I don’t think anyone understands mental illness. Even if you’ve seen a friend after they’ve finished up having a panic attack or experience fairly severe anxiety yourself. And that’s not to discredit or invalidate whatever feelings you yourself may have sometimes.
But this feeling. It’s like a drop of ink into water. It slowly and seductively spreads across my mind like a blanket of mist. So quiet I don’t even realize it. But once it’s settled there is no missing it.
I instantly become completely filled with grey and any idea of wiping it out of my head is deemed impossible. To rid my brain of these thoughts after they’ve settled is something that’s never been done for me. Thoughts like no man will ever love you, you are disgusting, you are stupid, you are worthless, and that no matter how hard you try, success will never come to someone as pathetic as you.
I purposely go look in the mirror just so that I can see how pathetic and humiliating I truly am. The easy solution is to turn the bathroom lights off and sit in the fetal position. But this soon proves a mistake as the darkness of my mind and the complete lack of vision combine, and I can almost see the thoughts racing through my mind in front of me.
My body begins to physically react to the negative thoughts. It’s no longer just crying, it’s muted moans. Like maybe if I focus hard enough, and cry loud enough, I can force the thoughts out of my mind. But there’s no luck.
I gather my strength to make it back to my bed, but the episode continues. My brain is pounding against my skull, and my solution is to start slamming my fist against my head. Though it doesn’t help push out the thoughts, the physical pain becomes a distraction for a moment. That hint of physical pain and the distraction it brought from my mental agony sparks another idea. I latch my fingernails into my forearm, a sweet spot for me where a scar resides from past abuse from almost a year prior that involved a knife. After about ten seconds, I release my grasp and am thankful for the relief that comes with.
The amount of energy that has been exerted throughout the episode is more than my brain typically deals with in a day. I become sleepy and my eyes puffy, heavy, and still streaming with tears. The bad thoughts are still present in my head but going down. They’re settling into my brain deep down where I typically prefer to keep them. But always on high alert, ready to seep out any opportunity they get.
It’s over. It’s passed. The tears are pooled in the corners of my eyes, where I’m too lazy to wipe them away. I’m going to rest, and hope and pray that this doesn’t all happen again tomorrow.
I have always been very adventurous, outdoorsy, active, and energetic; I’ve been this way since my childhood. I became an avid runner and deemed most valuable player on my high school cross country team. Outside of school, I rode my bike, roller-bladed, traveled to the mountains to white-water-raft and the beach to try my hand at surfing.
I placed an extreme amount of value on new experiences trying new things. In college, I was granted the opportunity to study abroad twice- both times in London. While there, I visited Scotland, Wales, and Amsterdam of the Netherlands. I made some amazing friends, had some incredible cuisine, and had two true adventures of a lifetime.
At my United States University, I was living the all-American dream lifestyle. I was in an awesome program- Communication Studies and I loved most of my classes and teachers. I had two roommates that I considered best friends. I had a part-time job at The Gap and all of my co-workers became a close network of friends who did everything together. Oh, and did I forget to mention I attended college at the beach? Life was great, but I hit my prime the year after I graduated.
It paid well, but it was very erratic and I was left with a lot of spare time. But that was the way I liked it. I became great friends with a very adventurous group of people- I had found my perfect companions. We played Frisbee golf every weekend, went zip-lining, skiing and snowboarding, jet-skiing, kayaking, hang-gliding- you name it. When I was outside or partaking in an adventurous activity, I was in my element.
About ten months into participating in these adventurous and outdoorsy activities, I discovered the long-board. Although it didn’t give the rush of flying three thousand feet in the air like hang gliding provided, long-boarding lent a new kind of adrenaline kick. For those of you who don’t know, a long-board is similar to a skateboard, but is made for cruising. My friends and I were long-boarding down roads, paved trails, and even parking garages. This new-found activity offered the most adrenaline I had ever experienced- looking back on it, I wonder if I was getting adrenaline mixed up with fear. But it was a new feeling and experience, so I was basking in its glory.
