Mary

Age at interview: 60
Outline:

On her way to work one early morning Mary was involved in a car accident, shattering bones throughout her body, causing internal damage and brain injury, and leaving the mother of two small children in a coma and in the hospital for six weeks. Recovery from the accident was both physical and mental for Mary. She was unable to walk on her own for two years, and the trauma to her brain left her with a damaged memory and with the skill set of a small child. Although she was able to relearn most skills over time, she still has problems with her memory and meticulously plans out her day, relying on notes, reminders, and cell phone technology to function.

Background:

Military branch: Army

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Mary was retired from four years of service in the Army, including a deployment to Germany, when she was involved in a car accident on her way to work early one morning in 1981. The impact of the collision shattered bones throughout her body and caused internal damage and brain injury, leaving the mother of two small children in a coma and in the hospital for six weeks.

Recovery from the accident was both physical and mental for Mary. She was unable to walk on her own for two years, and the trauma to her brain left her with a damaged memory and with the skill set of a small child. Mary had to relearn how to read, write, and manage money so she could function well enough to care for her children. She started slowly “with blocks and puzzles like little kids do,” and soon moved on to trying her first grader’s homework, which she would often struggle with, causing her to feel great insecurity about her abilities.

Although it was a long road to recovery for Mary, she was able to relearn most of her skills, and takes it easy on herself by understanding her limitations. “The memory is like, where you’re damaged is like this, hills and valleys.”

 

After feeling held back for a long time, Mary is now focused on “finding happiness” and has traveled on her own all over the United States and to Australia and Fiji as well as other parts of the world. She checks in with her family regularly when she is on the road and meticulously plans out her day relying on notes, reminders, cell phone technology, and a travel group to keep her on track and safe.

Mary feels it is important to “stand up for yourself” especially in the face of others who think you can’t do anything. “I feel I’ve taken my life back,” she says. “I’ve just reclaimed what I can of it and I’m not letting other people stop me.”

 

Mary had to learn to write again and developed strategies to help her remember things and find her way around.

Mary had to learn to write again and developed strategies to help her remember things and find her way around.

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I had to go through some classes to learn how to write again. They first started me out with blocks and puzzles like little kids do. But shapes and holes and putting puzzles together to make the pictures and I, I don’t know. I did that for six or eight months. And after I got done doing that I ran out of money. I had no insurance. You know, the money was gone, my employer had to let me go and I couldn’t afford anything. So, my daughter was in the first grade and my son was in preschool. So, they’d bring their school papers home and I’d sit there and copy every single thing that was on their school papers. And then I’d send them down to do their homework after they got done playing and then watch TV. And they’d get their homework done and when they’d go to bed, I’d do the homework. And then I’d compare our problems, our answers. And then I’d let them take the papers home and wait for the paper to come back corrected to see how I did. And I didn’t do – the kids did a lot better than me on a lot of it. And four and six, you know, which made me feel really insecure about myself.

Remembering things. I would they, they taught patterns of, of how remember like numbers. And I got so that I can look at look at a phone and I can remember the pattern, not the numbers. But just the pattern of how to dial a number and there’s not very many I can do, but I can remember my mom’s number, my older sister’s number, my home number, and my little sister’s number. That’s it. But if you said, “Oh by the way, what’s your mom’s number?” It’s like, it, it’s gone. It, when they, when somebody asks me a very pointed, specific question, it’s like, it just, it’s right there and they say the words and I’m listening and all of a sudden it, it, it – and I, I know it’s there, I just can’t find it in my brain. I got to where, I would draw, I would write maps. Or get somebody to write me maps. And they would write on one side of the paper every turn and the name of every road I was on. And then we’d flip the paper over and I would say back - the trip back - and it would have coming back the other way. Because I would drive to St. Helen’s, to the grocery store. And coming out of the grocery store, I’d have no clue where I was. I had no clue to get from where I was, lose my car. I, you know, I’d lose things all the time and it’s just like I, I kind of systemize things.

And the older I get, the better I get at it, you know? And, and it’s like I’d run into somebody and they’ll ask me questions. And I’m like,” I cannot remember the answer. I’m so sorry.” And they’re like, “Oh, it’s no problem. I forget things.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s brain damage for me.” And they’re like, “Oh well, you know I forget, you know? It’s brain damage for me, too.” I said, “OK.” You know? But it’s been this way since I was twenty-four, not since I turned fifty. You know so it’s, it’s really hard. But the doctor told me and I, I never, I never thought I’d live long enough there, but he said, “Eventually people will catch up with you and then it won’t matter.”

 

Mary sometimes does odd jobs for her sister, but struggles with her memory and keeping track of things.

Mary sometimes does odd jobs for her sister, but struggles with her memory and keeping track of things.

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I forget too many things. I lose track of things. I have done little oddball job things for my sister. You know, she didn’t pay me or she’d give me a few, you know, “Here. Here’s a twenty-dollar bill for helping me out.” You know but I, I can’t. Oh, let’s see, she had me come in and do nothing but put papers in files. I swear, every five minutes I would have to go into her office, “Where does this go?” It, it just – I look at what kind of bill it is or what kind of form it is - ain’t nothing popping in my brain and she’d go, “Oh, that’s blah, blah, blah.” And I’d go and I’ll put it in there. The next day or week later, she’ll have me come in and do a little bit more filing. I’ll come across that same stupid paper, I have no idea where it goes and I have to go ask her again. You know it’s just things like that that people that don’t know me, they’re like, “This is getting really pain in the ass. She keeps asking the same question,” you know? And, and sometimes people make remarks. Like in group a couple of guys in there made a couple of remarks about, you know, me forgetting stuff. And I said, “Well, I’ll trade you places. You have my life and I’ll have yours and let’s see who does better.” And they go, “No.” And he said, “And it’s not fun.” You know, but I just, I just try to make light of it now.

