I was 30 years old in 1984 when a wild-eyed teenager put a gun to the left side of my head and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through my skull in front of the left temple, tore a path through the left side of my frontal lobe before coming to a stop in my right frontal lobe. Bone spray was blasted into the left side of the brain. I underwent brain surgery in which a large subdural hematoma was removed. The wound was cleaned and the bullet was left where it was. Doctors knew more brain damage would result if they removed it.
No one told me I had a brain injury and back in the day, this was the norm. Words like brain injury and traumatic brain injury and terms like TBI had not found their way into common parlance. My marching orders were, We’re going to put you on anti-seizure meds for the first year as a precautionary measure and no, you can’t play contact sports anymore. No one said I was living with brain damage. It would be years before I learned that mood swings and short tempers and bursts of anxiety were reflections of the damage done to my brain. It would be years too before I understood why some activities exhausted me and others did not.
Fortunately, for Gabrielle Giffords and others who sustain brain injuries today, some things have changed for the better in my country. Now there is an increased awareness of brain injuries, that the injuries themselves present a range of lifelong challenges. Brain injuries don’t get all better and go away. What has not changed, or, if it has, it hasn’t changed enough, is how people with brain injuries, meaning people with disabilities, are treated. Too often people with brain injuries (and other disabilities) are treated as if they are both less valuable and, in a very real way, less human than others. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When I hear of someone getting shot in the head and suffering brain damage as a result, I almost instantly think, Please don’t let anyone lose sight of them, meaning, let no one lose sight of the fact no matter damage, no matter the personality of the disability, the person is still there. The whole of their value and humanity is not diminished.
When I hear of people being shot shot in the head, it moves me beyond description and I feel an instant bond with the person who was shot. When the person has been shot in the head, there is a unique sense of connection. Over the years, I have known a number of people with gunshot wounds to the head, I can think of eight at the moment. I remember a moving moment in 2002 when I was standing outside on a sunny day talking with three other men, all of whom had been shot in the head. One of us, I can’t remember who it was, quipped, “Can you believe we’re all talking here standing up?” to which another said, “Hell, can you believe we’re all here?”
We were all shot in the head and we all live with brain damage. And that is the reality that Gabrielle Giffords is dealing with and will deal with for the rest of her life. As my closest friend in the world, Michael Sulsona told me that day after I was shot. “Remember, you control it or it controls you.” Michael knows. A former and always in his heart U.S. Marine, Michael lost his legs in Vietnam.
One of the unique rarely talked about realities of getting shot in the head is this. The head is the sanctuary from which we experience our lives. It is there that our thoughts and feelings are shaped, emerge, and have their say. Our heads are, in a very real way, the center of our universe. And so, when you are shot in the head, the very sanctuary from which you experience life has been ruthlessly invaded, and an ineffable form of deep-seeded vulnerability results. It is, for some, the toughest challenge of all.
Gabrielle Giffords will not function entirely the way she functioned before she was shot; there will be differences. The bullet went through the left side of her brain, home to the speech center, so there may well be differences in her communication. Only time will reveal the personality of the brain injury she is dealing with. Here is what we don’t need time to tell us for sure. Gabrielle Giffords is still Gabrielle Giffords; her humanity and worth is not diminished. To treat her as if she is less than she was before is to give the shooting, the brain injury and, for that matter, the shooter, far more control than they deserve.
We are not our injuries, we have relationships with them, we are not defined by them.
Five weeks after shooting