Impaired Executive Function, My Invisible Disability



I was just reading through a post and comments on Prairie Girl’s blog, Prairie Crossroads: A Scapegoat’s Recovery from a Narcissist Family. The post and comments are mostly about the realities of having a disability and living on a very small income, when you have a family that expects much more than you are able to give and do.

Prairie Girl and Oscar Dandelion, another blogger who lives with a disability, were sharing about how humiliating it feels to be unable to do things, either financially or physically, that most people can easily manage. It is especially hurtful when your family does not appreciate the inexpensive gifts you buy for them and the small physical tasks you do for them, when the amount of money you spent and the physical effort you made are big sacrifices for someone in your situation.

I wanted to leave a comment about how much I can relate to what Prairie Girl and Oscar Dandelion were saying, but my comment turned into something longer than the typical blog post. So I decided to post it here, and leave just the link on Prairie Girl’s post, The Final Purge:

I CAN REALLY RELATE to not having enough money to provide for your own basic needs, and also meet the expectations of extended family. My husband and I are both on disability for PTSD. In addition to his Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, my husband also has some physical disabilities related to his military service.

It took the two of us fighting through years of appeals and going to court, before we finally got the disability we desperately needed. Prior to having our respective disability claims approved, when we could not work, or when we could only work a little, we survived by selling our nicer furniture and most of our antiques. We also sometimes sold our blood plasma, for basic necessities like food and to pay the electric bill.

She gave all she had.
She gave all she had.


I was amazed, during those hard times, at how generous my husband is. The above graphic from Prairie Girl’s blog, about ten dollars being the greater gift when it is all you have, describes my husband exactly. I have seen him give a large part of the money he had just earned less than an hour before from selling his blood plasma, to a beggar on the street. I had to tell my husband not to do that anymore! It was an especially big sacrifice for him, because he had two heart attacks prior to this time, and in order to sell his plasma he had to stop taking his heart medication several days ahead of time! (He did not tell me he was stopping his medication until much later, or I would have talked him out of doing that, too!)

Today, thanks to our two small social security checks and my husband’s monthly veteran disability payment, we no longer need to sell our blood plasma to pay for the necessities of life. We certainly aren’t rich by any means, or even “middle class,” but we are doing OK. And we are both so very, deeply grateful for this!

Because we know how awful it is to not have enough food, to be unable to pay your bills or keep the electricity on, and we know what it’s like to suffer the hardship and humiliation of losing your home to foreclosure, we do what we can now to help others in need.

Still, although we are very grateful for our support, we would far rather be healthy and “normal,” than living on disability! Life on disability is NOT an endless party-vacation, like some people seem to believe. It is a real pain in the you-know-where, being so limited in what we can do.

Although I have never had a heart attack, I am not in a wheelchair, and I do not have any other obvious physical disability, I do have a condition that makes many physical and mental tasks extremely difficult, if not impossible. The problem I have is related to my Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. My husband, whose PTSD is also severe, suffers from this, too. It’s called: Executive Function Impairment.

I did not even know what “executive function” is, until approximately one year ago when I stumbled across an article about it. I did an online search for more information and the more I read, the more our struggles in life made sense!

In a nutshell, “Executive Function” is the mental ability to organize, prioritize, and accomplish tasks. It is figuring out what to do first, second, third, and so on, to see a task through to completion. Executive function involves things like being able to realistically determine, in advance, how long and how difficult a particular task will be to accomplish.

Executive Function is the cognitive ability we use when we clean the house, wash and put away laundry, cook a meal and clean up after, maintain the yard, maintain the car, shop for groceries, take care of personal grooming, pay the bills…. the list of things in life that can come to a screeching halt when you lack this basic ability is endless!

Thanks to modern brain imaging technologies, neuroscientists have discovered that overwhelming trauma will actually change the structure and function of the brain, in both humans and animals. According to my online research, one basic function of the brain that is often damaged by PTSD is executive function.

This explains why, almost thirty years ago when I was beaten for the last time, beaten by my former husband so severely that my nose was broken and I had a hairline fracture in my jaw, I suddenly lost my ability to keep my house clean and tidy. I was a neat freak prior to then. I also lost the ability to do basic things like shop for Christmas and birthday presents for my children and grandchildren, then get the gifts all wrapped, packaged, and in the mail before the next ice age. I even lost the ability to decorate the house for the holidays, which I had previously done on a massive scale.

I have gifts for loved ones that my husband and I purchased years ago and never mailed. And, I fear, at least some of our children and grandchildren think that we don’t care enough to send them gifts. As for getting greeting cards in the mail, we have tried this, too, with the result that we have a lot of unopened boxes of holiday greeting cards.

There are boxes sitting in the garage that have never been unpacked in the six and a half years since we moved here. Before that, the house we bought and lived in for several years had boxes in the garage that were never unpacked from the prior move. Before I lost my executive function skills, I was known for having everything unpacked and put away, blinds hung, curtains washed, ironed, and hung, and all the knickknacks and pictures in place, within one to two weeks of moving to a new location!

Last weekend, my sweet stepdaughter helped my husband and me to finally clear the horrible mess that was stacked all over every square foot of our bedroom, so that the bed we purchased two years ago could be unboxed and put together.

It is very humbling to admit this, but for the past two years I have been sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor, and my husband has been sleeping in his recliner, because we did not have the floor space to set up our new bed!

My husband’s daughter has been living here for a little over a year now, staying in a small RV trailer in our back yard while she works and saves to get a house of her own. She has offered many times to pay us back by helping around the house, but we kept saying no…. and we kept the door to our horrible messy room firmly closed all this time.

Why? Because we were embarrassed! Me, the neat freak with the genius IQ… how could I explain my inability to do something as simple as get our bedroom put together in two years?? (Although we have lived in this house for over six years, we moved a lot of things around two years ago, because — hmm — it’s another long story, so I will leave it at this: just because! Then, after we had moved all that stuff around two years ago, my husband and I were stuck with a huge mess that we could not sort out to save our lives!)

Neither of us is depressed anymore, thanks to the therapeutic help we have received. Neither of us is lazy. The problem certainly isn’t that we do not care. On the contrary, we care so much, it was driving us batty! The problem for both of us, apparently, is simply this: Impaired Executive Function.

So, now our room is clear and clean at last, and our new king size bed is put together. But still, the storage shed, and the garage with no doors, and the tiny study/2nd bedroom, are all crammed with STUFF that my sweet stepdaughter is going to help us sort out and either throw away, give away, or sell, on her next weekend off.

Part of the problem is that when we moved to this little fixer upper house back in early 2010, we were moving from a much larger house that we had lost to foreclosure. We lost that house because my husband did not have his VA disability income yet, and we simply could not sell enough plasma to pay the mortgage on that larger house. But the bigger problem, of course, isn’t downsizing, not after having lived here for well over six years! The problem is our invisible disability.

The bottom line to my long-winded story is this: if you have PTSD, and if you struggle with doing basic tasks that most people seem to find easy, you are NOT stupid and you are NOT a lazy bum. The problem probably has to do with impaired executive function, and it is Not Your Fault!

Also, there is No Shame in asking a compassionate, non-judgmental, willing and able-bodied person to help. If you can find such a rare creature, that is! 🙂

Comments are closed while I try to get the rest of our stuff in order and work on my memoir. Thank you for stopping by and God bless!