2017 SDBIF Scholarship Recipient Tracy O’Halloran

2017 SDBIF Scholarship Recipient Tracy O’Halloran’s Winning Essay

Like many of those who’ve sustained a brain injury my road towards recovery has been an uphill battle. Like the old saying goes, “one step forward and two steps back;” however, I think many of us can better identify with one step forward and an unfathomable-number of steps back. What has been exceptionally frustrating about trying to get better is feeling like I am wandering through the darkness and not even knowing where the finish line is or how to get there.

I sustained my brain injury during my second year of college while cheering at Kansas State University. When I was taken to the hospital they did the preliminary checks, gave me a collar, and told me I needed to be woken up every couple hours, but I was not diagnosed. Within the following weeks I reported a very high fever and vomiting and even difficulty when I returned to classes, I was told to give it a month, month and a half and I would be back to normal. When this did not happen, I was left to my own devices and felt like I was defective.

A couple years later, I finally got a definitive diagnosis from a Neuro Psychological Evaluation and an EEG. However, they did not tell me what to do with my diagnosis. Once again, I was left trying to find my own way in the dark, suck it up and walk it off and pretend I was like everyone else. I had to drop my classes several times. Thankfully, with help from some of my professors, I was finally able to graduate college, but it was a couple years after my peers. It was then that I made my way out to San Diego. I found jobs, but had trouble keeping them because of my issues with my brain injury. I have lost many friends since my brain injury because I could not explain what was going on with me and was ashamed that I was not moving forward in my life or because they felt I was making excuses because after all, I look fine so I must be. Eventually, I realized that I could not do this on my own and had to get help. My mom and I found a therapist who connected us to the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation who then connected us with an amazing psychologist who specializes in brain injuries. Through her I found the Acquired Brain Injury program at Mesa College.

Becoming educated about my brain injury has helped me to be a better advocate for myself, and now as I am pursuing a graduate degree in Rehabilitation Counseling at San Diego State University I hope to be a strong advocate for others as well. My injury has come with many setbacks; however, it has also put me on a new path that I was unaware of before. Like a quote I came upon the other day, “In order for an arrow to be shot forward it must first be pulled back.” Rather than being steps backward, I believe that they have all been unfamiliar steps forward aiming me to a new and greater purpose. I needed to experience the continuous struggle of a brain injury in order to help others. Now, while my experience may not be the exact same as anyone else’s, I now am truly able to be empathetic and walk beside them in their journey of their new lives.

I believe it is imperative that professionals understand how difficult the process is. I can meet my clients where they are and encourage them. I am no longer weak, but am strong and can help to empower others to find the resources, support, and answers they need. In my future professional life I endeavor to take a holistic approach with each survivor. I have been denied services more times than I can recall because I have been told I am too high functioning. Instead of listening to my words of what I struggle with, they judged my appearance and compensatory strategies. This is such an extremely harmful thing to say to someone who is struggling everyday of their life and can’t move ahead. This has the potential to shame the individual. The secondary symptoms of their injury like depression will then have a greater chance to manifest and only make the brain injury worse. The person will be further removed from getting the necessary help and moving on in their new life. There is an immense risk of triggering hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and defeat. Instead, I want to be able to sow hope. I hope to be part of the greater voice which shows that brain injury does not look a certain way and if one is having difficulty let’s start from there. Do not ignore it! A brain injury can be a blessing if a person is shown that there actually is hope.

I love that the Acquired Brain Injury program has such amazing professionals that are not only incredibly knowledgeable and caring, but they believe that each one of us is an expert on our own injury. Not only are they teaching us, but so are we teaching them and each other as well and as things come up they constantly make changes to the curriculum. I believe it is because of the instructors, counselors and fellow students at ABI, Dr. Barbara Welsh-Osga, SDBIF, and of course my family that I am here, alive and where I am today. I want to give back what I have been given.

While I still have many challenges that I face on a day to day, minute by minute basis, I have learned useful compensatory strategies. I have learned how to ask for help and to surround myself with helpful and positive people, and to continue to search for resources even when I have been denied. Brain injury can’t stop me because I am not fighting for just myself but for others as well! I am not ashamed of my “scars!” I will not let brain injury define me but propel me forward to a greater calling to help others. That is my greatest motivation.

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