"Control + Alt + Delete"
a memoir of the first months of the end of my brain
On 30 December 2011 and the end of April 2012 (dates are fuzzy for reasons detailed below), I suffered devastating head injuries. Today, on the seventh anniversary of what felt like the end of all life as I could ever know it, I'm posting this essay, which was commissioned by Beth Staples for the Hayden's Ferry Review blog--after I told her how odd it was to see my contribution to the magazine after I'd essentially lost my mind and memory.
So how have things gone in my brain and my life since this essay was first written and published--after all, the doctors gave me hope in the beginning that things would change, that I was healthy and would recover my function ...
I lost much more over the years. I'd like to say some good came of it too, but I'm not that stubbornly life-half-full. The awful things proved my sweetheart is a mensch among mensches (it is a constant surprise that he hasn't left me), but finding my function so reduced did eventually lead to a full collapse. As of 30 December 2018, I haven't left the house except for doctors' appointments in a year and a half, and there are days on which I am unable to function; taking a shower is a monumental undertaking. Needless to say, the job and the institution have not been sympathetic. My half-full life means I tell myself stories when I can do nothing else, and I write them down when I can. I have a new novel coming out in spring 2020, and I'm lucky that I now don't have to depend on an academic job for my future, though a steady paycheck would be comforting.
I have to say, all the same, that this sucks. I’ve lost countless friends who can’t understand why I can’t go out or even speak much of the time. There’s some basic lack of understanding there; I explain I’m bound to the house, and then someone suggests going to a noisy place for pie. And when I say that’s impossible, it’s the end.
Work was also bad, though it can’t quite compare to the loss of the emotional network that holds us in our lives. The then-chair of the department where I worked made a real campaign out of punishing me for being ill. Students wrote and said nasty things about, for example, my request to turn off an overhead chandelier in a room well lit by windows, because overhead light triggers migraines, one of the most obvious (yet not the worst) symptoms of a head injury. (I’m sure that particular person had other reasons for disliking me, but this was the one with which she went to bat.) The chandelier student complained to the next department chair, who called her a hero for seeking out what she needed in re: classroom lighting.
I don't know anyone who maintains that academe is a healthful environment for ... just about anything. But when push comes to brain injury, you disclose what you need to disclose, try not to ask for sympathy ... and are nevertheless astonished to find the portcullis slamming down on the ivory tower (or in this case, the squat bargain-brick edifice erected in an era that seems to have feared windows would encourage student unrest).
Colleagues I’d considered friends, or at least obligated to a sort of detached yet warm civility by the unwritten terms of collegial cooperation (one I'd thrown a retirement party for, one with whom I'd taken a road trip in Europe) simply ignored me. It was as if whatever I had were contagious; the reek of cerebral dysfunction was thick on me. Or then again, maybe I appeared to be malingering, or generally weak, or I’d never been liked much in the first place. A male coworker who considered himself my supervisor suggested all my brain trouble was menopausal.
Students realized I was hypersensitive to sounds and thought it funny to leap out from behind doors and shout “Boo!” — to see me convulse. Yup.
And that was how I realized that the quality of mercy was indeed strained, and academic heaven was withholding its manna. Still, I kept going as long as I could. I had a husband and two stepsons and a lot of cats to take care of; there was no tidy way of getting sick leave for the courses I was told only I could teach. I reasoned that I had years’ worth of material stored up and much more accessible than recent memories had become; I could recite lectures by Alan Dundes or my own notes and articles on Tender Is the Night — I just couldn’t articulate great new thoughts so easily. And I actually believed my detailed responses to student work and my long office hours meant something to the educational process. (I‘d been told since I taught as a grad student that I gave more feedback than other university instructors usually did; perhaps it was (in general) as unwelcome an effort as it was a difficult one. )
And there were a lot of students--a lot of them--who had been through something terrible with their health or their lives and who saw a kindred spirit in me. They had been shucked off by the rudimentary mental-health services at the university and thought I might be able to help. They were kind to me and I was kind to them, and although it would have been inappropriate for me to let my guard down and tell them everything that had happened to me, we talked about them and how they might survive this phase in their lives and flourish academically. Those are some of the best moments of those awful years. And I'm not pretending to be some kind of faculty Mother Teresa; I'm not that great a person. But those were special moments, moments in which I felt my life, learning, experiences (all of them) were helping someone else prepare for life. Which was what college was about, right?
