I have brain damage.
Don’t laugh, I know it comes across like a joke, and I can be pretty lighthearted about it at times, but I’m not kidding. On March 6th of the year 2000, a Ford F250 carrying a trailer tried to pass me on the left before I was able to complete a left turn. Evidence at the scene shows the driver wasn’t even braking, he was actually accelerating. Presumably to get past me. On the left. As I was turning left.
I don’t remember the impact. I don’t even remember the truck.
It was a bright, crisp, sunny Minnesota spring morning — one that should have been the start of my first day at a new job. I’d been hired to be the office manager of an apartment complex in Brooklyn Park (which I did become — a few days later than originally planned). A 2BR unit came with the position, so I was scheduled to settle into the community, but as I hadn’t moved yet, and I’d already given up my old studio, I had been staying with my ex for the weekend. This would be my first time driving to the job from his location. I’d left his townhome in time to be there, with traffic, about 20 minutes before my schedule began.
This was before everyone had GPS at their fingertips. I had a cell phone at the time, but not as many of them were as smart then as they are now, so I’d printed out a Google Maps set of directions to show me the way. I hadn’t memorized the steps, though, and you can’t really very well consult a paper while you’re driving.
I made a wrong turn.
I realized right away I was headed in the opposite direction, but quickly saw a wayside stop to my left I could turn around in, so I signaled, checked my mirrors, looked over my shoulder, and began my turn. I had no idea what was coming for me. It all happened so fast, I never even saw it.
The 250 in Ford F-250 stands for 2.50, or 2½ tons. That’s towing capacity. The actual weight of the vehicle itself is 10,000 pounds, or 5 tons. Add to that a trailer, minimum weight of 1,000 pounds, and whatever its load was, up to 1,500 pounds (the remaining balance of the 2.5 ton towing capacity, minus the trailer), and you have anywhere from 11,000 – 12,500 pounds bearing down on me at greater than 40 miles per hour. (I suppose I should be grateful it wasn’t a higher speed road, or I might not be here to tell this story.)
At the pace a Cheetah runs, I was shot by a 6-ton bullet of heavy duty metals and raw power.
I was in a Ford Escort. I never stood a chance.
The impact folded my car in half. The frame closed in on top of me, splitting my head open, leaving an 11-inch gash from the top of my skull to the base of my left ear. It took 18 staples to hold my scalp together, and, as I understand, it took 6 police officers to hold me down while they did it.
I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t really there.
You see, the brain is a funny thing.
You may have heard it said about humans that when threatened, all of us have a natural animal instinct for either fight or flight. If you ever want to find out which one you are, all you really need is a good hard knock to the noggin, and then to somehow get the idea you’re in danger. Trust me, it won’t take much to convince you at that point. Effectively, a major head trauma, or traumatic brain injury (TBI), if it’s severe enough, can cause you to become, well... feral. Anyone or anything that comes at you is perceived as a threat, and you respond to that threat based on instinct only, according to your natural inclination towards fight or flight.
Turns out, I’m a fighter.
If you’ve ever pricked your scalp, you know how much protection the brain gets not just from being in the helmet of your hardened skull, but also from the cushion of blood surrounding it. Ever seen the movie Carrie? Yeah, it was like that. I was mostly only bleeding from the head, but I was covered in so much blood, it was impossible to know for sure where all of it was coming from.
Emergency procedure for first responders in a crisis situation involving blood loss is to secure the patient, and begin cutting clothes off, to minimize further muscle and/or bone damage and/or blood loss, and to determine the source of the bleeding so as to begin to stop it. I was strapped to a gurney, and ratcheted down at 4 points, while the EMT diligently tended to my wounds.
***I don’t remember any of this, mind you. If I’d been in a position to remember it, I would have had some presence of mind about what was happening to me, I could have been spoken to like the rational adult I am, and I could have been made to understand I needed to be still and cooperate, to let the people trying to help me do their jobs so I could heal properly. That wasn’t where I was in the moment, though.
