45: I Work!

45: I Work!

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

I Work!

The only journey is the one within.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

The white Ram Truck flew into the parking lot and screeched to a stop. A man jumped out and began screaming at me. His face was red with a rage I couldn’t comprehend. I was standing next to my green Voyager holding a book. I couldn’t see what he was carrying. He surged at me, his well-muscled arms swinging. He got right up in my face. I don’t remember what happened after that.

I quit working.

Not only as in, I stopped going to my job. But as in I, the me that was me, just stopped functioning. I woke the next morning not knowing where I was, or even who I was.

I tried to think, “What is this, the space around me?” I had no idea. No associations at all. Scariest of all was having a foggy sense of my own identity, my sense of being a person. I touched my arms, my stomach. My head hurt. But who was I?

My husband was standing over the bed. “Good morning, Jan.” Who was he? Why was he here? The voice sounded familiar. His face looked like one I had known but I couldn’t put his face together with his name, Dave, much less with who he was: my husband.

Later, I was administered a mental status exam. I didn’t know who the President was or what day it was. Not only could I not count backward from one hundred, I couldn’t comprehend what a number was. It would take months and months for the abstract concept of numbers to make the least bit of sense to me.

Later, my two daughters came in. I didn’t know who they were.

It was my second concussion in two months. The damage was done.

In the hours and days that followed, I still wasn’t working. I didn’t recognize faces, voices, places, or words written on a page. I couldn’t comprehend what people said to me. I cried a lot. Out of frustration, anger, sadness, I stayed in bed and slept and cried. I couldn’t focus on TV. I couldn’t interact with my daughters because I didn’t know what they were saying. Words were meaningless gibberish. I tried to read, but the sentences were blurs of indistinguishable marks on a page. Sound and light were intolerable. I lived alone in a darkened, silent cocoon.

Dave took me back to the doctor. I have no idea what she said.

Christmas came and we traveled from our home in Colorado to Minnesota to be with Dave’s family. We drove all night and at dawn the girls made up a song, “Sunrise at St. Olaf.” We all laughed. Then I retreated into my zone. I sat in a comfy chair in the corner of his parents’ house in a haze, watching the festivities. I wasn’t really there. I nodded and ate the traditional Swedish Christmas Eve smorgasbord and saw my girls open their gifts. They had gift cards to be used at the Mall of America. We went on the Kite-Eating-Tree ride. I remember how unreal it all felt.

As the months passed, I began to put some pieces together. Not remembering what had happened, I heard about it from an eyewitness. I cried. My job was gone.

Gradually, I began to resemble, at times, a normal person. I could almost fake it for brief periods.

I listened to quiet classical music. I asked for some simple books. I reconnected with the girls and found that making fun of my inability to do anything logical made for good humor. We played dominoes and laughed at my failure to count up my points at the end of the round. I ventured out with Dave to our daughter Kaia’s basketball games. We went to our younger daughter Annika’s choir concert. He had to guide me, hold my elbow, help me with steps, and navigate our way through the crowds. On my own, I froze.

I had always been a high achiever. I had the practical equivalent of a doctoral degree, hours of education in complex topics beyond my four-year master’s. I had even directed a doctoral program. Highly accomplished and respected in my field, I could no longer function. I had written a book. Now I couldn’t even read it.

As I became more aware of my situation and my disabilities I was humiliated. I hid out, taking solace only in my family.

And I began to take apart socks. Dave bought me packages of white socks and I methodically unraveled them. Stitch by stitch. Strand by strand until I had a mound of white thread beside my bed that came up to the level of the mattress. The girls worried about this phase. It was an obsession. I’d never been obsessive before but had always doodled. I found I couldn’t do that anymore but I could unravel socks. The thread mounded up and around the bed until even I had to agree it was ridiculous. Eventually, I found pillow covers at a craft bazaar and stuffed them with the unraveled socks.

Dave was both father and mother to the girls for a time. He took over the cooking because not only could I not multitask, I couldn’t even task. I couldn’t do processes that required thinking in steps. I could chop onions but I couldn’t manage the many pieces required to put a complete meal on the table.

More than anything, I was angry. I was angry at the man who hurt me, the events that led up to the attack. And I was angry at God. Faith had always been an essential part of my life. I got through a challenging childhood by remembering the promise I’d heard as a young girl: “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” (Jesus, from John 10:10) What happened to that abundant life? It was stolen from me, I felt, and I was furious. My time to enjoy the precious moments of daily life with my daughters was stolen. My delightful relationship with Dave was stolen. It had all become a chore, something to get through. I was haunted by nightmares. I was haunted by fear that my attacker would return. I was angry at God for letting all this happen.

Time passed. My brain was healing from the inside out. I began to feel more and more like myself. I found a good therapist who helped me process the trauma. I looked at life and wanted back in.

I read about what attacks like the one I experienced do to people. I gained some perspective on the dynamics of my injury. I stopped unraveling socks.

The best thing is that I started trusting again. Trusting (most) people. Trusting myself. I was so ashamed that I had “let” this happen to me; I came to see it was not my fault. And not God’s either.

We celebrated Easter. New life. New possibilities. From the strands of life left over from the injury, I found a new vocation: being a friend. Simple. No advanced degree required. People need good, faithful friends. I can do that. I work!

~Anneli Norrland

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners