Six friends and I piled into a van as we left a house party in Apsley, Ont. The driver had been drinking and refused to hand over his keys. On our travel home we smashed into rock, which lined a sharp turn in the road. This caused our van to flip several times. The driver died instantly on impact. He was 18 years old. My only recollection of the accident comes from photos taken at the scene. Our van was the equivalent of a crushed pop can.
My life was changed forever. I was only 14 years old.
The left side of my face was rebuilt. My knee suffered two ligament tears. And I sustained a catastrophic brain injury. Now, I live the life of a permanent outpatient.
In the years following, I felt as though I was living in a haze. I refused to accept that there was anything wrong with me.
I needed to figure out on my own what impacts my injury would have on my life through experience — not by what doctors said. The truth was, I struggled.
Before my accident, I attended summer school in hopes of completing high school at a quickened pace, as the work was easy and I was driven by an eagerness to pursue a higher level of education. But as the fates would have it, I now went to summer schools and night classes just to keep up. In many instances, I had to take courses up to three times to improve my marks. I finally graduated at the age of 19.
After attempting a film program at York University, I eventually dropped out, giving up on school.
On the night of the accident, my best friend and I were transported to Sick Kids by helicopter. Her brain was beginning to float as spinal fluid rushed into her skull, while the other passengers were considered “walkers,” escaping with mere scrapes and bruises.
I hit my head in the front left and the back of my brain.
This has caused me to experience chronic pain and fatigue, difficulty in finding the correct words when I’m speaking, trouble with fine motor skills, impulsive behaviour, trouble categorizing new information, periodic insomnia, headaches and difficulty with time management. My knee injury is a constant source of pain and instability and causes me to tire quicker. That’s only a few of my daily struggles.
As I got older, I decided to give school another shot.
During the time of my Ryerson application, I began to write for the Brain Injury Society of Toronto (BIST). Writing about topics relevant to people with the same struggles helped me explore issues I was experiencing from an academic rather than personal standpoint. Ultimately, working with BIST built my understanding of my invisible disability, and in turn my confidence.
Out in the country, where I’m from, there’s nothing but land and liquor. During my initial recovery, I moved many times and found myself in the city. I eventually left home to live on my own. Living with my mom made me angry. I needed space to explore my new self. As I started to learn the lay of the land in Toronto, it was hard for me to accept people into my life.
I still wasn’t sure what lived inside me, or how my soul had been injured. The thought of strangers getting a look before I myself had figured everything out scared me. And so I distanced myself from the outside world, keeping busy with work, ensuring no time to reflect on what had become of me.
My prospects aren’t more positive now because I have reached some stage of healing, but because I work tirelessly each week with my therapists to stay strong. With the help of my therapists I have been able to sustain a functioning level of endurance at Ryerson.
Brain injury is complicated and BIST is working towards uncomplicating things a little for people like me. Currently, BIST is in the works of creating a student group where students with brain injuries can speak to each other about their struggles and triumphs in their own education. Having just received a Trillium Grant from the provincial government, BIST now has the resources to begin planning in April.
The group will be student-oriented and, depending on the demographic of members, there’s a possibility the group meetings will be on Ryerson’s campus. Existing support groups on campus deal more specifically with mental illness, and are unable to relate to my injury.
This is my first year back in school, and with the right structures in place, I highly anticipate a proper system of support that BIST will be able to provide.
Raising awareness on campus about people who look “normal,” but deal with invisible disability is crucial. This is a huge step for me, as I’m only just beginning to let people back into my life.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 27, 2013.