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Maybe if I hadn’t wanted a burrito, I wouldn’t have a brain injury right now.
It was early last May, and I was on my way home from a party in Bel Air. This is the person I used to be: someone who spends a Wednesday evening chatting up money-hungry men in suits, downing a few glasses of red and hitting the occasional joint while absorbing cannabis investor gossip and networking the fuck out of the situation. Casual. About five years back I’d decided that the only way to cover the secretive and mostly illegal marijuana industry was to show up in person as often as possible: drugs is a business best discussed IRL. Silver catering trays of salmon had been laid out on a balcony overlooking the pool but I’d only had a few bites, so after the Tuscan McMansion began to empty and once my Lyft wended its way out of the hills and was finally approaching my block, I asked the driver to make the next left, instead, and drop me at the taco truck down the street.
We pulled up to a red light and came to a stop. It was just after 11 p.m. I was in the back seat on the passenger side, my scalp flush against the headrest. I heard a loud crunch.
The next thing I remember is feeling a profound wrongness, everywhere. Immediately, Martin Sheen came to mind. In the season two premiere of The West Wing, Sheen’s character, the President, has been shot, but in the chaos of the moment, he has no idea. Sirens wail and his limo zooms toward the White House as Sheen coherently discusses who’s been left behind at the scene. Then, a Secret Service agent notices blood coming out of his mouth, and both the agent and the audience realize he’s hurt. I first saw this scene in high school, and its lesson apparently cleaved a place so close to my heart that it was the first thing I remembered in the wake of my own trauma.
Take careful stock, I remember thinking as I gently patted down my torso and legs, feeling for blood, because whatever is wrong might not be obvious. Like that one time with Martin Sheen.
That impulse was correct. Something was very wrong. But once I determined I was physically intact, I unbuckled my seatbelt and spilled out of the Hyundai into the night air, forgetting about Martin Sheen and settling instead into a cocoon of denial. I felt pain across the back of my skull, between the nape of my neck and my occipital bone, but otherwise, I seemed fine. In that moment, I definitely would’ve been shocked to hear that my brain was so injured as a result of this accident that I would eventually be told I’ll have “cognitive deficits” for at least six years, if not the rest of my life. That I’d be told my neck will have permanent damage unless I have surgery. That I’d be diagnosed with a concussion, with post-concussion syndrome, with PTSD, with adjustment disorder, with neck and back problems, and with inner ear problems so severe that I would soon quit listening to music, watching television, and going out in public almost entirely.
Snapping a few pictures on my phone of the Hyundai’s smashed trunk and the BMW SUV that rear-ended us, I had absolutely no idea that a year later, I would still be dealing with the consequences of this accident, every damn day.
My Lyft driver was arguing with the guy who hit us, so I called my best friend, Gary. “My head hurts,” I told him. “Do you think I need to go to the hospital?” Later, Gary told me I was laughing throughout this conversation, insisting I was fine. He Googled the symptoms of a concussion and asked: Was I dizzy? Nauseated? Sensitive to light? No, no, and no. Well, better just go get that burrito then, I decided.
The taco truck wasn’t even there, that night. Walking home, I noted the beauty of the moon through the palm trees. As the clock ticked past 11:30 p.m., I remember thinking that all of my responsible friends were asleep. I considered walking up the hill to wake one of them up, because I have her key, but that felt unnecessarily dramatic. She had to be up early for work. I didn’t want to bother her.
As I got into bed, I started to cry. My back felt unnaturally arched against the mattress, as though I could still feel the curve of the SUV pushing me forward. My head ached. Part of me knew you weren’t supposed to go to sleep if you had a concussion. Part of me knew the situation was serious. The last thing I thought before I passed out that night was: If I die in my sleep, Gary is going to be so, so sorry that he didn’t force me to go to the hospital!
In other words, some scared-as-hell, petty-ass nonsense.
It would be 60 hours before the full slate of symptoms hit, and 17 days before I saw a doctor.
I wanted so badly to be fine, so I convinced myself that I was.
I spent those first weeks alternating between hope and agony, pushing through as much of my normal schedule as possible. I spoke to a neurologist friend over the phone and saw my acupuncturist; both said I would likely be fine in a few days and didn’t need to go to the hospital. I stopped drinking alcohol and took a break from exercising, but otherwise I just tried to shake the whole thing off. I was back at my desk the morning after the accident and worked every moment I physically could; the gig economy doesn’t pause for sick days. I tried to focus on reporting, because writing felt impossible. I sat in on lunch with California’s now-Governor Gavin Newsom. I made guest appearances on a handful of podcasts. I told my editor I would definitely turn that next column in, soon, yes, for sure. I wanted so badly to be fine, so I convinced myself that I was.
