On November 7, 1995, my husband Daniel and I took our son James to buy new shoes. We stopped at a red light on Hempstead Turnpike, a busy, four-lane road in Franklin Square, New York. As our station wagon idled at the light, a large New York Phone Company truck plowed into us at fifty miles per hour.
The truck’s twenty-four inch bumper crushed the entire rear of the station wagon. The force of the impact was so great we were pushed through the intersection. Had our son been sitting in the third-row seat, he would have been killed.
“Oh, my God!” someone shouted. “There’s a kid in the car!”
“Get out!” Daniel yelled. “The gas tank’s in the rear. The car might explode.”
I managed to crawl out. I have a vague recollection of feeling the cold drizzle that misted the air. A tightness in my chest made it hurt to breathe but I gasped for air between uncontrolled sobs. I was petrified, caught in a whirlwind of vertigo so severe I couldn’t even move my head, and I couldn’t see my son.
My calls for him became frantic. I was sure he was trapped. As the sky spun sickeningly, I searched for God and prayed for James.
Daniel took him to a nearby car dealership to keep him away from the chaos and the crowd. By the time he came back, the police had arrived. He tried to approach the other driver but the officers wouldn’t let the men talk. They could see each other, though. The truck driver was scruffy with ruddy cheeks, and he told the police he hadn’t seen us. Daniel suspected the man had been drinking.
That day changed my life forever yet most of it’s a blur. I remember shivering on the curb with broken glass strewn everywhere. Although my head hurt, initially I wasn’t in very much pain. James eventually joined me so I assumed everything was going to be OK. Even as my vision blurred and the world slowly began to disappear, I kept thinking, We are going to be fine. We’re all OK. It was itself a prayer, pleas I hoped God would hear.
The ambulance arrived. As the technicians looked for glass in my hair, the touch of their hands frightened me. There were sirens, ambulances, flashing lights and a lot of people talking. I couldn’t keep up with all the action and cried out. “I hit my head,” I kept saying, “I hit my head.”
In fact, when the seatbelt caught me, I had rebounded back into the seat with such force the headrest broke. The emergency workers pleaded with me to go to the hospital. Although I knew I was in shock, I had to make sure James was all right. A friend drove us to the pediatrician’s office while Daniel wrapped up things at the accident.
By that time the pain had started. As the doctor put my son through a series of tests, the throbbing in my head was so severe I became nauseous. James carefully walked a straight line but the room was spinning too quickly for me to watch. He touched a finger to his nose and I hid my fear when I couldn’t find my nose using both hands.
Nothing is wrong, I kept thinking. James is OK and I will be, too.
My old life had already ended.
* * *
After returning home, James and I rested together until his bedtime at 8:00 p.m. Although my body felt achy and strange, I was sure that prayers to God and a good night’s sleep would make me better.
Not until James was in bed did I collapse. Pain surged through me with such intensity it was almost unbearable. My head felt like it was being beaten with a sledgehammer and my neck burned as if knives were being thrust into it. My right leg and arm were limp. I slumped over the dining room table and completely lost my ability to see, speak or ambulate.
The minute Daniel found me; he called my friend Donna Devlin, who was a nurse at a local hospital. Daniel stayed home to monitor James while Donna took me to the emergency room. The doctors rushed me through triage and ordered a CT scan of my head and neck.
Hoping to make me more comfortable, a nurse gave me a shot for pain. “You’ll feel a pinch,” she said as she swabbed my buttock.
Although she had warned me, I jumped when the needle went in. In the few seconds between her speaking and the injection, I had forgotten what was going to happen. The sudden pinch of the needle was a frightening surprise, and the burning as the medication entered the tissues prolonged the terror. Further offers of pain medication registered as something agonizing and dangerous, so I refused any more shots.
I had suffered a closed head injury. When my head struck the seat, my body stopped moving but my brain slammed against the inside of my skull. The concussion was accompanied by further bruising as my brain continued moving back and forth like water in a bowl that’s been pushed across a table.
