It was the last place I
ever expected to be. I had reached the point of pure and
way through year two as a person with a traumatic brain
injury, life as I knew it was more painful than anything I had
ever experienced. I had reached the jumping off point.
Thoughts of suicide were rampant and I was quickly running out
Sarah and I did our best during those abysmally tough first
two of years after my brain injury. In an effort to maintain
some semblance of normalcy, we continued to do many of the
things we did before I was hurt.
One of our favorites remains unchanged to this day. So often,
we’ll hop in my car and drive north to the White Mountains of
New Hampshire. There is something healing, something cathartic
about being at one with nature. Away from the daily hustle and
bustle of life, away from traffic and shopping malls, our
trips to the North Country always leave us both re-centered.
So it was only natural that the North Country would call to us
during this difficult time.
Passing a roadside sign almost too small to see, the words Pow
Wow Today caught my eye. A quick u-turn found us pulling into
the parking lot — with events unimagined about to unfold.
For a reason I still can’t explain to this day, I left my
shoes in the car and chose to walk barefoot. Maybe I innately
knew that I wanted to feel more connected to the earth. After
all, some of the best things in life happen when you are
barefooted. Sarah and I were married in bare feet, but that is
a tale for another time.
A small kiosk at the entry to the tribal grounds collected a
voluntary donation and it was there that I first noticed a
palpable sense of spirituality. There was the smell of burning
sage that hung heavy in the air. And there was the sound of
drumming off in the distance that seemed to connect me from
the ground up, reverberating through to the core of my broken
I watched people approach the kiosk. As someone with a brain
injury, my disabilities are invisible. But those approaching
the kiosk wore their disabilities with honor. I watched young
parents pushing a child in a wheelchair. People hobbled in on
crutches. A couple of kids with Down’s Syndrome were among
those I first saw. The list goes on. Like pilgrims to the
Ganges in India, they came to be healed.
At a year-and-a-half into my new life, I was in the toughest
shape I’d ever been. Other people whom I’d met told me that
they, too, had found that the first couple of years
post-injury were the hardest. They also shared that it would
get easier. I just never imagined it would be so hard.
So, what kind of shape did I find myself in at the eighteen
My dual diagnosis included a brain injury and post-traumatic
stress disorder. At eighteen months, my PTSD was kicking my
backside. The wail of an ambulance siren more often than not
would reduce me to uncontrolled tears. But far worse than that
were the nightmares. Three to four nights a week, I would
awaken whimpering, screaming or crying hysterically from
nightmares of all makes and models. Sarah did her best to coax
me back into the land of the living and away from the demons
in my head. But, ultimately, she would fall back asleep and I
would lie there in abject terror wondering what was coming
next. I wrote in exquisite detail about this time in my
recovery in my book Metamorphosis, Surviving Brain Injury and
truth-be-told, it’s tough for me to look back and read about
it to this day.
Daily, I would walk around in a perpetual state of sleep
deprivation, and nightly, I would come to great harm in my
sleep. Almost from the get-go, I had made the decision that I
would go to any lengths to get as well as I could, to do all
that I could to live successfully as someone who had sustained
a brain injury. I knew I wouldn’t fully return to my pre-brain
injury self, but I was determined to get as close as I could.
Slowly, I learned that I could sometimes simply coexist with
my brain injury, while at other times, we put on the boxing
gloves to spar for a round or two.
From cognitive therapy to a great support group, from a
well-intentioned psychologist to devouring everything I could
read, nothing seemed to work for my nightly trips to Hell and
Such was my condition on the day of the Pow Wow.
A Native elder was smudging those wishing to be healed. I
stood in line, eyes filled with tears. How did I get here, to
this point of sheer desperation?
Sarah and I spent the next couple of hours walking the
grounds, watching the Grand Procession, breathing in all the
positive energy and enjoying the healthy distraction from the
torture life had become.
Heading back to our car, we passed a tent with a sign outside.
“Native American Healer,” the sign read. His prices for
sessions were listed below. Five dollars for 15 minutes.
I stood there for a few minutes, Sarah by my side. Like me,
she was weary. Like me, she was trying to understand her new
role as the wife of someone with a brain injury.
“Do you want to try this?” she asked with just a hint of
encouragement. She knew my state; my state was “our” state.
Sheepishly and a little embarrassed, I said yes. Heck, what
did I have to lose? Five bucks is not a bank-breaker.
The tent flap opened and out came a man 10 years or so my
senior. He looked gentle. He looked kind.
I can’t tell you all that happened inside his tent. Not that I
don’t want to, I simply don’t remember it all. We talked for a
couple of minutes. He asked me what I was looking to be healed
As the water-works started, I told him about my brain injury.
I shared that nothing worked. I told him of the nightmares, of
dying over and over in my dreams. I told him my dreams were as
traumatic as my brain injury.
He shared that he had been in Vietnam and had seen unspeakable
events. And he shared that he was now whole.
Eyes closed as this twenty-first century medicine man
performed his ritual, a ritual most likely passed down through
the ages. I could feel the bass beat of the drummers through
my core. Soft words were chanted in an unfamiliar tongue and
incense burned. Eyes wide as I emerged from his tent, I
flipped him a ten.
“I don’t need change.” I thanked him and went off to find
For the next two weeks, the nightmares completely disappeared.
I slept as I had not slept since my brain injury. I would love
to share that that was the end-game for my PTSD nightmares,
but it was not. A couple of weeks later, they came back with a
vengeance — and remained with me for the next year.
Gratefully, at two-and-a-half years after my brain injury, my
nightmares abruptly dissipated. A medical professional called
them “self-resolving.” These days — now well into year four
since my TBI — I might have one or two bad nights a month.
Compared with what it had been, I am quite okay with it.
Like so much that encompasses living with a brain injury,
recovery timelines are measured not in days or even weeks, but
Just the other day, Sarah and I passed the tribal grounds
where these events came to pass. The gates were closed and two
feet of snow barred any entry.
I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of that July day.
I am grateful to no longer live in Nightmare Alley. And I am
grateful that I have experienced full-blown PTSD. That may
sound odd, but my experience means that I can better
understand others who fight similar battles.
And that alone means that my challenges were not in vain.
Share this article...