Cathy Law McLaren – Survivor

My name is Cathy and I am from Everett, Washington.

My first memory of having any pain associated with my head was probably around the age of 8 years old. My neighbor was trying to walk on stilts. She was struggling and couldn’t quite manage to do it well at all. One of the stilts fell and hit my head. It hit me so hard that it busted my head open and I had to get stitches. I never seemed to have any lasting damage or cognitive issues from that head trauma.

I got in a very bad car accident on August 8, 1976 when I was 14 and preparing to go to high school. I was born in the 60’s (1962 to be exact). That was a time when not a lot was known about the after affects of sustaining a severe head injury.

I lived in a great neighborhood with kids around the same age. I was very active. I rode my bike a few times a week, skated, and moved around without limitation. As a neighborhood, we always did things together like playing kick the can, baseball, rode bikes together, etc. On this day, we decided to go to Winchell’s donuts, as we often did. We saw a friend of the neighborhood and his friend, Shawn. My next door neighbor, Robin and I decided to let them drive us 2 miles home on back roads in Shawn’s 57 Chevrolet. I sat in the front seat between the two guys. Shawn sped through a stop sign, broadsiding a car. I fell on the floor and the engine came through the dashboard and landed on my lap, breaking both femurs and fracturing my pelvis. I also got my left fibula broken. My face was so messed up that I was unrecognizable. I ended up in ICU with both legs in traction. As if all that wasn’t enough, I got a severe head injury resulting in a 7 week coma. I was unrecognizable.

They operated on my femurs when I first got to the hospital. First on the right one putting a steel rod inside, they did the right one first since that one was the worst one. Then I got a high fever and they couldn’t operate. When they were able to resume their ability to take me back to surgery, my left femur had begun to heal crooked. So the doctors had to cut down the back of my leg and rebreak it, reposition it, so they could put the steel rod in. I then had an additional surgery to make sure my legs were even in length. At some point I stopped breathing and had to have an emergency tracheotomy

After I woke up from my coma, the first thing I remember is my dad saying, “Can you hear me Cathy ? Blink if you can hear me!” I was blinking my eyes really fast to tell him “yes I hear you but I can’t move”.   All I could move was my eyelids.  Another time while in the hospital my dad said,  “if you can hear me, squeeze my hand”. I squeezed it so hard and my sister did the same thing and I squeezed it hard.  I still couldn’t really move though, even though I could hear them. I had become a bit violent and was a fighter after regaining consciousness.. I would bite everyone that got too close. That lasted a couple of weeks. I was fighting for my life and fighting to get out of my coma too apparently. In the beginning stages of my waking up process, I was like a baby again learning how to talk. I could only say mama, daddy, peepee . I started copying the TV so maybe I could talk. My dad would reach under my armpits to scoot me up in the bed when I slid down. Eventually, I tried to get out of bed and fell because I had no muscle tone or ability to hold myself up. It was after I fell that the hospital started restraining me to make sure I didn’t fall out of bed again. I would bite the egg crate padding and spit it out on the ground. I would rip my sheets with my teeth and my hands.

When I was discharged from the hospital, after being in there for two months, I was just thrown into regular life with no guidance, direction, or follow-up. My family received no education about my head injury or how to take care of me. It was more of a “our job is done here, good luck with everything” discharge given to my family. The whole ordeal had been enormously traumatic on my whole family, and financially devastating to my parents. I had to go home in a wheelchair and we had 4 stairs and my family put a board on the stairs and pushed me up it and into the house. Mom was the one that dressed me and fed me when I got home. My mom was an angel. My oldest sister watched all the other ones while my mom and a neighbor would take care of me. My siblings took a back seat to my care at that time and I was not an easy person to live with. I was in pain a lot of the time and there was a lot I could not do myself. I was going through so many changes and none of them recognized who I was.

I wasn’t in the wheelchair very long. My parents did everything they could to make sure I didn’t fall behind in school. I had a tutor until I could go back in person. I went back to school at the end of January in person when the second Semester started. Having a tutor kept me from getting too far behind. I had to use crutches for the whole Semester and then the next school year I didn’t have to use anything.