I was an animal being attacked, and fighting my attackers tooth and nail. Six police officers had made sure I couldn’t move, and then secured me safely in the ambulance. I don’t think it took six because I’m that strong, although the body has incredible adrenaline reserves, and can be stronger than any of us could imagine in the right circumstances. But I suspect it took that many hands to keep me steady so I wouldn’t be hurt.***
Because I couldn’t move my arms and legs, but was still frightened and combative, I aggressively landed the only blow I had left open to me. With my teeth. On the medical attendant’s arm.
He could have smacked me, he could have held me at bay, he could have taped my mouth shut. But he was otherwise occupied. Trying to save my life.
He didn’t know there weren’t any other major damages, or that he wouldn’t uncover a limb concealed by my clothing and find a bone sticking out. He just knew I was absolutely drenched in blood from head to toe and he only had seconds to make sure it was stopped as quickly as possible. From his perspective, the clock was ticking, and he never lost focus.
Not when I bit him. Not when I chomped down harder and burst capillaries and drew blood. Not even when I took a chunk out of his forearm. He wiped my body down, and only then, once satisfied I was stable, did he address the blood loss I had caused him.
When we got to the hospital, they rushed me to emergency, and the paramedic had to go in, too, to see about his own battle wound. They stitched him up, then ran blood tests on both him and me to make sure I hadn’t given him some horrific communicable disease, like an STD, or even AIDS. I can only imagine how stressful the wait for those results must have been for him. I wonder how much pacing he did that night, or what tough calls he had to make? And yet, even so, this man had the empathy and concern before he went back to the next step in the routine of his own life to come check on me, and make sure I was okay.
Somewhere in the world today, there is a man — at one point a paramedic, if not still — walking around with either a permanent scar or a skin graft from an injury I inflicted upon him in a moment of crisis, as he labored to save my life. I never knew his name. I can’t picture his face or tell you anything else about him — other than, I’m certain he is an angel.
I know people who are sympathetic about the guilt I carry over doing that to him tell me I shouldn’t feel bad, he understood what was happening to me, and he didn’t hold it against me — he was just doing his job. But that doesn’t make it any better. When the grace with which he handled it is naturally how you respond, that’s more than just a job. It’s a calling. And a person with that kind of love for humanity who answered such a call is surely a saint who doesn’t deserve what I did to him.
Twenty years later, I still can’t tell his portion of this story without tearing up.
Scraps of fabric deployed from the steering wheel airbag are most likely what kept me alive that day. I never could bring myself to look at pictures of what was left of my car. I’m told it was so mangled, first responders had to pry the twisted metal open with the jaws of life to get me out, like peeling sardines from a tin can. According to my ex, the wreckage of the crumpled heap remaining was the kind that, if seen on the side of the road, would cause one to think, “Nobody walked away from that.” But I did. Though, with a few less brain cells than I’d had starting out that morning.
That was my FIRST encounter with TBI.
Four years later, on November 22nd of 2004, I was involved in another vehicular collision, except this time, I had no vehicle to be folded in on me. I was run over. While crossing the street. In a well-lit crosswalk.
I know so much less about that incident. Funny enough, it was also my first day at a new job, but this time, I’d finished my shift, and was on my way home. I had taken the bus, as I’d been between cars for a brief spell, after Kasey kicked the bucket not too long prior.
It was past rush hour. I’d just ridden into town after a stopover at the Mall of America, where I’d lingered for a little longer than I might otherwise normally, because the end of the year was fast approaching, and I love the look and feel — the sights, sounds and smells — of retail shopping during the holiday season. It was the last stop for my route, only a few blocks from the home of the friends I’d been staying with for the previous few weeks since I’d left the last managing contract.
I remember the bus pulling away from the curb as it dropped me off. I remember the streetlight, and the road ahead of me. The rest I can only bring to mind in flashes — fuzzy bits and pieces of bright lights between periods of darkness and confusion, like after you’ve been swimming at night in a chlorinated pool, when the lamps are ringed by a rainbow haze. Next thing I knew, I was on my back, there was a lot of movement close to me, and noise around me, but I couldn’t see, and felt I was floating aimlessly through a thick fog, like trying to wake from a bad dream. Some people were calling my name. They sounded angry.
