You can never predict when the epiphanies, the realizations, those a-ha moments are going to hit you.
I was in a bar. 2010, somewhere in New York City, and my friends and I were celebrating someone’s birthday or someone’s best friend being in town for the weekend — details I don’t remember. I do remember the Amazonian woman wearing what looked like an ’80s bridesmaid dress and the kind of plastic heels that come in a men’s size twelve. She was insistent upon predicting the futures of bar patrons.
“You … m’dear, are birthing a creative project,” she said, cradling my right palm. “Oh, it’s a life’s work. It will help others. I see you meant to be a healer. I see you a teacher…. Yessss … a teacher!”
She stretched the skin on my palm.
“Oooh, and honey child, you get your life together and a man’s a-comin’.”
Her hands were rough and she smelled like cheap sunscreen, plastic, and coconut. I thought about my book, about the chapter outline that I had just sent to my editor friend. I thought about the yoga teacher training program that I had just written a fat check for. I smiled and handed her a crumpled $5 bill, and she followed me over to my friends. We huddled around her as she pulled uncanny predictions from our palms. And then someone ordered a round of drinks and someone else dragged me to jukebox. Eventually, we forgot about the drag queen psychic.
A few hours later she came back, asking for my left hand.
“Oh my…” She was shaking her head. “I should never do people’s pasts.”
“It’s okay.” I wondered if you could see brain injury in someone’s palm reading. “Just tell me.”
Divorced parents, neglect, broken family, rejection, isolation. Her interpretation of my past spewed from her glittery lips in ugly words and phrases that I didn’t relate to. You were abandoned, abused. “No, I was not abused as a kid.”Yes, abused. Definitely emotionally, psychologically abused. Yes, you were. And your parents are separated. I shrugged. It’s your dad. Yes, your father. He… “Oh.”
“It is time you admit these things.” She was squeezing my hand, leaning in close, overpowering me with glitter and the scent of suntan lotion. I pulled away to fish around in my purse for money. “Honey child, just admit these things and then you can move on.”
I thanked her, handed her $10, and willed myself not cry in the East Village bar as I sought out my friends. Three hours later, I was sitting in the dark at my kitchen table, feverishly Googling phrase after phrase: kids of divorced families; symptoms of emotional abuse; symptoms of psychological abuse; broken families; single parent families. I was taking notes. I was sobbing. Sad tears. Happy tears. I was realizing things.
It was my a-ha moment. I finally began to understand fifteen years of terrible feelings and why it was okay to have them. I understood why I was writing my book — the story of growing up with my dad’s brain injury — and why other kids (young and grown) needed it.
We — the kids of brain-injured parents — suffer in ways very similar to children who come from divorced families, children who have been emotionally or psychologically abused, children who have dealt with loss, children who have been neglected. We watch family dynamics flip and roles change, or dissolve. We feel paralyzing confusion. We feel guilt and remorse. We feel the need to fix things we can’t fix.
But it’s brain injury. It’s not divorce or death or abuse. Brain injury is no one’s fault and even when you try to tack blame on a place or a person, it doesn’t work. It’s misplaced. You — the kid — must be strong.
You did not lose the love of your life, your childhood best buddy, or your partner until death do you part. But you did lose your mom or your dad. And yet you didn’t really lose them, because they are not dead. They are something else that no one can really explain to you. Not even your friends who have been through death or divorce.
Mom or Dad is … different.
Yet, in the wake of it all, after one parent changes so does the other, and thennothing pans out the way you had planned, and it’s all out of your control. At some point you realize you have a choice: roll with it and grow up into someone you didn’t know you’d be or isolate yourself and get the heck outta Dodge as soon as you can. Either way, life is not going to be the same again. You — the kid — are not going to be the same.
I chose to roll with it.
I was fourteen when it happened on a rain-slicked highway. He was a passenger in a car that slid into a pile of other cars, and he hit his head (too hard). It was July, a random Tuesday, and he was supposed to come home and take my friends and me waterskiing. A Tuesday a few days after our father-daughter trip to New York City. A Tuesday full of typical teenage woes — bad skin, dumb boys, tedious to-do lists, Western PA rain.
One moment I was changing into my favorite white swimsuit. The next, I was sitting in a waiting room at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, surrounded by my family and family friends, all crying and planning and reassuring each other. I had my purse and notebook to keep me busy. I watched the news. I watched a pair of parents discuss plans about their son who had just been a motorcycle accident. I watched a woman try to speak Spanish to a nurse who could only speak English, something about a “ladder” a “husband” and a “fall.” I watched doors, hoping that my mother would come back through them. I watched for someone I knew to smile.
It was July 30, 1996, the beginning of “the after” that would forever follow “the before.” We all know the path — the hospital, the waiting, wishing, planning, pleading. The weeks of coma-silence (for some, for us). The hopeful explanation of recovery, the plans for rehab and for readjustment. Pills and paperwork. Searching for the new normal in a sea of inconceivable changes.
The second day at the hospital, a nurse handed me a book to help explain the inconceivable changes that were coming: When a Parent Has a Brain Injury: Sons and Daughters Speak Out.
The book, written in 1993, paraphrases it well.
The crisis of injury forced sons and daughters to grow up quickly. They became independent and self-reliant at an early age. Caring for younger siblings, preparing meals, doing laundry, and going to school often were seen as reassuring signs of coping by relatives. Yet sons and daughters recall that even while they “did the things that needed to be done,” they felt confused, alone, angry, and sad. “A repeated comment by sons and daughters was that “nobody really understood what I was going through. Once my mother (or father) came home from the hospital, everyone assumed everything was all right. Life was not ever the same again.”
Fifteen years later and I’ve suffered and survived my strange loss of innocence. I’ve come to learn how to find acceptance and love in times of adversity, in times of brain injury. In the right company, I wear it like a three-part badge: fourteen years old … severe frontal lobe … my dad.
Fifteen years later and I’d started to write the book, share my story … my version of brain injury. Fifteen years and I’d remained strong, remained a good kid. Fifteen years of giving the utmost love to my parents — my mother the caretaker, my father the survivor. Fifteen years of missing them both, of wondering why it was always so tough, wondering whether I was handling it all the right way. Fifteen years of never giving myself a break.
One chance meeting with a drag queen psychic in a bar and I was able to understand fifteen years of feelings.
Click here to read Janna's essay, "Unfreezing Grief."