Recently I was thrilled to be asked to be the Keynote Speaker for the Brain Injury of Massachusetts’ 30th anniversary annual conference. I learned just days before the talk that it was a sold-out event. There would be more than 650 people in the audience.
Writing the speech was challenging because the audience is so diverse, including not only brain injury survivors, their families and caregivers, but also health care professionals: doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists. What message could I bring that would be relevant to such a disparate group?
I decided to talk about the transformative power of words. I started with a reading of the prologue from my memoir where I use the crack in the glass (of the drunk driver’s windshield) as a metaphor for the line that divides families’ lives in two: events before and after the brain injury. I talked about how writing the book didn’t feel very cathartic at the time: more like picking scabs off of healing wounds day after day. But ultimately it was a therapeutic experience. It helped me to process the myriad emotions the crash engendered—anger, resentment, frustration, disappointment—and to let go of these unhealthy emotions and hang onto the more hopeful ones like hope and strength and resilience. I quoted the writer Norbet Platt who said, “The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought. This in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.”
I talked about studies in which chronically ill patients rated their quality of life higher after being asked to write about their illnesses. Similar results were seen in prisoners given the same writing assignment. They rated themselves happier after having written. A Boston Globe article that came out the week before the conference reported on a study in which college graduates who were asked to write about a situation in which they felt powerful actually performed better on job interviews and were more likely to be hired than grads who didn’t write.
Then we did a little writing exercise of our own.
“Let’s see if we can empower ourselves,” I told them. “Let’s see if we can re-create that same sense of empowerment.” Then I gave them a short writing assignment. “Finish this sentence: Today I am grateful for…”
And here is where my audience inspired me—transformed me with the power of their words. Survivors stood up and spoke about the love of family who helped them through their brain injury. Mothers spoke up about the miraculous gains made by their children despite dire predictions by professionals.
“Never give up on a survivor,” one implored.
Health care professionals who were also survivors spoke about caring for their brain injury patients.
“It’s like being given a torch and now I’m passing it on.”
So now here I was being inspired, lifted up, by the very people I had come to try to inspire. The message of hope and optimism I wanted to bring to them was being mirrored back at me in tearful but smiling faces. Their voices cracked. Some lost their places on the page. But their message was clear. We are transformed by the stories we tell and share. We are all moved by the power of words.