This is a commentary about the slow lane, about the slowing of time since I suffered a severe brain injury while skateboarding with my dog. This is a blog about recovery; about our '82 VW Westfalia. It's about writing, surfing, camping, married life, bleeding ulcers that make you feel old at 32; about family, friends, and my dog Artie; it's about cruising in fourth gear, getting passed by every car and learning to appreciate every second of it.
Overall, it felt refreshing to spend two days in nature. It was the first time I didn't spend an evening in front of the TV, and in my bed, apart from the hospital, for three months. We arrived at a San Clemente campsite at one o'clock Tuesday afternoon. The sun was shining. The first hour we spent readying the Vanagon, unloading the firewood. We listened to the new Fruit Bats album, and then to Bonnie Prince Billie, later Songs Ohia. The camper van stood out in a long line of large RV's, some equipped with satellite dishes. We took Artie for a hike. He walked the whole way carrying a stick in his mouth. When we arrived back at the site, I cracked a neer beer, Aimee poured some wine. We ate veggie dogs and chips and stared at the fire.
Occasionally I would look up at the moon and the stars. My gaze never lasted more than a four or five seconds. I lost some appreciation for the universe since the accident. The questions, the amazement is no longer there. I'm sad that it left and I hope it will return. I looked at the fire and talked to Aimee. Later we went inside the van, near the heater and played Trivial Pursuit. I was then dealt another blow, another realization that my intelligence has waned, when Aimee took a game. It was funny to see how happy the win made her. She kissed the gamebox. It was funny how disturbed I was from the defeat. I yelled and told her it was the injury. I finished my third neer beer, she her wine, and we went to sleep, the three of us on the Vanagon bed in front of a small space heater.
We woke up the next day to a cloudy, damp sky. We made breakfast on the stove and drank tea and coffee. Then my brother showed up with the surfboards in the back of the truck. Before I knew it, we were on the sand, looking at Trestles surf break. The sky was grey, the waves shoulder high during the larger sets. I was nervous. I had a hard time balancing as I put my wetsuit on. I saw bigger waves come through. My nerves were getting the best of me. I shuffled down to the water and felt the cold Pacific run in between my toes. The water was cold, my anxiety made it frigid.
I got on my board and paddled. It was a difficult paddle. I didn't have much strength. When I went under the waves, I couldn't hold my breath for more than a couple of seconds. After some effort, I was out in the lineup. It felt great but I was spent. I was more nervous than I thought I would be and a bit lightheaded. After ten minutes I caught a wave, went down the line, my balance seemed strong. And that was it. I called it a day. In retrospect, Trestles wasn't the best spot for a first surf after a brain injury. I was disappointed in my anxiety. Maybe I thought I would still have it. Maybe I thought that the injury wouldn't have an affect on everything I do. Maybe I was just unable to accept the facts. Maybe my abbreviated focus has prevented me from truly understanding my condition.
We walked back to the site, the rain now coming down. Aimee read as I wrote. The rain continued. We packed up camp and came home, one night early. Overall, apart from the surf session, it was a great trip. Seeing Aimee laugh and gloat over her win was enough. We needed that, I know she did.
It's been three months since the fall. Much of that time has been divided up between the hospital room, my living room, and the lobby to my rehab. Tomorrow that will change. We are taking the Vanagon to San Clemente where we will camp for a few days. The last time we were there was three days before a skateboard ride around the neighborhood turned into the ride that nearly ended my life. The main picture on this blog was taken on that trip to San Clemente. My hair was long, my muscles bulging...right? On that trip we talked about long trips in the Vanagon, the open road. Aimee and I talked about heading north to Canada. I would write and she would take pictures. We talked about taking control of our lives. Three days later, we both lost our grip on our lives.
Today, when I wasn't working, we were out shopping for our trip. I had visions of the excursion. Most consisted of me with the same scraggly long hair, the same powerful physique, the same straight posture. I stopped myself. That's not me anymore. Tomorrow I will set up camp weaker, slower, and with less hair than three months prior. Tomorrow, my beers will be non-alcoholic, my activities less strenuous.