***I remember being somewhat confused about that detail, recalling it to others later. I’m told, after checking your ID, first responders will often say your name loudly and sternly. They find more people wake in reaction to their name when it seems like someone is upset with them, apparently. They tell me, since I only remember that brief moment in all the commotion, they were probably doing a sternum rub to try and bring me out of unconsciousness. I don’t remember feeling that, and I don’t know anything else until the next flash at the hospital — suddenly becoming very aware while projectile vomiting in the middle of a grand maul seizure, brought on by a subdural hematoma, and encephalitis.***
What I’ve been able to cobble together about that night is spotty, at best. It seems an impatient driver, intent on getting around the bus quickly, pulled out without seeing me, and struck the back of my left calf, which threw me to my knees in the middle of the street, my left knee taking the full brunt of the impact with the pavement, followed by my head. My kneecap kaleidoscoped into fragments of stained glass floating around inside the joint.
At the hospital, when I was finally myself again (a day or so later, I think), doctors warned I wouldn’t walk again. But I believe strongly in the power of mind over matter, and I was having none of that. I told them, “Watch me,” and got out of bed on my own. Nurses had to scramble to try and keep me down, as I was attached to a variety of tubes, but I was faster, more determined, and not as worried about hurting me. Funny enough, I’d had a sense of urgency because I thought I was headed to the restroom, but the pressing sensation I’d been feeling, as it turned out, was a catheter. That was an unpleasant realization. And the experience of having it removed, even more so.
I was unsteady on my feet, but at least I was moving of my own volition. Then they told me it would be some time before I would walk normally, if ever. But the prospect of convalescing in a hospital bed while insurmountable bills racked up was unappealing, to say the least, so I had to take my chances.
I had suffered an abrasion under my chin, two black eyes, and the damaged leg distended to as far as it is possible for human skin to swell, stretching until my normal olive complected undertones were as bright white and shiny as a softball, with the hairs on my leg sticking straight out like a pincushion. I couldn’t bend the knee, so I swung the whole leg around in a jerking motion, slungshot by my shoulders, hips and back muscles. I was such a frightful monster of misery, when I hobbled like a tweedled-twin onto the bus, people would get up out of my way from the front seats reserved for the infirmed. I’m sure I looked quite the sight, but I was able to reassure folks, it didn’t actually hurt.
You see, the brain is a funny thing.
Just like how the brain keeps you from being able to bring up the memory of the impact — I would imagine because it’s likely the most terrifying experience you’ve ever endured, and some subconscious subroutine in the back of your mind says, “Nope! Sorry, you don’t need that, and you can’t handle it,” and then, *yank!* your brain just poofs it out of existence for you. It’s still floating around in your noodle somewhere, but you no longer have access to it, like an encrypted file on a secure system you don’t know the password for.
It’s the same thing if you’re in enough pain — at least the type brought on by a sudden, unexpected trauma, anyway. It’s a kind of shock, actually. Your brain knows you’re in more pain than your conscious mind can handle, and more than you can function through, so it just shuts down your pain receptors while you heal. It’s crazy, really, because you don’t actually start feeling the pain until a few weeks later, which is in fact a sign you’re getting better, and your brain knows you can take the full load now. Then it flips the switch back on, and you get hit with all the pain at once, just at a smaller dosage than it had been previously.
I’ve been through this not once, but twice now.
I remember in physical therapy after the 2nd concussion, as the therapist worked over my legs, twisting my calf up toward my shoulder in a manner that shouldn’t even be possible, I winced and groaned in discomfort. The masseuse suddenly exclaimed excitedly, “Oh good, you ARE human!” I was confused at whatever she could possibly mean by that. She told me, as a sports therapy specialist, she very often has to work over professional NFL linebackers who would cry like a baby if she dug into them with only a small portion of the strength she had to use on me. It was her job to make the patient feel her digging in, so she knew it was working, and knew where to concentrate her focus. Half the time, I’d been using the comfortable hour on her table to pass out and take a much-needed snooze.
In the end, though, I did heal, but with some scar tissue — including a weird ring of calcium deposits around my left ankle that sort of looks like I’m wearing an anklet under my skin (!), and a couple of other faded spots I’d have to point out for you to see. I do walk mostly normally today, too, except with a stiff and sore knee that sometimes takes a minute to work properly whenever I get up after sitting for long periods, and aches whenever it’s about to rain. They say that’s because of the fluid in the damaged joints expanding and contracting at abnormal rates under changes in barometric pressure, compared to what it should be naturally, as a result of the damage.
