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My Five Steps to Help You Write with a Brain Injury

Writing with a brain injury is still possible if you hack your techniques to work for you.

I received my brain injury over two decades ago. Lariam, a drug designed to keep me from getting sick with malaria while in Somalia caused it. Unfortunately, the drug didn’t stop the malaria, and it caused permanent brain damage.

What’s worse is that the warnings regarding the side effects didn’t receive the Food and Drug Administration Black Box Warning Label until 2013. Because of these delays, I did not discover that the cause of my injury was the drug until November 2017. In that 20+ year time frame, I developed a host of difficulties and had some poor coping skills.

“…a writer’s purgatory where I did nothing
just for the pleasure of doing the thing.”

I found myself in a state of anhedonia. I was doing everything but the things I enjoyed. That includes writing. I wrote things, but never anything for myself. I only wrote things like technical manuals and disaster recovery plans. Dry, boring stuff, a writer’s purgatory where I did nothing just for the pleasure of doing the thing.

Discovering this information changed my life. Because now I had an explanation for the “why” behind several symptoms I struggled with for years. Now I have a better handle on what my symptoms are and why I have them. So I have been able to improve my productivity by working with my limitations, rather than fighting against them.


Some symptoms that affect my ability to write include:

  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Migraine headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Speech aphasia

To overcome some of these obstacles, I have built a toolbox of techniques and tricks that when used together increase my productivity and allow me to create without triggering the worst of my symptoms.

The Five Steps

  1. Distraction Free Writing
  2. Mindfulness Meditation
  3. Being Gentle and Forgiving
  4. Setting Small Goals
  5. Honoring Others

Distraction Free Writing

Multitasking is difficult for me. Because of this, I have to be especially cognizant of my environment when I write. I use a laptop for most of my writing, so I can easily switch off distractions. I turn my laptop to airplane mode, then open an offline Google doc, and start a timer for twenty minutes.

This combination is a one-two punch of productivity for me. I knock out distractions and set up a simple, quantifiable goal.

Why Airplane mode? Notifications! The Internet is unavailable, and so are all those notifications. Notifications are a huge time sink. They WILL sap your productivity and get you thinking about those other things you are missing out on. Most likely anything coming in can wait, and you can answer after your allotted time.

With only 20 minutes allocated, I then feel much less overwhelmed by the task, and I know a break is coming quickly. This tricks my brain to stay focused on the task. Also, there is a reward circuit in our brains that triggers when we complete something. So setting up this twenty-minute reward cycle makes it easier for you to try again next time.

Mindfulness Meditation

Using a daily mindfulness practice helps set you up for success. Personally, I use a combination of meditation, walking, and breathing techniques. I am not perfect at this, but I try to do at least one of these each day.

An easy technique you can try right now is 4-7-8 breathing. Take a quick, deep breath in for four seconds, then hold it for seven. Last, release your breath slowly for 8 seconds. How does that feel? Let me know in the comments.

Gentle Forgiveness

We can all be judgemental of ourselves and our work. Because we do this, it leads to real problems for writers. I believe a real source of writer’s block is this harsh self judgement. I know I am guilty of imagining just how awful my writing is.

A useful skill here is to practice self forgiveness. Did I have serious errors in my copy in that twenty minutes of writing? You bet I did. Is it something I caught in editing the next twenty minutes? No worries then. Looking at those perceived quality problems and forgiving myself for them helps me to understand where my hangups are and build my resilience against that negative self talk.

Setting Small Goals

Twenty-minute writing blocks are one good example of small goals, but there are others that will make a real difference in productivity.

Writing anything can be scary and overwhelming. Moreso if the project is larger. The smaller the piece of the puzzle, the easier it is for me to complete it. I broke down this article into five separate tips and wrote each one in a separate time block. In different blocks, I wrote the introduction and the conclusion. This made a rather long article approachable and you are reading it now, so it must have worked!

Honoring Others

The final tip I offer will build up your writing muscles indirectly. However, I believe this is well worth the time it takes, and it will make you a better writer. Practicing gratitude is often said to improve your physical and mental health and a way to build better relationships.

Read other’s work and express your gratitude for what you learn from the reading. This will serve you in several ways. Your own writing will improve from reading, and you will build up goodwill in the community that you are interacting in. This is a real win-win situation for you and other writers.

I hope that these five steps are fruitful for your writing practice. I believe they will work for all writers. If you are suffering with a brain injury, I am sure you have a story to tell, and I want to hear it. Try these steps out and let me know if they help your writing.

Originally Posted at Narrative.

Published inBrain Injury

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