It's strange to think that I am returning to the same place a different person. In the past I associated progress with time. I now feel as if I traveled back in time, like the skateboard was my flux capacitor. I am curious how I will take the challenge, how the new me will handle the great outdoors.
Last night Aimee and I watched Food Inc., a documentary on the production of the food we eat. It didn't come as any surprise to see that Capitalism might have gotten the best of us and found its way to our food supply. I know its been there in the past, Sinclair wrote about it in The Jungle but it's here stronger than ever.
Halfway through the documentary, a food safety advocate was explaining the reason why she began her fight for more regulations in food production. That reason; the death of her two and a half year old son from e-coli. The family had bought hamburgers and twelve days later, the boy was dead. The mother said her boy was so thirsty in his hospital bed, nurses unable to give him water for fear he might drown, that he bit a chunk out of the pink sponge that nurses give patients to wet their mouth.
As she cried her way through the memory of her child's insatiable thirst, I fought to keep my own memories at bay. I couldn't. It was a dream, which turned out to be reality, that I had when I was in the hospital. I was under heavy sedation, I was hooked up to a ventilator, recovering from a recent tracheotomy, unable to drink because the water would fill my lungs. My arms were in restraints. I remember looking outside at a parking lot. It was sunny outside. I told the staff that they had the wrong person that I wasn't sick. I begged them to let me out so I could call my family, and things would be cleared up. They didn't believe me. I then remember asking for water. They said no. They gave me little pink sponges shaped like stars that were dipped in water. I remember biting one of them and sucking every last drop of moisture from it. Around that time, my wife and brother entered the room. I tried to tell them they were holding me against my will. I told them they wouldn't give me any water. They acted as if they couldn't hear me. I now realize they couldn't, because of the tubes and the drugs. I pointed to a water bottle. They gave me another pink star shaped sponge.
The dream lasted for days. To this day, especially last night as I listened to the story about the young boy's fight against e-coli, I remember that dream, that feeling of thirst. I have memories of looking at nurses and other patients drinks and begging for a sip. I remember another dream when a large glass of iced tea was placed at a table next to me, just out of reach.
All it took was a vision of a pink sponge to bring everything back. Those memories of a thirst I have never felt before, of only wanting a drop of water but not getting it. The most troubling thing about it, about hearing that story of a young boy and his loving parents watching him die all because of a hamburger is I couldn't stop thinking about myself. The unquenchable thirst has now turned to a unsatisfiable need to talk about my own journey, a journey filled with dreams that turned out to be real life.
It's a great recipe: a bit of cognitive fatigue, a dash of sinus pressure to a damaged brain, some inability to focus, and voila, there you have it, one of the worst feelings in the world.
Three days ago, I started to feel it. It started with a sore throat, turned into a stomach flu, then back to a sore throat. Now, three days into it, the cold has found its way to my sinuses. I've had sinus pressure before. I know all about it. I'm allergic to cats, and two live in my house, sleep on my bed at night, shed in my face during the day, so I know all about sinus pressure. I never enjoyed it, no one ever does. Last night was the first bit of sinus pressure that I've had since my injury, I didn't like it. I spent the night wiping the tears from my eyes. Every five minutes I would try and rub my head to relieve the pressure. The right side of my skull is still numb and I could barely feel my fingers massaging it. The bulge on the right side of my face was expanding. By the end of the night, I once again was wishing I was dead.
It's odd when sinus pressure, or any ailment for that matter, becomes the tipping point. I feel weak because of it. I feel like I am unequipped. I know that it's something I need to get through. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but the knowledge that I am putting the once closest to me through it makes it even more unsettling. My last words to Aimee last night, after she asked if I needed anything, was "a bullet to the head."
Thirty minutes after I said it, I thought of her lying in the bed, next to someone she used to know, to someone that she now worries about on a daily basis, and repeating those words in her head over and over. I thought how weak I must look to her. I thought about the fact that this type of injury, or any illness, is what truly tests a person's will to survive. I realize that I have failed. It's all I talk about, it's all that's on my mind. I can't escape it, and neither can she, or my family. It's tough, knowing that I am ruining the lives of those that love me most. I used to know when to step back, I sensed when Aimee needed to let her emotions out, however illogical I thought they were. Now, I grow irritable. I accuse her of harping on the small stuff, I tell her that I have bigger things to think about. I have a one track mind and I have no options, I don't have the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture. All I see is a snapshot of me with a blank look on my face and unfortunately, that all that I let anyone see.
