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Butterflies are Free

by Meredith Murray

It is hard for me to believe it has been five years since my near-fatal car accident. On June 20, 1995, my life was changed forever.

I think of my experience as a metamorphosis, like that of a caterpillar into a butterfly. My cocoon was my coma; my recovery was my metamorphosis. My transformation took five stages: the Egg, the Caterpillar, the Cocoon, Emerging from the Chrysalis, and the Butterfly.

Like the butterfly, I am unique. I look different. I cannot do many things I was able to do before my transformation. Yet, I am still the same person. The same name. The same body. And parallel to a butterfly’s entity, I have undergone a complete change.

The Egg

I am not proud of my choices and my life before June 20, 1995. I do not have reasons or excuses for my self-destructive behavior. From ages 13 to 25, I did most everything a parent would not want their child to do. If you can imagine it, I did it. The remarkable thing is, somehow, I survived the drugs, the abuse, and the suicide attempts. My scars are emotional and psychological, as well as tangible. I was submerged in an abyss I had created for myself. My self-esteem was so low at this time, I believed I was ugly and worthless. I rationalized that I would be better off dead.

The Caterpillar

The night of my accident, I was driving on a two-lane, desert road late at night. There were no street lights. All that was visible was the moon shadows across the desert, as far as the eye could see.

As the road curved, I saw only the headlights of the 16-wheeler coming toward me, in my lane. I quickly veered to the right, but my wheels went off the road and onto the soft-shoulder. My brand new Ford Escort went into a skid. My car flipped, end over end, four times and threw me 100 feet into the sagebrush and sand.

I remember nothing. I can only describe what happened because I read the police report. I can not remember the paramedics trying to resuscitate me as I lay helpless and limp like a caterpillar on the ground. I have no recollection of the helicopter that airlifted me, with no vital signs, to the hospital.

Where did I go? Was I dead? What did I see when I flatlined? These are all questions that remain unanswered in my head. Will I ever know the truth? Does a caterpillar remember what it was like to be a larvae after it transforms into a butterfly?

The Cocoon

My family often calls to mind the extraordinary feelings of joy they felt when I finally emerged from my week-long comatose slumber. I imagine it was like witnessing a caterpillar coming out of its cocoon, changing from one life form into another. I was transforming into a new form of myself.

When the doctor’s removed my ventilator, I struggled and gasped for air with every breath. I wonder if a newborn baby feels that way what it takes its first breath of life? I had no short term memory. I saw an object in the corner of the room. It looked like a big box, but there were little people laughing and walking around inside of it. A lot of noise was coming from this strange machine. My visitors were watching it. What was it called? They told me what the name was. It was like hearing the word "television" for the first time.

It did not feel like I was really me. I touched my head and part of my hair had been shaved so the doctors could drill a hole into my skull. They implanted a gauge that measured the pressure in my brain. It stayed there for a week. I could hear myself talking, but I did not know where the words were coming from. It was such a strange experience.

Nothing happened when I tried to move my left arm and leg. They were there, but they did not respond. I do remember the pain. The excruciating pain. I could not sleep at night. When I moved the pain was unbearable. It even hurt when I blinked my eyes.

My body was not working. I am told I could not hold on to anything. When they put something in my hand, it would just drop open. It was not receiving the messages my brain was sending. Or maybe my brain was not sending any messages.

My brain was not retaining information either. People would tell me things and I would forget what they said, or even if they said anything. I did not know where I was, who called, or who visited. I was very distressed. All day long I cried.

Nevertheless, I do have one memory of this time. July 1, 1995 at 3:15 AM, I fell out of my hospital bed. The nurses forgot to put the guard rails up. I woke up, and not remembering where I was or why, I tried to get out of bed. I fell to the floor and smashed my head on my wheelchair which was parked next to my bed.

I recall seeing flashes of light and silver when my head hit the floor. I remained on the floor for 20 minutes because the nurse had closed my door and no one could hear my cries for help. I was unable to move because the pain from my broken pelvis was so intense.

Finally, I tortuously crawled to the emergency button and pushed it. The nurses found me on the floor. They were only checking me every two hours. It was not written on my chart that I had a brain injury and very little short-term memory! This was an extremely demoralizing experience and a major set-back in my recovery.

Emerging from the Chrysalis

At last, one month after flatlining three times, surviving a week-long coma, and persevering through maltreatment at the convalescent home I was placed in to recover, I was transferred to a rehabilitation institute. Here, I received speech, physical, psycho, occupational, and vocational therapies.

Depression occurs in 15-25% of all Brain Injury Survivors. Notwithstanding all of the help I was now receiving, I became agitated, angry, disappointed, irritable, guilty, and frustrated. Intense psychotherapy helped me cope with these feelings, maintain a sense of self-worth, and ultimately realize and become grateful for my second chance at life. It was a journey of rediscovery.

I still had some residual effects from the accident, but I was now in the proper state of mind to take on my challenges. I was diagnosed with "post traumatic amnesia" (no memory eight days after the accident) and "retrograde amnesia" (no memory two-three weeks prior to the accident).

I had problems processing information and problem solving. The doctors told me I would require constant supervision once I was released from the hospital. My memory was tested on a scale from 1-100. I was in the 18th percentile. Before the accident, I was tested and evaluated as "gifted."

A big problem I encountered was difficulty with word finding. This complication, I have learned, is called "anomia." Anomia, more simply, is when your brain holds your words hostage. My anomia was a very frustrating component of my recovery.

The Butterfly

I learned that growth is not possible without risk. I learned strategies to help assist me through my challenges. I learned that it is not what happens to you that is important, but how you react to that which happens. My outlook on life was transformed. I now look for the good, or the lesson, in every situation and try to turn a negative into a positive.

I currently live independently, in charge of my own life. I have made peace with the new me. As a matter of fact, I like the new Meredith and my new life better. This experience has caused me to evaluate and determine what is important in my life and to change some of my destructive behaviors. Over the last two years, I have worked with disabled people in several group homes. I currently work as a "Neuro Rehabilitation Specialist" for a wonderful community/job retraining company for brain injury survivors. I have also trained my dog to become a "therapy dog." We volunteer at hospital and convalescent homes in order to bring happiness to the patients.

I have taken a traumatic life occurrence and turned it into a rewarding metamorphosis. I am so thankful and happy that I am alive today. Whenever I see a butterfly soar by, I cannot help but think how much my life resembles these magnificent creatures. I am so free, so courageous, so beautiful! Just like the miraculous butterfly.

Meredith Murray, © 2002