How I Overcame a Traumatic Brain Injury With Help From Prison Break

What happens when you have to relearn your brain? You finally have time to watch TV.

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How I Overcame a Traumatic Brain Injury With Help From <i>Prison Break</i>

I remember being told I had missed the party. That it had happened almost a week back. Those around me kept assuring me that I hadn’t missed work, and that I didn’t have to go in for any upcoming shifts. They told me I would be traveling back to my home state of Illinois the next day—my lease in Des Moines was ending, and I had already been moved out of my house.

I remember finding it odd that my arm was in a cast, my leg encased, my neck held by a brace. I looked down at them as I was pushed in a wheelchair by my family and roommate, whom I could have sworn was traveling around Europe. I was distracted as they tried to explain my new life, instead forming plans to escape the hospital to say goodbye to my home.

My separation was all thanks to that car, and to the undetectable traces it managed to etch onto my mind.

I was told I was on a jog when she tried to speed her car past a stagnant yellow light.
I was catapulted 15 feet high, slammed 35 feet forward across the intersection. I left behind a pool of red.

What I now suffered from was called a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). My injury had left me volatile enough to get into a fight with a nurse and break out of my IVs and placement restraints, adding a new medication to my regiment that moderated my impulse control. Consistently encountering the terms “shearing” and “brain bleeding,” I was told to stop fidgeting with my neck brace or I could be left paralyzed. Everyone was sure I would be able to fall asleep with it on eventually.

I had just graduated from college. I had two writing-based degrees in tow, but no idea how I wanted to use them. Not that my realm of realistic possibilities was notably extensive: My outlook had already been jaded by the bleak overcast that plagues us new post-grad “adults.” We encounter a lonesome period of economic alienation, a time of ultimate freedom submerged in confusion and framed by anxiety. So amid my freefall I decided to become a waitress—and drink, a lot.

In a way, the brain injury was simply an exaggerated portrayal of this new post-grad life. The intensified, all-encompassing version. When you wake up from a brain injury, you lose your grounding. The you that you’ve always projected is now unknown, lost. In an instant you’re thrown into a life that has never been your own, robbed of your sense of control. With brain injuries, what’s harder than relearning how to move your broken body, how to read and count, harder than overcoming the depression that encompasses it all, is relearning yourself.

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I’ve never been good at directions. Even before the injury, I was perpetually lost, only finding a place simply by arriving.

In college I would do so by spending my unallocated time exploring. I would take walks for hours and ride my bike around the trail network, sure I’d end up somewhere, eventually. The outdoors were richly in tune with my life—a passion developed through my involvement with an environmental organization, a job promoting local foods, and a commitment to soccer and running. A feeling of spontaneity mirrored by my own theoretical journey within myself, within my brain. I made a habit of signing up for elective philosophy classes. I wrote essays exploring America’s shift in cultural identity by reading The Wizard of Oz through Freud’s essay On Dreams. Went to costume parties dressed as Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allen Poe. Just before the car, I’d bought a camping backpack and started teaching myself Latin over coffee on my days off, unsure of what to explore next.

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My past working a multitude of office jobs left me yearning, devoid of any drive to work, of any passion—alienated from myself. I needed a break, and ridding myself of any “professional” alignment—to allow myself to fall freely into the beginning of my unregimented future—seemed to be the only way to do so.

Though I didn’t mean to take my anticipated spontaneity so literally.

In the hospital I forgot all about the future, unconcerned where I was headed next. Feeling “1,000 percent drunk” while being “100 percent sober,” I spent my time planning parties for my weekend nights off work. I was told I was uncharacteristically hilarious.

Occasionally I would embody a mime character I had created, brag about beating a full-grown lion in a fight, and make fun of my roommate’s “Hobby Lobby”-inspired fashion choices. I shared blatant sex stories with my parents and past professors, and told the hospital employees my favorite pastime was to take naps after my shift at the Holiday Inn (a job I held years prior) while watching my favorite show, SpongeBob Square Pants. I would frequently mention Penelope Cruz, an actress I have, still, never seen on screen, ever.

Yet after I gained some consciousness, some realization of my problem, I became aggressive—a friendly, typically relaxed young girl telling her therapists that she wasn’t planning on doing it, but that she would kill someone if it meant she could leave the hospital.

I was angry, but not for a problem I could address logically. I couldn’t tell time, I couldn’t count or add, I couldn’t talk about anything except myself for months. None of which bothered me in the slightest. I had never been good at math, I told them, so why was this any different?

It hit when I couldn’t write.

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