My Year of Nothingness by Susan Mellsopp
It arrived again, without warning, not long after Christmas. The blackness overwhelmed me in an instant and I woke from my unconscious state several minutes later. Lying on the carpet with my head bleeding profusely, I realised I had hit it on the heavy metal framing of my ranch slider as I fell. Drowsy and confused, I staggered to my feet, turned on the shower, and knew I needed help urgently.
Unwilling to spend another day being ‘observed’ at the hospital, I visited my doctor who had me watched for a period of time then sent me home to ‘rest’. I soon learnt I should have been referred that day for professional help to deal with the severity of my concussion.
Once again my brain was damaged. I was about to revisit the fight for normality. Battered and bruised, I felt as though someone had hit me over the head with a heavy metal bar. The insidious blankness, thick fog and loss of awareness I remembered so well filled me with increasing dread. I was unaware this was to become a year of nothingness.
Eventually support for my bruised brain arrived. A plethora of professionals used to rehabilitating the concussed began to tour my muddled grey matter. Some weeks there were five exhausting appointments. As I struggled to stay awake, my brain swirled, protested and retreated into its curves and folds. It demanded frequent sleep and destroyed my joy. I existed in five minute energy sapping periods of time. Living was cancelled.
The experts insisted my brain would love a walk, twice daily. My body drunkenly swayed and swerved as I navigated the local footpaths, fearful of stopping in case I could not start moving again. Mentally unable to discern the abandonment of balance, I crashed into walls at home and frequently became dizzy. A visit to the supermarket exhausted me for the whole day. I could not tolerate noise, bright lights, and people talking. Told I should frequently stand up and sit down to help with balance issues, I didn’t have the heart to tell the physiotherapist I already did this a multitude of times daily letting my dog in and out of the house. My lovely brain which I admired so much was a separate entity disconnected from who I really am.
My biggest love, language, turned into my enemy. A week after my head injury I gave a speech for International Women’s Day. I have no idea if it made sense but it took my muddled self several weeks to recover from the effort. Time passed slowly, my spoken and written language remained stilted, muddled, misunderstood and echoing. Swirls of letters were nauseating, words were jumbled, dyslexic. Books were abandoned, my computer left in solitude, emails unread. A month of concerted mind numbing effort to accumulate travel claim documents saw my brain collapse in a puddle on my spinal cord. A gnawing fear that I might fail to recover my precious language abilities made me spiral into a vacuum. Like a thief depression crept up with its own insidious agenda. Slowly I sank into a black mire of jumbled neurons and synapses. I fought to help every knot and tangle of my battered head.
Summer dissolved into autumn, then winter. I struggled incessantly with my missing intellect, damaged body and loneliness. Anger, grief, frustration and rudeness permeated every cell of my being. I raged at myself, at the loss of my hard won freedoms and dreams. Concussion ruled; not the brief passing event assumed by many. Six months I was told, then nine, now perhaps twelve. Disbelief exploded all around me. The reality meant few visited, some sympathised, and my brain detached itself into solitary confinement. I now wonder if it’s misfiring and sludgy responses drove my private world away. My only solace was canine. I wrapped myself in the loving presence of my golden retriever where I found unconditional acceptance in my difference, he allowed my brain to relax.
Months shifted, weeks dissolved, days melted. Tests and more tests occurred as neuropsychologists and neurologists trawled my aching lobes. Music became my soothing friend. Initially unable to listen to any sound which scratched and tormented my mind, strangely I began to devour opera, entranced by great Russian singers I had never encountered. I listened from daybreak to nightfall and my neural circuits started to thank me for the stimulation. I began to rejoice in short spurts of reading, just five minutes, before the overwhelming tiredness won. Talking to people submerged me in an echoing sea in which I drowned, all I wanted was to sleep and sleep.
My pulpy brain fooled me into doing many strange things. I have put my clothes in the rubbish bin instead of the washing machine, left food out of the fridge, forgotten to feed my beloved dog, or fed him twice, and rung someone I had just spoken to. I also forgot if I had showered, and cleaned my teeth too frequently. I made two separate diaries, one written and one electronic, my grey folds often failed to discern where I was supposed to be. Lists were a lifeline. Builders hammering next door for long dreary months drove me to despair.
Today my brain and I are reluctant friends. Journeying together to overcome the vestiges of the head injury which has broken this year apart, we have a truce. I have taught it to interpret the uninterpretable. I force it to stop and analyse every situation, however ridiculous. It complains and rejects my pushing and encouragement, yet I continue. It’s loving response is to return my intelligence, innate curiosity and ability to write. Creativity fills my days as I use language to reconnect.
Yet my brain begs to differ and still reacts accordingly. Silent cognitive issues rule. Decisions I make are forgotten in an instant. Conversations disappear into a mist. They can stop mid-sentence as I unexpectedly disengage and fall into a deep white hole where wires are disconnected or wrongly welded. My brain ceases working and thoughts freeze in a Siberian tundra. I lose words as soon as I think of them and have to urgently write them down. Strangely, I can now read properly and retain content. But I can suddenly forget a pin number or password, a friend’s name, or simple directions. It is difficult to remember bus timetables. Sometimes I cannot use simple gadgets such as a row counter when knitting, or decide which buttons to press on my stove or washing machine. Occasionally I still sway all over the footpath when out walking and fear being asked by a policeman to walk a straight line. This rabbit hole is layered in ridges over normal forgetfulness. Impatience and anger bubble to the surface unexpectedly. The insidious damage of concussion on my jumbled grey cells retracts and revolves around who I was. My lobes do seem grateful to no longer live in another dimension, removed and distant from the living.
Christmas now hovers near and the New Year beckons. I tolerate the new revised me, one with still healing neural circuits. Each challenge diminishes that deep white hole where thoughts disappear and words are dead on the lips. When Christmas trees sparkle with baubles and tinsel, carols fill the airwaves, people shop frantically and my guide dog jumps with joy at the sight of Santa, I will express gratitude for my year of frustration, defiance, protest and loss, for the presence of my wonderful brain.