As I drag out the Christmas decorations, I am knee deep in years of memories as I come across some of the ornaments my three kids made during their years in elementary school. Despite my best efforts at control, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by emotion and the tears come. I’m glad that I’m alone in my grief, because after all, tis the season to be jolly, right?
An article I read in the December issue of Reader's Digest haunts me. I can’t let it go and I’m filled with guilt that I simply cannot shake. Thoughts of “if only this" and "if only I had known” run through my head.
My emotions are raw on a daily basis. At times, during a conversation with a friend or an acquaintance, tears surprisingly prick my eyes and I’m forced to look away from the discussion for fear of making him or her uncomfortable. My close friends chastise me because they know I’m usually a master at disguise; at hiding my problems. I’m a very private person, and I’ve grown to understand that sometimes that causes the public’s perception of me to be other than reality, however, that comes with the territory. I’ve grown accustomed to walling off certain feelings behind a wall that can seem as thick as the Great Wall of China! It’s a coping mechanism – the wall. I can put certain feelings in a compartment and slam the lid shut as tightly as shutting the door to a safe and throwing away the key.
With the arrival of the holiday season, I am most thankful for my family, and for their health, and, on a daily basis I think about the fact that I’m extremely thankful that my youngest son, Colin, is still alive. At the same time, I look forward to 2013 as something of a new beginning. You see, with each passing week, my son continues to get well, and as we move into 2013, that means that he has had more weeks of recovery under his belt.
Although in reality, unbeknownst to any of us in the family, Colin’s illness has been simmering like a stew cooking on the stove-top for months. Things finally boil over as I land at DFW on May 15 around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, after a few relaxing days away. As the plane taxis to the terminal, like most other passengers, I scroll through numerous text messages waiting to be opened, scanning for ones that seem important, when my eyes fix on a message from Colin. It’s a suicide message. My thoughts race – I read it again, and then again. Can this really be my Colin, or has someone else with that name mistakenly sent a text to the wrong mom?
I try to remain calm, for what seems like an eternity, while the plane rolls on to the gate. I start calling Colin, who lives in San Francisco. There is no answer – I call back over and over again to no avail and then I lose it. My friend, who is sitting across the aisle from me, takes my phone and reads the message. She holds my hand as we disembark. I can no longer think straight. I am unable to reach my ex, Colin’s dad, who also lives in San Francisco. My brain cannot accept the fact that my son may already be dead.
I try to call the restaurant where he works – no answer. I try again and again and again. I am aware that the restaurant is only open for dinner, but I know if my son is still alive he should be at work, prepping for the evening meal, and that someone should answer the phone to take reservations. Finally, 40 minutes have passed, and someone answers the phone and I ask to talk to Colin Bado, holding my breath because I’m terrified that the female voice on the other end of the connection will tell me he isn’t at work. She says, “Just a minute, I’ll get him,” and I sob with relief. I tell my son I’m on my way to San Francisco in an hour. I buy a ticket and get on the next flight out. By the time I arrive on the west coast, I’m a mixed bag of fear and uncertainty, a mess of emotion that keeps flooding my brain and my entire body.
Thus begins a journey through hell for us as a family, and continues the hell that Colin has been silently suffering for quite some time. Doctors put him under 24-hour suicide watch – we aren’t supposed to leave him unsupervised. At 26 years old, I drive him to and from work, which I’m quite certain is embarrassing to him. However, I reason, better that than never seeing him again. I’m terrified when he leaves the apartment to go to the gym, I’m terrified when he says he is walking to the Marina to a friend’s house. A sadness hangs in the air, thick as the blanket of fogs that often covers the city.
Over lunch one particular sunny day in early June, Colin finally shares with me that he thinks about dying on a daily basis. In his own mind, he has planned out various scenarios to take his life. For me, a glimmer of hope shows through his misery as he tells me that he hasn’t done it because he is aware of how devastating his actions would be to his family. Small consolation.
Fear is my constant companion. It walks by my side as if it has become the significant other I share my life with. I wrestle with the incongruent feelings that often come from being a parent. I logically know I can’t stop him from killing himself – only he has that power – but my emotional voice reminds me that I’m his mom and it’s my “job” to be there for him. Maybe I can do something.
I remember a conversation I had with my dad when I was 40. He said, “Ang, no matter how old you are, you will always be my child and I will never stop worrying about you.” I now get it, Dad.
