It’s my 15th anniversary today.
I received a head injury in a car accident fifteen years ago on May 15, 2004 that damaged my language center and destroyed a bunch of my memories. It kind of makes me want to throw up when I think about how I’ve walked around with a hole in my mind for that long. I’ll never be the version of me that I was before the accident. The hole in my brain where I can’t grasp words and memories has been kind of a prison the last fifteen years, but I’ve forced myself to become comfortable with that cell I’m now in and even capitalize on it, as I’ve discovered that I can swing from the bars.
After the accident, where I was t-boned in my Dodge Neon by a GMC pick-up truck and slammed my head on the driver’s side window after the impact, it was incredibly challenging to read or talk coherently for about nine months. My kids had to do the bedtime reading for me during that time because books for ten year-olds were too difficult for me to read. I would stare at the words on a page, and I knew that I had seen them before, but I couldn’t locate the audible translation for some of them without great effort. Having a conversation with anyone shortly after I hit my head was extremely painful because I wasn’t sure that I could effectively locate the words I wanted to use in my brain and send them to my mouth. When I did locate the words I stuttered them if they started with a b, i, m, p, r, or w. A neurologist I saw six weeks after the accident said he thought my determination to write, even when I felt I couldn’t, probably helped rewire/heal some parts of my brain. A few days after the accident, I forced myself to start writing something every day. It was totally painful and depressing because I could only produce linear phrase fragments when I knew that I had once been able to construct elaborate word murals. On day nine after the accident I wrote: “noticed my printing is weird—like that of someone simpler than me” (apparently my arrogance wasn’t damaged in the accident). And on day ten I wrote: “slammed into car salesman with my body because I didn’t see him (of course, he was small, though)”. Despite some of the healing that occurred, the accident still left me with a black hole in my brain.
I can sense its presence, but the contents of the black hole in my brain are a mystery to me. I think it holds a lot of what I previously learned about language and had to relearn a lot in new ways. I’m so thankful for Google because I can just look up things that I’ve forgotten. And I take a lot of digital photos to help keep track of things. I don’t know all that’s missing for sure, but I do know a chunk of me is missing—and I still mourn that part. My kids told me at the time that I was a different person before the accident. Up until the head injury, I had a weird super memory that allowed me to recall every moment spent with my kids, every outfit I wore every day since kindergarten, every gift I had received for Christmas . . . a huge part of that just disappeared when my head hit the window. I’m sure a lot of the information I lost was useless, but I’m still devastated about losing those moments with my kids and not knowing what it is exactly that I lost. I want someone to present me with an inventory of what’s missing so I can stick it on the left side of my head and move on.
I also lost my ability to hear/process language normally. An audiologist told me that I can hear fine out of my left ear, but I can’t understand words through it. All I can really understand with that ear is rhythm. Since the accident I’ve been ridiculously aware of beats in everything around me and find myself counting along with life all the time. I have a djembe drum that I enjoy banging on to create some kind of a voice for expressing the things I hear. I can understand words fine with my right ear, but with both ears working together, it’s like I’ve got two “languages” coming into my brain at the same time. Depending on a person’s intonation, I often find myself “translating” the English that’s spoken to me. Once I learn someone’s speech patterns and can isolate the rhythm, then it’s like I’ve learned their unique language and future understanding becomes easier. The more translating I have to do with someone’s intonation, the more delayed my response is in conversation, which makes me hesitant to speak—and I used to be a pretty outspoken person. I still mix up words a lot, like saying “dinosaur” instead of “decided,” “difference” instead of “difficult,” “sometimes” instead of “sardines” . . . I’ve been told I’ve said “shit” in front of children when I was positive I was saying something totally un-offensive like “sock” . . . so that gives me pause when it comes to public speaking. So I guess what I hear now since my accident are drum beats accompanying “English as a Second Language” of sorts, and I really have no idea what it is I speak—some kind of “dinosaur shit” language, maybe. Anyway, I’ve lost confidence in my linguistic voice.
Because of the struggle that language is for me—written, oral, and auditory—it has changed my poetry and prose. My writing was once very lyrical and meandering, but today I tend to think in images and logic puzzles, and it’s sometimes challenging to find the right words to stick on what I’m visualizing or fitting into a grid. Despite the extra effort it now takes, I think my writing is actually much better than before my head injury.
I love the rhythm behind poetry (rhyming and non-rhyming) and playing with patterns. When I succeed at coming up with a handful of words to string together that reflect what I am seeing, I tend to call my poems done. To me a poem is an intuitive net. I’ve always been extremely intuitive, but even more so after my head injury. A “good” poem is something that catches me in “that net.”
I’m somewhat amused that I finished writing a novel last year that I had been working on for three years. What amuses me is that I have a language center in my head that’s fraught with hurdles and potholes—and sometimes land mines, as swear words sometimes explode from my mouth unexpectedly—but I have fun exploring that terrain. At least when I’m writing, I can go back and edit several times before releasing the “wrong” words to the public. I have to admit that I’m amazed that I figured out how to turn novel writing into a fun experience for me, even though I prefer linguistic brevity. I now approach writing in a mathematical fashion instead of an emotional one. My writing possesses a linear quality that it did not have before my injury. Six years after my accident, I forced myself to write a blog post every single day of 2010. Several months into my writing challenge, the words started coming more easily and dropping into place. I approached my novel as if it were a logic puzzle and a crossword puzzle. I drew diagrams and flow charts and figured out what was needed to connect different lines. Then I imagined that I was molding and painting characters and marched them through different stories like I did with my Barbie dolls when I was young. When characters and stories fit the boxes and followed the lines I had made, I committed them to my novel. I kept doing this until I felt my literary vision was complete.
I probably shouldn’t be that surprised that I could enjoy writing a novel despite the holes in my language center, because I have always enjoyed any kind of wordplay. But now that my thinking and communicating tends to take a more direct path than prior to fifteen years ago, I find myself grasping the essence of concepts more intensely than I did before my head injury. “Amazed” is what I feel about every linguistic form. I am completely blown away by the ability to place letters/words/phrases next to each other so we can share our abstract thoughts with one another. Language is an utterly amazing ability that we humans have developed! The last few years I have found myself imagining what our world could be like if everyone grasped the preciousness and the power of the language we choose to use. I imagine that it would be a world worthy of a utopian novel. Maybe I should start drawing a diagram of it and find some words to fill it in with . . .
If you’d like to comment on this post, just follow this link to set up a WordPress user account: https://wordpress.com/start/delta-discover/user
© 2019 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of Julie Ryan