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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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.

During one speech therapy meeting—a continuing session I had convinced myself I was above—the therapist asked me to describe my favorite class from college. After a lengthy contemplation, I expanded on a course I had taken on discursive language theory. A course I didn’t want to brag about, but knew would make me sound pretty smart. She transcribed my response and read it aloud.

I frequently went on disjointed tangents, spoke irrelevantly about a theorist we read whose name I couldn’t recall exactly (I mean, who needs to remember Michel Foucault, anyway?), and never gave a single reason why I liked the course. It was the first time I realized I was no longer myself, that I had worked my whole life to develop someone who no longer existed.

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The television becomes oddly enrapturing when you have nothing else to occupy your time—or can’t move your neck.

I’ve never really been overly involved in TV shows. Music? Yes. Movies? Absolutely. Books? Unbelievably. But TV shows…more like the Tootsie Pops sitting on your aunt’s Thanksgiving counter: easy to pass up for anything else.

But that changed after my teenage brother suggested Prison Break, a show I’d never heard of. Pretention aside, I hoped a TV binge would help distract me from my depressive “stage” of brain recovery while in pursuit of “living a normal life” (at the suggestion of my therapists).

I let my brother turn on the first episode.

Essentially, Michael Scofield, the attractive, genius structural engineer breaks his framed older brother out of jail. A completely plot-oriented show—and I fell, quick. I watched episodes first thing every morning before breakfast, in between doctor appointments, up into dinner, and way past my pre-established bedtime. I finished all four seasons in 18 days.

In the last season, we get a highly analytical view of the brain behind Michael Scofield. Quite literally, we see it as he develops a substantial brain tumor. Being my primary means of escape, the show’s sudden medical turn was unsettling to me, and I was unable to process its significance. But Michael had real problems to attend to. So he pushed forward. We pushed forward.

It wasn’t necessarily this brain-injured mastermind, though, whom I identified with most. It was her, Sara—Michael’s doctor, love interest, and a reformed drug addict. She felt more recognizable than any television character I’d ever encountered.

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Her independent intellectual pursuits fostered her alienation, and her desire to feel personal connections paired with her need of separation led to a morphine addiction, a problem that plagued her life to come. Weaving her path entirely alone, her greatest struggle was buried within: a lack of self-familiarity. What I saw, what I related to, was Sara’s journey to find her own post-addiction self during a period of ultimate trial and affliction. To complete herself, to accept a new self in a new life. It all felt familiar, real, and I needed her to get through it.

While Sara’s prison is completely allegorical, to me it was pragmatic. Never addicted to drugs, I still felt in tune with her struggle of recovery. She had to look into the mirror and re-establish herself, find a way to progress without the connections and activities she had once embodied, attend addict meetings to finally admit she had a problem. While many view drug addiction as a self-inflicted struggle, they don’t see the most trying aspect of recovery: finding the new you. As post-brain-injured people are found more likely to develop an addiction, we understand that oppressive despair that lies just beyond the drugs, beyond the physical reaction to the high—a realization that you don’t know your new, reformed self beyond the illusion of its disguise.

“Hi I’m Sara and I, uh, um, over the years I’ve worked with more than a few people who had a history of addiction and, uh, I would tell them I could understand what they were going through because I used to be just like them—I used to be an addict too. And I think uh, whew—I think that what’s becoming clear to me is that the reason I understood them is because I am like them. Um. I never used to be an addict…I uh…

Hi my name is Sara, and I’m an addict.”

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When I tell my friends about my obsession with the show Prison Break, they tend to stifle a laugh, eyeing me apprehensively. They’re unable to fathom the pretentious, art-driven girl who dreamed of acquiring a PhD in language theory becoming emotionally engrossed in an outdated, action-based television program.

A background which, despite my book-sized daily medication dispenser, I hadn’t lost entirely. I saw the show mess up, frequently. I saw when scenes had faulty editing, when characters lacked development, when real life intersected with production, or when the show relied on tired, stereotypically gender-oriented themes as foreshadowing. But my analysis would go in one frontal lobe and out the other. I was just happy for the distraction, an escape from my escape.

When I finished I sobbed. I quite literally sobbed myself to sleep in between fits of dry heaving and Kleenex excisions. I cried when I talked about characters the next day, filling in my uninformed mother on the finale’s specific sequence of events, telling her what characters really spoke to me, how I felt their lives fell in unison with mine.

It has been a few months since I was hit by the car, since I finished Prison Break. Some of my past characteristics have surfaced since then, and to everyone outside me I seem completely the same.

They don’t see the spunky academic cry herself to sleep. They don’t sit with the book junkie alone for hours, frustrated with her difficulty reading, or watch the celebrated runner break down as she stretches to endure her chronic body pain. And they’ve never accompanied her for hours on meandering walks, an attempt to keep despair from settling.

I know what to be thankful for, to recognize the kindness of a huge network of family and friends, cheer for the strength of my bones and richly networked neuron connections, partake in everyone’s celebration of my shocking avoidance of paralysis, or death. Yet even after hyping myself up to go on hour-long runs, I have the most trouble allowing myself a breath. An acceptance of my need to recover—of the fact that even after one escapes the omnipresent gaze that accompanies prison, scales the final wall, breaks the enduring scent of the guard dogs, and reaches the periphery of the warden’s memory, there’s still a vindictive reality lingering beyond one’s literal confinement. One that can easily devour your entire sense of self in a few seconds. Because even after you become an accomplished, beautiful doctor before the age of 30, the needle continues to sit waiting by your side.

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Toward the end of the last season, Sara enters a dive bar, mid-afternoon. She’s presented modestly, wearing a hooded white shirt, no makeup, arriving after learning of the murder of a close family friend.

The bartender is a middle-aged woman, sporting a Hawaiian button up and unkempt ponytail, who senses by her demeanor that Sara’s been a part of the program. Sara says she’s been sober three years, three months, and then tells the woman to pour a double bourbon, neat. (It seems that even the two of our drink preferences align.)

Sara looks down at the drink, her eyes welling, and lifts the glass ready to plunge, when she receives comfort from the bartender. A woman who encourages her to look to the love surrounding her, if only to mirror that within. Sara breaks down, but leaves her drink untouched as she reintegrates into the tiresome world of sobriety, encouraged she can make it out there alongside herself.

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