The Body Heals the Mind
Date Published: March 4, 2020
In April 1989, Trisha Meili was attacked while jogging in New York’s Central Park. The case of the “Central Park Jogger” made headlines and sparked a national conversation about race and the criminal justice system. But behind the media frenzy lay another story – Trisha’s. On this episode, Ms. Meili talks about how focusing on the present moment and returning to running helped her bounce back from a traumatic brain injury. Kristen Dams-O’Connor, PhD, Director of the Brain Injury Research Center at Mount Sinai, offers a scientific perspective on Ms. Meili’s injury and gritty recovery.
Trisha Meili: 00:00
I had never heard that expression "present moment" before the attack. But because of the brain injury, I had to focus on the present. I wasn't able to think about the past or worry about the future because my brain didn't have that capacity. All it had was right there in front—what was right in front of me. And, of course, I did not realize that at the time, but I also think that was a tremendous factor in the healing process for me.
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. Each episode, I talk to resilient people and researchers to learn tips for bouncing back and growing from adversity. My guest today is somebody you probably don't know that you know. Her name is Trisha Meili. And one night in April 1989, she was brutally attacked while running through New York's Central Park. The attack sparked a national conversation about race and the criminal justice system. But behind the case of the "Central Park Jogger" lies another story—Trisha's story. After the attack that almost took her life, Trisha faced a long road back to health. In this interview, she talks about how focusing on the present, relying on her support network, and returning to running helped her to regain her confidence and her health. You'll also hear from Dr. Kristen Dams-O'Connor. She's Director of the Brain Injury Research Center here at Mount Sinai, and she'll offer a scientific perspective on Trisha's injuries and her recovery. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Trisha, can you tell the story of what happened to you that night in April 1989?
Trisha Meili: 01:44
Sure. I had been at work and I actually was supposed to go out with a friend for dinner and I had too much to do. And I do remember a call that I made at five o'clock saying, "I can't do it, let's postpone it for sometime later in the week." And then that's the last thing I remember that night. And apparently I got home about 8:30 or so, and then I went out for a run. And I was attacked, I was beaten unconscious, bound and gagged with my running clothes, then raped and left for dead. And after I was finally found, actually, the next morning, just by chance, I was brought to Metropolitan Hospital's emergency room. And as a result of the severe beating to my brain, I suffered a traumatic brain injury that left me with extensive physical and cognitive dysfunction.
How long were you in a coma for?
Trisha Meili: 03:01
I was in a coma for 12 days, and then I was delirious for about five more weeks, so I have no memory of that either. So as a result of the brain injury, I don't remember going running that night, the attack, being raped, or most of the time in Metropolitan Hospital.
What were some of the symptoms of your traumatic brain injury?
Trisha Meili: 03:30
I couldn't walk. I couldn't think or speak clearly. Really, everything had been taken away from me.
Due to the brain injury.
Trisha Meili: 03:41
Due to the brain injury. Yeah, I'll tell you a quick story, in Metropolitan Hospital, that I do remember that showed to me that something was very, very wrong. And it was about six weeks after the attack, because that's when I start to remember things. And there is a woman sitting in my room asking me questions. And it turns out she was a neuropsychologist, and so she asked me to draw the face of a clock. And as best as I could I drew a circle. And then she asked me to draw two o'clock, and I could not for the life of me remember which hand was longer, the hour hand or the minute hand. And I felt this like grip inside, almost a clenching like, "Oh, my gosh! I can't even tell time." I was so ashamed. I was scared about that.
Dr. Dams-O'Connor, give us your perspective as a specialist in traumatic brain injury to the injury that Tricia suffered. What was happening in her brain?
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 04:51
In Trisha's brain there was a combination of hemorrhages—bleeding—and when you have bleeding inside your brain, it takes up space, and then it smushes the brain because there is this confine surrounding the brain, and that's the skull. And so when the brain gets squished, it's shoved up against the skull and it's deprived of oxygen. And so, that also sets off its own cascade of secondary injury processes that can result in cell death and damage to the axons in the brain that are the way the brain communicates across different regions.
