Death is an incomparable coach. I don’t mean death in the way of someone personifying the Grim Reaper or a ghost at a costume party; I mean Death – the end of life as we understand it currently. The only setback to the coaching potential of death is the rather obvious point that most people who learn by way of death don’t get to come back and apply any insights they gained. I did. Death’s presence in my life was mind-blowing (pun intended) yet, one of the most insightful journeys of development I can imagine. I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone else; yet, I consider myself immensely lucky that I went through what I did and have been given another chance to live a life of drive, meaning and constant growth. Perhaps this is why, since I walked away from death just over ten years ago, my life’s purpose, and its greatest reward, has been to support others in their own journeys of self-realization, evolution, and metamorphosis.
My name is Aparajita (AJ) Jeedigunta. I am a social psychologist, a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, and, a Coach. I am also a two-time Traumatic Brain Injury survivor, both of which were the main drivers that led me on this journey to find my Self and discover the meaning and purpose of my life in a myriad of ways. My journey as an immigrant in life ultimately led to a place where I can unequivocally help others transform their own lives without having to experience Death.
I was born in a small coastal town in South India, and was raised in Hyderabad – one of the most cosmopolitan, multi-cultural cities in the region. My childhood was idyllic and beautifully comfortable for the most part, as clichéd as that may be. But, in the first 14 years of my life, I had never seen or interacted with anyone who wasn’t Indian. I had no knowledge of the lives of those who looked different than me.
I got my first taste of the larger world when my family moved from South India to the United States of America when I turned 14. In the span of one week, I experienced my first air travel journey, left behind everything I held dear in my life, and moved to a brand new country that had a level of diversity in its population that was unfathomable to my teenage mind. And, to top things off, I was also going through puberty when this happened. What a dramatic and mindboggling rollercoaster ride that was!
After my family settled in Michigan, I went to an all-girls high school yet again. In many ways, this really allowed me to focus on the concurrent culture shock and puberty I was going through, without having to worry about fitting in, boys, crushes and all the other “emotional joys” that puberty brings. I was an exceptional student in high school with memberships in the National Honor Society, the Spanish Honor Society, and a host of other accolades, along with extra-curricular community service and cultural activities. I was well on my way to being properly groomed to be either a cardiologist or a neurosurgeon later in life.
It is only after I started my undergraduate chapter in life, as a science major with a pre-medical focus that my real adventures began. In my sophomore year, I experienced my first Traumatic Brain Injury – a concussion from being hit in the back of my head with a bottle. The term “Traumatic Brain Injury” didn’t even exist back then in the way it does now; concussions were certainly not considered to be traumatic in any way. I was sent home from the University clinic with some over-the-counter Tylenol and was told to rest for a few days. I did just that, and went back to living my life.
And, this is when my world turned upside down for the first time. Over the course of that semester, everything and everyone around me stopped making sense. I lost all control over my impulses and started behaving in ways that I couldn’t even begin to explain. I barely understood the words that were coming out of people’s mouths. I couldn’t follow basic instructions. I was constantly exhausted. Most of my friends ostracized me and eventually just dropped me. I I failed every class I took that semester, and the following one. When I tried to ask for help, I was told that I was the problem and that I needed to just focus and make a better effort.
So, I dropped out of college. I moved back in with my parents and did a whole slew of odd jobs that I found locally. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or how I wanted to do it. It felt like I literally knew nothing about anything! My parents really impressed on me the need for at least a college degree, and that also seemed to be the only tangible life advice I got from any adults in my life. Inevitably, I re-enrolled back in school after taking almost a full year off.
In my second round as a college student, I was no longer pre-med. Medicine had completely lost its appeal, but I couldn’t explain why. Instead, psychology was fascinating in an untold number of ways. Psychology classes and the concepts covered in them made complete sense to me in very intrinsic ways, and I could see the value of their applications in my life. This led to a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, with Honors and High Distinction. After working with the same faculty members of my University for another year, I got accepted into a competitive MA/PhD graduate program in Psychology on a full scholarship. I thought I finally figured my life out.
Throughout my first two years in my graduate program, I still had ongoing problems with exhaustion, decision-making and impulse control that I just chalked off as me being weak. Despite that, I made a mark for myself as an astute and creative statistician and researcher by the time I finished my Master’s degree. I was giving talks on topics in Social Psychology, I was starting to get noticed, and internally I felt like I was going to be the next big expert on the Indian-American culture coming out of my field. I was teaching courses in Social Psychology, Cross-Cultural Psychology and Psychology of Gender, and, I was well on my way to becoming an expert in the field. I even declared my doctoral candidacy.
Then, on Jan 13, 2009, my world came to a complete stop. To this day, I still have vivid flashes of me sitting in a plastic chair next to my own body on a hospital gurney, and chatting with my great-grandfather who passed away in 1984, while we calmly watched and discussed all the things the medical team were doing to bring my life back into my body. I remember sitting with him and fully comprehending that I had died in all the ways that mattered. I wasn’t upset about it. I just didn’t know what it meant.
