From physically fit to a physical wreck, Jim’s brain injury taught him that there is a lot more to life than bodybuilding. Sometimes, you have to build your emotional self as well.
Here is Jim’s story:
Before the accident … I had already graduated from a pre-med program at college, but due to some social situations in my life, decided to become a physical therapist first then work my way through medical school. I had always dreamed of becoming an emergency room doctor or neurosurgeon…how ironic! I was on my way to play ice hockey the night of my accident in Lockport, New York. I had played hockey since I was 12 years old and I played right up to the night of my accident. I loved sports. I had also played Lacrosse for 2 years in high school, and for 4 years in college. I tried crew, an awesome conditioning sport for me; however, I lacked the finesse to use my strength. When I rowed I would thrust the boat side to side then I would ‘catch a crab’ … well, it wasn’t pretty (lol)! I started weightlifting at the age of 16, basically because I was one of the smaller kids in my high school class and I wanted college life to be different than my high school years. I was 17 and a senior in high school when I started to see some changes in how my friends and others in my life were treating me…I liked it!! The soreness I felt the day after a workout let me know where my body stopped and the world began. It made me feel alive (more irony as you will see). I started to become obsessed with weightlifting daily …when I felt good …when I felt stressed …when I was lonely …when I was just about to go out (get my pump up)…this went on during the summer of ’82. I felt like a brand new me when I entered college. I cannot stress to you how different life in college was for me, as compared to life in high school -night and day – and I was loving it! To make a long story a little shorter, I matured and grew up during these next four years in college …living in the dorms …bouncing at bars …campus life …college sports …and the women! When I graduated in ’86, I took 2 summer jobs to support myself in my first apartment before starting physical therapy school. I was a part-time landscaper and I worked full-time teaching aerobics and being a fitness trainer at a ladies health club! It was a good time in my life…’nuff said there!! I started my second bachelor degree in the fall of ’86. I did very well with all of the courses, to the point where I corrected the teachers when they made verbal mistakes in lectures and drove them crazy (after my accident, I found that they had developed a lot of respect for me, and they knew that I would maximize my potential during both the intellectual and physical portions of my rehab).
Fast forward to 12/87… I had a nice fancy newer apartment and I just bought my first new car. I lived with 2 girls …kicking ass in college …natural-bodybuilding …hockey …work …$$$ … then…..BAMM!!! Just 2 days before my 22nd birthday, I was exiting a shopping mall late at night during a light snowfall, when my life totally changed. At that intersection, a tractor trailer (18 wheeler) didn’t see that I had stopped in the crossing to merge with traffic, and before he hit his brakes, drove right into my driver-side door, sending me into a coma that lasted 5 weeks…… and that’s where the second part of my life’s story begins, on 12/4/87.
The next thing I remember is opening my eyes…seeing my girlfriend looking over me, feeling all the tubes attached to me, unable to move, and the wierdest part – I had a vaccuum hose stuck into my throat, breathing for me. I awoke on1/12/1988, unable to speak or move my left arm and leg. I looked at my girlfriend and gestured ‘what happened’? As time progressed, I worked very hard at rehab so I would be able to leave the hospital and start the journey toward rebuilding my life. I will stop for now, but this is only the beginning of the most awesome and yet heartbreaking rollercoaster ride any one person and his family could ever get on.
Lately, I have spent a lot of time reflecting back on all that I have been through over the last (almost) 25 yrs since my auto accident. I finally feel like I have 99.99% completed my rehabilitation process recovering from the damage done. I think I should title this experience “A Good Man…A Better Man…Still a Sinner”. I have done soooo much introspection and self-analysis, neurological rehabilitation, group/marriage counseling, medication, along with a lot of bible study and prayer to get me to this point of stability with peace of mind. I like to say I am now in a “good place”, now on to the next chapter of my life. Intellectually, I never suffered too much from the accident. I feel it opened my eyes to have a greater appreciation for the differences in others. I see these as positive traits that I didn’t have as opposed to unnecessary traits, weaknesses, or faults. I gained an empathy for all people suffering from any affliction, be it emotional, mental, spiritual, or physical. Where I used to be judgemental and lacked tolerance, I have gained admiration and appreciation of others. Emotionally, my weaknesses are now with multitasking and the stress of overstimulation which leads to a feeling of being overwhelmed. This may happen to everybody, but my automatic response is to attack and get aggressive. Eliminating conflicts and simplifying things….this all may seem like a good thing -unless you are the one causing me conflict…lol =).