But all the while, I was very much not fine. Most of the day, I fought back terrible headaches and debilitating nausea. Sounds were distorted, and much louder than usual. Do buses always make this much noise? I thought, curled up in pain in the back of a friend’s car. I would come home after a few hours of reporting and collapse on the couch to recover, immobile and miserable for the next 24 hours. The headaches, in particular, would escalate as the day went on, reaching a fever pitch in the early hours of morning but disappearing by sunrise. I had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, but felt much, much worse if I didn’t get at least 11 or 12 hours a night — far more than the eight I’d needed before. Days fly by when you get into bed at 11 p.m. and out at 2 p.m. Between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. I’d lay there in a panic, scared for my life, weeping from the intensity of the pain, telling myself I would go to urgent care first thing in the morning — only to wake up feeling okay and convince myself I must have been exaggerating.
This was the really scary stuff: the tricks my mind started playing on itself, and the fog of confusion I barely understood because I was still lost so deep inside of it. I laughed when I bought the wrong bread at the grocery store, the kind I used to buy a few years ago before I decided that it had too much sugar and switched. I laughed when I spent a full five minutes considering whether Homer and Marge’s last name was “Simpson” or “Simpsons.” (Bart Simpsons, I thought to myself. Now, that can’t be right, but why else would the show be called The Simpsons?) I laughed when I said “fork” instead of “spoon,” or “cucumber” instead of “toothpick,” but I didn’t dwell much on these moments. The full extent of the issues with my memory, emotions, and decision-making would only become apparent in the months to come, as I slowly became conscious enough to notice them.
My current reality feels fundamentally incorrect, like a virus-ridden app I’d love to quit.
Early on, I read some advice for people with concussions that included the mandate, “Don’t think.” This struck me as hilarious: every aspect of my life involved thinking. How could a person just stop thinking? I understand now, though. Thinking hurts. Which means that in order to feel healthy, I need to ration stimulation, conversation, noise, and learning. So how sick I feel depends, in part, on how much time I spend doing the things I enjoy most about being alive.
At times it feels like I’ve woken up in an alternate timeline. It seems as if every aspect of my life has fallen apart. I see why people with traumatic brain injuries are two or three times more likely to commit suicide; my current reality feels fundamentally incorrect, like a virus-ridden app I’d love to quit. I’ve found myself behaving in ways that felt foreign and terrifying: Rudely sniping at the guy behind the desk at my favorite Pilates studio. Spurting tears like a sprinkler while yelling at a hapless anesthesiologist about “the for-profit medical assembly line!” Ignoring texts and emails from people I love. Crying, out of nowhere, more than once, about how inspirational Beyoncé is. I’ve never felt more isolated, or more unsure of myself. At one point, after months of barely being able to work, I had a mere $77 in my bank account.
The full scope of what I’ve lost and missed is difficult to describe, let alone confront. A highlight reel of plans I’ve had to cancel or turn down streams across the backs of my eyelids: My 10-year college reunion. A week of backpacking in Maine. The opportunity to go clubbing with a favorite rapper. Every speaking engagement I had to flake on, every birthday party I couldn’t attend, every Instagram story I couldn’t watch of my friends’ toddlers belting musical theater with sauce-stained faces, their cheeks growing less chubby each month, marking the inexorable passage of a year I would never get to experience.
Even now, writing about the accident is causing the point of impact, on the back of my head, to ache in pain. I worry that I’m not quite a reliable narrator of this brain injury, because I’m still trapped within its confines. Or maybe this is the ideal time to try to write about this experience, at a midway point between illness and health. Recently, I remembered that when I was 21, I wrote out a set of guidelines on parenting; I figured I was halfway between being a child and having a child, and that gave me unique perspective. Perhaps this is similar.
The truth is I’ve been struggling to compose a narrative in the damaged prison of my head for a year, attempting to sort out both what happened and what is happening, so that maybe I can make some peace with it and offer a coherent explanation to the friends, family, colleagues, sources, and acquaintances I barely speak to or see anymore. Since last May, my life has shrunk in an extraordinary way, down to a pithy core of work, loved ones, and attempted healing. I can’t write as quickly as I used to, and need to take longer and more frequent breaks, to rest my mind and stare at the sky in silence. But I became a journalist because I wanted to do something useful with my life, and I’m hoping that explaining my side of this experience can provide some comfort or context to the 2.5 million Americans who sustain a traumatic brain injury every year, or at least to their friends, families, and doctors.
Because eventually, I did go to the doctor. By then, I knew the biggest risk was that my brain was bleeding, and I knew I needed a CT scan, and I knew they didn’t have the right machines at urgent care, and I knew the fastest and most cost-effective way to make this happen was to go to the emergency room. The insurance bureaucracy guarding that information had matched my brain in sludgy slowness, and then some. A friend finally took me to the ER on a quiet Saturday evening, two and a half weeks after the accident, when I had a panic attack at a party and admitted in tears that everything was really, really not okay.
The CT scan came back clean. The ER doctor gave me a prescription for three (3) Valium.
“Take these,” she said. “You’ll be fine in a few days.”
Anyway, that was a year ago. I’m still not fine.