I Know the Secret to the Quiet Mind. I Wish I’d Never Learned It.

Of all the injuries we suffered, mine is the worst. My brain injury has shaken my confidence in my own personality, my own existence.

A woman's upturned face half-reflected in a mirror
Marcus Schäfer / Trunk Archive

The worst things can happen on the most beautiful days. My family’s worst day was a perfect one in the summer of 2019. We picked my daughter up from camp and talked about where to go for lunch: the diner or the burger place. I don’t remember which we chose. What I do remember: being woken up, again and again, by doctors who insist on asking me the same questions—my name, where I am, what month it is—and telling me the same story, a story that I am sure is wrong.

“You were in a car accident,” they say. But this cannot be. We’re having lunch and then going on a hike. I had promised the think tank where I work that I’d call in to a 4 p.m. meeting.

“You are in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in New Hampshire.” Another ludicrous statement. I started the day in Vermont. Surely if I had crossed the river to New Hampshire I would know it.

“What’s your name?” they ask me, and I tell them and tell them and tell them.

“Where are you?” “New Hampshire,” I say, except for one time when I say “Vermont.” “New Hampshire,” they correct, and I want to say, “Really, we are so close to the border here, can’t you just give it to me this once?”

“You were in a car accident,” they tell me again. “Your husband broke his leg and your son broke his collarbone.” These do not seem like horrible injuries, so I am waiting for the worse news, the news that my daughter is dead. She is the youngest and the smallest. She was born with albinism, and her existence has always felt improbable, and so now it must be over.

But—thank God—it’s not. “Your daughter has fractures in her spine and damage to her lower intestine from the seat belt.” They tell me that my lower intestine was also injured, and that I’ve had surgery. I lift up my hospital gown and am surprised to see an angry red line and industrial-size staples. I remember an article I’d read about seat belts not being designed for women, and I ask the doctor if he sees more women with these injuries than men. I have yet to take in the reality of what has happened to me, to my family. Instead I am thinking about writing an exposé about the sexist seat-belt industry.

They wake me up and ask me where I am and what my name is. A doctor asks me who the president is. “I don’t want to say,” I reply. He smiles. I am at Dartmouth for three days before I am transferred to the University of Vermont, where my husband and children are. The days pass like minutes, a loop of sleep interrupted by people asking me questions and telling me terrible things.

One of the things I am told is that I have a brain bleed and a traumatic brain injury. I wonder if this is why I am slurring my words, but am told that the slurring is from the anti-seizure medication I am on. This sounds good. The slurring will stop. A doctor tells me I “got my bell rung.” This is a bad analogy. Bell clappers are meant to slam against the side of the bell. The brain is not meant to slam against the side of the skull.

Of all the injuries my family is suffering from, mine is the worst. This is my totally biased opinion. My husband’s leg will take almost a year to heal. My daughter would have died if not for the surgery to repair her flayed abdomen. She is 10, and one of her friends tells her that because of the scar she will never be able to wear a bikini. She spends many days attempting to suss out whether she cares. She doesn’t yet know if she is the bikini-wearing type.

My 13-year-old son is the only one who remembers the accident. He remembers a woman in a ponytail calling 911, the smell of gasoline and burnt metal. He remembers his father yelling “Jesus Christ.” He will have to live with the memory of his sister looking at my body and asking, “Is Mama dead?”

These are terrible injuries, and yet, the other members of my family don’t walk around thinking, Am I still me? My brain injury has shaken my confidence in my own personality, my own existence. This is the worst injury.

When we leave the hospital and move into a hotel, I frequently get lost in the hallway. The first time I roll into occupational therapy with my walker, I am grateful for the obvious signage pointing me toward the check-in desk. It’s almost as though the clinic is expecting people with brain damage.

My therapist is a smiling, 40-something woman with dirty-blond hair. She reminds me of me before the accident. She asks if I am having any thinking problems or memory problems. I tell her about an incident with Parmesan cheese.

“Can you get the Parmesan?” my husband asked.

I opened the fridge and looked. I looked and looked.

“I can’t find it,” I said with a shrug.

My son opened the fridge and pulled out a block of Parmesan.

It hadn’t occurred to me that this was a brain issue. Sometimes you just can’t find the Parmesan. Right?

A test confirms that I have trouble scanning a visual field for objects. My brain is struggling to recognize what I see, but without a pre-accident baseline to judge from, there is no way to know how much worse I am at it now. Have I always been bad at finding things? Maybe? There are limits to how well an injured brain can scrutinize an injured brain.