I watch more movies now than ever. I don't have many options, no drinks, no energy, no nightlife. As a way to avoid horrible television programs, which Aimee seems to be addicted to, I watch movies, that is, unless Jersey Shore is on of course. I've always been a critic, and now, after the brain injury, critiques seem to be rolling off my tongue. Over the past few days, we've seen three movies. Out of the three only one received a positive review. What's strange about my reviews, after the brain injury is now the smallest thing will result in a negative critique.
For example, the other night we watched Julie And Julia, a film about Julia Child and some woman who starts a blog about Julia's recipes. This was almost unwatchable, not because it's a movie about cooking and I now longer have the sense of taste. Actually, I like cooking, I'm no good at it and have no patience for it, but overall the idea interests me. No, Julia And Julia received a cognitive thumbs down for one reason and one reason only, the husband of the main character chewed and talked with his mouth open for the entire movie. He smacked and breathed heavily through his nose while he did. Each smack of his lips took me over the edge. At one point I was ready to throw the remote across the room.
Next up; Where The Wild Things Are. Now, I consider myself a fan of Spike Jonez. Not in any weird way, I like what he's done so far. This is one thing that he's done that I didn't like. Granted I have a cold, throw in a little brain damage, but I couldn't get into it for two other reasons. I never read the book, nor am I a ten year old child who needs to be taught the most basic of life lessons. I'm old enough and wise enough to know that I, nor anyone else, will ever learn those lessons, and if we did we would forget them in a matter of minutes, at least as soon as the latest episode of Jersey Shore comes out. Throw in he high pitched screams from a young boy claiming to be a king to oversized muppets, and well I was once again ready to toss the remote across the room.
And finally, Inglourious Basterds, my favorite out of the trio. I dug the premise and I wondered why no one had thought of it before; let's see make a movie where the one most reviled group in history is picked apart and held accountable for their actions. Throughout the movie, I was sweating, I was enthralled. Whether it was the dialogue, the cinematography, I don't know, but I enjoyed it.
So there are my most recent reviews. Something I like to call, Reviews From The Lame Brain.
I'm back on the beat, sure I might have missed a step or two, or my strides are a bit uneven, but nonetheless, I'm back writing. It feels good. My confidence has taken a beating, but it feels good. Today, I was speaking to someone whose best friend and roommate had been hit by an eighteen-wheeler while riding his bike to work. He was pinned under the tire, and dragged for twenty feet. He is now in the hospital, shattered pelvis, intubated, sedated.
Turns out he is at the same hospital, the same ICU trauma room I was in. Over the phone, as his friend cautiously explained his condition, I pictured that room, that square room with beds running the perimeter and the nurses station in the middle. I pictured the beds, the curtains used for privacy. As he spoke, I pictured walking through the ICU after getting my head screwed back on. I remembered the beds, the people in them. I saw old, young, I saw grieving family members crying near their loved one's bedside. I saw legs and arms suspended in mid air by slings. I heard heart monitors and moans, the slurping sounds of lung suctions.
After the interview, I visited the blog that the injured man's sister started. In it, she wrote her brother's condition was improving, though doctors had told her family that he was "not out of the woods."
I stopped at those words in quotations. It's the same phrase those very trauma doctors used for me. The same phrase my family, my wife, and my friends had to take home. It upset me to think that's the reality of it all. That even the doctors, however equipped and knowledgeable they are, are never sure how things will turn out. It bothers me to think that I exited those proverbial woods, albeit a bit weaker, more irritable, and with a battered libido, but others won't exit the same woods. It bothers me that other people, other families will see the same experience, hear the same sounds, process those same cliches, and pray for an exit from those woods that the doctors refer to.
