Memoir

Twenty Years After a Brain Injury, I’m Finally Getting on with My Life. And I’m Terrified.

My long recovery from a freak accident held me back, but it also gave me an ironclad excuse for everything wrong with my life.

Twenty Years After a Brain Injury, I’m Finally Getting on with My Life. And I’m Terrified.

I slip into my favorite red undies, then wriggle into a skirt and lightweight sweater. A slide of shiny luminizer eye shadow to brighten my eyes, a few strokes of mascara, a dollop of blush and some lip balm. I take a few deep breaths and study myself in the mirror. I’m ready.

Or am I?

It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve been on a date. Nearly ten years since my body utterly gave out on me as a result of an improperly healed head injury that happened when a tabletop mounted on the wall of a furniture showroom fell on my head. Crushing head pain, vertigo, life-sucking insomnia, memory loss, racing heart, disorientation, plus isolation and profound loneliness – for a great wash of time this had been my life.

Though years of treatment have helped, on damp days (approximately 342 a year in Michigan) I still feel like I’m trying to rise from the bottom of the deep end of the swimming pool, pushing up against the heavy water that gravity is forcing down. And I still feel as if I’m watching my life on a high-definition television screen: vibrant colors, crisp sounds, yet somehow, I remain separate from the world. But so many other symptoms are finally gone: Most nights I sleep deeply and soundly, I’m free of pain, my world no longer spins, my heart is calm, I can find my way home if I go for a walk.

For years now, I’ve been convinced that if only I could be strong and healthy again then my old self would reappear. That is to say, my younger self, with the scrappy fearlessness and curiosity that once carried me around the world, that plunked me in the front row and then backstage of every concert, that moved me at 20 to Manhattan where I didn’t know a soul, and that landed me jobs in fashion and journalism I wasn’t necessarily qualified for. The self that disappeared when my life became centered around my injury.

If only my symptoms were gone, I’ve reasoned, love, work, money, adventure, everything would glide easily into place. And I’d be happy.

Yet here I am, ready to burst through into well-being, and I find myself strangely afraid.

I’ve become accustomed to the “almost” zone I’ve been living in for the last couple of years: Healthier, but not yet healthy. Out and about more, but not yet dating. Finished writing the novel I couldn’t even touch when I was at my lowest, but not yet sold it. Making more money, but not yet solvent. I’ve been waiting to become fully well, and all these key parts of my life have waited with me.

It’s been frustrating, scary, infuriating, expensive, disheartening. But there’s also a sense of safety in it. Nothing good has happened, but nothing bad has, either. Lately I’ve been feeling stronger and more capable than I have in years, but with that progress looms a terrifying doubt: What if I heal but remain single, my novel never sells, and I don’t make enough money? Currently, I have an excuse, albeit a waning one, for all my shortcomings: my health. But what happens if I trade in that excuse for wellness…and I still don’t progress in life?

Despite this fear, I’ve been forging ahead, taking risks. For instance, the man who’s waiting for me right now at the local coffee shop as I assess myself in the mirror. Checking my makeup, but even more so, checking to see if I can do this.

I recently signed up for Match.com. It took me weeks to create the profile – a side effect of a long healing trajectory is that I need to pace myself through new experiences. I was cued to share my favorite sports and exercise, so I started there. What once would have been Thai boxing and yoga was now walking my dog to the park.

Then I was prompted to fill in my favorite travel hot spots. Once a dedicated traveler, often taking off to far-flung places on my own, I barely left my house for eight years after the injury. While I was starting to carefully venture back out, my favorite hot spots felt like distant memories, and I felt the shrunken size of my identity as I struggled to answer the prompt. Moving forward with my life was forcing me to grieve the loss of who I had once been.

But I forged ahead, and eventually managed to fill in who I read, what I ate, how much I drank (gone were the days of bourbon, neat), until, at last, there I was, out in the world.

Almost immediately men began reaching out. This panicked me more than I’d anticipated. There were, of course, creeps, extra-odd oddballs. I deleted those. There were also emails from intelligent, funny, kind men. One sailed the world. Another was passionate about helping children in Detroit. Yet another rescued animals. They asked me what I’d been doing with my life. It reminded me of when I first joined Facebook back when I was still so sick I rarely left the house. The community I found there was much needed at the time, but everyone was doing something fabulous – travelling, marrying, birthing, signing book deals, winning awards, et cetera – while I was celebrating that I’d driven a mile to the store. I didn’t know how to answer, how to explain that the last decade of my life had involved a lot of internal growth, but external stagnation, which didn’t make for light email banter.

Nevertheless, I set up two dates, including the one I’m on my way to now. He is witty and engaging, and we share common interests: love of travel, veneration of dogs, revulsion of Trump. We sip tea, nibble cake, and discuss our lives. The next date is just as good. It’s exhilarating. And terrifying. And also completely normal. I surprise myself with how comfortable and confident I feel, despite the downward dampness pressure and the television haze. I feel my old scrappy energy pulse through me. They both ask to see me again. This is it, I think. I’m back.

