Have you ever lived in a mind that wasn’t yours? Not in a science-fiction kind of way, but in a hall-of-mirrors, not-very-funhouse kind of way? In a where’s-the-Google-map-to-my-brain kind of way?
In 2004, when I read in The New York Times that writer and performance artist Spalding Gray’s body had been found in the East River, it was clear to me that he had been living exactly that way for far too long.
By then, I’d had two car accidents, two concussions, lingering chronic pain, and a diagnosis of PTSD. I knew the territory. His was a suicide I didn’t question; the article mentioned a serious car accident, concussion, and resultant depression. What it didn’t mention was what it would be like to wake up every day, knowing that you’re Spalding Gray, but feeling nothing at all like Spalding Gray. Walking around in the mind of Spalding Gray, not recognizing the landscapes. Attempting to write like Spalding Gray, yet being unable to form sentences that expressed the Spalding Gray you knew.
Oliver Sacks, writing recently in The New Yorker, outlines Gray’s distress. Gray’s children felt he was “no longer himself.” It’s a funny feeling, not being yourself. String enough of those instances together, and you realize you actually aren’t yourself. Yet there you are, living inside the same body and skull you were before. Who else could you be?
That moment is treacherous. It leads to questioning your identity – and whether you even have identity. I believe it’s the moment Spalding Gray didn’t survive. It’s the hardest one I’ve ever stared down — one I had to wrestle repeatedly over months until I made the decision to not die, no matter who I turned out to be.
If you’ve ever had a concussion or traumatic brain injury, you know it’s easy to forget your name. Someone asks you and you go blank, smile politely, and hope for the best. Those first months are terrifying. Even years later, you can drop off in the middle of a sentence, not only forgetting what you were saying, but also forgetting the very idea of language itself.
These glitches are known and documented. Underneath them are the ways that bodily injury and trauma interact with the mind: the brain fog from exhaustion as your body diverts energies to healing, the loss of linguistic dexterity you once relied on, the unwarranted pessimism and even paranoia and delusion that come with PTSD. All of it seeming to descend from elsewhere, bearing no resemblance to “you.”
In 2012, I had a third serious injury incident, triggering and increasing my chronic pain, creating new damage, adding another concussion, and triggering the return of PTSD symptoms. Post-injury, I was offered pharmaceuticals for pain, but no recovery options. Helpful tools appeared serendipitously. A friend recommended The Anat Baniel Method, which aided reorganization of my brain-body connection. In a workshop on trauma and social injustice, we discussed Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, which examines trauma and its role in brain and body dysfunction. I stumbled upon a podcast on Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing, which documents discoveries in neuroplasticity, “…the property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience.”
Finding these resources validated the self-care I was practicing, from nutritional healing, to playing Tetris, to walking as much as possible. Yet it’s information I wish I had received much sooner, ideally from the medical professionals I’d consulted. The act of not giving up on my body’s ability to heal itself led to discoveries one after another, but the path was winding, time-consuming, and demanding.
On this path, I’ve learned I am not alone. No matter the illness or injury, something that presents as depression seems to come to all during the healing process, not as a psychological state, but a physical one. Responding to crisis, the body suppresses mental and emotional processes. Somewhere in this maelstrom is you, trying to express your self, but far too exhausted and depleted to do so. Trapped in the vault of the body, awful questions begin. Who am I? Will I ever get better? If I get better who will I be? Who was I? What is I?
Kalief Browder’s recent tragic death — after three years of mistreatment, abuse, and incarceration on Rikers Island without a trial — stabbed at my heart and set my brain ablaze. Why did Browder kill himself? He’d been released, he had a lawyer to fight for justice, and his college tuition had been paid. Everything was working out. Why would he take his own life?
Because while everything was working out, everything was not working in. Now the prison was inside. Trauma changes the brain. Kalief Browder was not the wrongly imprisoned sixteen year-old who entered Rikers. The man who walked out of that facility was a traumatized, abused individual who had suffered unjustly and powerlessly at the hands of guards, inmates, and a system that refused to get it right. He would and could never be the twenty-two year-old he was going to be before his incarceration. The changes in his brain that began as soft wiring were solidifying into a new Kalief Browder, with a new response system to the stimuli of life.
What haunts me is this: What if it was the kindness that killed him? The lost ability to respond to it in the face of the weight of the abuses suffered? Those very kindnesses will break your back if you are traumatized. Feeling overwhelming gratitude and attempting to allow relief to set in calls forth every traumatic episode and abuse suffered. They come crashing down around you like Niagara Falls. It can be unbearable.
Maybe it wasn’t the kindness, but the expectations placed upon a fragile balance. Could he, would he, be able to reciprocate the kindness he had received? Could he, would he flourish, leave everything that had happened behind him, and move forth with confidence, purpose, and steadiness?
The impossibility of fulfillment can be perilous, a swelling threat to hover above, teetering on the brink. The fear of freefalling into overwhelm is pernicious and triggered by even the tiniest obligations. Big opportunities and plans for the future can easily trigger the panic, anxiety, and dread. The brain screams that everyone and everything is a threat, and the only options are fight/flight or shut down. At these times, what is needed is a safe space to rebuild and retrain, and small steps forward.
Trauma stays with us – in our bodies and in our minds. When we look inside and see someone unrecognizable — well, there is nothing scarier than that. In those moments, trying to find and direct yourself within your brain feels like wading through mud in a hall of mirrors wearing cement shoes. You want to find forward, but are lost in reflections. You need time to decipher the options, but as you process the possible choices, you sink deeper. When you finally think you know the way, your feet are too heavy to lift. Only with all your available focus (not much), and all your personal will (sapped by the endless spiral), using every bit of guts and muscle you have, could you possibly scratch and claw your way to respite.
Sometimes, it’s easier to collapse and wait it out. It will pass, this misinformation sent by your rewired brain, but you always lose something – the opportunity you let slip away, the sense of self returning from choices rather than circumstance, and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to retrain the brain, which can only be done continually, incrementally, and with vigilance.
People talk of the dark night of the soul, that wrestling with the inner demons we all encounter. This, though, is a physiological trick – the dark night of the body, the body diverting power and nutrients, forcing the mind into survival mode. Depleted of will and power, there is no you left to fight the demons. At moments like these, it’s very hard to convince yourself there’s a reason to stay in the game.
Yet, if you can keep a tiny fragment of perspective tucked inside your mind somewhere – a yellow Post-It note for sanity – you can remind yourself that these distortions are not you. You might not remain invested in who you were, but you can at least give yourself some courage not to die while you are in this state — not to die before you come through the other side.[Headline image: The photograph features a light-skinned person looking out a window with a pensive expression. Venetian blinds are visible. The person’s face appears in a three-quarter view, with half of the face in shadow.]