Zibby Owens: I'm really excited to be here today with Abby Maslin who’s the author of The Washington Post best seller Love You Hard: A Memoir of Marriage, Brain Injury, and Reinventing Love. She's also a nationally recognized advocate for traumatic brain injury and was named Marie Claire’s Model Citizen of 2013. Abby started blogging about caring for her husband’s traumatic brain injury weeks after his brutal attack. A graduate of St. Mary’s College in Maryland, Abby holds master’s degrees from Drexel University and American University in Creative Arts Therapy and Education. She's currently an elementary school teacher in Washington DC where she lives with her husband TC and their two children. Welcome, Abby.
Abby Maslin: Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: Thanks for coming on. I'm so excited to talk to you. As I was just saying, I absolutely adored your book, Love You Hard. It was so beautifully written and open and honest. It was a service that you wrote this book for everybody else. Thank you.
Abby: Thank you. That is the nicest thing to hear. I can't tell you.
Zibby: Can you start out by telling listeners the story in the beginning of what happened -- you describe it beautifully in the beginning of the book -- about TC’s injury and how you found out about it from waiting on the porch that morning, the whole beginning thing until you realized what had happened?
Abby: I was living a pretty ordinary life. I was thirty years old. I had just turned thirty, woke up on the morning of August 18th, 2012. My husband -- we'd been married for three years at that point. My husband TC hadn’t come home. That was really unusual. I was married to this incredibly ambitious, focused, very disciplined man. It wasn’t like him to just not come home. I woke up. It’s interesting. When our lives are in this moment of absolute transformation -- this really was a moment of there was no going back -- our brains do a really good job at putting us in a state of denial about the reality of what was happening. For hours that morning I told myself, it’s unlike him, but he probably went out drinking and slept at a friend’s house. I made up a lot of excuses.
As it got further into the morning, I called my mother. I said, “TC didn't come home last night.” She was the voice I needed to hear in that moment. She said very promptly, “You need to call the police.” As soon as she said that, as soon as she uttered those words, my mind went to a completely different place of understanding that something bad had happened and knowing that there were a lot of possibilities for what that could be. It turned out that my husband, who had been at a baseball game the night before with friends, had been walking home just seven blocks from our house when he was robbed and hit with a baseball bat. He was on the street for about eight hours before somebody found him and called 911. At that moment that I was calling the police, he was being taken to our local hospital where his brain was going to be operated on.
Complete shock. It took quite a long time to put together all the pieces of that puzzle. It took more than just those hours waiting for him because it would actually take weeks longer before we realized what had happened and the details of the assault itself. I knew pretty immediately that this was very serious. There was a pretty significant chance that he wasn’t going to make it through that day, which was hard to believe. My husband was twenty-nine. He hadn’t quite turned thirty yet. He was a couple weeks from his birthday. We were still living in that place of thinking we had our entire lives in front of us. We never imagined something like this could be part of our story. It put me into this state of absolute shock that took months to try to make sense of. Our brains are not meant to integrate that kind of information all at once.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I still cannot believe this whole thing happened. I really can't. I feel like now you put the reader in a state of shock.
Abby: For better or worse when I decided to write this book, I really wanted it to read like a novel in a way where people would forget this was a life story, a true story. They would feel, physically, all of the kind of shock and trauma that I felt on that day, to really get in that mind-set of what it’s like to have your life upended in an instant.
Zibby: You wrote about shock so beautifully in the book, if I could just read this one section. You wrote, “There is a shock that is as physical as it is emotional. It’s the kind that reaches past your bones, digs into your nerves, and claws itself around each of your veins. It’s the kind that leaves you panting and incoherent, nauseated and dizzy, begging your brain and your body to find their way back to each other so that your lungs will remember how to breathe again and your legs will remember how to hold you. Shock like that is hard to describe. It is the body’s reaction to a declaration of war.” Wow. Literally, I'm sitting here, I have goosebumps just reading the passage again. If you could look back now on how you felt in those first moments of shock and awe and horrifying-ness of the whole situation, is there anything that you could even tell yourself that would've helped you get through that moment?
