Michael – Survivor

My Story…I had been working for nonprofit organizations, psychiatric rehab outpatient programs and in human service positions since I was a teenager. I really enjoyed contributing to the world in the ways that I could and it felt important and meaningful to me.

It always seemed simple. I loved having a positive effect in changing people’s lives in whatever way that I could and I know it sounds hokey but my work, which I had been doing for more than 25 years, just seemed like a natural extension and expression of who I was and I felt sincerely passionate about it. I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing and had been expecting to continue the same throughout my life.

All of that pretty much stopped that September of 2011.

I still struggle with the difference  between who I was back then… the life I had and the person that I felt I was… and what life is like for me today. It’s supposed to be mostly just a matter of adjusting to my “new normal” is what I’m told. Some days are easier than others trying with that perspective.

I know that I am really fortunate in a lot of ways and grateful for the progress that I’ve made and the things I can still hold onto about the person I was. It could be a lot worse but I really do wish it was a whole lot easier.

In 2011 I was working as a Program Director for a nonprofit social services organization in Boston. I  was responsible for the day to day management of a psychiatric rehab program in one of the tougher communities of the city. It was a 24 hour residential program and it was run out of an old three-decker that housed 6 men and 2 women transitioning from long-term psychiatric hospitalizations.

For the most part I felt like I was aware of the dangers of this kind of job and the environment of its location. I had worked in similar positions over the years and felt confident enough that I could provide a safe and therapeutic environment for the clients who were living there as well as for the employees who worked at the program. At that time I was also a healthy runner/gym guy and decent sized enough. I had also worked years before  on locked psychiatric inpatient units so in my mind my own personal safety didn’t actually feel compromised or in jeopardy.

As part of the responsibilities in my position there were a number of times that I needed to address active drug and alcohol issues with people who lived there as well as their “friends”… people from outside of the program who would visit day and night and who were regularly found to be drinking or doing drugs on the premises. They would usually visit near the beginning of each month when residents would get a small part of their disability payments for unrestricted spending money. Some of these were just straightforward drug dealers.

One man from the neighborhood, who was only known to people as “Caliente”, was really the toughest to try to keep from selling drugs and bringing alcohol into the program. If the front doors were locked he was actually known to scale up the back balconies to get inside through the second and third floor doors and at one time he was reported to have gone back out the same way with our program’s flatscreen TV, literally ripped from the wall.

This kind of thing had been going on for some time before I was hired into the position. The place was literally and figuratively a mess when I first got there but I loved the kind of unique challenge this presented… working to turn a program around into something that people could be proud of. As much as this was a social service business it was also a home to these people, some of whom had been living there and under these conditions for years.  I was earnestly motivated to make this place a safe and healthy and well-managed home, maybe a little more than I was concerned about outcome studies and administrative reports.

It was not long into this position that, after a state inspection, my supervisor would be taking me aside and  telling me how excited she was… “You’ve taken this program from last to first in our organization.” I’m still pretty proud about that.

I had previously created this same kind of turnaround for another organization just a few years earlier in a nearly identical program and I was confident I could do the same here. But unfortunately I knew it was going to be a slowgoing transition for the right staff to ultimately feel confident enough to properly manage and consistently enforce certain program rules around people like “Caliente”.

Over the summer of 2011 I had needed to escort Caliente off of the property more than just a few times, which had already been a familiar exercise from the very first day I worked there. On that day he was upstairs smoking pot and drinking with residents and seemed completely stunned when I was telling him that he had to leave. I still remember it so clearly because he had this look on his face like “Who the #%@& does THIS guy think he is?!?”. The residents had similar looks on their faces that day, being that for some it was a first impression of me.

I wasn’t angry with Caliente at all just matter-of-fact about it with him and why he couldn’t be there. As we were walking out I told him that he was welcome to come back to visit as long as he wasn’t bringing any drugs or alcohol with him but he always seemed to want to get in with one or the other.

