Life After a Brain Injury: My Dirty Secret

I updated my post on July 3, exactly 25 years after the event.

What does a Burger King Parking lot, an empty beer bottle, and a hunting rifle have to do with my story of surviving from a head injury? Everything, I had spent over 15 years seeking the truth and piecing together this puzzle. I found all of the pieces a few years back, but continued waging a war within myself.

For many years after my traumatic brain injury, I struggled with not knowing the full story from that fateful night. The past could not be changed. It's as if I was living in the shadows of my former self. My understanding of the event and story unravelled over time. Eventually, nothing could salvage this lie.

Life catches up to you in unexpected ways. Sometimes we fail to see the side reflected, even if it's staring right at us. Not knowing your past can weigh heavily on one's soul.

Changing your outlook on life eases the troubled mind. But it can be difficult. I try to find the good in all people. Happiness is life's greatest gift to give yourself. Be as strong as a rock and reach out to others for help. Fill your soul up instead with enlightenment and you will find redemption.

It was a hot summer night

The sky was clear and it was a beautiful sunny day many years ago on the 3rd of July. I was home from college on summer break. My high school buddies Randy and Brian called. We went out for a night of dancing and chasing girls at a club in Renton, Washington. Randy drove his '66 Ford Mustang. It was the 'ultimate babe magnet' every guy wanted.

Acting as irresponsible teens, we left home, drank a few beers, and headed out to the dance club. Along the way, we stopped at the Renton Burger King. It was a wrong turn in my life that I live with forever.

Pulling in we saw a belligerent guy standing at the restaurant's entrance. This was one of my last memories of that evening. Randy parked his car. My back was to the world, closing the car door. Then a moment of silence hit and was replaced with darkness. Everything was gone. The darkness filled with a loud ringing sound. "What in the hell -- where am I… why is this happening?"

I had been struck on the back of the head and then either kicked in the head or curb-stompted. Today, I face doors while seated, and feel uncomfortable with my back toward people. The ringing I first heard in that void, stayed with me. I don't know how long I was unconscious.

Life came crashing down and changed in an instant

Finding myself in an unfamiliar place, I'm looking down upon my body. It's as if I'm floating thirty feet from above, there's blood everywhere, from head to toe. My inside voice spoke "this is not a dream, if I stay asleep on the ground I will die. Wake up and take a deep breath"… my eyes opened up.

Not able to move or stand, somehow I reached for my head. The ringing was still present as I cupped my left-ear. Then I felt something leaking. Looking at my hand, it was not blood. Telling myself "I don't want to die," I reached for my ear to plug the leak.

To this day, from time-to-time and without warning, I have this dream. It's as real as the day it happened.

Time froze before an ambulance arrived. At the hospital, my family was told that my chance of survival was about 40%. I had bruising on the brain, and a skull fracture that went through and punctured my left eardrum. The fracture caused a cerebral hemorrhage with significant blood and spinal fluid loss -- a subdural hematoma formed.

I am lucky to be alive. I spent 17 to 18 days in the hospital, a good chunk of it in and out of a coma, and in the ICU. As the doctors worked on me in the emergency room, I felt as if I was looking down at my still body from above.

Edema then set in. Over the next two weeks, I had a number of spinal taps to drain the fluid, stop the swelling and relieve the intracranial pressure. Another individual was admitted with the same injury, he died, but for me a second chance at life awaited.

After leaving the hospital, I spent many hours and days over the next few years seeing neurologists, physicians, and chiropractors. I underwent treatments, had numerous MRIs, brain scans, and spinal adjustments to heal. Vestibular problems and migraines continued to follow me, I was on pain and seizure meds.

I was told not to expect a normal life and to limit my physical activities. But I'm headstrong, determined, obstinate, and turned a deaf ear to my physicians. Now I take part in all sorts of physical activities; from biking, hiking, snow shoeing, and skiing, to weight lifting.

The only lasting physical effects that still linger are a few bad headaches, sometimes a numbness on the back of my head, and a partial hearing-loss in my left ear. Tinnitus set in on that night, now ringing constantly.

On that night my world changed. A lot of my childhood memories were forever erased , it's as if the mirror was broken and only a few of the pieces could be picked up. There is the me that was, and the me that now exists after the assault.

How do I move forward while living with this broken past? Well, my distant memories maybe incomplete, but I still have my name! New memories can be made, I must move forward.

In late September after my TBI, I returned to college, and for a period of about three years experienced petit mal seizures. A few larger seizures occurred. My balance was off, leading to many headaches with vomiting.

Seared into my memory, is the image of me experiencing a seizure while out with friends at a college party. I'm falling to the ground and tweaking, people are standing around, laughing as if it was a joke. Looking back, they probably thought I was just another drunk college kid.

But that hit me hard. It was my "dirty secret" from that point on and for many years. I was scared and embarrassed shitless about the stigma attached to survivors of head injury. For me it was real, how could I blend into this world now?

While back at college, I was reminded that we can all be here one day and gone the next. My friend Rick, died in an auto rollover accident. He was returning to campus late one night. His car left the road, landing in a ravine on a mountain pass.

