Living With A Brain Injury – April 2010

No brain injury is the same no matter its cause and a brain injury is never a static thing. It’s role in your life changes and shifts for a range of reasons. It is one experience when you are rested and, in all likelihood, another experience when you are tired. In a state of fatigue the brain is not as able to compensate for the damage. Aging too impacts the role the injury plays.

As one who lives with a brain injury my responsibility  is to keep an eye on its role in my life and do my best to manage it. My injury is a result of being held up and shot in the head in 1984. There is one immoveable truth that stands tall in the face of this or any disability or disease for that matter. They d0 not define who we are unless we allow them too and the most certainly do not define our value in life.

My closest friend, Michael Sulsona, lost his legs in Vietnam and another good friend of mine, Jim Cesario, suffered a spinal cord injury. Both men use wheelchairs. Both also deal with people talking to them in very loud voices because for some odd reason people think if you use a wheelchair you’ve suffered hearing loss. Go figure. Both men, by the way, stand way taller in life than most people I know.

No matter the wounds of life,  you are not gone.

It seems to me one of the keys to improving quality of life is acceptance, your capacity to accept the reality that is you. This requires honesty. For me, I’ve accepted I am an alcoholic (I will be eight years sober this July 12) and I have accepted that a brain injury and PTSD are present in my life. By accepting the realities you face for what they are, you stay right sized and by keeping them right sized you do not lose you in the process.  That to me is the greatest discovery of all. No matter the wounds of life,  you are not gone.

There are still days my fear and anxiety stop me from getting out of the house, or drive me out of my backyard and back into the house, but even so, I am more than okay. On those days I am by no means a defeated being. I am surrounded by books and the house is filled with music and, of course, the bird feeders are filled with wondrous visitors.

Your most powerful weapon

No matter what you are facing in life, you are not gone. I can tell you too that honesty, which is the core fuel for one’s capacity to accept, is your most powerful weapon.



I heard Bruce Springsteen once say that a song title can open the door to the song. The same can be said of an essay title like this one, Dreams in Isolation. While isolation is a web many of us are caught in from time to time, it can be, if you allow silence or, for me anyway, music, a method of allowing an idea to move, shift, emerge. Dreams are allowed to come to light for the first time or come back into the light after having left for a time. The thing to do is pay attention and, if you like to write, write it down – if you’re fast enough.

Although I may not be as fast as I was some years back, I am honest now. Therefore, when I write things down, some silly twist of disingenuous ego doesn’t distort the phrasing; at least I don’t think so. God I hope not. You can spend an enormous amount of time second guessing things, don’t you think?

For years I have thought about writing an essay about my closest friend, Michael Sulsona. He is, in my heart, my brother. In more than 30 years of friendship, we’ve never had a fight. That’s remarkable. Even now as I ponder writing about him, I know I can’t get close to the extraordinary bond between us. I can tell you that our bond is built, not simply on a genuine love and respect for each other, but on our capacity to accept each other for who we are. I also think we have each seen so much brutality in life that we just don’t see the point in fighting.

Here, I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a glimpse of Michael’s ability to right size a moment with an expertise matched by no one I’ve ever known. First, some background.

Michael was born and raised in Brooklyn. He joined the Marines when he was a teenager and went to Vietnam. When he was 19, he stepped on a mine and as a result lost both his legs above the knee. You take that experience and all else that comes with going to war and you know Michael has known and seen things the large majority of people have thankfully been spared.

As most of you know, I was held up and shot in the head at point blank range in 1984 leaving the bullet lodged in my brain and loss of hearing in the left ear along with the brain damage that happens when you don’t duck quickly enough.

I was living in New York City’s Lower East Side when I was shot and there came a time when I was having a lot of flashbacks. I called Michael and he said he’d come pick me up and we’d go for a ride.

An hour later we are stopped at a red light at East Second and Avenue A when Michael says, “Hey, you’d agree we’re a little fucked up, right?”

I say, “Well, yeah, a little.”

He says, “Whattaya mean a little? You got a bullet in your brain, fucked up hearing. I got no legs, lots of shrapnel in my body, fucked up hearing. Don’t you think we’re a little fucked up?”

I smile and laugh, “I guess so.”

He says, “You guess so? You see that woman?” and here he points at a couple in their twenties holding hands and crossing Avenue A. They were coming in our direction. They were both model gorgeous. He looked like he just stepped out of GQ and she looked like she just stepped out of Cosmopolitan. The what’s wrong with this picture aspect of this glamorous image was the pizza she had balanced on her head. Michael says, “You see her? She’s never stepped on a mine, she’s never been shot in the head, and she’s walking across the street with a pizza on her head. You think we’re fucked up?”

Like I said, I’ve never known anyone who can right-size a moment with greater speed, accuracy and humor.

As to what any of this has to do with Dreams in Isolation? I haven’t a clue. But hey, it’s my essay, and I can promise you one thing, I wasn’t balancing a pizza on my head when I wrote it either.

Love you, Michael.