• Vivian Liang

A New Empathy



Michael Lawless

Age 60




As an individual, I was born into a family of seven children in victoria. My family had a series of problems: alcoholism, physical abuse, and low economic standards--- while living off the edge of Oak Bay, which was a weird dichotomy. I became alcoholic early in my life, but I have quitted for forty-one years now. I went back to school, pulled through college, and was introduced to the real estate world. I was building analysis models on computers. I was living a fast life: there were lots of money, lots of deals, and everything kept on accelerating.


I had a massive car accident at 22, which left me with significant concussions. Knowing what I now know about concussions, I wish I have adopted some practices with living life with an extended injury. My life would have been a lot better.


I struggled through school, and people have recognized that I am highly intellectual and enjoy socializing, but I had ADHD, PTSD. With an unstable family, I was battling depression regularly. There were also a series of conflicts between me and my partner at the time, affecting how the emotions occurred.


I then moved to Halifax, went through a series of relationships, and was reintroduced into the world of finance. I quickly excelled on the ladder, becoming the regional director for all four of the Atlantic provinces. It was during the financial crash in 2008.


But then I was married. The relationship was not healthy, and I did not understand the role of my SSRI when I was trying to self-medicate my depression. I was fooling around with massive amounts of SSRI, which was when my first suicidal ideation started. The suicidal ideation eventually led to me making a very deliberative and intentional attempt of suicide, which I had lost consciousness. I don't know how long before I was found, and they were still trying to see how much damage was done.


I was put into a hyperbaric chamber used to decouple the carbon monoxide and allow hemoglobin to pick up oxygen again. The organ suffered first was the brain; the second was the heart, then the lung.


I have brain injury affecting multiple regions of my brain, which impacted the nervous system. Brain injury affects your eyes, your smells, your sense of heat, your homeostasis: it comes through all of your senses.


I ended up thrown out of my home, put on a plane, fell, picked up at the beach, and sent to the hospital. That was a year and a half ago.


Some of my family have been very supportive; others are not. My family expected me to work because they haven't realized the level of injury I had. I was extremely fortunate to have my cousin, who's on the board of director in VBIS, and a TBI patient herself. She saw a Facebook post and asked me out for coffee. I have not seen her in twenty-five years, and after she looked at me for five minutes, she said: "You have a brain injury. Your brain doesn't function properly" Starting from there, she has been picking me up to VBIS, joining workshops and support groups. She's my guidance on the way and has introduced me to the best resources.




There are some general characteristics with us people with brain injury: fatigue, short-term memory loss, over-stimulation, often caused by crowds. These factors have impacted my life significantly, especially that I am living alone. I have routines, which are what I call "my box": am I eating regularly? Am I asleep yet? I have got my apartment organized, but I haven't organized my kitchen nor my bedroom. If I feel comfortable with my routine, I can then add to-dos onto my routines, putting more stuff into "my box."


I have been intentionally left alone by my family, because one of the problems I have is that I always thought I could handle everything; in reality, I couldn't.


There are safety issues because of my short term memory, such as stoves left on when I exited the kitchen. Everyone was worried about my safety. Sometimes I have had nasty panic attacks crippling me: I couldn't breath, and have had the ambulance here a few times. When my neighbor was here, my body was blown up.


I have made tremendous improvement. I am still relatively new in my recovery, so there is still much to learn.




COVID-19 has been a challenge at first because we couldn't meet physically. But now I have gotten to meeting online. Besides, social situations are often overstimulating for us, and we usually prefer to be quiet, specifically me. I prefer to be alone, especially after I have transformed from being out-going people, to enjoy spending time with myself.

I don't usually go out because of the crowds: my sensitivity is too high. But if I don't go out, my sensitivity only becomes higher every other time I go out, eventually becoming overwhelming. So I have to step outside of my house with a mask up. We all reminded ourselves to be careful.


For me, the pandemic has been a wonderful way to ease into the slowness of life, which is the adaptation I need. It's more so a blessing than a curse.



In ten years, I have gone from one end to the other. Now my mother pays my rent, my brother pays my telephone bill. I am on a long term disability, which is welfare. I am also battling legally.


Like many of those who immigrated from Syria after bombs demolished their houses, I have been wiped out. This is how I felt.


Yet I have developed into a new empathy. I consider myself very fortunate, having gotten from Halifax to Vancouver, then to Victoria. Ever since I came here, I have the best doctor, and I am very assertive in my recovery because I just wanted to get better.


Interviewed & recorded by Vivian Liang


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