So what did matter, to me anyway, was those hours spent with students who needed someone to convince them that life could be more than it was right then, at the worst time in their lives … but since those students usually dropped out, they didn’t fill out their customer-satisfaction surveys, and so time spent making sure they had a safe place to go and a referral to a good therapist (mine) was time wasted, in the rubric used by the institution if not within my personal soul.
One of the biggest surprises in that first cataclysmic year was the reaction some people had to this memoir. The life-half-full people (well, there were only three or four of them) applauded me for my bravery as I declared myself venturing into the vast unknown. A decidedly odd reaction to what was essentially a public suicide note, or at the very least an epitaph to put on the gravestone of my career as I then knew it.
I miss my brain. I have other good things in my life, but I really do miss my brain.
I offer this essay to others with head injuries and assorted debilitating diseases. It may feel there's little hope, and that's true for many parts of your life. But there's solidarity, and a few people who will understand you.
Thanks to Beth Staples and to Laura Ashworth, who invited me to
send Hayden's Ferry the short story I mention herein.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Hayden's Ferry Review
On Being Archived: Control + Alt + Delete
I wanted to erase myself. Control + Alt + Delete.
Easy enough to do: Twenty years’ worth of handwritten journals, most of them full of angsty self-recrimination, tossed in the recycling bin. And my fiction: I threw out bad manuscripts and not-so-bad ones. It’s even easier with the computer, most of which I don’t bother to back up. Eight years of e-journaling gone with a satisfying crackle in the onscreen trash bin. And short stories and novels-in-progress, none of which were backed up in current condition, they went too. Manuscripts for my two published novels and the electronic edits and galleys; the Renaissance novel now in circulation, which took me seven years to write; the ghost-story novel I’m flogging now, mostly as a way to give myself hope that life is more than migraines while I recover from a couple of brain injuries.
In December, I slipped in the bathroom, fell about four inches, and wiped my brain clean of the abilities to read, write, drive, walk, do math, and remember short-term. They grew painfully back as I taught my classes, until in April, a neighbor’s neglected dog, the one he allowed to roam the streets snarling and leashless, knocked me to the ground and kicked my brain back to January again. I don’t know much about what’s happened recently. But I had all these boxes and files of what I might grandly call archives.
The aphasia, dyslexia, and memory loss from the two concussions made me realize in a primal and hyperbolic way what it means not to be able to express yourself, to slur and stammer like a drunk, to forget what you were saying even in the middle of sentence, the humiliation of asking a friend or a supervisor or a student to repeat what you’d been saying because suddenly your mind misfired … And yes, it’s always a challenge to express exactly what you mean, if not to mean what you express. Every writer knows that. With the trouble I now have getting a recognizable word out, you’d think I were a chimpanzee chained to a keyboard and told to do her best to produce Twelfth Night.
I remember the previous decades much better.
And now, a flashback to events and feelings recorded in my lost archive:
When I was in junior high and high school, I had people call me by an alternative pronunciation of my first name. I thought it sounded ugly, but I was glad I could keep my “real” self hidden, the real things I did and tried and wanted; an emotional archive as yet untapped. My desires are obvious by now: I wanted to be a writer (which no one could know about), I wanted cleavage, I wanted to be out of that dreadful little town and away from the bullies. I admit it freely: I was the least popular kid in my high school, which is why I don’t attend the reunions to which I get inexplicably invited. Why relive those memories?
College was great. I got the book learnin’. I got cleavage. I swam in the Pacific at 6 a.m. I found out that people who didn’t know me from the past were approaching me to talk and be friendly and maybe even date me, not to torment me with some halfwitted insult to make their stoner friends laugh. I used my true name.
But I was still too shy to let anyone know about the writing. Then and after, when my stories were published, I rarely told my friends. I still don’t. I assembled a little archive—very little now—just for myself.
HFR was one of the first places that took one of my stories, “Where You Came From”—about a girl’s relationship with her Barbies, whom she considers her true family. I was dazzled by the staff’s kindness and by the cover, a gorgeous photo of a skull shrine on Day of the Dead. I was in there with Gloria Naylor! But still, I didn’t share the exciting news, because the story was so much about where I came from. It belonged to my memory.
