47: Filling the Well

47: Filling the Well

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Filling the Well

If you want to touch the past, touch a rock. If you want to touch the present, touch a flower. If you want to touch the future, touch a life.

~Author Unknown

My path to volunteerism was non-linear. Ten years ago my son Neil was hit by a drunk driver. That crash killed his girlfriend and left him with a serious traumatic brain injury. For years, it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other, arranging physical therapy and mental health appointments, monitoring medications, and advocating for academic modifications. But somewhere along the line I began to ask myself questions about our situation. Why us? Did I really get to grieve for my son’s losses when the fact was he was still alive? Shouldn’t I just be grateful? Could I ever forgive the drunk driver for what he did?

To answer these questions, I turned to writing. For years I kept a journal, venting on the page about our horrific experiences. The great memoirist Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” I found myself agreeing with her. This private habit of daily reflection finally helped me come to grips with our fate and the fallout from the crash.

Eventually, I wanted to share my experience with others. I wrote articles for disability journals about our experience coping with the accident’s after-effects. I published essays in medical journals for other doctors who, like myself, may be grappling with whether and how to share our families’ experiences with patients. I wrote essays for literary anthologies on journaling through sorrow. Eventually, I wrote a memoir called Crash: A Mother, A Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude.

With the publication of that book came many volunteer opportunities. I was invited to become an ambassador for the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts. The ambassador program is designed to put a human face on the tragedy that is traumatic brain injury. In this role, I give talks to high school juniors and seniors during prom season about making appropriate decisions behind the wheel. I discuss the adverse effects of underage drinking and drunk driving with college freshmen during Alcohol Awareness Week. I speak to civic and business organizations, raising awareness about the subtle, long-term effects of traumatic brain injury.

Recently I was able to merge my passions for writing and for the topic of brain injury into another volunteer project. The Krempels Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a non-profit organization that offers a wide range of outpatient services and enrichment programs to local TBI survivors and their families. I now lead a once-a-month writing group there called “Express Yourself.” A surprisingly large number of survivors were committed writers before their injuries and have missed the joy of putting their thoughts down on paper. We start each session with an icebreaker, introducing ourselves, sharing our connection to brain injury and explaining what we hope to gain from the group. We then delve into a particular aspect of writing.

One time we talked about description. I passed around a colorful feathery butterfly and we took turns describing it using all five senses. “Vibrant.” “Silent.” “Light.”

Last week we learned about metaphors and similes. I asked them to finish the sentence “Brain injury is…” Their answers were as varied and complex as their injuries. “Brain injury is an unstable roller coaster.” “Brain injury is like living in a foreign country.” “Brain injury is a pain in the butt.” Their strength, resilience, humor, willingness to help each other and sense of community are inspiring. As happens so often in volunteering, I always leave these sessions feeling guilty — like I’m getting more out of them than they are.

My life now feels like a perfect balance of purpose and prose. I still work part-time in my pediatric practice. That has its own rewards. But as satisfying as it is, it’s my volunteer life that fills up the well. I embrace it as a way to give back. I can tell our story — of accident, aftermath and acceptance — and by doing so, take something unexpected and tragic and turn it into something meaningful and just.

~Carolyn Roy-Bornstein

Editor’s note: Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is the coauthor of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries.

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