by Judith Hannah Weiss
I’m not an expert on brain injury. I am a person who has one.
I was lying in a paper gown in a cold white cubicle. I was bleeding. I left my body and didn’t come back. I mean, my brain left my body and didn’t come back.
It was an accident. The accident of a drunk with a truck. Mrs. Cream ran out of beer for breakfast, so she stole a truck and ran into me. In a two-ton GMC.
The good news was I survived. The bad news was brain damage.
This was a few years before crumpled quarterbacks put “TBIs” on the cover of People—and into global consciousness. People was my client then. So were New York and Vanity Fair. I didn’t know what a “TBI” was. Neither did just about anyone else. Traumatic brain injury. As opposed to what. The non-traumatic kind?
A freelance career in media is fairly long if it lasts a heartbeat. I mean a week. Beyond probability, mine lasted thirty years. It had to. I was a single mom, making headlines and deadlines all over the world. I got a new life with a mind of its own.
In my first life, I wrote words in mint condition, sparkling, witty, bracing, brisk. I could take people I didn’t know to places I hadn’t seen. Places they would love, tucked between perfect covers, like wrapping at Christmas, beribboned and gleaming under the tree.
Words came in very handy. We ate them at every meal, and they paid the mortgage, too. Clients included Martha, Oprah, The New Yorker, PBS, and CNN. I also spent eight years at Time.
Headlines are not accidents. They are intentional. The perfect hook, the pirouette, the mix of poetry and surgery, boxing and ballet. From baking a Bundt cake to buying a car to dropping a bomb on Afghanistan, we know what to make more of or less of, or none of. The right words in the right order, not the wrong ones inside out.
My brain went out on me, sort of like your back can, or a guy’s private parts, but there are pills for that. I left everything I knew, and much of what I knew left me.
Movers I can’t recall packed boxes I can’t recall for a trip I can’t recall. I landed east of somewhere and west of somewhere else in a rambling wooden farmhouse, peering out from tangled brush as if I were air-shipped by Amazon. The farmhouse is called Avalon, which means Paradise. It’s not. It’s nine hours south of my life and my child. Each day, I’m taken to Outpatient Rehab, where I learn to pour juice and push pegs in a board.
Problems can come to a head, especially a head-injured head. Like you blow-dry your hair and almost spray it with bathroom cleaner. Or put stuff in the blender the wrong way and blast it all over the kitchen. Or put a fork in the microwave. Or miss ten years of your daughter’s life. She gets a new mom or two who aren’t brain-damaged and says you disappeared.
The human brain contains a quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) microscopic connections. That’s one with 15 zeroes, or about the number of ants on earth. Unless you have a TBI. Then billions or trillions are blown apart.
That’s why I’m in Brain Training, or will be as soon as I find the room. It is the same room I can’t find five days each week. Curriculum covers how to keep track of several ideas at once—or for beginners, how to keep track of one idea at a time—and useful skills like scraping pretend Play-Doh cookies on and off baking sheets.
Plus Activities of Daily Living, which includes manners, buttons, and snaps. Robin forgot the names of her kids. Steve forgot his mom and dad. The new “me” had never read books I used to love, never shared favorite times with my child. I couldn’t remember the sound of her voice or the scent of her hair.
I am a version of the person who wrote words before the truck. I sometimes forget that I live in Virginia. This means I wonder if I should move to a place I already live in, or leave a place I already left.
Just before the accident, I began a big job for a global behemoth known from Burundi to Beverly Hills. The client was told I “hurt my back” and was willing to wait. After three months, not so much.
Let’s see. I could tell the client that I’m no longer able to read. No, I can’t say that. I could tell the client I’m no longer able to write. No, I can’t say that. I could tell the client I have no friggin’ idea who they are, what they booked, or what I ever did for them.
I never get another paycheck, never do another job. I refund the advance. My last career move is writing a fat five-figure check to a NASDAQ company.
There are two Brain Training programs—one for Survivors of brain injury and one for Caregivers. You are either one or the other. Except me. I’m the only Survivor who is a Caregiver, too.
In the beginning, “we” tried to get me to doctors’ appointments, outpatient rehab, out for a walk. We got me in clean clothes and boots, with cellphone and keys. What would take an ordinary person five minutes took “me” hours, so “we” learned to start preparing “me” long ahead of time. Options? I could look for someone to store me, supervise me, feed me, clothe me. Or I could do it myself.
Travel is challenging when you can’t read instructions, decipher directions, or know if you’ve gone right or left. I’ve been to the desert on a horse with no name. I’ve also been to the wrong bus, the wrong train, and the wrong plane at the wrong time on the wrong day. So, it’s a big deal that I’m in a cab, speeding through Manhattan. I’m meeting my daughter for coffee, though I don’t want coffee; I want to see her.
The line is long, loud, and in need of latte. Behind us, two girls are preparing an audition. Two guys ahead are talking break-up, while next to us is a budding bromance.