I woke up days later in excruciating pain, not able to find my great-grandfather, and unable to understand anything that was happening around me. I heard people speaking, and while I understood the words, I had no idea what they meant. I responded to the medical professionals, but my own words didn’t make sense to me, even though they were exactly the answers that the professionals were looking for. I was told I have a moderate to severe left frontal and parietal lobe trauma, with a subdural hematoma and multiple clot formations. They told me I’m a Traumatic Brain Injury survivor. I had no idea what these things meant. I was on student insurance, so there was nothing more that could be done for me other than periodic brain scans. They stabilized me and sent me home expecting me to figure things out.
This is how pain, anxiety, self-doubt and helplessness became my first trainers. Where death was my coach, these four psychological horsemen taught me how to really listen to the silent screams in my own body and mind, to the point where I could recognize them in others. Numbers made my head hurt. Sounds made my brain feel like it wanted to explode. Any type of light made me wish I were dead. I was depressed. I couldn’t function anywhere outside of my apartment. I couldn’t find meaning in life. My department and my family unanimously felt it would be better for me to quit the graduate program and figure out other professions that would be more suitable for someone with such severe disabilities.
Heck, I had already lost every sense of myself in my journey up to that point, so why should I even go on? It would make perfect sense that I should give up because I had to learn how to be disabled. Nothing was going to take my disability away. But then, I also had another nagging little voice in my head that kept asking me what I could possibly do if I quit. I had already quit college once before and worked in jobs that never led to anything. I knew nothing in life other than being a student. So, I said no. I fought to keep my candidacy and my position in my department. I put up a fight when they tried to take my teaching responsibilities away because I was desperate to get back to being “normal”. I struggled every waking moment of my life, and paid no attention to my mental recovery. And, in just under 10 months after I woke up in a hospital bed not even knowing my own name, I took my written comprehensive exams for my doctoral program. I passed them all with flying colors! Yet, I had no idea who I was or what any of this meant to me because I didn’t spend any time healing.
Three years later, I successfully defended my dissertation and became Dr. Aparajita Jeedigunta. Two weeks later, I got engaged, and by the end of the year, I was married and had relocated to California. I went through unemployment, two failed business venture attempts, multiple reproductive losses, and multiple relocations. I still had no idea what my life was about because I couldn’t find meaning behind any of these experiences. And then, my first coach came into my life, in the form of my daughter. I was completely unprepared for the changes she instantly made in me.
Once my daughter was born, I suddenly realized that I had to model my life to a tiny little human, knowing that it might impact her worldviews. I was faced with the dilemma that I had no idea who I was. I had never previously taken the time to think about my inner world, my philosophy in life, or really, anything related to the meaning of my existence. So, what could I possibly teach her? How do I teach a baby about the experience of death and chronic pain? Why would I teach a new life about all the experiences I had that many people go their entire lives without?
I started reflecting about what death, pain, anxiety, doubt, depression and living life with an invisible disability taught me. After many months of deep introspection, on a totally unmemorable, random day, I suddenly realized that I was not the same person I was before. I had grown in so many ways, but I was obstinately still seeing myself as this unchangeable thing. I was viewing my progress as an inevitable yet meaningless outcome of my experiences, instead of acknowledging its impact in letting me thrive through my traumas. I grasped the fact that I grew through, because of, and in spite of trauma because I was hell-bent on growing, and that is what is going to propel me forward in life. I also appreciated the limitlessness of all the ways in which I have yet to develop. Suddenly, things started making sense in intense ways. I understood that I was using the wrong perspective to narrate my life, which also meant that I was using the wrong toolkit to evaluate myself. It finally dawned on me that resilience is who I am, what I am, and a habit that I cultivated every single day. After this, my values, passions and interests began to align in magical ways. It was as if the entire Universe itself was bending and reshaping itself to manifest my previously invisible success and growth.
This is why I am where I am in life today, as a coach that supports other trauma survivors, immigrants, and, people of color, in their own metamorphoses. I help others in their journeys to make the changes they want to make, whether it is through one on one coaching sessions, or through the workshops, trainings, online courses and other potential expanding initiatives I’m currently building. My experiences of all the different ways in people can be excluded from finding value in their own lives molded me into an unabashedly unapologetic advocate and consultant for inclusion and self-empowerment in the diversity and inclusion sector.
In the process of my own academic and personal journey, I was able to build the skill sets to aid others in their growth so they don’t have to go through the struggles of lack of confidence, powerlessness, hopelessness, isolation, self-doubt, and fear of failure, or, death. I also invested in myself so I can keep increasing my potential and transformation by enrolling in coach-specific training, and becoming a member of the ICF, in the process of certification. I know that I will continue to nurture myself and cultivate my strengths even after I have reached the highest levels of coaching, because I fully understand that I never want to and never will stop growing.
This is the story of my transformation. As you can see, it isn’t done yet, but who I will become as my life continues to unfold is finally in my control. The real question though, is: Who are you? And, who do you want to be?
From my upcoming e-book “Transform Your Life : Everything You Need to Know To Find The Right Coach For You”.