After a few more encounters like this with Caliente he began avoiding my regular work hours. He started showing up exclusively at night or on the weekends. A lot of the employees who worked there were afraid of him and felt they couldn’t restrict him from visiting so after consulting with police and senior administration I was advised to serve Caliente with a formal “No Trespassing” notice to then make it illegal for him to even be on the property. The only problem was that he had been avoiding those hours when I was there so I wasn’t able to personally serve him the notice. I tried dropping in when he might be there late at night and at different times over the weekend but no luck.

Eventually I asked one of my night staff to give him the notice along with a letter from me explaining the details and what the staff were instructed to do ( make a non-emergency police call) if he entered the property. I explained in the letter that we could reassess the situation in 60 days but it never actually came to that.

Early one morning in September, about a week after he had received that notice I was driving into work and could see Caliente outside arguing with a staff member from the sidewalk while the employee stood smartly on the property, inside of our yard’s small fence. Caliente was waving around what seemed to be the same notice, stomping and yelling. I could hear everything that was going on as I went through my usual routine of gathering binders, program supplies, etc. out from the backseat of my car.

Carefully listening in I felt genuinely proud of that particular employee for standing her ground as professionally and unwaveringly as she was. I knew that it wasn’t easy for her at all but she was doing a great job and this was one of the first times with Caliente that I didn’t feel any need to intervene. A lot had changed at this program, and was still changing, and it all felt pretty good.

I started walking toward the front stairs and up to the first floor carrying the things from my car. I got to the top of the porch when I heard from behind me Caliente shouting “Hey MIKE!! MIIKE!!” from the sidewalk at the bottom of the stairs. I kept walking to unlock the front door not at all comfortable with his yelling but feeling reassured by the fact that he was now actually staying off of the property.

I started to say “Caliente if you just keep screaming at me…” but before I could finish I heard footsteps fast on the wooden steps behind me and as I started to turn I was struck in the right temple and knocked out.

The next thing I remembered from there was it being sometime later, complete darkness and both of my knees really hurting. I later found out from witnesses that when Caliente suckerpunched me I had dropped straight down onto my my knees…”knocked out like a bag of rocks” is how someone described it.

It’s actually kind of funny but before finding that detail out I kept asking people afterward  “How the hell did he get me down to my knees?? What did he put some kind of weird karate move on me or something??” I wasn’t very clear-headed by then  but I could recall standing up and then being on my knees but no transition or memory of how I got there.

There was also this bizarre sense in that moment that my head was being bounced around really quickly. No pain at that point because it still felt like I was waking up in a way but just sharp movement of my head backward and side to side. I could also tell that I was gripping onto something in my left hand.

As I started to come around I realized I was slumped down on my knees leaning forward on the porch while involuntarily clutching a fistful of Caliente’s oversized t-shirt in my other hand. He was alternatingly kicking me in the face and stomping my head and driving his knee into my forehead and into the top of my head while gripping my hair in his two hands. It was weird because most of it I couldn’t really feel except for those knees smashing right into the crown of my head. Those really hurt. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion and I was barely conscious like in a dream but each time his knee crashed into the top of my head I remember even thinking in slow motion “Oh wow I hope he doesn’t do THAT again.”

I knew I had to get out of this ‘dream’ but it felt like each and every time there was a chance split second pause between any of the blows an urgent thought “I gotta get up” would come to me but then another foot or knee would hit me before that thought could actually make it to my limbs to do anything about it.

I could now hear people shouting “No!!” and “You’re gonna kill him!!” strangely from up in the air to my left and I later found out that this was an older couple next door screaming at Caliente from their third floor balcony. I could also sense some other people to my right just standing there on the porch. Those ended up being mental health clients from the program just watching, frozen in shock and not knowing what to do. I felt bad later on because they kept apologizing to me for not intervening and both seemed really upset. I just told them I would’ve been very angry with them if they had tried anything thereby putting themselves in jeopardy “making my job more difficult” is what I told them and that seemed to help them feel better.

Truth is it just felt really alone having that happen to me and people standing right there and not doing anything to stop it but I understand.