I have other visual-processing issues. At first I can’t watch television because my brain is unable to merge the images from my two eyes, so I see doubles of everything—two Phoebes, two Chandlers. I can watch with one eye closed, but I’m distracted, seething at my brain for failing to do such a simple task.

a face inside of a spiral
Patricia Voulgaris

In one session, the therapist tells me we are going to play a game. She pulls out a deck of cards and asks me to turn cards over while saying the number or the color or the suit. The game is so difficult, I want to physically remove my brain from my skull and hurl it against a wall. I will never play this game again as long as I live.

Eventually I graduate from occupational therapy. But occupational therapy isn’t about getting people back on their feet so they can return to think tanks. It is about making sure they can run errands without getting lost. I am someone who has always taken pride in my intelligence, and now I am not so smart. I am just a functional human being, according to occupational therapy.

When we go out in public as a family, we are a walking nightmare. “Wow,” a stranger says, marveling at the device that is bolted into my husband’s femur. And then my son appears with his arm in a sling, my daughter limps over in her back brace. An injured couple is potentially funny. There is nothing funny about an injured family. “What happened to you guys?”

When we tell the story, we explain that we were in no way at fault, which feels important. We wore our seat belts and drove the speed limit and the weather wasn’t bad and yet this happened to us. Someone was driving a pickup truck in the opposite direction. He was late to a job interview or to get his kid, or maybe he was just antsy. In front of him was a motorcycle slowing him down. Maybe he’d been behind that motorcycle for miles. Maybe he liked to take risks. He pulled into our lane and passed the motorcycle while going up a hill at 70 miles per hour. I don’t know who makes this kind of decision. Did he think, I can’t believe I did something this stupid? Did he also yell “Jesus Christ”?

Because we are not at fault, accident feels like the wrong word. Not just wrong, but unfair. My husband starts calling it the incident, but an incident is a small thing, not something that scars you for life. The smashing? The destruction? Newbury, after the town where it occurred? The only thing that comes close is the devastation.

The devastated me is different. My brain used to race, making lists and plans, skipping from an article I was researching to whether my kids were in appropriate after-school programs to what vacation we should take in February. Now it does none of that. There are no plans to make.

A few days after regaining consciousness, I check my Twitter feed. I have always been a news junkie. But I have missed nothing. The news seems to be not just familiar but actually repeating itself. Something bonkers happened in the White House. People are dying in a country I’ve never been to. A company did something possibly illegal. There was a house fire in the Bronx. Are these the things I used to care about?

The most interesting piece of news is the one I am experiencing. In the hospital we are waiting to make sure my daughter can poop through her reconstructed colon. This article isn’t in The New York Times.

When we return to New York I take the subway to doctor appointments. I don’t take out my phone, I just sit. My brain is quiet, which I find suspicious, but also soothing. Before the accident I went to yoga retreats and tried meditation. I said things like “I just need to unplug.” Apparently what I needed was to get hit by a truck. Perhaps I have discovered the secret to a peaceful mind, and it is traumatic brain injury. I fantasize about opening an expensive spa where busy people pay me money to whack them on the head with a baseball bat.

The day of the accident I had been working on a project to improve how homeless people are placed into shelters. I say out loud, “I don’t care about homeless people” to see how it feels. It doesn’t ring true; I do care about homeless people. I just don’t feel like working. I have always been a regular exerciser. Now I can’t imagine wanting to do a burpee, let alone 10 of them. I always ate healthy things. But did you know that you can eat whole grains and still get hit by a truck?

I have strange cravings. I think about apple cider all the time. Apple cider is not a normal part of my diet. I have a very detailed dream about eating chocolate cake. I eat the cake. That’s the entire dream. I find myself foraging in the fridge for flavors that don’t exist.

I don’t know which symptoms are permanent and which are temporary. At first, the doctors say that after a year or two I’m likely to have a full return to my normal brain function. Or not. They don’t really know about the brain. It might be more like 95 percent. If I broke my elbow and someone told me I’d get 95 percent of my elbow function back, I’d be satisfied. But 95 percent of my brain function sounds terrifying. Which pieces will be missing?

Some days I feel like myself. Other days all I can think about is the old life that is gone. Then, halfway through my recuperation, the coronavirus comes. The stores close, the schools close, the traffic on the avenue dwindles to a sporadic whoosh. And my busy friends who were always texting me about their crazy schedules are suddenly as quiet as I am. Together we wait for normal to return. The difference is that they know what normal looks like.

In July it will be two years since the accident. The world is now coming back to life, my days slowly filling up with work and chores and exercise. Soon I will go back to in-person meetings and travel, and I wonder: Will I be up to the challenge? Or will I get lost in office buildings and airports?

For now, in this liminal space between the old life and the new one, I often catch myself staring at my children. They have never been more beautiful. I chalk this up to the magic of braces––their teeth are finally coming into alignment––but I know this is ridiculous. They are beautiful because they are alive. I look at them, and I sit with the silence. Today, it is mine. Tomorrow, it may not be.