Cracked: Recovering After Traumatic Brain Injury

Lynsey Calderwood, Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Cracked: Recovering After Traumatic Brain Injury

How I Felt in the Beginning

‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.

Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

— Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 5

I didn’t even recognize my own face in the mirror. Nothing felt right. Dazed. Paralyzed by fear, my first instinct was to run but I had nowhere to hide. Pain exploded like fireworks behind my eyeballs and there was a sizzling in my skull like a chain saw. I tried to speak but I had a knot in my throat and my tongue felt thick and woolly. I was terrified I was going to choke. Voices echoed, ricocheting across the room. I wished they sounded familiar.

I felt like an infant. Of course, I didn’t fully comprehend how this brain injury had changed me; I only sensed that my life would never be the same. I remember crying, feeling alone and being defenceless, but only for a day. I recall an anonymous nurse who held my hand in comfort while I begged so frantically for my memories. This part of me was dead, yet I was fighting to resuscitate it.

I remember feeling totally anonymous. I didn’t fully comprehend what had happened to me. I remember crying, feeling isolated. I was no longer the child my mother gave birth to. I did not feel like HER. I was HER reflection but I felt too ambiguous to be a real flesh and blood person. However, on the outside I still looked like their daughter. I still looked like a normal average teenager. There were no bruises or fractures, no bandages around my head and no magic wand to reveal my imperfections.

When they dressed me up in HER clothes and showed me HER photograph, I thought she looked just like me too. That’s when I began to feel threatened. Her shadow was beginning to haunt me and my family was trying to reincarnate her through me. I felt belittled by this overwhelming, overbearing ghost and everything that held a candle to her. It was as if I’d stepped through a mirror and here I was: the evil twin.

I’d been cheated. Cheated of my childhood. It was HER. It was all HER fault. SHE was the one. I blamed HER for my lack of memories. I HATED HER.

* * *

My glassy stare penetrated the mirror as I glared defiantly at the girl who wasn’t me. I studied the intricate indents of her inanimate face: vacant blue eyes, red-ringed and swollen; pink-red lips, drawn together in a childish pout; even the little dash mark scar I had acquired as a child where I fell through the glass coffee table didn’t belong to me. The series of curves joined in the middle to form a nose wasn’t mine either.

I sniffed. The nose twitched and I jumped back like a startled rabbit. The me that wasn’t really me followed suit, so we began a game of copycat: I raised my eyebrows, so did she; I raised my hand, so did she. Going faster, I tried to trick her into making a mistake; finally, I lashed out, tried to punch her in the stomach.


She blocked me. That hurt. I stared hard at her but I couldn’t break her gaze. Her eyes were wild and angry; she looked like she hated me almost as much as I hated her.

I didn’t want to be here. All I wanted to do was go home but, somehow, I’d stepped through the mirror and we’d switched places. I was trapped in a land of reflections.

* * *

Fourteen years of stuff and nonsense, an autopsy of Lynsey’s life. I wrestle with my mind because it feels like it is no longer attached to me. I feel like I’ve been shoehorned into an alien body. I shuffle through old papers and photos in random order like some private investigator. My memories have no structure. They are completely dislocated.

I’m actually breaking into a sweat, fighting my lazy, sedentary brain. One of the few things I have learned is that I lack hindsight. I have no understanding of past events. I’m trying to organize all HER junk. I keep looking at the photographs and then the days melt together and then I forget and do it all over again.

* * *

I keep looking at the photographs and then the days melt together and then I forget and do it all over again.

* * *

I look at the pin-ups on the walls, the soft toys and the bedcovers I did not choose. I feel bitter when other people try to impose HER memories on me. I want to put it into words but there are no words to express clearly how I feel.

I have to remember the name of her sister when she comes back into the room.

But I never could remember. I wore my new identity like a child playing ‘dress up’. Later, when I learned and explored my limitations, I could only ache for what I should have been. I was completely afraid of life, other children, myself. I couldn’t understand just how much I had changed, how much my whole world (especially my body) didn’t belong to me: I don’t even know my own face. I don’t even know my own body.

Maybe if I lose some fat, I’ll find myself within the flesh. I wonder what I really look like? Being the second Lynsey means I already feel like I’m second best.

I want to be invisible.

I want to disintegrate into a pile of dust.

I just want to disappear.

* * *

They say I look like my father. Her father. The father is lean with a thick crop of startling raven black hair. He looks younger than his forty years. The mother is short and plump, she has a kind face and soft pink cheeks. The sister is a cute button nosed ten-year-old with flaxen blonde hair and a peaches and cream complexion.

