So, What Are You Now?
“So, what are you now?” People often asked me this question. When people ask, they’re referring to my grade level (because subtracting the semester that I missed during college is too difficult for them). They ask me this question because of my injury, my experience, and my disability. I am a brain injury survivor, but perhaps survivor is not the correct term. While my brain is healed, it still may not be operating at its maximum capacity. I ask myself: “Did I survive the injury or am I still going through it?” Brains are a mystery.
Before I was scheduled to begin my first semester of college, I had to medically defer my acceptance. I deferred because I was relearning how to read and write and how to type on a computer. I struggled to remember conversations and simple directions. Individuals anger me when they ask: “So, what are you now?” Asking this question turns my injury into a joke. It minimizes my injury as if it were just a small hiccup in which I took a short break from school. The question undermines my experience, as though I was just sitting on a couch and relaxing during what should have been my first semester. But the reality is, I was attending a rehabilitation clinic for occupational, physical, and speech therapy.
At the clinic, I was mentally trapped when I dealt with the inability to do tasks that I knew I should easily do. Tasks like remembering a conversation from two minutes ago, walking steadily, and holding up lightweight objects. I felt trapped inside myself because my head was filled with worries and negative thoughts. And I was unable to verbally express myself.
Most of my friends left home for college, and there were only a few I could spend time with. I was easily exhausted, so my time with friends was limited. Additionally, I did not want my friends to know just how messed up I was. I put on an act, pretending to follow conversations when in reality I didn’t understand what people were saying. I remember a time from when I was still in the hospital. Two of my friends and my high school boyfriend visited me for my 18th birthday. We decided to play a game of UNO. During my turn, I asked what I was supposed to do with my cards and then, frustrated, I laid them all out and asked the group to make moves for me. I think that’s when they truly understood just how bad a condition I was in.
I realized that becoming upset about my disabilities would only make things worse, so I developed positive self-talk. My mind was split into two. One section was struggling with everything and mustered childlike, simple thoughts. While the other section, the section I like to think is the real me, coached my damaged self and said things like: “It’s okay that you can’t do this right now. You’ll get there. You will get better. Just keep trying.” I refused to accept defeat or to wallow. I relearned my computer abilities, read books, took daily walks, practiced yoga, and, when I was steady enough, cooked healthy meals for myself. I learned to love, respect, and value myself in ways that I never had before my injury. I knew that, to survive this, I could not get upset with myself for making mistakes or being confused. I needed to be patient with myself.
As each day rolled by, more of my abilities returned. I became stronger and my mind became less foggy.
My occupational therapists wanted to make sure I exercised my brain before returning to college, so they persuaded me to look for volunteer work. I found volunteer work at a medical library located in the same hospital I had been a patient of. Later on, I worked at Target as well. I loved being surrounded by books at the library and taking on tasks at Target was great mental exercise.
The semester that I missed ended and my friends returned home from college. I was eager to hear about their college adventures. I told my best friend how concerned I was to tell my peers that spring would be my first semester because of my brain injury. She assured me that I did not need to tell anyone about my brain injury if I did not want to and that I was not an oddball for starting college in the spring.
During college, I navigated the typical challenges that most students face. But I also navigated challenges that were out of the norm. I spent more time rereading materials and working extra hard on homework. Meanwhile, I was figuring myself out: picking my major, thinking about my post-college plans, and figuring out the type of person I wanted to become. College led me to meet amazing, interesting, and inspiring people and to make lifelong friends. But college has also left me feeling a great deal of emotional pain. I felt frustrated when I was forced to use additional time to complete tasks. I experienced concentration issues that I never had before the injury. People would look at me in surprise, pity, and contempt when I asked them to repeat what they just said.
What happened to me was a freak accident. Most people my age do not experience a brain injury and most young adults do not need to face the fact that they are not invincible. The realization of mortality tends to come later in life. Most people my age do not need to relearn how to walk, how to read, how to write, or how to be themselves again. They don’t ask themselves questions like: “Am I reacting the way I should be? How did the old me react to this? When will I stop wondering what I should be feeling and just feel?” I worried that this experience could happen again. What if I made another mistake resulting in a more severe brain injury? What if I wouldn’t get better the next time?
Through college, I became so frustrated and scared that I experienced the worst depression. This depression was more intense than the one I went through when I was sexually assaulted. When I was forced to walk the same high school hallways that my rapists had walked down. It was more intense than the depression that led to my brain injury. I also experienced guilt because I recovered relatively quickly when compared to other individuals with brain injuries. How could I complain about my pain when there were others worse off? I hated that I was not an amazing, spiritual, or enlightened person. I thought I should be able to use this experience as a means to transform myself into a great person. Instead, I felt as though I was a broken and selfish person. I worried that I was wasting my potential.
After a summer internship in Washington D.C., I learned to stop fighting what was out of my control. I learned to accept myself and to honestly evaluate who I am, who I want to become, and how I plan to become that person. I stopped focusing on my pain and focused, instead, on helping others. I traveled and learned about the world and human nature. I challenge and respect myself now and I am truly happy with the person I am and the person I am becoming. Three and a half years after my brain injury, I’m finally a senior. This ride has not been easy, but it has been necessary.
After an intense few years, I’ve come to realize just how much I resent the question: “So, what are you now?” Especially when it comes from people I consider my friends. It makes me wonder: “Did they actually listen to my brain injury story? Do they care about me? Or do they think the injury could have been easily avoided?” I wonder if they think the injury was my fault and that I should stop talking about it. When people asked me this question in the past, I experienced self-blame. I wanted to withdraw and disappear. I felt that I was not worthy, no longer smart, and just a burden. But now that I have learned how to love myself, I become angered by this question. And eventually, I want to let go of this anger.
I don’t want to become angry at the world. I don’t want to spend my life with this hatred inside me. I want to use my intense feelings toward something productive. Experiences like stepping outside my comfort zone and traveling to visit new places and people have helped me feel positive emotions. I have hope now. I’ve seen beauty. I’ve faced challenges. And I’ve re-learned how to laugh and feel genuine joy.
If you want to learn more about people who have experienced brain injuries check out these links: