|Cristabelle Braden ’15 Became Prolific Songwriter After Serious Brain Injury
On the surface, junior Cristabelle Braden's life seems wonderful. She writes and performs her own songs. She has released two albums. She is a double music and religion major.
Yet this was not supposed to be Braden's life.
When she was 14, she was on the fast track toward a different life. She was extroverted, a brilliant student who talked about a career in medicine or law. A school like Harvard seemed within reach. And then her entire world came crashing down on Dec. 2, 2007.
Braden was attending youth group at her church in Delaware and was playing an organized game with other teens. The game got out of hand, and Braden's head hit the wall and floor. She lost consciousness, but didn't seek medical attention when she came to and was able to return home under her own power. During the next three days, her brain swelled, and the result was a serious brain injury.
She was hospitalized, suffering from significant memory loss and the inability to do simple tasks. During the next several months, she would need extensive therapy and was forced to repeat a year in high school.
On the outside, she was still Cristabelle Braden. On the inside, she wasn't sure who she was.
"I don't have a great memory of that year at all - everything is fuzzy," Braden said. "But one of my memories is looking in the mirror and saying, 'That's me, but it's not.' I had a complete personality change. I was trying to be the old Cristabelle but I couldn't. I had the same DNA. I felt like I was disappointing everyone because I wasn't the same person. My friends told me I was too hard to be with anymore, and I went through a lot of bullying."
Something remarkable, but strange, also happened. The girl with no prior musical training started to write songs. A lot of songs.
"These songs just came flowing out of me," Braden said. "Some of these songs, I don't know where they came from. I just started writing. It was kind of a catharsis. I was writing about 10 to 12 (songs) a week at that time.”
"I could talk, but my vocabulary got down to that of a young child. I just wasn't together, but I was writing this music. The early stuff, I would say, was very tumultuous...it was hopeless," she said, taking a long pause while searching for the right words.
It is a stark reminder that, while she has come a long way since the injury more than five years ago, Braden will never be completely healed.
"I have trouble sometimes thinking of words because of the brain injury," she said, offering a weak smile.
Her thoughts return to her earliest music.
"It was broken - I don't want to say dark - but I was searching. It was very poetic," she said.
During this time, she was attending school in the morning, followed by speech, cognitive, physical and occupational therapies in the afternoon. She was fortunate to have the love and support of a great family.
"For my mom, it was a full-time job taking me to therapy and doctor appointments," she said. "I'm so lucky I had my family. The one thing that helped us was the brain-injury support groups and talking to other survivors."
But through it all, she was still trying to find herself.
"There came a point where I started to read the Bible, because nothing made sense in my life," Braden said. "I realized that everything about being Cristabelle was gone, but I realized that I was a child of God. And that my identity was found in Christ and that Christ loved me enough to die for me."
It was a watershed moment: "At that point, I started to heal."
Braden doesn't think it's a coincidence that her music changed, too.
"When I started to find hope in God my song lyrics began to change," she said. "They became more hopeful. I rapidly started to do better (and my family) moved from Delaware to Pennsylvania, and that was so good for me."
The Bradens moved to Center Valley in Lehigh County, and Cristabelle transferred to Southern Lehigh High School.
"No one knew me," she said, "and I had a chance to start over."
Gradually, she began to embrace her new life, her new self. And music was a focal point, so much so that it became her major when she was accepted at LVC. She began doing live shows, playing her guitar and singing for coffeehouses, church groups and festivals.
Service is also important to her. Despite playing music and a busy courseload during the past school year, she spent a lot of time as a group leader for "Young Life" at Palmyra Area High School, offering friendship and mentoring to students.
She released her first CD, "Harmony," in May 2011. Her second CD, "I Am Yours," featuring nine tracks, was released last month. All the musicians, minus one, on the album are LVC students.
Like any good up-and-coming musician, she is touring this summer. She has been criss-crossing eastern Pennsylvania - not only to promote the CD - but to deliver a message.
"My songs are all over the board," she said. "I have poppy tunes, jazzy tunes, piano songs and acoustic. A lot of my songs are encouragement-type songs, that things will get better, to give people hope. All of my songs are positive songs. That is my message: hope. I hope anyone who listens to them will be refreshed and come away with a smile on their face. ... I love doing live shows because I love looking out and just seeing faces. I love meeting people afterwards and talking, or praying with them if they want to. Some people have come up to me and have wanted to pray."
Her entourage on this tour is her family: parents Bob and Cyndie Braden, and sisters Annelisse, 16, and Evie, 9.
Braden's life is in a good place now, but it's not perfect. She has moments when she angrily dwells on the brain injury, wondering why it all happened to her. Physically, there are aspects of the injury that always will be with her.
"Living with a brain injury is difficult because you have to live with the effects of it your whole life," she said. "I have a slow reaction time and a slow processing speed, so I don't drive. I get headaches. I can't do anything that would cause another head injury. I can't play contact sports. I can't ride a bike."
But she can sing. And she can inspire - herself and others.
"Music is something very organic for me. Since my brain injury, music has been very healing for me," Braden said. "When I realize the Lord has a plan and a purpose for me, even with a brain injury, music is one way he has given me to serve him. It's not the only way, but it's one way."
[This story is adapted from Bill Warner’s article in The Lebanon Daily News, June 21, 2013. Reprinted with permission.]