From the Ground Up

Christopher W. Siders
From the Ground Up

(rebuilding a mind and reinventing a life)

Matt Riggs was a journalist with seemingly everything going for him. Then everythign was taken from him. This book follows his path as he weaves his way through the trials of a traumatic brain injury. Using humor, hatred, and heart, Riggs battles through teh mess that has become his life. Based on the true life experiences of Christopher Siders.

My journalism professor when I was in college said, “A great reporter is one who knows a lot about nothing but a little about everything.” And here I was, following a run of unfortunate luck, in a bathroom. An ordinary bathroom at that. White tile. Small rust ring around the sink drain. All dressed up and thinking I looked nothing like myself. Staring at the slightly faded mirror I couldn’t even recognize myself anymore. Thinking, “Is a great journalist still great if he knows nothing about nothing?”

Self pity? Perhaps. But if you’re not honest with yourself, who can you be honest with? And this is where one of life’s revelations came.

The “faded mirror scene” is so melodramatic. I mean, I must have seen this very scene in a million movies. Of course I'm drawing a blank on which ones. The tortured, moody anti-hero gazing at himself thinking with a pained expression what his next move will be. Start the riot in the cafeteria? Knock off the Quickie Mart to get money so his family can eat? Come off it, Matt. Get off the drama tip. You’ve been given so many hugs it’s not time to start the self-pity.

In my mind I raced back to a classroom on the campus at John Carroll University. A little more than ten years earlier. 26 Gothic buildings on 60 acres became my home in suburban University Heights, Ohio. The trees would be orange for Autumn and the Winter snow would have me shrouded in a wool sweater. My days would be Pearl Jam, my faded blue ball cap on backwards and my love of books. I would park my car on the street and then cut through the bushes to get to campus so I didn’t have to pay the fee for parking.

* * *

Tory had just given her opinion to Professor Buckmore about the article I turned in as an assignment for his class in one of those Gothic buildings. Our articles had to be ‘peer edited.’

We had exchanged our stories with each other. Hers was about something I can’t quite remember. Mine was about Mr. Buckmore and his wife adopting most of their children. I was never sure if they couldn’t physically have children or it was something they believed in regardless. He had what we called a "gimp arm" that he carried next to his chest from class to class. Regardless of his physical limitations, I took the stance of how admirable it was to bring oriental children into their home as their own. I didn’t really think it was admirable. I didn’t think it wasn’t. I didn’t think much of it all, to be honest with you.

"It's too touchy-feely,” Tory griped about my story. “It’s good for a religious magazine, but for a hard-news daily”?

The assignment had not specified what genre of publication we should write the piece for.

She stood, feet apart and head slightly pushed towards me. Compensating for something, I thought. She had a “this is a woman’s world too, and we have been oppressed long enough” attitude. To her I was a cocky frat guy with a backwards baseball cap and a flannel shirt. Nothing more than a keg party away from a career managing a sporting goods store. I had dealt with this attitude before. And on some level she might have even been right.

This is the memory that flashed through my mind as I stood in front of that mirror.

That bathroom was far away from the Mid-Atlantic winters of Ohio. It was just inside from the paradise of palm trees and sand that is Florida. Well, Jacksonville was not the Florida of your typical Ohio college senior's dreams. A senior who grew up on Miami Vice episodes. But it was still Florida. I was offered a job a year after college and there I went. Through a little over ten years I had lived more life then I had I ever had lived before. One thing I had not experienced was that awakening. Where (as trite as it sounded in my head) you get clarity of how to be. What your place on this Earth is.

* * *

Florida is where this all begins. Now that I think about it, it’s where it began all the way back when I was ten. I'm sure that’s what I subconsciously thought to myself when I took a job there. A ten-year-old boy on his first family vacation. On an island off the coast. Mom working on her tan and arguing with Dad again. Seeing it so many times before...but this time I could actually concentrate on something else.

The white sand and blue sky. The James and the Giant Peach book nestled in next to me.

That trip to Florida was one of the few good memories I had of my parents. They acted like a couple. Looking back I am sure they had THAT talk before we came South. That “lets try and get along for the kids” talk. The one parents have been known to have right before marriage counseling and two steps before the attorneys are called. But Florida was a good memory for the most part.

Job offered. Job accepted.

I wiped off my face and headed out the door. I took that first step out from the bathroom. Those simple movements of putting one foot in front of the other. Striding with an air of authority. Sounds arrogant doesn’t it?

I had that air of authority when I walked in to cover a press conference, knowing that I would ask exactly the perfect question, the thought provoking one that would let every reader in the United States know exactly what the real story was, covering the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“Seven sacks is unacceptable against any team,” I would conjure up my words at will. “The defensive line looked confused and missed assignments all night in a 26-22 win against the Kansas City Chiefs.”

I would go on tapping out my article on my lap top in the press box of Altell Stadium. I would run down to the locker room after the game and asked questions that would lead players into giving me just the quotes I needed. Even though the Jaguars had won, I saw some glaring weaknesses on the team. I would ask Coach Coughlin exactly why they had fewer first downs then the other team for the second straight week. He would shoot me a snarky response that was biting enough to let me know he didn’t think I even knew what I was talking about but had enough knowledge behind it to give me a quote and the ability to write out a paragraph or two of copy.

I would take down his responses on my “old school” notepad (I hated tape recorders), stick it in my briefcase and walk out of the post game press conference. I would smirk and shake my head at the arrogance of NFL prima donnas. I wouldn’t break my stride until I was nearing my car.

But I can’t pull off the confident swagger now. I limp.

I could try and sound normal if I asked that one question. Only I slur.

I don’t like anyone looking at me now. They don’t look with envy. Only pity. Or what I perceive as pity.

The dark and angry billows of regret and self-loathing devour my fleeting sense of confidence.

I used to despise people who complained. Bitched. Made excuses of what a “bad hand they had been dealt.”


“Excuses are like assholes. Everyone’s got one.”I always said.

My excuse now is that I can barely move. I struggle to keep one foot in front of the other. Like the town drunk stumbling across the ice skating rink, I make my way through life. My muscles hurt consistently. If it’s not the legs, it’s the arms. If it’s not either one it’s my head. The physical pain isn’t even the worst.

I have become a cliché of “what could happen to your life.” I hate clichés.

I am determined to get my life back, or at least make sense of all of this nonsense that attorneys, doctors and self-help gurus have slung at me.

I believe that writing will help me make sense of it.

This story is clear, in my mind. It’s as clear as any other story I have written, even before the accident. I want the reader to feel the fragmented life I led for a few years.

No excuses. No remorse.

That revelation I had in front of the faded mirror is like all of life’s great stories.

It’s about a girl.

Excerpted from From the Ground Up: (rebuilding a mind and reinventing a life). © 2011, Christopher W. Siders. Used with permission.

Posted on BrainLine December 12, 2011.