I feel like an inchworm trying to write a book. Each time I pull out my notes to work, I think of a great idea and inch forward in my writing. But, then I become distracted because I look out the window, or think about something entirely unrelated to my story. Once I reel myself back in, I can’t even remember what my idea was in the first place, so I reread what I’ve already written, hoping to find my place again. I get caught up thinking about another part of the story until hours pass, and I have no more than one new paragraph written.
It didn’t used to be this way for me. Before the car accident, I was never at a loss for words. I’m naturally inquisitive and during college, at Brigham Young University, I even liked to sit at the front of a class, so my professor would notice me right away. I always made a point to ask questions on the first day, just to hear the sound of my own voice. One time, my classmate in Philosophy of Art even begged me to stop asking questions so we could move forward in the textbook.
I don’t like hearing the sound of my own voice anymore. I constantly lose my train of thought, stumble, and forget basic words. I usually know what I’m trying to say, I just can’t remember the expressions, so I speak in circles, disguising my poor memory with filler words like um, and, whatever, anyway.
I have no memory of the accident. The only reason I even know it happened is because my family told me, and I vaguely remember the last few weeks in the hospital. My mom kept a journal, of which I’ve read every word multiple times, and she also took photographs of me. I’m taken aback when I see this stuff because for a long time I didn’t understand how badly I was injured. Some of these photos are almost unrecognizable.
After I left the hospital, I expected my life to return to normal. I’d immediately go back to BYU, complete my degree, attend graduate school, find a great job, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, life with a brain injury isn’t so simple. Things that were once easy for me suddenly became difficult. I started articulating my frustrations in a journal, which developed into this memoir, so now I have many of the details in one place. My writing is also an attempt to reveal what it’s like to live with an injured brain.
Traumatic Brain Injury is often called the silent epidemic because it handicaps people in ways that are invisible. We appear normal and fine on the surface, not exhibiting obvious signs of an injury, as most of the damage is internal. Survivors have impaired cognitive abilities such as getting easily overloaded, difficulty staying focused, balance and coordination problems, a sleep disorder, and a terrible short-term memory. My memory has improved over time, but for the first nine years after the accident, I constantly carried around scrap pieces of paper with the words “note to self,” followed by instructions of what I was supposed to do. I felt misplaced without these notes.
As a writer, I think my chapters are short and choppy. I’ve tried to be completely truthful about everything I can remember from the past 14 years, which isn’t much, and my mom’s journal entries are sometimes cryptic. In some places, I can only write what seems accurate; what makes sense for the sake of the story. That being said, my writing is choppy because my thoughts are choppy. This really bothered me for a long time, which is one reason it took me so long to finish. I’m okay with it now because finally I can appreciate how far I’ve come by completing my memoir. What first began as just a need to understand what happened to me has developed into a personal record of conquering a trial that I never expected to endure. But then again, a person doesn’t know how much they can handle until they are faced with a challenge.
1 - Note to Self: You Work at the United Way
One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.
~ Rita Mae Brown
“Good morning, Jennifer!” Bill said brightly as I walked into the United Way office building. He was the perky older man with a friendly, contagious smile, who sat across from me at my desk in the fundraising office.
“Hi Bill!” I think my voice sounded as bright as his. Smiling, I glanced down at my little section of the long work table, and gasped when I saw all the papers. I remembered organizing it the day before, but it looked like a jumbled mess to me.
What am I supposed to do today? What are my tasks? I specifically remember writing them down somewhere! My heart palpitated. My head throbbed. I knew I’d made a list! How could I forget so soon?
I fumbled through the papers until I uncovered a Post It note that said, “Call these accounts tomorrow.” It was stuck to a list of companies that I was supposed to contact and help kick off their United Way fundraising campaign. The beating in my heart slowed and I relaxed. Just then my manager came in to ask Victor, another United Way employee, to follow him and get his picture taken for his security badge.
I hadn’t had mine taken either, so I followed them to the makeshift photo studio in our building’s basement. Three men squeezed their way upstairs, while we tried to make our way down. I was nervous. People walking up. People walking down. Don’t slip and kill yourself. Going to photo studio. Hold on to railing. Watch where you’re going, I told myself. There were so many things to think about at once.
“Hi Jennifer!” one of the men smiled at me. “See ya back upstairs in the office,” he said, as he climbed the steps. I smiled, as if I knew him and what he was talking about, even though I had no idea. Victor hopped down the stairs, but I just pushed myself against the wall and waited until everyone passed.
When I finally made it to the studio, the photographer was surprised to see me. “Jennifer, didn’t we take yours yesterday?” he asked. After looking around the studio, things did seem familiar. Feeling foolish, I admitted my memory lapse, but he took my photo again anyway, just to be sure.
After he finished, I returned to the improvised office where our entire United Way team sat on folding chairs next to long tables; it felt like a college classroom. I sat in my usual middle seat and sighed once I saw the mess of papers again. Where do I start?
“So, did you get your ID badge, Jennifer?” I looked up across the table to see the same man who almost bumped into me on the stairs.