I sat and watched Inglorius Basterds, sweating the entire time. I wasn't sure what was wrong, my palms were sweaty, my feet moist, but the thermostat read 65 degrees. Sure I was into the movie, but not to break out in cold sweats. It lasted the entire night.
Later, while rubbing my eyes in bed, I realized I had crashed into an imaginary brick wall. The weekend's activities got the better of me. I should have known they would have, I just didn't expect for it to take so long to hit. Before, early in my recovery, the crash would come nightly at eight o'clock every evening. It was then I would stare, no expressions on my face and no thoughts in my mind, at the TV screen. After 30 minutes I would slowly begin to snap out of my full body lull.
In the past few weeks, fatigue's routine collision came less often. I was back hanging out with friends, staying alert the whole time. I thought I had finally gotten the better of cognitive fatigue. I thought wrong. It's still here with me, like a friend that falls asleep on your couch when you want to be alone. My pal fatigue still lingers, but he's changed in these past few weeks. He times the collision for when I'm least prepared. He hangs back and waits until I have convinced myself I have progressed onto the next step and then he smacks into me, headfirst.
Last night, my buddy, fatigue, gave me the cold sweats, but that's not all he gave me. He gave me self doubt, he gave me depression, he gave me a weakness I haven't felt in a month. By the end of the night, I was convinced my writing gig was up. I believed I had lost a step and would never catch up. I laid in bed and wanted it to be over. I wanted the weakness to disappear. I wanted the strength, what little I had before, to return but I knew it wasn't possible.
The strange thing about this injury, this so called recovery, is every time I think I have it figured out, it changes. The symptoms are in flux and I am left to adapt to the unknown. And once I adapt, it changes again. There's no regularity and it damages what is already a fragile mind. Once I thought the dizziness was gone, it returns. Once I expect it to appear, it's nowhere to be found.
It forces me to wish for the impossible, to speed up time, to finally get a grasp on my thoughts, on my condition. I no longer wish for that which is attainable. This is what a crash feel like inside. Did you enjoy the ride, I sure didn't...
"Hola, coma estas," said the Mexican man from behind the counter.
"Bien, gracias. E tu?" I responded.
"I'll take a breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, beans, potatoes, salsa fresca, por favor."
"OK," the man responded. He looked up at me. "What happened here," he said in a thick Mexican accent while pointing to the top of his head.
"Oh, I fell."
"You feel alright?"
"Yeah, I feel pretty good, gracias.
"You hear voices in your head?"
"Only a few. They are my closest friends."
The man laughed and handed me my debit card. Five minutes later he put my paper bag, burrito inside, on the counter.
"Take care, amigo," he said.
"Si, te vaya bien."
It was the second time in two days that someone from behind the counter noticed the scar on my head. The day before, I stood in line at a sandwich shop and looked up at a menu board. When I was ready to order I glanced down at the young female cashier with tufts of brown curly hair sprouting from a cap. She was staring up at my head, her mouth was agape. As soon as I made eye contact she looked down at the register.
These past two months, whether I had a maroon helmet on my head, a large indentation on the right side of my skull, or a red scar tracing its way down behind my right ear, I've seen the looks, and I've felt the stares. People have treated me like I am some living specimen on display. I was the same as them before the fall, no matter how hard I tried not to look as I passed a bad car accident, and I too caught myself staring at the differences that make us who we are.
And now, I see people, the normals I like to call them, studying my head trying to crack the code, trying to figure out where it all went wrong for me. I see the attention they pay when I talk. After a few words they appear disinterested. 'It's just a scar,' they seem to be thinking. They are right, it is only a scar. I only wish more people would ask if I hear voices inside my head. That's when the humor, the humanity comes out and that's when we laugh and become people, not the disabled, not strange specimens on display for all to gawk at and ponder, just people, some of course with a few more voices in their head than others.