Since I have dealt with sooo many problems in my life, I have learned how to be a problem solver. I am a bulldozer in life…”I get s&#! done” when it needs to get done! That’s my way of living. And when something is finished, I relax and get mellow. This was not the way I was before my auto accident. It was how I grew up, but I developed a mental attitude after high school – a wall of aggression. Because of damage to my frontal lobe, this magnified after my brain injury. Initially this aggression was a positive thing. I relied on it during the early phase of my rehabilitation and the physical recovery of skills (learning to walk, speak intelligibly, and regain motor coordination). The next phase of recovery also went well and I succeeded early on. This was the intellectual component. BUT…The real deficits of my brain damage started to show later but were not identified as being caused by my brain damage. I started to experience problems with social interactions, explosive and violent outbursts to stress and emotional inappropriateness toward others. I started to experience extreme road rage, get into loud arguments, damage property, and even did some self -hitting!
My frontal lobe damage led to some serious issues and psychological inabilities. So, the first thing I had to do was change my focus and understand that the world did not revolve around me! This may sound weird, but having sooo much attention and focus put on my medical recovery from the coma and physical damages made me self-centered. I had to transition from a hospital environment, where all attention was on me and I received a lot of praise for my progress (and felt proud because of my progress), to the public realm. Now, the focus on me was only because of my deficits and inabilities, mostly because of my abnormal gait pattern and speech. This was very contrary to the guy I was before, when I carried a confident and strong physical presence. I quickly reacted to any negative response I perceived as being directed towards me, to the point where I over-reacted to everything and became very confrontational. I also had this glassy eyed appearance from the brain damage (which I hated!!) as well as a tense tick on the left side of my face which became pronounced whenever I got emotional or stressed. Both things combined made me look “psycho” and did not help my emotional recovery.
I finally got diagnosed with frontal lobe brain damage as being the etiology of my emotional deficits in late 1995….7yrs after being discharged from the hospital with a pat on the back and an “atta-boy” for my amazing physical and intellectual recovery from a 5 week coma. But, this was only the beginning. Diagnosis is one thing, but knowing how to treat it and rehabilitate the injury was a hugely different animal! Nobody had a clue or any experience with this injury. I even went to a specialized brain injury school/rehab setting in New Hampshire for evaluation. Because of my size, strength, intellectual capacity, and vocal skills, they just interpreted my outbursts as me being an inappropriate a-hole and said they would not and could not help me. I learned more about myself from researching my own injuries and from introspection than anything they had to offer me. Back to my wife I went…still a broken man. It took many years, but, I finally found someone who had some experience with neuro-rehab. She helped me relearn basic emotional skills like recognizing the nonverbal cues of others, appropriate responses and behavior toward stressful situations of everyday life, and self -monitoring of my emotional status. I learned how to respond appropriately when I started to feel myself losing control. I also learned to change 1 small component at a time until it became a natural act or behavior. After 2 years of working with her and 15 years of practicing and remodeling, I felt like I finally had recovered.
But…this bulldozer injury left a path of emotional scarring that wasn’t going to be made pretty for awhile and without some effort! My poor wife was now going thru post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms from the emotional stresses of dealing with ME! NOW, after neurological rehabilitatiion training, I was ready to be part of a normal happily married couple, but she had become very defensive and emotionally guarded because she had to be so careful not to set me off or upset me. I had become very routine oriented and didn’t handle change or stresses well. During my emotional healing process, Marie always told me that “women respond to how they are treated by their man/husband”. It took a year of me humbling myself and the thought of us having to go our seperate ways before she was finally able to shed the hurt and anger, forgive me (women never forget), and return to being the little southern texas flower I had originally met an fell in love with. This reminds me of another thing she told me once – that when I had started showing signs of having issues, she was torn. She knew I was a good man with a good heart from a strong family up-bringing and basic values. She saw that side of me and heard it in our conversations. She knew I loved God and wanted to have the bible be the plan for how to live my life. But, I was in emotionally rough shape. She said I was like a classic old home with a great foundation in a good location….but one that needed a lot of work! I was her “fixer-upper”. It might take some time and effort, but with a lot of work and a few bruises and scars, she could have a good husband!
We had our 20 year anniversary on May 26, 2011. We are both happy with the spouses we have become and are great friends! We have earned our happiness together and look forward to sharing the next 30 + yrs enjoying each other. So, now I am a better man. I have gained so much from the healing process in regards to my increased awareness. I have a greater appreciation of others, and can identify my limitations as well as strengths. My current status is that I am a whole man again. And, even with all of my self improvements, medication, therapies, experiences, and blessings, I am still a sinner separated from God! Without my acceptance of the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a free gift from God, I will never be able to attain eternal life. But, with my acceptance of this gift, along with the understanding and application of biblical truths to my life, I will finally be able to live as a perfect man with a perfect body forever. —jim
written by Jim for braininjurystories.org