Abby: Just breathe, honestly. It’s so interesting to me now because I wrote that passage about a year or two after the assault. By that time, I had begun studying yoga and specifically, trauma-sensitive yoga. I had learned a lot about the ways that trauma manifests in our bodies and not just our brains. It was interesting when I sat down to write the book. I realized so much of the details that I was sharing were physical details, kinesthetic details of what it felt like in my body on this journey. That first day in that shock, all I could do was try to breathe. Just getting one breath out and exhaling and taking in another breath, that was how I made it through these hours that I would never wish upon anyone. It sounds so simple just to breathe. Yet it has saved me in every difficult moment that I've ever had, just that idea of I only have to live through this moment. Then I can get through the next.
Zibby: Can you share, how did you end up piecing together -- I know you explain this in the book -- what ended up happening? I don't want to give much airtime to the horrific people who did this to your husband, but just a summary of how you found out. The fact that you even had to go through the trial and all this at the same time, I could not believe you had to endure this stuff. I just couldn't believe it.
Abby: Zibby, talk about subplots. I can only think of it in that sense because from the moment I found out TC was injured and had a traumatic brain injury, my mind was only on his recovery. Whatever I could do to help him get back the things that he was likely to have lost, which was everything at that point because doctors had told me that he was unlikely to ever walk or talk again -- the side of his brain that was most injured was the left side where his communication centers are. All these terrible possibilities on the table and then on the side of that, there is this crazy criminal component of it that I had no experience with. All of a sudden, I have thirty detectives’ business cards in my wallet. I'm talking to the chief of police. I'm in front of news cameras asking for help and for witnesses. I had to make these really difficult calls in the very first days of this, in fact of the very first hours of this where I was hardly coherent at all.
I had to make a decision about how public to make our story. My husband is a very private person. I took that into account at the same time that I had to weigh this idea that the only way we could find out who was responsible is if our story became known and people talked about it and people shared information. That is actually how they found the young men who were responsible. I had done a press conference. Somebody had seen it and then had overheard some young boys in her neighborhood talking. That's how those pieces got put back together. Then very long trials and criminal proceedings and legal proceedings and things I had no clue about. It all felt like a sideshow. The only thing I really wanted to focus on was TC. Yet there were all these voices in my ears telling me that I needed to put my attention over there and think about forgiveness and justice and how I wanted this to turn out on that side. I didn't even have the mental bandwidth to really go there for a long time.
Zibby: I feel like that, what you called the subplot, that could be a whole other book, just the trial. I've read books like that.
Abby: I was really conscientious of that too when I was writing Love You Hard because I wanted this book to be a book about personal transformation and mental transformation and reinventing life. I knew if I went too deeply into that other component of it, it would take away from what I feel are the most important moments of the story and all of the wisdom that I've acquired in travelling this journey. So many people who followed our story were very interested in the criminal component of it. It’s interesting for me, the person living it. It was never the primary thing on my mind.
Zibby: The end result of the criminal case was that they're all in jail. Forever? What happened?
Abby: No, and in fact, I believe just one. There were three young men involved. I believe just one is still in prison. People had a lot of opinions about how I should feel about prison and how I should feel about sentences and all of that. I knew that whatever happened, whether they were caught, whether they were convicted, nothing was going to change our story. I was going to have to find a sense of peace and forgiveness and justice aside from that. I really had to keep those separate in my brain and say to myself, I'm not in charge of how these legal proceedings go. The only thing I can control is my processing of this event and my ability to make the decision to keep moving forward and to keep living. For me, that's the greatest justice there is.
Zibby: Then not only did you have all of that, but you had a toddler, which is another subplot, if you will, that a whole book could be about. You're taking care of Jack and TC at the same time. Then your mom gets sick, everything. At one point in the book you said, “Trust me, taking care of a two-year-old is the easy part in all of this.” What got you through each day? I know you add a lot of this in the book. On a day-to-day basis, aside from breathing, how did you keep getting one foot in front of the other? Was it just survival? You didn't have a choice and that's what you did?
Abby: It’s interesting. Partly, it is survival. I think that there is this will inside each of us to live that is so beautiful and so strong. We rarely give ourselves credit for it. We do know how to put one foot in front of the other and keep going even when it feels like the path in front of us is going to be not a promising one, a scary one. The other part of it was being a mother. I kept going for Jack. He was twenty-one months old when this happened and turned two right in the middle of all of the craziness of TC being in the hospital. Those small moments that I spent with him just looking into his eyes or pushing him on a swing, those little moments that I knew were precious but I maybe didn't know how to pay attention to real closely before, those moments became everything. He was the reminder that there was light in the world. The book is dedicated to him. He truly, truly kept me going through some very dark moments.