Suddenly, I was not able to do any of the physical activities that I used to do. There was no bike riding, no skating, no movement free of limitations. This whole experience had changed my ability to enjoy life in the same way. It changed the trajectory of my life and what I knew about myself up until that point. It was devastating. I come from a generation where you worked until you dropped. You didn’t complain about pain or problems. You just pushed forward and lived with whatever life dished out to you. You either survived it or your didn’t. Having my rights heard as a child or a female didn’t matter back then. There was this unspoken understanding that this horrible tragedy was just something that you weren’t supposed to talk about, not even in the family.

I didn’t know that my TBI is why I felt so off. I lost ALL my friends as I continued to heal and struggle. I felt like I went through school and other things all by myself. I cannot even begin to tell you how hard all of this was. I graduated from high school on time with an honor cord around my neck. I was proud of that. Despite all that, I felt that nobody understood me, not even my family!! I felt completely alone.

I was 16 when I first started driving. 67 Mustang. 74 AMC Hornet. I loved that car. I loved the feeling of freedom that driving gave me. After the accident, I would continue to hit my head several times getting into my car. It was like I couldn’t visually determine the distance I had to give myself to clear the metal that kept assaulting me each time I would face any excursion. Despite my efforts to avoid this pain and miscalculation, I just never seemed to be able to completely resolve that issue. I still have bouts of doing this, still, to this day.

My family thought that when my broken bones healed, I should be like I was before. I complained a lot about my legs hurting and they said I was fine. They kept dismissing the changes I was having as me being purposefully difficult and other things I am not sure of, because to this day, they still won’t talk about it. My legs and pelvis also continued to hurt just about every day since then.  I have never quite gotten the pain completely resolved and some days it is worse than other days. Some days the pain is almost unbearable. While it reduces or changes in complexity, it has never managed to completely resolve or go away – despite all the rehabilitation and efforts on my part.

Part of my problems had also manifested into me having difficulty making new friends, being unable to be as physically active like before, and making poor relationship choices. My relationship with my family continued to fail and fall apart. It was like our family never quite recovered after my bones healed either. Nothing was the same after that.

During this time, my parents had friends who had a son named David. We were friends together and became close. Eventually David would enlist in the military and then got stationed in Germany for a while. When he came back to the United States, our friendship continued and he asked to marry me. I was 20 years old at that point. He was someone that I knew I never wanted a relationship with when he came back. He was acting differently than when he had left. Yet we gave it a go anyway. I accepted his marriage proposal. We had a baby girl we named Amanda together. Things with him were off. It was even more different once Amanda was born. We would have continual arguments and he just was acting so different, even towards the baby. I wasn’t aware of what he was doing. I started having what resembled morning sickness. David announced to me that I better not be pregnant. I came home early from work one day and he was with another woman who identified herself as his girlfriend. She said she met him where he worked in food service. I was devastated. We got into yet another argument. This time he got physical with me. He pushed me off the porch and I broke my ankle in 3 places. I barely made it up and into the house. I told him I wanted a divorce. He pushed me again. He threatened to take Amanda from me since he was providing everything. When I went to the hospital for my ankle, they told me I would need surgery to repair my ankle. They said I could not do general anesthesia even though I needed surgery. When I asked why they couldn’t do general anesthesia, it was right then I was informed that I was pregnant with our 2nd child. Amanda’s dad had already previously threatened to take Amanda away if I was pregnant.  I felt like I was in an impossible situation and I felt like in order to protect my daughter who was already here and to prevent her from being taken by her father, I couldn’t bring another child into the world. Especially since I just asked for a divorce due to his cheating and him choosing to leave me for another woman. I ended up getting an abortion. Partially to protect Amanda from being taken, and partially because I knew I couldn’t take care of her and a newborn with a broken ankle and being unable to work while recovering.  I then filed for divorce. I just couldn’t live that way.

After a while, my family just seemed to stop having my back. I had no friends and no support at all from anyone. It didn’t help that my “new normal” included impulsive decisions that continued to affect my life in negative ways.

After my divorce, I had a few boyfriends in my 20’s.  They were all mostly abusive in some way. I wanted my daughter to have 2 parents that loved each other. A stable family with a strong sense of love and security. I kept searching for it in all the wrong places. I didn’t have healthy romantic relationships. I even had a boyfriend at one point in my life that got mad at me, assaulted me, and stomped on my head.  

