When I was 25, I had a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. I later joined a brain injury support group -- reluctantly.
"Don't compare apples to oranges. All of you are in different areas in life. Remember that. Different categories completely."
Kari, the moderator and social worker of the brain injury support group, was trying to give us a pep talk.
"You need to understand that your lives changed after your brain injuries. Understand that point, and you won't get jealous or hurt," she continued.
It didn't work. Out of the twenty attendees in the room, four, including me, were still morose, sad, and bitter. I was there because, following several months of treatment for a brain aneurysm that wiped out much of my memory and left me partially blind, everyone -- neurologists, therapists, counselors -- told me to join a group as soon as I was released from the hospital. But it took almost four years for me to actually attend a meeting. I had never planned to go, but finally I was so lonely and depressed that I felt I had no choice. Most of all, I had become painfully envious of everyone around me. To live in the outside world again, I needed to cope with non-brain-injured folks, whom I called "norms" a la old-school carnival-freak patois. These norms, with their goddamn unscarred heads, were pissing me off. They would never understand what had happened to me.
"For a while I've been thinking this is only some stupid pointy thingy. But now I totally understand what this is! I know what this is! It goes in your skin!" He was holding a syringe.
I was nervous that first day as I made it to room 10B in the Center for Disability, a run-down, twelve-story building on Manhattan's Lower East Side. I had never before considered myself "disabled," but now, as I begrudgingly accepted that possibility, I tried to prepare myself for my first meeting with my new peers.
Twenty people, wearing resigned expressions, sat on cheap blue plastic folding chairs arranged in a circle. The dingy white walls, offset by blackened gray tiles on the floor, enclosed a room that was suffocating in stale air. On one wall hung a framed poster of a striped cat with a word-balloon over its head that said, "I meow, therefore I am." I imagined Descartes's reaction if he had seen this. He wouldn't have just rolled over in his grave. No, he would have climbed out, purchased a Colt .45, and shot himself.
Daunted but not deterred, I looked closer. All those in the circle displayed evidence of brain injury. Some had paralyzed legs, some were blind, some were deaf. Some were quadriplegic.
At five foot nine, weighing one hundred and sixty pounds, my average frame looked downright Charles Atlas-esque next to some of the weakened bodies I saw before me.
This was one of the rare occasions when I didn't wear my contact lenses, so my view was slightly obscured by the scratches on the thick lenses in my Buddy Holly frames.
The glasses accentuated my fleshy nose while downsizing my large eyes, which were widening in horror as I took time to look closely at everyone gathered there.
Of course, my looks hardly mattered at that point, and I knew it was ridiculous to even contemplate how I appeared. I had entered a room where fashion was the least of anyone's concerns.
After each member had been seated, the moderator introduced herself as Kari and welcomed us to "the once-a-month brain support session," as she called it. She was a petite, attractive mid-thirties white woman who worked at the nearby hospital as a social worker.
The room was chillingly quiet, as in support group tradition we told our stories one by one. I suddenly had monstrous pangs of guilt. I was one of the few there whose ailments, while severe, appeared nonexistent. I wasn't in a wheelchair. Though half-blind, I could see. I could hear. I could speak. And, yes, I could samba.
I had always been irritated about this lack of obvious scarring, thinking mine to be a silent disease. Nobody could look at me and tell that I had a scorched battlefield between my ears, in part because, by all accounts, my brain still worked. I could articulate my thoughts, and even better, I had thoughts to begin with.
We went around the circle, each of us sharing our circumstances. We were different ages, different races, and different genders. The one commonality was brain injury. But even our brains were altered in diverse ways. Three of the younger ones, maybe in their twenties, couldn't speak at all; they sat in wheelchairs and simply nodded.
An overweight mid-fifties white woman with an unkempt gunmetal bob sat lazily in her chair. Wearing an oversized gray running jacket over a shapeless green sweatsuit, she had a foolish grin and drooled thickly.
Kari smiled at the woman, whose name, she told us, was Sara.
"Sara's just started speaking these past few weeks," she said with pride.
"Just last year, she didn't even understand the meaning of the word 'the.'"
"She now can form full sentences," she said, her pride even more pronounced.
I learned after the meeting that Sara had been living with brain injury ever since the early nineties, when she was involved in a three-car accident on the Long Island Expressway. She was the only driver substantially injured. Kari gave me the background.
"That's terrible," I said, "but even though she's in bad shape, it's great that she's speaking again."
"I know," Kari said, "I'm so happy for her progress. Just last year, she didn't even understand the meaning of the word 'the.' "