Losing my identity after a brain injury - Kinnie's essay

Meet Tapestry guest host Kinnie Starr. She's a hip hop artist, activist, and music producer. After a car accident left her with a mild to moderate brain injury, Kinnie had to fight to piece together what she'd lost and find new ways to create music.
After a car accident left her with a brain injury Kinnie Starr had to rediscover her identity. She reflects on this journey and finds the humanity in life after a brain injury. (Courtesy)

I'm Kinnie Starr and I've been making music professionally since 1996. Some of the things I'm the most proud of are being nominated for a Juno award as Best New artist in 2004 - Yes I lost that that title to Michael Buble, no big deal.

I also produced the album, WE Are, by Digging Roots, that album won Album Of The Year in 2010, and in 2011 I was recognized at Manifesto Hip Hop Summit in Toronto as a pioneer in hip hop culture alongside Michie Mee.

I didn't grow up making music though. When I was in university, my housemate put a guitar in my hands and I was hooked.  It was kind of like my wings had opened. I just felt like I had found something that I was good at. I haven't stopped making records since. Music has become a huge part of my identity.

In April of 2015 , everything changed.

It was a typically wet afternoon in Vancouver and I was on my way to work. The cab driver did his best, of course, to escape the terrible situation at hand – a car rolling through a stop sign, the other driver on her cell phone - but the taxi was going too fast down the hill and the cars collided.  

I only remember a few things from that accident. I remember the cab driver saying, "I can't see. I need an ambulance." I remember checking my face for blood. I remember being outside the cab, looking at the woman who rolled the stop sign. I recall thinking over and over and over, "I gotta get to work. I gotta get to work. I gotta get to work."

That night I got my period and it came with the force of a miscarriage. I have trouble admitting to myself that it may actually have been a miscarriage. That is too painful to wrap my head around.

A year and a half went by until I received a proper diagnosis. In the meantime, my medical team and I focused exclusively on the physical symptoms, I guess they're easier to see. The pain and pain patterns were ricocheting through my body.

After Kinnie Starr suffered a mild to moderate brain injury her identity as a musician and performer was forever changed. (Courtesy)

My body temperature became erratic. Digestion and swallowing became painful. I started to get blinding headaches. A tumour grew swiftly on the right side of my spine, inside my nervous system, and required an immediate surgery. My left arm stopped working properly and lost its mobility and range. At the same time, there were invisible things happening that I couldn't put my finger on and I was too scared to say them out loud.

I was having trouble perceiving spatial relationships around me.  I was becoming clumsier and clumsier than I even am normally. My senses were on overdrive. Sounds became huge and intense, and layers of sound were entirely unmanageable and would make me feel like I was going to puke. I was crying compulsively, having trouble sleeping and there were sudden, overwhelming moments of confusion and dark swells of dread. The smallest decision, like what to eat, was overwhelming.

From the outside I relied on my lone wolf persona to cope but on the inside I was terrified. I downplayed my symptoms to almost everyone I knew. I guess because it's a way to cope and also my identity is tied to being upbeat and capable.  There was so much happening too with everyone else's lives, I didn't want to be a burden.  

But when I did allow myself to be vulnerable or open about what was going through my body and through my mind most people would just blow me off and be like, "Oh yeah, I get that too," or they would just tell me "But you look so great…. " as if physical appearance has anything to do with mental wellness.

And then there was music… Whenever I tried to play guitar, I would feel nauseous, or like I was peeing or about to pee it would make me very dizzy. I tried switching to keyboards, I thought maybe I could just learn this instrument but that gave me the exact same feeling. It was kind of like my brain was scrambled. I felt like I had lost a huge piece of who I am.  And Having my creativity and physical strength and cognition pulled out from under me still leaves me heartbroken.

After living in that fog for almost two years, I was finally diagnosed with a mild to moderate brain injury. And I began getting the proper care right away. Even though I'm feeling so much better my brain still doesn't like layers of any stimulation.  I get a weird mix of emotion and nausea that makes me almost cry or feel like I'm going to pass out when there are several things happening at once.

It still feels like my left hand is covered in sand when I try to play instruments or like there's feathers or something tickling the inside of my palm. I can only play for about 15 minutes at a time, any longer and the pain and nausea begin to rise. But I've found new way to make music: I collaborate now with another songwriter and I feel so lucky but the fact that I might not fully recover my ability to play music is an awful realization and a humbling one and something that I rarely voice out loud. I feel grief, just a deep grief.

Everything changed after my brain injury. And I  wonder how it is for others… when your interests and abilities and your experience of the world changes because of a brain injury… well what happens to your identity? And if you've essentially become a different person, what happens to your closest relationships?

Today, I'm going to find out.

On this special edition of Tapestry - reinventing your life and finding peace after a brain injury.

Throughout the episode we featured some of Kinnie's music, check out the playlist below:

1) Song: Up in Smoke, Artist: Kinnie Starr, Album: Anything
2) Song: Bonfires, Artist: Kinnie Starr, Album: A Different Story
3) Song: Everything Changes, Artist: Kinnie Starr, Album: Kiss It