In yesterday’s post, I committed to telling my own turning point stories. Might as well start with the big one that divided my life into “before” and “after.”
I was working as a policy analyst at a government agency that underwrote and managed (among other things) one of the biggest and most successful environmental programs in the world. Before that I taught math, science, and health at a private high school for three years. I was taking masters level courses at Portland State University in global environmental economics, system dynamics, political science and intercultural communication. I had already completed about thirty credits of postgraduate work and was on the road to a promising career at the intersection of politics, law, and science. My life felt full of opportunity.
Such were my plans and ambitions when a brain tumor wiped that dream right off my map.
To describe in medical terms (or even layman’s terms) what transpired in the first nine months of 2001 would require more space than a typical blog post can accommodate. Plus it would bore the pants off most people. It’s not that interesting unless it happened to you, or you’re into that kind of thing. (If it’s the latter, you’re probably not going to find what you’re looking for here.)
In the words of Inigo Montoya, swordsman and Spaniard:
“Lemme esplain…No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.”
A cavernous hemangioma had taken up residence in the frontal lobe of my brain, where it had been growing into a tangled mass of channelized veins that were leaking blood into the tissue around them.
Picture a flood in a subway station that drowns the passengers, shorts out the electrical circuits, fills the tunnels with sludge, and rots the tracks.
That was my brain. Blood, like any other liquid, follows the path of least resistance. Whatever it encountered along the way — white matter, gray matter, neural networks — were quickly smothered, clogged, and calcified. Nothing could be done about the dead tissue, other than to remove it, along with the mass in the middle.
In the meantime, though, there were daily seizures and excruciating headaches. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t be left alone. I couldn’t understand or follow basic instructions. Even simple conversations were exhausting and difficult, because by the end of a sentence, I’d forgotten the beginning, and couldn’t remember what we were talking about.
Traumatic brain injury is funny like that: all (or at least most) of the pieces are there, but you don’t remember how they fit together. I love jigsaw puzzles, but putting the pieces of my life back together taxed me beyond belief. Everyday tasks took two and three times longer than they used to, because I often had to talk myself through them step by step, and remind myself how to do them.
“Brush teeth, brush teeth…okay. First open the door. The one to that room. With the mirror. Open the mirror. No, wait. You can’t open a mirror. How does a mirror open? What is in it? Oh…I was looking for something. Something I had to get. What was it? Is it here? Why did I come in this room? Is that me? That face? No, that does not look like me. That girl is tired and lost. She looks so old and her face is so blank.
Why am I here? I can’t remember.”
A lot of days went by like that. In addition to the constant clatter (“why is everything so loud all of a sudden?”) there was a buzzy little voice inside my head that muttered endlessly about our situation.
“There’s so much I don’t remember. ..there’s so much I don’t remember…do you think they know how much you don’t know? Can they see that you are bluffing, bluffing, faking it, smiling and nodding even though inside you are shaken and aghast that you just got lost on your way to the bathroom and then couldn’t remember how to operate the sinks? Jesus, Molly…what are you going to do with yourself? Is this it, how it’s going to be for the rest of your life?”
Losing my hopes and dreams for my career left me rudderless. Around that time I learned a phrase from a big red-bearded Irishman named Bryan that summed up my situation succinctly: I was like “a ship in irons,” stalled with no wind in my sails, unable to navigate in any direction, and more or less at the mercy of the wild open sea.
I sensed that there still might be hope for my recovery, that maybe I could learn to speak in more than one -syllable words, and rebuild my vocabulary, and become again the writer I once was, before…everything changed.
Fifteen years later, I have the benefit of hindsight and I know how it all turned out.
But at the time, I didn’t. All I knew was that my life as I knew it was over.