It was well before dawn on a typically hot and steamy night in June, a night often found during a stifling New York City summer, when my life changed in ways I could never have imagined. Most people sleep through the ungodly hours between midnight and morning, safely locked in their homes and oblivious to the underworld that exists outside their windows. For me, though, this was the time of night when I did my best work. Yes, I knew my job was dangerous, which is why I endured weeks of intense training, learning all I could about how to keep myself alive. But all the training in the world didn’t prepare me for the dire situation that awaited me on that fateful night in 2001. Eleven years later, I am still baffled as to how a single event can spin a person’s life so profoundly out of control. It is hard to understand, and even harder to explain, but my hope is that by sharing my story with you, I can pull together a few more fragmented pieces of what has become the puzzle of my current day existence.
People often ask me, “Have you seen the HBO show "The Wire," Andy?” Then they try to discuss the characters, the details of last week’s show, the difference between real narcotics undercover work and the fiction they see on TV. Television characters engulfed in a world of senseless, greedy violence, undercovers trying to break up the scummy underbelly of a city gone awry…. “Is that what your job was really like?” friends ask. They expect me to know. I stare at them with a blank look on my face while I try to go about the impossible task of recalling what last week’s episode was about. I’m sure I saw it and I probably liked it — I am guessing anyway. But, no matter how hard I wrack my brain, I just can’t remember. See, I can only retain memories for about 5 days before they drift away, lost in a fog of jumbled, irretrievable events that I somehow participated in — if only I could remember how. I mumble something unintelligible back at them then change the subject fast. I want to talk about now, about today, before this day’s memories disappear along with the rest of them – into the vast sea of thoughts and impressions that I can no longer discern.
Yes, I have a pretty severe case of memory loss. For reasons no one can explain, my brain’s electrical system is no longer able to imprint permanent memories. It sounds like the work of science fiction — the fact that all of our memories, our joys, our sorrows, are nothing more than a fleeting bit of electrical impulses. But that’s the way it is. Fortunately for me, my memories of the past are still intact, so I am able to tell you my story without relying too much on input from others. So, here’s what happened:
There were about 35,000 police officers in the NYPD when I started working as a patrolman. I remember patrolling the streets of Bronx, breaking up domestic incidents and chasing down petty thieves. I just assumed it would be my life for a very long time, but, when my friend, Pete, asked me, “Andy, do you want to try something new?” I responded, “Hell, yeah!” Back then, I loved a new adventure. A career with the elite undercover NYPD narcotics force would suit me just fine.
Undercover was totally different than anything I’d ever done before. I spent months training before I could even begin, learning how to be less like me and more like the people I usually arrested. I was taught how to walk and talk in ways that didn’t give away the fact that I was a cop. Ironically, I was even taught how to forget my own name so I didn’t startle and fall out of character if someone recognized me on the street. It wasn’t easy — forgetting who I was and becoming completely immersed in a different identity, a character I would portray for weeks, if not months at a time. I had to learn how to live two different lives, how to be unrecognizable, even to myself. Little did I know that this new skill would save my sanity all these years later. For then, though, I was just having a really good time.
Much to my amazement, I was a pretty good performer. I remember working Harlem and Washington Heights, not an easy place for a 6’1” white guy to be undercover – but I pulled it off. Through the years, I created many different personalities. I was a homeless guy, a mechanic and a junkie to name a few. When I worked lower Manhattan, my job was to create the persona of a drug addict who hung out at after hour clubs. I grew my hair long, dyed it black, and became a greasy and disheveled street level guy named Mike. I wore black everything — pants, jacket, t-shirt and shoes. I changed my voice and my gate and even my attitude.
