survivor’s guilt

1.

Dear Sir and/or Madam:

Regarding: my recent Arts Funding Application, APP NO: 678910.

In the interest of fairness/your Information and Knowledge, I thought it best – not that I’m asking for pity, mind – that you all at the Australia Council for the Arts should know that I’m actually a recent survivor of a car crash (specifically, I was mowed down on a Berlin road – calling it a “car crash” in my mind indicates two cars and that hence I had a large metal frame weighing several tonnes surrounding me for protection, when in fact I didn’t) during which I was knocked violently unconscious and thereby found myself knocking on Heaven’s door (metaphorically, because I’m actually an atheist). I also acquired an Acquired Brain Injury, so, if I do say so myself, it’s basically a miracle I can even write this letter to y’all, or even apply for funding from your Funding Body.

Anywho, I just thought you should take that all into consideration before deciding whose application is the best overall and – I haven’t even mentioned that I go to NIDA, but, I do, or did before the car accident (getting hit by) and very much hope to return soon – who, given the circumstances, deserves the money.

My parents took some photos of me the week that I came out of my coma. My face in these photos is still a little bloodied and my eyebrow is stitched up, still, but I can send them along if they’ll help you all with your decision which I trust will be the Right One.

 Kindest Regards,

Christopher “Almost Died on a Berlin Road But Juuuuuust Survived” Bryant.

2.

I am sitting in an upright black chair not unlike those featured in school classrooms, listening to my Psychiatrist speak and wondering why the hospital hasn’t prescribed to the American ideal that every Psychiatrist’s office should be fitted with a comfortable leather chaise lounge. Haven’t they seen US television? It’s Germany, so, probably not.

“And – let me tell you,” the Psychiatrist speaks, twirling her orange ponytail through the weave of her talon-like fingers as my brain cuts back to the topic at hand, “you are so lucky. So damn lucky. To be alive, yes. But also to still be able to walk and talk and think, even. Have you seen some of the other patients around? Committed to wheelchairs and walkers usually used by the elderly, not able to get around without someone to wheel them. Think of Mr. Henderson, ja? It’s amusing on one level, his speech, I know – ja, ja, ja, ja, genaut, ja!” she turns quickly to an imitation of Henderson’s speech, her voice morphing and adopting the sudden age and weight of a 67 year old brain injury patient with more than a passing resemblance to Santa Claus and without, evidently, the ability to speak a full set of varied words. “But imagine what it must be like for him? Stuck in there, trying so hard, unable to do anything else but “ja”!” She leans in conspiratorially now. “Some of the nurses walk into his room and ask him things because they know his answer will be “yes”. Like, “I’m the best nurse here, aren’t I?” and “everyone else is shit, aren’t they?” Isn’t that just horrible for poor Mr. Henderson?”

It is, I think. But aren’t we supposed to be talking about my psychological state instead?

3.

We’re siting at a friend’s housewarming party, now, at a white plastic set of domestic table and chairs, the group giggling and laughing against the humdrum of other voices, crickets outside and a stereo system that seems to be playing a mix CD of Blink 182’s varied “hits”.

There’s a pause in the conversation – which has, like so damn many in life right now, been about my accident, my brain injury, how I’m doing, what exactly I’m doing to get my life ‘back together’, how I’m finding rehab.

Dylan – a friend of Jeremy’s, a nurse, someone on his netball team – has been sitting comfortably in a matching white plastic chair, his hands and fingers tented pensively under his head.

“Well, yeah,” he says. “I mean, you’re lucky, you’re fucken’ lucky, but don’t let that consume you. I mean, it is what is. You escaped it. A lot of people don’t. That’s not your fault.”

There’s a pause, and my brain jolts awake in some kind of strange revelry. In the silence, I realise: this is the first time in however many months that someone has told me I’m “so lucky” and not made it sound like an accusation.

4.

My current physio, Cristie, is a stern taskmaster, rarely pleased unless we end each session with me covered in sweat and gasping for pure fresh air. That being said, she also carries with her an air of inspiration and excitement and is quick to compliment me and tell me when I’ve improved (something that, as I live this recovery, is getting harder and harder to notice on the daily). Also I’m pretty certain she has a bangin’ set of abdominal muscles (something I’ve never been able to boast of, sadly) even after giving birth to two children, so that, I think, is pretty astounding in and of itself.

A session, last week, half shared with another of her patients: me, sweating and puffing as I run across the physio gym and attempt, as I do, to do squats, and the other patient, sitting calmly on a chair with Cristie next to her, trying to talk her up.