During all this movement, the opposite side of my brain suffered a different type of trauma. The organ moved so much that tissues across from the impact site tore, severely damaging the nerve cells there.
The entire brain is made up of billions of nerve cells. They function by sending chemical signals across the tiny gaps between them. Sudden twisting or torquing of the tissues can damage the nerve cells’ ability to function properly. It’s a form of whiplash specific to the brain. Both this whiplash and damage to nearby blood vessels added to my injury.
The accident had been bad enough. My refusal to seek immediate medical treatment ensured that the swelling, a natural part of the body’s attempt to heal, created further problems. However, at the time, there was very little doctors could have done to alleviate inflammation in the brain. Even if I had been treated immediately, it’s not clear exactly how much or little it might have helped.
Of course, the rest of my body suffered as well. The medical exam added severe whiplash and cervical and lumbar ridiculopathies (nerve disorders of the neck and low back) to the list. The vertigo also never stopped. In the hospital, I became lost in a storm of chaos, confusion and fear.
My children weren’t even in my thoughts any more. I had already lost nearly all memory of the accident and didn’t know why I was in the hospital. I lay frozen in bed praying in desperation to God for the agony to end.
But the pain grew. I didn’t eat, drink, speak, move or even utter a cry. As my cognitive abilities deteriorated, I became more dependent and vulnerable. Within hours, I was functioning in a child-like state.
* * *
Life until then had been picture perfect…so long as you didn’t peer too closely at the background. Nearly twelve years into my second marriage, I was so sure that this time I had “got it right.” When we first met, Daniel and I were both financial professionals. Our careers skyrocketed as we whirled about Wall Street reaping the benefits and perks of success.
The hours were incredibly long and the pressure was tremendous yet I wanted to be a good mother. I spent most of my time on Sundays after church cooking meals for the coming week and storing them in containers that could be heated up. Daniel and I got home so late on weekdays that our two teenagers from Daniel’s first marriage ate long before we walked through the door.
Often exhausted after the long commute, I sometimes took a deep breath before walking inside. Usually dishes were left in the sink from the boys’ meal and I still had to fix dinner for Daniel and myself. Then I helped the boys with homework and projects. There was also all the house cleaning and laundry, the shopping and other chores.
I gave every ounce of energy I had every waking moment. Peter and David had been living with Daniel since the divorce years before, so I wasn’t sure they knew what to expect from a mother. I rationalized being absent by thinking that teenagers need their parents less than smaller children. They didn’t get home from school until 3:00 p.m. anyway and I was home by 7:00.
Daniel loved my companionship during the commute. He knew I had been restless during my brief stint staying home with the kids. He was thrilled to have someone in his life who loved his children so completely and whom he could encourage to excel professionally. His own career was accelerating, and he traveled with a full briefcase just like me.
The years passed, the pressures grew; I was in my early-thirties and the decision whether to have more children became difficult. If I had them, there wouldn’t be any nannies or daycare. I wanted them to grow up knowing they came first in their parent’s lives. Although I wished for more kids, my career would be interrupted. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to survive mentally without a go-getter life to fill my time.
I decided it was worth the risk. And what a choice! Pregnancy was wonderful. James’ birth allowed me to close the door on the corporate world and Samuel, our second child, was born two and a half years later. Peter and David were seventeen and fifteen when James was born and the children blended beautifully.
By then, Daniel regularly traveled to other countries for his job. The younger boys were asthmatic and required extensive treatments throughout the night while the teenagers needed rides to friends and activities. I became more involved with my children than with my husband. I slowly withdrew emotionally from Daniel, much to his confusion, and devoted my time and life to everything but the marriage.
* * *
When I was a girl, I’d dreamed that stars were the tips of magic wands angels held over the earth. They were always ready to throw miracles down to us humans. When God told the angels to wave their wands, stars shot across the heavens. Even if the miracle was meant for you, though, I always thought you had to be looking in the right direction to see it.
