It was apparent that my sense of danger was lacking by the age of three. That year, we were on one of our many plane rides home from my grandparent's home in northern Canada. Close to arrival, we became entangled in an unexpected snowstorm. Visibility was poor and the wind had a mind of its own. The flight attendant tried to sound calm as she alerted us of the "unexpected turbulence" (in case we didn't already know) but it was clear that landing safely would be a challenge. Movement sickness came in the form of 300 foot drops in a millisecond. Some held brown paper bags tightly around their lips while others silently prayed, but not me. I loved the feeling of my body being pressed into the scratchy blue seats during take-off and the thrill of bumpy rides. When the plane finally touched the runway and slowed to a halt, passengers released a collective sigh of relief. My pupils were dilated with excitement and my grin could not get any wider. Surrounded by irritable, green-faced passengers, I yelled "Weeeeeee! That was fun! Let's do it again!" Laughter broke the silence, even though some people still seemed too afraid to open their pursed lips for fear of losing their supper.
My eyes darted from the green light, to the pavement, and to the dark, silvery exterior of a car. My body shook. My throat was raw. The words "unexpected turbulence." No, no. This wasn't the plane ride. This was 2002: I decided to go on the big kid rollercoaster. The bar lowered over my lap. The cart ascended. I felt the same reckless impulse that I felt on the plane seven years prior. And then, we dropped. My small body slipped from side to side beneath the bar. My head was thrown forward. The taste of blood. Incessant rocking. Shaking. Shuddering. Only this time, I didn't make it to the end. July 17th, 2011. My mother didn't hold my hand as she held a tissue to my bloody nose and promised to get me cotton candy. This time, there was white. Smoke. Immobility. This time, we were not on a plane or a rollercoaster. This time, the trembling was not from exhilaration. This time, the ride was far from over.
I cried as soon as we got out of the car and on to the curb and couldn't stop. The nice woman in the ambulance held my hand and told me we would be okay. As they moved my bed into a single room, rectangles of light swam in and out of my vision like a strange movie montage. A nice doctor came over and told me that they took my mother away but that she was going to be okay. I used all of the strength in my body to drink my tears back up and put on a tough face. But my body was injured. My mind was injured. There was no room for more tears- more pain inside.
It was dark. Only a faint glow from the streetlights lit my room. Lying in bed, I wondered how people paint ceilings without dripping paint all over their faces. This ceiling took particular effort. It was white, but with tiny bumps that were systematically brushed in circular patterns. I spent hours looking at that ceiling, picking out shapes and patterns like constellations in the night sky. When I got frustrated or my head started to hurt, I would take a sip of water. When feeling especially adventurous, I rolled out of my bed with great effort, slid down the stairs, and got another glass of water. Upon returning to my bed, I often realized that the glass of water I had gone downstairs for was left on the counter. Funny, I thought. Must have forgotten it.
The next day, I decided to lie on the couch downstairs. It was like tasting a strawberry for the first time. Why hadn't I thought of this before? With fresh air drifting through the window of our third floor apartment, I almost felt as though I was outdoors again. But this ceiling was plain and white. It held no story, nothing to keep my mind in the present. Nothing to keep my mind from
I didn't want to think about it anymore. Disappointed, I returned to my air-conditioned room, washed down my medication with a sip of water, and slept.
I woke up on the fourth day to the same speckled ceiling, parched. I began to reach for my water bottle to my left when I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I fell back. A few seconds went by. I didn't have this pain yesterday, I thought. More cautiously this time, I lifted my arm and turned my body to reach the water bottle. The sharp pain returned and I fell back. I couldn't reach my water. I couldn't turn over. God knows what I was going to do when I had to pee. Maybe it's a good thing that I can't reach my water, I thought.
Lifting the edge of my shirt, I was surprised to see a new bright blue and purple bruise covering my chest. I could feel with my hands that the bruise continued around the left side of my rib cage, under my left arm, and across my belly. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, willing my body not to hurt. But it did. And I had a perfect seatbelt-shaped bruise to make sure that I did not forget why I was stuck in bed. The pain in my head, however, was not accompanied by a bruise. There was nothing to validate the fact that I repeatedly went downstairs for an icepack and then forgot why I was there. I would sit on the couch and scour my brain until my thoughts were cloudy and it was too painful to think. I returned to my bed. Without water to wash down my medication, I lay there awake, once again left alone with the ceiling with which I had become oh so intimate over the past couple of days.
On Thursday, the fifth day, I forced myself out of bed and stumbled down the four flights of stairs separating me from the rest of the world. The unfamiliar sunlight burned as though my eyes were being drowned in dilating drops.