But then when I return home, the stress of having to do it again seeps in. What if I can’t? Or what if these are the wrong guys? What if I get healthy and end up committing to the wrong one? Or date and date and date and end up with no guy at all? And what if I can’t keep up with their expectations of me? Surely it’s easier to withdraw back into isolation and retain my excuse: Tell myself I’m not healthy enough to maintain a relationship. So I never reach back out to either.

Since I’m inherently shy, I figure maybe dating isn’t the best first step back to a “normal” life. Maybe I’ll have better luck starting with work, going back to something I’ve been good at – finding my purpose, and with it, my confidence.

For years, I supported myself writing for magazines and ghostwriting books, but it could be arduous with rapid-fire deadlines and editors’ hardnosed comments and rewrites and more deadlines and more hardnosed comments and so on. Yet, I long to see my name in print again. So I interview two authors for literary magazines. Both are friends and the interviews don’t pay, so the stakes are low. But I approach the interviews with the fully-engaged earnestness of days-gone-by. I savor every word of their books – sacrilegiously underlining exciting passages, dog-earring pages, furiously scrawling marginalia. I jot down questions with zest. My mind leaps with joy. One writer prefers an emailed exchange, but with the other we go old-school and speak (though it’s over Skype and the recorder is digital not tape). I love the exchange, the shared humanity, the hope, the figuring things out together. Transcribing, once a tedious task, becomes intoxicating. My fingers remember the start, stop, start of lifting a subject’s voice from the tape to the page.

I’m back, I think once again, as if by hitting the start button on the recorder I’ve restarted my life. Next I’ll pitch to venues that pay!

Months go by. I think about the deadlines. I think about the hard-boiled criticism. I think about the hustle of sending pitches to editors I no longer know. And I decide, I need to slow down. I need to get better still. In part, this is good counsel. I don’t want to push myself too hard. But I can also feel that the work is good for my healing, just as the dating is. The engagement back in the world sends buoyant, blissful energy rushing through my body. It elevates my self-worth and brings me joy. How can that be anything but healing?

So go most things in my life these days: I challenge myself to move forward and do well in that forward step. Then I put tremendous pressure on myself to excel, to accomplish tasks faster, to rise to greater heights. Then I worry I won’t be able to maintain the initial steps I’ve taken, let alone the great heights. Rather than linear, my healing has been up and down with a steadily rising baseline. Every day I can feel the thrum of dormant self-pressure and I temper it with my trusty excuse: my health.

If I’m honest, this pressure preceded the accident; it’s been with me as long as I can remember. A different sort of pressure impelled my parents to emigrate from post-war England. Like many survivors of war, they brought with them a sense of peril and urgency – and from early on it agitated my blood. While supportive of everything I did, they also made it clear I should do more, make more money, be more. That pressure came to live in the tightness of my jaw and turmoil of my stomach. Be more, do more, I commanded myself constantly over the years. It was my mantra.

And then the tabletop fell on my head. Strangely, in the midst of pain and despair I found a reprieve from this voice. “I’m recovering from head and brain injury,” I’d say. Miraculously people’s expectations would lower; in their place would appear empathy.

“I cannot believe all that you’ve lived through,” they would say. “You’re miraculous.” “You’re a warrior.” “You’re so inspiring.” And in those moments, I would see my life differently. Not something to be trudged through, but something of value.

I was no longer a world-travelling, Thai boxing, Manhattan-living, dining-out-nightly, music writer. Without my identifiers, I was simply Jane. And Jane was okay.

I’ve been putting pressure on myself to get healthy enough to return to the wonders of the world more fully, yes, but also, perhaps unwittingly, to return to the self-inflicted pressure to be more than I actually am. Be more, do more may certainly have helped me achieve some extraordinary things, but at what cost? My doctor once noted that I’d likely be healing faster if I hadn’t already pushed my body so hard before the injury even happened. Perhaps the comfort I find in the excuse of my health is actually the protection it provides me from my own mind.

Luckily my days now are no longer pure survival; though they aren’t bursting with ease, either. Since my initial surge forward, I haven’t managed to keep up with the dating, but I have hosted my first two sets of houseguests in ten years. I’ve travelled overseas twice. And I’ve started pitching stories to outlets that pay and landed an essay in a major magazine that paid enough to buy a much-needed mattress and an interview in a prestigious literary journal, plus this piece you’re reading.

Yet within each of these successes is that lurking pressure. Am I ready to take on increased expectations? Am I ready to flourish without dependence on an outdated mantra? One day the answer is a resounding yes; the next I’m not so certain. And so, this is my life: an often-stressful shuffle between triumph and despair.

In January, for my birthday, my friends take me out to dinner. In my pre-injury days, birthdays involved parties. Post-injury, they’ve largely been lonely affairs. There are six of us, which is still a large group for me these days. A half-hour car ride each way. A bustling restaurant. All of this requires tremendous focus. Sharing plates of herb-roasted parsnips while chatting about prison reform and trips to Jamaica, it’s hard to piece together five different inputs on a topic. Plus, the haze of my brain doesn’t mask the template of Life Before Accident, the memory trove that is once again reminding me of how much easier all of this used to be. It’s exhausting. And, if I let myself go there, sad. And yet, I’m having a blast! Not the sort of blast I once had, true. But a blast, nonetheless. And it feels good. And then, afterwards, at home, I withdraw. And that feels good, too.