The last time Caliente hit me was a kick with the flat of his shoe square in the face and for some reason that one woke me up like a glass of ice cold water had been splashed in my face instead. I thought “now or never” and still had his shirt in my left hand so I quickly pulled him toward me and jumped to my feet. I had him in my two hands now, driving him backward and then threw him down the front stairs. Amazingly he made it back up about halfway there but I was ready for him this time. He stood there looking at me but then ran quickly down the street when he heard people yelling to call 911.

I remember standing up straight and the surreal sight of that older man next door standing on the outside of his balcony leaning out and gripping the railing behind him with one hand. He must’ve been close to sixty with really long, grey dreadlocks, no shirt and the guy was easily 30 feet up. He said he was going to jump down (!?!) to help me if I hadn’t come around when I did. Later on, and still today, I just thought that was the coolest thing so if you’re out there somehow reading this… thank you. That really meant something to me right then.

It was still all totally confusing and murky but I remember the police and ambulance getting there really quickly with both marked and unmarked police cars blocking the street and then everybody racing around.

September of 2011. This is one of the photos the police took when they got there…felt worse than it looks.

The next thing I remember was waking up in the dark laying on a table in a machine (CAT scan) and having no idea where I was or what was happening or what had just happened. I could hear a bunch of people talking down by my feet and the table started rolling me out and the light was totally blinding and there was some big guy standing over me asking me if I knew my name. That question was pretty scarey and shocking to hear and it made me spontaneously start sobbing like a child because I actually didn’t know what my name was. Turns out he was one of the nurses and he persisted and then it was my first name that I could remember and then I remembered my last name after that.

Then I was just angry. I didn’t like being there in that room. They kept telling me to lie down and I couldn’t because it made my head worse. I just started telling people that I wanted to be discharged. In my mind I needed to get back to work asap and I was absolutely fine. I also kind of knew that I wasn’t ok but I had to get back to the program. It took a while but I kept refusing treatment and so the hospital reluctantly let me go Against Medical Advice about an hour after I got there.

A great doctor, who would later become the key to my (ongoing) recovery, once told me “If you’re serious about getting better then you need to realize that you are absolutely your own worst enemy in this. You want to do this by yourself? You can’t. You need other people to help you through this or it just won’t work.”

I was obviously in no shape at all for work or anything else other than staying in the hospital but I just felt like I needed to get back to the program so that Caliente and others like him in the neighborhood wouldn’t feel like they ‘had finally won’. It seemed that all of the good that had come to that program would immediately start to go backward if I didn’t get back there to show everyone I wasn’t fazed or hurt.

I got a ride back and without going into too many more details here it did not go well. Ultimately I was convinced to go home but kept trying to go back at all hours of the day and night with negative success. By then my employer had already placed an armed guard at the doorway for program protection… not the best neighborhood as you might imagine.

I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed back at work so my girlfriend took me to another hospital where the doctors diagnosed me with multiple TBI – “closed head traumatic brain injuries”, a separated shoulder, vertigo, a broken rib, post concussion syndrome, and much later on discovering that I had a broken bone in my neck.

My face and head were banged up pretty bad but no stitches. The pain was really bad on the top of my head though, so bad that I couldn’t even let water from the shower touch it…even touching my hair was painful. My upper teeth felt like they had been moved backward as a group but none were broken. It took a couple of weeks for my teeth to feel right.

I couldn’t walk straight or really even see straight for about a year after that. I would list to one side and stumble into people or things in public. I couldn’t steer a shopping cart at the supermarket and trying to step up or down from any stairs or sidewalk curbs had become now a confusing challenge. Verbally things were getting confused in my reception and expression of words and my “cognitive filter” (as I later learned it to be) was pretty disabled. That’s the thing that usually is like a pause between what you think and what you actually say or do.

At one point I remember cracking up laughing during a doctor’s appointment saying “I know this isn’t actually happening but it looks like your floor over there is bubbling and moving around.” The doctor had known me for years and the look of shock on his face was enough for me to try to stop laughing but walls and floors would often do that if I stopped to look at them.

More bizarre than that was that in certain circumstances I couldn’t understand spoken language. Mostly in times of anxiety or stress…or every single time I was surprised by something or someone… and it would seem like strange, garbled sound to me or nothing at all. I wasn’t sleeping more than 3-4 hours a night back then either and a lot of nights just not at all.

