It’s been about 18 months since Abigail Maslin, our January 2015 Teach Believe Inspire award recipient, returned with her husband and son to Washington, D.C. They had spent two months in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at an intensive speech therapy program that helped her husband TC overcome the communication challenges resulting from the traumatic brain injury he sustained in the summer of 2012.
The program, Abby says, changed his life. “It was the best thing we ever did,” she effuses.
TC’s brain injury left him with multiple challenges, but the primary one was aphasia — a condition that leaves the brain unable to find or pronounce common words. Abby tells me that even while TC was recovering his ability to walk, he couldn’t do things simple things like visit the optometrist for an eye test — not because he couldn’t recognize the letters, but because he couldn’t say them.
Following the program in Halifax, TC returned to work full-time in October 2014, resuming his former job in the energy industry. For her part, Abby has resumed life as a working parent, teaching in an elementary school, parenting her four-year-old son and writing a memoir about the experience of supporting her husband through his injury.
Q: Now that you find yourself “back to normal,” how has normal life changed from what it was?
A: I don’t want it to go back to normal. I don’t want to go back to being the person I was — I wasn’t living to my full potential. I don’t think that I had a real understanding of what I was capable of. Or what people were capable of, in general.
We’re in a wonderful place right now, where life looks a lot like it did before TC was injured. But it’s never going to be the same. It’s still challenging in ways that we’ve got used to, but other people on the outside wouldn’t understand.
We still have communication issues — he still has auditory processing issues where he won’t understand what I’m saying. Last summer I went to Greece for yoga training, and he was supposed to meet me there so we could finally take our honeymoon. Three days before he was supposed to leave, he had a series of seizures and I had to come home.
It’s not perfect. But we don’t take anything for granted. We find so much joy in things we didn’t appreciate before.
Q: Why did you decide to discontinue your blog about the aftermath of your husband’s injury?
A. I started writing the blog because a lot of people wanted to know how he was doing. I wanted to keep writing, but I felt it wasn’t fair to TC to have him constantly be the subject. It’s his story, and he has to be the narrator of it.
I was starting to see the world in this whole new way — I wanted to write about other topics that might apply to people outside of the brain injury world. Writing for BrainLine still lets me connect with the brain injury audience, which is great.
Q: Was it easier to be vulnerable on your blog than in real life?
A. Absolutely. I was really writing like it was a diary — it was the only way to let myself feel the depths of the heartbreak. In person, I’m really dry and sarcastic. In the hospital with TC, I had to keep it together. It was hard for me to be out of control. I felt like I had taken every single step and somehow everything had imploded. It felt like “This is a mess! I don’t know how to begin cleaning it up.” The blog was the only place where I could be real.
How have you tackled the challenge of identifying yourself all over again as a writer, and finding a new audience?
I noticed that people who were following the blog and reaching out to me were people that identified with the vulnerability I was putting out there. The people going through emotions or life transitions are the people who really enjoy my writing and get something out of it. Now I’m trying to figure out what’s my niche here? I guess what I enjoy doing is just writing the truth, which has set me free and allowed me to live better than I was living before.
It shouldn’t have to take a traumatic event in your life to allow you to be in touch with what you want, and your most authentic self. Now when I read other people’s writing, I’m always reading for “What do I need to hear today that’s going to keep me on course?” That’s what I try to write now.
Q: Did people share their stories with you?
A: Oh yeah. That’s been the coolest thing ever. Right before talking to you, I was returning emails…I have the most amazing people email me every week, who are in the beginning of it or the middle of it and are trying to figure out where to look — “Tell me when it’s going to get better!” I love responding to those people — “You need to talk to somebody who knows what’s going on. Thank you for letting me be that person.”
Q: What is one of the most important things that you’ve learned in this process that no one prepared you for?
A: I don’t think there’s anybody that could have convinced me that this relationship I had that was so strong could ever be so broken. I don’t think I’d have believed in the beginning that there would be days where I’d look at my husband and think “I want out of here.” I don’t beat myself up about it — I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s good for people to know that you’ll have days when you really want to walk away. Don’t be surprised when those days come. You’re a human; you didn’t ask for this; it’s okay to feel that way.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you have to be your individual self. I think I was so enmeshed with my husband, whom I’d been together with for seven years at that point, that I’d really lost my individual self. The first part of this was just learning how to completely separate from my husband—“Who are you without this person?”
Now we’re in really great place together, but I’m not interested in being one entity any more. I feel like it’s so important to know who you are and be moving forward with purpose for your own life.
Q: What kept you together during the hard times, and what keeps you together now?
A: I have so much respect for the person that my husband is. I think he is the most awesome person ever. To watch somebody be so broken—he was almost dead that day that he was found—and to have to learn how to walk and talk and do all these things again that are so humbling… and he has never felt sorry for himself at all. He grew up very poor and worked very hard to get where he is in life…and then to see him do it twice…I have so much respect for the person that he is that even if I wasn’t married to him, I’d want to be his best friend. I have such awe; he’s done it with such grace.
The physical issues and the cognitive issues, they suck. You have to deal with this identity shift: everything that I thought that I was, everything that built me up in terms of my self esteem, is gone. For some people, it turns them into really miserable, insecure people. But to acknowledge what’s happened and accept it, and still see yourself as a valuable, worthy human being, takes a really strong person. And that’s the kind of person he is.
Q: What are your ambitions now that life has gone back to something like normal?
A: I’m working on a book—a memoir about the whole thing. I won an essay contest in 2013 and was connected with an agent who’s representing me.
At first it was a story about brain injury; now it’s a story about love that people have for each other, and love for yourself. How we can look at the world differently when we’re forced to.
Q: How do you look at the world differently?
A: I don’t feel entitled to anything. Before, I believed in this concept of deserving things in life. I don’t anymore, at all. I really feel like this life is about enjoying. It’s just all really precious — I don’t want to waste any of it. That’s been a really powerful realization to come to. It’s been really liberating.