I’ve taken a lot of things for granted. My literacy, along with the ability to both comprehend and absorb what I have read, the ability to write in a straight line, to understand the passing of time, and even the pleasure to be found in grape tomatoes and bell peppers. Until I got hit by a semi truck on my way to work one week before my 30th birthday.
In January of 2012, I was driving into work, minding my own business and thinking about the day ahead of me when a semi truck merged into my lane and hit me, sending me across three lanes of traffic and front-end first into a concrete dividing wall.
My car was totaled and my body was a bit of a wreck, but it was the invisible injury, the mTBI (mildly Traumatic Brain Injury), that caused me the most pain and difficulty. I quickly learned that people are much more understanding about suffering they can see than suffering that is hidden and shows itself in behavioral or cognitive ways.
I didn’t go to the hospital until the next day. I am sure I had a reason, but I had a brain injury, so I don’t know what that reason was or even if it made sense. When I showed up to work, a co-worker drove me to the hospital when, about 5 minutes into a conversation with me, it became clear that I was behaving in a way that was "off."
I would stay "off" in various ways, one form or another, for at least the next 11 months -- which is right now. At the hospital, I had an MRI and some X-rays that showed I had damaged my cervical spine and jacked up my knee when it slammed through the dashboard. I had airbag burns on my face, neck, legs and arms. At some point during the collision, my face hit the steering wheel hard enough to alter my smile by making my teeth go up into my gums a bit, and to also cause injury to my brain.
Do you know how much stuff your brain does for you? It’s like pretty much everything. And when damage is caused to the organ that handles all your business, your business won’t be doing well.
The weird thing was some people couldn’t tell that anything was wrong. I kept going to work, hanging out with friend, and dealing with the PTSD from the accident. If you were in the periphery of my life or didn’t experience interactions with me on a daily or very regular basis, it wouldn’t always be clear that something was wrong. I was still talking, I looked fine, and most of my sentences had meaning that could be understood.
Some people have told me they thought I was just going through a phase and acting differently. They said they didn’t understand or relate to me during those first four months -- the worst months -- but that they thought I would come around again.
I wasn’t going through a phase. I was enduring post-concussion syndrome. Other people would get frustrated and angry with me for not remembering our conversations or arguments, or forgetting appointments, or not remembering that we had spoken an hour before. A couple of interpersonal relationships were very damaged because of this.
People were able to be understanding of my knee, because they could see I had difficulty walking. But if I seemed fine when speaking to somebody and I forgot to mention I had a brain injury (and you really do just forget), they sometimes felt like I was just being inexplicably rude or blowing them off. Then they would get all pissed off with me and I would be confused, wondering what the hell had happened because I couldn’t remember.
I had a lot of really sad days where I couldn’t understand why people were angry with me and I would sit alone in my living room and cry, trying to figure it out.
But if you were around me on a daily basis, like my co-workers and especially my partner, you would have seen a difference. Most of the first four months is still murky for me. Time was, and to some extent still is, a murky and indefinable jelly in which I was merely suspended, trying to manage life’s daily activities. I was here, but I was never really here at all.
I couldn’t hold my hands steady enough to make straight lines, so my makeup was always crooked and jagged, the colors never blended, my hair usually partially brushed. Foods tasted different. Cherry tomatoes and bell peppers, things I had loved before, suddenly tasted awful.
I would stand in the cafeteria at lunch, studying the utensils in bewilderment. I had chicken and I wanted to eat it, so the process was one of elimination. "That thing looks like you cut with it. That thing looks like you scoop with it. So that one is probably for eating?" And that is how I would pick a fork.
At night, alone in my apartment, I would hold this pink fuzzy blob in my hand and have no idea what it was. I could take a picture and send it to my dad, then call him and ask and he could explain to me what a bathrobe was and what people do with it. I couldn’t drive because my car had been totaled, so my boyfriend, (the most awesome partner in the world) drove me to and from work every day. But sometimes I would forget that I didn’t have a car and I would go out in the parking lot after work and look everywhere for it. I would receive a text from him that he was on his way, and that’s when I would remember that my work parking lot was not the Bermuda triangle and it was safe to stop searching.
I didn’t always act like myself during this time. Sometimes my emotions were erratic and unstable. I was impulsive.
I couldn’t deal with conflict or stress. It would give me these headaches that felt like a toddler living inside my skull, trying to kick its way out through my forehead. Much of my ability to reason and apply logic was gone, and reading was an impossibility.
I couldn’t write very well because I was unable to organize my thoughts and when I could put them to paper, the sentences I had been thinking didn’t look like the sentences I had written. Some of the letters would be jumbled within words, making them unrecognizable. Like I had vomited a can of alphabet soup onto paper.
I was carrying on conversations and being polite, I just wouldn’t remember any of it almost immediately after it happened. People got used to hearing me ask the same question three or four times in one hour. Some days I had a level of clarity and understanding, a level of ability and mental acuity that would be gone by the next day.
I found an e-mail I sent to myself during this time. I didn’t find it until a few days ago, so I guess I forgot I had sent it to myself. Shocker!
"Remember to eat. When you go to the bathroom to brush your teeth, it’s the long tube. If you’re pumping it onto your brush, you’ve forgotten what you’re doing. One tampon at a time. You cannot remember everything or most things that people have said to you, and that’s scary. Wear a bra everywhere that’s not the house."
I would start brushing my teeth and discover there was soap on my toothbrush. All the food in my fridge and freezer went bad multiple times because the electric company would send me the bill and I would read it, set it down and then promptly forget I had ever seen it. When the power goes off, the fridge gets warm and the food goes bad.
I would forget to eat because my hunger signals were out of whack. When I would finally get hungry, I would go to the kitchen and have no food. By the time I left the kitchen, I would forget that I had no food or had been hungry and, consequentially, I would also forget to tell anybody that I was out of food.
I’m mostly back to normal now. I missed the last day of one of my classes this semester because I thought it was Tuesday three days in a row, so time still doesn’t always make sense and seems inordinately abstract and hard to manage. Still, I like grape tomatoes and bell peppers again, and I never brush my teeth with soap anymore.