The 'Accidental Masterpieces' in My Life After a Brain Injury

For much of 2007, my existence may best be characterized as lost. I had lost weight, hair, part of my skull, much muscular movement and fluidity, and my mobility. I had lost my memory, my history, my savings, my sense of security, and my identity. I had lost my mind.

Backing up…. In May of 2007, I was vacationing in San Francisco with my good friend Anna. We were exiting a café and for some unknown reason, I shot ahead on my travel scooter and fell off the high curb of the sidewalk into the street. According to Anna, I was not obviously drunk, sick, excessively tired, or otherwise impaired before this. It was unexplainable. I hit my head, began to bleed, and an ambulance was called.

This was all told to me later, as I have no recollection of the accident, any of the trip, nor even planning it. I have blocked the whole experience out. I have blocked a lot of experiences out.

Even as my memory congeals, much of my life takes place in stories and photographs, but not in the sensations of being there. I don’t have any flashbacks of being in the San Francisco hospital for 6 weeks after part of my skull was removed to allow for swelling, much of the time in a coma, and I recall very little of my time spent in a rehab hospital in Columbus, OH (where I grew up and my family lives). I only remember grueling therapy sessions there and one kind nurse, who let me have the whole container of chocolate pudding that was used to help me swallow medications.

I moved in with my mother at the end of the summer, in a place she had rented, but that I thought was her home I didn’t remember. Slowly, my strength and endurance came back. I exercised, read, wrote in a journal, drew in a sketchbook, and began to re-member – to put mind and body back together. Yet I was content to rarely leave my sanctuary.

In a couple months, I had surgery on my skull to reconstruct the amputation, after which, I had been told, I would improve drastically. Unfortunately, I had to endure a week in the hospital before I had the surgery, after an anesthesiologist punctured my lungs trying to put an IV in my chest. But I digress. I did feel better after my skull was intact, and in just a few weeks, I began teaching an online class, one of the three I was supposed to be teaching full time that fall. My knowledge of art history, the humanities, and how to teach came right back and, likely grew stronger. I was able to concentrate and exert authority more and more over time.

I soon moved back to my home in North Carolina and to my boyfriend, whose name I could now remember. As 2008 progressed, so did I, and I was determined to no longer put anything off. I proposed to the man I love and got married, taught full time, and began to write scholarly articles and to paint again. But I was still lost.

Backing up further…. As a congenital amputee, I have been physically disabled since birth. I was born asymmetrical, as my right extremities are longer than my left; my right arm ends with a pointy tip, which serves as my hand, and my left arm ends just below the elbow with a soft, tiny finger known officially as a “residual limb.” My right leg ends below the knee with another residual limb I have called my “tickle” since I was a child, and my left leg is a few inches long and appears like a ball with a large dimple at the end.

Indoors, I crawl or move around on the floor in a seated position, in an act I call my “butt scoot,” and I use prosthetic legs and crutches to walk some. I learned long ago how to manipulate my hands and legs with numerous adaptations, such that I can do almost whatever I want to do with practice, innovation, and the right resources. I have also incorporated disability studies as a discipline, as well as my identity as a disabled woman, into my teaching and writing. I was/am independent(ish) and damn proud of it. I have traveled internationally, lived in 3 cities, and gotten my PhD. I was, for better or worse, fearless. Now I will feel anxious taking my scooter to the grocery store one day, without worry about anything specific happening, while the next day I will relish riding my scooter or bicycle on the neighborhood trail.

The anxiety about injury lessens over time. The anxiety over being lost and having lost control are still, and may always be, unbearable. I can’t sleep through the night without taking pills, my moods fluctuate from high to low without warning, and I can’t remember certain people, places, and personal things. I sometimes have to laugh as, for example, I realize that not everyone looks oddly familiar because I have forgotten them, but because people just look alike. I can laugh at my loss at times, while at other times I am consumed by feelings of emptiness and the desire to know what happened and why.

The hardest lesson to learn is that my personal history will never, and could never be contained by a linear narrative. I have discovered countless things from this specific accident about myself and the world I live in. But the main thing I have learned is that “lost” and “found” are not absolutes. They are states of being, always in flux. They collide, overlap, and intertwine. Sometimes, they make it a chore to get up in the morning. And sometimes, they produce accidental masterpieces.

This is an excerpt from Ann Millett-Gallant’s memoir “Re-Membering.”

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