Every action leads to a consequence

Ten years flew past since the accident. I had not spoken to my buddy Randy, our driver on that night. Over time, I believed that many friends thought of me as different. I still made friends, but concealed my "dirty secret," only sharing it with my closest confidants.

Its common for survivors of TBI to withdraw from society and have difficulty developing relationships. Sometimes it seems overwhelming, stressful and as if I'm trapped. Until it affects you it's just invisible, but for the survivor, the injury is far from over — it goes unseen, it is pervasive and is undeniable.

A few years had past by when a call came from a friend. Randy had committed suicide with his rifle. That hit me hard. I blamed myself for not reaching out to him. I thought for years that he, like others, just didn't see me as the same person. This cycle of thinking went on and on, year after year.

After his funeral, I learned that on that horrible night of my injury, an empty beer bottle, may have been placed under a tire of the belligerent jerk's truck. I do not know who placed it there and do not care anymore. Now I don't know if I was leaving or returning to the car. It is not worth dwelling on for an eternity. Life is too precious and will speed right by if you let it.

There are a lot of things in life that we take for granted. My perspective of time, like many other survivors, now includes life afterward, and I often view it as an abstract element. As time passes by, I search for acceptance, equality, a feeling of normalcy, and mutual respect.

Being paranoid, untrusting, and over evaluating everything that happens doesn't help. Most of my problems stem from the psycho-social side of living with fear and guilt after the event, while dwelling on what happened.

It's hard hiding the real me, the guy with a head injury . I let people know little about this darker-side. It takes a great deal of effort for me to develop friendships at work because of this paranoia. My goal is to not work harder to force relationships, to just be me, and leave stress and negative thoughts behind.

I try hard being a team player by looking for opportunities to expand my career, continue to do my best, and be helpful to my coworkers. I wish to be a better person, and look forward to new challenges and creative endeavors as a part of my work group.

Like most TBI survivors, I do not want sympathy or pity. We all want equal treatment and to open the doors, that we perceive as closing us out.

A very different person at home and with friends

At home and with friends, it's as if I'm normal and have nothing to hide. I have a great loving family, wife, and two teenage daughters. That's another story in itself, as anyone who has raised teens would know. I'm extremely blessed that I came out of the experience without serious life-changing injuries.

I've come to terms with myself and my past. I don't want to hide behind my "dirty secret" anymore. It's a deadweight that drags you down. Toss yours away and you can be free to be the person you are truly meant to become. Refuse to believe that your life will be incomplete. After all, how many people can stare death in the face while being granted a second chance at a life worth living!

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Comment by Lea Bailey on October 7, 2011 at 2:21pm
Wow, I never quite expected to hear someone with a similar story as mine. Though, my injury was at a McDonalds, and I was hit in the face with a tray, not from behind with a bottle at Burger King. Keep up the positive attitude, its what will keep you going. :)
Comment by julia on October 7, 2011 at 10:49am
its my dirty lil secret too- ur writing is really good--- i write too- another tbi depressing fun fact - apparently uncontrollable writing is also another tbi effect
Comment by Aban on June 6, 2011 at 5:01pm
people and doctors don't understand that we are different not worse or better but different and it can be good if that's the road we take
Comment by Claudio on May 19, 2011 at 11:08pm

that last sentence takes the prize, thanks. 

Comment by sassy on May 4, 2011 at 10:07am
Ifind myself leading 2 lives as well.Tha nks
Comment by David McGuire on February 28, 2011 at 3:06pm
Thanks for this.
Comment by Andy on February 7, 2011 at 5:09am
with out a doubt we are different, sitll working on the worth it thing, but like you it happened in a flash like it or not this is who i am now so things go on
Comment by Warren Delorinzo on January 25, 2011 at 10:31am
it is not an easy road, I am pretty up front to a fault about my injury creating oppurtunities for people to judge me with out knowing me, it is hard for people to see my disabilities so the assume there not there, but man are they we have to be at peace with our past we can not change is all we can change is the here and now and our future good luck thanks for posting this
Comment by Stephen Korczak on November 26, 2010 at 4:54pm
My TBI Friend Jim Knutsen,

It is a blessing we have this site, for it gives us all togetherness
Comment by Debi on November 1, 2010 at 10:40pm
I read your story and I feel compassion for you and for all of us for the misunderstood notion that we are different, that we are freaks if anyone knows we have TBI and most likely not of our own doing. I too was diagnosed with mild TBI in 9-03. I don't want to feel different however it is my family, my husband who reminds me of my TBI and picks at me in what I believe to be unfair and cruel on his part. I realize I will never be the same however their are some good traits that come out of TBI and they do change you and it is up to us to figure out how to best deal with it. I tried the "to be normal as I can" bit however it is exhausting to continue to do that when it isn't the real you anyhow. I love my life now and I try to put things and situations into perspective. I have accomplished my career after TBI and continue to grow and learn. I have the utmost respect for individuals who have TBI....we can't afford to be quiet anymore, we need to be heard for what we are and what we can offer society ourselves. Thank you for your are a blessing to many people in your life, that is why you are a survivor. Many great blessings to you and your family...Debi

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