The physical impairment was overcome quickly enough, and eventually became just a blip in my rearview mirror. An impactful one, to be sure, but I was able to put it behind me. The brain damage, though... that’s had more long lasting effects.
After the first accident, “therapy” consisted of hooking me up with a skull cap attached to a medusa-head of wires and electrodes, and having me feel “happy” when a monitor of brain wave patterns I was tasked to watch made an even-toned sound, but try not to be stressed when it didn’t. I didn’t really understand most of that. Apparently, it was designed to serve the function of helping me to help the brain heal itself, as much as possible, which is pretty much all they can do at this level.
When I say, “at this level,” what I mean is, between these two major head traumas, I’ve dropped a total of 47 IQ points, and that puts me in a unique category for getting help repairing the damage. And, in this case, unique = not much. The summary I was given more or less amounted to:
“Most people who’ve lost 47 IQ points would be drooling on themselves and unable to put their pants on. You’re still a genius. There’s really not a whole lot we can do to regain the upper levels of higher functionality. Mainly, our purpose is to retrain people how to put their pants on.”
“...So, what you’re telling me, Doc, is... my star just doesn’t shine quite as brightly as it used to any more, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it?”
The neuropsychologist wouldn’t have put quite that spin on it, but... kinda, yeah.
One caregiver was particularly tickled to have me as a patient, though. His is a relatively unique field, and he was something of a pioneer in it, so having a high functioning guinea pig like me to poke around with was an exciting experiment. He always made sure he was in for my appointments, and oversaw them personally. He often asked me,
“So! Just what are we going to do with all this genius, anyway?”
I was 25. At that point, I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him so, and he tried to help me think through it. What was my degree in? I didn’t have one. He was floored. I admitted I never got one because I couldn’t afford it. He said with my smarts, I should have schools offering to pay me to go to their school.
***Funny, I didn’t remember that portion of my secondary educational experience involving institutions of higher learning tripping over themselves in a mad scramble to get my application. I must have missed it while I was overwhelmed with the stressful and challenging distraction of violent and abusive conflict at home resulting from the power struggles of being raised by people with contrasting convictions who’d been total strangers to me until late childhood expecting me to toe the line of meeting their ideals for my life. Any thought beyond “escape” at that point seemed like such a pipe dream, I never even bothered to take the SATs.
In fact, with everything else going on, I missed so many classes, I barely graduated high school. I finished early by testing out of most of my classes (at the advanced level, to avoid any administrative pushback), so I could move out on my own, and wouldn’t have to listen to any more ultimatums beginning with, “As long as you live under my roof...!” That felt like a challenge to me, with what I took for an easy enough solution, so I got my diploma, and, problem solved.***
I’m sure the Doc meant well, but it seemed to me like a lot of pressure to live up to, and I never felt more like a complete waste of potential. ...Except perhaps for at the passing of each of the twenty years since, during which I’ve taken a lot of other wrong turns, and have yet still failed to secure my degree. I don’t know what he was hoping for me to be able to accomplish as a result of my QEEG sessions, but I’m guessing everything I’ve done with my life since... probably wasn’t it.
And maybe I shouldn’t let it bother me that much, but being the only one in my family without a degree is still something of a sore spot with me. After all, what have I done with all that genius? What do I have to show for it?? Who am I, anyway??? The longer I dwell on those kinds of questions, the more depressing the answers get, so I make a point not to live in that space.
Eventually, the insurance coverage for the brain damage therapy dried up, so I quit going. I had been fortunate, because it was much more extensive treatment than I could afford on my own. (I hope you’re never in a position to learn firsthand the reality that medical procedures paid for by automobile insurance claims after an accident amount to significantly better coverage than most medical insurance plans, but, if you do, make sure to take full advantage of every procedure offered to you for as long as you possibly can.)
