Brain Injury Awareness Month: Fueled By The Struggle

KO DoorI just forgot how to use a can opener.

I stood in my kitchen with a can of black beans, trying to make dinner. For 3 minutes (read: three eternities), I stood there with the can opener in my hand trying to figure out how it worked.

To the rest of the world, I’m a normal 30-year-old woman with a cute apartment, a fantastic career and a slight obsession with my cat.

Yet, I just stood in the kitchen staring at the can opener in my hand, entirely lost.

What the rest of the world doesn’t see is that in my head, I’m everything but normal. In any given day, I will have at least three of these moments where my mind just hits a wall. Sure, everyone has moments — you forget a word, can’t remember someone’s name, or ask, “Where did I leave my cellphone?”

But I’ll bet you take the ability to use a can opener for granted.

I’m severely brain injured. You’d never know it by looking at me or talking to me. I go to great lengths to make sure that the rest of the planet doesn’t see me as anything other than “normal.”

How appropriate that March, Brain Injury Awareness Month, also brings the anniversary of the horseback riding accident that left me with a 5-inch crack in my skull that runs from my eye socket up under my hair.

I have what’s called a “contrecoup injury,” which means that the front of my head slammed against that pole so hard that it ricocheted back and actually damaged the base of my skull. Underneath the fractures, I damaged my right frontal lobe (the part of the brain that largely houses personality and social functioning) and my occipital lobe (the part of the brain that processes vision). When I woke up from my coma, I was a blind, emotional basket case.

Research shows how important early care is for traumatic brain injury (TBI) recovery, and I got lucky there. From coma to outpatient graduation, I was in medical rehabilitative care for about seven months. I was only 20 years old at the time of my injury, and my brain still had a great deal of plasticity and healed remarkably quickly. Being young and plastic didn’t stop me from hating every minute of my rehabilitation. The physical pain, the repetitive memory exercises that constantly reminded me of how damaged I was, the emotional pain, the loneliness. It was devastating.

I spent the next few years after my accident angry at the world, embarrassed because I forgot everything, and in constant fear that someone would figure out just how much I struggled to get through every day sounding normal. I started styling my hair differently to cover my forehead scar, and I stopped talking about my injury altogether. I was angry.

I didn’t know it at the time, but anger over the loss of my old life and self was excellent fuel. It pushed me to finish my bachelor’s degree. And then get a job. And then go back to school and get a master’s degree. Without even realizing it, I found myself sitting in my master’s leadership class talking about my TBI and what it’s like to live with an invisible disability. Wait, where did that come from?

10 years after the accident, every day is still a struggle. I forget how to use can openers, or I get in the car, drive somewhere and forget where I’m going halfway there. I freeze when my boss asks me a question — not because I don’t know the answer, but because she caught me off guard and it takes my broken brain a second to catch up. I get literal nightmares about losing my job over forgetting something important, and I still get the shakes when I remember that time someone asked me my birthday and I couldn’t come up with it.

I feel like I spend more time overanalyzing how I perform menial, automatic tasks in a day than I breathe. In a weird way, I think this is what’s made me … well, work. I realized a while ago that there is too much to life to live it miserably, so I don’t. I’m brain injured — I’m going to struggle, no matter what. The struggle could control me, and I admit that it did for a long time. But I have another choice: I can’t control the struggle, but I can use it as fuel. I can’t stop perseverating every night about my work performance — this could drive me crazy, or it could make me analyze my mistakes and learn. Forgetting how to use a can opener could embarrass me, or it could make for a really awesome opening line.

The choice is mine.

I choose to tell you my story.

Keara Osborne has lived all of her 30 years in Southern California and is a big fan of the beach. In spite of a horseback riding accident in 2005 that resulted in a severe Traumatic Brain Injury, Keara proudly holds a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Irvine, and a Master of Social Work from the University of Southern California. She currently works in real estate and splits her free time between volunteering with various homeless service organizations and touring as an Irish dancer with Kerry Records.