and The Self: How it can feel to have a
When this all began, after my first accident, I remember thinking that it would be a small interruptions in my week, a hiccup at worst. After the second accident, I thought it would be perhaps a short pause in the course of my life, a slight detour, an inconvenience I’d come back from. Now I know it’s an odyssey of sorts, an epic journey of inaction, of waiting, of enduring. It’s like one of those interminable telephone holds, complete with unnecessarily loud, annoying music that grates on you until it becomes a great unintelligible cacophony inside your head, leaving you dazed and disoriented and desperate to end the phone call. I’ve been in that state of suspended misery, wishing I could end this phone call for almost three years now.
How to describe the invisible prison of a TBI? How to describe the fracturing of self, the haunting presence of the old “you” clamoring to get out only to emerge as a familiar stranger after passing through the filter of your injury?
Imagine being shipwrecked, in a night so dark not even the faintest stars permeate the blackness that envelops you. Imagine floating, bobbing in this darkness while waves bat you this way and that. Sometimes they crash over you, leaving you sputtering, gasping for breath, unsure of where you are, where you should be, and where the next wave is coming from. Sometimes they just rock you, keeping you perpetually disoriented, off balance and oh so tired of treading water. After some months, you feel something solid, a tiny plank from the wrecked vessel, and you cling to it. Suddenly you can at least rest occasionally.
Oh so gradually, the sky lightens to dark grey and you can see around you the detritus of your vessel, the scattered fragments that are left of your life, of your self. In this monochrome haze you begin the arduous task of collecting pieces and eventually you find you’ve built a life raft. You float now, scrabbling to get every passing splinter that floats by, desperately afraid that if you miss them you’ll never be whole again. You cling to these recognizable parts of you, even when doing so leaves your hands raw, bloodied and littered with splinters, because the idea of letting them go, of accepting them as lost forever is unimaginable.
The sky lightens further, and you can see your reflection in the water. You look excitedly over the edge only to have your image morph into a stranger looking back at you. For a fleeting second you catch a glimpse of yourself and then it slips through your fingers, melting in to the chaos, leaving something that should feel known, familiar, but somehow just feels wrong. Eventually, you see a shoreline, an enticing mirage of familiar faces, activities, feelings. You float to and fro towards it, reaching out towards the security of land, towards every aspect of your life and yourself that has been lost you. Sometimes you manage to fight the waves and get close enough to call out to shore, to make salvation seem attainable, imminent even, and then the undertow takes you away again. The light, the shore, comfort## you, give you direction, but they also cause you pain. When you were gasping for breath in the darkness, fighting for each gasp of sweet air, you had no time for loss. Survival leaves no space for grief. Now you are safe enough that the enormity of your loss weighs on you every second, coupled with the fear that you may never reach the shore, that your existence has been reduced to this cruel ether. Aware of the world, aware of your true self and yet disconnected from both. A half-life. Suspended in the bleak half-light, using every ounce of strength to get to land, and finding your task Sisyphean, futile. Taunted with the promise of resurrection and grieving your own death with every failed or incomplete attempt.