Therapy and treatment did what it could, but it only went so far, and I still suffer the after effects, which mostly amount to a faulty short-term memory, and struggling with words at times. For the most part, these symptoms primarily only manifest at points of high stress, like when I’m extremely tired, or overworked, with maybe a little too much on my plate, or burdened with overwhelming emotional issues. Amusingly, if it should ever come up that I have an appropriate cause to mention these issues to others, the response I generally get is something akin to,
“Are you kidding me? That’s just a typical Tuesday for me, and I can’t even call it brain damage!”
I guess maybe I should count my blessings.
The brain really does have an amazing capacity to heal itself, though.
I’ve learned to get around the short-term memory issue by developing a lot of basic coping mechanisms to help me navigate the regular routines of my life. (Which reminds me, I need to put together my pills for tomorrow.) And, it seems I’ve managed to naturally and effectively replace the function my short-term memory normally performs with my long-term memory.
Which means, I very often retain a lot of useless detail unnecessarily.
But, it’s also become a semi-adept partial synapse cleanup service.
After a while, my brain will periodically do a random data dump, and expunge old memories my subconscious somehow determines are no longer useful to me. Fortunately, to date, it has been most often relieving me of baggage I’m happy to do without. So far, this mostly results in forgetting I’ve seen less than stellar movies. Unfortunately, my brain hasn’t figured out how to also rid me of the memory that I ever wanted to see such movies in the first place, thus resulting in me occasionally having to sit through terrible flicks I wish I’d never seen on more than one occasion. I’ve had the displeasure of having to endure Last of The Mohicans three times for that reason.
Minion and I have a term for the effect of this phenomenon — we say, “I put it out of my mind,” or “I lost that memory to brain damage,” used most commonly in reference to memories we are glad to be rid of. This is how conversations about TBI usually start, when I make a casual reference like that, and someone takes it as if I was kidding. Sometimes, I’ll confess the truth. Other times, there’s no point. I just go along with the laugh at my own little inside joke.
The word problems are a bit harder to manage, and require a little more concerted effort on my part. But, I’m grateful to have been a creative type before this, and an avid reader, so when I can’t think of a word that’s escaped me, I’m able to take a few moments to mentally flip through an internal thesaurus until I come up with another one that means more or less the same thing. Most of the time.
Sometimes, that specific word I can’t find somehow feels like the absolute perfect option, with no others being quite the right fit. Then it becomes a puzzle I have to solve, and there’s a blinking red light in the back of my mind that can’t be turned off until I do. So on occasion, I’ll be in the middle of a sentence, and just suddenly stop in my tracks, my eyes searching, my head shaking. It’s hard to continue in that situation until I have a secure handle on what I lost. It’s frustrating for me, but I imagine it’s likely also baffling for anyone else who has to endure it with me.
I try to keep those episodes to a minimum, as at least in those cases I still have a conscious choice about it. At that point I can either choose to engage in the struggle — and describe the nature of the word, hoping to stumble upon it; or just let it go and select another. Or, I could also redirect to a completely different thought pattern entirely as a way of accomplishing the same tangential goal, and forge ahead. It’s another coping mechanism, but it challenges the intellect, and that’s more than functional, it’s expansive and empowering, if you look at it in the right light.
I tend to try and keep myself basking in that light.
The worst of it is what happens when I’m completely drained of energy, either mental, physical, emotional, or any combination thereof. If I’m very stressed, I might occasionally stammer, getting hung up in my words, having a hard time getting them out. I often joke that my tongue tripped over my eyeteeth and I couldn’t see what I was saying. It’s best to be as lighthearted as you can, in the face of such social hiccups, but it isn’t really much of a laughing matter when you consider this particular symptom means I’m spent, and I don’t have much left.
But it gets worse.
If I continue to ignore the signs, and try to push through the stammer, the next stage is much less forgiving, or easily overlooked.
I’ve been fairly blessed there, too, in that I’ve mostly only ever exhibited this particular symptom in the presence of my husband, and the comfort of our home. It’s the only place I’m ever that completely rundown, as by that point I’d given everything else I had to the rest of the world, because that’s what it took, for whatever “it” was that needed to be done day. Somedays, “it” is just getting through the day. But I’m mostly blessed because I am married to someone so kind, so understanding, so loving and giving, that he knows, by the time I am in full blown stutter mode, I need a kiss, a glass of water, and to be put to bed for some rest.
