From brain injury to bliss

Michelle Desgagne has written a memoir that mixes humour with painful honesty, and details her recovery from a traumatic brain injury

Michelle Desgagne has just published her first book

Michelle Desgagne has just published her first book

Michelle Desgagne had a good life. She had a job she loved in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, where she could commute by bicycle all year long.

But life as she knew it took a disastrous turn one spring day in 2002, when she was hit by a car while riding her bike.

“I liked my life and I don’t recall asking for a change, but I’m now an improved version of the original,” she said, laughing.

Eleven years later, Desgagne is not the same person, but she is living proof that there is a way back from hopelessness and despair, that recovery from a brain injury is possible.

The author of a self-published memoir, The Distracted Yogi: How I Reclaimed my Bliss After Brain Injury and Trauma, Desgagne is now living in Vernon and said her mission is to offer hope to others with a brain injury.

“My message is from trauma to drama to transformation,” said Desgagne. “It’s a common theme in people’s lives, especially since trauma attracts drama because you’re vulnerable, you’re in a place where you’re not operating from the same functional standpoint.”

She details, with sometimes painful honesty, her journey from that day 11 years ago to the present.

The book’s first chapter illustrates how much her life has changed by comparing her goals the month before her accident, to those one month later: her original goal, “to climb Denali before the age of 45” was replaced with “to walk for at least five minutes.”

For Desgagne, the accident was a shock to both body and soul. Up until then, she had maintained a routine of yoga, meditation, hiking and sports.

“Friends and family would describe me then as honest, calm, patient, bright, witty, fun, energetic, fit and attractive and, at times, stubborn and opinionated.

“This description of my former life is all that remains of it — actually, I continue to be stubborn and opinionated, just less so.”

Desgagne had been commuting to work on her bike for nearly 10 years with no incident. The day she was hit, April 8, 2002, was a Sunday and she was simply out for a leisurely ride on her day off from Telus, where she had started as an operator, before working her way up to cable splicer, a job she loved.

Rehabilitation at G.F. Strong in Vancouver followed the accident, along with insurance claims, meetings with lawyers, medical appointments and simply coming to terms with her new life, particularly difficult when she had a hard time remembering the old one.

“I didn’t really realize something was wrong at first, I just felt a little weird. But as time went on, there were things like forgetting that I had cats, or eating cookies all day.”

Desgagne credits family, friends and members of her community for their support, but it wasn’t until she joined a trauma recovery group facilitated by psychologist J. Lynne Mann that her healing really began.

“I became a member of ‘the walking wounded,’ and the group became my new social, emotional, mental and spiritual life raft.”

Desgagne said recovery from brain injury can’t begin until a process of grieving has taken place.

“Not until you feel the grief are you alive.”

She said a brain-injured person faces additional challenges because often they do not visibly appear to be injured: there is no wheel chair, no cane, no outward sign that here is someone who is disabled.

At 52, Desgagne is what she calls officially retired and unable to return to the working world, but she is happy and at peace with her new life in Vernon, where she enjoys hiking in Kal Park.

When she decided to put her journey into print, she started and finished her book in less than six weeks.

“It came pouring out of me and because of this book I now have so much hope. And transformation is available to everyone. I want to get my message out and then give people the steps they need.

“I believe forgiveness is key to moving on from anything, but it’s easier said than done.”

Desgagne wants others with traumatic train injury to know that there is a strategy that can be used to work towards recovery, what she calls three mental and emotional stages.

“Develop and feed your faith: reconnect with a church or spiritual group. Surround yourself with positive people. Challenge your belief about your recovery. The attitude has always been that after two years, you’ve received all of the recovery you’re going to get, but it’s really important that you challenge those beliefs. Take 100 per cent responsibility for your own recovery.”

She offers a few action steps as well.

“Make sure you get outside 20 minutes a day, 365 days a year. Read and listen to brain entrainment and binaural beats; keep a spiritual journal, and start feeling grateful for something.”

Desgagne has begun work on her next book, The Reluctant Lesbian, and is also in the process of creating a series of how-to guides for women and girls, The Women’s Illustrated Guide to Power Tools and Their Uses, and The Girls Mini-Guide to Hand Tools & Their Uses.

The Distracted Yogi is available through Amazon, in both print and e-reader version. Learn more about Desgagne at her Facebook page for The Distracted Yogi or on her blog, tdyogi.blogspot.ca