After several months of watching my son wrestle with his demons, and little evidence of improvement, we as a family decide that we must make a last-ditch effort and perform a family intervention. Through many tears coupled with anxiety, and after extensive research, we as a family come up with a plan, which we carry out on Saturday, August 18.
That intervention was one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a parent, but in hindsight, probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The entire immediate family was involved. It was traumatic for all of us. His dad and I took him to an in-patient facility in Tucson, Ariz., where he lived and received treatment for a month.
Part of his treatment included a brain scan, which clearly shows that he suffers from brain trauma, evidenced by what is described as scalloping of the brain. Colin’s doctor assesses that the brain injury shown by the scan is most likely the result of cumulative damage incurred during Colin’s days as a football player. He played in high school at McKinney North, then for four more years at Missouri Southern State University. Calls are made to NFL doctors who relay that they are giving players large doses of Omega 3 oils, which apparently helps to speed up the brain’s healing.
Photo: Colin's brain scan, showing the scalloping that is indicative of brain trauma (A normal brain has a rather smooth surface.)
Fast forward to the article in Reader's Digest that I already mention. The story, entitled “Breaking up with Football” by Patrick Hruby, chronicles football’s “concussion crisis” and explains that in 2003, the head of the NFL’s brain-trauma committee “dismissed a study linking multiple concussions with depression among former players,” claiming that concussions were not serious injuries and that there was no evidence that concussions produced cumulative damage. Hruby sites in his article that “independent scientists strongly disagreed [with the NFL’s findings] finding fault with the methodology and conclusions.”
Football hits pull the brain like silly putt stretching and shearing nerve cells, according to the article. After seeing the scan of my son’s brain, I believe it.
The story also documents case after case of former football players who ended up taking their own lives. One story revolved around a high school player who suffered a concussion during a football game. The team trainer pulled him off the field and the boy’s family had ER doctors check him out. He seemed OK but a day and a half later, he hanged himself. A study of his brain showed damage to the fibers that connect nerve cells. Doctors suspect that this caused him to commit suicide with no explanation and no past history of depression.
As most of us are aware, several former NFL players are suing the league with regard to brain injuries. The topic is frequently in the news as more and more scientific evidence points to the fact that there is the potential for long-term brain damage from football. A recent study at UT Dallas showed that many ex-professional football players suffer from depression, as well as cognitive and memory problems.
The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), which is a collaboration between Boston University School of Medicine and the non-profits Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) has released evidence supporting the theory that many football players do indeed suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by repetitive trauma to the brain.
I love football. I watch multiple games nearly every weekend during the season. I cheered for my son, a receiver, during every game he played, from seventh grade to his last game in college -10 years all told. He was fun to watch and set records in college, but at 5 feet 7, he took many hard hits. As his mom, sitting in the stands, I cringed each time he was hit, praying that he would get up. Little did I realize that the effect of those hits would have severe, long-term ramifications that would alter Colin’s life. His illness also touches his siblings, his dad and me.
I tell this story from my point of view, with my son's permission. Colin is still not able to talk about all he has gone through with family members – those details he shares with his therapists and with members of his AA group. He can’t drink alcohol because that it exacerbates the brain damage. He wants his story to help others.
I share our story, not to be macabre, but with the hope of educating more parents and players – with the hope of encouraging the companies that make football helmets and equipment to do more for the safety of our children. Studies show that even high school players are at risk. Young kids who play tackle football are at risk of brain trauma as a result of head injuries sustained during games. There is a school of thought that suggests that early exposure to brain trauma increases the risk of CTE simply. Perhaps the league will take steps to change some of the rules of the game.
Fortunately, our high school football coaches here in McKinney care about their players. I strongly believe that they do everything they can to minimize the risks of the game for our kids. But it’s the nature of the game – a game I also love. For the NFL, it's a business.
For months I worried that I’d be serving Christmas dinner with an empty chair at the table where Colin should have been sitting. But my son is alive and I’m so very grateful. He has been working to understand his depression and to equip himself with the tools he needs for recovery. I dare say that he is in a better place today than he was six months ago, but recovery is a day at a time. It may be a lifelong struggle, but I know he is a remarkable young man who possesses the strength and desire to get well. I hope he knows how much love and support come from his family.
If sharing this story can help prevent this experience from happening to one other family, sharing Colin’s story is worth it.
We, as a family, are learning to live with the fear. I am also learning to live with guilt. I wish I had known then what I know now. His free college education was, as it turns out, far from free. He will likely be held hostage to it for quite some time.