tired. “Why did it happen to me?” “No one understands.” “The doctors don’t care.” Like most of us with brain injuries, you avoid that world and retreat into yourself as if into a cocoon, in order to heal in safety. And although you may prefer isolation to catastrophe, they both leave you so, so lonely.

You need someone to be there for you

It takes time to make the shift from looking inward to reaching outward. When we turn away from the compelling story of ourselves – our loss or anger, our theories or solutions – we can find the unexpected: a sense of possibility, compassion, and community.

Some people do it naturally. You sense it when you’re with them – fully present, calm, empathic. Well, I’m not that someone, yet. I interrupt, blurt things out (not considering the consequences), or assume I understand exactly what you’re saying (before you’ve said it). I am able to recognize my behavior when I’m acting this way, but not before the thoughts jump from my head, to the tip of my tongue, and out my mouth. Maybe I lost my “self-control gene” when I was injured, or maybe I never had one. It really doesn’t matter which.

We all need compassion

I’ve always been a loner, finding it easier to engage with ideas than people. Maybe because of my TBI (or my chutzpah) I always try to change the world – stand up and be counted, right the wrongs, and combat ignorance. In reality, my days are often spent at home in front of the computer, virtually connected to the world but also apart from it. In a way, it brings me back to my “catastrophic” cocoon.

As an outsider looking in, I see that one of my big challenges is empathy – putting myself in your shoes, seeing things through your eyes. I have to listen quietly – still my mind, carefully look at you looking at me, and pause, in order to be fully engaged with your mind. Every day I try to face these challenges, put what I know into action, and remember to be open, so I can find my own unexpected – living compassionately rather than tilting at windmills.

It’s hard to be present for others

I so admire those who walk in silence, refrain from answers, absorb the world and how others see it. It is a gift. I must remember, in the moment, that every time I interject “me” into a conversation, I risk losing “you.” Empathy is a powerful and empowering force.

Strong relationships are built on trust and balance. I get it. Sometimes you do want to know why or who, other times you need to know how. But most of the time you just want to be heard. Not every problem has an answer, questions are often rhetorical, and advice can be a pain in the neck.

When we care enough to see someone else’s pain, or hear their need for silent compassion, we step out of our cocoon. When we listen, quietly, we can help them, and ourselves, heal.

We must be present for each other

And if we are not, will our lives be spent hiding from catastrophe? I really hope not.


[i] “Kurt Goldstein (1878-1965) is one of the most important, most contradictory, and now most forgotten figures in the history of neurology and psychiatry.” Sacks, O. (1995). Foreword. Goldstein, K. (1995) The Organism (pp.7-14). New York, Zone Books.

[ii] Ben-Yishay, Y. (2000). Postacute neuropsychological rehabilitation. Christensen and Uzzell (Eds.), The International Handbook of Neuropsychological Rehabilitation (pp.127-135). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Photo: The Dancing Satyr, © 2003 Laurie Rippon, all rights reserved

8 thoughts on “In the Presence of Catastrophe

  1. spcole11 September 11, 2016 / 8:17 pm

    Hi Laurie-

    I knew this article was going to touch in to something more personal, with discussion of “protective mechanisms of the organism.” Have felt like ‘my organism’ has been in a reflexive crouch in many ways since my 1990 profound brain insult/coma.
    And the re-learning how to be present for OTHERS such a central piece to becoming whole again.

    Loving your “TBI to Life.”


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kim September 11, 2016 / 7:51 pm

    This is so deep and insightful laurie. Such a wonderful eloquent and powerfully honest piece. You’re an amazing writer. Not just saying this cos you’re my sister. 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lori vincent September 11, 2016 / 1:24 pm

    I totally agree empathy is a necessary part of life and without it there is no compassion. If you don’t have understanding of another person’s pain it may be because one hasn’t experienced the pain themselves .When a person can be empathetic to another person, understanding and compassion come easily. I’m grateful for my past unedurable experiences they taught me to empathize with others pain I am grateful for life experience no matter how apathetic others have been it just made me stronger and aquire more empathy for others .And your article is Awesome, Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rendy Kowal September 10, 2016 / 11:28 pm

    I experienced a catastrophic reaction not too long ago. The shock from it showed later, when I found myself staring blankly at a wall. I think the shock to my system was that I once had information that allowed me to quickly adjust and respond, but after the tbi, that info was gone.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jasper Hoogendam September 10, 2016 / 10:22 pm

    Empathy is so difficult and yet when you step back, empathy is so simple… listen and be present. It’s hard to stop long enough to listen, then when we’ve heard a bit, in our haste we want to offer a solution. Over the past year and a half I must say, it’s not solutions I’m looking for. It’s understanding, it’s a sense of belonging. Thanks for sharing this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • laurienyc September 10, 2016 / 11:44 pm

      I think you hit the nail on the head, Jasper. Empathy is simple, but “still waters run deep.” Simplicity is complex, and so difficult to achieve.


  6. Liz Dixon September 10, 2016 / 1:22 pm

    As always thanks for the enlightenment of TBI you seem to always convey what I’m feeling your thoughts &words are very concise

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Silvina September 10, 2016 / 10:54 am


    What an excellent, accurate article expressed in a concise manner! The catastrophy, the aftermath of the catastrophy, and the complexity of the various levels of the catastrophy -from beginning to a questionable end – is something I can completely relate to.

    Liked by 1 person

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