Heart, Hope & Possibility

June 25: Achilles NYC Hope & Possibility Four-Miler in Central Park
Seen through the eyes of Rendy Kowal and me


To me, Hope & Possibility is a rite of passage for Achilles Athletes. In that spirit, I decided to take the leap. I didn’t know if I was ready, but I was exhilarated by my decision to participate, and spread the word on Facebook:
fb photo for blog post

“I’m a first-timer! Can you believe I’m actually walking in a race? Yup – thanks to Achilles International. Supporting them to support us – the disability community. #GoAchilles”

This was Laurie’s inaugural Achilles Race, and about a week prior to the race, Laurie posted a photo of herself on Facebook. She was wearing a happy smile and her neon-yellow Achilles International shirt. The post announced her first race, ever. It celebrated the fact that she had trained as an Achilles athlete and was ready to take part in a well-publicized race. This posting helped ease her newness to racing, and showed her tenacity, as usual. 
As proud as she was for accepting this four-mile challenge, responding to her Facebook post were many, many others who sent well wishes. Some also sent donations to Achilles International.

As the day approached, though, I didn’t feel exhilaration. It was more like panic. What subway to take? What time? Will I get lost in the park? Do I need my cane? The morning of the race, after wolfing down breakfast, I went down my list: phone, ID, keys, MetroCard, sunglasses, cap. I ran through it again before I walked out the door – almost forgot my cane! Got it.

My anxiety level rose as I entered the park, peering at my map not sure where to go. I finally saw the group gathering, and my friend Tina found me. But I was quickly distracted worrying how I’d find Katie, who was going to be my guide. I saw Rendy, upbeat and ready, and Katie found me. I started to relax (or thought I did), but Rendy must have noticed what I hadn’t. She suggested I sit down. In fact I was off balance and dizzy. My vision was worse than it had been for years – the crowd a kaleidoscope of noise, color and jagged edges. Once we were told where to go I could barely take a step without help. Make no mistake about it – the thrill was gone.

It was a very warm Sunday morning at 7:30am when Laurie and I gathered with our friends and fellow Achilles athletes. We waited to be paired with Volunteer Guides from CIGNA, who would accompany and assist athletes throughout the race. Laurie said she was a little tired and decided to walk with a cane. I saw she was a bit off-balanced and nervous, like most first-time Achilles racers. It’s common to get distracted by the newness and the excitement of the race, not sleeping well the night before, and our legs a bit unsteady.

With our Guides, we arrived at the “L” corral for walkers. That’s the last corral of the racing line-up. Soon the race began. First the front-runners, then corrals from A to L following in time, ready to go. As we neared the starting line, the race announcer cheered us on: “Go Achilles!” That chant always energizes us; it’s so heart warming to hear. Laurie held onto my shoulder as I walked with my walker, beginning Hope and Possibilities.

Rendy offered her shoulder, I gripped my cane, and Katie had my other side. Those strong women were my Guides. Once on the familiar road I felt a bit better, off to a good start. Katie kept one eye on me, and the other on the road, and it didn’t take long before I needed her help. I held onto her when I stumbled, strayed, and drank water. At the same time I was trying to hide my tears when we passed people cheering on the sideline, “Go Achilles!” Dark glasses and hat kept the sun out of my eyes and (I hoped) hid my sinking heart.

Steadily strolling, we approached and conquered the high and tough “Panther Hill.” At the first Fluid Station we refreshed with cups of water. Laurie was keeping up very well. She paced herself according to how unbalanced her steps were, while walking with or without a cane. “Mile One,” is the first “mile stone” for all novice racers. Some Achilles Athletes and friends took selfies, immortalizing the moment. At mile two and three, we picked up our pace.

Yet, feeling tired, unwell, and unsteady most of the race, Laurie endured. And, I saw her do this. I saw, as she began to feel weakened and looking a little pale. She was less her happy cheerful self. I heard her quietness as she went into her “reserves,” her deep, deep fortitude. She seemed to feel and show that she was not going to stop walking.

By the time we were closing in on the 3rd mile marker I was seriously fading. More water. Gripping Katie’s shoulder with one hand, cane in the other, and knowing that Rendy, her guide, 
and our friends Silvina, and Carol were never far away. They hung back when I fell behind, Katie gently corrected me when I strayed off track, guided me to a bench when I needed to rest, and brought me water from every station along the way.

The moment we passed the three-mile mark, my brain shut down. I withdrew – silent and deaf to my surroundings. It was as much as I could do to stay upright. I felt neither hope nor possibility and didn’t care. Utterly lost well before the cheers grew louder and we approached the finish line. More water? Nodding yes. Yes.

Nearing the end of the course, at the West 72 Street crossway, we came to the turn in the course that led to the 68th Street finish line. Laurie had slowed her pace. She was pacing herself according to the physical strength she had left that would match the guiding strength she had in her heart.
A few yards from the Finish Line, Laurie’s physical strength was waning even more. She asked if she could hold onto my shoulder. As we approached the end of the race, there were louder cheers and some photographers lining both sides of road. They were waving, clapping and cheering “Go Achilles! You Got This!”

We were among a crowd of final finishers as we crossed the finish line. From under her sunglasses, Laurie’s tears rolled down her cheeks, and I was trying to hold back tears and smile for the cameras.

