Traumatic Brain Injury: The Etch-A-Sketch Inspiration

When I was 16, I rolled my car, rather spectacularly. Ten times! Go big or go home, I always say.

Long story short, I sustained a traumatic brain injury. My mother was told I would never live independently again, because I could no longer even dress myself. I became a living zombie. Except without the brains. Brains….

That’s a pretty hard thing to argue, right? The evidence is in front of your own eyes that your bright little girl can’t keep two consecutive thoughts in her head.

But that wasn’t what was going on in the inside.

For that, you’d need to know me a bit more. Up until my accident, I had been smart. Scary smart. And with an attitude to go with it. I thought, quite seriously, that being smart made me superior and that the stupid people around me should just get out of my way, let me do my own thing, and stop trying to shove me through a round hole.

And my mother had sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) when I was about 10. I had watched her go through it: Blackouts, memory loss, blinding headaches, personalities shifts. She had gone from being my mother to a monster in the gloomy cave of her bedroom and you tiptoed around so you didn’t wake her. Because TBI survivors sleep. A lot. As much as a cat, really.

So I knew, from watching my mother that recovery was possible. I knew that how you reacted in the first few weeks was critical. I knew that the neuron pathways in my brain had been scattered. You want to know my mental image? I imagined an Etch-A-Sketch was a picture of my brain. Every line was a neuron pathway. And then, that etch-A-Sketch got bumped, just a bit. Just enough to scatter the lines.

Well, shit. There’s my pretty picture ruined; there’s my brain in shards. But if I retraced all the lines, I could fix it! So, that’s what I did. I forced myself to remember or relearn every fact and concept I’d been exposed to over 16 years.

An interesting development occurred there. At 16, I had just learned about mind-maps, and databases organized not by topics, but by tags, and shown on the screen in such a way that not only were subtopics arrayed around the circle, but things that were even peripherally connected. This was a big leap from the Dewey decimal system I had learned as a child, but it was far more organic.

What a golden opportunity for me to reorganize my brain! I hadn’t had much of an organization system at all, previous to this; things might have been categorized by the subject I’d learned in school, but that was about it. This was a way to turn it inside out and make it better.

So I started: This is what I know about English lit. It got it’s start with Beowulf, but I don’t think that’s close enough to English to count so I always start with Chaucer. This was shortly before the printing press was introduced from Germany. Printing was a painstaking and laborious process, so it’s a wonder he ever got printed at all. Especially in English, because if you were interested in learning at all, you really had to know Latin. The Italian Renaissance might not have made itself felt in England, but the Italians did export a lot of their great historical literature. And so on, throughout everything I knew about the world.

But you know what this looked like on the outside? It looked like me staring off into space for hours on end, sitting in the rocking chair in the kitchen, and randomly falling asleep at intervals.

Communication was impossible. I had sequencing problems and aphasia—not only could I not remember the right words, I couldn’t string them together if my life depended on it. But I wasn’t the type of girl who looked for input on my projects, so I daresay no one knew what was going on.

I got a request to tell this story so that people could read it and learn from it. Don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner. James Cameron, call me! We’ll make a movie.

This is part of a 4-part series detailing the high-points of my injury and recovery, for the inspiration and guidance of other survivors and those affected by brain injuries.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Follow-up: The Mind has No Limits


2 thoughts on “Traumatic Brain Injury: The Etch-A-Sketch Inspiration”

  1. So your memory was intact, but disorganized? How interesting. Congratulations on recovering so well.
    I’m kind of the absent minded professor type and I’ve sometimes had a bit of the same problem with people thinking I’m not quite all there. My mom took me to have my hearing tested because of the number of times I said “what?”. The problem wasn’t hearing, it was zoning out, which I now think of as something like meditation, but to others it looks strange.

    1. Intact? I suppose it depends what you mean by intact. Imagine a bomb exploding inside the Library of Congress. Some stuff was disintegrated, some stuff damaged, and all of it disorganized. And then, having to invent a new organizational system in order to create a meaningful inventory. Knowledge, once you realize it’s missing, is easily recaptured, but mostly I notice my abilities are damaged.

      I’ve learned a lot of coping mechanisms, and you mostly wouldn’t notice, but a lot of things that wouldn’t think about are difficult for me.

      For instance, I cannot distinguish smells. I can smell, but i can’t name the smell. Recognition, but not identification. I have difficulty parsing the spoken word. What I hear are a string of phonemes, which experience and probabilty divide into words for me. i always watch tv with captions now, and when I first meet people, they may think I’m hard of hearing because I have to get them to repeat phrases. It’s not only that I can’t decide where to divide the phonemes into words, but people have personal and regional varietions in their pronunciation that makes interpretation a fair bit more difficult when I first get to know them.

      I’ll talk more about all this in another post.

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