Zibby: The scene that you wrote about him feeding your dad when he was dying, I started crying. The image of that, having a baby feed a dying man, oh, my gosh.
Abby: It’s life. It’s death. It’s happening all at the same time every day. We have to live in autopilot mode sometimes just to get through the necessary logistics of being a human on this planet. When we stop and we really look at the juxtaposition of all these things and this cycle of life and the birth and death, it’s so exquisite. I marvel at it. That moment of watching my dad, who had been sick for several years by the time TC was injured and then passed away eighteen months after TC was assaulted, that moment of watching this life that had just begun taking care of a life that was fading, it was so much for me. As I wrote in the book, it was so much for me. I wanted to look away because to look at it would be to know all the truths of the world and everything that ever matters in life, to look right at it. I wrote this book in part because I hope people will take this story as an opportunity to look right at their lives. It’s pretty incredible, everything that we are given on a daily basis, just to get to wake up every day.
Zibby: The fact that you feel this level of gratitude despite everything that's been heaped onto your plate, it’s honestly beautiful. There's no other way to say it. You have this fantastic blog which once I started reading for this interview, I was like, oh, my gosh. Hours have gone by. I've got to deal with my kids here. [laughs] I can't stop reading this blog. You have one post that was “Gratitude Saved My Life.” You wrote so beautifully about grief. You said, “Grief is a terrible, wonderful thing. It is the teacher of all things important and worthy of knowing. It is the dark force that binds and breaks the universe at its will. And it is the wise friend patting you on the back, insistent that you stop and smell the roses before there are no roses to smell.” I thought that passage was so great. Grief, obviously, can be so terrible. That goes without saying, but there is something that happens to people who go through a period of grief like this that is something that you can't attain in any other way. Even if you read a powerful book like yours, if you haven't had the loss or the realization yourself, sometimes it’s hard to get there. Do you know what I mean?
Abby: Yeah. That's another reason for telling this story and sharing it. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could all wake up to our lives a little bit more without having had a terrible thing befall us?
Zibby: Yes, for sure.
Abby: Gratitude is this incredible strategy for survival. It really is. It’s available to all of us all the time. It’s a choice. When you go through something really challenging, you hit this crossroads. At least this was true for me. You make a choice about whether you are going to harden around the edges and try to protect yourself from all the dangers that you now know truly do exist in the world, or you're to soften. If you choose to soften, you're going to open at the same time. You're going to open yourself to things that you didn't even know were possible, to mind-sets that, they’ll show you everything you wanted to know about life. You really do make this choice when you're on a journey like this.
Zibby: I thought it was so great in the book that you didn't try to sugarcoat anything. You included the parts where you felt like you couldn't go on. You included the parts where you got mad at TC. In my head, I was like, how is she putting up with -- all the range of emotions that I would expect anybody in your situation to feel, you then showed us that you felt, which I felt like was so open and honest. Even when you were on your yoga retreat at the end and asking how can I love my husband again, or will I ever love my husband again? oh, my gosh. To admit it is also so brave. You can love someone in some ways and yet struggle so much in other ways.
Abby: It’s terrifying. To be that honest with yourself, it’s terrifying. I felt like a terrible, guilty person for so many moments on this journey, particularly because women are fed this line about caregiving being this noble act. We are so blessed to be able to serve others. I didn't feel that way for a lot of moments. Caregiving is a thing that happened to me. I didn't have a choice but to accept it. There is beauty in it, for sure, but I still wanted a life for myself. Even acknowledging that to myself in private was very scary. What I realized, though, is that I can't be the only person who feels this way.
All the things that I'm feeling, this range of emotions, the rage I feel at a man who I love but I'm so frustrated by because he's standing right in front of me and he looks like a man I was in love with and he's not that same man, these are things, they're hard to say to the people who would like to leave you with a platitude about “God never gives you more than you handle” and walk away. It’s really hard to turn around and say, “Really? Because this feels like too much. This feels like more than I can handle right now.” For me, the idea of living something untrue, I knew that would bury me. I knew that would eat me alive. If I couldn't get honest with my doubts and my fears here, if I tried to swallow them, I would make myself sick. We know enough about trauma to know these days that when we try to suppress it like that, it doesn't work. We have to get in front of it. We have to face it. We have to be really honest, especially about our uncertainty. We’re all uncertain beings. It is okay to admit that. For me, just the admitting of it was really liberating.
