I was a senior in high school when a car accident changed my life. My best friend Jennifer died in the wreck. Her grave is marked by a tombstone that bears a picture of her beautiful face and the inscription “Forever Seventeen.”
Waking up from a coma seems like the strangest, most confusing thing that could happen. Where am I? What happened? Why can’t I move? Why are all these people around? Where’s Jennifer?
I thought that was the worst it could get. I never thought that learning what was still happening to me would be even stranger and more confusing. I had broken bones that were healing and a broken brain that was not, and I didn’t know if I could fix it or how to fix it or how it was broken or if I had all the pieces. My muscles were so weak I went to physical therapy to learn to walk without dragging my leg behind me, and raise my arms inch by inch until I could reach over my head. I spent my entire life right-handed, but suddenly I couldn’t control the muscles, so now I guess I’m a lefty. Sometimes my muscle spasms are so intense I immediately fall to the floor, unable to move. Normal daily activities exhaust me. These are symptoms of my brain injury that I learned about over the years; back then I was 17 and confused and that was the most terrifying time of my life. All I knew was that things were hard and my best friend was gone.
But why was I not more grateful? I was in pain and things were hard, but I was alive. What right did I have to ask questions? What right to feel sorry for myself? How could I even have the audacity not to feel unbelievable gratitude just to be alive? What I felt was guilt, but there was something else too. What I felt is what I’d imagine a lot of people with invisible disabilities feel: relentless apprehension and shame. Do I even have a legitimate “disability” anyway? What if this exhaustion I feel really is just laziness? Couldn’t I just suck it up and move a little faster? Is it worth the energy to try to explain? How can I explain when I don’t understand myself? What if they think I’m exaggerating? What if they think I just want medication? What if they don’t believe me?
For these questions, I have learned to stick with good doctors when I find them and power through the rest. I’ve learned that even doctors don’t know everything, and some of them are wrong. Most importantly, I’ve learned that some questions I can answer for myself.
Will things always be hard for me?
So far, yep. But not impossible.
Can it get better?
With a lot of work and time.
Will I ever be able to write again? Draw again? Walk normally? Use a knife and fork? Throw a softball? Go places by myself? Have a relationship? Drive a car? Graduate college? Have a career? Move across country by myself?
The answer to all of these — a resounding, unequivocal, exhausting, mighty yes.
It has been 15 years since the accident, Jennifer’s death and my brain injury. There are still things I can’t do. I can’t run. I can’t type for more than a minute or two without a break. I can’t remember things. But there are also things I never thought I would be able to do again, or ever. The only constant is the knowledge that with enough practice, I can master a lot of things I thought were impossible. I am proud of myself for that.
I think Jennifer would be proud of me too.