Today I Found a Letter to Myself

Cheryle Sullivan
Today I Found a Letter to Myself

Besides dealing with the consequences of my own traumatic brain injury, I became my dad’s caregiver in August 2012.  He and my stepmother had only been married three months when he had a fall in 2005, fracturing his neck and sustaining a TBI.  My mom had previously died from a fall that resulted in a skull fracture and traumatic brain injury. Dad functioned pretty well but needed assistance in some daily activities. When my step-mom died in July 2012, he could not live alone, so I packed him and what we could carry in our Beetle convertible and had the rest of the things he wanted to keep shipped to his new home with us.

My dad died this past December. While scanning old photos for my dad’s Irish wake, I found something special—a letter I’d hand written to myself on September 22, 2003, marked: To be opened six months later.  In 2002, on the Monday morning of Presidents’ Day weekend, I had a fall on ice and received my sixth concussion with more significant ongoing effects than the previous ones.  I don’t have any memory of writing the letter, but when I read it all these years later, I was pretty impressed with what I had to say.  Especially since I remember that when my rehab staff recommended journaling after my TBI, my entries were really depressing—a litany of what was going wrong and how every day was a bad one.

The letter to myself questions how I’m doing and lays out some things I need to be doing on my journey to recovery. I have no memory of opening it six months later.  It’s likely I put it in such a good place that I never found it until recently. Here’s the letter I found:


It’s been six months.  Have you made progress? Are you at peace? Have you sought out your support network?

This brain injury is an event, visible, tangible. My reaction to it is based on my “maps,” my past, and who it has made me. I can choose to change my maps, to interpret the “event” differently.  I can also choose a different reaction/interpretation and what I do about my reaction.

This is all about choice, not whether or not I have a brain injury, but how I choose to let it affect me. Of course, there are some outcomes outside my control like retaining my job, my medical license, and getting disability income to name a few key areas.  But there are things within my control. I can isolate myself from available support or seek it out. I can keep reminding myself of who I was and what I used to be able to do, or I can move on.  I can beat myself up about what I can’t do, or rejoice about what I can.

Unlike many TBI survivors, I have excellent physical health, am financially viable, am still able to drive and care for my needs, and have many more abilities. I need to find and do what I can do well and what gives me joy (flying, outdoor activities, fixing up my house, crafts) and try to enjoy my days.

I need to find balance, to let myself rest when needed, and be less worried about what I accomplish. It’s not what I do, but who I am that is the important thing. I also need to look at different perspectives; look at all options, and not be so narrow-minded or afraid to step out of my comfort zone. I need to stretch, to reach, and likely I’ll find myself in a better place than where I was before my injury.

Yesterday is gone
tomorrow isn’t here yet
and today will be gone at the end of the day
 so make the most of it.

The amazing thing is that I was right.  A few months after I wrote this letter, I lost my job as a family physician/medical office administrator after a failed ten-month monitored return to work trial. It was devastating because I’d wanted to be a doctor from the time I was a young child. I’d joined a brain injury support group soon after I wrote the letter, and I don’t think I could have done as well as I did without that support.  I also had a difficult six-year battle to regain medical clearance to be able to fly my airplane. I subsequently let my medical certificate expire and no longer fly—it was more work than fun with all of the tools and strategies I needed to fly safely.  Losing my medical career and my ability to fly were both significant challenges to deal with.

I spent lots of time doing outdoor activities and met my life-partner camping in the mountains of Colorado. I know we would not have met if I had still been working, and I’m not sure she would have liked me as a busy work-centered physician as much as the person I became after my TBI. The only “work” I was doing and continue to do is volunteer activities to raise awareness about brain injury in the lay and medical communities.  

Because of losing my medical career, I was available to help when my step-mom developed lung cancer with metastases to her brain, including being there at her death.  I also was available to take care of my father for almost three and a half years, giving him a much better life than he would have had living in an assisted living facility or nursing home.

Things happen to all of us in our lives that are not what we would have chosen. We can use these events as challenges to overcome and move on with a good life, or as excuses to why we have such a terrible life. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose how we deal with it.

Posted on BrainLine May 10, 2016.

About Dr. Cheryle Sullivan

Dr. Cheryle Sullivan received her medical degree from Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine and completed a Family Practice Residency at Saginaw Cooperative Hospitals in 1986.  She worked as a solo family physician in private practice in Michigan and as a family physician-clinic administrator for a large non-profit HMO in Colorado.