Zibby: Those were some of the best parts in the book. Even if you haven't had a trauma, people don't talk about the ins and outs of marriage as much. There's this curtain that goes down. I'm divorced. I never used to talk about what was going on. I still don't talk about what used to go on, but it goes on. When you read things that go on in the intimate lives of other people, it’s really helpful.
Abby: We’re all living these very unique circumstances in one way, and then all the feelings around those circumstances are pretty universal. There were times when I was writing this book and I'm writing about how difficult it is to be married to somebody who I can't communicate with anymore because he literally cannot speak. It’s really no different than being in a marriage where you communicate differently and you keep missing each other. You're saying the thing. You think your partner can hear it, and your partner can't hear it. That's just being in a relationship. For me, as much as this story was about brain injury, it was also a journey about partnership and figuring out how to change. When you sign up for marriage, at least I did not realize I was signing up for a constant evolution. I was signing up for, if you change, then I'm going to change too.
TC’s brain injury taught me a lot about the brain. At first, I only thought it applied to him and his brain. I'm learning from doctors that it’s possible to retrain your brain and to create new neurological connections. I'm thinking, this is great news. I can do this for TC. What I realized a year into it as I'm looking around at my life and feeling like I don't have a marriage anymore, everything’s kind of crumbled, I realize I have to do the same thing for myself. I have to treat my brain in the same way. I have to believe in its capacity to change. I have to believe in my own capacity to be something more than I was yesterday, to be the kind of person who can manage this situation and still serve my own life and my own purpose, which is hard to do. As a woman, it’s hard to do, especially as a caregiver for others.
Zibby: Totally. You did this great video on Brainline, to shift gears slightly. I want to hear about how you got involved with Brainline. Eventually, you became this woman of the year and all this amazing stuff. You have this blog called Reinventing Our Family on that site. You talked about how you were so used to doing things when TC was more incapacitated. You just took over and ran everything. Then as he got better, he was giving baths and doing all these other things. It was hard for you to let go, in a way, being the primary doer. What was that like for you?
Abby: I'm a super control freak. I learned that from writing this book, examining a lot of moments in the rearview mirror of being like, hmm, I really like to be in control. When the person you love is [indiscernible], even when you have a newborn baby, you know that you have to do everything for that baby. When TC was in a coma, which he was in for weeks -- he was in a rehab facility for months after that -- it was very clear to me that I had to do everything. I had to pay the bills. I had to be in touch with his employer. I had to take out the trash, all those things. It was obvious. As he started to get better, which is a very different trajectory than some other illnesses and injuries, I had to learn how to back off. His recovery, his ability to regain independence was dependent on me backing off. That was hard for me because I really felt at that point, as hard as it was to be without a partner, it was very empowering to know I could do these things myself. Part of my reluctance to let him take over was also this sense of if he ever leaves me again, if he dies, if I'm alone, I’ll have settled into being dependent on somebody else again. That's scary. I really had to acknowledge that for myself. To be in a partnership with him again meant that I was going to have to be vulnerable. My vulnerability at point was going to be to let somebody else take care of me.
Zibby: Wow. It’s so amazing. You're so self-aware, as you can tell from reading your book. You're so articulate in talking about your own feelings and your own experience.
Abby: [laughs] Writing was really my therapist for this adventure, adventure maybe being the wrong word. I started to write maybe ten days after TC’s assault. I sat down and tried to write an email to our family members about how he was doing. People were asking these really innocuous questions about “Is he better yet?” It made me realize that they had no idea was a brain injury was, the same way I had no idea what a brain injury was before it happened. When they're saying “Is he better yet?” and I'm thinking of the respirator that's breathing for him and his head that's swollen to twice its size and his eye that's not opening and the fact that he can probably never speak again, I realized I was going to have to educate people about this injury.
More than that, I wanted them to feel what I felt, which was heartbroken. I wanted them to know the kind of man that we had lost. If my husband didn't make it, god forbid, he was only twenty-nine years old. This world might not know TC Maslin. I wanted the world to know. That blog, it took on a life of its own. It started out as an email. My sister said, “Why don't you make it into a blog? That way people can read it or not read it. You can reach whoever wants to be in the loop.” I couldn't have imagined at that point that it would turn into a book. For me, it was really this cathartic way of processing something that made no sense, continues to make no sense, really, but has allowed me to dive for the wisdom in it and really try to mine those tidbits that I think are going to help me live differently from this point on. They're going to help me live more meaningfully.
Zibby: How did it become a book, then?
