Here’s a dramatic opening line for you: A year ago this weekend, I was hit by a car while crossing the street.
This is the story per the police report and my hospital notes: I was hit by a green Fiat at 3:15 pm; I arrived in hospital fully conscious; I had fractured my skull in two places and suffered some bruising and minor bleeding on my brain; no surgery was required; CT scans and ultrasounds confirmed I had no other injuries; I spent 9 days in hospital for observation; a subsequent MRI 6 weeks later indicated satisfactory progress towards recovery and no need for further intervention.
That story sits comfortably in a folder of forms and papers with official letterheads, but it feels rather incomplete.
I don’t remember the collision. My memory starts again with me unsure how I’d come to be sitting by the side of the road. Perhaps I was dreaming, but I couldn’t remember getting home and going to bed. I figured I’d work it out in a minute, once the ambulance guys who were insisting on talking at me gave me some peace. They were wearing red coveralls.
One of them told me I had a head injury. I figured he meant some kind of minor concussion, like one of the boys in primary school got when he got hit on the head by a basketball. They were trying to convince me I should go with them. I had a strong sense that all my life I’d been told not to get into vehicles with strangers, but I was too tired to put up any fight. Everything was absolutely fine. Or maybe these guys were about to abduct me. Or maybe I was at home asleep. I could hold all of these things as true.
Things started to clarify during my first hours in hospital. Scans were done. I remember being wheeled over to a room with an ultrasound machine, where the radiologist asked me what scan I was there for. “I have no idea,” I said. “Someone just asked my name and then brought me over here.” She chuckled, checked my notes, and gave me an abdominal ultrasound to check for internal injuries.
Friends managed to find me in the chaos of a busy Saturday afternoon Emergency Department and A. insisted I message my parents about what had happened. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the fluorescent lighting of the hallway my trolley was parked in. I threw up, repeatedly. My second afternoon, I was moved to an observation area, full of women with respiratory problems.
A couple of days later, S. popped her head around the corner and said “Guess who?” and then my mum appeared, having come out from Australia. Mid-week, I moved to Neurology and dozed through the warm afternoons with the spring sunshine streaming through the windows.
There was a nurse in the Emergency Department who made sure to explain to me that I was waiting for a bed in Neurology, and to keep me updated on when that would happen. No one else told me much. On my fifth day in hospital, I found out about the bruising and bleeding after I sent Mum and J. to find a doctor and demand some information. (Mum was quite proud of understanding the Italian word contusioni.)
There were two visiting hours each day, and I had friends come out every time. The orderlies laughed with me at how much food I had stashed in my bed, from them bringing fruit and chocolates and biscuits and cakes, while I was struggling to stomach even mashed potato. I remember thinking, I can talk coherently and I’m quite enjoying catching up with all my friends, I must be ok.
Several months later I was at a gelato festival with some of those friends. We’d just tried a rather intriguing peanut gelato — definitely not a traditional flavour, but this was really well done.
“It’s from a Torino gelateria, let’s check where it is. We can always go there and have it again,” said J, pulling out his phone to check the location. “Let’s see,” he said, zooming out on the map. “Oh, it’s out in the suburbs. Wait! It’s right near… the hospital.”
He and B. and I looked at each other and started laughing.
“Nope.” we said, in unison.
My primary goal on leaving hospital was to get back to regular life as quickly as possible. I was tired and slightly woozy, much as if I’d had a bad flu, and I was going to proceed like I had a flu: a few days at home to rest, then back to work. A month or two, and everything would be back to normal. I’d give it a couple of months to gain perspective and then write a nice blog post about what it’s like to recover from a minor brain injury. (You can read what I wrote a week after being discharged from hospital.)
And in the first couple of weeks I was improving, rapidly. From almost one day to another I could see an improvement in my energy levels and cognitive skills. I felt like I was the subject of my own fascinating neurology experiment, being able to observe my own brain sort itself out. Still, I knew I ought to take things slowly — and I very generously allocated myself a couple of weeks to be sick and lazy.
Turns out I needed those “sick and lazy” days, and not just for two weeks. I may have been getting better, but this wasn’t just a bad flu. On my first day back at work, I felt like some kind of world-champion multitasker for listening to Radiohead and waiting for the bus simultaneously. I got dizzy spells. My anxiety levels were up, in a weirdly discrete way: I’d sit on the bus and wonder which of the passing cars was going to crash into us, or worry that my recovery had stalled, and then I’d think, Oh, that’s just my anxiety, and think about something else. I’d spend 4-5 hours in the office, much of it watching Father Ted on youtube, and come home so exhausted I couldn’t get off the sofa in the evening.
