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How My Brain Injury Led Me to My Truest Self

After a car accident and a life-altering brain injury, Samuel Dallas-Dinwiddie made a remarkable recovery and found a meditation and yoga practice that would ultimately change his life for the better.

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Ten years ago, I got into a life-changing accident in Eugene, Oregon. I was traveling at 50 to 60 miles per hour on my motorcycle when I came around a bend and hit a UPS truck that was stopped in the middle of the road. My brain bounced around inside my skull, causing a diffuse axonal brain injury in which nerve cells can’t communicate and lesions develop in the brain, resulting in unconsciousness. This devastating condition is one of the leading causes of death in people with traumatic brain injury, but I was relatively fortunate, and spent a month and a half in a coma.

After the accident, I could not remember anything. I recognized my mother, but no one else. Beyond recovering from the amnesia, I had to learn to talk and walk all over again. I was moved to group homes, hospitals, and rehabilitation facilities in Oregon, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and back to Oregon. Because I was deemed permanently and totally disabled, however, no one tried to rehabilitate me past a certain point. I first found yoga while in a group living facility for adults with traumatic brain injuries, six years after my accident. I mostly just missed human contact, so I began with a class at the gym where I found connection and commonality.

After the accident, the doctors decided that I was totally and permanently disabled since I was unable to do most basic functions, like walking or talking. Yoga totally proved that perspective wrong, helping me regain a sense of confidence and get past my feelings of insecurity. I gradually learned how to adapt on my own, and began hearing positive reinforcement as teachers helped me focus on the things that I could do, rather than on what I could not do. The nature of my injury meant that I lost a lot of specific memories; through repetition of physical and life skills, yoga rebuilt connections in my brain so I could reference the past and see the lessons I learned over time. Having a daily practice showed me that my body could heal itself and taught me to breathe through anxiety rather than letting it ruin my day.

Repeating the same motions in yoga also helped my brain find new ways of doing what it had always done, like maintaining balance. My brain’s vestibular apparatus, the system responsible for balance and spacial orientation, was badly damaged, so it was a challenge to stay upright and moving without crashing to the ground. Western doctors have generally thought for a long time that once the brain was damaged, it would be unable to heal itself. My ability to heal from what happened to my brain is proof of that this is not the case.

Samuel’s drawing during recovery.

Although I did suffer from one epileptic seizure after my accident, my practice prevented more episodes and brought me off my pain medication by making me aware of my triggers. It’s incredibly rare to have a brain injury and chronic nerve pain and not be on any pharmaceuticals. Yoga also developed my physical confidence, as I learned how to be comfortable with my body and do poses with one arm (I have extreme pain and limited use of my right arm due to many broken bones and brachial nerve damage). Many people said I needed to be in a special class for people with disabilities, but I didn’t believe that at all.

One of my first yoga teachers loaned me Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace is Every Step, about turning life into a meditation through a mindfulness practice. When I want to run from my life, this approach allows me to focus on my breath and stay put. Because I had to learn all of the basic life skills that most people take for granted, like washing the dishes, I turned that into an enjoyable meditation. Meditation can be difficult for me, but it’s also a huge practice in being okay with what is and not engaging in the craziness of the mind. My healing process addressed the self-victimization that comes with brain injury, as well as my pre-existing depression. Through my healing process, I detached myself from identifying with victimhood and went deeply into the falsity of ideas like, “I’m the only one who will ever understand this pain.” Prioritizing meditation in my life maintains everything else.

Compounding the challenges of my physical and mental state, my accident was hard on the relationships I had from my previous life. Many of my friendships had been formed at a time when I was drinking and doing drugs. When we met again after the accident, it was hard for them to handle the person I had become through living a healthy lifestyle. The community I formed through yoga now connects through taking care of our bodies and minds instead of going out for beers.

As recently as four years ago, I was told that I would live in a group home for the rest of my life and always be dependent on someone else. I learned from my practice that I was in a more control of my life than I’d been led to believe, and have transformed this story. I still need help, but not like before. And for the things I still cannot do, like drive a car, my practice has helped me to be okay with that.

Seeing for myself the benefits of these practices, I started teaching meditation to adults with brain injuries at the home where I used to live. I’m also a substitute mindfulness instructor for young people through One House of Peace. I feel so connected with them, and they feel the same way because I have the background to understand what they are going through. I’ve completed Integrated Movement Therapy training at Unfold, an unconditionally inclusive yoga studio in Portland, and some trauma-informed youth teacher training through the Street Yoga program. I would also like to move towards teaching at brain injury facilities. As a motorcycle mechanic, my work used to be about money. Now, it’s about sharing with other people what has helped me to heal. Motivated by my own experience, I want to help people transform the noise of negative self-talk into something positive.

Beyond teaching, I am developing more of a practice as an artist. I like working with watercolor pastels, because there’s only so much you can control what’s going to happen. When I had use of my right hand, everything had to be perfect and exact. With my left hand, I can no longer do that. I like being proud of my mess; a painting may have no structure to it, but it’s me. Art is similar to my yoga practice; it flows, and it’s not perfect, but it’s what it needs to be.

My family moved every few years when I was growing up, so I got used to never being in one place long enough to find any kind of stable community. I’m also aware of being in a society that bombards us with messages to change our present-moment experience in search of something better. I’m healing that tendency through the awareness cultivated by mindfulness practice, and through learning how to stabilize myself for the first time through the grounding nature of yoga.

I’m now considering replacing my right arm with a prosthesis. Some of the highly functional newer models actually connect to the brain. Once it’s done, there’s no going back, but I’m ready to regain the energy that’s been drained by waiting. My journey over the past 10 years has taught me to express my true self. If people are not happy with what I give them, I’m okay with that. The mind is simply a tool that recycles what it’s been exposed to. Without regular maintenance, it can lead us away from our real selves. The authentic self is underneath all that noise.

Finding love for myself and the world has sometimes felt impossible amidst all of this pain. There have been many times I have asked myself if it was worth it for me to continuous amidst so much struggle. Without a doubt, I can now say that it has been worth it. If I had not been gone through all of this, I would not be able to love people, my experiences or the world the way I that I do now. That is true love.

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