I had been borrowing a friend’s long-board, so the day mine came in, I couldn’t wait to break it in. I immediately called my friends and we hit the hills. In our boarding expedition, we came upon some new and uncharted territory. We all stopped and stared in awe at a steep hill. Not too much later, I hopped on my board nonchalantly, wanting my friends to think of me as bold and fearless.
I started the hill and went down a curve, only to realize the hill stretched on. The hill was longer and more daunting than I could have imagined. But it was too late now; I had already committed to it and was progressively picking up speed. I went around a second curve and that’s as much as I can tell you. According to my friends, I collected a bad case of speed wobble. Unfortunately, I could not recover, and what happened next started a new, foreign, and life-altering chapter of my life. I flew up in the air off of my board and came crashing down on the back of my head. Oh, yes- I forgot to mention: I was not wearing a helmet.
Where to begin? I had suffered a subdermal hematoma, or often called a traumatic brain injury. I spent twelve days in a coma. Upon waking up, I couldn’t walk and had no use of my left arm. I had a shaved head, no sense of smell, and a ventilator in my throat, making it very hard to talk. I spent two months in the hospital doing in-patient physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. I had to learn how to transfer back and forth from a wheelchair to a bed. Being left-handed prior, I had to relearn how to feed myself. I had to relearn how to get dressed with the use of one hand.
I remember my family members wanting me to remain positive but realistic. They kept reiterating how lucky and very fortunate I was to not have suffered any mental deficits, but they also told me it was going to be a long road to recovery. Shock and denial kicked in and I chose not to hear them. I was going to return to my adventurous, care-free life in no time. I had only hit a little snag, but this would all be a distant memory. Not so much.
After being discharged from the hospital, I did out-patient therapy for a month. I then found a private physical therapist an hour away from home and I began to visit her once a week. My mom and brother rearranged their lives for me. They were at my beck and call 24/7. Thankfully, my mom was already retired. My brother took a semester off from school and they looked after me around the clock.
Two months passed and I graduated from a wheelchair to a walker. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, this was going to be a very long journey. I remember a specific time about six months after my accident. My family had taken me to Lake Johnson in Raleigh, a lake with a three mile loop trail surrounding it. I was still using my walker so I was a bit slow in my gait. We had only been walking for a few minutes when we came up on a slightly upward hill.
My mom and brother suggested we turn back and walk in the other direction. Ignoring them, I took two strenuous and unbalanced steps forward. Having only one hand available to hold the walker was making it all the harder. I stopped and looked around. There were two girls in yoga pants and tank tops jogging past and chatting away. I looked at their hair pulled up in cute pony tails and hearing them talk and laugh happily and carefree. I used to be those girls. I broke down, sobbing, as the realization finally dawned on me that I may never get back to running and being carefree.
Although I progressed and regained my ability to walk independently, life was still an everyday obstacle. I had been so physical in my past life and to have that aspect stripped away from me was almost more than I could bear. I went from having adventures, being in top athletic shape, and priding myself on my independence and efficiency to a disabled individual, having a difficult time even doing minute things such as getting dressed.
It’s been five and a half years since that tragic event. Let me update you: I walk better than I did, but I still have foot drop and I walk with a limp. As far as my arm goes, I still have very little movement. But that’s okay; I’ve made modifications as I learn to live one-handed in a two-handed world. I wear braces on both my foot and arm. I’ve finally learned to be grateful that my accident wasn’t worse. I easily could have acquired mental deficits, and I’m extremely thankful that I didn’t.
Whenever I get down, I just remind myself that the brain injury didn’t affect my memory, my ability to talk, and my capability to read and write. If I had suffered mental deficits, I may not have been capable of writing this story. I’ve had to work hard to gain back confidence under this new development. Yes, there are some things I can’t do, but there are plenty of things I still can do.
I set goals for myself each year and work hard to achieve them. This year’s goals: landing a full-time career and getting my driver’s license renewed. I turned my attention inward and started looking at work from home jobs. In the meantime, I applied for an internship in human resources with a virtual record label called Hit Records Worldwide. About six months into it, the instructor called me to inquire about another position I might like. It was in the marketing department, which was perfect as it was directly related to my college major. Working in that department for a year has allowed me to work my way up to Senior Regional Social Media Marketing Manager.
