Mary Coleman’s really good life

March 14, 2023 | San Diego Community College District

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month and Women’s History Month, and the Disability Support Programs and Services (DSPS) community is celebrating by shining our Student Spotlight series on brain injury survivor and longtime Acquired Brain Injury Program participant Mary Coleman. 

Mary Coleman is wearing glasses and a colorful striped shirt and standing in an ABI Program classroom

In honor of Brain Injury Awareness Month and Women’s History Month, DSPS is proud to showcase the journey of former City College professor and current Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Program participant Mary Coleman. Photo courtesy of Mary Coleman

An Earthquake Trainwreck

It’s been 15 years since Mary Coleman experienced a massive stroke that left her permanently disabled.

“It was an earthquake train wreck. Everything was destroyed,” said Coleman, who prior to her injury, served for ten years as a tenured English professor at San Diego City College.

Five weeks after the stroke, Coleman’s mother died of lung cancer. The resulting threads of shock, despair, and grief spun a web of depression from which she could not escape, leading Coleman to resist the recovery strategies presented by physical, occupational, and speech therapists. 

“In my mind, I didn’t need strategies,” said Coleman. I just needed my brain to heal quickly.” 

Through a friend’s recommendation, Coleman enrolled in San Diego College of Continuing Education’s Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Program, but dropped out after just a couple months.

“I looked at everybody else, and I was in complete denial,” she said, observing, “‘I'm not like these people. I don't need this. They're learning about day planners and timekeeping, and I don't need to do this.”

During this time, Coleman also stepped down from her beloved teaching position and continued a pattern of social and familial isolation that so often accompanies severe depression. After a year of not leaving her house, Coleman leaned on the power of prayer.

“I was just asking God to help me,” she said. “And that led me to deciding to find a therapist.”

Back on Track

As Coleman obtained the mental health support she needed, she re-approached the ABI Program with a more positive mindset and a readiness to learn. This time around, she soaked up information from program staff (all of whom specialize in brain injury) to better understand what she was experiencing physically and cognitively.

“The doctors, even the neurologists, don't really tell you a lot about brain injury,” she said. “They just give you medications, but they don't ask questions and explain why it was so hard for me to think, or why my arm didn’t move.”

Empowered with new knowledge, Coleman also felt comforted by the built-in support system of fellow ABI Program participants, many of whom she befriended.

“That helped a lot because I didn't feel alone. I could see people getting better, and I started to have more hope,” she said.

The program’s unique no-credit, no-fee, open entry and exit structure allows survivors like Coleman to benefit indefinitely from a custom curriculum that includes a range of courses such as Advocacy, Assertive Communication and Organization, Time Management, and How to Have a Conversation.

“Each class has been different, but what has been consistent is that all of them have taught me strategies to help me help my brain to accomplish daily tasks,” she said.

Coleman credited “excellent” ABI Program instructors for their guidance and support throughout her 13+ years of participation. That faculty support, she noted, often extends beyond the classroom. Professor Heike Kessler-Heiberg, for example, sourced funding for Coleman’s vision therapy, while Professor Joann Szabo helped Coleman process some of the emotional and psychosocial elements of living with a brain injury. 

Returning to Work

As costs of living continued to rise in the wake of a pandemic response that quite mercilessly left disabled and immunocompromised folks to fend for themselves, Coleman found herself grappling with the idea of returning to work.

“Everything is just ridiculously expensive,” said Coleman. “It was just hard, especially on the disability income.”

It’s no secret that those with disabilities face significant economic barriers compared to non-disabled people. As The Century Foundation reports, financial hardship is further compounded by “structural as well as cultural ableism and racism,” resulting in “even greater economic disparities and rates of poverty and hardship for Black and brown members of the disability community.” (Vallas, Knackstedt, Brown, Cai, Fremstad, Stettner, 2022)

With help from the ABI Program’s Return to Work course, Coleman prepared her resume, polished her interview skills, and gained the confidence to reach out to former City College colleagues about paid part-time employment. Through that inquiry, she was hired on (and is currently onboarding) as a tutor in the English Writing Center.

“I can’t always organize my thoughts as quickly as I want to,” she said, “but I still know what good writing is supposed to look like.”

An Important Perspective

While Coleman’s resilience is unquestionably admirable, her story is one that exposes the shortcomings of social services and the need for more accessibility, resources, and compassion for those living with disabilities.

Reflecting on the journey toward independent living after her stroke, Coleman said: “I could have used a support system or a caregiver to come in and help me…but trying to find those resources that are affordable was impossible. Eventually, I had to give up because I didn't qualify. I always just seemed to fall in between the cracks.”

She also shared how well-meaning but unhelpful comments from non-disabled folks tend to add insult to injury.

"I wish more people understood how hard it is," said Coleman. "People try to over-explain it away – they'll say, 'I have that, too,' or, 'It's just because you're getting older,’ or, 'Don't worry about that, I forget stuff all the time, too.' They're trying to make me feel better, but it doesn't make me feel better."

Despite the institutional and social barriers that unfortunately abound for folks in Coleman’s position, she offered these words of encouragement to fellow survivors: "Don't give up on yourself. It is frustrating when you don't get the support and resources you need. But just keep fighting as much as possible, because you can get to a life that you actually are enjoying again."

A Really Good Life

The life that Coleman currently enjoys is brimming with art, community, and wanderlust. For the last seven years, she has served on La Jolla Playhouse’s Playhouse Leadership Committee (PLC), which is an ongoing initiative to diversify programming and patronage and increase accessibility in the theatre. Last year, she accepted an invitation to represent the PLC on the La Jolla Playhouse board. 

A creative writer herself, Coleman is also working on a memoir. Completing her book and traveling to bucket-list destinations like Spain and Africa are high on her list of goals for the near future.

“I want to be able to motivate people, have them read my story, and know that life is life,” she said. “In the beginning, it looks like your life is over. But with the right support and with the right work, you can end up having a really good life.”

Student Spotlights, presented by Disability Support Programs and Services, feature success stories from ambitious SDCCD students and alumni whose participation in DSPS has helped them reach meaningful education and/or employment goals.

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