I must have been pretty convincing, because one time, when I was jogging near my house, trying to lose weight so I could look more like a junkie, a man from the neighborhood drove by in a car with his wife. I saw him look at me with disgust as I ran past him, my waist long hair dripping down my back, my beard unshaven and unshaped. He turned to his wife and just shook his head. A few months later, I was in a meeting at work, when in walked that same guy from the neighborhood. We stared at each other for a minute then broke out laughing. He was a fellow undercover. Neither of us knew what the other one did for a living. He said when he saw me jogging that day all he could think was, “what the hell has happened to my neighborhood”. We became great friends and co-workers from that day forward.
Being an undercover was a lot like being an actor, but with higher stakes. I knew I had to put on a great performance each and every day. Bad acting might get someone bad reviews. But a bad undercover performance would definitely get me killed. Yeah, it was dangerous, but I loved every minute of my job. It fit me well.
The downside of the job was my home life. I would disappear, sometimes in the middle of the night, not able to tell my family where I was going or when I would return. I’d be gone for days at a time, leaving my wife with the task of managing the entire household alone. She was raising our two small children single-handedly. She didn’t like my job – the erratic schedule, the difficulty arranging childcare, the fearful and sleepless nights. But she knew I loved it, so she hung in there for my sake, doing what she needed to do, doing her part to get along.
That night in June wasn’t dramatically different from any other. I was doing the clubs with my partner, a female master of disguise who could effortlessly transform her naturally sweet self into a loud, crass, tough girl junkie with the change of a hair-do and a skirt. We were sitting in our little red Honda, parked in lower Manhattan, the last in a line-up of parked cars strung along the dark side of Broadway, waiting for the right time to go into a certain club. Like most nights, our job was to open a case for drugs and weapons. We both had our guns ready in case something went terribly wrong. This was typical of the job. Everyone carried a gun, be it cop, drug dealer, or club owner – there were always guns involved when buying drugs. Most nights, I tried not to think about it because, if I did, it would be too much to handle. On this night, though, I was thinking more about the perfect hamburger I had just eaten from my favorite late night diner. I fiddled with the car’s radio, but it didn’t work. To kill time, my partner and I reclined our front seats toward the back and started telling knock-knock jokes.
And that’s it. A hamburger, a broken car radio, a knock-knock joke. Those are the last things I remember before my life was turned upside down.
I have been told that a car flew around the corner at a high speed and hit us, the driver claiming he lost his breaks. When the ambulance came, the EMTs strapped me to a board then brought me to the hospital, afraid that I broke my back. My wife was called by my great friend, co-worker, and neighbor – the one I told you about earlier. He proved to be a saving grace for my wife and myself in the early days after my accident, and without him and his family, I’m not sure we could have held up through all that was to follow.
X-rays showed I didn’t break my back, and I walked out of the hospital that day, a bit dazed and asking the same questions over and over. By Sunday, my wife said I was acting dopy. By Monday it hit me hard — I couldn’t remember anything at all. By the end of the week, my wife said I had developed a stutter so bad that I couldn’t communicate with anyone. I cried a lot, had vestibular issues and balance problems. The force’s doctor said I had post-concussion syndrome and recommended I see a neurologist. I went to therapies two days a week and hoped it would all blow over soon.
Recovery was slow, but it was coming along, until weeks later, I was driving home from the store with my wife when my head felt strange and large, like it was too big for itself. I pulled into the driveway, got out, and fell, face first, onto the ground. I tried to stand up, but I couldn’t stop from shaking all over. Soon, I couldn’t walk, and for the next six months to follow, I was confined to a wheelchair. I spent a month in a rehab hospital, but no one could figure out what was wrong with me. “Just one of those weird neurological anomalies”, the doctors would say. One sent me to a psychiatrist who decided I had conversion disorder, all because he couldn’t find an answer that fit into his narrow little diagnostic framework. I tried hypnotherapy, physical therapy, psychotherapy — you name it, I tried it. I did learn to walk again, but shortly after I got out of my wheelchair my left hand closed up. It hasn’t been the same since. What caused all this? No one knows to this day. I have no choice but to add this experience to the list of bizarre TBI things that have happened to me (and other people, I’m sure) without reason. Post-concussion syndrome… a strange thing that does the unthinkable, making you feel like you’ve lost your mind, your sanity, and, worst of all, the life that you once took for granted.
