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Back on track: 15 years after a brain injury and fighting the mental health issues it caused, Spokane man is ready to help others

Ray Holman, an Eastern State patient with a traumatic brain injury from a 2011 motorcycle accident, wants to advocate for others when he's released.Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Ray Holman, an Eastern State patient with a traumatic brain injury from a 2011 motorcycle accident, wants to advocate for others when he's released.Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Ray Holman has twice had a stranger save his life.

It seems like a lifetime ago to him now, but Ray Holman was once a successful chemical dependency counselor in Yakima.

He worked hard, had a wife and was in touch with his three adult children and their children. He’d just bought a new house and loved riding his motorcycle through the scrub and basalt of Central Washington.

That changed in 2001, when he crashed while riding on Interstate 82 between Yakima and Ellensberg. Holman would have died, but a stranger stopped after seeing smoke coming up over the highway guardrail.

The man stood just 5-foot-5 and weighed about 135 pounds, Holman remembered. That was nothing compared to Holman’s frame: over 6 feet, 220 pounds. But somehow, the stranger lifted him over the guardrail and into his backseat, then rushed Holman to the hospital in Ellensberg.

Holman’s diagnosis was grim. He had dozens of broken bones and lost his left eye. And he’d suffered a severe concussion that would end up defining the next 15 years of his life.

Now 69, Holman is at the tail end of a year-long stay at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake. It’s his third trip in as many years to treat the severe depression and drug and alcohol dependency that took over his life after the traumatic brain injury.

“This wasn’t part of the plan,” he said.

Holman is sharing his story in hopes of reducing stigma about seeking treatment.

When he gets out of the hospital, he’d like to return to his work helping other people with addictions, something he thinks he’d be better at now.

“I want to do something that matters,” he said.

After his brain injury, Holman had many of the symptoms common with severe concussions: difficulty concentrating and remembering things, trouble keeping up with conversations.

In his job, he had to facilitate group therapy, something that requires near-perfect concentration and attention to detail. He struggled to keep up.

“You’ve got to be really crisp and on the ball,” he said.

While in the hospital, Holman had been given opiate painkillers as he recovered from broken bones. He’d been an alcoholic when he was younger, but was 22 years sober before his accident. But he couldn’t quit the painkillers, and before long he started drinking again, too.

He racked up $40,000 in credit card debt buying opiates online. His wife told him they had to get divorced, then kicked him out of the house after she came home and found him drunk.

“I packed up a few things, put them in the car and took off,” he said.

The next decade was a series of failed starts. He tried inpatient recovery, but quickly went back to using. He let his kids pay for his apartment in Seattle, then in Tacoma. Eventually, he went back to Yakima, where he hung out with other drug users and alcoholics, some of whom he had treated before.

“It was horrible. It was so embarrassing,” he said.

About three years ago, he jumped off a bridge over the Yakima River while he was blackout drunk. He doesn’t remember the incident, but a homeless man staying under the bridge saw him fall and swam out to pull him out of the water.

It was the second time a stranger would save his life.

After that, he was sent to Eastern State Hospital for the first time. He went back to drinking soon after his release, supporting himself on Social Security payments and staying at homeless shelters in Spokane.

He said his brain had more or less stopped being able to plan or think ahead. Every day was unbearable, so every day he planned to get blackout drunk. When he woke up, he’d walk from the House of Charity to a nearby gas station and buy two cans of Mad Dog so he could start his day.

One day, while sitting in the dining room at the shelter, he prayed for divine intervention. He said a voice came over him and told him to pack his bag and go to the Union Gospel Mission, a faith-based, nonprofit shelter that requires sobriety for residents.

Somehow, he passed the alcohol screen. He was able to stop drinking and has been newly sober for 17 months. At the shelter, he started leading an Alcoholics Anonymous group to help other residents.

But sobriety didn’t help with his underlying mental health issues. Holman was still in a deep depression and said he had no hope. He’d done a second stay at Eastern State after he tried to take his own life.

About a year ago, he told his doctor he was struggling with suicidal thoughts again. Once again, he was court-ordered to the hospital. And this time, it seemed to stick.

Holman said getting treatment and support at Eastern State has given him something he hadn’t found elsewhere: hope.

With an antidepressant and therapy, he’s gone from being angry at the hospital and staff to looking forward to new days. He used to think of the hospital as a place full of people who were “crazy” and “dangerous,” but now realized many of them are people just like him.

“I’ve never been dependent in my life. I wasn’t raised like that. It’s a very humbling experience to need help and accept help,” he said.

His experience with recovery, from having his life saved by strangers to rediscovering Alcoholics Anonymous, has strengthened his faith. And he hopes being open about his story will help others recognize needing mental health care is OK.

“If you have appendicitis, you go to the doctor. If you have a broken leg, you go to the hospital. If you have a mental, emotional problem that’s beyond you to handle, you go to the hospital to get some help,” he said.