Right. That would explain the story you told about the clock. Right?
Trisha Meili: 05:44
Trisha, can you tell us about some of the challenges that you faced in those initial weeks and months?
Trisha Meili: 05:50
Yeah, Let's see. Well, initially I had to re-learn how to do everything because everything had been taken away and—
Trisha Meili: 06:05
I'll give you an example. I had lost control in the use in my hands. So I was given a block of wood that had holes drilled in it. And some of the holes were filled with nails and others were empty. And so my task was to take a pair of tweezers and transfer as many nails as I could from those filled holes to the empty holes. So I did that exercise with such intensity that my mother once commented to me that she couldn't believe, when she was watching, that I did it with such patience and concentration because she said to me, "It would have driven me absolutely crazy."
How do you explain that?
Trisha Meili: 06:48
At that moment, that's what I was focusing on—what I could affect, what was right in front of me. And I wasn't getting caught up in what had happened, a past I couldn't change. And resentment about the attack didn't grab hold of me, which could have blocked my healing. And also, amazingly, I wasn't preoccupied with this fear about the future. And I looked at the reality that was mine, which wasn't good, but I worked as hard as I could to make that reality as good as it could be.
I'm so interested in the journey of your mindset. You said a moment ago that anger and resentment never took hold of you. Was there anything that you had to overcome in that regard? If not, how do you explain that? Is it just the way you're made? What's the lesson there?
Trisha Meili: 07:43
I believe so strongly that because I got so much support from all over the world because the story was so public, all of that support in ways some ways that I will never know made such a difference to me. And all the messages made me feel like I wasn't alone, and that I had done nothing wrong, and that I wasn't to blame. And those messages to me were stronger than that message of the violence. And that is why I try and encourage people to just reach out to someone, maybe it's a family member or a friend or maybe even a stranger. Because I know that that support makes such a difference in how you feel about yourself and that you're not isolated and alone in the whole process.
What would you say to someone who's on the journey from anger and resentment, to optimism and empowerment? How do you encourage someone along that path?
Trisha Meili: 08:57
I think a lot of that is also related to the present moment and being in the present moment. I'd never heard that expression "present moment" before the attack. But because of the brain injury, I had to focus on the present. I wasn't able to think about the past or worry about the future because my brain didn't have that capacity. And of course I did not realize that at the time, but I also think that was a tremendous factor in the healing process for me. Because all I could work on was what was right in front of me. So what I advise someone who's filled with that anger—and let me tell you, there are times when I'm filled with anger—so I have to say to myself, to focus on what you can do, on what you have. And I think it's very easy for us, and particularly people with brain injuries, to see what we can't do and comparing ourselves to what we used to be able to do. But instead, to look at what we have, and look at what we can do, and really feel good about that.
Dr. Dams-O'Connor, when you're working with people who are recovering from traumatic brain injuries, what are some of the things that you talk to them about and encourage them to do, kind of along similar lines?
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 10:27
What we usually try to do is to understand a person in their context, and understand what motivates them, and help them to experience that discrepancy not so much as a heartbreak, but as a tool for building awareness. When you see what you could once do and what you can now do, there's some motivation to close the gap over time that helps people be really motivated to engage fully in rehabilitation. But also we try to instill hope. We know now that people continue to recover for years after brain injury, and we know that even years after a brain injury, when a person initiates a new course of a rehabilitation intervention, we know that they can recover even more with intensive rehabilitation. And so we try to keep that hope alive because it's very well supported. It's not a pretend hope, a pie in the sky. It's a hope that's born out in our research studies that we see.
Trisha Meili: 11:38
And I was going to say, what is so exciting for me is that continuation of the healing. That's one thing that I will always tell people. The recovery process never stops. And providing that sense of hope and not in a Pollyannish way, like, "Oh, everything's gonna be fine." No, it's a lot of hard work, but change continues to happen.