“I know,” Cristie says. “I know, but how about we try – we just try – for today, hey? Nothing’ll go wrong, I promise. I’ll be here for help if ever you need.

No!” the patient says. “No. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t step up on that block,” she gestures to the plastic yoga ledge in front of her, about a quarter-foot above the hardwood floor. “It’s… it’s too scary.”

Fuelled in my determination, I reach the station in front of me, down the end of the hall leading out to the hospital at large, and I grab the weights and begin to do a set of squats.

5.

One of my therapists:

“You can’t get lazy about things, as I think people have a tendency to do; or they rely on knowledge of the brain injury to get them by, when really they should keep pushing themselves to do new things and seek out their limits.”

A friend:

“You’re basically cleared to coast by on this brain injury shit for the next fifty years. Seriously. Every application from now, everything else – I reckon you’ve earned it, so just fucking milk it.”

6.

My neuropsychologist’s office; Caulfield, Australia – smudged white walls and off-grey carpet engulfing the heels of my shoes which’re currently digging hard into the ground below me in a futile attempt to rid myself of my displeasure.

“Sometimes,” she says softly, pityingly. “Sometimes, people with brain injuries think – they… they think that things are very good when in actual fact…” here she pauses for dramatic effect. “…they aren’t” she finishes with the air of dropping a horrible and dramatic “truth bomb”, apparently ignoring the fact she’s dropped this particular bomb approximately five times before and each time I’ve remembered. This particular bomb-dropping has been spurred by me letting her know I’ve submitted an (admittedly very late, but I think that’s understandable, given the situation) assignment for my Masters course. She pats the table between us in a play at comfort-giving. “Can you send the marks along once you get them? So we can see how you go and maybe go from there, therapy-planning-wise.”

I grit my teeth so hard I fear they might snap in two.

“Sure thing.”

“Dear Christopher,

Your mark hasn’t been moderated yet, but it will either be a Distinction or High Distinction, and exhibited not only your usual intelligence, but considerable poise as well! It felt to me like you were very much back in the land of the living. If you’d like, give your Occupational Therapist my email address and I might be able to give her more detail if that’s not adequate, though I’m sure both you and she are much better judges of your current state than I am!

All the best,

Stephen”

“Hi Chris, 

Please find attached some factsheets you may find useful. 

Feel free to ask me any questions.

See you again soon. Have a good weekend! 

Kind regards,

2 attachments:

ALCOHOL AND DRUG USE AFTER ACQUIRED BRAIN INJURY.DOC

RETURNING TO STUDIES.DOC”

Both attachments are chocked full of “truth bombs”, warning me of the dangers of drinking and drug use after a brain injury (facts I already knew, but helpful) and that I might find study “hard to get used to”; including that work that I think is good might actually not be and that exams – thankfully not an issue I have to worry about – might be “stressful to deal with” (facts I already knew and less than helpful – perhaps a better factsheet would’ve been HOW TO CONVINCE YOUR NEURO-PSYCH YOU’RE OKAY TO GO BACK TO STUDY AND WRITING BECAUSE YOU’VE BEEN DOING BOTH FOR THE PAST SIX WEEKS EVER SINCE YOU GOT BACK TO YOUR LAPTOP AND YOU HAVE HARD EVIDENCE THAT LECTURERS HAVE ASSESSED YOUR POST-BRAIN INJURY WORK POSTIVELY.DOC).

The fact that my “miraculously quick recovery” (doctor’s words, not mine) – indeed, my general aliveness – is all just a simple fluke haunts me. Similarly, the fact that my life hung in the balance of a metaphorical coin-toss where what determined the coin’s landing was not the technique of the thrower themselves or that somebody weighted down the coin, it was just, in fact, just pure chance itself, also haunts me.

Somehow I’m convinced that somewhere, out in the multitude and imaginary collection of alternate universes, there’s a version of me in a hospital somewhere, miles from recovery and unable to walk or talk or remember the faces of my loved ones, drooling and giggling at things nobody else can see, really testing the strength of my friendships.

7.

A week before we leave Spandau, I’m standing naked post-shower in the patient bathroom, hands grabbing sections of my body and twisting cruelly. Given the hospital’s insistence at twice-daily abendbrot – bread and thick cheese with fatty meats; deeeeeeelicious – and the tendency of brain injury patients to crave sweet things (the body’s attempts to sugar itself up for recovery, apparently) I’ve put on some 8 kilograms since my hospital admission (and my coma, which my friends joked I’d be pleased by because of the enforced weight loss – they were right) and this is the moment I first come to accept it, traitor pockets of softness and weakness spreading ‘cross my body like someone might spread full-cream butter over thick dry bread. My eyes – or eye, as one is covered by an eye-patch – come to rest on the fact of my body in its current state. A thought like a helium balloon twists out of still-recovering brain and explodes in front of me:

You fat fuck.

