Surviving Traumatic Brain Injury: From “Why Me?” to “Why Not Me?”
Written By Matthew Job Tan, Singapore
Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
Most Christians have probably heard this famous Bible verse at some point or another. That being said, knowing is one thing, to experience it is another. Unless it is experienced, this idea remains a mere abstract belief.
“For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground.” (Job 5:6, ESV)
When I was 16, everything in life was going well. I excelled in academics and sports (Judo), and I had a promising future ahead of me. Yet, my triumphant days came to a cruel and abrupt halt on April 20, 2010. I was in the semi-finals of a Judo competition—this close to my first gold medal—when I landed unsafely while receiving an attack from my opponent. This resulted in me sustaining a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
The injury put me in a two-month-long coma, which caused muscle deterioration in addition to the brain trauma. These combined factors rendered me incapable of virtually every human function. I was given nourishment through the UV-drip (for water) and the rouse tube (for food). My core muscles were too weak to keep my head or body upright. Speaking and moving were impossible for me. In a split second, my life fell into ruins.
The journey to recovery and reintegration into society was nothing less than tumultuous. In the initial days of rehabilitation, getting my functions back was a nightmare. Reduced to an invalid who could neither speak nor move, I dreaded waking up every morning to face my broken body.
One year later, I returned to my previous secondary school on a wheelchair, only to encounter more difficulties. Apart from having to attend weekly outpatient therapy sessions, I struggled to focus and keep up during lessons because of my limited mental stamina and delayed thought processes. That was when I discovered the irreversible damage the TBI brought upon my cognition.
I could not keep up with my peers in school even though I was taking a reduced number of subjects. I took only five subjects while my classmates had nine. From my repeated flunking at exams, it was evident that I was no longer the achiever I once was.
Moving on to polytechnic, not only did I continue to struggle with my academics, I toiled to fit in socially. This was due to my awkward demeanor caused by my delayed mental processes. Despite consolation from those around me, I felt alone and disliked myself.
Yet, of all the difficulties I faced, the worst was questioning God’s purpose in allowing the disaster to befall me. If God’s plans for my life were meant to prosper me, and give me a hope and a future, I simply could not fathom why God did not stop the accident from happening.
“Did I commit any grave sins to deserve such a great punishment? Why does He still keep me here to suffer? Wouldn’t it be better if I had just died on that fateful day? Why me?” These were questions that hurled me into the pits of despair. At one point, I even considered ending my life. The storms were simply too overwhelming. Nobody would blame me had I given up.
Understanding the “why”
“You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit.” (Job 10:12)
My distrust of God’s perfect plans did not diminish His love for me. Through my family, teachers, friends, mentors and even strangers, God provided His support, encouragement and miracles to tide me through the times. As I look back today, all I see are His fingerprints in my life: it must have been His Grace that has sustained me and gave me strength to bear my cross.
Though a failure when I returned to secondary school, I strove hard with tremendous support from my teachers, and I did so well in my ‘O’ levels that I achieved a scholarship to further my studies in a polytechnic.
The use of alternative methods like acupuncture, swimming, and meditation were introduced to me along the way. Coupled with intense daily exercises, I finally regained my ability to walk after two years, and went on to complete many long distance races, including a 10 kilometre run in 2016.
Despite being hit with the reality that I would be unable to handle an educational or work industry for normal functioning persons during polytechnic, I did manage to obtain employment as a music therapy therapist assistant in a faith-based nursing home that was willing to invest in me with unconditional support.
My occupation has enabled me to improve in terms of my rehabilitation and in my professional work competencies. For one, the immense nursing home compound requires a lot of footwork, giving me plenty of practice for my walking. And I am proud to say that my gait has improved!
I am also challenged to think of ways to add value to the tasks I am given at work, and to suggest these ideas to my co-workers. Daily clinical hours with the residents has allowed me to develop in my rapport building and people skills. Furthermore, the need to juggle duties like preparation, execution, and clean-up of group and individual sessions has given me opportunities to work on my time management. Apart from tangible professional growth, I am beginning to see a fragment of why God allowed me to go through my devastating experiences.
Experiencing God’s redemptive purpose
At work, I interact with those who have approached the eventide of their existence on a daily basis. I journey with persons who have, either gradually or suddenly, lost control of their lives and who are basically counting on people around them for their own survival—those who show me a reflection of my past.
Utilizing the power of music, I get to bring joy and comfort to these people I can relate to the most. Of course, my pain and suffering cannot be compared to theirs, but the Lord has given me this history of hopelessness, helplessness, hurt, and loss for me to empathize more deeply with the residents of this nursing home.
With this empathy, I have become more patient and sensitive to them during my engagement sessions, and I persist in journeying even with difficult or unresponsive residents. My awareness of the loneliness within the confines of institutionalized care has prompted me to reach out and visit residents on a daily basis even if there are no scheduled engagement sessions.
To be sure, my extra dedication to work means that I am not spared from substantial fatigue at the end of every day, but I am content to head home from work with no regrets. I stand in awe of God’s love for me, for my unique circumstances has certainly magnified the meaning and joy I find in my work.
As time goes by, I am starting to see God’s purpose for my life revealing itself. He must have known that I would suffer, and yet He gave me adequate support to survive this TBI in order to prepare me for my current beautiful vocation. By the mercy of God, I have successfully turned my greatest trial into what may be potentially the best thing that ever happened to me.
Having experienced the truth and beauty of God’s promises, I cannot begin to imagine what the future holds. Had I given up on life back then, I would not have been able to see His works in my life and enjoy this walk with the Lord today. My prior question of “Why me?” has turned into “Why not me?”, and it was only made possible because I persevered through my temporal sufferings.
God never promised an easy life, but just as He walked with the Israelites through their period of exile, He has also promised that He will never leave us or abandon us in the midst of our trials and sufferings.
God’s plans may sometimes involve pain and suffering, but He will be there to see us through (Isaiah 41:10). Whatever you may be going through now, I invite you to hang in there, for when you “Let perseverance finish its work”, you will emerge “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4). That vision of being perfected in Him will be what gives us hope for our future. Amen.
This is so good! Thanks for sharing so openly! I really enjoyed reading your testimony and how it challenges me, it’s not easy when we go through struggles but it is apart of a bigger purpose and sometimes “why” won’t always be clear but it is known by God. Choosing to trust that takes the courage, enjoyed this!
Wow. Thank you for sharing your testimony. True to His Word, God works everything out for the good. Through you,His unconditional love and restoring grace is reaching many, not just in your workplace but to people half way across the world, people like me.
Amazing testimony of faith and courage, and a beautiful reminder to look for God’s “fingerprints” even (and especially) in our difficult times. Thank you, Matthew!