On breath and meaning

“You went back to work for two days,” says the neuropsychiatrist, flipping through my chart. “Then you got C-difficile. Are you well now?”

It’s my six-month check-in at the Traumatic Brain Injury clinic. Everything is now marked against that trial return-to-work and those subsequent days of being sick.

There’s before, with the various proposed back-to-work dates, and the push-push-push with work conditioning to get me there.

Then the after. The OMG, who knew antibiotics could make your own body turn on you? The ramp-up up after regressing. The understanding that I wasn’t ready to return, after all. And an attempt, with more or less success, to find acceptance, not to mention some cheer, in all of this.

I haven’t written much.

Partly because this next stage of rehab hasn’t left me much brain space. Partly because I’m feeling a bit lost.

I’m in this in-between space of not completely incapacitated, but not yet back to normal. I can do things, but at a limited capacity. There are things I want to do, that I can’t. There are also things I imagine I want to do, that I haven’t even thought up yet.

What’s next? When does it happen? How do I fill my time?

The story goes in a different direction depending on the day. It’s like I’m standing in the middle of a snowy field, not sure which way to turn.

Perhaps that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Sometimes words fly in from nowhere and act like compasses. You have to be slowed down enough to hear them and nimble enough to catch them.

At a minimum, you need to be able to register them. To at least roll them around on your tongue a few times. To be ready, when the time comes, to search them on google and piece together what it all means.

I’m not talking lines of poetry that pop up like captions. (“The woods are lovely, dark and deep”, as I’m cross-country skiing through the forest.) Or stanzas which, like mantras, help explain how we feel (“In the room the women come and go…” comes to mind).

I mean words that need discovering to move us along.


Like the word “emergent.”

Dizzio set me up with a cognitive behavioural therapist to help me deal with the emotional side of brain injury. I’ll call him Dr. Bicycle since, like me before the accident, he bikes in to work.

Throughout this journey (which I successfully misinterpreted as over when I attempted to return to work), I’ve learned much about the importance of sleep. With brain injuries, a lack of sleep complicates things. Is it the lack of sleep that makes for a bad day, or is it the brain injury?

Since I experience random bouts of waking up at three or four in the morning, I decided to give Dr. Bicycle’s sleep hypnosis a try. Anything to help me move ahead. Not to mention that sleep as a component of life will be around with me for my forever.

As I closed my eyes, Dr. Bicycle started in with a guided meditation. “Focus on your breathing,” he said. “Relax. Count down from 100…”

There was some kind of image I couldn’t erase, which I can’t remember now. Then, strangely, as Dr. Bicycle moved me from physical to mental relaxation, I pictured myself lying in a coffin.

Finally, “I’m inviting you on a journey,” he said. “Imagine the sea. Maybe that water glistens in the sun…”

My brain scanned a map of the world: Florida, Vancouver Island, Latvia…

When Dr. Bicycle started talking about anemone, coral and “the vast blueness,” I knew exactly where I was. Egypt, mid-1990’s. I spent three years diving the Red Sea: Ras Mohammed, Sharm El Sheikh… Boat dives off the coast of Sudan.

I don’t know what exactly registered at the time, but instead of getting deeper, my breathing got increasingly short.

“Tears are flowing down your cheeks,” said Dr. Bicycle, gently. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

Memory of water.

At the beginning of the session, we had talked about my slow climb out after getting sick. About how work conditioning 1.0 – the drive toward a specific goal (Get back to work!) – had a certain level of excitement. And how different it was the second time around.

“Try focussing on the process, not the goal,” said Dr. Bicycle. “Let’s work on what happens day-to-day.”

So damn hard, that. Much easier to just aim into the distance, like a little kid peeing off a cliff.

Tears flowed down my cheeks.

It’s a time of going deep, I thought. A time of discovery, somewhat like when I wrote my Memory of Water piece so many years ago.

clown fish and anemone

For weeks, I tried to understand what it all means.

Then, early one morning when I should have been asleep, I grabbed my iPhone and opened up the voice recorder.

It’s time to slow down and understand, said my sleepy, groggy voice. Get through this seemingly endless valley of time and slow down even more.

It’s not work conditioning. It’s not building up hours. It’s building up an understanding of myself and what I can do. It’s taking time so I can start having more time.

It’s a weird, weird time. Of taking deep breaths so I can slowly rise to the surface. So I can start swimming, biking and doing whatever else it means to be alive, completely.

Memory of water. Of coming back.

Dr. Bicycle doesn’t know that I used to be a scuba diver. Or that the deep, blue waters were where I went to get away and, miraculously, come back.

Could it be that learning how to live after a brain injury is like learning how to dive? You have to master buoyancy. You have to learn how to breathe deeply and go slowly so you don’t get the bends.

I think a lot about words and reading and writing.

About the difference between writing by hand in my journal, taking dedicated time to write on my laptop, or working hard on a piece that starts in either of those places.

The difference is in the completion. It’s the pieces that I pour my guts into that help make experiences real and lift me into the next phase. I mention this to Dr. Bicycle and he says: “emergent.”

This accident has forced me to slow down. (After a long hiatus, I’ve begun to read books again.) I’ve had to pull back to the now and withdraw into safe spaces. (My backyard. This sofa with a view of the Christmas tree).

On this final, coldest day of the year, we bundle ourselves up for -27-degree walks in the woods. We stumble around the cottage, preparing for the ancient Latvian New Year’s Eve tradition of burning up our misgivings.

What things from 2017 do we want to get rid of? Each of us secretly writes them down on a piece of paper, which we stuff into holes in a log and secure with wooden pegs. Later tonight, we’ll drag the log around the house three times. Then we’ll burn it and start from scratch.

It takes time to recover from trauma. It takes time to understand what recovery is all about.

“Be kind to yourself,” I imagine my concussion sisters saying.

I boomerang those words back to them. I send those words to you, dear reader. Be kind to yourself. Take deep breaths and be in the now. Happy New Year.

6 thoughts on “On breath and meaning

  1. I love reading your blog, Mara. As your “emergent” friend, it really helps me to understand a little of who you are and what you’re going through. Sorry I have been so busy — thinking of you often!

  2. Mara,
    In your efforts to come to an understanding of recovery, I want to let you in on a rehab professional’s perspective of “recovery.” It is a slow, unique process for each person. Your thoughts on breathing slowly and taking it one step at a time, or one stroke at a time, are exactly where you need to be. You might feel like you are underwater for a long time, and that is ok. You are waiting to re-surface, but you can’t hold your breath. You might not end up where you started, or where you are expecting to go. This is ok too. This is a scary thought, and no one can tell you where you will go. But you and your brain will learn to adapt and compensate for wherever it is you end up. Take plenty of time to rest, as it is a long journey, and you will adapt better when you can give each challenge your full attention. Think of “recovering” as discovering a different path, that can get you to doing those things you love, but now in different ways, at your own pace. Being kind to yourself involves finding that different path, and accepting your new pace.

  3. Pingback: My puppy brain | Postcards from my brain

  4. Pingback: This writing life | Postcards from my brain

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