I live southeast of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where decibels like these have not been heard since The Civil War. And where one might perhaps find this many humans dispersed over two or three counties and this much caffeine in three or four states.
I am auditioning for the part of “normal mom,” sort of like I was before. I want to walk like I did. I want to talk like I did. I want to think like I did. I am embarrassed by me.
My brain is numbered. Again. Probes puncture my scalp to survey my mind. Temporal lobe, occipital lobe, you name it; there’s a probe for the lobe. Of course, no one takes thousands of cognitive tests before brain injury. So no test measures what we lost, just what we have left.
Imagine two groups of people on any subject. One is the group of experts who know it backward and forwards. The other is the group that “doesn’t know it at all.” They’re the same people, only they’re brain injured now.
Welcome to Brain Injury Group. We come from small towns and big towns, war zone, farms, and factories. I don’t know who’s here because they fell off the wagon or fell off a turnip truck or served in Iraq when a bomb went off. Perhaps we were bakers or builders or teachers or sailors or quarterbacks. Maybe we whipped up soufflés or symphonies, grew stem cells or kale. We are missing what we used to know and who we used to be.
I am more fortunate than many. I still have two legs and two arms, two hands and two feet. One day I counted six of us at the table, but just nine legs.
I lost a piece of my mind and sometimes it shows on my face. I pray that it won’t, but I know that it does. It happens when I have to be somewhere I can’t find or do something I can’t do or say something I can’t say. When I got a Traumatic Brain Injury, they weren’t making headlines, but I was. Now, brain injuries are making headlines and I am not.
I used to telescope huge amounts of information into tiny numbers of words. They had to get the “main point” across and I had to know what it was. It was normal to learn something for the first time and write about it a few moments later. That gets reversed when you’re brain injured. You knew something a moment ago, but you don’t know it now.
Media creates suspense, expense, offense, nonsense. We answer questions and question answers, tell shit from Shinola, protect you from blackout, brownout, nuclear disaster, weather wedding disaster, earthquake, Ebola, overdose, bad hair day, carjacking, hijacking, terrorist attack, chemical spill, virus, stroke, and death on Facebook.
I mean what to do on Facebook in the event of death; how to survive the apocalypse without smudging your makeup; and how to make 7,042 meals in fifteen minutes or less. A roller-coaster compendium of what to do and how to do it. How lips and lashes and lawns should look, how you should make lunch, love, and millions in Silicon Valley, but nothing in case of a drunk with a truck.
For fifty years, I let a few things go to my head—where some of it stayed and was useful at times. Then Mrs. Cream knocked some sense out of me.
In an instant, the structure collapsed, the floor gave way. Unharnessed, I shot through rock and coral seas to clouds in stars and beyond.
Did you know the hydrogen in water molecules on earth was made in the Big Bang? The oxygen in them was made in a star? Was there a medium bang before the Big Bang?
In space, there is no pressure at all, while in the ocean, there are very high pressures, and on earth, there is sometimes a bit of pressure, too.
The slammed door, the smashed glass, the crashed truck, the words you can’t un-say. The churning of chance and life and extinction. Things that make sense with things that don’t.
Like this. I can barely read the left side of something before it disappears, so by the time I get to the right, the entire left has “left.” This includes my own hand. Words disappear as I write them.
Then there are my thoughts. They get shipped Parcel Post Book Rate from Kathmandu or don’t arrive at all. The “address label” got detached from the box, or the box got damaged in transit and resides in the U.S. Mail Recovery Center in Zip 00000 in “has bins,” with everything ever stuffed in a mailbox and never seen again.
It’s like a series of bombs went off. My child, my mom, my home, my head. Whole neighborhoods blew up in an instant. The neighborhoods were me.
You know that phrase, “Time flies”? Yours flew in an instant and so did you. You disappeared, then got older, then became even more of a pain in the butt, then disappeared for good. The strangest thing about the accident that ended my life is that I survived it. Minus “me.” That’s one kind of “leaving” few people know.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a pixel worth? We didn’t have pixels when I was young. We didn’t have Photoshop. We couldn’t replace, re-size, or whiten teeth with the click of a mouse. I ponder the word “recollect.” And the phrase “collect yourself.” I can’t. I can’t re-collect my self. It left and so did I.
Every 67 seconds, Alzheimer’s takes up residence in another American. Every 21 seconds, Traumatic Brain Injury breaks another American brain. You want to get back your life, but you can’t—because you are not you, and it’s not your life.
Judith Hannah Weiss wrote freelance media promotion for 30+ years in New York City. Clients included Time Warner, Conde Nast, Disney, ABC, PBS, CBS, and magazines such as Time, New York, and The New Yorker. Then she got hit by a truck. She recently completed Away with Words: An Amnesic Memoir and lives near Charlottesville, Virginia, where she also makes art for humans and homes for birds.