Hope: In the Face of Adversity
Sean Reyes is an award-winning recording artist; a singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. He has recorded and released one full-length album, one EP, and six singles. All of which reflects his life and the journey he has had: not only with his brain injury but also personal demons which he will mention later in the interview.
Sean has won 6 Indie Music Awards and attended 2 awards ceremonies in Hollywood, California: the Indie Music Channel Awards in 2012 and 2013.
On top of his musical career, Sean was also gifted with the Fellowship Award in 2014 by the Ontario Brain Injury Association. The award is given to citizens or survivors who work to shed light on TBI. Sean’s was related to his music and interviews he has given on TV about his traumatic brain injury; CTV Canada AM is one of those.
Tina: You mentioned in your email that you are a strong advocate of alternative therapies, but before we get to that, let’s introduce yourself! I also would love to hear about your music career and the work that you’ve done.
Sean: Well, I guess career if you want to call it that. [laughs] I am from Ontario. I’m a musician, singer, songwriter, producer as well. I’ve been singing and songwriting… oh gosh, from such a young age… I think around seven where I started playing the piano. Around the age of 10 or 11, I started playing guitar and singing a little bit more. I actually wrote my first song at the age of eleven. It was a cute love song, about a girl that I had a crush on.
Tina: Aww, that is so awesome!
Sean: I know right, haha. Yeah, you can thank my mom for that kind of influence in that type of music. She's always been into the pop phase of that era, with Geroge Michael and stuff like that, all the music is love-filled.
Tina: Just to keep it straight, your mother was not a musician but she really loves music?
Sean: Oh yeah, she’s still a big fan. I’ve such a great range of influences in my music (what I listen to and in the songs I write) from pop all the way to classical. I listen to full piano music, it’s not necessarily Beethoven or Bach, it is actual pianists. One of them is Jim Brickman - I love his stuff - his album Hope is amazing.
Tina: I will for sure give that a listen. I play the flute so that is a classical instrument. Do you also produce classical music?
Sean: No, the producing side of things is something I really picked up more so this last couple of years. Not that I wasn't doing it before, I was always recording demos at home, I didn't have quite the equipment that I have now to produce, not that I have a lot, but I have a very very small rig that I set up for home recordings. I’ve really tried to hone in on that skill of being a producer; adjusting the frequencies and everything. I’m still learning though and there is a heck of a lot more to learn. But you do find out at some point that equipment does play a big role. If you don't fully have the equipment or proper environment, you are not going to quite get that full professional sound that you want to get out of it. And that is where using professional recording studios and producers come into play.
Tina: Yeah I bet. Okay, switch gears, and let’s transition to your brain injury. I understand that you do not remember a lot about it, but focus on how it has impacted your life and how it relates to music and production.
Sean: So like I've mentioned previously, I don’t fully recall the incident so I can't speak fully to it and what exactly happened. What I do know is that I was assaulted. And I wasn't trying to fight. Those are the only two things I know of the situation. That resulted in me having my head smashed onto the pavement and I ended up getting a coup contrecoup brain injury, which is when your brain shakes heavily off each end of the skull. There was such an impact that your brian hits the skull back and forth several times. And can cause bruising of the brain. Due to that, I was knocked out unconscious. There was a lot that happened in that injury that I can't fully speak to because I don't recall those 6 to 8 months of my life post injury. There were bits and pieces that I can pick about, but one of the very first memories that I do have is waking up at the rehab hospital, listening to Jim Brickman. There was a song on his album Hope called Winter Morning. It’s such a beautiful song, and definitely holds a place in my heart. Yeah, so it was one of the first things I remember. That song and another song by Bon Jovi, One Step Closer. Those two songs are some of the first things that I can recall.
Tina: It’s really interesting that you remembered the musical elements!
