What is the role of the partner in helping someone with TBI reconnect on an intimate and sexual level?
[Glenn Parkinson] For each individual person their trauma is going to be different,
their triggers are going to be different.
For some people they have a lot of sensory triggers—scents, smells,
the way that they're touched, visual things like what's in their visual field.
For other people it's much more internal in terms of the thoughts
that they have about things or where they go.
So it's going to be very unique to each individual couple
about how they address those things.
I think it's really important—we talk about this in terms of reunion and homecoming
in general aside from injury—but it's really important to go very slowly,
to reestablish the intimacy and the connection first
so that there's a sense of trust, there's a sense of comfort with that vulnerability
that naturally comes with being physically intimate with someone.
So to focus on those things first and sort of baby steps, building blocks.
Couples therapy is also very helpful for people sometimes.
Often times people can kind of work on the more mundane things,
but when it comes to their red-button issues—sex, money, and politics—
those sorts of things—it's much harder.
That's always an option for people is to work with a professional to help them
have those sort of more challenging conversations.
The initial guidance I would give anyone is just go slowly, be forgiving of yourself
and your partner, and also another thing that's really important for caregivers
a lot of times I hear about is a sense of guilt—feeling guilty for feeling sexual
and for wanting to have sex or for wanting to feel pleasure
when their loved one is in pain or is just not in the same place.
Wherever they are, they're not in that place with them.
That can sometimes be sort of a seed of a schism between them.
To acknowledge that need and normalize that again for the spouse, the girlfriend,
the caregiver, is really important.
Because another thing that happens
probably with women a lot more often than men
is that if they have a sense of a sexual desire or need, and it's unfulfilled either
because their partner is ill or whatever, they can sort of turn that sexual part
of themselves off and ignore it or not acknowledge it.
It's important for people to not feel compelled to do that and to be able to celebrate
because that's a part of living. That's a part of life.
That's what any good rehab would be is to get both members of that couple
back to that place to be able to sort of enjoy that and explore that together.
What we not want to happen is to have one partner sort of have that wither in them
even while they're waiting for the other partner
to be able to meet them where they are.
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Produced by Victoria Tilney McDonough and Erica Queen, BrainLine.
Glenn W. Parkinson, MSW, MA, Glenn Parkinson, MSW, MA works as the psychotherapist on the Traumatic Brain Injury service at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She works with active duty and retired military personnel and their families specializing in combat-related injuries.
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