I disappeared for a bit. A few things happened that left me shrinking. Shrinking from others is one thing, but shrinking from your own mind is a problem.
I got a concussion. I laid in bed for ten long days with an eye mask on, unable to process even the dim light of an overcast sky outside the window. I couldn’t talk much, because my own voice vibrated too heavily in my head. I managed to send some text messages by staring at my phone sideways with one eye half-open, my screen on dark mode and the brightness decreased to its bare minimum. But the strangest part was that I wasn’t supposed to think. How can you not think?
I did, in fact, not really think though. I had anticipated that I’d have lots of feelings and observations on being concussed, and maybe that sounds conceited, and it probably is, but I was humbled by the reality that my brain shut itself off. It simply didn’t work like it had for the three decades prior. So I had no thoughts. I didn’t have dreams either. When I slept it felt as though I was plugged into a battery that was recharging me, but in order to receive the charge, I had to be completely still. There was no movement in me. I kept telling my husband that my body was engaging in the “stunned bird who just hit a window” thing. He agreed that it probably was and let me know dinner was ready, but four broccolis later I’d start yawning and return to my job of being nothing.
It turns out that thoughts aren’t the same as emotions though. Maybe we know this. But maybe we don’t see evidence of it too often if we’re not trained therapists. Lying down on the leather bed and counting the quatrefoil cut-outs on the blue curtain at the emergency department, I had the distinct feeling that my mom was sitting beside me. She wasn’t, of course, unless we believe in that. But suddenly all these quatrefoils were dancing around in my tears, because I was crying about how I had injured the body that my mom created. When she left I had been in one condition (relatively good), and now I’d gone and messed it up by slipping on a boat ramp covered in algae and letting my brain crash around my skull in the process. How could I not have taken better care of what she’d made? How could I tell her that I’d hurt her child? What if I just deteriorated after she died, and never amounted to anything, and from that point forward my life was just one long, unending downward spiral? What if I never had a real, productive thought again?
Perhaps we can have some thoughts when concussed: catastrophizing.
And then my cousin died. My mom’s niece. She died of the same cancer as my mom, just seven months after my mom, at only 51. There is so much tragedy in this that if you try to listen to it, all you hear is a roaring. I can’t dissect a roar here, but more than that, my cousin’s death isn’t my story to tell. But I will say that she was such a vibrant life force that I often wonder where she is now. She must be somewhere, doing something. Is she running? Is she swimming at Kits Pool? Is she making quinoa salad? Is she laughing on the phone? Is she walking the dog? She can’t just be gone.
But the fact that she is - perceptibly - gone, unmoored me more than I already had been. After my mom’s death, I had already adopted an “Eh, you live and then you die” attitude. I had already become cynical about possessions clutched too closely and storylines that insisted they couldn’t be re-written. I had already started to scoff at people’s created identities. I refused to accept anything but the raw, the unfiltered. I spurned the fabricated, the illusory. What, you think you’re immortal? I’d sneer to myself. You think we don’t know you’re going to die one day?
It occurred to me that others were not obsessed with death the way I was, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t my problem if they didn’t know the facts of life. I’d had to watch the person who created me shrivel into a mere wisp, into a husk, into a chaff, and I was mad about it.
So I was already tired from carrying the ending around with me during the middle. And then, suddenly, my cousin’s death made it clear that this might not be the middle. That this could be the denouement. That this could be the conclusion. That this could be the autumn of our lives. That, at 36, I could be in my last 15 years. Or even less than that. And that there is no help. That there is no one who can stop it, if it’s coming for you. That we are all, truly, owed nothing.
It made the problem worse. I hated people who made things, people who said they did things, people on LinkedIn, people on Instagram, people who shared achievements, all the people who seemed to take credit for their fate. Who are you to claim this circumstance? I’d think. This health, this happiness? You’re lucky you even get to be here. Every opinion and every instance of striving became offensive. The slightest whiff of posturing became repulsive. How can you be so goddamn sure, if you don’t even know whether you’ll be here tomorrow?
I wanted to hear no one’s thoughts. If I couldn’t have assurance, no one could. And if I couldn’t stand my own thoughts, why should I grant you yours? In Aesop’s Fables, I was the dog in the manger.
I stayed like this for a while, and in part, I still am like this. But I did of course hear lots of people’s thoughts over the months that went by, and some were helpful. One was particularly helpful, in its factual simplicity: I was having dinner with a group of old friends, and one said to me, “And why did you have to get a concussion? That’s unfair. Like, I didn’t even have a bad year, and I didn’t have to get a concussion. But you did. That just seems like too much for one person”.
We don’t make people weak by telling them bad things happened to them. The same way a tree wouldn’t be missing more limbs if you went out into the yard and said to it “Someone cut your branches off. That’s really unfair”. We don’t make a person more sad by pointing out that they have a good reason to be sad. Depression isn’t fomented by the mere mention of the word.
And the thing is, we usually do know how to solve our own problems, so we don’t need much help. We just need someone to take stock for us, to acknowledge the state of things. For someone to say to us “You are here, and you have had to feel pain, and you are likely still feeling it, and I see that”.
Because being told you’re feeling pain is the same as being told you’re alive - you can’t feel pain when you’re dead. And that’s the crucial part in regaining some movement: believing that you’re still alive, and might even be for a little while yet.