Less than a block from my psychiatrist's office, I heard a sickening screech; Metal colliding. My throat felt acidic as though I were about to vomit. I looked down the street and saw a single car in the intersection, bumper barely attached in one corner. My senses went wild. Should I run to the car? See what happened? Is anyone hurt? Am I a witness? Would I have to testify in court? What happened?
But realizing that the car and driver were unharmed (except for the replaceable bumper), I pulled myself together and kept walking. It was nothing, I thought. Nothing.
Sometimes, I really hate seeing doctors who deal with cognitive disabilities. I have only met two, but both of them clearly have learning disabilities or ADHD themselves. What does this mean? Calls that come a week late, incomplete paperwork, and too many questions.
"But... you were traveling east. The sun could not have been in his eyes because he must have been coming from the south. Unless... does Waterman curve? Well it can't curve too much because. . ."
My psychiatrist went on.
It doesn't matter whether or not the sun was in his eyes, I wanted to scream. He hit us. He took full responsibility. And now I am a mess and I don't know where to start collecting the pieces.
I was forced to relive the whole accident in that office. I shouldn't have hated her for it, but I did. As I spoke, I inspected the rubber ball in my hands. I could tell that it was the same ball that had been in her office since my first visit by the sickening yellow, orange, and purple color combination. In elementary school, I had one just like it. It was the perfect hopscotch ball. Unlike a rock, which would bounce on the pavement, this ball, made of hundreds of thin rubber strings, would fall exactly where you wanted it to land. I would strategically throw it onto the third box. That way, I would stop on two boxes on my way back and could pick up the ball without having to balance on one foot. It was genius. I never lost a game of hopscotch when I was in control.
"Have you been sleeping?" she asked, interrupting my thoughts.
"Have I been sleeping?" I responded with a low laugh. "I'm like a koala. I spend more time asleep than I do awake."
"Are you having nightmares?"
"No. Well... not exactly. They're more like day-mares." I paused. I couldn't get my thoughts together. I didn't think in words anymore. Just emotion, memory.
With great effort, I continued. "Every honk, every intersection, every car rolling to a stop brings me back to that morning." I didn't want to talk about it too much because I could feel my eyes becoming full with tears. I remembered sitting on the grass with my mother. I hated hearing her shaky voice when she called my manager at Starbucks to awkwardly tell them that I wouldn't be at work that morning. I hated seeing her cry. I hated everyone who suddenly appeared out of their houses and cars and stopped their morning jogs. It was as though a thin layer of glass was separating us from the rest of the world. We were an exhibit. Some stared. Others asked the people around them if we were okay. But no one asked us. No one dared go past the glass.
I explained to my psychiatrist that every movement brought new pain. Every movement brought me back to the accident, wondering what could have possibly hit that part of my body. Did the glove compartment open and create the swollen rainbow mass on my knee? Did the speed of the airbag rip open the skin on my right hand and arm? What the hell hit the right side of my rib cage and abdomen? It hurt to try to remember. I didn't want to think about it anymore.
So I didn't. The appointment was over. And I returned to my cave.
I was delighted to return to my bed, even though it was my entombment during those weeks. I imagined the bumps on the ceiling moving before my eyes and forming a story of my life in Braille. One of my friends tried to make me a coloring book, but coloring took too much thought. Instead, I drew circles. My 9th grade homeroom teacher drew amazing circles. While her class was terribly easy, no one cared because she was a sweetheart and, well, she drew perfect circles. I would watch her in the mornings, arm swooping in a marvelous, effortless motion. And there it was. Yes- it was unnecessarily large (since the radius was the length of her short arms). But I thought of her as I tried to draw circles with fast, swooping motions. I drew until there was no room left on the page. Then, I would turn the page, and start again.
The doctors extended my time off of work into a week, and then into two weeks, and finally into three. And every day, the sandstorm of a ceiling stared at me. I felt ashamed. I wanted to shake off the accident, slap on a smile, go back to work, and forget. But this time was different. I was not in a plane. I was not on a rollercoaster. I was in a car accident. I sustained a concussion. I was, I am injured. And I... one day, I am going to be okay.
But will you? the ceiling seemed to ask, mockingly. I frowned, rolled over, and burrowed beneath my covers. The buzzing of the air conditioner filled my ears. I could feel a familiar subtle anxiety, signaling that I had forgotten something again. Was I going to call my mother? I didn't think so. Did I need more water? No, the bottle was almost full.
What is wrong with me? It hurt to think. Willing thoughts of the accident to leave my consciousness, I washed down my medication with a sip of water, and slept.