For the last few months, I kept three pieces of paper in my wallet.
The first is a poem: “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert. The second is a copy of one of my own blog posts. The third is a quote I wrote out by hand from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
“It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.”
I think, in a very real way, these scraps of paper kept me alive.
* * *
I had never been in a car crash before, so I thought that if I could walk away, I was fine. It wasn’t that bad—right? Even if I was hit hard enough to be spun into the middle of the intersection. Even if my car was totaled. Even if I got stuck and had to crawl out the passenger’s side.
The paramedics asked me if I was injured. I said I didn’t think so. The cops asked the same thing. I repeated my answer, although I admitted I was so hopped up on adrenaline that I could have been walking on a broken leg and not noticed. (Having just broken my leg a few months before, it seemed like a very apt description at the time).
Also my head hurt. But of course my head hurt—I’d smacked it against the side impact airbag. The cops warned me that I’d feel miserable for a couple days after. I figured I’d take the rest of the weekend off and be fine.
Monday found me in the ER, vomiting, unable to stand, and with almost no short-term memory. The doctor said it was one of the most severe concussions he’d ever seen.
* * *
I wish I could say that I kept the printout of my own blog post because I’m just that good of a writer. But the post itself wasn’t even one of my best, just a goofy concept about how pretending to be a time traveler could help with positive thinking. It was the idea in essay form that everything would end up just fine.
I kept it as a kind of prayer. “Please please please let past me be right. I’ve always believed in the phrase ‘this too shall pass.’ I’m not going to stop now. Just please let it be soon.”
* * *
The worst part of a brain injury is that it’s—quite literally—all in your head. And I think we’re trained to try to discount mental problems. To downplay them. To ignore them.
The next several months were a crash course (pardon the pun) in this type of denial. What I thought would take days turned into weeks of recovery. But as the physical symptoms ebbed, I convinced myself I was fine.
But then this strange thing started happening. Sometimes, I stopped being able to feel joy, or any other positive emotion. It would just drain out of me over a few minutes, like lukewarm water out of a bathtub when you pull the plug. And just as suddenly, sometimes twelve or eighteen hours later, I’d fill back up. I’d be normal.
Well, mostly normal. I was snappy all the time and violent and angry and quietly hated everyone I had previously cared about. A quick look through my journal showed I’d been like that since…my first entry after the car wreck. And every entry after. But I was fine. I was just letting the stress of the car crash get to me. It was all in my head.
Since it was all in my head, I kept pushing. I’d already lost several months of work to my broken ankle. I couldn’t lose anymore time! But the more I tried to push through my mental state, the worse I got.
I started calling it the gap. It was a chasm I couldn’t cross to get back to myself. And the gap started lasting for days.
I knew intellectually that I could feel like myself again at any moment—like throwing a light switch. And I always did, after a couple of days each time. But the gap also always came back. I would have done anything to stop it. There were days I spent sitting, counting my breaths to make the time pass because all I wanted to do was kill myself to make the pain in my head stop.
That was the point that I put those three scraps of paper in my wallet. And that was the point that I realized it wasn’t all in my head. At least not in a way that mattered, or that I could control on my own.
* * *
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a formative book for me. Some people were raised on the bible; I grew up reading 70s pop philosophy.
I’m a lot more critical of its contents now than when I was a teenager, and there’s more than a few problems with the narrative. But despite all that, every time I read it there is always some new section that sheds light on whatever I’m struggling with.
This time, it was a part I had glossed over a dozen times before: the narrator hiking up a mountain with his son, used as a metaphor for pursuing a goal. You can either reach the top in what he calls an “ego driven” manner—always trying to be there and not here. Or you can climb the mountain by being present where you are, and experience the process.
* * *
I’ve never been particularly good at being present. Not wanting to be in my own brain didn’t make that any easier.
I wish I could say that the process of healing, although difficult, gave me the chance to learn and grow. That there was some lesson to be learned. That living through adversity ultimately made me a better person.
I wish I could say that, but I can’t. It just sucked.
Healing was a never-ending carousel of doctors and specialists and appointments. There wasn’t any great lesson, or epiphany moment. At best it required me to relearn lessons that the crash had quite literally knocked out of my head.
I went back and read some of my previous essays on risk taking and being unable to avoid all harm no matter what. About how the best thing to do is to learn how to heal fast and bounce back. Just like my knowledge that the gap couldn’t last forever, I intellectually knew whoever wrote those words was right. I still hated them. That level of personal accomplishment and self-improvement was beyond me.
I wanted my life back. I wanted the top of that mountain. But my life was happening on the sides.
Am I better now? No, I’m not. At best, I’m in the long tail of regaining my health. I’m functional again, for various definitions of the word. The gap remains mostly closed now, although the doctors say I may be dealing with remnants for another year or two. I’m one of the lucky ones though—I will probably completely recover.
But I still feel like a failure every time I have to admit to a partner or friend or client—or myself—that I can’t handle something I used to be able to. That I’m more emotional, less resilient to stress, and prone to panic attacks. That I get tired and grumpy for no good reason. That I look and feel just fine—until I’m not. That I should be done with this by now.
Welcome to the side of the mountain.
* * *
The poem is pretty self-explanatory (rare for poetry, I know). It’s a reminder that we have a responsibility to enjoy the moments of beauty and happiness, however fleeting, as we slog through hell. It’s also a reminder of perspective: other people’s hell is demonstrably worse than my own.
Plus brain damage apparently returned me to the emotional maturity of a teenager. Just like in my Goth phase, I’ve been reading a lot of poetry.
* * *
I lied: those pieces of paper didn’t save me, no matter how may times I read them, clung to them. I couldn’t save myself. They did help me survive though, while what got me through to here was the support of others:
—A doctor and a psychiatrist, both of whom had known me for years, and who actually gave a shit about my health. Insurance that allowed me to afford them. Their recommendation to a neurofeedback specialist and the insurance to afford that, too.
—The ability, resources, and privilege to be able to not work for ten months of the last year. I’m still grappling with the idea that just one of my accidents—stepping off a porch, someone else running a stop sign—could have been enough to ruin my life if I wasn’t so lucky.
—My community, especially my partners and my closest friends. Something about the brain injury made me want to hide how badly I was hurt. Maybe it was shame, or another expression of denial. Either way, I couldn’t or didn’t want to reach out for help. The people that loved me spent so much time fishing me out of whatever corner I had hidden to cry in—oftentimes their kitchen, but sometimes a living room or bathroom—and giving me tissues and reassuring me they weren’t going anywhere even though I was quite obviously broken and being a lot of work.
So maybe I lied about there not being a lesson, too. It’d be nice to be able to say something grandiose about how the whole experience has reinforced my values of connection and vulnerability, but that sounds suspiciously like “top of the mountain” thinking to me. But I will say this: there’s something to being present in the moment, and in the process of healing, no matter how unpleasant. And selfishly enjoying the good moments now that I can again. It really is the only way to climb a mountain.
But we can’t do it alone either. Now when I can, I’m trying to reach out more to help others climb too. Whether that’s trying to be a more supportive partner and friend, now that I have a far more visceral understanding of what that means. Or trying to make the world a better place by fighting to change and dismantle flawed societal systems that could have easily ruined me.
Or what I create and share with my art. Everything I make now seems so much smaller, and so much more important. It can be just a few scraps of paper.