Sean: Yeah, when I look back on those first couple of years of my recovery, I was starting to see these patterns that were happening with music and with my creativity. I picked up playing piano post-injury again when I haven’t touched since the age of 7. I’ve been really driven since my injury to hone in on abilities that I’ve been given and so fortunate to still have post-injury. But they didn’t come back easily. The first year I was sitting or lying in my room because I was dealing a lot with complications due to surgeries. In the span of four and a half years, I had 11 surgeries.
Sean: [chuckles] Yeah there were a lot of hospital visits.
Tina: Ok and just a quick aside for me to get the timeline straight, how long ago was the injury?
Sean: 2009 was when the injury happened. So from 2009 to 2013 was basically me living in and out of the hospital. I mean I did what I could within that time and I did write and record music, but it was very unfortunate that I had so many complications with surgeries that were causing infections that required me to continue having surgeries, specialist appointments, etc etc… like when I say they really worked on me, I’m like part-robot I got all kinds of metal-plastic parts going on. [laughs]
Sean: Yeah I’m very blessed, I am grateful even though I still struggle a lot, I do. You know I think that touches on that entire subject of invisible disability.
Sean: Exactly, brain injuries are often referenced as that because it is not something you can see all the time. Granted that I agree on the fact, that yes I’m perhaps better off than some people who have sustained brain injuries, I get that. And I'm really grateful for that, for sure. But I think that is where the really thin line comes into play, because it is so tricky that I am physically well. Because then everyone sees me and thinks that there’s nothing wrong.
Tina: Exactly. It is such an issue!
Sean: Yeah, it is so difficult to live like that, you know. It prevents me from having a job, and I didn’t get treated well when I attempted to return to work, several times.
Tina: I can’t imagine the complications and frustration behind that.
Sean: Having to live up to an expectation that you know you cognitively cannot live up to - it’s not that I physically couldn’t, it's that I cognitively couldn’t. And then you also have to realize that there's such a huge connection between the brain and the body. So once your brain is shot, your body is going to feel that at some point. That means more symptoms and more illness. And I guess that translates to where I bring up the whole alternative therapy.
Tina: Yeah go ahead!
Sean: I spent so many years trying to figure out what is wrong by following the medicines and prescriptions given to me. But, they did nothing other than compound on top of each other and cause more issues. I honestly was at a point that I wasn't even doing my music anymore, I wasn’t exercising. I had no motivation because I was so completely drained of everything. Now be it that, sure, it’s a fact that I had a brain injury and those are symptoms that I experience because of it. But you start adding all the toxic medications that are supposed to help, but really do nothing. Especially when it comes to pain medications; you’re throwing such harsh medications at me to mask the pain. That doesn’t help get rid of the source.
Tina: I agree with you since I also had multiple ankle sprains and all they do is give me Advil.
Sean: I was defeated myself on both ends, completely exhausted mentally and physically. This was four or five years ago, where I stopped everything. There was also a lot of personal stuff that I was going through as well. It was serendipitous for me in a way, that I was trying to deal with brain injury symptoms, finding a counselor, and speaking to them. It really opened up a whole bunch of stuff that I shoved down and locked out of my memory, from before my injury. It is really cool, like I said it's serendipitous because I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't open up that whole can of worms, and go through the pain of really feeling all the hurt I’ve experienced in my life. Sorry, I know this is off-topic from the brain injury.
Tina: No no no! You are totally fine, all of this is great!
Sean: Okay, and so in dealing with my injury, and all the repressed hurt, or anger. It really helped alleviate a lot of the guilt that I was feeling from being injured, and not being able to do what I was once able to do; work, fully provide for myself, my relationship,family, etc. But I put a lot of that into my creativity, and during that time I was off, I was still involved with writing. I would say they are the best songs I've written, ever since I started writing. Which was what, around 28 years ago, cuz I'm 39. Yeah, I did the math right [laughs]. I think there really is something that needs to be said about feeling what you're feeling and going through the emotions. Whether it is your brain injury or personal life. Since there is a lot of other stuff that can come up for people with brain injuries. Like I've said, there's a lot of me that feels guilty because I can't do this and I can't do that, and does that make me unlovable? The ego likes to play a big game. But, then you realize that facing those feelings can actually empower you to do the things you want to do, and are able to do. Music was something I leaned into; playing, performing, listening, or whatever it is, I really find music healing and soothing, in all aspects. Therefore I surround myself with positive stuff that I listen to. In a lot of research that I’ve done, there’s one book in particular: The Brain Warrior's Way by Dr. Daniel Amen. It is a great book. Not even just for people with brain injury, but to understand the connection of your brain and the outside stimuli. Because I really feel we don’t realize how much on a subconscious level we get programmed by things around us. And so after reading this book I started to surround myself with positive music and stopped listening to some songs and watching some tv shows. [laughs] Family Guy being one of them.