 

Mary struggles to remember people’s name and voices.

Mary struggles to remember people’s name and voices.

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Names, I can’t remember names of anything. If I meet somebody, it usually takes me about three months, maybe four months, to remember their name. People call me and they’ll be talking and talking and talking and I’m like, “Okay, you’ve got to tell me who this is – because I have no idea and you don’t even sound familiar,” you know and they’ll say, “You don’t recognize my voice?” “No.” I should, you know – but it’s – my siblings and my parents, I’ve always recognized theirs. But other people, it’s like,” I heard that before,” you know or it’s just that, getting lost up there in that brain.

 

After her brain injury, Mary was insecure and shaky and says that her family made her feel like a burden.

After her brain injury, Mary was insecure and shaky and says that her family made her feel like a burden.

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But this brain injury, I had all these people telling me how, what a burden I was. And I was so insecure about everything about myself and so shaky about anything I did. You know, I didn’t want to make a decision because I was afraid I was going to make the wrong one and then everybody would be mad at me. And, you know, always being caught and not knowing which way to go. But I think if I would’ve had some kind of support, you know I think it would’ve been amazing to be able to go to a class and say, you know, “What do I do? My whole family tells me I’m stupid.”

 

Mary carried around a pack of small notebooks to write things down and enlisted help from her kids to figure out their budget.

Mary carried around a pack of small notebooks to write things down and enlisted help from her kids to figure out their budget.

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With my kids or with my husband, you know, something would happen and I’d say, “You said you were going to do this.” Or, “You did this yesterday and it’s not done.” “I didn’t tell you that.” “Yeah you did.” You know and I used to pack a little three by five notebook. Once somebody would tell me something, I’d write it down, write the date down, write the time down and shove it in my pocket. And I packed it everywhere and I had tons of them. And I’d get it out and I’d show them. And they’d say, “Well you dreamed it up, because it never happened.” You know, but I had no check and balance because my check and balance was them. I thought it happened, but they keep telling me it didn’t happen. Or you know whatever it is, it, they were – my kids, when they were teens, oh I had a horrible time because I was a single parent. And I had a really hard time – I sat them down, they were eleven and thirteen. I sat them down and I said, “Okay. I can’t do this by myself. This is how much money we got. This is a budget book and you’re going to help me figure out how to do it. And we’re going to make ends meet.” So at the first of the month, they knew to come to the kitchen table with a list of what they needed for the month. And I would go through the bills, I’d go through their needs, I’d go through the groceries you know and say “this is how much we’ve got left.” You know? And the kids were really good about helping me stay within those budgets. But it was like getting permission to go do things, “Well mommy already told me I could do it. I told my friends.” “I didn’t tell you that.” “Yes, you did. Ask Ray.” Ask the brother. “Yeah, you told her that.” You know, but – and they kept pulling that. And I know they were pulling it on me.

 

Mary says the biggest “magic bullet” for her was dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Mary says the biggest “magic bullet” for her was dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

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But it’s, I’ve learned it. You know and like I said, probably the biggest magic bullet I got was DBT. And it took a long time, but it finally started. It was like, “I know what this means.” You know, I actually did it in my life for real and I’m like, “Oh, my god,” you know? And then I, I went to group and I told them about what happened, you know, and about how I used the skill. I go, well I can’t remember which one it was. But there’s a skill and I used that skill. You know and it was a really stressful situation. And I was so proud of myself and everybody’s going, “Yay, yay,” you know? And it just made it feel so much better, you know, because they’re struggling the same way I am. And I applaud their efforts and they applaud mine. And we give each other that support we need. And you know, we’re not getting it from home. We’ve got, they’re not friends, but they are friends. They’re not somebody I talk to every week on the phone. But if they’ve got a problem, I’m one of those people they call before the call to the VA, you know, because, “I’m not sure where I’m at right now and I just need somebody to talk to.” And I’ve gone down that road with them too, you know? And, and that has been wonderful. You know it’s just been amazing and just, being able to trust in myself. And it’s not like I’m just going to jump out there and do something - think it through very carefully, very meticulously and then I do it. You know, and so it’s what I’ve taught myself how to do.

 

Mary’s brother-in-law helped by writing out very specific directions when she would go places.

Mary’s brother-in-law helped by writing out very specific directions when she would go places.

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I make people give me very specific directions or instructions to go places. And I had a phenomenal brother-in-law. That guy could write directions backwards and forwards in New York City - all of the boroughs, even going out of the city. And he would write me these maps. I – he’d just give me one day to get it together and then I’ll give it back to him the next. So, I’d tell him I’ve got to go - I had to go to Fishkill - which is upstate in New York a little bit. Over some presidential bridge, I don’t know. Anyway, but Joey just wrote it all out. The name of the road, what, where I had to turn, what exit I had to take, what the numbers were - all the way up to Fishkill and then all the way back. And it’s different roads and different exits and he – perfect. And I said, “I’m going to use you while we’re here.” You know, and it was just getting around Brooklyn sometimes. But I’d just called Joey and tell him and he’d say, “This, this, this,” you know, and drop it off to me. And it was wonderful, you know, the assistance I’ve had.