But still, I was getting better, even if the rate of improvement decreased over time. Like the theoretical physicist I am, I sketched out plots of “brain power” vs time in the air as I chatted with friends, something like 1-exp(-t). “What’s the time constant, I wonder? Knowing my luck, it will be, like, a million years or something.”
Nerdy jokes were one of the ways I tried to ensure no-one was worried about me, that no-one blew my little accident out of proportion or made a fuss — if it wasn’t a big deal for other people, it wouldn’t have to be a big deal for me. I made myself say yes to social invitations, even if I had to leave by 9pm just as everyone else was arriving. I’d go to the office every day, even if I got nothing done. I had always been the organized one, the competent one, and a bit of bruising wasn’t about to change me.
Here is a conversation I’ve had many times this year:
I mention something that doesn’t make sense until I explain I was hit by a car, or that I’d spent a week in hospital, or that I had a brain injury.
The other person says, “Oh! Was it serious?”
And I say, “Umm… well… it certainly could have been worse, I guess? But it was kind of bad, yeah. Like, I wouldn’t recommend it? I dunno.”
It was nearly a month after my accident that I noticed I couldn’t smell anything. I emailed my mum, who’s a doctor, “Is it possible I’ve lost my sense of smell? Or is this some kind of weird psychological thing?”
“It’s a real phenomenon,” she replied, sending me links to articles about post-traumatic anosmia and, in a postscript, the advice to be careful about food expiration dates and to install a smoke detector. (Sorry Mum, I still haven’t done that!)
The weeks where I could smell nothing felt long. Is this my life now? I’d wonder, after I explained to whoever hadn’t heard yet that I’d lost my sense of smell.
Well, it was something I could adjust to. I’d never particularly noticed my sense of smell while it was there, and most of the time I never noticed its absence. I started to get the hang of which foods tasted good without scent (tomatoes, bitter greens, pizza alla diavola: yes; gorgonzola, basil, cinnamon: no). I practised complimenting food put in front of me with “that looks fantastic!” I felt a little smug when friends would complain about a bar bathroom smelling bad — that wasn’t a problem I had to deal with any more.
Then a few weeks later I could catch a whiff of coffee, which smelt like dirt rather than coffee, but, ehhh, details. “I think my sense of smell is starting to come back,” I told my friends. “We should all go out for a nice meal to celebrate once it’s better. Something really pungent, I’ve missed that sort of thing.”
“I know an Indian place,” said E.
We still haven’t gone out for that dinner. My sense of smell did start the process of returning — a process it’s still undergoing. I stopped having to explain “I can’t smell anything” and started having to explain, “Some things I can’t smell, some things I can smell, and some things I can smell, strongly, but it’s the wrong smell.” Or, for short, “yeah, my sense of smell is kinda broken.”
Every couple of months, there’s a new adjustment. Food remains something that takes up a lot of mental space, since what tastes good keeps changing. Last autumn, I sat at a dinner party and smiled and nodded while everyone else talked about how good the white wine was, and thought, “Tastes like fake vanilla to me”; by Christmas, I could drink wine and enjoy the flavours. My friends get subjected to semi-regular updates on what I can and can’t smell.
(Currently I can’t smell, among other things, cinnamon, mangoes or eucalyptus. If I get the smell of mangoes back, I’ll be triumphantly telling everyone I’ve ever met.)
Generally, the changes are improvements, though I could have gone without the lengthy stage of onions, garlic and other alliums having a strong distinct smell of petrol. And every time something changes, the question in my mind has been, Is this my life now? I suspect I can adjust to anything — well, I’ll have to, won’t I? — but it would be lovely to know what the endpoint will be.
Most of what I’ve written about up to this point I’ve touched on before on this blog. The stories are old now and they pass through familiar territory. So where am I now? This is where I get to the edges of narrative and I’m less sure about what I want to say.
Firstly, I’m doing well. Physically, my recovery never required much intervention and my neurological symptoms faded by late summer. (Although I did read a few weeks ago that people who have had brain injuries are more prone to boredom than the general population and thought, WELL THAT EXPLAINS A LOT as I closed the tab mid-way through the article because it didn’t hold my attention.) But in the end, like I thought in hospital, I can talk coherently and I’m still quite enjoying spending time with friends, so I really have been ok all this time.