Sean: Yeah as funny as some of these episodes can be. As I listen to them, they are quite rude and offensive!
Tina: I totally get that, my parents were not happy when I was watching it when I was little.
Sean: It’s a joke and a comedy show, I get that. So you gotta take it with a grain of salt. But I don’t inundate myself with that type of stuff anymore. You get to learn a lot of things with the material I’ve read or researched, and experiencing yourself;trying out the things I’ve read. Like supplements, nutrients, and certain vitamins and minerals that are extremely important for your mitochondria and neuro health. Nutrition is one of those things that plays a huge role.
Tina: Is nutrition one of the alternative therapy methods?
Sean: Yeah I try not to eat a lot of junk food, that’s not to say I don't eat a bag of chips once in a while, I do. But I stay away from fast food and again, this is all in the book that I talked about: The Brain Warrior's Way. You get to understand how much an outside stimulus can have on your brain. So I find that doing these things really really helps. Especially after now that I’ve been eating clean for a long time and focussing on taking certain vitamins and minerals throughout the day. I don’t drink alcohol… The brain when it is damaged needs extra care and love. And the way you can first do that is by looking at the things that you can do to not further damage it.
Tina: Yeah for sure.
Sean: And energy medicine, be it Reiki, meditation, cranial sacral etc…. I’ve studied Reiki actually, and there is something that can be said about the body’s energy, what it emits and what it takes in. And that is why meditation has been around for thousands and thousands of years. There’s something that works in it.
Tina: I practice meditation too, I love it!
Sean: Yeah it is great. I’ve been doing it every morning. I get up and I make my coffee and go outside and sit in silence. It is like 4:30 in the morning, and nothing is out but some squirrels or some skunks across the way. And in silence, I sit there, and I am with that, and I've been doing that for 3 years now straight. Every single day. I find that little things like this have such a huge impact. It’s something I told myself that “Sean, just set the intention and set the goal and do it. See what happens” I’m just glad that I stuck with it, it is a great way to start my morning. It really sets the intention for my day. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too. It really helps. And this is not to say that I don’t suffer from the symptoms of my TBI. I still do and there are some days that this morning routine helps me not scream at the top of my lungs. But, if it helps me then I will do it.
Tina: Wow, the lessons that you are telling us right now. Like these are things that are not only applicable to TBI survivors, but all of us, all humans need to look up to this consistency, perseverance, or simply not try to suppress your feelings. It truly needs to be shared with everyone.
Sean: Thank you. For sure, and it’s unfortunate with respect to the feelings and emotions, that there's still such a stigma with men not being allowed to do that. It’s a shame that it's still a stigma because I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't done that - if I hadn’t faced my feelings. The hurt that it was going to cause to face those things. I’ve had to come to terms with some really intense things in my life since my injury; one of those things is the relationship with my dad. It was a really toxic relationship since my childhood. It was sad, the neglect and abuse. My parents did separate many years ago, on my 17th birthday actually, is when my dad got up and left. And early in the morning I was home and I woke up and my dad wasn’t there.
Tina: I am so sorry to hear that.