They are all strangers.

Most children go through a phase of gradual disenchantment whereas I had adolescence thrust upon me. My life seems so short and my memories so infantile that I feel like I know nothing whatsoever. As far as I’m concerned I was born in November 1992 (the day of my accident) and whatever happened in the world before that is a mystery.

‘I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I?’

— Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 2

Sometimes at night I would retreat to my room, look at my school photographs and read poems I had written. But instead of feeling closer to my past, I felt encumbered by the details of someone else’s life.

‘I’m sure I’m not Ada,’ she said, ‘for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she’s she, and I’m I.’

— Alice’s Adventures inWonderland, Chapter 2

I keep a stash of memories on the tip of my tongue, in case I am in strange company that requires me to talk about my childhood and I don’t want to explain myself: my invisible friends were called Christopher and Treebarcha; I had an eye operation when I was seven; children at school used to call me ‘Barbara Taylor Bradford’ on account of the pages of stories I used to write.

One of my favourite ‘memories’ is a story told to me by my younger sister, Nikki. She says that when we were younger I was the well-behaved child and she was the naughty one. She never misses an opportunity to tell me about the time when I poured a bowl of cornflakes over my own head. She had been annoying me, and I wanted to get her back. I was believed and Nikki was sent to her room but I think, in retrospect, I would have preferred her punishment to feeling my mother’s fingers raking through my hair as she washed out all the soggy cornflakes.

My life was complicated: at fourteen years old I became public property. Everyone thought they were entitled to know who I was because of my disability. I hated this most of all. No one has the right to divulge my life history without my consent. But I didn’t really have a choice. I was like some curious glass artefact. Everyone was afraid to handle me in case I broke; they didn’t even know what was wrong with me. I’d look at myself in the mirror, and wonder who I was staring at.

It can’t possibly be me. I wish I would just wake up…and pretend that nothing ever happened…and that all of this, was just a nightmare…

But I couldn’t seem to wake up.

The inside of my skull vibrated like jelly. Words came to me slowly and fuzzily. I kept forgetting the names of things, and I constantly described objects that I had forgotten the names for. I used more difficult words to name simple things. Long, elaborate and complicated words were easier to remember. I became very frustrated, often shaking my head and saying ‘I don’t know’. My memory loss embarrassed me. I didn’t like the way people looked at me as I stumbled over the words to describe a bike or a car.

‘Ok. Take your time. Just one more test,’ said the psychologist woman. She placed a blank piece of paper and took the little picture cards away. ‘Can you draw the bike for me?’ I sat squinting, trying to remember the simple image. Trying to remember what a bike looked like

…mmm…wheels, I know it has wheels…and handlebars…

I draw two round circles for wheels then collapse in tears, as I can’t remember the rest. ‘Ok. That’s fine. That’s enough,’ she soothed. Abysmally, I had failed yet again.

* * *

All my life, I’ve sought recognition and understanding. Ever hungry for admiration, all I’ve ever wanted is for people to like me. My insecurity and insatiable appetite for praise sprang from the ambition to live up to the memory of the other Lynsey. She died seven years ago, on exactly the same day as I was born. Everyone adored the other Lynsey. At first I longed to be just like her. I tried to adopt her personality, her likes and dislikes. I just wanted everyone to accept me. My family would tell countless stories about their other daughter, how wonderful she was, how flawless.

* * *

I was going to be called Lynn, Lynda or Lynsey. ‘Eventually,’ said my mum, ‘we just picked your name out of a hat!’ Lynsay, Lyndsay, Lindsay, Linsay, Linsey and Linzi these are just a few of the befuddled variations that I’ve been graced with over the years. Even my closest friends fail to spell my name correctly on birthday and Christmas cards. The one I really, especially, hate being called, though, is ‘Lesley’.

At school, I hated sharing my name with two other girls and I resigned myself to being called by my surname: Calderwood. Of course, to complicate matters further, our class had two Donnas and three Garys.

After three years of living at 74c High Street, I became quite used to misspellings and mistaken identities but nothing had prepared me for the day when I received a letter addressed to: Mr Wendy Auldwood, 74 Sea-High Street.

Excerpted from Cracked: Recovering After Traumatic Brain Injury by Lynsey Calderwood. © 2003 Lynsey Calderwood. Reprinted with permission from Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Third-party printing prohibited. For more information, go to

Posted on BrainLine March 8, 2010.

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