We filed into a small meeting room. Some sat in wheelchairs at the wooden table in the center of the room, others sat in chairs at the same table. In all, twelve of San Diego county's recent brain damaged. At the front of the room, stood Susan Hansen, the chief operating officer of the San Diego Brain Foundation. She was there to introduce us to her organization. She told us about a walk for brain injury victims. She informed us about monthly meetings, social gatherings, and a help-line for those in need. I sat and listened, surrounded by my fellow clients. I looked at them and it was as if I could see their scattering thoughts from the look on their faces or from the heavy breaths they let out. I could feel their focus wane. I thought about those monthly meetings, the walk for the brain foundation. I thought about once again sitting next to them in a different setting to discuss our injuries. I pictured myself once again digging inside searching for positive thoughts and motivation. And I thought about that silence that goes with a room full of people with weakened minds. It's the loudest silence there is, and the saddest I've known. I am not sure if my own weakened mind can handle the faces, the spittle on the corners of their mouths. I can't handle the reality of it all, the silent struggle.
The reason for my difficulty: I now understand I caught only a glimpse of that internal darkness. For the first few weeks out of the coma, and then for a few minutes everyday, I knew what having a blank mind was like. I remember tearing out of the darkness. It felt as if time had stopped, suspended animation. Inside the meeting room, I saw those around me with the same look plastered on their face.
That look, that blank stare starts from within. It is overpowering and unstoppable. I am fortunate, I am wide awake, my energy is returning. And now that I am further away from that dark state, I am not sure if I would want to return. It's paralyzing to see and it hurts to know that nothing can be done, only time can lapse.
I appreciate the mission of the brain injury foundation, and I appreciate what it does for those in need, but at this point, three months since the swelling, two months since waking from a coma, I can't get past the blank stares, I can't come face to face with those memories of pure and total nothingness, that feeling of suspended animation.
I exited the white hospital mini van and stared up at the 1,591 foot summit of Cowles Mountain, the highest peak in San Diego. Accompanying me, was a fellow rehab client, a young, wounded marine and my physical therapist. I had climbed this mountain before, months before my fall, with Aimee and our dog, Artie. I remembered sweating profusely at the summit but not out of breath.
Before I knew it we were off. At first, our physical therapist lead the way. I took up the rear, alongside the marine. A couple of minutes into the hike, the marine shot through a shortcut and ended up at the front of the brain damaged expedition. Shortly after, he was setting the pace. It was a breakneck pace. I saw him hop over large rocks and nearly start jogging up every other switchback. My physical therapist was behind him, I behind her. Ten minutes in, not even a quarter mile of the one and a half mile hike out, I was winded, my throat dry. The pace remained steady. I looked up frequently to see other hikers hundreds of feet above me. I quickly looked down to watch where I stepped. I had to be careful, my shoes, the old vans with little traction slipped on the dry, rocky surface. When I looked up again, I noticed I had fallen behind. I let out a quiet grunt each time I had to step over a rock.
By the time we reached the summit, only thirty minutes after we exited the van, my energy had depleted. We sat and talked on the summit for five or ten minutes and then started our trek back down the mountain. Again, the marine took the lead and I brought up the rear.
I was never one to take the lead. I was in good shape, but never great. One thing is for sure, I've never felt so weak in my life and it's a hard feeling to accept. Now three months since the fall, my weakened condition is becoming the norm, the new me. Call it acceptance, call it acclimation, I don't know what to call it but I do know it's hard to accept that I lost so much strength, so much stamina all from a ride on the skateboard, all from a fall. Each time I return to an activity I had done before, I make the painful comparison, from where I was to where I am now. I remember how I felt and I am nowhere close.
I don't want to accept the fact that recovery doesn't always mean a return to normalcy. I struggle with this thought every day. I struggle with the realization that it will take hard work to return to an average condition.
I went into the hospital, the day of my fall, weighing a whopping 155 pounds. A month later, I left at 120 pounds. I was weak, the muscles in my arms and chest had atrophied. A nerve in my right arm was damaged from waging war with nurses and doctors and trying to fight my way out of the restraints, and I couldn't use my right arm for days.
Since I've returned home, despite no longer having any taste, or smell, I have gained 20 pounds. My appetite is stronger than it was was before head butting the sidewalk. I don't know why this is, you'd think it be the opposite but it's not. Now that taste is gone, I am eating every few hours, I am finishing my entire meal and I can't stop myself.