Sean: Thank you. It still hurts, yes, but not in a way that it used to. It used to hurt because of that emotion of guilt. After my parents separated, I was the only one who kept a relationship with my dad after all those years. And so I was being tugged both ways. My heart knows that this relationship was so toxic since he never apologized and was borderline narcissistic, sociopathic in a way. It was so hard to come to terms with being like “I can't do this anymore, I can't have you in my life.” I had to work through a lot of things with that.
Tina: On top of your brain injury!
Sean: Yeah, on top of everything. It was really interesting how that came about. I was just crying one day in the bedroom of my apartment, and I yelled out to the universe and said “I don't know what to do and I need you to tell me. Give me a sign! Do I end his relationship with my dad, forgive him, and move on?” Literally within a minute or so, pleading for that, my dad called me to randomly call me to tell me that he is moving to B.C. with his wife. The universe heard, and I took that as a huge sign. So I formulated a letter explaining why and I let him know that I forgave him for everything he did. But due to his inability to admit his wrongdoing, I can not reconcile with him. And that was a huge lesson that I had learned. Reconciliation and forgiveness, although one and the same, are two different things. You can forgive somebody and still not have them in your life… [ponders] I got really deep there, sorry. [chuckles]
Tina: [laughs] No I love it, thank you for sharing! Okay, there is one thing I’m dying to know, throughout all these years, who helped you? I just can’t imagine going through this alone.
Sean: No, I definitely wasn't. My mom and sister stepped up and did everything possible for me, from the get go. I basically had to relearn things.
Tina: You are like a blank page?
Sean: Yeah, in a sense, it wasn’t that I forgot anything but everything was unfamiliar. And so it was almost like my mom had a 27-year-old to a 10-year-old. [laughs] Yeah that is a little extreme comparison, but you know what I mean, in a cognitive sense. But the things they did for me, I don’t think I can ever repay them.
Tina: And that is also that part of guilt that you had to deal with?
Sean: Yeah a lot of those things come into play, but that is just the ego playing games really. I have been back at my mom’s house since the middle of September. And here, the ego tries to kick in and says “Sean, you are going to be a burden for them, blah, blah, blah”. I am working on getting my own apartment again, and trying to be able to do that. But of course, without being able to work and make an income, it is difficult. I'm trying right now to get through the avenues of funding and support to try and live normal; to pay rent, buy groceries, etc. But it's unfortunate that it’s very very difficult to get financial assistance. Even to apply for it is so difficult, and trying to find what it is you can apply for. It was so limited before because there was such a focus within the financial assistance category for disability having to be physical. The mental aspect of it didn't account for much and only made up like 10% of it. SO if you had a mental disability but you were still cognitive and physically able enough to clothe yourself or go to the fridge and get yourself something to eat, well guess what? It isn’t enough of a disability for you to get support. Whether or not you still suffer from insomnia and 24/7 migraines. It doesn’t matter as long as you still have physical awareness, then you're not disabled. That was what's so frustrating. I have heard that that was changing tho regarding the disability tax credit because I wasn't eligible due to that reason. But I did hear that they revisited the whole platform and now it is going to be a 50-50 between mental and physical. I'm very very happy to hear that because it is probably going to open up other financial assistance that I've been trying to get for a very long time.
Tina: Yeah mental disability should never be viewed less than a physical disability.
Sean: Yeah for sure. By the way, sorry about the shameless self-promotion in the back. [points to big screen behind him, laughs]. This is the most recent music video I released, it is on YouTube! It is called “Won’t (W.T.D)”. It is fully self-produced and recorded at my home studio. The music video was shot by my really good friend Kareen Mallon, of Electrafire Studios. The work she has done, and the team that she put together for this music video, is so amazing. I’m extremely grateful. This song in particular really speaks to the pain medication system that we have. It talks about all that and how there needs to be change, painkillers are not the answer to pain relief, it is not. The holistic route or alternative therapy - that stuff works! When I took myself off of medication and started putting my energy into these other therapies, there was a huge shift that happened, in how I felt, especially cognitively, I didn't feel so numb! And the unfortunate thing is that this stuff is not covered.
Interviewed by Staff Writer Tina Yang