On wanting to remember what the brain doesn’t
What I remember
I recently had a life-threatening accident. Had it not been for my chubby body which cushioned me in all the right ways, doctors clearly told me that I might not have made it. I fell 7 meters (approximately 22 ft.) down an elevator shaft and fractured my spine. From the friends who were with me at the moment of the fall, I was told I first hit a ledge at around 3.5 meters and then fell to the ground.
I was unconscious for two or three minutes. I vividly remember waking up, lying on this moist, oily ground, hyperventilating, an unknown man hovering over me, urging me to not move with the strictest of tones. Dazed, confused and at this point, slightly petrified, I remember uttering “Ok, but get off me because I want to get up”, with an overly humorous nonchalant attitude, trying to get him off of me. Progressively I heard my friends shouting my name. In that moment, I knew I was somewhat safe. Familiar voices. I felt no pain whatsoever in those couple of minutes after waking up. As I remember it, I felt... alive.
I was on a night-out with my friends, on our way to one of the only “underground” clubs in the city. I was having a blast. Recently coming out of a few months of emotional upheaval, I was ready to let loose and wanted that night to be the night I put everything behind me.
I remember their faces, terrified. When I saw the looks in their eyes, trying to turn my head in the neck brace as best as I could to get a sense of what had happened, I witnessed fear in its purest form. After seeing them, one by one, I went from remote confusion to feeling like I was a minute away from dying. I had absolutely no clue of what had happened. Did I have a stroke? A heart attack? Can I move my feet?, were just a few of the countless number of questions shooting through my mind. My pragmatic brain obviously shoved all of that under the rug and all I remember saying repetitively to the medical technicians in the ambulance was “you’d better take me to a hospital that accepts my health insurance”. That was the moment I realized how much I sound like my mother.
Three of my closest friends, my chosen family, were by my side. One of my friends, who later on told me he jumped after me to see if I was still alive, was in the ambulance with me. His trembling voice, shouting from the front: “Are you alright, Pish?!”, was the only thing that kept me grounded in the speeding vehicle. In and out of consciousness upon arrival at the hospital, or simply various states of awareness of what was happening at the time, I remember another of my friends placing his shaky moist hands on my cheeks, kissing my forehead and reassuring me that it was all going to be ok. That in itself, was the singular most beautifully frightening moment of my life, to date.
What I don’t remember
This all still feels slightly taboo to me, as much as I acknowledge the science behind it —the fact that my brain was just trying to survive, as Rachel Nuwer so truthfully writes:
“What happens when you’ve been through something traumatic, like a car crash or a train derailment? Often, victims don’t even remember what happens. It’s not just because the accident was too horrible to want to remember; however much the victim might want to piece together what happened, his brain wasn’t working on making memories — it was working on survival.”
Part of me knows that my current thoughts stem from an innate curiosity of how my brain functioned in its most primitive state in those few seconds during the fall. I’ve dug deep on being “radically acceptant” of my pre-existing fear of abandonment and a constant sense of not knowing who I am or what my identity is, that has heightened post-accident. It’s as if everything my mind was conjuring up pre-trauma has been set on fire and intensified post-trauma. I’m truly giving myself as much slack as I can, trying not to judge my thoughts as “absurd” or “outrageous”, trying not to insult my way of dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event. I was bedridden for a month and in that period of time, pretty much all I felt able to do was get sucked into my own thoughts. Multiple times I would catch myself staring at the ceiling for hours on end. Not every thought has been pleasant, far from that. Most of them have been forcefully eye-opening, nerve-wracking and downright petrifying.
Part of me knows that my current thoughts stem from an innate curiosity of how my brain functioned in its most primitive state in those few seconds during the fall.
Trauma in all its shapes and sizes
Trauma comes in all different forms and is a totally personal occurrence. Not one trauma compares to another, nor does the aftermath or, what’s known as “post-traumatic stress disorder”.
As Bessel Van der Kolk puts it:
“The human response to psychological trauma is one of the most important public health problems in the world. Traumatic events such as family and social violence, rapes and assaults, disasters, wars, accidents and predatory violence confront people with such horror and threat that it may temporarily or permanently alter their capacity to cope, their biological threat perception, and their concepts of themselves.”
I fully acknowledge this fact, as it is a fact. Depending on life-experiences, childhood upbringing, lessons learned, bodily capabilities and many other factors, this particular traumatic event would not affect everyone the same way it has affected me.
It’s taken me a while to come to terms with how I feel about what happened to me, to understand the notion of “being a victim” in its truest form, to truly process the fact that I fell. Simply because I don’t remember falling.
