In my last post, In the Dark—Early Retirement Part I, I was struggling with finding my value because I was unable to work due to my traumatic brain injury. I sought help to adjust with a counselor.
Recently, I was at a benefit to raise money for someone who has cancer and I saw many people I hadn’t seen in five, 10, 20, 30 and 40 years. Some people I didn’t easily recognize and others still looked the same, just a little older. After exchanging pleasantries and giving a wave, handshake, hug or kiss, the first question I was asked was about my family members. The second question was about work.
“Watcha been up to?” and “What do you do for work?”
When I told people I didn’t work, many of them couldn’t believe what they heard me say and wanted me to confirm by asking, “You don’t work?”
I explained I had way too many concussions and accidents over the past 40 years and the cumulative effect made it so that I couldn’t keep a job. Some people shook their heads in agreement and said, “You got a lot of those concussions from playing sports!”
That got the attention of other people I played sports with and they curiously asked, “And you don’t work?”
In my defense, I told them how I did everything I could to get and keep a job, but I still ended up losing 13 jobs over a 4 year period even after lowering my skill set at each new job. I become overloaded easily and would eventually go into Fight or Flight mode at the job site. Some more people shook their heads in agreement while still another person asked, “So you don’t work?”
Then people who wanted to be jerks asked, “How’s EARLY RETIREMENT treating you?”
Followed by, “It must be nice not having to work!”
I fired back with, “I would give anything to have an uninjured brain and go back to work!” and “Yes! I just love being broke, driving shit boxes for cars, not owning a home, no retirement money for my wife, no money set aside for my daughter’s college and always one step away from being homeless!”
There was complete silence as I stood there fuming. Then, I was asked, “So what do you do all day?”
When I told people I’ve been helping and advocating for Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injuries and their family members over the past 12 years, even the biggest of jerks stuck out their hands to shake mine and thanked me for my service and what I was doing to help Veterans. Some people tried to measure up to me by saying things like, “I can’t measure up to the halo you’re wearing!”
Other people said, “You’re a Saint!”
Then I shared I was also involved with protecting athletes from getting concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy by educating people that no helmet can prevent a concussion, and raising awareness about the dangers of repetitive hits, hiding concussions and playing with a concussion. Also, we need a Return to Learn Law / Protocol to prevent children from experiencing what happened to me when I returned to school after getting a concussion.
Some people who have kids that play sports began to back off on their opinion of me as being a Hero and a Saint. I was now more evil and a jerk for wanting to protect the brains of youth athletes as I have done with Veterans. To me, Veterans and Athletes are very similar in many ways because they are highly susceptible to getting a Traumatic Brain Injury. Both groups are great at hiding concussions, don’t ask for help because they feel others need it more than they do, and they are plagued by STIGMA’s.
Once again I was being forced to stare at the thin line which separates the working from non-working, the healthy from the disabled, the valuable from the worthless and the good from the bad knowing how easy it is for someone to cross over that line in an instant because of a Traumatic Brain Injury. In a heartbeat, anyone can have their life turned upside down and have to spend the rest of it trying to pick up the pieces while being judged by others who haven’t learned the true VALUE of a brain because our society doesn’t value brains. If it did, it wouldn’t teach children to do things that injure their brains in exchange for trophies, ribbons, and medals, or provide them with role models who injure their brains in exchange for money, fame, a college education, etc.
Should a person who works have more VALUE than a person who got injured while working?
Should a person who was lucky enough to earn their retirement by working up to the last day of their career have more VALUE than an unlucky person who was forced into early retirement?
Should a healthy person have more VALUE than a disabled person?
Should a visible injury or life-threatening injury have more VALUE than an invisible injury a person has to suffer with, the rest of their life?
Should Veterans have more VALUE than Children who are our future?
Should a Veteran who is 100% disabled have more VALUE than a Veteran who is 20% disabled, even though they bravely and courageously fought the same war?
Should Athletic Leagues have more VALUE than the Players who sacrificed their brains and bodies to help make the leagues popular?
Should the brain of a Professional Athlete have more VALUE than the brain of a Youth Athlete?
Should Youth Sports have more VALUE than a Child’s brain?
Should I be able to take my awards, certificates, ribbons, trophies, and halo down to the bank and cash them in for MONETARY VALUE?
Am I this wonderful and caring nice guy who helps others or am I an evil, worthless, scam artist who is leaching off of society?