This internship has been extremely rewarding. We are working towards starting a non-profit called Getting Out Records, which will be an online community for foster care girls who want nothing more than to reach their goals of becoming music artists. I am very passionate about assisting these girls as I completely understand hardships and adversities. Some of the foster care girls my CEO has taken under his wings ironically long-board. I have spoken with them on the phone and have stressed the importance of helmet use. I think, or at least hope, that my story touched them and had some influential meaning.
My mom and I are writing a book about my journey and advocate for the importance of helmets. We see kids all the time biking and skating without helmets. I would like to educate them and tell them my story in order to make a difference in their lives. A helmet can make the difference in life and death.
I was extremely fortunate to have lived to tell. Since my accident, a lot has happened and a lot has changed. There have been very high highs and very low lows. There have been many laughs and many cries. Though I’ve suffered loss, I’ve still made gains. And though I’m limited in my capabilities, I’ve made many modifications and have still found a way to live life.
I’ve come to believe we choose how to play the cards we’re dealt. I’ve learned that it is okay to have bad days, but not to dwell on it. To try to be positive, and know that it could always be worse. I’ve come to believe that we are all on a journey of self-discovery.
In no way, shape, form, or fashion would I have believed that this is where I would be in my life right now. That being said, I now believe that this had to happen in order for me to end up where I do one day. This belief helps me cope and keep moving forward, knowing that this is only a part of my path. I don’t know what I’m destined for yet, but I do recognize that I had to go through this tragedy as a part of my journey. Perhaps I had to overcome this adversity in order to gain strength. Perhaps this strength will be put to use in the future.
I’m very hopeful that this will all be a thing of the past. They are making strides in stem cell treatment every day, and we are coming closer to finding cures. And perhaps I will not fully recover, but only partially. This will still be a good thing. However, I will always keep hoping.
Everyone is fighting a battle and undergoing a struggle, no matter how big or trivial. If you ever feel alone or feel like quitting, just remember that you are not alone and that there are millions of people trying to overcome adversities and underlying circumstances. We are all a team, rooting and cheering each other on through our trials and tribulations. We all are hoping that we can pull each other through the tunnels of darkness to see a sunnier sky.
So no matter how bad things get, just know in your heart that we are pulling for you. “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” Andy DuFrane, The Shawshank Redemption
My grandmother was there the day I was born.
She kept me multiple days of the week before I began school and many afternoons once I had started. She taught me stories, rhymes, songs, and lessons.
I have nothing but precious memories from my childhood visits at my grandmother’s house, and because she lived alone, I know she cherished my company as well. Part of who I am today is because of her.
However, as much as I hate to admit it, things changed as I grew older. As I entered my teens, I began to dread the boredom that I associated with my grandmother’s basic cable, internet-free house.
Although she lived next door to me, I began visiting less and less, and once I had my drivers license, I had stopped going almost altogether. I only made the trip next door on holidays or when my mother made me. I had no idea at the time what a mistake I was making.
It began with her short-term memory, and you had to retell her things multiple times. However, she could still tell you in perfect detail stories of her childhood. She soon began to forget names, and her doctors explained that she was suffering from dementia.
We knew it would get worse, we just had no idea how fast. Within a couple months, she began telling elaborate stories of conversations she had had that day with deceased relatives, talking to voices in her head, hiding from people she believed to be in her house trying to hurt her, and her “trips to heaven” she had made that day in order to talk to her sister.
She once called 9-1-1 on my father at two in the morning for beating me and mom, when my dad was out of state at the time (and he’s never harmed a hair on our heads). The most hurtful moment to my family, however, was the night she did not know who her own daughter, my mother, was. The child she raised and who now had taken care of her every day for years was only a stranger standing in her bedroom.
I began to visit her more often, but I felt extremely guilty for how I dreaded seeing her and the state she was in. Seeing my grandmother, who used to be so strong and independent, now unable to walk and not in her right mind broke my heart.