I just remember being furious all of the time and not leaving my apartment other than for appointments and treatment. I had amazing headaches like you just cannot imagine 2 or 3 times a week. My arms would start shaking they were so bad and all I could do when those happened was sit up in bed with a giant bag of ice on top of my head. I would regularly fall asleep like that with a bag of ice on my head. I never even had headaches before this.

I was going to all of these doctor appointments and physical therapy appointments and being tried on all these different medications but aside from my shoulder and ribs not much else seemed to change.

I now had a hypersensitivity to sound and couldn’t even listen to music for almost year. If I dropped a fork on the kitchen floor it was like a giant mirror had crashed to the ground. I was getting into arguments with doctors and confrontations with people in public which had never happened before. I felt like I was going crazy and only later did I also realize that I had been unknowingly driving through stop signs and red lights too somehow just not understanding them. I was increasingly isolating myself and I was getting more and more depressed.

My workers compensation nurse finally referred me to a Neuropsychologist specializing in head trauma and TBI’s and it’s not overstating things to say that he basically saved my life. From my very first meeting I felt completely understood with what I had been going through. He was sympathetic, extremely knowledgeable and very accomodating and he became the advocate for me that I couldn’t be for myself.  He fought the workers compensation people for all of the proper treatment that I was needing that they were clearly trying to avoid paying.

Most importantly he got me into a rehabilitation day program for people with head injuries. There I received speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy for about 7 months. I’m very, very grateful for that.

I continued to meet with him weekly for about a year… even after workers compensation stopped payments to him. We both understood it to be in retaliation for the services and support he was obtaining for me like accupuncture and chiropractic care and psychotherapy.

He educated me on how TBI’s actually affect the structure of the brain, the mechanisms of migraines and migraine prevention and how nutrition and SLEEP as well as basic human support were the most critical factors in the healing of my brain. I will never be able to thank you enough for everything Dr. Watt.

My recovery since then had been slowgoing after the first couple of years but still better in a lot of ways too since then. It feels like things kind of reached a certain point in my brain’s recovery and then not very much has changed since then.

I still get those head splitting migraines but now 2-3 times a month as opposed to that same frequency each week. My balance is about 80% recovered and my concentration has improved but I still lose myself in reading anything and have to re-read paragraphs and sentences before I can move forward. My penmanship has never returned to normal. I’m almost hyper-disorganized in most all aspects of my life and I still have that weird, hazy, unable-to-understand-what-people-are-saying thing but I just try to roll with that now when it happens.

I’m still managing the PTSD stuff that nobody but my therapist knows about but that’s getting better. I’m not challenging people at the bank or in the supermarket or wanting to fight physical therapists or people who are rude to me on the T and I don’t break into a drenching sweat when in unfamiliar areas or situations or when meeting new adults. For the most part I pretty much mostly just avoid those I guess.

But it sometimes feels like I have an 80 year old brain now. My short term memory is ridiculous. If I reach for my phone to look something up I won’t be able to remember what I’m needing once I’m holding onto the phone. It’s even worse moving from room to room in my apartment. If I get up to go into another room for something by the time I get there I can’t figure out why I came in there.

The funny one is if I’m sitting at the computer and turn around to get something from the bookcase in back of me I can’t remember why I turned around. But my new “therapeutic tool” is to say out loud whatever it is I’m intending to go get or do as soon as I think about it and keep repeating that as I’m transitioning to wherever the target is. That’s a hoot. Doesn’t work if I try to just say it to myself because I distract and forget so quickly.

Another example of my brain now is this past Saturday at the supermarket. I had $10 in cash on me and knew I had $7 in my checking account. I knew the only thing I needed was to get a case of water. I had to keep telling myself “just water… just water…don’t overdraft the account” which I’m prone to doing all of the time. I walk into the  place but while heading to the register with the water I completely forget the whole plan and pick up some Tums and a tin of Altoids while in line. When the person then rings me up at $12.47 I’m looking at my $10 puzzled and thinking…

“Ok… $12.47 minus $10 is two-something but I do have $7 in my account and that would cover the $2 difference so I’ll just use my debit card instead of the cash.” Thereby unintentionally overdrafting my checking account (again) by about $6 and incurring another $35 overdraft fee. By the time I realized this and tried to return the items I had already lost the receipt and could only get store credit.