The other day I was changing in front of our sliding glass closet doors, sorry it's habit, and I caught a glimpse of my body from the side. The reflection showed a protruding belly at the base of a weakened, atrophied upper body. I quickly put on a tee shirt and ran away from the mirror. As I walked I looked down and saw the belly. I patted it like old men do, trying to act as if they are proud of it, that it is a sign of success. Aimee commented on it and laughed. I stopped smiling.
That day, I vowed to start a new workout regiment. We bought a big, green bouncy ball for sit-ups. I have Yoga tapes, a workout bar, a pull-up bar. I have all of the necessary equipment, if only I had the energy. Most of my days, if not in rehab are spent on the computer, trying to relearn how to write, or spent reteaching Artie how to walk on a leash, or cleaning up after Aimee. Right now, the duffle bag she calls her purse is thrown on the couch. There are papers and keys spilling out around it.
Back to the subject, doctors say my thoughts will wander, they also said my obsessions will intensify. They were right again. No wonder why they smile all of the time. They are right and rich enough to live a healthy life, free from harm. Back to the subject once again, tomorrow is the day I start my new workout regiment. I have to go order pizza now, apparently Aimee is not going to do me this one favor...
"Do you want to hear the first email I sent the day you fell?" She asked from the over sized, leather chair in the corner of the living room.
I knew the right answer. I knew it wasn't something a person should hear before their first night out on the town since suffering a traumatic brain injury.
"Yeah, sure," I said, curiosity had gotten the better of me.
She began to read the email. Halfway through, she stopped after the words "blood on the brain," "induced coma," and"ventilator." Tears clouded her eyes. Her emotions became too much and she got up and went to the room to change for our night out.
AS she readied herself in the other room, I went over to the chair and picked up the laptop. I clicked on the email and scrolled through the responses and the daily updates full of ups and downs, the days when nothing changed, and the days when I became responsive but too erratic to not be sedated.
She came back into the room dressed in tight black jeans and a tight thrift store sweater. Her entrance brought a smile to my expressionless face. We left the house shortly after, on our way to see a friend's band play.
Bar Pink was already crowded by the time we arrived. We found two stools at the bar. I ordered a St. Pauli's Non-Alcoholic beer and she ordered a Guinness. We sat and talked about the emails. She told me that doctors were constantly telling her that I was atypical in every way; I didn't fall into a coma on my own, I required the sedatives of a person twice my size to keep me under, or that the swelling in my brain would not decrease even after doctors removed a portion of my skull, I was a strange case.
She told me about the day which my brother referred to as "Sunday Bloody Sunday." It was the day that I awoke, asked for my wife, and asked how my dog was. When I saw her, I gave a thumbs up. She left hours later to get breakfast in a great mood. She returned to see a pool of doctors around my bed, nurses chased her out of the room. My throat had closed up and I was near death.
As she told the story, some indie chick with jet black hair and neatly trimmed bangs yelled to her friend behind me. Her voice was piercing. Each word she uttered went straight through my skull and into my eyes. I felt myself squinting in response to her every word. A few seconds later some drunk dude nestled up next to me at the bar. He elbowed my stool and rubbed up against me. As the girl yelled, the dude elbowed. I stood up from the stool. The first band started to play. I could still hear the girl's obnoxious shrill. More people bumped into me. Sweat formed on my brow, I was dizzy, the whole thing was like a dream. Aimee asked if I wanted to leave. I said no but I felt yes. She sensed it and we walked out, two hours before my friend's band took the stage. Not exactly the big night out on the town. Judging by my reaction, it will be quite some time until I return to San Diego's music scene. I thought I was ready, but I learned I was nowhere close. I learned I can't separate myself from my surroundings.
In the gym today during rehab, I stood near the corner of the room, one foot in front of the other on a yellow line. My arms were crossed against my chest, my eyes were closed, in my right hand was a white timer. The test is a way to measure the damage to the Vestibular system. A normal person is said to be able to hold the stance for thirty seconds. On my first day of rehab,only four seconds passed before the wobble forced me off balance. Therapists informed me that my Vestibular system had been damaged. They said it was a matter of time until it came back.
