A professional actor with a promising career, Cesar Perez was on a meteoric rise until a drunk driver slammed into his car, head-on. He coded on the paramedics more than once on the way to the hospital, and then coded again when he arrived. It’s a miracle he even survived, but still, he wouldn’t have called it miraculous at the time. In one devastating blow, all his dreams have been ripped away. A severe brain injury had left him almost entirely incapacitated, his face was shattered, he spent months learning how to breathe, eat, walk and talk all over again.
In the midst of it all, his girlfriend left him and it’s his same girlfriend he had been on his way to see that fateful night, but life ultimately is a gift. In Cesar’s new book, Chase the Light, details his long, often tortuous recovery, but also shines with courage, grace, and the resilience of the human spirit, and it reminds us that every life has a meaning and every soul has a purpose, always, even in our darkest moments.
Hey listeners, my name is Drew Appelbaum and I’m excited to be here today with Cesar Perez, author of Chase the Light: The Gruesome Art of Becoming Unbreakable. Cesar, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Cesar Perez: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Drew. It’s a pleasure.
Drew Appelbaum: Now normally, I will ask for professional background for some knowledge-shared books, but in this case, it’s a memoir and it’s such an inspiring one. So I want to start with our first question being, why is now the time you chose to share your story?
Cesar Perez: I never expected to be an author or a published author. That wasn’t one of my goals I needed to check off in my list, but when you have a story as intense and as powerful as the one, I have to share with the world. I felt like I would be doing the world a disservice if I didn’t share with them all the suffering and all the pain I went through I know could motivate and inspire others, and I think, ultimately, that’s always been my goal.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, the book is just a part of your life story, and obviously, you know it well. By looking back on it and when you just dug in deeper to some of the things that happened in your life, do you have any major breakthroughs or just learnings along your writing journey?
Cesar Perez: Yeah. I think as I began writing, with my journey, started healing internally as well, as pieces of my life started coming together, as I kept writing more. I also learned that my whole journey, patience, if anything, that was one of the things I came out with on the other side of this proverbial mountain, with a benefit. Patience was not something that was my forte before.
But nowadays, I think it’s my closest friend, and it’s what I carry with me all the time. You know, change isn’t going to happen overnight. You got to continue to work on it and just be resilient.
Drew Appelbaum: When you decided to write the book, when you started putting the words down, in your mind, who were you writing this book for?
Cesar Perez: In the beginning, it was to myself. It was a memoir but if I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, this is what I would tell him. So in the beginning, it was kind of to heal my broken soul and just apologize to the person I was before the accident, by not protecting him and putting him through all these pain. Not voluntarily but just because I couldn’t protect him.
That’s what was going through my head at the time, as I began writing it and putting all my emotions and everything down on paper. Apologizing to myself for everything that had happened in my life not because I wanted it to, just because those were the cards I had been dealt.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, let’s just set the foundation of the story, and let’s set the foundation of Cesar. Can you tell us about your life before the accident?
Life Before the Accident
Cesar Perez: Yeah. So I’m an immigrant. I was actually born in El Salvador. I came to the US when I was very little, I was three or four years old, and so this country adopted me and my family and for that, I’m forever grateful. We left El Salvador to come to a better place, obviously, where there’s more opportunities and a chance for a better life.
The reason we left El Salvador was because we were just finishing up a gruesome civil war and there was just a lot of violence. There was no real atmosphere for where to grow a healthy family, so my parents decided to come here to the US. My mom, she always wanted us to further our education, take advantage of all the opportunities that back home, it was lacking. She made sure we took advantage of everything and always try to be a light in the darkness, especially because we had to be outstanding citizens in order to earn our rights to live here. So that’s what we did our whole lives.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, bring us up to the point of what happened that fateful night, what was going on in that time of your life, and where were you headed?
Cesar Perez: Yeah. So, the irony of it is, I took advantage of every opportunity this country gave me and my family. I’ve always been a passionate storyteller from conception all the way to production to post-production side of things. Be it animation, graphics, post-production editing, and I know there’s always message to get across and a story I want to tell the audience.
That’s why I had done several films. I had been the senior designer, post editor for a few films but I wanted to be on screen as well. I got the opportunity to star opposite of Daniel Radcliffe in Beast of Burden and acted with the big Mexican actor, Eugenio Siller in Blind Trust, and then the list goes on, because my career was taking off. I was working with Clint Eastwood on 15:17 to Paris and there were more auditions I had pending.
So, at the end of 2017, I grab my family close, I held them and I told them that 2018 was going to be my year. They were so proud of me and I was just happy to make them proud.