About twenty years later, HFR accepted another story, “Sleeps Well With Others,” a catalogue of failed relationships and strange things men have expected of me or my girlfriends. I was thrilled again. I was even more thrilled when Beth Staples suggested I contribute something to the Archive-themed issue … It meant I had arrived! I actually had a use for my archives (and they still existed, in abundance)! I sent in a bunch of handwritten manuscripts, marked-up printouts, and a few journal pages that, in my then-mood, were sort of funny, from the time “Where You Came From,” came from.
Back in the 1980s I’d written a list of recent achievements; I considered breaking up with a perfectly nice guy an accomplishment to register, along with story publication, heartbreak (not by a guy but by the realization the life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans (thanks, John Lennon)). I also, less merrily, accused myself of being a no-account hack, an idiot, a person who wanted too much from my writing and who would never be Great.
Of course that was what the editors chose to feature, along with the flashes of inspired note taking and draft writing by authors of far more consequence. I was fine with the selection—actually, I don’t remember seeing the galleys; that was during the time my brain retained nothing.
I forgot about it. Note: Flashback ends abruptly. Imagine a barking brown dog has jumped you on your way back from the trashcan.
This spring, after what felt like several bullying experiences in a row (work, dog, Life), I wanted to throw in the towel and everything that went with it—hence Control + Alt + Delete. Everything I’d written since I started a novel in a notebook at age thirteen should be gone, it deserved to be gone, I deserved for it to be gone—no one should ever see into that secret part of me anymore. I could do nothing about what was already published, but I accepted that printed work belonged to others now.
I erased myself. I was gone and forgotten, perhaps for the good, though of course I burst out weeping when I realized what I’d done. (Then again, frequent weeping is a classic symptom of a concussion.)
And then, mere days later, here came my new copy of HFR, the one with the beautiful ghost on its slick dark cover. I remembered I was in it. I read my entry. I recognized the person I was twenty years ago and saw she’s the same one I am now—with exactly the same handwriting, exactly the same worries and fears and wishes and practiced self-loathing. It was what Freud would call unheimlich, uncanny, the sense that the familiar has been defamiliarized. I knew myself, and yet with the wobbly brain, I didn’t.
And so I began bullying myself for doing it, angry that I’d shared something that might give someone matériel with which to embarrass me (but that I hope makes other writers feel they’re not alone). It was also uncanny, but appropriate, I thought, that this should be what survived of my attempt to wipe out the long-term memories along with the shorts. I bullied myself some more, starting a new journal and then crackling it into the computer’s trash.
Flash forward, without memory or dog:
Weeks later, some things reappeared. My boyfriend confessed he’d pulled most of the journals out of the recycling bin. I remembered I’d emailed the Renaissance novel to my agent, and I could get the attachment out of Sent Mail. The current novel, the ghost story, was in my bf’s inbox. (I will never consider it an accomplishment if we break up.)
Still, all of my stories from about twenty-five years, and all of their drafts, are gone forever, including two that I rather liked, plus one that I worked on all last fall and realized was the opening of another novel.
I know that I’ll always remember lines from them, and I’ll probably always wish to resurrect them so I can fiddle some more, or so I can just have them, but I’m pretty sure I never will. Because as I said earlier, I am the same person and also not the same one who wrote those manuscripts. They have no place in my new-name archive, the one that began when two simple accidents wiped away the life I’ve lived recently.
In fact, I have no place in my remaining archive. I shouldn’t go poking around in there; if I really am going to do something wonderful, I have to begin completely blank. Onward into the great unknown…
Should I begin with a list of recent accomplishments? I can’t remember.*
*(I don’t know where the phrase “Control + Alt + Delete” comes from. My computer doesn’t even have an Alt button, and I tried myriad combinations of terminal-sounding keys to see if they’d erase anything. The command is useless. But clearly it means something to me deep down, so I’m keeping it; maybe it’s my new beginning.)
Susann Cokal is the author of the novels Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, and of many stories that have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Gargoyle, Quarterly West, and Painted Bride Quarterly. One of her very first publications was "Where You Came From," another short story involving Barbie, in Hayden's Ferry in 1990. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and serves as the director of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.