What does a course of treatment, just in a few words, look like for a survivor of traumatic brain injury? What are some of the things that are typically done to help the brain and the person and the spirit recover?
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 12:17
There is no typical. There are a lot of people who sustain a brain injury—it may never be diagnosed, it may never be treated, and they may go through their whole lives with changes that they may not even attribute to a brain injury. That's more common than we would want. An ideal course of treatment involves early arrival at a trauma center for life-saving interventions that are successful. And then a hospital stay that involves a transfer at some point to an intensive inpatient rehabilitation center, and upon discharge, the continuation of rehabilitation interventions for as long as that person can benefit from them. One of the interventions that we are currently studying in our research center is called emotional self-regulation training. One of the things that happens to a lot of people after a brain injury is that they notice a change in their ability to regulate their emotional responses to things. So say a person here in the city misses their train. A person with a brain injury might be so overwhelmed with anger, sadness, embarrassment, disappointment, and they experience what I've heard people call a flood of emotions. And that high emotionality actually prevents clear thinking. And it prevents them, at least momentarily, from problem-solving out of the situation. And so the intervention that we're working on now allows a person to regain a sense of control over the situation by recognizing the flood of emotions for what it is, backing themselves out of it, and initiating a calm, deliberate, problem-solving process.
Trisha Meili: 14:23
That is really exciting, because I see for myself that sense of, I always say, taking a step back and taking that deep breath, which is meditating to clear the mind because things can be too overwhelming when a lot is going on.
What do you say to yourself when the flood of emotion happens? What's your strategy for getting out of that for pulling back?
Trisha Meili: 14:56
Holy [bleep]! [Laughs] When I see it happening it's in part this recognition to say, "You're okay, don't get down on yourself." And literally I will stand up and take that step backwards in a way and take a deep breath. And maybe it is then sitting down in a space that I have that's quiet. And to take those deep breaths. That does help me. It doesn't always happen. A lot of times, unfortunately, what happens is I'll, in a way, act out against the one person who I love the most, my husband, because he's there. And so that's very hard, too. It's hard on him. And I think part of the recognition for me is also saying, "Okay, I'm not a bad person. I need to recognize this, stop, and get out of the situation before I respond inappropriately to him."
How has he learned to help you?
Trisha Meili: 16:08
It's a process. It really is a process of him understanding, too, potentially what's going on for me and trying to be there for me. And maybe sometimes for him it's to learn to just back away and get out of the situation. And in part also not telling me what to do, too, because for me that can get irritating. I need to figure this out for myself, because you know what? So here's another deeper issue—dependence, and that's something I think I fought before the brain injury. I want to be independent, do everything on my own. And then after a brain injury, "Oh, my gosh! I am so dependent on people." And in some ways it's learning that, "Hey, that's okay." And this is a process and I'm regaining my independence, and that's part of the healing. But you know what, sometimes I need other people, and that's not a bad thing.
Is there's something he says, does he have to say, "Trisha, you're doing that thing." Does he help you to put your mind on what's happening and pull back?
Trisha Meili: 17:28
Yes, I think that's a good example, a good example of it. And then, for me, a challenging thing is not to get angry at that, like, "Oh, you're so smart." So, our brains are complicated things, but realizing that he's just trying to help.
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 17:51
For something like that to work and to not just be a source of friction, that cue has to be mutually agreed upon. Otherwise he's a nag. It has to be something that maybe even the person living with a brain injury says, "It would be comfortable for me if you said this, but don't cut me off in front of other people." Sometimes people agree on a word or a symbol or something that's their shared secret. They're in on it together to help the person with the brain injury function as well as he or she can.
Do you have a favorite shared signal or one that you've heard?