Do I gain VALUE when I’m actively participating as a member in a Post Rehabilitation Brain Injury Program three days a week, providing support to my disabled peers and educating Speech, Occupational, Recreational and Psychiatry Interns about Brain Injury?
Do I lose VALUE when I go through weeks and months of being a frequent flyer in the Emergency Department and hospitals because of complications related to my TBI’s?
Do I gain VALUE when I share my story with doctors and they tell me they’ve learned more from me than I’ve learned from them about Traumatic Brain Injury during the office visit?
Do I lose VALUE when my emotional liability kicks in and I cry easily over things I shouldn’t get so emotional about?
Do I gain VALUE when a Veteran hugs me like a brother and thanks me for saving his life because I was the only one there for him and believed in him when he was suicidal?
Do I lose VALUE when a long time friend who was like a brother to me my whole life estranges himself from me because I openly talk about the concussions I got playing Pop Warner Football and his dad was a coach?
Do I gain VALUE when my daughter tells me her friend at school thanked her because she was THE ONLY ONE who knew the symptoms of a concussion and that the information my daughter provided to her friend ultimately led to a doctor diagnosing her with a concussion?
Do I lose VALUE because I know I have raised a child who is one day going to be the best Speech Language Therapist, Occupational Therapist and Recreational Therapist all rolled into one, but I can’t afford to pay for her to go to the University of New Hampshire to get her degree(s)?
Do I gain VALUE every time I work tirelessly to break down a barrier which was preventing others from getting services they earned and need?
Do I lose VALUE every time a government agency hell bent on greed and self-preservation puts up a taller barrier to screw people out of the healthcare and benefits they EARNED?
Do I gain VALUE raising awareness about Sports Concussions, Return to Play Protocols and Return to Learn Protocols?
Do I lose VALUE when a Professional Athlete with a history of concussions repeatedly punches his opponent in the head on live television with millions of men, women, and children watching?
Do I gain VALUE when I create and implement and awareness campaign that will help others with disabilities?
Do I lose VALUE when self doubt prevented me from implementing an awareness campaign in my community which could’ve prevented a High School Athlete and a Veteran from committing suicide?
Do I gain VALUE when I work hard to improve the quality of my life and the lives of others?
Do I lose VALUE because I draw money from a program that I paid into when I worked 8 to 15 hours per day?
Do I gain VALUE because my advocacy and articles provided a voice for and touched the lives of others I will never meet?
Do I lose VALUE when I’m sitting all alone shedding tears while grieving the loss of my old self?
Do I gain VALUE when I was there for an elderly person who wanted to end her life because she felt she couldn’t recover from her injuries and didn’t want to be a burden to society?
For three months I held her hand and shared my story of recovery and rehabilitation with her. I told her TIME heals wounds and that being elderly didn’t mean she had run out of time. I told her she was the Most Valuable Person for giving away all of her riches and money to others, the church and charities all of her life while living like she was a Pauper. I told her how valuable she’s been to everyone over her lifetime and that those people and more still needed her in their lives and that she needed to trust me and have faith in God.
I told her I knew she had lost faith in God because she stopped saying her rosary and praying for the hundreds of people she had prayed for on a daily basis for decades. I told her how I paid dearly every time I lost faith and all she had to do was start believing again. That every time something went wrong I realized it was something God wanted me to work through and learn from in order to help others on my mission.
I explained to my childhood friends at the fundraiser, “She’s the nice, elderly lady who greeted all of you at the door with the ‘happy to be alive’ smile on her face!”
I thought about what my VA Counselor from long ago said to me about EARLY RETIREMENT.
Through my disability I would:
• Learn how to recover from and deal with injury, heartache, loss and loneliness.
• Need to be more kind, generous, thankful and forgiving and less angry, selfish, ungrateful and unforgiving.
• Give back to my community by educating people about disabilities and work with people within my community to prevent injuries.
• Be ready and able because my family members and peers will call upon me FIRST when illnesses and injuries happen and tragedies strike.
• Learn to listen and provide words of encouragement to others when they feel hopeless and worthless.
• Do a JOB that very few people in this world are willing or capable of doing which doesn’t pay anything and which some people will think I’m a burden on society, evil or worthless until the time comes when they, their family members or friends need me to be there for them with the knowledge, courage, understanding, patience, generosity, commitment, perseverance and advocacy only an early retired TBI Survivor can provide to people no matter what they do or did for work or how much money they have or don’t have in the bank.
My counselor was right that I bring so much value to others. I finally realized what she meant many years later.
Read the first installment of:
In The Dark, and
Photo: Getty Images