Life is messy. Life has possums.
Last week I bumped into this cute guy at the park down by the bay. He was sitting casually in the middle of the cricket oval. His shoe laces were untied, and he had an overgrown Covid haircut. Delilah played fetch with his dog’s ball. After fifteen minutes, he apologized for interrupting my walk.
“I lost track of the time. Your dog is such a delight. You probably want her back.” he said.
I wanted to say I know what it’s like to lose track of time. I lived like that for years. Instead, I smiled and said, “It’s not a problem. She loves playing fetch.”
My favorite part of my day is walking my Labrador Delilah. Four years ago I got lost when I stepped outside my front door. I forgot what I knew about myself. I forgot the bay was nearby and the ocean was around the corner.. Less than a year ago, I test-drove an electric wheelchair.
Slowly some of my memories came back. My sense of direction returned. I landed back in my body. “You’re experiencing accelerated healing,” my therapist said. “You are rebuilding your mind and spirit.”
I was elated. I felt like I existed outside my body and brain. I felt like I was watching my life unfold. I felt numb the entire time.
I could walk Delilah again, which I love to do. My apathetic veil lifted. Along with the joy of those sunrise walks and her wagging tail came something unexpected: emotions of grief, anger and fear. For a few months, I felt like the world was too loud in my heart. I felt sadness as if I was experiencing it for the first time.
My therapy was reawakening my emotional regulation. I felt my emotions so strongly I stopped writing my blog because introspection became unbearable.
My loyal readers asked, “Are you okay? Are you regressing?” I was returning to the world. I needed more time to consider if I could bear becoming myself again.
I have a friend Michelle, who lives in Melbourne. Like me she has had a drawn-out illness. We spoke on the phone last week. I shared my reluctance to engage with everyday life. How I’d become comfortable with my routine of doctors’ appointments, therapy sessions, napping, resting, and the self-preserving nature of stay-at-home isolation. I’d forgotten how to socialize, make friends, and talk to people about things that weren’t health-related. I thought the world would be too overwhelming because I’ve been living for so long without feeling my emotions.
Michelle has the wisdom that only comes from a decade of chronic illness. I gently lean her on whenever I feel overwhelmed. I sighed with relief when she agreed that reintegrating back into life is just as challenging as being sick.
In the past week I had a plumber, roof-man and possum-man at my place. My faucets (taps) were dripping. My roof was leaking. And every night a band of possums ran around in my ceiling. The plumber fixed my taps. The roof-man said my roof needed an urgent restoration. The possum-man asked if I could climb into the manhole at the top of the fourth flight of stairs and leave an apple. But not before slightly squeezing the apple to get the juices out—so the possums could smell it—then checking on the apple in a few days to determine whether it’s a possum or a rat. He said if the apple is gone, there are possums in my ceiling. If the apple is only nibbled at, then it could be rats. The instructions scrambled my brain since I’m still learning how to use the auditory communication part of my injured brain. I asked him to repeat it, or better, write it down. These maintenance tasks are do-able, but all together they have the potential to give me a migraine. I put possum-man’s instructions aside, and left them for my carer to sort out.
I thought several times between visits from the tradesmen: If this is life, I don’t want to live it. I found myself longing for my blissful fog of illness. Those endless days when my world dropped away, and all I had to do was take my next breath. It is a strange gift of disease to be freed from everyday issues. Those issues were still there, but because I was hyper-focused on my physical survival, I didn’t have any capacity to respond to life’s problems. There were no dripping taps, leaking roofs, and possums… or were they rats? I honestly didn’t care.
Michelle said that she’s glad we’re talking about mansplaining tradesmen and not arrogant doctors. Her remark caught me by surprise. I realized the familiar numb-bubble world I had been living in was fading. When I was my sickest, I existed as a faint outline of myself floating through life. I sat for months in the sun in my parents’ backyard, staring at the grass and the sky, remembering little.
I remind myself life is here, not in the faint recollections of illness. Life is here: between the possums jumping on my roof and my balcony flooding with rain from clogged drains. Life is messy. Life has possums. My numb-bubble world isn’t living, but a part of me still longs to return to its safety.
Delilah played with the cute guy’s dog for a few more minutes. He wasn’t lying. He really liked playing with her. As I watched Delilah steal the guy’s dog’s ball for the twentieth time, I got lost in thought.
I’m still not sure how I’d explain the last few years living with a brain injury, my days filled with rehab. I’m re-learning to use my right hand, add and subtract, and practice walking with my eyes up. How losing my sense of direction (literally and metaphorically), my memory, and the sense of who I am has changed me in countless ways. I can barely put my experience into words. I’m writing this blog to help myself understand my brain injury.
I still feel slightly spacey, but I’m getting on with it. I’m dealing with real life issues even though I long to go back to numb-sickness land. I go to sleep listening to the sound of possums on my ceiling. Or, are they rats? I walk my dog every day. It’s the one and only, solid thing I’m sure of in a twenty-four-hour period.
Both dogs are worn out now. They flop down on their bellies for a rest. For a millisecond there is awkward silence. I’m scared I’ll blurt out the thoughts on the tip of my tongue. There is too much to say to this stranger. If I linger, he might ask me what I do, or did I grow up around here. I might stumble on his simple questions.
I think it’s better not to start a conversation I have no chance of finishing. One day I hope to talk about what life has been like for me. I hope it will be easier to put into words the mysteries I have experienced. I hope if I keep writing I can understand where the last four years went. Today is not that day. In a split-second, I make a decision to leave immediately. “Thanks. Come on, Dee,” I say, and flee.
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Sarah’s debut book out now
Healing My Brain, My Way
Life with a brain injury and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).
An honest, compelling account about a woman’s battle to reclaim her life after a devastating brain injury.
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