There was no way one would ever fall at my feet. My life had not been exemplary. I hadn’t earned a place in heaven through saintly acts. No wings graced my shoulders and my days hadn’t been spent in religious devotion. God’s faithful servants, those who spread His word, were the people He talked to. In that hospital and during my recovery, I had no right to ask for divine assistance.
In a way, though, I figured that was God’s job: to offer enlightenment. Angels were supposed to appear whenever prayers turned desperate. I wasn’t sure what a miracle looked like but facing this situation alone seemed impossible. Even as I prayed, I had no real hope that I of all people would be able to reach up and catch one of those shimmering stars.
My path would be filled with pain, obstacles greater than any I’d faced before, and a bitter tangle with someone who took advantage of my head injury by sexually abusing me. In the end, God’s grace would pour down from heaven in a way more profound than I ever could have imagined bringing me that sense of peace that surpasses all understanding.
The Storms Before
By the time of the accident, my picture-perfect existence had become tattered at the edges. One photo displayed in a frame doesn’t hint at the rolls of film hidden away in some dark closet. And I had plenty of snapshots, even entire videos, stuffed into the dark corners of my mind. To keep those clips secret, my entire life had been spent molding myself to the expectations of others.
My first marriage was a perfect example. John D’Alessandro started dating me at the beginning of our junior year in college. He stood 6’1” and had brown eyes with the longest lashes behind silver-rimmed glasses. After some difficulty with pre-med courses, he changed to biochemistry. His personality was laid back, and he could focus on painstaking research hour after hour.
I briefly met John at the end of our sophomore year, and I made a point of finding out when his parents would pick him up. If this guy is so nice, I wondered, what is his family like?
I watched from the edge of the parking lot. Right away his mother hugged him tightly. She closed her eyes and tears streamed as they kissed each other’s cheeks. Then his father gave him a big “hello” and…the men hugged!
I stared. It was hard enough for me to dream about my mother holding me but this was incomprehensible. My father would never hug anybody, especially not my brothers. I had never seen a father and son hug. Why would they do that? I wondered for the longest time afterward. What does it mean?
I found out the next summer when I visited his family. The minute the front door swung open, I was lost in a sea of arms. Everyone grabbed and squeezed and poured out love.
I hated being touched. It wasn’t done in my family and I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do. I kept going round and round but there was no place to get out of the revolving door of embraces. I also couldn’t figure out why they were hugging John. He’d left there only a few minutes before to pick me up at the train station.
“She’s so pretty,” Aunt Denise said. “John, why didn’t you tell us she was so nice?”
Mrs. D’Alessandro kissed me on the cheek and said, “Welcome to our home.”
The feast that followed shocked my world even more than the affection. A meal in my family began with the ringing of a cow bell hung on the porch. My brothers and I raced to the table knowing that the first to arrive would get the most. Even so the helpings were sparse, seconds didn’t exist, and we all eventually worked in restaurants to supplement our food.
In the D’Alessandro home, a traditional Italian banquet began. The antipasto was a beautiful assortment of cheeses, olives, and meats. I had never seen this kind of platter and spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether this was the meal. Next came chicken soup with tortellini, lasagna followed by pork roast with potatoes and vegetables, and Italian pastries and cheesecake for dessert. Mr. D’Alessandro brought in a plate of figs from the backyard and Mrs. D’Alessandro opened a jar of preserved peaches and wine.
John helped out by secretly taking food off my plate and putting it on his. When I discovered they had a big meal on Sunday, I tried to figure out if my train would depart before noon so I could miss the second food marathon. I didn’t adapt well to dinner but I wanted desperately to fit in. Saturday morning I got up and hugged everybody. I pretended to like it; eventually I did. Over the years my speech even picked up some of their Italian-American patterns. I ate more, drank wine with dinner, became annoyingly loud on occasion, and began to enjoy the special communion in the D’Alessandro home.
* * *
My whole life, I had never developed my own personality. Instead my chameleon abilities were finely honed. I changed personalities without effort to be the person everyone liked. John married me because I fulfilled his expectations and appeared content with the relationship. But I never shared any of my innermost feelings with him. I didn’t know how.
