The Mighty Logo

When I Struggled With Survivor's Guilt After My Traumatic Brain Injury

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

I was a senior in high school when a car accident changed my life. My best friend Jennifer died in the wreck. Her grave is marked by a tombstone that bears a picture of her beautiful face and the inscription “Forever Seventeen.”

I survived.

Waking up from a coma seems like the strangest, most confusing thing that could happen. Where am I? What happened? Why can’t I move? Why are all these people around? Where’s Jennifer?

I thought that was the worst it could get. I never thought that learning what was still happening to me would be even stranger and more confusing. I had broken bones that were healing and a broken brain that was not, and I didn’t know if I could fix it or how to fix it or how it was broken or if I had all the pieces. My muscles were so weak I went to physical therapy to learn to walk without dragging my leg behind me, and raise my arms inch by inch until I could reach over my head. I spent my entire life right-handed, but suddenly I couldn’t control the muscles, so now I guess I’m a lefty. Sometimes my muscle spasms are so intense I immediately fall to the floor, unable to move. Normal daily activities exhaust me. These are symptoms of my brain injury that I learned about over the years; back then I was 17 and confused and that was the most terrifying time of my life. All I knew was that things were hard and my best friend was gone.

But why was I not more grateful? I was in pain and things were hard, but I was alive. What right did I have to ask questions? What right to feel sorry for myself? How could I even have the audacity not to feel unbelievable gratitude just to be alive? What I felt was guilt, but there was something else too. What I felt is what I’d imagine a lot of people with invisible disabilities feel: relentless apprehension and shame. Do I even have a legitimate “disability” anyway? What if this exhaustion I feel really is just laziness? Couldn’t I just suck it up and move a little faster? Is it worth the energy to try to explain? How can I explain when I don’t understand myself? What if they think I’m exaggerating? What if they think I just want medication? What if they don’t believe me?

For these questions, I have learned to stick with good doctors when I find them and power through the rest. I’ve learned that even doctors don’t know everything, and some of them are wrong. Most importantly, I’ve learned that some questions I can answer for myself.

Will things always be hard for me?

So far, yep. But not impossible.

Can it get better?

With a lot of work and time.

Will I ever be able to write again? Draw again? Walk normally? Use a knife and fork? Throw a softball? Go places by myself? Have a relationship? Drive a car? Graduate college? Have a career? Move across country by myself?

The answer to all of these — a resounding, unequivocal, exhausting, mighty yes.

It has been 15 years since the accident, Jennifer’s death and my brain injury. There are still things I can’t do. I can’t run. I can’t type for more than a minute or two without a break. I can’t remember things. But there are also things I never thought I would be able to do again, or ever. The only constant is the knowledge that with enough practice, I can master a lot of things I thought were impossible. I am proud of myself for that.

I think Jennifer would be proud of me too.

Originally published: February 25, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home