On Friday, June 29th, 2018, I was going to fly to visit my parents. My brother and his family were already there visiting. At the time, I had thought of getting my Ph.D. in creative writing, so I had applied to a bunch of schools and did not renew my contract at my most recent teaching position for students with attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities. Summer vacation was about to begin, and I could focus on my future later.
When I got to my gate, I started to sweat uncontrollably. When they called my group over the PA system, and I started to gather my belongings, my backpack was suddenly hard to lift. I remember thinking it was going to be a difficult trip, but everything would be fine once I got onto the plane. Maybe, I would take a nap. So, I disregarded the red flags, hefted my backpack, and started to walk down the jetway. The floor seemed to shift, and I remember I focused all of my energy on putting one foot in front of the other. However, while I was still on the jetway, I stumbled and fell to the ground. Someone told me not to move. They placed a crash pad underneath me and put a neck brace on me. I remember saying something like “I can’t miss my flight.” At this point, they laughed and told me not to worry. “I could always catch another flight.” After that exchange, I don’t remember anything. Reflecting on it now, it reminds me of a line from the book The Island of Dr. Moreau. “This man, it seemed to me, had come out of immensity merely to save my life. Tomorrow, he would drop over the side and vanish again out of my existence.” I was taken to George Washington University Hospital in Washington DC which I discovered later is one of the best trauma hospitals in the United States. I had filled out the emergency contact form on the airline’s website, so JetBlue called my mother and told her I had fallen down and missed my flight. However, those were all the details she had been given. My family wouldn’t learn about the severity of my “accident” until much later. Based on the limited information, I think my family had assumed I slipped, fell, and might be injured, but I would be in shape to continue my travels later that weekend.
However, in reality, everyone’s vacation would be cut short.
While I was at the hospital, my neurosurgeon’s physician’s assistant found my phone and called my brother. It turns out I had a ruptured brain aneurysm which had resulted in a subarachnoid hemorrhage. It was particularly large and on the brainstem. My family immediately made plans to fly to be with me. There’s conflicting information about mortality rates, and making a complete recovery, but the outcome isn’t good. After I was discharged, I was told 1/3 of people who experience what I had died immediately, and another 1/3 died on the way to the hospital. The final third suffer a lifelong debilitating setback. I realize this is 3/3rds, but it just proves how rare my recovery is. Had anything been different concerning my schedule, I probably wouldn’t have lived. In the film Fat Man and Little Boy, about the building of the first atomic bombs, J. Robert Oppenheimer says “A few miles closer to the sun, a few miles further away, none of this would be here. Just a cloud of gas or a block of ice and nobody to enjoy it.” He’s talking about how life exists on earth solely because of its exact location in the galaxy. Had I boarded the plane, been at home, been in the restroom, etc., none of the scenarios play out well. Unfortunately, however, things continued to go downhill. I spent the following nineteen days after my rupture in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital. I was able to move, speak, and have conversations while I was there, but I have no recollection of any of it. All the information I have from that time comes from people telling me about it after I had been discharged. I needed to have a sitter watch me for my duration in the ICU because I got out of bed, fell on my face, and broke my nose. I continued to attempt to get out of bed and was able to remove attachments like the drain they had on my head. They had fitted me with restraints, but I slipped them like Houdini. At one point, I told everyone an assassin was going to come for all of us, and we needed to leave. My mother told me she had contacted the assassin, and he agreed not to carry out the hit. When my family asked for my password to access my computer, I refused to give it to them, and instead lectured them on the importance of protecting that information. In the ICU, I also contracted pneumonia and needed a filter since I suffered a blood clot. After nineteen days, when I was stable, I was moved to acute rehabilitation where I regained my cognizance. I stayed in the hospital for another two weeks for in-patient rehabilitation. When I did any activity I wore a guard belt. I also had double vision. During the few weeks I was in the hospital’s rehabilitation wing, most of my physical activity happened in very short bursts. The bulk of my walks would be in the hallway, and my father would follow me with a wheelchair handy in case I needed to take a break. After I was discharged, I began outpatient therapy. I continued to wear the guard belt any time I went outside. My mother stayed with me for a few weeks. Those first few weeks took some getting used to in terms of sharing the apartment with my mother. Most mornings I would wake my mother up by vomiting. It got to the point where I began to sleep with a towel in my bed. I went to a gastrointestinal doctor who suggested it was a side effect of the surgical procedure I had had but would eventually subside on its own. Eventually, thankfully, I stopped vomiting. After a few weeks, my mother and I drove to her and my father’s house. Almost four months later, and I still have double vision, some balance issues, and sweet foods have a metallic tang. More than five months after the aneurysm, and I’m back to writing and trying to get my life on track. I did not get accepted into any of the Ph.D. programs to which I had applied. At the six-month mark, I continue to improve physically. I routinely work out, for at least thirty minutes, a few times a week. It’s incredible to think back to the time when I could only do physical activity for two-minute stretches. Some things will always be different from here on out. Typically, now, as opposed to before the aneurysm, I fall asleep without dreaming and wake up without remembering my dreams. The capacity to remember my dreams, along with the vision and balance, may not come back. Some might say this is an unfortunate turn of events or bad luck, but I like to remember what Ron Swanson, from the television show Parks and Recreation, thinks about luck; a concept created by the weak to explain their failures. Regardless of how I feel about my situation, it won’t change the fact it happened. Almost six and