A Different Kind of Mind

Somehow I never pictured myself breathless and brain damaged at age 67. ‘Disabled’ did not occur to me ever, until things started happening to me. It took me an amazing length of time to believe that I was having trouble breathing. In fact, I didn’t discovery it myself. A very observant MD in Colorado City turned to me once when we were there for Mike’s health and said, “Are your lips turning blue? Let’s do a walking test.” For those unaware, a walking test is a simple walk around a doctor’s office where they test your O2 level before and after your block-long walk. I flunked, dipping far below 90 and yet I still insisted this could not be happening to me. Recently we went through the same test with my brother John, and yes, he denied it, and now he’s enjoying his supplemental O2.

My point is, unless you are literary hit over the head with a new disability (like a head injury?) it is very hard to accept that you may have a big new problem. I struggled against using oxygen at home for quite a while. I simply could not believe it, plus we Carters are known for extreme stubbornness. Now I can only go a couple minutes without it.

The head injuries started in my fifties and who knows, perhaps they were connected with shortness of breath. I know my most recent concussion were related to being out of breath. I went to look for something, forgot my oxygen, and ended up passed out for the floor. Unfortunately Mike was gone for a few days so when I came to I had to crawl over to my bed and get up there to lay down. I never forgot my oxygen again!

The aspect of disability I find both surprising and annoying is when others find it natural or even necessary to feel sorry for me. Some old friends have even stopped communicating with me. Talk about feeling written off! When I heard there is a new TV show called “Not Dead Yet” I thought, that’s me!

What I would like to share with all of you who think I’m done or doomed (aren’t we all?) is that, yes, my brain has changed, but sometimes it feels like it might be for the better.

I know I may have sometimes sounded pathologically optimistic here, but these days I rather enjoy my present state of mind. When I’m sitting staring out at our incredible views of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, which I do a lot of, there is a certain non-reality that is a bit like being high without drugs. That I like. I also believe that in some strange way I may have become less judgmental and more intelligent by exchanging certain parts of my brain for a less precise and exacting attitude. Call it more flexible or easygoing, but I find that soothing. Perhaps my brain got tired of holding grudges.

Of course living with Mike has helped me a lot. I am definitely the worrywart in this partnership. We Carters are first-class worriers, expertly trained by a number of previous generations. I will never forget a few years ago when I was sitting in the living room listing my well-established list of worries for Mike. He had heard this list too many times, and I guess he was tired of it, so this time he sat back in his easy chair and said, “Who cares! Is worrying about these things going to change anything?” That made a lot of sense to my bruised and shaken brain…

My Beautiful Broken Brain

“Within your own mind is a treasury, an ocean of pure bliss, consciousness, intelligence, creativity and love…”   — David Lynch

My Beautiful Broken Brain, a Netflix documentary

Recently I viewed a fascinating new Netflix documentary which follows the life of a 34 year old woman after she experiences a severe stroke. Lotje Sodderland was a digital producer at a hip London creative agency when she suffered a stroke that decimated her language skills and threw her sensory perception into disarray.

Lotje found that most of the practitioners who tried to help her recover her abilities to speak, see properly, write and read, began by defining her by what she could not do after her stroke. She instead chose to focus on a few positive changes within her brain, ones which provided her with new skills and talents.

At the end of this film she offers advice back to those who have treated her brain injury, telling them to help the patient not only return to previous abilities, but also appreciate sometimes subtle changes in consciousness, which can benefit the patient. For example, Lotje experienced an amazing new ability to experience colors and sounds like never before.

I found this new take on brain injuries quite refreshing, much like the story behind Melody Gardot’s transformation following her brain injury. She’s an American woman who only discovered her unique ability to create and sing music after suffering a serious head and spinal injuries.

Initially prompted by her physician who believed music would help her brain injury improve, Gardot began writing music after her accident.  Music is thought to help the brain form new pathways. At first, Gardot learned to hum and was eventually able to sing into a tape recorder. She made good progress and was eventually able to write her own original songs. She had no idea before her accident that she was a musician, but today she’s playing concert tours all around the world.

Both of these examples show the unique fragility of the mind, but also the limitless resources that can be found as those with brain injuries get used to their new brain, their new existence and their dynamic relationship with their own consciousness.

I have discovered a few major changes to my own brain and levels of consciousness since suffering a serious traumatic brain injury in 2008, and a concussion last September. Yes, these injuries have hurt my ability to remember many words and faces. I do find that quite frustrating at times. The benefits for me are a greatly enhanced ability and need to meditate regularly. My brain gets exhausted quite easily, especially after an hour or so of conversation.

Another change is in the intensity of my dreams. They are so real now, I can’t imagine forgetting them. They pop into my mind all day long, making me feel so strongly like I actually spent time with those I only dreamt about spending time with…

Butterfly side view small 2007This experience sometimes leaves me wondering, like the Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu, am I a butterfly flying around dreaming that I’m a woman, or a woman dreaming that I’m a butterfly? This is what a conk on the head did for me!

How did I end up here, feeling so fortunate?

It’s a long story, one I can now share with you in my new memoir!