For most of my adult life, I have suffered from depression, but, it wasn’t until I received shock therapy that my life went out of control. I suffered two strokes and a heart attack while receiving this therapy. I also suffered from anoxia, died, and was brought back to life by a team of doctors. I was in a coma for two weeks, and, when this was all said and done, I was left legally blind with memory problems and a brain injury.
I have no recollection of the event that caused my brain injury. It compromised my memory so I often rely on others to remind me about what happened in the past and in the present. That is why, with the help of some dear friends, I put together my memoir. It is this memoir that helped me realize something important: that regardless of some major setbacks along the way, my life is loaded with fulfilled dreams and accomplishments. I work hard to remember these accomplishments. Why? It is easy to be upset about the losses my traumatic brain injury caused. It is just as easy to remember the accomplishments I’ve achieved. They help me realize that I am still the same person I always was. No brain injury can take that away. I hope my memoir encourages you to write about yourself, too. If you do, give yourself plenty of credit for a life well-lived. You deserve it!
Here are some of the things I have learned from putting together my memoir:
Even in the beginning, my life was different from most. I was adopted from an orphanage by a wonderful woman who taught me to live life to its fullest. My birth name was John Sloan and I was born in Providence, Rhode Island. I celebrate the anniversary of my adoption every year on Valentine’s Day. One day I hope to meet my biological parents and sisters.
I skipped kindergarten and first grade because I was bright. Schoolwork came easy to me and I always had a wild sense of humor. When I was in my twenties, I worked as a steward and a medical corpsman in the United States Navy. I remember being bored one day at work so I hopped up on an examination table and put my feet in the stirrups that women use when they have pap smears. I started singing at the top of my lungs, “back in the saddle again”. The door opened and it was the doctor! I was so embarrassed, but, I did anything for a laugh back then. I am still bright and I still love to laugh.
After my naval stint, I attended two culinary schools. I had a cheesecake business which was named Grande Finale. I used to make wonderful cheesecakes and I have kept a photo of one in particular as a treasured memory from the past. It was my sister’s wedding cake and it was made of white chocolate. That cheesecake recipe won first prize at the New York State Fair recently! I have another talent, too, that has made my life enjoyable and fulfilling. I sing opera. I sang in Verdi’s Rigoletto with the Syracuse Opera. I also sang in Verdi’s Un Ballo Maschera with my very dear friend, Patty. This all reminds me that I am still a talented person. No brain injury will ever take that away.
When I was first injured, I was a long way from believing I would ever cook or sing again. I was sent down the Hudson River to Northeast Center for Special Care. There, I had a speech pathologist and I had to relearn how to speak, feed myself, and even how to walk. I returned home to Syracuse after many weeks and spent much of my time at The David Clark Learning Center. Often, I would walk home absolutely in tears because I was just so frustrated. Trying to get back to some semblance of normal was all very hard work, but I got through it. What did I learn here? I learned I am tough as nails when I have to be.
When I turned 50, I lost two friends that I loved dearly. Shortly after that, I was diagnosed with a severe depression that was exacerbated by the grief I carried. If this wasn’t bad enough, as a result of my addiction to cigarettes and my brain injury related loss of vision, my house caught fire and I lost everything I owned – and nearly my life. I continued to have problems with depression, mostly because of the way my life had been irrevocably altered. Suicide had crossed my mind, but I realized that I had too much to live for and I would be missed by too many people. This realization, in itself, still keeps me going today. To be loved is a major accomplishment in life. I hang on to that thought when times get tough.
Yes, my brain injury has been challenging, but it also provided me with a surprising benefit. No one can really explain how this happens, but many survivors find they develop new abilities, which was the case with me. I developed a strong psychic ability when I was 50 years old, right about the time when I was diagnosed with depression. I had always been an intuitive person, but after my brain injury, my abilities were profoundly enhanced. I took lessons to learn how to control and access my gift. It drove me nuts at first because I was picking up everything, but then I learned how to use my gift at will. I used to do psychic readings at psychic fairs, but I don’t do them anymore because they are too tiring for me. I am now a retired “medium”. People used to ask me how I do a psychic reading. I tune into my spirit guide. We all have spirit guides. I’ve actually seen mine in my mind’s eye, and my spirit guide is an angel. This is why I collect angels and wear an angel pin all the time. Here, I learned that a brain injury can also make us smarter!
I live alone, which I enjoy, but I have people around me all the time because I get lonely. I don’t watch much television because I find it boring and I get bored easily. I’m high functioning and high maintenance. I have expensive tastes and enjoy fine dining in fine restaurants. I like to wear nice clothes and I appreciate fine art and music. These things about me have always been true. Even though I need help, I’m independent in many areas of my life. I obviously don’t drive, and don’t know if I’ll ever be able to drive again. This is OK – I have learned how to ask others for help, which was a giant step toward being happy and accepting my life as it is.
My Persian cat, Jade, who is black with green eyes, was abused as a kitten. But, thanks to lots of patience and kindness, she is now a pistol and a lot of fun. She helps me get through the bouts of depression that still plague me from time to time. She reminds me that I was, and still am, a person who loves life and all the pleasures it has to offer, be it singing, cooking, animals, or all the dear friends who fill my world. She has taught me how to love again.
For the next chapter in my life, I just want peace of mind… and a box seat at an opera house called “La Scalla” in Milan, Italy. Will I get this? I think so! Because I think my life is interesting, unique, and always full of surprises. Mostly, though, I want to share my experiences with others.
I hope my story encourages other brain injury survivors to never give up. Surviving a brain injury is an accomplishment in itself! Just remember this! And, always remember that you are the same person you always were. If you review your accomplishments and review them often, you will see you are a gifted being with a joyful life ahead of you. Creating your own memoir can help you know who you are.
Written by John K. and Paula Schmidt for The Brain Injury Association of New York State
Advise from John K.:
To my friends: There are so many people I would like to thank. Though I can’t name you here, you know who you are! Thank you! And thank you to those who encouraged me to write my memoir.
To my fellow survivors: Remembering uplifting cliches can help you stay positive. I post many on my wall. They help me get through the difficult times. Don’t give up, don’t quit. Keep on keeping on. Don’t look back – leave the past in the past. Don’t sweat the small stuff. You get the idea. Also, music and laughter are universal so sing your heart out and laugh til you drop. Love to you, John