The Road Back is Less Traveled

As a psychologist for 30 years I have read many professional texts and self-help books. This is a valuable book for people entering the healing professions as well as for patients and their caretakers because, throughout, it touches on a man’s path to recovering from brain damage. It touches on his creating a personal philosophy to see him through, skills he learned along the way, including self-assertion, and finally the love he’s learned along the way.

Dick Schmelzkopf’s book, Brain Damage: Overcoming adversity with wit and humor, challenges us to observe what is, to most of us, the mundane choices of life, what to wear, doing chores, and handling finances through his brain-damaged mind. This book is a practical, no-nonsense, road map outlining the rehabilitation process of a brain-damaged man … and more. In addition, the author describes what one can expect to experience along the way and shares his views that will help people understand what tools one needs on such a journey. It will make the trip easier for all who make this journey and those who accompany them. Reading this book illuminates our lives and can only make us more tolerant, compassionate, and caring. I’m a better psychologist for having read it.

From his first thoughts after surgery, Dick Schmelzkopf psychologically reframes how he sees life. Dick’s advice to “Add Quality of Life to your personal credo” will shake the whininess out of anyone’s “pity party.” Many who have died on the operating table and are brought back to life also make this shift in their thinking through the transformational experience.

Dick avoids sliding into non-productive funks when he admonishes us, “Don’t beat yourself up … Remember it and learn by it.” Combine Dick’s advice to us all that we “… need challenges and interests. If you don’t have one, get one,” with his personal stance, “I will never, never give up,” which explains much of his success. Dick’s dogged determination to master whatever functions his brain surgery left him is a model to everyone, with or without brain damage. Dick’s prior work as a salesman has, I believe, contributed to his use of affirmations like, “I have a positive attitude that guarantees success.” Dick adapted the adage, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” into his personal mantra, “If you’re given brain damage, write about it.” In addition to being great rehabilitation therapy for him, it gives his life meaning and purpose that this book “… will give somebody an idea of how to help themselves or someone they love.”

This book has many techniques for the brain-damaged person to use to enhance the quality of their life and the lives of their caregivers. His recitation of his abilities, pre and post- surgery, can be an instruction manual, both for the patient and for caregivers. Whether discussing the impact on his decision-making or judgment, Dick lays out the roadmap of how a brain-damaged person can regain control of whatever is left by the surgeon’s scalpel. Dick constantly reminds us of the need for the acceptance of the “slow and arduous task” of rehabilitation by patients, caregivers and health care professionals.

Dick teaches us by example. His strategy of linking his interests in darts to solving a math problem clearly shows how a brain-damaged person can learn how to cope. He serves up the problems he’s had, like pattern recognition, then follows up with helpful hints for dealing with his “broken recognizer.” Dick’s rituals, for rebuilding his vocabulary, are his menu for finding and using what works for him. Dick’s “Rule number one” for the cognitively challenged (and their caregivers) is proof that his “… pen is mightier that the surgeon’s sword.” Dick’s comment about his re-learned poker skills are a warning to us all, should we ever find ourselves across a poker table from him.

His determination to define himself in his new life is a triumphant assertion of the human spirit and will. Dick’s response to people who treat him as less than equal is a prime example of a psychologically healthy outlook, succinctly put, that others see him as a person of worth and dignity, handicap be damned.  Dick’s admonition that “Brain-damaged means we may be a little slower in some areas, but don’t count us out,” works as well for those with an aging brain as it is instructive to caregivers and health care professionals alike.

 This book is as much a love story of two people committed to each other in ways only a few lucky people will ever experience. It emphatically says, “Take heart, caregivers,” when Dick tells caregivers, “You are important,” and you feel it when he says throughout the book, “Ain’t love grand?” You will find this book is full of heart, love, compassion, humor and common sense that prove that to overcome a handicap, the wisdom of the heart trumps intelligence. Every time. The two pages discussing Grief is worth the price of the book alone. Its lesson is the power of compassion, love and illuminates the author’s humanity, or, as his wife says, “ECCE HOMO,” which translates as “Behold, A Man.”

Dick’s rehabilitation journey is not complete, nor will it ever be. After a year of rehab work he has found, however, the best path for himself. He’s currently busy on many writing projects. We wish him God-speed and Dragon’s Luck.