The Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders hosted a screening of the documentary film “The House We Lived In” for students and faculty at the University of Maine’s Donald P. Corbet building on April 10. A panel with director Tim O’Donnell was hosted afterwards to discuss any further questions about the film, which detailed the story of his father’s recovery.
In August of 2011, Tod O’Donnell suffered a traumatic brain injury after a fall in his home. He was able to make a miraculous recovery after having woken up from a coma, but wasn’t able to recall memories leading up to the incident. The O’Donnell family attempted to help Tod recollect his memories by having him visit the house that his family had grown up in, but to no avail. In fact, it was discovered that he had no true recollection of the past 20 years of his life.
“When I saw myself after this brain injury, I didn’t recognize myself. Because I couldn’t remember me or in my mind as being in my forties,” Tod said.
Having lost memories from a huge portion of his life, Tod had also lost a part of himself, as he was initially unaware of one of his favorite pastimes in golf. Because of his injury, everything felt new or unfamiliar, including old golfing friends who Tod was unable to initially recognize, as he only remembered their younger, non-aged appearance.
This traumatic head injury can be described as an “invisible injury.” In the field of cognitive science, an invisible injury is an non-visible wound in the brain that can be associated with trauma or other serious life-changing events. As discussed in the film, the case of Tod’s memory loss could have happened when his brain had blocked out any memory associated with the incident as a defense mechanism.
The film details Tod’s recovery period over the course of 10 1/2 years, using projected installations of old family videos in order to help him find those missing memories. The film also cuts back and forth between family footage and the modern day, where Tod can remember his family and visibly recognize himself but the memories are very hazy.
The recovery process is slow but steady as memories start to return to Tod in the form of dreams. During the film’s documentation, Tim and his family grappled with their father’s change in mental state. In particular, Tim would find comfort in filming his father every day and would sometimes have recurring dreams in an oddly similar manner.
“There were moments where I had to kind of step away from the film and allow myself to catch up, because as cathartic and helpful and therapeutic filming can be sometimes it’s also avoiding and escaping the reality of what’s happening,” Tim said.
Tim had also stressed to communication sciences students in the audience about not only the importance of one’s mental health, but also the importance of reading people and their inner struggles as they step into the cognitive health field.
Early on, the O’Donnell family was able to get in touch with other brain injury survivors through starting up charity support groups. Tod was able to meet and interact with many individuals who remain close friends with the O’Donnell family to this day. Through this experience, Tod was able to connect with others and share different perspectives.
“This film and screenings has been so helpful for me and our family, just to share our story, and allowed Tod to do what he does best to help people,” Tim said.
Despite the injury changing his life forever, Tod O’Donnel is able to move forward with his newfound perspective on life. He learns to live each passing day with appreciation for the family and friends who support him and to also have respect for himself. The O’Donnel family continues to share their story as a means to help brain injury survivors and their families, as well as educate up-and coming cognitive health professionals.