There I stood, in the same spot, taking the same test I had taken a month and a half earlier, dressed in the same surf trunks, most likely the same grey undershirt. By twenty seconds, the wobble had me swaying from left to right, like I was on board an ocean vessel during a storm. I recovered, barely. By forty seconds I regained my balance. I took deep breaths and thought about upcoming stories I had to write, I learned that when it comes to balance, concentrating on anything but the task at hand is helpful.
I heard therapists talking in the distance. "Ok, try and move your left leg. Can you wiggle your toes for me?"
I felt the breeze of people walking past me. I opened my eyes, the distractions were too much. I looked at the timer and it read two minutes and nineteen seconds. I smiled through the initial dizzy spell. Discovering progress during this type of recovery is strange. The reaction is always overblown and exaggerated.
"Two minutes and twenty seconds," I said holding up the timer like it was a trophy.
"Hey, that's amazing. Great job," my physical therapist said to me.
Her comment made me think about the achievement. Nowadays, everything, not just the minor accomplishments but also the small setbacks, get blown out of proportion. The insignificant physical feats are treated as some sort of indication that could determine the future of your entire life. The mistake on the math question is evidence that your brain will forever be damaged.
I pictured myself raising my arms, hands clasped together, all just for standing in a straight line for two minutes. I thought how silly it all is. I know there's no other way. I understand that the nature of this injury has a person frantically searching for any sign of improvement. It shows my judgment has returned to a normal scale. Returning to the normal scale is scary. It shows just how far back I fell. It shows me how weak I was, how unsteady I stood. It serves as a constant reminder that I am damaged goods.
My time at rehab is winding down. By early January I will be on my own. I'm ready to get back to my life, to concentrate on writing, to establish a new routine. And while I look forward to next month, to getting the chance to work on my recovery on my own terms, the experience at rehab has been positive. I have seen major improvement during the past six weeks. Therapists have told me that they had to figure out new ways to challenge me, that I have "blown their tests out of the water." During my time at rehab, my strength, balance, and confidence has improved, my understanding of this injury has grown.
Take away all of the praise, and the statements about my speedy recovery, the thing I will miss most are my fellow clients. The times when I see their sense of humor shine through their toothless smiles, or when I see them take their first steps from their wheelchair, or when I hear a stroke victim's speech improve; these experiences are what I choose to take from rehab, they are the key ingredient to whatever recovery tastes like.
One day, during a group therapy session, the neurologist said we were all members of the same community. I cringed when she said it. At the time, I considered us prisoners, held our against our will, in our own cell. I felt our injured brains held us captive, dangling the keys in front of the barricaded door. There is some truth to that. This recovery is a personal journey from outside that dingy, dizzy cell to some unvisited oasis, some unexplored mindset that I, nor anyone else, could ever envision.
Although this journey is one that no one can truly accompany us on, seeing the other clients embark on their own journey was uplifting and served as a motivation of sorts. I saw people I would never know, a wounded vet, a fragile teenager awaiting a manslaughter trial, those injured in motorcycle accidents, an older woman just weeks after a stroke, she voices her frustration about the limp right side of her body. Knowing these people, learning about their experience, has been a lesson in understanding. It's brought me back to the idea that we are all so similar, that save for a small fraction of humanity, we are innately good, we are inherently fragile. I have realized that deep down we understand that a positive outlook is key to recovery. I've learned this at the ripe age of 33 and I know at times I will misplace the knowledge, but I know I have no choice but to search for it again and again. I've fought like I've never fought before during these past two months. The altercation has weakened me, left me cloudy and unsure, but I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to fight and seeing others go through their own battle has left me inspired to continue this lonely trek to recovery.
It's difficult to embrace the day, when you can't tell the difference from one to another. I spend most of my days in my house, I work for a few hours, take my dog for a walk around the block, do some stretches, and my day is over, my energy spent. By evening time, I am on the couch, eyes fixed on the television screen.