Abby: I wrote an essay in March 2013. It was called “Love You Hard.” I put it in an essay contest called Notes & Words which was sponsored by Kelly Corrigan who’s a memoirist. It won the contest, which was so amazing. One of the prizes was a phone consultation with a literary agent. She was Kelly’s agent at the time. I got on this phone call with a literary agent, having no idea whether I would ever even want to write a book. It was funny because I remember this so well. We were in Canada getting therapy for TC. He's in the next room doing speech therapy. I'm in the waiting room having my phone call with a literary agent thinking, a year ago, my life was very different. How did this all happen? She asked me if I had written anything. I had about twenty pages of what would become this book. She offered to represent me. Really from there, I had to make that commitment to myself that I was going to see this project through. I hit a lot of roadblocks. I got a year into writing this book and realized that my marriage was crumbling. I couldn't write a book with a happy ending. I was still very much living this story. I needed the time to process it and to close a chapter and open a new one before I could put this out into the world. It took about six years altogether.
Zibby: How has it been since it’s come out?
Abby: In some ways, life is still the same, which is a good thing to remember. The idea of writing a book and publishing it is so exciting, but it’s not very grounding. It’s nice to remember that you'll still have children. They’ll still want to be fed. You'll still have responsibilities. In other ways, it’s opened up beautiful dialogues that I feel so privileged to be part of. I've been all over the country promoting this book. The people who have come to my signings, they're there because they're people like me, people who have lived through something. The stories they have shared with me, it’s so humbling to be trusted with people’s stories. I feel, every time I have an event, more deeply connected to humanity in general. We cannot hear someone’s story and then not see ourselves in them and know that we are all so, so deeply connected. That's a really incredible feeling. I'm grateful the book is out there. I'm hopeful that it will be helpful to people who are going through any kind of life event or just people who want a shake-up in their way of thinking about life. Now I've got to move onto the next project. It’s an exciting chapter to be putting to bed in one way.
Zibby: What's your next project?
Abby: I am a special educator. That keeps me very busy. I am definitely going to continue writing. I have another book in me. It’s very different from this. Right now, I'm just writing for fun. This was an emotional labor, this book was. What I'm working on right now is just for the fun of it, for the joy of writing. Despite the fact that I lived these very dark chapters, I am a pretty lighthearted, energetic person. I do want to remember to make time and room and space for joy and for lightness. That's why we’re here on earth. We have a responsibility to practice all of that. It’ll be something very different. That's all I can say.
Zibby: You are super inspiring. This is the most uplifting -- the book was amazing, but just hearing you talk about everything, it’s really fantastic. Thank you for sharing all of your story with me and for everybody listening. That's really fantastic.
Abby: I'm so grateful.
Zibby: I want to know also, I've been following online and everything, but what's the latest with TC now? How is he doing? You have two kids now, Rosie and everybody. How is it all going?
Abby: It’s all very ordinary in one way. We went from thinking that we were never going to have a life that resembled the life that we lost to working really, really hard, particularly TC who drove his therapy so hard -- he went back to work as an energy analyst two and a half years after his injury, which is incredible. He lives with physical disability every day. He's got very limited mobility on one half of his body. He’s got limited eyesight. He will always have aphasia, which is the communication disorder that he suffers from. He navigates around it remarkably. People who are meeting him for the first time don't often realize there's anything about him that might be a little different. We powered through that. He got back to work.
A couple years after that we were sitting there deciding whether we could bring another child into this family, which was something we always wanted. I kind of put that dream to bed. I talk about it in the book a lot. I still really wanted to be a mother again. Now we've got a wild, very, very strong-willed, really intelligent three-year-old girl named Rosie. Jack is eight now. They keep us very busy. Life probably looks pretty similar for me as it does for any other working moms out there. I'm really grateful for that because underneath the surface, it feels quite different. It will always feel quite different. I understand the subtleties of what makes our life work. I realize that everything is very delicate. We have to manage our lives in a way that TC can get enough rest, and be his best person, and get the things he needs in his recovery. It’s all precarious and wonderful. It’s a very happy chapter. I'm really grateful to know exactly what I have in the moment that I have it because I can appreciate it in a way I didn't before.
Zibby: Wow. Abby, thank you so much. Everybody needs to go out and get Love You Hard by Abby Maslin, A Memoir of Marriage, Brain Injury, and Reinventing Love. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Abby: Thank you so much, Zibby.