You see, the brain is a funny thing.
Sometimes, it has a way of letting you know it needs you to recharge, and if you’re not going to do it yourself, then it will completely shut you down, so it can do it for you. The older I get, the more I appreciate this “quirk” as more of a “safety mechanism” than a symptom of brain injury. It’s helping me. And the more I need it, the more I’m learning to be okay with that.
In fact, there are a lot of ways this whole experience could be considered as much a blessing as a trauma. Did you know, IQ only measures one or two types of intelligence, but there are at least nine categorized, quantifiable intelligence types? A person’s IQ may give you some concept of whether or not they can effectively read and comprehend, perform basic math, and memorize and follow instructions. But it might not reveal whether they can play an instrument. Paint a picture. Tell a story. Grow a garden. Pack a travel bag. Climb a mountain. Run a marathon. Comfort the hurting. Consider their place in the universe. Recognize when they’re ready to make a change.
There is so much more value in our lives outside of our ability to take and pass standardized tests.
Life IS a test.
Whether or not we’re passing is to be determined every day. But we’re the only ones who can decide for ourselves.
One interesting outcome from the QEEG was learning my creative nature may be inherent to the abnormal way my brain works. As it turns out, when at rest, my brain wave patterns will naturally drift off into occasional spikes of theta, or the state the brain achieves during REM sleep, which brings an entirely new, and much more personal meaning for me to the concept of “day dreaming.” I’m just a regular Walter Mitty, I guess.
I suppose, though, the ability to dream in the day while I’m fully conscious may just be the natural counterpart to the ability I’ve had for years to lucidly control my dreams while sleeping. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I ever had that particular “superpower” before the TBI. But not since as I was a child have I had a nightmare some lucid characteristic of my semi-conscious hasn’t been able to step into and take control over, altering the story like a director rewriting a bad script.
Just like my brain did for me with the injuries. It’s almost like those traumatic moments of pain and fear jarred loose some innate protector inside my brain that likes to safeguard my consciousness, and once it got a taste for doing so, it’s just never stopped. Here’s hoping someday, all that effort will have been worth it, for some greater purpose.
But maybe there doesn’t have to be any grand predestined calling in my future for this all to have meant something. Maybe it’s enough for it to have just helped me be a better person. Learning to rely less on my intellect, and more on soft skills — my more “human” side — has made me a better coworker. A better daughter. A better friend. A better wife to my Minion. A better Mama to my Firebird.
I want my baby to be smart. He’s only two, but it’s hard to ignore the unmistakable signs that he may already be the kind of scary smart that amounts to more than we know how to manage. He might even end up smarter than both of us. But I hope not. Because I want him to be happy. And I think that takes a healthy, well rounded balance of multiple forms of intelligence. I hope I have the skills needed to be able to teach him that. And I guess it’s a good thing his name means both surviving, and balance, because in this life, he surely will need both.
As far as the degree goes, I’m determined at some point to cross that item off my list, so my son will never be able to make the argument, “But you don’t have a degree, and you did okay!” My son will have a college education, because I refuse to be the example he follows in that particular wrong direction. If there are any advantages to taking a lot of wrong turns in life, perhaps one may be so others can benefit from your experience, and avoid also having to take those same wrong turns. I may have ended up okay, but getting here wasn’t easy, and I don’t want that long, winding, aimless path for him. I’ll do what it takes to show him a better way. And that means making sure I take that road myself — brain damage and all.
So yeah, I’ve dropped 47 IQ points over the course of a lifetime.
Or, at least, at one point, I had. For all I know, I could come up with completely different results today. After having these experiences, though, the whole concept of “intelligence quotient” doesn’t mean nearly as much to me as it might have at another point in my life.
I’m still technically a genius.
But mostly, I’m smart enough to get through the day. Smart enough to land the next contract. Smart enough to keep a roof over our heads, the lights and heat on, food on our table, gas in our car, my husband happy, my critters fed, and my baby entertained every day by learning new things.
And when you get right down to it... what else do I really need?
LJ Idol | Season 11 • Week 2 - Topic: LIVING RENT FREE IN YOUR HEAD
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