When John was offered a wonderful opportunity in New York City in 1980, we moved into the city. Since we arrived in the fall, it was too late to find a teaching job. I decided to pursue a career in human resources and found a job in a hospital. I stayed there for two years.
John could only fill the void inside me for so long. When I was unhappy with the marriage I starved myself and ran. I began to seek more challenging positions and aimed no lower than Wall Street. My job became my drug.
When I said goodbye to John in 1982, I don’t think he really understood why. There was so much hollowness inside myself I couldn’t function as a true partner in the marriage. The lack of worship and Christian fellowship in our relationship left me feeling even more isolated. I had lost God. By then, my father was no longer alive. I would have left John sooner but had been afraid of displeasing a dominating father.
On a warm spring morning with just a few rays of sunlight seeping through the window of our basement apartment, we sorted our belongings. As we shuffled around, the two German shepherds the landlord kept in an adjoining room clawed at the door and growled. We didn’t disturb them for long. The lack of emotions John and I both exhibited was reflected by our scant belongings.
He asked if I wanted our photo album. I sat on the bed to thumb through the pictures. There we were, our entire history in twenty pages. On a page entitled Summer vacation in Maine, a photo showed me sitting on the beach staring at the horizon. That day I had gotten up early to run. Despite the romantic setting, I spent nearly all the days alone. I ran the entire time. I hadn’t known what I was racing from or toward, and that spring day in Harlem was no different.
I handed the album back to John. Was he hurt? I don’t know. We didn’t talk about our feelings. We just packed. He kept offering to box up things that were mine and I kept refusing to take them. I was trying to get out with as little as possible because I didn’t want to remember how badly I’d screwed up this part of my life.
When I suggested we split the silverware and dishes, John nodded. There was nothing to argue about. It was as if two roommates were saying goodbye for the summer. John hadn’t fought to keep the marriage alive because he’d been unaware that it was dying.
After a final hug, he walked out. In the next room, the dogs leaped and snarled.
* * *
Soon after the split, I was hired at J. P. Morgan Bank on Wall Street. My boss, Daniel Sherman, was a Vice President in Human Resources. When I first met him in the summer of 1982, I didn’t have a banking background. Before I could be eligible for promotion, I needed to become more financially sophisticated.
At first I found Daniel tough and demanding but people who worked hard in his department were promoted. He did have a sarcastic sense of humor and initially I took much of what he said personally. His comments triggered the negative self-image my dysfunctional family had created for me at a young age. I once asked him why he didn’t give more compliments for a job well done.
“You’re at a level where you shouldn’t need so many compliments,” he said. “You should be more self-sufficient and appreciate your own work.”
That was not the answer I was looking for. I wanted him to nurture me more while he wanted to develop a tough banker. I made it my mission to earn his admiration. Working harder was the way he would appreciate me more so I threw myself into the job.
Despite my experience with a major medical center, corporate banking was unfamiliar territory. It was difficult to blend in with the refined senior management. I was still a small-town girl who’d ended up in New York only because of John’s career. Daniel saw the potential and rewarded me with promotions. After a year I was promoted to Assistant Treasurer, a first-level officer position. By fall I was transferred and became a human resources trainer.
Although the job was a source of great pleasure, my days seemed much brighter whenever Daniel brought his two boys into the office. He was extremely attentive to Peter and David and I liked that. Every day they called when they got home from school. Daniel often stopped meetings to listen to them. Somewhere along the line, I fell in love with him.
The world of parenthood became mine as we went to soccer games, Cub Scout meetings, elementary school events and family outings. I was sure everything was going to be OK. Daniel would provide everything I needed. The courtship and engagement were very brief, almost like their own little whirlwind.
Actually, I was a storm all by myself. I never sat still. Even when we had friends over to watch a movie, I continually moved — serving beverages, making snacks, always fiddling. If I sat for a minute, my leg swung back and forth, back and forth. If I seemed for a moment to be at rest, my internal cyclone churned endlessly.