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 18:30
Some people have done well with a subtle hand gesture. I once had a patient who would sometimes go on and on and on talking, talking, talking, and then afterwards would feel this sort of embarrassment or regret, because the awareness wouldn't come in until after the conversation had ended. She'd come back home and say, "Oh, my gosh, I just talked everyone's ear off." She didn't want to do that. And so she asked her husband to just gently touch the side of his chin. It could be done very subtly, pretend he's just moving his hair, and it was their shared secret. So she didn't get mad at him when he did it because it came from her. It was her idea, she initiated it and she asked for it, so it prevented her from getting mad. Whereas before he might have just cut her off, and that would embarrass her and make her feel like she was being cared for by someone else. And she didn't like that. Who would?
Trisha Meili: 19:25
And I'll tell you, as you describe that, words I hear are that she was the one who initiated it. It was her choice. And that, to me, is huge because, with brain injury and I'll say with sexual assault, of course, all control is taken away from you. And so regaining that sense of control is an important part in the healing, and not always feeling like everyone's telling you what to do. So that's a beautiful example, that she had the ability to say, "You know what, this would make me feel more comfortable."
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 20:10
A lot of this stuff, too, it's not unique to brain injury. No one wants their partner to be their caregiver. No one wants to feel diminished or supervised. And so a lot of the stuff that helps people be independent and feel like they're living a self-directed and meaningful life is very simple and not unique to brain injury.
Trisha Meili: 20:37
Trisha, your story has been public for so long, even from the very beginning. Even though you chose to remain anonymous until 2003 when your memoir was published. How did the publicity of the story affect your course of recovery?
Trisha Meili: 20:59
Initially, I'm thinking early on, I didn't choose to be anonymous. That actually was a choice that the press made, because back 30 years ago, they did not reveal the names of rape survivors. And also, I'll say my family very much didn't want it out in the public because they experienced how the press came after them in trying to learn so much about me. And they didn't want me to be exposed to that, too. So that was a reason for staying anonymous, too. But as I saw how—I guess as I saw the extent of my recovery and the speed of it, I just thought, "Holy cow, this is just so amazing! And I'm so grateful and want to, on one level, reach out to everybody and say thank you." And then on the other it's like, "Oh, but you don't want to go public about this." Of course with friends and colleagues and such, everyone knew. And so it was in no way that I was ashamed of what had happened, because I felt I had every right to be in the park when I was. But still it was my decision and my choice when I thought, you know what, I want to write about this and write about the healing to maybe give other people a sense of hope that I was given, too.
I suspect there were many turning points and milestones in your recovery. Was there a single one that comes to mind that might be useful for listeners to hear who are on their own journey?
Trisha Meili: 22:52
I'll tell you, one of the most memorable days when I was at the long-term acute-care hospital was when I went running again for the first time after the attack. I had come there in a wheelchair, and actually just a couple of weeks after I started to walk a bit on my own without a wheelchair, the head of the physical therapy department, his name was Nelson Carvalho, he kind of casually asked me, "Hey, do you want to join this group of people that meet on the weekends at Gaylord Hospital to run?" And I thought, you know, at first, "Gosh, do I want to do this? Can I do it? I can honestly barely walk." But you know what, I trusted Nelson. So on one Saturday, a few weeks later, I joined this small group of people, and there was a man who was in a wheelchair and a couple of people were on crutches. And another younger guy had spina bifida. And I remember thinking, "If they can do this with their challenges, then so can I." And we started out, Nelson and I started out. You can imagine, just a few weeks after being out of a wheelchair, I was really wobbly. But you know what, here's what it felt like. It felt like I had conquered the world. I was out there. I was taking something back that had been taken away. And it was this sense of, "Look at what I can do!" and focusing again on where I was right at that moment, and saying, "Look at what I can do." And it filled me with a sense of self-confidence, and that really helped when I would get frustrated or discouraged. And I have seen so many times in myself and in others that reaching a physical goal—because it's easy to see and measure it. If it's walking a few more steps or something, it can be transferred to accomplishments in other aspects of your rehabilitation or in life—eat school, at home, at work. And seeing the improvement just made me feel much better. It gave me hope. And that sense of what I can do really helped me cognitively, too, to push, keep pushing a little bit more. And that pushing resulted in improvements, and I still see the improvements today. It's that balance between accepting some of the challenges that, you know what, "I can't do that anymore, and that's okay." But pushing just to see if I can do a little bit more. Because we get better at what we practice, and that's true for everybody. Brain injury or not.
