“What branch of service were you in?” That’s usually the first question I am asked when I tell a servicemember or veteran that I have a Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI. “I wasn’t,” I reply, “I am a wounded civilian.”
A TBI occurs when a sudden blow or jolt to the head leads to dysfunction in the brain. Referred to as the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an estimated 320,000 veterans who have returned from those theaters may have experienced TBI during their deployment.
I sustained a severe TBI in 1997 when I fell out of a third-story window of an apartment building in San Francisco and landed on the street below, fracturing my skull and sustaining numerous other serious injuries. At that time, hardly anyone knew what a TBI was.
I spent two months in the hospital undergoing numerous surgeries to repair my broken body. The greater part of the next year was spent rehabilitating. I was told I may never walk without assistance again. Nerve damage left me with chronic paresthesia. Like the pins and needles feeling you get when your foot falls asleep, the burning prickling feeling occurs down the entire right side of my body; arm, hand, leg and foot.
At that time I was a 27-year-old, single woman, living alone, on a career path in the IT Industry. My weekends were spent outdoors playing volleyball, rollerblading, mountain biking and snowboarding. If I wasn’t in the office working, I was outside being active. Sports were my passion. After my TBI, I was unsure what, if anything, I’d ever be able to do.
After my rehabilitation was completed, I avoided anything that reminded me of the life I lived pre-TBI. That life died the second my head hit the concrete. I had a new life now, and I needed to accept that. I needed to: “Get-over-it!” “Just be happy you’re alive.” — as I was told time and time again. But I wasn’t alive; I was dead. I was now forced to live someone else’s life. Someone I didn’t like. I hated this new person, so I self-medicated myself with food and alcohol, two things that would flood my brain with our “happy chemicals” — dopamine, oxytocin, seratonin and endorphins — bringing me pleasure and satisfaction, even if only for a short while.
The new me eventually married, had kids, tried to start businesses that would ultimately fail because numbers made absolutely no sense to me now. If I wasn’t taking care of my family, I sat in front of the computer, my only other connection to the world outside.
To keep my depression managable and to help me get through the bouts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I took antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. I avoided being photographed or looking in the mirror because the person I saw in those pictures and staring back at me was an ugly, miserable creature who stole my life, my smile, my happiness.
Fifteen years went by and eventually the memories of the old me disappeared. This was who I was now. I finally accomplished what everyone had been telling me to do — I got over it!
Those memories resurfaced, however, when my youngest son was diagnosed with an intellectual disability. The doubts returned, this time they aimed at someone who deserved better than what I got, someone I was determined would never end-up like me. How was I going to fight for my son when I wouldn’t even fight for myself? How was I going to show my child and, anyone else who ever questioned his abilities, that he could achieve whatever he wanted to in life when I’d given up on my own?
So the alcohol went away, I changed what I ate and I began to exercise. I became healthier and happier, but that still wasn’t enough. I needed a challenge, something to prove to myself that I could have an active life again.
I decided to trained for a half marathon. I joined a running program and trained three times a week under the guidance of a running coach. Five months later, with my family watching, I crossed the finish line of my first half marathon. I’d done it and I wanted to do it more.
So I ran another half marathon and another one, and another one. During this time, I also realized I felt better emotionally and my PTSD went away. Even though I still contended with the daily struggles of my TBI, for the first time in over 15 years, I felt alive again.
During this time, I also met others, who just like me, overcame extreme adversity. We all seemed to have one thing in common, this magic pill that made us believe that we could accomplish anything we worked hard at — endurance sports. We now shared a special bond. We encouraged and supported one another. We became a team sometimes even racing alongside with one another.
That team of misfit toys inspired me to go out and attempt new challenges. So in 2013, I ran my first full marathon, something I didn’t even think I could do pre-TBI. That same year I competed in and placed second in the Female Physically Challenged division at the Ironman 70.3 Augusta triathlon. In 2014, I completed three more marathons and placed third in my division in the Ironman 70.3 Augusta triathlon.
I now volunteer at the VA Clinic in Martinez, CA as a fitness instructor. My goal is simply to inspire our veterans that nothing is impossible, that their disabilities don’t have to define who they are. The can be alive again. They just need to find their magic pill.
This article first appeared in The Havok Journal on 11 April 2015.