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September 2016 | Our Personal Stories

What hope looks like

How a woman’s tragic accident became a beautiful asset

There are watershed moments in our lives that forever mark the before and the after. Sobriety dates are like that. Mine is April 13, 1991.

Early sobriety was rough. Confusion and anxiety, despair and heartache, all put in solid performances. Divorce had me struggling with kids, school, work and AA. Good sponsorship, steady attendance at meetings and my walk through the Steps awakened me. I moved through daily life with a new perspective.

I had a service position as treasurer for a sobriety conference and we had a walk-through at the conference center in the mountains. We were driving home and before me, the setting summer sun painted the background orange and silhouetted the mountains to the west. “Purple mountain majesties” comes to mind every time I see this scene in my home state. As we slowed for a blinking yellow light, our vehicle was rear-ended by a 16-year-old driver who’d had his license for only three months.

Everything since June 13, 1998, marks after the wreck.

A brain injury is like moving through molasses on a cold day. Slow and stupid became a regular phrase in my internal dialogue. Speaking was a chore. Reading was nearly impossible. Writing had its limitations. Objects would slip from my hands as if I’d forgotten I was holding them.

Scrambled eggs for brains. Imagine an egg in a plastic container that’s been forcefully thrown against a wall. This is what happens to a brain inside a skull. The world moved too fast. It was too loud and too bright. Retreating inward seemed the only solution for my battered senses. But the isolation almost killed me.

I’d enrolled in the local university to pursue a PhD in order to advance my education and skills. I grieved over the loss of my intellect, over the slowness of thoughts and words. The physical injuries led to chronic pain syndrome, from which there was no relief. It hurt to move. It hurt to sit still. There were days when the pain was so great it clouded out all else.

I was on the phone with a dear friend lamenting the woes of the vast array of my difficulties when he asked me to go to my bathroom, take a tube of lipstick and write in large letters on the mirror, “It’s a gift.” I resisted and even yelled at him. But I did as instructed.

Doctor and therapy appointments filled all my free time. Later that summer, my neurologist commented that he asked his patients to write about their experiences recovering from brain injury in a journal. He said he saw positive, long-term effects for those patients who complied. I tried journaling, but just couldn’t remember to write. But then something changed that.

One morning, I awoke with the cloudy remnants of an epic dream still in mind. What was crystal clear though, was the voice that said, “Write the book.” The voice provided the character names, the book title, the chapter titles and the story arc. I got busy writing.

Nearly one year after the accident, it was obvious that complete recovery was going to take time, if it were even possible. I asked two of my doctors and each admitted that the degree of recovery during the first year was a strong indicator of how fully patients returned to their pre-injury health. This was not good news. I was miles and miles from my previous life.

Then, my George Bailey moment came … you know from the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, the scene where George is on the bridge, knowing he’s worth more dead than alive, and he’s about to leap into the icy abyss. But Clarence, the angel, saves him.

A gentle, loving voice came into my head. It said, “It’s OK for you to go.” I knew what it meant. I went about planning my death. I was going to die on the one-year anniversary of the accident. I thought it was God’s voice.

Oddly, my mood improved. I knew that I’d only have to suffer for two more months before the whole damn mess of my brain, my body and my financial problems, which were mounting by the day, would be over.

It had been quite some time since I’d attended an AA meeting. The noise and lights and commotion were just too much. I decided to attend a large Saturday night speaker’s meeting, which had been my home group the first few years of sobriety. The speaker shared about her chronic relapses before the program took hold. As she shared a vignette from her last relapse—an ER visit where she encountered a bold nurse who knew AA members well—the speaker looked directly at me. She repeated the words the nurse had said to her: “Your life. It’s not yours to take.”

After the meeting, Clarence (yes, my angel was also named Clarence) approached me. He was a fellow I’d known for my entire sobriety. He was a welder, a Harley rider, and had tattoo-sleeves. He was one of those hardcore AA guys. “I heard about your accident,” he said. “How are you doing?”

“Fine,” I answered, which was the truth at that moment. When your troubles are about to be over, you are fine. He said he had experience coping with health problems and suggested we meet for coffee.

Clarence had nearly ended his own life some years earlier. He knew firsthand the pain and suffering I was experiencing. Essentially he Twelfth-Stepped me back to life. In my George Bailey moment, there was someone there to save my life. God was doing for me what I could not do for myself.

Much later, he and I reflected upon what happened that day. We realized he had literally saved my life. He said he was simply following an intuitive thought that he needed to reach out to me.

All told, it was seven years before I’d completely recover. And I have recovered. I don’t know if I’m one of the lucky ones—that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that I’d established a strong connection with a Higher Power. This connection got me sober, took away my obsession to drink and was there for me every step of the way during my recovery from brain injury and chronic pain.

At 10 years of sobriety, I got a new sponsor who guided me through the Steps to an extraordinary spiritual awakening. I found a new Higher Power, one that would never tell me to kill myself. The phone that had stopped ringing because I stepped away from my first sponsor, my sponsees and my AA community, now rang off the hook. I was attracting brain-damaged, suicidal, alcoholic women. Who’d have thought that my damaged self had any value? For years after my awakening, in my morning meditation the voice would come to me and say, “I want you to be an example of hope in the world.”

Two years and 370 pages later, my book was written. It wasn’t much of a literary accomplishment, but I realized the act of typing on my computer keyboard, working with words, reading and editing (never mind the Fifth Step-like cathartic experience of pouring out my sad tale) were key elements in recovering from the brain injury.

And that lipstick scrawl, “It’s a gift,” had long since faded from its original bright red shade to a dusty, toothpaste-spattered presence. It was finally wiped away because the truth of those words was evident in my life.

The PhD never came to fruition. But I am gainfully employed now and I’ve fully stepped back into my AA life. I have a huge sponsorship family. We regularly meet for fellowship. We study the Big Book and the Traditions and Concepts. I met the love of my life 10 years ago on January 13 (yes, there’s a 13-thing going on here). Every month we celebrate sobriety, life, health and love.

Now, at 24 years of sobriety, I am more clear than ever about my purpose here, in this time, in this life: to stay sober, to help another alcoholic to achieve sobriety and to save a life. I am an example of hope.

Kathe P., Louisville, Colo.

For more inspirational stories read Women in AA, available in the AA Grapevine Store.

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