This is my new routine, my new way of life since the brain injury. Just the thought of changing the routine, of going someplace like a coffee shop or the library, drains every ounce of being out of me.
I find myself trying to make plans with friends, but when the time comes I find it hard to move my body.
Now, even the thought of writing something new, a different topic than the brain, sucks the energy from me. Occasionally an idea pops into my head, that same feeling that I had when I was a teenager when I thought about an idea for a story. Back then, the idea took control of my entire mind. I couldn't keep my thoughts away from it. Now, it is still there but it is fleeting, opaque. As soon as I try and focus, it vanishes from my mind's sight, leaving me with thoughts about my condition, or about how weak this mind has become.
Lately, there have been concerns raised. There are concerns about my mood swings and about my fits of rage. Part of it is my fault, I understand. I talk too much about what I am feeling. It's not by choice, I'm only trying to understand my condition and talking about it and writing about it are the only ways I know how to do that. I understand why people are worried, but fighting this with worry, fighting it in general, won't help. What they doesn't understand, what no one can understand, is there is no way to stop it, only time can slow it down. In that time, it will be on my mind. It will continue to rule my day until I have the energy to take it on. I'm realizing now that I am far from that point, far from really living my life.
"It's what they call an Existential Crisis," my neurologist said, responding to my question. She had been speaking about the importance of self-awareness and how insight is diminished after suffering from a brain injury. She told the group that we, the brain damaged, need to become introspective, that we need to have an idea of who we want to be and how we want to present ourselves.
And while I agree that self-examination is needed, I've recently become fixated on my every move. It kills me when I flash a fake smile, or overcompensate with a fake laugh. I think about what a full recovery means and I hate to think it is a return to the same person I was before the fall, back to a guy who cared too much about everyone else and not enough about the people around him. In response, I've placed myself under a microscope and unfortunately, the image I see is disturbing. I see a person that is still out to fool others by making them believe I was something other than myself. I see a person whose reactions are full of agitation, anxiety, and aggravation. I see a shallow individual so I dive deeper.
But there's another side, the realization that we are so entrenched in our routines we spend most of our lives in a mild state of unconsciousness. I think about this and I dive deeper.
These thoughts were at the root of the question I posed to my neurologist during our meeting. "An Existential Crisis" occurs when a person experiences some catastrophic event," she explained. She said it is common during recovery to become too introspective and one has to find the right levels of self awareness. Her explanation is problematic, after all, finding the right levels is the problem, it always has been and it always will be.
I was back at rehab today, the first time in two weeks, since doctors put my head back together. There were new faces, some young, some older, most fresh off the injury with fresh wounds, new scars from where the tracheotomy tube was inserted. It brought me back to days after I woke up from the coma, when I went to see the throat doctor.
He was a younger physician, his hair was long and wavy, in the beginning stages of turning gray. I sat up on the bed and he asked me questions about my accident. He pushed his stool closer to where I sat and asked a question. As he did, I noticed his hand reach towards me. He touched the tracheotomy tube as I talked and yanked it out of my throat without warning. He threw the phlegm covered, 8 inch tube into a basket and quickly taped a bandage over the hole in my throat. I can still feel the tube slipping from my throat and to this day I am still in shock.
Today, I found myself staring at the throats of the new patients and seeing that bright red scar. Each time that scar was spotted, the memory, the feeling returned.
The entire rehab experience, seeing the patients, watching them shuffle through the lobby brings me back to the days after the coma. I hated those days, now more so than ever. Only now do I understand how injured I really was. I see that I had no idea what had happened nor what was happening. At the time, I thought I knew more than the doctors that I had seen the worst of the injury. The new rehab patients act the same as I had acted in the days following the coma. Nothing has been processed. Nothing has been accepted. I want to tell them that they need to prepare themselves. I want to let them know the worst is yet to come. I want them to know that the brain heals in a different way but I don't say a word. It's no use. Their minds aren't ready. They will find out on their own. There's no other way. It weighs heavy on me and it's sad watching people embark on a solo journey back whose only real goal is a return to normalcy, to the status quo. It's a journey that nobody can ever truly understand, a journey that makes me wish that I never had to set out on.