An aneurysm ruptured in my brain when I was 27. The facts are simple enough. Yet, I find this topic resists such simplicity. I had been an American abroad, touring a show to the International Fringe Festival in Scotland. I was onstage when it happened, though I don’t remember when I stopped singing. I don’t remember the fall. My next clear memory was waking up in an Edinburgh hospital, after my emergency brain operation was already finished.
Situations like this tend to be terrifying for those involved, and to my parents who flew across the world to rush to my bedside, their memories of this Scottish hospital are infused by this anxiety. But what I remember most from this place was the Quiet. This was not a Quiet I had known before. It was a presence more than an absence, suffused with a marvelous sense of order. I had a nothing mind, a flotsam mind, and it was carried on this placid current of Quiet. To experience this Quiet was to be it. My body had undergone a traumatic experience, but my mind was serene. There was still so much I didn’t yet know about my brain injury – didn’t realize I’d acquired a language disorder called “aphasia” – and that my internal and external voice were both affected. With my inner monologue on mute, I was mainly spared from understanding my condition early on. Unable to pose myself the question: “What is wrong with me?” I did not, and could not, list the many things that were.
I would never want my impressions of the hospital speech therapist to be unflattering. She was nice enough. Attentive. But I registered her presence with a slight irritation. My days were suffused by this occupying and glorious silence, and then this slim woman, with birdlike shoulders, would pester me with things to do. I couldn’t exactly grasp her purpose there, but it was abundantly clear to everyone else. I couldn’t read without assistance. Writing was prohibitive. I could only say 40 or 50 words, and didn’t know when I was speaking in gibberish. It’s sometimes like that with a neurological injury. The brain is the organ of perception, so when your brain is injured, your perception can be injured too. I desperately needed my speech therapist. I just didn’t realize that yet.
My sense of awareness lurched forward in stages. When I was released from the hospital, I had to abandon the independent life I was living in New York, following my parents back to their Los Angeles home for a long language rehabilitation, which involved another brain surgery, and speech and language therapy three times a week.
I had always planned to return to Edinburgh, and visit the hospital that treated me, but it took more than five years to do so. I contacted my SLT beforehand and she didn’t simply want to meet up, she wanted to make me dinner too. She was incredibly warm. Over her homemade marinara sauce, we laughed and caught up, and she expressed her gratitude in being able to work on my case. She told me that many of her patients were often in more acute stages than I had been. They needed help breathing or swallowing. Though my language had been seriously disturbed after the rupture, at least she was able to employ speech exercises with me. That was rare.
I am so glad you decided to come back to Scotland, she told me. Even after such a distressing experience.
I said that actually most of my hospital memories were pleasant ones.
Really? She was surprised. You seemed so frustrated…
Her comment and her past observations made sense, but I also couldn’t correct her at the time. Now I was able to tell her that when left to my own devices, I had been content. Even blissful. The things that disturbed my equanimity were mainly related to other people – their expectations – often motivated by their concern for me.
My SLT gave that a lot of thought. She said that therapists are stuck in a difficult situation. It was important not to infantilize your patients. Even if their language is rudimentary, their minds are usually sophisticated. But when you think of them as adults, as people just like you, your empathy engages. And when you imagine yourself facing such an appalling deficit, you tend to fixate on the desperation.
But when we assume people might be uncomfortable, we start to see discomfort manifesting everywhere, she said. Expect the worst, the worst appears. And we rarely suspect we might be the source of our patient’s discomfort.
This conversation became a touchstone for me, a reminder of the constant limitations we face with our narrow perception.
I realize my brain injury was a generous one, because often I didn’t know what was wrong until I had already recovered from it. And these many years later, I see the perspective of the speech therapist, and the woman in the hospital bed. I am finishing a book about my path back to language, and volunteer with people who live with aphasia. I appreciate the wide variety of linguistic experiences, and as much as I can, I try to give people an opportunity to speak for themselves. Still, I know there is a lot of value in Quiet. And even though a word can be beautiful, so can the silence that precedes it.
Lauren Marks is an American author living in London. In 2007, an aneurysm ruptured in her brain, and since then, she’s been writing her way back to fluency. She has been published in Fresh Yarn, The Huffington Post, Brain World, and Aphasia News, has spoken at venues ranging from book fairs to university classrooms, from professional conferences to storytelling events. In the UK, she volunteers at Connect: The Communication Disability Network. Some of this article includes excerpts of her upcoming publication, A Stitch of Time: Portrait of a Mind in Construction. More at www.AStitchofTime.com .