For the past couple of years I’ve been receiving disability payments to help pay the bills until I’m able to support myself fully. I don’t know where I would be without it. It ends up being just enough to pay my rent with about $400 then left over for bills, gas, food and medicine for the month. I get some food stamps now and I’m also grateful that I’m now supported by fuel assistance programs in the winter for heating oil. I have loving brothers and sisters who drop off bags of groceries at my apartment unannounced and I have two wonderful parents who are always asking to give me money and offering for me to move back in with them which I politely refuse.

For a while there I had been participating in paid medical studies and finding odd jobs for cash. I’ve probably had 7 or 8 MRI’s  for money which is really kind of pitiful but true. I  couldn’t afford my car anymore and got that taken away in 2013 and then going months after that trying to get to treatments and appointments by way of the (not the safest) MBTA or just plain walking.

There was finally an insurance settlement against my employer but that wasn’t much of anything. It barely covered the personal loans I had needed since the assault, the back rent I had owed and getting all of the property (furniture, computer, tv, car, bicycle etc.) replaced from having to sell it all off prior to pay previous bills.

There are only a couple of people out there who know how close I came to homelessness (or worse) before that money came through so I’m grateful there. It’s embarrassing to let everybody know these kinds of details particularly my family and friends who up until this appeal had no idea but not much has changed for me really financially so this is kind of my one shot.

As of today (4/27/16) I’m more than a full month behind in rent. My bank account is overdrawn by -$310.14. I was unable to continue paying the insurance on my current car…now with 216,000 miles on it…so that got impounded just this past Monday after getting pulled over for expired tags while actually trying to drive to a chess teaching job. It will take about $2,000 for me to pay off both old and new car insurance and then get my car re-registered if I don’t end up just selling it first.

I owe more money again in personal loans, as well as a combined -$842.89 for past due gas and electric. The only reason they haven’t shut me off is because I’ve been lucky enough to have Mononucleosis since January and haven’t been able to earn much of anything to cover those (or any) bills. They did actually shut my electricity off last August but one of my sisters graciously covered the bill so I could just get the fans and a/c going again. I’m still so grateful to her but feel crummy that I still can’t pay her back yet.

I do have a terrific head injury case manager now who has gotten me through some really tough times and has legitimately been my anchor in a lot of ways. She does an amazing job advocating for me and supporting me and has actually been helping me create this GoFundMe appeal with some proofreading assistance and valuable suggestions.

I’m also now on an antidepressant which seems to help and I have a really great psychotherapist (I’m lucky) who I meet with each week. With her clinical help and support I’m able to keep my head above water with the depression and residual PTSD stuff.

 

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So a few years ago a friend suggested I start doing paid chess lessons for some kind of income. It’s really been a lifesaver because communicating the basics of chess to kids in successful, enthusiastic ways is perfect for me right now. I don’t have to be confronted too often with more complicated adult conversation which honestly now freaks me out sometimes. It’s tough to describe but that can totally be like a deer in the headlights at certain times, especially if that can’t-understand-language thing kicks in.My go-to phrase (that I’m currently working to phase out) whenever that happens has been “Yeah I got kicked in the head a few years ago so I didn’t get what you just said.” Doesn’t go over too well on first dates.

But being able to get out and be welcomed into other people’s homes to do something like teach chess really fills my heart again like my work used to in that ‘prior’ life. It feels purposeful and meaningful and…sad to say but…it makes me feel worthwhile. I’m good at it. I’m actually better than a lot of people at it. And being received by kids so enthusiastically is always a real morale boost.

Most of the kids who I’ve taught have kept lessons going for months and a couple of families for years.

I have had a few intermediate adult students for short periods of time but it’s usually not very fluid or comfortable in communication and those tend not to last. Except for Marvin……..

(To see more about Marvin and I and to view my Fundraiser – Click Here)

Very Sincerely,

Michael

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