I blanche.

An hour later I huff into bed and pull the covers over my head like a truly petulant child. I lie there, in the dark, hating the accident, hating Germany and German hospital food, hating all cars everywhere, hating my body for not being what I want it to be, hating my treacherous fat cells, and hating drunk me for not looking both fucking ways before crossing. As I lie there, the nightly sedatives slowly taking their desired effect, another thought-balloon twists out and pops, the thought coming out calm and quiet and dark in the night, both perverse, thankless and incredibly immature all at once:

If I can’t have a body that doesn’t disgust me, what’s the point? Why did I even survive then?

8.

I am 9 years old, running through my childhood home and laughing hysterically as I dodge my older brother’s attempts at tickling me. The soundtrack to “The Lion King” blasts out of the CD player – “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” – the bass rocking through the floor and shaking my knees joyously. My parents aren’t home. I jet off again, seeing my brother come down the hallway after me, and come to stop on socked feet in front of a glass window.

“HAH!” he yells as he tickles me and I scream in faux-terror and pain and begin gnashing my arms around.

It takes only a second, but suddenly my arm is clear through the window, the veins and flesh of my arm pissing blood everywhere, and this time I’m screaming in real terror and pain.

I’m in the back of my next-door neighbour’s car, my brother holding a face-washer over my wounded arm soaked deep crimson and wet with blood. My next-door neighbour runs back and opens the car.

“It’s a palliative care hospital,” he says of the nearby hospice we’ve screamed into. “They don’t think they’ll have the resources to help; we’ll have to go to the GP instead.”

It takes two people to do it – both my parents kneeling on each arm – but they finally restrain me enough so that I have no choice but to let the doctor’s anaesthetic needle inside my vein. Once it is, though, she works quickly and efficiently, and I feel nothing.

Later – hours later – my parents are up still but it’s past my bedtime, and I’m padding to the bathroom, arm wrapped up in tight scratchy bandages.

“It was so close,” Mum says. “The doctor reckons if it’d been a millimetre more it would’ve cut through an artery and the… and then he wouldn’t have made it.”

Even at 9, with a full bladder and half-asleep, I know what “wouldn’t have made it” means. I guess I was close, then.

Close to what, though? part of me – the part that’s desperate to urinate – asks.

After ten seconds of pondering, I still don’t have an answer so I continue on toward the bathroom instead.

A fellow student, some days after I’d returned to school, patched up.

“What happened to your aaaarm? Did you try and cut yourself?

I don’t believe in superstition – except for my old determined belief that holding the “B” button down when attempting to catch a wild Pokémon and thinking manically “I’ll look after you so well and feed you all the best foods you want to be on my team I promise you’ll love it you’llLOVEit pleasepleasepleasepleasePLEASE-” will help up my in-the-wild catch rates, and my other old belief – that began around the same time as the Pokémon belief; 1997, the year “Red” and “Blue” were released – that if I left my blinds closed in the morning by accident then Mum’d bring home cooked chicken for dinner. After these two (admittedly rather spaced out) incidents, if I manage to make it to 41, I’m having a year of superstition and ultimate caution, just in case.

Juuuuuuust in case.

9.

Six days, now, ‘till we’re due to leave Spandau – and I’ve woken, slowly reaching the surface of clear mindedness and clarity as the sleeping tablet wears off and I return to what has now become my regular life. My parents are already in my hospital room, mulling about as I wake.

“Hello,” Mum says.

“Hello,” I return, my mouth dry and claggy from a combination the after-effects of the tablet and some one and a half months of unclear, drugged, sleep.

In silence and stillness, we both watch as a tiny ladybug slips its spotted way through the open window and, wings spread wide, streams through the air and comes to rest in the palm of my outstretched hand.

I pause. The ladybug moves, slowly and determinedly trotting across the faint crevice of the lifeline running through the middle of my fleshy palm.

“I think you have a friend,” Mum smiles. “He’s been in this room for the past few days, actually. He’s like your guardian angel.”

Slowly and determinedly the ladybug turns on the spot and sits down in my palm, feelers waggling left and right, giving off the impression that it’s looking at me; studying my face.

“Yeah, right,” I reply, a smile breaking through despite my mood and creasing across my face, left and right; one side to the other, like the lifeline that runs across my palm.

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