John Chapdelaine is not proud of his past. He describes himself as a party-driven “spoiled rotten brat” before his brain injury at the age of 19. A once fearless scrapper with a nose for trouble, today he uses his experience and hindsight to help young people avoid his fate.
“What I want to do is help people, keep people from doing what I did to myself,” he said at BCArc’s Nu-Opps, a day program he attends three days a week. “If they don’t want my help, if they don’t want to listen to me, then I’ll move on to the next person.”
Recently he met privately with two 6th graders, hoping to connect with them, an experience which he captured in a poem (see the full poem below). The meeting and poem were part of a project with Community Access to the Arts, where John gets to express himself through writing.
“I wrote that poem because I want to get these ideas out of my head,” he said. “My goal is to be happy, and to help people. I don’t always reach this goal, but I try.”
He feels young people typically see him “as a monster.” But his sharpness and confidence come across quickly in conversation. Ever sure of himself, he insists that, for example, Daniel Craig is a vastly inferior James Bond than Sean Connery or Roger Moore.
“What I want to do is help people, keep people from doing what I did to myself.”
And he likes to boast about his original quotes, calling himself a “cast-iron marshmallow,” and claiming he was ambidextrous and is now “nobidextrous,” challenging any doubters to google the phrases to prove he invented them.
His physical limitations frustrate him: “I have to ask for help, and I hate asking for help.” Help includes support for eating, drinking, and turning the pages of a book. Despite these challenges, and his dependence, John says he wakes up everyday bent on improving his skills and getting the most out of the day.
“If I can help one person avoid the same situation I find myself in, than that would make all this work worth it,” he said.
—- —- —- —-
A Poem by John Chapdelaine
(A CATA project that asked the writer to integrate the classic Walt Whitman poem “Song of Myself.”)
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I celebrate myself waking up in the morning, and grateful to be alive
I sing myself a happy tune to keep me from acknowledging my disability.
I try not to assume anything because nothing in life is given to you. You have to
work very hard at it.
It’s not true that I assume everything is everybody’s. I share but other people do not
share with me.
Maybe they assume I am a vicious monster.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
A disability is a lack of performance in some part of daily life. Obvious signs of a
Disability can be facial expressions, the way someone walks, and how they sound.
Not obvious on sight would be a difference in their brain intelligence. My
Disability has made me feel uncomfortable around other people and I have felt
uncomfortable around other people with disabilities.
My disability is called “TBI,” for Traumatic Brain Injury, or “Totally Burnt
Individual.” It’s life-altering and it messes up everything. It creates a whole ton of
distress and forces me to be dependent on others. It limits my ability to do anything
that requires dexterity, including eating, drinking and driving. People look at me like
I have five heads.
Until I was 19 I had no need to know anything about TBI, because up until then I was
A carefree, hard-drinking, hard-partying and spoiled-rotten brat. I don’t remember
asking questions about it because I accepted it entirely. I knew why I couldn’t walk,
couldn’t move my left side, and had to wear diapers.
I wish people knew the trials and tribulations of hemiparesis and ataxia. It stopped
Me from being ambidextrous and made me nobidextrous.
Because I learned to live with my disability, I’m alive, I’m sober, and I am with a better class of people.
Before the interview, I felt apprehensive and curious. The kids came in and they
seemed quizzical to me. I interviewed with Tatum and Annabel. Tatum seemed
scared or shy to begin with, but once we hit upon common ground he understood
where I was coming from. Anabel was harder to relate to as she seemed to feel
more shy or nervous.
The conversation was slow to start but after a few minutes it became more fluent,
and both kids started to relax. I used my icebreaker questions to find out where
they were at and to make them feel comfortable. The students were apparently
more nervous than I; they were squirming around and looking at their fingers.
The conversation really got into a groove when I started talking about hockey with
Nothing much changed for me after the interview but I think the project helped
establish communication and opportunities between school-aged children and the
handicapped community. It showed them that we are people too.