I had a 3 year relationship with a man named John. We had a daughter we named Alicia together. We were never married. I ended up calling the police on him and he was arrested for Domestic Violence. I told him if he went right to rehab when out of jail I would stay with him.  He agreed to go, and did. It didn’t last though. I started to go to college again to better my life and took Alicia to day care with Amanda while I was in school.  I was working a job while going to school when John and I split up.  Then I got a job at convenience store and worked at several retail establishments for that company.  

I met my 2nd husband Morgan when I was 28 years old while working at the convenience stores. Morgan was 29 at the time. We met through a dating service. This was back before dating was done online with computers. We were together for 8 months before we got married. Morgan had a talent for mechanics. One time, my car broke down and he could fix it. I picked him because he had a good career and in my mind, since he didn’t drink or smoke, he would be safe for my girls. We had a daughter together named  Alexa. He was excited about the baby and was really hoping for a boy. That wasn’t in the cards apparently, because I had a girl. He was upset we had a girl.  He changed after that. He was treating all 3 girls poorly. He was mean to the kids and to me. I told people about it and they thought I should stay because he was a good provider. My whole family told me I should just put up with it and stay for the financial stability. I couldn’t just sit there and let the girls be mistreated.

One day I had enough and started to pack up to leave him. He came home early from work and my daughter said “daddy we are packing for our new place”. It became a conversation then. This was the first event that started my back and forth with Morgan The last 3 years of our marriage continued the back and forth with broken promises. He would tell my daughter he would buy her a car if she reported to him if I was dating anyone.   We agreed to get rid of attorney’s and solve things on our own.  Then he bought me a car and said I could only have it if I got back with him.  I did.  Then he said I could go out if I wanted, so I did.  I thought I needed someone that sort of loved me but didn’t want someone that wasn’t good to my kids. 

He said he had a new girlfriend and was going to move out and go live with her. His new girlfriend was into loud noises, crowds, and all the things he liked (drag racing, car racing, etc) and had 2 boys.  He finally got the boys he wanted.  As soon as he moved in with her, I filed for divorce. It turned out he had even lied about getting rid of his attorney and things got ugly. 

I got custody of Alexa in the divorce, yet allowed her to live with her dad for 3 years. At 13 he decided he didn’t want her anymore and sent her back to me. By the time the divorce was finally finalized we had been married 9 years. 

I basically ended up raising all 3 girls by myself.

Throughout my life, I never stopped fighting to come completely out of the fogginess. I always knew that there was a reason for the way that I felt.  I had been going to many different doctors to figure it out and try to get answers about what was happening to me. Each time I saw a new doctor, no one knew what to tell me each time. I was even called a liar by one doctor that was testing my balance. He said I was “faking” because I fell off balance too quickly. I was continually made to believe I was stupid or imagining things by various healthcare providers and others throughout the description of my experiences.

I went through my life pretending to be normal but never quite felt normal. I had thought that I would never find the answers, that I would just continue to exist in this body that seemed to be failing me, a body I didn’t want others to see failing, a body that continued to betray me despite my efforts to try to figure out what was wrong with it. A body that continued to tell me what was wrong through symptoms, changes, and creating the need to compensate more and more. It was exhausting.

It seemed like I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me that nobody would tell me!!! Like finding a needle in a haystack.

I worked for over 10 years with the developmentally disabled and one of the things they appreciated was that you understood them. They voiced that continually. That made me happy that they felt understood by me. I understood all too well what it meant to be heard.

When I finally could not work anymore I tried to get disability. I started applying in 2010 or so. It appeared by anyone on the outside looking in at my life, that I lived a normal life. However, the reality is that I spent years silently suffering, over compensating, often feeling enormously overwhelmed, feeling “off”, and misunderstood. It has been really hard! All those years I pretended that everything was okay when it wasn’t was finally catching up with me, and I couldn’t compensate for my cognitive and medical issues anymore. Sadly though, when revealing all my challenges, I realized that I have pretended to be normal for so long that when I tried to be the real me… Nobody believes me. A doctor that the State said to go to, to check my balance, said that I was faking. Some other doctors and physical therapists also said I was faking. The first judge I went in front of, said I was a liar. I was called a liar by a couple of judges. This almost destroyed what was left of me. When I had my disability hearing, I found out that the judge had called me a liar which resulted in me only getting a year of back pay. I went in front of another judge and was waiting on a decision from that one. I often wondered if I could go back to those judges who doubted me and say “Why didn’t you look at my medical records good enough? Why didn’t you see that I was in a coma from a serious car accident and had major injuries, including being a head injury survivor???”