Drew Appelbaum: And so, what happened on that night? Talk us through where you were at, where you were going and when you suddenly came to?
Cesar Perez: Yeah, in 2018 or January of 2018, I was heading down to see, now ex-girlfriend, at the time in college, and I was heading down to see my family in Savannah. I had driven down i16 hundreds of times before. I knew it by heart and it was actually—I believe it was Martin Luther King weekend. I called my mom, told her I was going to come visit them and she told me not to come down because it was a long weekend.
There was bound to be a bunch of drunk people on the road but I had driven it so many times, I didn’t think any of it. I drove down to see them and on i16, near Soperton, a drunk driver, driving westbound on eastbound lanes I believe, hit me head on, going 76. Then he spun me around and a big rig behind me hit me going 70 something miles an hour as well. That’s when my world went dark, that’s when my life came crashing down.
Drew Appelbaum: You needed to be medevac’d out of there. Obviously, this is a terrible tragedy, but you’re also lucky to still be with us. When you do come to, when you are stabilized, what happens? Are you able to mentally understand what has happened to you and understand what recovery looks like? Or is there a period, a dark period mentally, where you just need to figure things out, kind of feel bad for yourself and you’re not willing to accept this new reality of the road to recovery?
Cesar Perez: Yeah, the will to fight never left me, even though I don’t remember the accident, even a few weeks after. But when I went back and thanked the paramedics who saved me and the first responders, they told me that they had never seen so much fight in one person because I was still conscious at the time, even though I was spitting out teeth and bone and everything. I had every injury you can imagine, a severe brain injury, brachial plexus injury that paralyzed my right arm and the list goes on, right?
Like, I was bleeding out, I coded on the paramedic several times, which basically means my heart stopped beating, and they were able to bring me back to life. I don’t remember anything. When the last breath I took was or if there was anything I saw flashing before my eyes when I coded. But once I came to, I was already at Shepherd Center. I got stabilized in Madison Health and from there, I went to Shepherd Center where recovery was just beginning.
It didn’t take long before I could see start piecing together the parts of my life, and seeing what life had become, you know? It wasn’t anything I wanted, obviously, it was unfair and I just—there were dark moments, for sure, where if this was how life was going to be from now on, I didn’t want any part of it.
Drew Appelbaum: Did you find that you were alone in your recovery process or did you have a support network to help you along the way? And if so, are there any surprises in that support network?
Cesar Perez: Yeah, my family has always been my biggest support system and they couldn’t have proved that more the day of my accident. They dropped everything they were doing, everything. They had a plan later that year, it didn’t matter to them, you know? They needed to be by my side, that’s where they wanted to be. My dad even offered his resignation to his job, my sisters moved to be closer to me.
My mom just literally dropped everything and stayed by my side every day, every night. I don’t think I would have made it out if I didn’t have the incredible support system I had, because even when my life felt meaningless at the time, seeing them and all the sacrifices they made to see me at least have a possibility of getting better, gave my life meaning. Seeing them not leaving my side helped me realize that there was something I could live for still. It was them, even if my own life felt meaningless at the time.
Drew Appelbaum: How hard was it to go back, as we touched on earlier, to write this book and relive those real tough days and dark days during your recovery?
Cesar Perez: It was something I definitely needed. For the longest time, while my severe brain injury was still ongoing and it was starting to heal, I would break down instantly as soon as I tried to recount the events. I could tell anybody who asks, “Hey, how did the accident happen? What happened?” I would break down. My emotions were haywire. As I started writing my story and putting everything down, I started piecing things together and realizing there was a message.
There was something I needed to get across, to be there with the audience, and that helped me mend my broken soul as well realizing that, “Hey, there is something I want to let others know, there is something people can learn from my story, and that’s not to give up.” And that became my goal. It was no longer me chasing the past, it was me chasing the future and what I can do, and hopefully change some lives with my story.
Drew Appelbaum: You know they say in the book, “Change your thinking, change your life.” So how do you mentally focus all of the anger, the pain, and sorrow, and change that for the positive and think about what meaning it still has from this point on out?
Cesar Perez: I’m not going to lie to you, it took me a while to get to that realization. Because, again, I did go through some dark moments where my life felt meaningless like, “I didn’t ask for any of this to happen, why me?” That was the constant, “Why me?” That was something that I think anybody can relate to. Anybody going through a difficult time, “Why me? Why does bad things happen to good people?” you know?
I realized that I can’t change it, I can’t go back. If could, I would. But I can’t. Does that mean I’ll live the rest of my life miserable or is there a possibility to still find some happiness? If not happiness, at least see a little less grey skies, if there was a chance for it. I realized it was all up to me. Nobody is going to come and do my therapy.
