Accident, amnesia spurs writing success for Hampstead resident
By Lisa Gregory
Dec 19, 2016 at 4:29 PM
Growing up was not easy for author Michelle B. Smith of Hampstead. One of her earliest memories is as a 4-year-old and her father holding a butcher knife to her throat in a drunken rage. "He wasn't always like that," she said. "Just when he drank."
Early on Michelle learned to go to a place in her mind, a place that offered safety and comfort and where the bad guys got their comeuppance. "From the time I was 4 or 5, I can remember lying in my bed at night and making up stories and putting myself in them. The things I feared I put into the story, and I would change the endings. I always had happy endings." Then, as she got older, "I started writing stories," she said.
Years later as a young woman, Michelle was the victim of an automobile crash that resulted in a severe brain injury and her losing all memory of the previous five years of her life, including her marriage and the birth of two of her children. Once again, she retreated to that place in her head and the stories in her mind. That journey would eventually become a book, "The Broken Road," a fictional story that pulled heavily from Michelle's own life and especially her experience with amnesia.
Just in time for Christmas, local author and illustrator, Marcia Leiter has a brand new Christmas picture book out for kids. "Sweet Pea's Christmas" is the humorous tale of a bunny named Sweet Pea and how she prepares for the 182 Christmas guests she learns are coming for a holiday visit.
Today, the book, which was published in 2011, has expanded to a series of five books, "The Path of Shadows," "Journey of Deception," "Trip of Choices," and "Beyond Dead Ends." The last having been released this fall.
"Writing has always been a coping mechanism for me," Michelle said. "Otherwise, I don't know if I would have made it."
Originally from Westminster, Michelle, an only child, lived with her parents in a self-described "chicken coop."
"We were poor," she said. Their home had once housed rabbits and then chickens before people. "We had a living room, a kitchen and a bedroom, but it was all one big space. We didn't get indoor plumbing until I was 5," she said.
Then there was her father's drinking. "He was the nicest man when he didn't drink," recalled Michelle. "He wouldn't remember what he did or would deny it and say I was making up stories."
At 17, Michelle married and moved to Texas. After six years of marriage and two children she left her husband.
"It was not a good situation," she said. She returned home to Maryland where she met her current husband, Daniel. Then in 1998, three and a half years after her marriage to Daniel, she was driving to work one morning and was involved in a single-car accident.
"I woke up, and I didn't remember the past five years," she said. "It was like a nightmare."
When she first saw her husband, he asked if she knew who he was. "I did because I had been told that he was my husband," Michelle said. Then he asked her to tell him his name. "I couldn't." she said. "Later I went to people I trusted and said, 'I don't remember marrying him. I don't know where these kids came from.'"
Besides Michelle's children from her first marriage, which she did remember, the couple had two children, a 2-year-old son and 9-month-old daughter, who she did not remember. But Daniel was not giving up. When doctors suggested she be placed in a nursing home, he said no.
"This was my responsibility," he said. "I made a commitment to her and to God."
The brain injury coupled with the amnesia left Michelle confused and angry.
"I didn't like him," Michelle said. "I would throw things at him. I would say belligerent things to him. That was not my normal personality. I wondered for a long time why when I woke up I remembered all the bad stuff, all the violence from my childhood, but I couldn't remember this amazing man I had married."
"I had to get her to fall in love with me again," Daniel said, smiling.
Michelle had to undergo extensive therapy, from physical to speech. "I literally had to retrain my brain," she said.
"We had Post-it notes everywhere," said Daniel. "Turn on the stove, cook the hotdogs, turn off the stove. Or, wet your hair, put the shampoo on, and rinse it off. Simple things."
Michelle was overwhelmed and frustrated. "I needed an outlet," she said.
But her usual go-to for coping, writing, was not possible. Due to nerve damage, she couldn't hold a pen. That's when Daniel had the idea of getting her a tape recorder until she had use of her hands again.
"I could go into a room by myself and get it all out," she said.
Seven years after the accident and "just when I was getting comfortable with my life again," said Michelle, she learned she would have to undergo a second brain surgery. "The metal plate in my head moved. I reached up and felt a piece of metal sticking out," she said.
Michelle was devastated and again looked for comfort in her written words, this time writing "The Broken Road." The story is about a young woman named Kara who is in a car accident and wakes up with amnesia.
"Nothing for her is as it was," Michelle said. "She goes on a journey for answers. Her past comes back at her and it is worse than what she thought it was. The situation becomes very dangerous and the more she learns the more dangerous it becomes.
"I take a lot of comfort in Kara," she added. "You see her at her weakest and then you watch her grow. She gets stronger." However, "her life is a bit more twisted than mine."
Despite the popularity of the book and later the series, Michelle initially never planned to publish it.
"It was mine. That was good enough," she said.
But one evening when a friend came over to dinner she spied the manuscript.
"She used to be a critic for 'Reader's Digest,'" Michelle said. "I had gone upstairs for something and when I came down she was reading it. I said, 'Don't read that!' She said, 'I'm already into it. It's good.' She and my husband pushed me to publish it."
Admitting she was "surprised by the response to the first one," Michelle then proceeded to write four more books in five years. She has readers across the United States, as well as in Canada and the United Kingdom.
"The way she tells the story is so suspenseful. I can't read it fast enough, and I can't put it down once I pick it up," said Mary Hall of Ocean City.
Michelle said she intends the fifth book to end the series.
"It has to stop some time," she said. "But people tell me they love these books and that they don't want them to end. So, I left it open a little bit."
And even with the series supposedly ending, Michelle, who is now the mother of six children and works as a school bus driver, said she will continue writing and is planning a new book, a spinoff. "I write for me," she said. "But, I am so glad people enjoy it."