As you can tell by my story, I never did regain my memory. I will be disabled for the rest of my life, but learning to adapt to the changes, learning to take life a day at a time, has saved me from the grips of depression. For all the therapies, doctors, and treatments that I went through, there is one piece of advice that stands out in my mind. My wife once said to me, “When you go to the top of the mountain and meet the guru who is going to tell you the secret to life, he is probably going to say, ‘Andy, don’t let things bother you so much”. There is a lot of truth in that statement, and now, all these years later, I try to live by those words to the highest degree that I can.
My wife says I am quirky now, since the injury. For example, clutter makes me edgy and I feel the constant need to clean. I keep post-it notes everywhere so I can remember what to do next. I keep a journal that I read when I feel like I need a reminder that last week really did happen, a way to keep up with the memories I can no longer hold onto.
I think it was quite an adjustment for my wife to have me home constantly after being away for days at a stretch, but we’ve worked out a system and we’re happy. My family is my driving force now, and I am proud to say that, for once, I am able to be part of it. My kids, their sports games, their homework, the grocery shopping — I can finally give my wife some relief from all the daily chores that she carried alone for so many years. I am extremely grateful for the family time that most people are cheated out of. My kids are my rock, my reason to get up in the morning. I have a great set of friends, too — all my buddies from high school. When the chips were down, they were there for me. We get together every Thursday night and we go fishing on the weekends when we can. They are my extended family now.
I wish I could say that everyone stuck it out with us through all the crazy hard times. Unfortunately and to our surprise, many people weren’t there when we needed the help the most. I’m not bitter for myself, but my wife really needed them and they didn’t come through. On the other hand, though, there were the others who deserve to be praised, even knighted. My wife’s sister went so far as to buy the house next door so she could be there for us, which brings me to another great lesson that I’ve learned because of my ordeal. Hang on to those people who come through for you, and hang on to them tight. They are your true friends, the ones whose love is unconditional, and the ones who give you a place to plant your heart. For the others? Well, it is a shocking thing, realizing that people you counted on may not hold you in as high of regard as you once held them. It hurts all over at first. Just realize they are who they are. Some people just can’t handle the changes they see. They are easily frightened, controlled by their own fears and issues, caught up in their own existence. This is not where you need to be after a brain injury! You need the strength of those who keep a positive attitude, who love you regardless of the fact that you may not be the exact person they remember. You can’t take it personally. It is their baggage, not yours. Just let it go.
Sadly, I lost my close friend, the neighbor and colleague that I told you about earlier on in my story. He was electrocuted while helping another neighbor pump out his basement after a flood. I’m not surprised that he died while helping a neighbor. That is exactly who he was. He was truly someone whose life had purpose, a man who many others, not just I, felt they could hang onto. I will miss my great friend. So, what is my lesson here? To be more like him whenever I can. It is as simple as that. I keep his prayer card hanging in my armoire so I can see it when I get dressed in the morning. It is a something I have to do so I won’t forget that he has died and embarrass myself by going to his house for a visit. That is how bad my memory can be. I would never want to hurt his wife in such a “thoughtless” way, so I endure the painful, daily ritual of remembering that he is gone.
So there you have it. That’s my story. You were probably expecting that it would be more dramatic, maybe ending in a machine gun clad shoot out where we nabbed the bad guy after a tense car chase complete with wild stunts and death defying feats. It is ironic, given my job, that a simple hit from an out-of-control car inflicted such havoc on my life. But, that is exactly what happened. Do I regret it? Sometimes, yeah — of course. Mostly, though, I am pretty content with how things have worked out. I have a new life now, one where my family and friends fill my time, my heart, and my soul. I am proud of the life I led as a NYPD narcotics detective. And I am just as proud of the life I lead now. The puzzle of my life has a thousand pieces to it, and I am learning how to fit them all together.
Thanks for listening,