‘Facing Stigma’ with Amanda Burrill

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“My mom escaped Saigon three days before the city fell and immigrated to the U.S. She was a refugee in Guam before making her way to California, then eventually Maine where I was born and raised. I was well aware my dad had served and that my mom was granted asylum and always felt patriotic and in some ways indebted to serve myself. I took an ROTC scholarship to Boston University, selected a duty station and after graduation, was commissioned. I went to Rhode Island for training, moved to San Diego, then deployed as Combat Systems Officer. My ship transported over a thousand Marines before converting into a prisoner of war facility in the Gulf. It was an atypical tasking for a ship, but our military hadn’t been in Iraq long enough to establish a prison. One night, after standing a 12–4 a.m. watch, I sustained a fall and head injury that dramatically shifted the course of my deployment. I looked fine and presented well enough, but the next three months were a blank. My balance was off. I could no longer read well and had difficulty speaking. I couldn’t articulate much of what I was thinking and feeling. I adapted in many ways, but had some serious issues the remainder of my service. Providers weren’t understanding what was going on, possibly because they didn’t have the information about the brain that we do now. Later, the VA said it was PTSD, but I didn’t respond to medication. I also didn’t have a singular trauma. I firmly believed I’d been injured or developed a disease. I was right. It was a “blessing” that I fell and experienced a second Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) because it provided a lot of answers to the problems I’d been having.

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I moved to New York in 2013 to go back to school and in 2014 fell down a flight of stairs and hit my head. I went to the VA’s Harlem Clinic where the nurse practitioner checked me out and ultimately just sent me home. I started seeing lights shortly afterward and kept going back, reporting the worsening of issues. I wasn’t sleeping, either. Finally, I went to the actual hospital. Neuropsych testing blatantly screamed TBI. I got my old records reviewed: I’d never been screened. Scans showed old and new neck damage, a torn central meniscus in my jaw, a hole in my retina, and a host of other problems. The SUNY chief eye doctor said he’d not seen a worse case of convergence insufficiency in his career. If asked if I had double vision, I’d’ve said no but the reality is that I’d see two images and my brain, in an effort to protect my sanity, would neglect one. Thankfully, we’d caught it before the unused eye went lazy. I had spine and eye surgery and lots of rehabilitation therapy at NYU. I say the second fall was a blessing because it finally validated that I had real physical, but unseen problems. That’s part of the stigma. People get caught up on what they can see, both on the physical and mental side of things. While in rehab for my speech and physical issues, I realized I needed help with the mental load. That piece came together with Headstrong because I was able to work on all the pent up anger I had regarding my problems. I used to look back and focus on how these doctors should have done more, but I’ve let go of much of that to facilitate moving forward with my life. EMDR is the best modality I’ve encountered for processing my emotions. I always had a hopeful outlook but how my situation unfolded felt unforgivable. EMDR amplifies my hopeful side: I process the past, frame it logically and move forward.”

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