Humans vs. Monsters


All those years of carving jack-o-lanterns with our children.  Memories that were carved, like the pumpkin faces, in my broken brain.


When I first began coming out of the coma, nothing made any sense AT ALL to me.  Everything was really, really scary.  I was extremely tired, I hurt all over, I was terrified, I was freezing cold, and it was as if I was being assaulted by sensations that didn’t make any sense.  I’m beginning to be convinced that this was a large part of my “agitated” phase of coma recovery…being overwhelmed by sensory input that you can’t sort out and make sense of.   You hurt and you don’t understand why.  You can’t understand what anyone is saying, or why they are trying to trying to get you to do things.

I especially remember that faces didn’t make any sense to me.  The part of my brain that processes the information that my eyes send it was damaged, which caused everyone around me to resemble monsters, unfortunately.  Only my immediate family, whose faces and voices and movements I remembered, did I want around me.  Everyone else was terrifying.  Fortunately, On With Life, the brain rehab facility that I was in, employs a “team” philosophy for nurses and CNAs and therapists, so that the patient quickly becomes familiar with a small group of people.  This was a real life-saver for me, and I’m sure for many other people.  I never could recognize faces the entire time I was there, but I could learn movements, and voices, and footsteps.  I still struggle with vision a lot, and can’t really make sense of faces very well yet, but it’s definitely better. I had to learn to write, and to remember how to spell again, and could read for only minutes at a time with very large font.  I still struggle with reading.  My new glasses have corrective prisms in them, and without them I immediately start seeing double.  I describe them as “girdles for my eyes”, and I need to take them off sometimes to let my eyes slip out of focus and relax (and see double!).   My niece, who has dyslexia, has suggested a lot of helpful aids for me.  I wasn’t born with dyslexia, but I must have “created dyslexia” of a sort now. A couple of months ago, I was watching our neighbor’s preschool age son practicing making numbers on a sheet of paper, and I exclaimed “Aren’t 5’s and 3s the worst!”  He nodded “yes” very solemnly.  I still struggle with what direction those numbers go, and it seems every zip code is just LOADED with LOTS!!!

Back to faces…what started my break-through was remembering carving jack-0-lanterns with our kids.  Two eyes on top, nose in the middle, mouth on the bottom.  Everything, by and large, symmetrical.  THAT was what faces were supposed to look like!  So I started (hopefully inconspicuously) trying to look at people’s faces carefully. They were pretty scary at first, I won’t lie!

And I would compare them to jack-o-lanterns.  Two eyes: check.  Nose in the middle:  check.  Mouth on the bottom:  check.  But for a long time (and I am still dealing with some of this), another complication was that my field of “focused” vision was very, very small.  I could really only see half of a person’s face at one time.  I was constantly having to decide “top half, or bottom half” when I was watching someone  talking to me.  It must have been pretty disconcerting.

Recovering from a brain injury is an exciting affair if you can keep your focus off self-pity and towards “hmmm.  This is an interesting challenge.  What can I find in my bag of tricks that I can apply to this situation.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not eternally, obnoxiously cheerful.  I have a very well-stocked whine cellar.  I can moan with the best of them.  I just always realize, after a good session of that, that I’m no further forward than I was before, and it’s time to get to work again.  A certain amount of self-pity is unavoidable, but you don’t have to stay there.  I still have to visit there, and sometimes more frequently than others, but I never want to live there.


The Sound of Silence

Are you cold?  Hot?  Hungry?  How long did it take you to decide? Ever just not…been aware without actually, physically, actively “thinking” about it?  Probably not.  It’s usually just a snap decision.  “Yes, I am cold.”  “No, I’m not hungry, thank you.”


When I first came home from the brain rehab center, not only was my brain empty most of the time–even of sensations–but when someone would actually ask me about how I was feeling, it was a lot of trouble to try to figure it out, and most of the time I couldn’t.  I didn’t know.  I just….was.  Except for extremes, as in extreme pain, or frustration, or anger, I mostly just existed.  I ate when and what was put in front of me, and I would keep on eating until it was gone.  This got me in trouble the rare times we ate at restaurants and the portions were huge, because I would not realize I was grossly overeating until my stomach actually ached and I couldn’t inhale properly because of my still-healing broken ribs.  Whoops!  When I would complain about dinner being too late, and someone would ask me “are you hungry?”, I would get sort of upset.  That just wasn’t the point.  I was supposed to eat and take my pills at fairly regular times…hunger never entered into it then.  It was the weirdest thing.

Add that to the fact that my usual background mental “chatter” was totally gone.  My head was just silent.  No thoughts, no perceptions, no conclusions, no random bits of melodies, nothing.  Just silence.  I actually had to try to formulate sentences to answer questions, which when it came to pointless (at least pointless to me at the time) questions about “was I hungry” just kinda  made me angry that they expected me to do that much work, when a better and more simpler question that THEY could have answered was “is it mealtime?”.

Gradually, over the weeks and months, it improved.  It has been two and a half years since the accident, and this is almost back to normal now.  At least I think it is.  Sometimes I still get confused and don’t stop eating quite in time, or forget to eat, or my thoughts get all jumbled up, but it’s still improving.  I’ll never forget that odd, odd, feeling of total silence in my brain, though.It’s still much, much easier than before to just kind of “disengage” my brain and slip off somewhere, half in very slow thought, half in…I don’t really know what.  Maybe remnants of my coma?     emptiness