I feel like I am still recovering and that I will never be totally recovered. Eventually, the facts proved themselves and I got my SSI. This finally happened around August 2019, but it took an attorney to help me get it accomplished. I had a lot of pressure from my family to get on Social Security and then they were upset I didn’t share the money with them.

It wasn’t till about 2020 or so that I joined the “Hope After Head Injury Facebook Group” that I figured it out!!

The more I read, the more it dawned on me. The more understood I felt. In this group were THE ANSWERS THAT I WAS TRYING TO FIND!! It was like a light was turned on and it allowed me to see everything so clearly for the first time. It was like being given a gift that I had been anticipating all this time and finally being able to open it. There it was in all its glory. In all its messy, painful, destructive, obvious, illusive, and illuminating glory. There it was. I was a survivor of multiple brain injuries and it was still impacting my life! What I also learned from this group, and in my education and advocacy of myself since then, is that there is hope after a head injury!!

My biggest struggles throughout all these years, has been managing or understanding my emotions or lack of emotions and my understanding of why I feel different. I didn’t know anything about having a head injury and what it actually caused my body to be like. I was never provided any education or ongoing care plan for my head injuries.  Since the wreck, it’s like my emotions went flat. I had difficulty being able to cry, even when I felt there were times that would have been appropriate for tears. I feel like my ability to feel normally was affected. I never really understood why things were so different for me.

Things are still difficult in different areas of my life. The biggest hurdle has always been finances. Limited funds make it challenging to keep up on repairs and other things needed in life. Right now my van is broken down and my current boyfriend does not have a vehicle so that makes transportation challenging. I do not have the income currently to fix my van.

My current boyfriend and I met on Plenty Of – a dating website online. It was difficult in the beginning and he admitted he thought I was going to eventually “get better”. However, we continued to work on our relationship. We live in different homes, though I do spend most of my time with him at his home. We have been together now for 10 years, Our Anniversary is May 30th. I appreciate that he encourages me and keeps pushing me forward and continues to tell me he will be there for me no matter what.

When I came across HOPE TBI and saw they were offering help in telling a person’s story, I was very interested. I have been wanting to tell my story for the last 15 years. I couldn’t get any help from anyone. Not even from my family. They all just want to pretend like the accident doesn’t exist. I would ask them questions about the wreck and all they would say was that I was horrible. When I ask how I was horrible, they refuse to tell me and I don’t remember. They are tired of hearing about my pain, tired of me asking questions, or mentioning anything about it. They all just moved on with their life. I feel they want me to apologize for something or the way I was then, but I don’t know what to apologize for because I don’t remember. I realize that they may not be thinking about it, but it has always been on my mind because I am living it. I thought telling my story would help others feel understood.

I wrote a book but can’t get it published without money. It’s with my editor now (I have also asked her to send it back to me but she won’t).  I have an unedited copy. I never signed a contract or anything.  I wrote it over 10 years ago and it still hasn’t done anything. I really want to get my story out there.

As of this writing I am 60 years old. I didn’t begin treatment and counseling until about 7 years ago. A lifetime of injuries, a lifetime of memories created, some I can remember, some I cannot. A lifetime of struggle, survival, and never giving up on myself. A lifetime of seeking answers that though in front of me, I didn’t have access to at that time. Some would say I am strong and a survivor. I would just say I am determined.

I have 3 grown daughters that are absolutely amazing! I have 5 grandsons and 2 granddaughters. Despite the challenges that I have experienced, may continue to experience, and am met with from moment to moment, I am still blessed and grateful.

If I could share any one message with all of you out there in the world, it would be to not give up. It’s never too late to get help, and keep fighting to get where you want to be in life, even if you have to do it a little bit differently than others.

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2 thoughts on “Cathy Law McLaren – Survivor

  1. Oh my goodness, your story is amazing. I can so relate to a lot if what you went through. I also wrote a book and I have a friend who could help you with yours. I’d love to share with you.

    Liked by 1 person

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