We walk past it at least once a day, that triangular pocket of grass and shade — hardly large enough to be considered a true park. It’s the spot where my husband TC was attacked 21 months ago as he was coming home after a night out with friends. A hundred feet or so away is the porch where he eventually fell unconscious after knocking door-to-door in an attempt to get help.
For some, it’s hard to believe these locations are part of my family’s everyday experience. They are horrified and perplexed by our decision to remain in the neighborhood where TC nearly lost his life. I can understand their confusion. And occasionally, I share in their disbelief. But at the root of this seemingly provocative decision is the question all survivors of TBI must grapple with: how do we deal with the cause of it all?
Through social media, e-mail, and a rapidly growing network of TBI resources, I have come to meet and learn of many young families, just like ours, whose lives have been altered by brain injury. As I take in their stories and the unique circumstances through which their brain injury was acquired, I’ve often wondered how the cause of injury impacts each family’s recovery process. Many of the families I’ve encountered acquired TBI through a terrible and unfortunate accident. Others have served in combat or perhaps suffered a series of major medical issues. And every once in awhile, I get an e-mail from another family like ours — a family whose universe has been turned upside down as the result of violent crime.
In all cases, there is an element of post-traumatic stress, for we are all confronting the same philosophical crisis: how can we trust a world that, in an instant, distorted every aspect of the life we once knew? It’s not easy going forward, knowing the reality of how people can be hurt. When the really bad thing has happened to you, it’s difficult to put aside the fear that it will happen again.
Understandably, the first twelve months of TC’s injury were the worst in my life. But it may surprise people to know that the hardest part for me was constantly being forced to relive the cause of his injury. At the time, I deeply resented being involved in the necessary legal processes. While I certainly sought justice for TC and understood the importance of my testimony in the several trials that took place, the constant discussion about that horrible night and the people responsible felt like a poor use of my already limited energy supply and a distraction from what was really important (i.e. moving forward).
From the beginning, TC has had little interest in the men who attacked him and the details of his case. Like me, he is focused on the process of recovery and learning to live a full life in the interim. But we are human. There have been nights we’ve sat on our couch, drenched in our own tears, trying to make sense of this unspeakable act of cruelty and uselessly wishing we could undo it. There have been moments we’ve acted cruelly to one another, when in reality, the people deserving of our anger are sitting behind bars. But when it comes to the cause of it all, we are fully united in our attitude. These young men and the crime they committed have already taken so much from us. We refuse to give away one thing further.
I won’t pretend that I’m not a million times more sensitive to the news these days or that I don’t still get jumpy walking alone somewhere. The trauma and the fear associated with what happened to TC are never far from the surface. They’re my constant reminder to stay alert and to remember that safety is never guaranteed. The best I can hope for is to keep these anxieties at bay and to continue living the life of my choosing. I imagine this is true for many others. You learn to get back on the bike or behind the wheel again. You confront your fears head on, and you reclaim that really scary thing until it can no longer own you.
The cause of it all is important, but no more important than how you choose to go forward. As time goes on, I know my feelings about what happened to TC will change. I will make new discoveries within myself. I will continue examining the world through new lenses. I’ll spend some hours trying to make sense of an event that was random and entirely preventable, but I vow never to resign myself to it. The what-ifs are applicable in every TBI situation. What if he had walked a different path home? What if I hadn’t gotten sick that week and he had been out of town on business like originally planned? There are a million what-if scenarios to be cycled throughout our brains at any given moment. But they don’t change who we are now: people whose lives have been altered, but who have finally regained some control over our futures. The cause of it all can’t be changed, but it doesn’t have to destroy us either.