Even relaxing was a full-force attack that had a goal — exercise to stay fit, educational playtime for the kids, vacations that met Daniel’s expectations for a happy life. Unrelenting standards had been ingrained in me by my parents. In addition to the perfection demanded by my mother and the strict discipline doled out by my father, I was a diligent student in high school. Whenever I achieved any goal, though, the bar at home was set higher.
After my teenaged sweetheart moved away during my junior year, I felt like I had no control over my life. So I stopped eating. On top of that, I began to run. I kept myself so involved and so physically active that there was never any time to really look in the mirror. The few times I did, I loathed what I saw.
Why didn’t you get an A instead of an A-? my mother’s voice blared inside my head. Why did you run for secretary of the student council instead of president? my father’s voice demanded. Why didn’t you try out for the lead in the play instead of such a small part? Why didn’t you do better? Why….
I carried this ever-growing yardstick into adulthood and used it to measure anything I did. Despite working long hours, I volunteered for any number of church groups, charities and committees. My family ate a home-cooked meal every evening and my boys enjoyed all the advantages an attentive mother could provide.
Because I was so overextended, I could never relax. There was always something that had to be finished. If there was a moment to breathe, I filled it with another commitment. I’d stopped taking deep breaths years ago…where was the air to go?
My hyperactive nature drove Daniel crazy. He loved to take long drives along scenic routes and stop for a nice meal. He’d load the entire family into the car and off we’d go. How excruciating! I had to sit still for hours then sit some more while eating…. I hated going and eventually the boys grew tired of the trips.
Daniel was often frustrated with my inability to have “quiet time.” Quiet time meant sharing intimate thoughts. I had to guard my many secrets. Keeping my distance was easy, though. Daniel was always working and I was “involved” everywhere in everything. If I had really shared with him, he would have thought I was crazy.
That fear ate at me constantly, and for good reason. My father had suffered mood swings, debilitating migraines and several nervous breakdowns. He’d even been hospitalized a few times. Since my mother had worked as a psychiatric nurse, she occasionally talked about what it was like in the institutions. She said people got shock treatments. After she described the electrodes and convulsions, I was so horrified I never heard the rest.
But by the time I was nineteen, my own mental health had begun to deteriorate. The eating disorder and frantic activities were a homegrown remedy to keep the breakdowns at bay. Fear of incarceration and shocks immobilized any effort I might have made to ask for help. I thought I was so ill that if anyone knew, they would cut out part of my brain.
If there was a slowdown in my day, I put on my sneakers and ran through the neighborhood. I added bike riding to my schedule and often rode with the boys. There was a lot of fighting between Daniel and me out of frustration. He didn’t know how to connect with me because I didn’t want to connect with him. He could only watch with disappointment and growing dismay.
Other issues eroded our marriage. Daniel had family out of state, and we vacationed with them every year. He wanted to relocate to be closer to his relatives when it was time to retire. I was in my late thirties and not ready to be thrown into a community for people fifty and older.
Leaving also threatened my relationship with my best friend. Gloria Webster and I had met when James and her daughter attended nursery school together. She was my anchor. When the tornado of life swept me away and insanity threatened, I would land in Gloria’s arms. Her well-lit runway, God’s shining light, was accessible twenty-four hours a day.
Whenever I explained to Daniel that I didn’t want to leave my friend, his response was always the same: “If Gloria’s husband had an opportunity for a better lifestyle, would she stay here for you?” I hung my head knowing Gloria was strong enough to go anywhere with Robert.
Emotional withdrawal ultimately led to physical withdrawal. I retreated into my bedroom alone where I spent long nights trying to remember a time of innocence and safety.
Over time, Daniel continued to look for my companionship and I looked for an escape.
From Wind Dancing: The Gift of Healing Traumatic Brain Injury by Deborah Ellen Schneider. Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Ellen Schneider. Reprinted with permission from Wind Dancing, New Beginnings, Inc. For more information on Deborah Ellen Schneider, go to http://winddancing.com.