In 2002 a skiing accident caused her sixth concussion (mild TBI), ending Dr. Sullivan’s medical career. She had previously lost her mother at age 61 to a TBI caused by a fall and in 2005 her 73-year-old father sustained a neck fracture and a TBI in a fall. Dr. Sullivan was his caregiver for three and a half years until his death in December 2016.

Dr. Sullivan now follows her passion raising awareness about brain injury. Since 2002 she has presented on brain injury related topics to a variety of audiences including the general public, medical providers, educators, disability and domestic violence advocates, vocational rehabilitation staff and military staff and troops. She is the author of the book Brain Injury Survival Kit: 365 Tips, Tools and Tricks to Deal with Cognitive Function Loss and contributing author to the book Chicken Soup for the Soul, Recovering From Traumatic Brain Injury. In 2011 she founded the Facebook page “TBI Journey” where she shares resources and information about brain injury as well as general health and wellness topics important to us all.

Comments (5)

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Wow!!! I’m so impressed by your letter, my husband suffered a TBI in January of 2016, he fell and had a decompressed skull fracture, we spent 7 days in the ICU and 1 days in a neurosurgeon down unit none of which he remembers, I wrote messages to him to read at a later date I wish I’d printed them. He’s angry that this happened to him, I found it to be such a blessing, we have 4 children, we learned so many wonderful things during that time, it restored our faith in humanity, made our close knit family closer, and showed my children and I the power of prayer. We live in a small are that doesn’t offer tbi support groups we’ve often talked of starting one or even going back and hanging out in the waiting room. My mom was in the hospital 3 months after my husband for a different reason but there was a woman in the next room with the same scar, my husband ventured into visit her they never exchanged names just stories or if they did they didn’t remember but this woman shared their daily visits with their mutual dr and she told us how much his visits meant to her. Thank you for reminding me of so many blessings. God bless you

I was sent home from a local emergency room in our home town, with a pain injection. It was Not a Migraine headache I announced several times. I'd had migraines for 18 years, I know Migraines. This was much worse, the pain and pressure building to the point of passing out. I begged for help with no response. The attending physician gave me a shot for pain and sent me on my way. Crying as we walked out, pain crushing through my skull, my ears bursting at the eardrums. "Go home and sleep, he said smugly". My husband took me home where I proceeded to vomit and scream in pain. Finally, I was transported down to San Diego where I was given a 2-5 percent chance of survival after an abscess had burst in the center of the lobes in my brain. If I survived, I would certainly be in a vegetative state. After 3 Brain Surgeries, I spent 6 months in a Rehab Hospital and further time in rehab. I was an infant at 50 years old. A 4th Degree Black Belt, World Competitor, Concert Violinist, wife and mother of four. Life as I knew it was over. Skip through all the crap... It is now ten years later, still learning life. I was blind for a while, I couldn't speak, walk or hold anything. Tube fed for 6 months, nothing by mouth not even water. Today, 10 years later, life is a painful struggle. Memory is a great barrier, confusion and fear a daily companion. My music carrier is over and my Taekwondo School sold. The children, grown and gone without me. A lonely, frightening world replaces what I once knew. In it's wake I began to sketch which turned into oil on canvass which I sell through a foundation I set up called "JUST A BREATH AWAY". The tax-free Sales go directly to help others, in need, with TBI. Every cent is directed to help others in life after Severe TBI. I have also written a book that is being published right now and should be out by the end of the year, By the same title "JUST A BREATH AWAY". All proceeds go to those in need of care. Kathleen N.

What an inspiring idea to write a letter to yourself to be opened at another point in time.

It is wonderful to hear that you met your life partner doing what you love and found that it created the opportunity to look after family members. 

I agree that we can choose how we deal with things even if we cannot choose what happens to us. I suffered a head injury from my road accident and fractured bones and as with your story it has affected my ability to work but it has opens different doors for which I am grateful. I find I have more time to spend with people I care about and volunteer until I get better. 

Hey sis. This is Tom, your big brother using Beth's account. Great writing and I'm proud of you!

I'm really proud of you, Cheryle (Sher)! I was so impressed with the positive outlook you worked hard to maintain, along with your strong sense of FIGHT! I will always look up to you! With love, your little sister! 💗