Still, “ok” can mean lots of things. Walking home one night in October after a party where I’d had a very polite and bloodless conversation about how yeah I did have a car accident of sorts but it was months ago and I’ve fully recovered apart from my sense of smell, I had the realization that actually no, my accident did cause me to lose my momentum (yes, quite literally) and to move forward again I couldn’t just put aside what had happened, I had to build something with it.
I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how to put things in words. I’m not very good at bringing up what happened, except possibly to make bad-taste jokes. (It’s amazing how many conversations provide opportunities to drop in “of course, you could be hit by a car any time” — delivered with great cheerfulness. Friends, be grateful I bite my tongue as often as I do.) I haven’t yet quite got the hang of letting this past year be part of my history without becoming “that girl who got hit by a car”.
What stories could I tell? Some narratives I’ve rejected. I could say that being physically helpless in hospital taught me something about how to let myself rely on other people but oh my word the “physical vulnerability leads our hard-headed protagonist to emotional vulnerability” line seems like such a tedious cliche I refuse to believe it could be true. If I ever pin down the more complicated reality I’ll let you know.
Other times, I’ve read stories of other peoples’ dramatic life events and found company, in a strange sort of way, and ways of saying things I’d never consciously noticed. I remember sitting on the sofa one evening in June gulping down Tim Winton’s essay “Havoc” and wondering how he could express so well the sense of things just, suddenly, happening. Over the new year break I cried as I read Emma Carmicheal’s blog post “Trying”: “Telling it […] was proof that it had happened. It all felt like a dream, so the story mattered.”
(Actually, I had been undecided about whether to post this to the Internet at all — isn’t a 3000 word blog post about one’s own brain the height of narcissism? What tipped me over to “yes do it” was the thought that by making it public, maybe this bit of narrative would become useful to someone else, somewhere down the line. Although seriously, you should go and read Winton and Carmicheal, they’ve been through much worse and are much better writers than I am.)
Writing this post has helped me pin down my own story, but there are limits. Even if it’s about something that quite literally happened inside my own head, it’s not just my story. There are so many things I won’t tell here to protect people’s privacy, but I’m very aware of those stories of friends driving out to the hospital, of my parents visiting me here all the way from Australia, of ambulance crews and nurses who were kind and competent and funny, of people saying “I’ll pray for you” and really meaning it.
It’s the ongoing stories of knee-slapping laughter at the absurdities of the situation, of colleagues responding to my lack of productivity at work with, “take your time, we’re glad you’re around”, of friends patiently listening to me have a whinge about my rubbish Spring 2015 or my broken sense of smell even though I’ve complained about these things before and no doubt will complain about them again.
And those friends and family have helped me start to make sense of what happened, letting it be a real event in the world, pushing back at my initial insistence that “Nah come on it was a minor accident and I’m fiiiiiine” and in later months gently reminding me that it’s not unreasonable that I didn’t “do” anything in the first half of last year. (Thank you all! You’re the best.)
What I’m really looking for in these stories is a map of my recovery. To state the obvious, the brain is complicated. People have devoted entire research careers to questions like, If you hit the skull in this location with this much force, what injuries will result? And that’s a simple physics question. Given those injuries, what will be the neurological outcome? What’s the prognosis? What will it mean socially and emotionally and spiritually?
In the first hours and days, while everything outside me was frantic activity and everything inside me was dream-like confusion, my idea of the map was
with a sense of “Normal Zoe just disappeared, sort of” because who knew where I was going now?
After week or so, with the fast initial stages of recovery, my mental map was
But what I have been learning is that even as I see full recovery, I can’t just slot back into Normal Zoe’s path. It’s like I’ve been abroad for an extended period of time and now even though Normal Zoe and I can see each other again, we’re not sure how the relationship works because we’ve both changed. And it may well be that the map looks like
But those lines are distinct and they may not be parallel and that’s hard but it’s ok. Because Normal Zoe is a fictional character, a name given to my best guess at a trajectory, at what would have happened.
“To know what would have happened, child? No, nobody is ever told that.
“But anyone can find out what will happen.”
Thank you for deciding to post your story. The sense of being you, but not being you- after brain injury is something I completely understand yet struggle to put into words for others. I truly hope you get your sense of smell back and continue on with your positive attitude. Hugs from another tbi survivor!
Thanks! I’m glad my story was relatable, though of course I wish no-one was ever in the position of being able to relate to it… Best wishes to you, too :)
Wow! What a story. Thanks for sharing! I hope your sense of smell continues to recover! (“My sense of smell is broken” sounds kind of fun to say but not at all fun to live.)
Thanks! I read once that the timeframe for these sorts of things is ~2 years so I can expect quite a bit more improvement, I hope!
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