I am nostalgic of my accident
As the Oxford dictionary definition states, the term nostalgia refers to “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past”. Wistful affection, perhaps not exactly. A gut-wrenching sentimental, wistful longing, for sure.
I catch myself wanting to go back and feel the sense of falling and everything that occurred during the fall. I want to fall again. I want to know what my brain whispered to me when I felt that there was no pulling myself back up. What it felt like to be in that split second of realizing that I was going down. I want to feel the original fear that my brain robbed me of, the cold-sweat, what it felt like to hit my head, how my spine snapped, how my ankle twitched at the moment it hit the ledge, how my right arm responded to the impact. For a while I had thought that this was somewhat masochistic, however I see it as simply wanting to justify my current fears, moments of stress, fits of terror, this everlasting aftermath.
I want to be able to feel the original fear behind the obvious physical and emotional consequences, the bruises, the cuts, the spasms and the ongoing vertigo. I know for a fact that this is all but a mere imaginary concept. Perhaps if I’d been aware of all of these “in the moment of the accident happenings”, it wouldn’t at all have been as I’m describing it. As much as the aftermath has taught me about the fragility of life and all that it encompasses, it isn’t enough for me to be this “hashtaggable” #survivor, #miracle that everyone repeats to me, over and over again. I can’t remember my fall because I blacked out, and all I got the chance to deal with were the consequences, as bold as that might be.
I want to know what my brain whispered to me when I felt that there was no pulling myself back up. What it felt like to be in that split second of realizing that I was going down. I want to feel the original fear that I was robbed of, the cold-sweat.
I would like to have the ability to use the knowledge I’ve gained over the past couple of months and be able to better deal with the influx of highly disturbing emotions and fist-clenching physical pain. As mindful of a person as I believe I am, knowing for a fact that looking back to the past and wanting to alter it in any way is a pointless, time-wasting phenomenon, I feel that I could’ve been more mature and self-sufficient in my way of coping. I know I’m asking a lot of myself. As all of this cannot be logically categorized as a regret, it’s merely a thought. I cling on to the fact that what I have learnt from the aftermath of the accident, through the post-traumatic stress, is so valuable and will change my life forever. And that, is something positive.
I would like to re-live the unconditional love I felt from the people around me in the aftermath of the accident. For the first time in my life, I received a tremendous amount of love and affection without flinching as I usually do. I haven’t been able to properly integrate how I let it in and how I let it flow naturally, right through me, soaking up every split second of it. On a daily basis and for years now, my brain hasn’t particularly enjoyed letting me feel love or loved, even when it comes in its purest form. I seem to always think it’s not worth enjoying because it’s temporary. It’s a strange and painful feeling. All good things come to an end kind of mentality. It’s either black or it’s white, to both extremes; it’s full on, intense, or void, inexistent. The overwhelming amount of love I was receiving from my close ones after the accident was love in its sincerest form and I miss being able to grasp it in my daily post-trauma existence. I was fully accepting of it, practically bathing in it. I felt warm and tender. A couple of months down the line, I feel like I’m back to square one. I’m back to not knowing how to process love. I’m back to not knowing if it’s something that even needs to be processed. In my notes app on my phone, I wrote a couple of things down post-accident and one of them was: “the people around me love me so much and I am no longer allowed to feel unloved”. It’s more difficult of an expectation of myself than I had planned.
Nothing needs to be held on to
Now that my physical pain has become slightly more ignorable, my emotional pain has decided to manifest itself in the most odd ways. I’ve understood that going through the processing of my accident needs a multitude of different elements. I am in the midst of grieving the “pre-accident me” and learning to love the “post-accident/what’s left of pre-accident me”. It’s all just a big bundle of confusion and to try and explain it emotionally is difficult — I rely on articles about PTSD, trauma victim stories, psychology articles and therapy workbooks to comfort myself in the fact that what I’m going through is not abnormal at all. That feelings come and go. I reassure myself on a daily basis that whatever hops and skips into my mind is something I can recognize, feel, and release as I wish.
In 3 days it will be exactly two months since the accident, and I’m left with permanent scars, emotional and physical, of an accident I can’t remember. I’m left with this sense of, “well, it wasn’t that bad”, because I am unable to come to terms with the fact that I could have died. I’m left with this, as I feel it, fake, overly-philosophical “miracle” of an event where my curvy, beautiful, womanly body that I neglected and tortured for all of those years prior to the accident, saved my life. Now my body is dealing with the consequences of something it physically felt and that I’m unable to go back and justify with a mindful and rational perspective.
I recently had a life-threatening accident. Unable to feel the true sense of my life having been threatened.
And that’s just frustratingly fine.