Nobody is going to come and say, “Cesar get up, go workout.” It was all up to me, and it depended on if I wanted my life to stay the same or if I did want it to get better, and at the end of the day, if I did get better, I knew I would serve as a motivation for others and hopefully an inspiration as well.
Drew Appelbaum: Yeah, you mentioned in the book that you could actually exercise your brain to become more resilient. Can you talk about what mean?
Cesar Perez: For me, it meant exercising my brain to expel all the demons, all the doubts and fears that I had, because I was afraid of what tomorrow would bring. If this is what happened to me when I tried to live my life the best way as possible, what would tomorrow bring? If I made a mistake or if I did anything and those fears started creeping in my head and again, they caused a lot of negative thoughts that prevented me from thinking about tomorrow in a positive aspect.
So, I had to exercise my mind and realize, “Hey, I don’t care how I look. I don’t care if I can’t physically move my right arm as much as I did before, I’m going to make it work somehow.” As I started to callous my mind and callous my brain in that sense, make a barrier against any negative thoughts, I found a little bit of light that I could chase down in my dark tunnel and, hopefully, come out of it at the end. And that’s what I did.
I can tell you that now, I truly feel like nothing can break me. No words, nothing anybody says can really affect my mentality or my motivation, because I am doing it for me. I think that was the biggest change. I wasn’t doing it caring about what others thought, caring about what other people think of me. It was me. I wanted to get back to the person I was. So, that is what I was going to do and I focus all my energy on that.
Drew Appelbaum: You’ve made so many discoveries in your life and about life in general. Can you talk about never being afraid to start over? I think a lot of people hold on to a fear or change or committing to something because it is scary out there, and everyone would prefer to be safe at all times, if possible. So, what can folks expect to do if they really do want change in their life? What can they see if they go and commit to something new, whether it is healing from an injury or starting a new job if you will?
Cesar Perez: I can tell you that aside from accepting what had happened, that was the second biggest hurdle, realizing, “Hey, you can stay where you are or you can start over.” I know my situation was severe as compared to most people because I literally had to start over. It was like I was born again. My mom had a newborn baby, I couldn’t tie my shoes, I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself.
It was depressing (for sure) at times but it was either stay the same or start over. I had done it once, so there was no reason why I couldn’t do it again, right? Thankfully, I had all the capacity in my brain. I can fix all the fears and doubts I had, so it was just about being resilient and sticking through the fight. I say in my book, “My two trucks to the face could be your recent unemployment, your latest illness,” right?
There is still a chance to live a meaningful life regardless of your trauma and scars. Don’t be afraid to start over. Who knows? At the end the day, it might even make you better than you were before.
Drew Appelbaum: What impact do you hope the book will have on a reader, and what steps do you hope they’ll take in their own lives while they’re reading the book or after they finish?
Cesar Perez: I hit several themes in the book that I think many people can benefit from. I hope that, no matter what tough situation they’re going through (because we all go through different situations in life), I hope nobody goes through something as severe as I did. But, depending on the severity, it doesn’t matter. I think these themes and these lessons could still be applied anywhere.
It’s just don’t be afraid to start over and don’t be afraid to stick it out and fight it even when it seems hopeless. God knows I felt hopeless for many, many, many months, but for some reason, I stepped through it. Determination, the resilience I came out with, it didn’t come easy. But at the end of the day, I saw that it was worth it. I’m sure everybody who is going through a hard time, if they apply those themes and stick it through, I know they’ll see a different side of things and hopefully see clearer skies at the end of the day.
Drew Appelbaum: Well Cesar, we just touched on the surface of the book here. There is so much more inside and highs and lows that you went through and your incredible road to recovery. I just want to say that putting this book out there, being vulnerable and just telling your story to help others, it’s not easy, is no small feat. Congratulations on having your book published.
Cesar Perez: You know, thank you so much Drew. It’s truly been a pleasure. Like I said, this is who I am. This is my open letter to the world. I have never let anybody in my story of my life but if it helps anybody, and I’m sure it will, I’m more than happy to put it out there, to share it with everybody. I’m excited.
Drew Appelbaum: This has been a pleasure. I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Chase the Light, and you could find it on Amazon. Besides checking out the book, where else can people connect with you?
Cesar Perez: Yeah, they can find me on Instagram and Twitter with the username, @CesarPerezFit. I’ve always been a fitness fanatic, so that’s the username and I’ll be on YouTube soon because, aside from the book, I will be coming out with music as well. So I’m excited.
Drew Appelbaum: Very cool. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today and best of luck with your new book.
Cesar Perez: Thank you, Drew. Take care.
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