a half months later, and I’m back in my apartment. The most difficult part of this experience has been the isolation since I’m by myself the majority of the time. For the last week, the only contact I’ve had has been on the phone. I’m trying my best to remain positive, but it’s been tough. I broke down crying the other day and called my mother just to have someone else with whom to speak. I’m past the seven-month mark now. I’ve been substitute teaching at my old school, which is very surreal. It feels like I’m a prison guard and at any moment, the prisoners will riot. At times, it’s felt like the pause button of my life has been pressed and after an uncertain amount of time has gone by, the play button has been pressed. However, almost everything is different from the way I remember it. During these first nine months, I made a lot of progress with my physical recovery. My double vision eventually went away, and I was able to walk without the guard belt or cane. However, there were still problems. My balance was off, and whenever I moved my head, it took time for my vision to settle. It’s the same sensation as when you step off of a merry-go-round. I had also not expected the emotional recovery to happen separately. Once the physical recovery began to taper off, I had to deal with unexpected overwhelming emotions. I saw a psychologist who specialized in post-traumatic stress disorder, and I began to take Prozac to combat depression. I also assumed this portion of the recovery would happen quickly too. It did not. Eventually, though, I felt stable enough to address the future. From January till June of 2019, I tried substitute teaching at the school I taught at previously, but it was overwhelming. So, in February, of 2020, I got a job as a tutor which was to start the following month. Finally, I tried online dating again. However, my inability to make emotional connections made that difficult. Also, at what point do you divulge you’ve had a stroke. It might seem like all of this could be unbearable, but I like to remember that comedy is just tragedy plus time. Enough time had gone by, that I could laugh at how my dating life began to resemble episodes of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. I also thought I would address my vision and balance issues, so I tried very specific physical therapy and acupuncture. My hope was that either would help to reset my vision and balance. Neither had that effect. Of course, the pandemic altered the landscape around this time, so my routine changed completely. My tutoring job never happened. Thankfully, last summer, my mother drove to pick me up and brought me back to my parent’s house. At least that way, I was guaranteed human interaction every day. I didn’t know how long I would stay with them, but we arrived in mid-June of 2020, and I’m still here. My vision and balance are still compromised, but I’ve adjusted to the point where it’s just part of my daily experience. I don’t typically remember my dreams, but sweet foods no longer taste like metal. All I can do now is move forward and make the best of the opportunities I have. The biggest obstacle continues to be my inability to make emotional connections. If I was a song, it would be “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd. However, I’ve spoken with another brain injury survivor who experienced a lack of emotional connection. She said it was the final ability to return, but it eventually did. She theorized that during recovery, the brain focuses on higher-order functions first; eating, breathing, etc. whether or not you can emotionally connect comes later. Of course, I could be completely wrong.
These days, I have adapted the concept of Pascal’s Wager to suit my needs. If I were to basically give up when thinking about the future and accept things as they are now, I would have nothing to gain. However, if I embraced the uncertainty and tried to look at obstacles as opportunities, there’s infinite gain. I continue to read a lot of philosophy and certain precepts have helped me to adjust: One of the helpful mantras which have worked is “Find something purposeful and meaningful to live for each day.” If I attempt to consider what the next year, month, or week might look like it can get overwhelming very quickly. I sometimes fixate on uncomfortable questions that don’t have answers. Most of the goals I’ve had have changed, and many of life’s questions remain unanswered. Many of them are difficult to contemplate even without a brain injury. All of us are all in the same storm, but each of us is in our own boat. Taking it one day at a time, while cliched, has helped tremendously. My experience is similar to a passage I read about people who’ve been attacked by tigers and survived. “There are, scattered around the hinterlands of Asia and — increasingly — elsewhere, a small fraternity of people who have been attacked by tigers and lived… very rarely is there anyone in their immediate vicinity who fully appreciates what happened to them out there and, in this way, the lives of tiger attack survivors resemble those of retired astronauts or opera divas: each in their own way has stared alone into the abyss.” These days I spend my time recording podcasts that showcase heavy metal bands who need support, and I continue to publish short stories and crime fiction novellas. Thankfully, my ability to write wasn’t affected. The recovery process in general reminds me of the chorus from the song “Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul. “I take two steps forward. I take two steps back. We come together cause Opposites Attract.” Life rarely works out the way we intend. I’m reminded of a quotation from the film Greenberg, in which a disillusioned character is told by a friend something like “You’re finally ready to embrace the life you never planned on having.” It’s still easy to lose sight of the magnitude of what I’ve accomplished, but I remind myself of when my family told me of milestones like being able to use a straw and eat finely chopped food while in the ICU. Since I still have physical limitations, I never forget what has happened; but often it’s difficult to keep everything in perspective. Believe it or not, the movie Platoon, about the Vietnam war, has a quotation that applies to the recovery process “All you have to do is make it out of here, and every day the rest of your life is gravy.” However, the most profound quotations which help me on difficult days are from Buddhist teacher Prema Chodron, which I’ll paraphrase: “We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe but the truth is we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is what makes us afraid, and it’s also part of the adventure.” “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart… the healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, relief, misery, and joy,”