I wept to get the medal I didn’t want, and at the bravos for finishing what I hadn’t wanted to start. All around us “Go Achilles!” I forced the semblance of a smile. Confused, emptied out, and unable to see my personal victory, I wanted to get away, curl up in a ball, alone.
Hope + Possibility finish line wJackie-me-Rendy-Sylvina-REndys guide

Four walkers
 smiling; the fifth, grim.
’s me. On the left is Katie, still looking out for me,
and then Rendy, never far from my side.

This was the most exciting and exhilarating experience I have ever been privileged to be a part of. It was more than an honor to be at Laurie’s side when the Hope & Possibilities Medal was placed around her neck, and hanging close to her heart.

A few days later, I spread the word on Facebook:

“The proof is in the pudding! I completed Hope & Possibility and got a medal just for crossing the finish line! I owe a debt of gratitude to those special people who walked by my side and kept me going.”

It took time before I made sense of that day, before I understood that I’d been weak even though I was determined to succeed. But I also realized that in the eyes of my guides, my determination was my success. These are women who have been through the mill and come out the other end, who have learned that strength is not the same as character. I was able to walk the full course because they cared enough to notice when I stumbled, to consider my vulnerabilities, respond with empathy, and patiently stick with me.

They looked after me. My friends.

It was eye opening, a joy. Before brain injury, I don’t think I ever had friends who looked after me. Why would they? I seemed to have all the answers, knew my mind, and was strong, independent. As if there was a sign around my neck, “Help Not Wanted.” I could look after myself.

But it’s such a relief to have someone offer their shoulder just when you need it. Suggest you sit down when they see you are wobbly; know what to watch for and how to help – selflessly. What a gift.

In the end, I suppose the race really was one of heart, hope, and possibility, even though it didn’t feel that way at the time. #GoAchilles!

— Laurie



In the Presence of Catastrophe

The moral of the story – before the story has even been told

We must be present for each other

The trauma of brain injury can trigger what Kurt Goldstein[i] called a “catastrophic reaction.” Yehuda Ben-Yishay explains: It “is not a conscious phenomenon. Rather, it is the expression of the protective mechanisms of the organism… the behavioral manifestation of a threat to the person’s very ‘existence,’ due to the failure to cope.… By avoiding…new experiences and sticking to the familiar or the routine, [individuals with brain injury] minimize the chances for experiencing catastrophic responses”[ii]

The Dancing Satyr (demon)  3rd-2nd centuries BC

As a survivor, you know only too well that brain injury can be catastrophic. You are vulnerable and easily overwhelmed by the world outside your safe comfort zone. When you do venture out, you find that your old “friends” have deserted you. You’re in pain, confused, and so, so tired. “Why did it happen to me?” “No one understands.” “The doctors don’t care.” Like most of us with brain injuries, you avoid that world and retreat into yourself as if into a cocoon, in order to heal in safety. And although you may prefer isolation to catastrophe, they both leave you so, so lonely.

You need someone to be there for you

It takes time to make the shift from looking inward to reaching outward. When we turn away from the compelling story of ourselves – our loss or anger, our theories or solutions – we can find the unexpected: a sense of possibility, compassion, and community.

Some people do it naturally. You sense it when you’re with them – fully present, calm, empathic. Well, I’m not that someone, yet. I interrupt, blurt things out (not considering the consequences), or assume I understand exactly what you’re saying (before you’ve said it). I am able to recognize my behavior when I’m acting this way, but not before the thoughts jump from my head, to the tip of my tongue, and out my mouth. Maybe I lost my “self-control gene” when I was injured, or maybe I never had one. It really doesn’t matter which.

We all need compassion

I’ve always been a loner, finding it easier to engage with ideas than people. Maybe because of my TBI (or my chutzpah) I always try to change the world – stand up and be counted, right the wrongs, and combat ignorance. In reality, my days are often spent at home in front of the computer, virtually connected to the world but also apart from it. In a way, it brings me back to my “catastrophic” cocoon.

As an outsider looking in, I see that one of my big challenges is empathy – putting myself in your shoes, seeing things through your eyes. I have to listen quietly – still my mind, carefully look at you looking at me, and pause, in order to be fully engaged with your mind. Every day I try to face these challenges, put what I know into action, and remember to be open, so I can find my own unexpected – living compassionately rather than tilting at windmills.

It’s hard to be present for others

I so admire those who walk in silence, refrain from answers, absorb the world and how others see it. It is a gift. I must remember, in the moment, that every time I interject “me” into a conversation, I risk losing “you.” Empathy is a powerful and empowering force.

Strong relationships are built on trust and balance. I get it. Sometimes you do want to know why or who, other times you need to know how. But most of the time you just want to be heard. Not every problem has an answer, questions are often rhetorical, and advice can be a pain in the neck.

When we care enough to see someone else’s pain, or hear their need for silent compassion, we step out of our cocoon. When we listen, quietly, we can help them, and ourselves, heal.

We must be present for each other

And if we are not, will our lives be spent hiding from catastrophe? I really hope not.


[i] “Kurt Goldstein (1878-1965) is one of the most important, most contradictory, and now most forgotten figures in the history of neurology and psychiatry.” Sacks, O. (1995). Foreword. Goldstein, K. (1995) The Organism (pp.7-14). New York, Zone Books.

[ii] Ben-Yishay, Y. (2000). Postacute neuropsychological rehabilitation. Christensen and Uzzell (Eds.), The International Handbook of Neuropsychological Rehabilitation (pp.127-135). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Photo: The Dancing Satyr, © 2003 Laurie Rippon, all rights reserved