I'm struck by how many of your strategies for healing go through the body to the mind. You talk about yoga, you talk about running. Dr. Dams-O'Connor, what do you make of that?
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 26:08
Trisha is uniquely resilient. What you do is you search for evidence of improvement and growth. You find it. And then you're motivated by it. Trisha made a great point that the physical improvements are sometimes more tangible. They're easier to measure, and it allows a person to see progress, and improvements in other areas are much fuzzier. Are you getting better at your ability to remember where you put your keys? I don't know. How many times do you lose them? I mean, it's really hard to measure those changes. When a person's able to experience tangibly growth and change, it sticks more, it becomes more meaningful and more salient. Does it go through the body to the mind? Maybe. The body gives us evidence that we're improving. So I think you may be onto something.
Trisha Meili: 27:15
And a lot of times we think about using the mind to heal the body. And I also think very strongly that we can use our body to heal our mind.
Trisha, is there anything that you wish you'd known when you were starting off in this journey that you know today?
Trisha Meili: 27:34
It's a big question. It's like a flood of thoughts coming in. I was just so fortunate that I felt this love around me, and it was there. It was there from the beginning, and it came from so many people. And I think that's what really got me through, that love and support. And I just felt it. I have been overwhelmed in a positive way about the loving and giving of the human nature and the power of that in helping people heal.
I'm also curious to know how the way that you see yourself has changed over three decades. When you looked in the mirror then and when you look in the mirror now, not only physically, but more internally, how is this person different?
Trisha Meili: 28:42
I think I'm a more grounded person, and I would like to think that I didn't have to lose everything for that to happen. But I think that's how it happened for me, and I'm grateful for being more, I'll say sure of myself and comfortable with myself most of the time. But there are definitely times when that that isn't the case, and then that's learning to say, "That's okay, that's part of being human, too." And I think what I try to do is be more accepting of myself. It's a work in progress.
Closing messages. I'll start with you, Dr. Dams-O'Connor. Is there a message you would like to leave listeners with?
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 29:38
I think it's important to acknowledge that a lot of people who sustain a brain injury don't have the luxury of the ideal treatments for as long as they need them. A lot of people who are living with brain injury don't have the love and support and camaraderie that others do. For those people, we still see change over time that is positive. One of the things that we have learned a lot about over the last 30 years is that outcomes after a brain injury are so variable. And as we continue to learn more, there's a lot of reason to be hopeful.
Trisha, a final thought you'd like to leave listeners with?
Trisha Meili: 30:35
I guess I want to reach out to all those who do know that they've had a brain injury and those who might be thinking, "Maybe I did," to seek out the resources that might be around and not to feel that, "No, no, this is nothing. I'll be embarrassed." But to really have the courage, if something doesn't seem right, to be your own advocate, because it's so much better to find out and learn what possibilities are out there to help you.
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 31:30
I love that you said that, because I hope that it will remind the people who are out there living with brain injury—who don't have the luxury of support and constant outpouring of love and family and friends all around—I hope that people will take this opportunity to go and find their community. Brain injury is common. Some of our studies suggest that up to 40 percent of people out there in the population have sustained at least one traumatic brain injury. You are so not alone.
Thank you both so much.
Trisha Meili: 32:10
Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor: 32:10
That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. If you enjoyed the podcast, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts and tell a friend about us. We're a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. I'm Jon Earle, and I produce the show with Katie Ullman and Nicci Hudson. Thank you to everybody here who makes Road to Resilience possible. Cathy Clarke, Tina Sher, Justin Gunn, Lucia Lee, and many, many others. From all of us here, thank you so much for listening. We'll see you next time.