So, I did another horrible thing that I would regret: I avoided the visits so I would not have to experience the sadness and hurt.
My family, as well as myself, soon realized that we were dealing with my grandmother’s dementia and our pain in a completely wrong way. I now understood that I needed to face my grandmother and cherish the time I had left with her instead of living with the fear of what I might witness.
So, I began to accompany my mother on visits more often. The way we interacted with her changed, as well.
Before, we fought her and the stories she came up with in her head. We told her she was wrong, and that the people she saw and voices she heard were only in her mind. We tried to force the fact that the stories she invented were not true.
It hurt her to think that we did not believe what she said and that we thought she was crazy, and she was beginning to resent us for it. And the times she started to accept that we might be right and what she believes is false, it only filled her with fear.
She did not deserve an emotional roller coaster such as this in her last few years.
So, my family decided to deal with the situation in a lighter way. Instead of disagreeing and fighting with my grandmother, we acted as if her stories were true, laughed about them with her, and asked her for more details.
If she said that she had been running around town with her father all day, we ignored the facts that she couldn’t leave her bed and that he had passed away decades ago, and instead asked them where all they’d been and if they had a good time.
Although it was bittersweet, seeing my grandmother not so frustrated made everything easier to deal with both for us and her.
That next fall, I left for college and only saw my grandmother every few months when I visited home. One night, while sitting in my dorm, I received the call from my mother that I had been dreading but expecting for the past few months.
It was in that moment that my past regrets overwhelmed me. Every day that I dreaded going to see her. Every moment that I ignored her and sat playing on my phone. Every visit that I avoided for fear of what I might see.
I only had a few moments with the woman who raised my mother and helped to raise me, and I had taken them for granted. I had not been around enough when she needed love and family the most.
And now at the end of her life, I had no way to get home from college in time.
I still thank God that this was a false alarm. She lived not only until the next morning, but even though the doctors only gave her a few weeks, she is still alive today. I believe the Lord wanted to teach me a lesson in love, family, strength, and courage.
He wanted to teach me to cherish the moments I’m blessed to live, and the moments I’m given with my friends and family. And most importantly, He wanted to give me more time with my grandmother, which shows what a gracious, giving, and amazing God He is.
Soon after this incident, my family decided to place my grandmother in a nursing home. Although it was incredibly difficult to hear how much she wanted to go home, this turned out to be a wonderful decision.
Her mind still goes in and out, but the care and steady routine has greatly increased her health. While she once was too weak to lift even her hand, today she is more alert and has more energy to interact and talk with us.
Sadly, the doctors decided a few months ago to take my grandmother off her medicine for dementia. Her days are now categorized as “good days” and “bad days.”
Some days she will remember us all, while on others it is a struggle. Some she can be angry and yelling, and other times she is sweet and says she loves us.
Some days she claims she’s been running up and down the halls, and others she’ll admit she’s been laying in her bed all day.
The holidays were definitely different with her in the nursing home for the first time. There was a felt absence at our annual family get-togethers.
Still, I could not be more thankful to still have been able to visit her on Christmas Day. She was in high spirits, talkative, and it was altogether a “good day.” My mother said that her mom having a good day was all she needed for this to be a great Christmas, and I couldn’t agree more. Even if we did have to remind Granny a few times what day it was.
Every moment is cherished, both the good and the bad, with the good moments being priceless gifts from God.
Although it has made me regret my past and the time I could have spent with her and chose not to, as well as all the days I am away at college, I have come to peace with the fact that I cannot change it. Dwelling on mistakes and making myself miserable will do nothing for me, my family, or my grandmother, and I know that all I need to focus on is my time with her now and in the future.
I won’t make the same mistakes again, and I won’t take advantage of the gift of more time with her that God has given us.
I don’t mind if she doesn’t remember me now. I don’t mind listening to her stories and going along with them. Sitting in the nursing home with her and being in her presence, 100 percent, not engulfed in technology, is all it takes to make the most out of our time.
The simple act of being there for our family shows a powerful amount of love in itself, and I now realize the importance of something as simple as time.