How I Regained My Humanity After a Brain Injury

Holding hands
Holding hands

A brain injury brings with it a confusing barrage of physical, emotional and cognitive changes that affects the survivor deeply and personally. The simplest expression of this is when we say, "I don't know who I am anymore."

This is also known as a loss of humanity. It has profound implications, manifesting itself as confusion, doubt and depression, and making our "recovery" that much more difficult. In my own situation, the hardships I encountered left me thinking, a number of times, that my life wasn't worth living.

At the age of 19 I was busy developing my own personality: likes, dislikes and strengths. But then, a car accident and month-long coma seemed to obliterate everything I had been.

Beyond the obvious -- needing to learn how to walk again, talk, tie my shoes and cut my food, etc., -- I lost the things I identified myself by, including my connection to the past. The events I could remember seemed to have happened to somebody else.

Back in school, I couldn't remember material in class or understand simple humor. I was a loner. I would get panicked if people deviated from the plan. I would act impulsively, and I made jokes to change the subject when I couldn't follow what was going on. People who didn't know my circumstances would point out my ditzy behavior, and it wouldn't even dawn on me that they were being mean. Late one night, walking down the street, I was mistaken for a drunkard.

Life was confusing and frustrating.

The fact that I was no longer who I used to be was apparently clear to my friends; most of whom had become mere acquaintances. All this put me in a world of doubt and confusion where I felt less than human.

I soon discovered that relearning the things I used to know so I could get back to the person I was, would not restore my humanity and help me live a fulfilled life. I needed to be recharged with the good; the stuff that makes us human -- the beauty, passion, emotions and feelings that made life worth living. These were the elusive parts of life that would make me a person again.

Eventually, I came to the realization that I would need to start over as a human being so I could find my place in the world. I called this "resetting zero," and I began experiencing life as new -- with no expectations based on how things were in the past. I developed standards for myself to follow to guide my behavior; things like being respectful and honest. You know, basic stuff.

Recovery, itself, seemed to be a frustrating and never-ending quest to get back to "normal." But I later found I didn't want to "recover," or simply work to recapture what I had lost: I wanted to grow in my new skin. An integral part of resetting zero was accepting that "recovery" was not a destination for me because recovery, to me, was defined as "getting back what I lost," and I wanted more than that.

Instead of recovery, then, I chose the word discovery to describe my journey. I was a new person and I needed to be a brave explorer. Moving forward, I wanted adventures where I could discover my new likes, dislikes and different ways of being.

In keeping with the idea of discovery, I took a a risk and lived ten miles off campus in a little red cabin. We chopped wood for heat. There, on the coast of Maine, I discovered important parts of life I couldn't learn in books.

Thirdly, I had to do something about the doubt that was crushing me, causing me to play it safe. I couldn't commit. I wouldn't decide. The simple answer was this: in order to erase the doubt I had to find ways to trust and believe in myself by learning to appreciate small accomplishments. I needed to create a culture of success and learn to nurture the person I was becoming.

Lastly, I had to get beyond the brain injury control and make it so that my brain injury "wasn't the boss of me". Blaming everything on that "damn brain injury" only gave it more power over me. I needed to learn to take a step back, away from my situation, so I could accept my brain injury and integrate it into my life. I did this, partially, by acknowledging that it wasn't the source of all the bad things that happened to me, and, instead, I looked for the benefits it had brought my way.

Feeling the good and learning to be human in a way I never had been was the end game for what I had gone through. Starting in a place of despair and hopelessness, I learned that taking these four steps could make my life very different, exciting even, and that the benefits of becoming human were, in fact, the ultimate reward.

True healing requires more than just medicine and treatment, which is why we've teamed up with Dignity Health to discuss how compassion and a human touch can benefit our health and our lives in myriad ways.

Do you have a personal story about compassion or big acts of kindness that you'd like to contribute? Let us know at or by tweeting with #PowerofHumanity.