Affiong Day and her parents Jean and Terry spoke to Caroline Gallup about their shared experience of Affiong’s accident and how she has coped living with a ‘silent disability’
Nine years ago, Affiong Day was severely injured in a climbing accident. She fell nearly eight metres (30ft) to the ground, broke several bones and sustained a serious head injury, damaging her brain. Her motor skills, language, emotions and memory were all affected. Here, Affiong shares her experience of living with brain injury and how, through her Buddhist practice, she has been able to stay focussed on fulfilling her potential.
Affiong Day: When I fell, I hit the back of my head. I don’t remember what happened after that, until I woke up in hospital nearly two weeks later.
Jean Day: At the scene of the accident, paramedics sedated my daughter so that her brain couldn’t expand – damage is caused when the brain swells, hits the skull and causes bleeds. I knew I had to keep chanting for her recovery, no matter what. Whilst we were chanting by Affiong’s bedside, the consultant came in and said: ‘we’re very worried about your daughter’. He told us how bad her injuries were and how she might never wake up. Even if she did come out of her coma, he warned us that she might never walk or talk again. Every time the doctors told me something negative about the prognosis for Affiong’s recovery, I would just think to myself: ‘No, that isn’t going to happen because I have faith in my practice of Buddhism.’ When she was unconscious, on a ventilator and covered in wires, I was so grateful to the hospital and to the nurse who said: ‘take it hour by hour’ and knew how very fragile and precious life is. I discovered that the chanting non-stop in my head and aloud was real and meaningful.
Affiong: Before the accident, I was a very active and creative person: I swam every day, and went climbing three times a week. I was very physically fit because I walked or cycled everywhere and never took public transport. I loved being outside and was always rushing from place to place. I had a photography degree and was working in a demanding role as a photographer’s assistant. I considered my life too busy to spend time chanting even though I knew about it from my Mum, Dad and brother. It wasn’t until I was faced with the enormous challenge of trying to be happy again, despite all my injuries, that I would discover how Buddhism would help my recovery.
Terry Day: When I first started to practise Buddhism I used to think that it was working if we were free from accidents. I now understand that no one can avoid problems, but when I think back to those months when Affiong was in a wheelchair and struggling to come to terms with what had happened, and compare that time to the huge efforts Affiong has made to rebuild her life, she’s proof of the power for me, of chanting and the courage and hope it brings.
Affiong: For the best part of two years, I was either in hospital or in rehabilitation. Mum and Dad fought hard to get funding to send me to one of the few centres in the UK catering exclusively for patients between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, plus dealing with both emotional and physical retraining. As babies, we teach our body how to behave, but now I had to re-introduce my body to my brain. Nerve damage meant that I had no control over my limbs; my right side was severely affected and partially paralysed. I had to do exercises using my right hand so that my brain remembered that I had one, otherwise it would hang motionless at my side. I spent hours touching the end of my nose with my fingertip so that I could regain enough hand-eye coordination to turn on a light switch. I had to re-learn how to smile, frown or feel joy because I couldn’t remember how to do it. I was unhappy, but I couldn’t even cry to express to others how I felt.
There were thirty young people in the rehabilitation centre with me and it really struck me how we’d all taken our lives for granted before brain injury or haemorrhage (stroke) had forced us to face the possibility of an early death. When you’re young, you think you’re going to live forever, but we had all been lucky to survive.
As hard as it was in rehabilitation, my difficulties really began when I came home. Brain injury is often called the ‘silent disability’ because sufferers can often look fine on the outside, but each injury affects mental and physical function in a unique way. Initially, I had to have someone with me each time I went out, as I lost my balance very easily. Uneven pavements posed a great danger because if I over-balanced, it was very difficult for me to right myself,. I risked falling into the road and being run over. I have a problem with my hearing and my eyesight because everything on the right hand side of my body moves more slowly than the left; Writing is a very slow process for me even now, and I have difficulty focussing on text and printed words.
Before the accident, I had always been a very private person and valued the time I could spend alone at the pool or writing poems and my diary. But once I had injured my brain, I lost so many of the skills I used to love, like writing, and couldn’t even go swimming without help. Once, I nearly drowned because I didn’t remember to lift my head out of the water to breathe. I had to overcome my resistance to having so much help and so many carers and therapists ‘interfering’ in my life. Of course, I appreciated what they were doing for me; I just found it hard to be so needy.
I became good at putting on a brave face for all these wonderful helpers, but on the inside, I felt very sad because I couldn’t move very fast. Not moving fast meant that I also felt very cold a lot of the time, which accentuated my sadness. I yearned to be truly happy and independent again, in spite of the battles I faced every day, struggling to do things that had never been a problem before.
In 2003, I went to a youth division meeting held in London. I heard an experience there, given by a young man who had also struggled to be truly happy. Hearing how chanting helped him touched my heart. I determined to try it and see if it would help me. After a time, I realised that chanting was helping me to balance my emotions and to feel joy once more. Using my voice was improving my ability to speak more clearly, so that I could be better understood by other people in shops, on public transport or at Buddhist meetings. I started to regain the self-confidence that had ebbed away as a result of my accident.
As I love swimming so much, I chanted for the company providing me with ‘buddies’ to find the right person to help me at the pool. A Spanish lady called Gloria was sent to me and I knew my prayers had been answered when she told me how much she loved the smell of chlorine!
My determination for the future is to keep getting more mentally and physically able to do the things I want to do. I’m now well enough to live independently and I can swim on my own again. It hurts my back because of the physical damage caused when I fell, but I do exercises in the water to strengthen my muscles.
I have a new means of expressing my creativity too: I make ceramics – something I didn’t do before my accident. I’m taking National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) at college; building a portfolio of creative work so that one day I can take a Bachelor of Arts degree course. I know that I’m still the creative person I was before my accident and so that I never forget this fact, I’ve covered a wall in my work room with my poems and artwork as proof.
I believe that I’ve achieved so much because I don’t shy away from difficulties – I rise to the challenge and keep chanting to see how much I can improve. I know that I haven’t yet turned things around completely – I still trip over if I don’t remind myself to pick my foot up at the edge of a kerb, but I don’t fall down as much as I used to and I’ll keep moving forward, no matter how hard it is. I really feel that 2009 is my year! I’d like to share a quotation from SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, which has really inspired me:
“You will pass through storms and you may suffer defeat. The essence of the creative life, however, is to persevere in the face of defeat and to follow the rainbow within your heart.”
From: A Creative Life – Open the door (A lasting peace) by President Ikeda