By Jane Ratcliffe.
1. Some people will refuse to believe that there’s anything wrong with you. They will accuse you of pretending to be sick for attention, even though you had plenty of attention in your life before the table top that was mounted on the wall fell on your head (or you got in that car accident, et cetera). They will counsel people not to help you, they will explain to them that helping you with your myriad terrifying symptoms is akin to enabling a drug addict; help will only encourage you to fake your illness longer. What you will learn from this: You’ll learn how to swaddle the voice that spends hours (and hours) each day defending itself to your accuser in soft, warm blankets and hold it to your breast rocking it gently like the frightened baby that it is. You will learn how to hear your soul and spirit shouting to you through the (temporarily?) out-of-whack channels of your brain, calling out over the cries of the baby, that your naysayer’s truth is not your truth, no matter how forceful their voice is. You will slowly excavate Your Truth from the dark, neglected chambers of your heart. You will discover how to let others say what they will about you while you’re still sick and heal anyway.
2. Most people will believe you, but they won’t really “get it”—so they’ll drift away until you’re better. Or they’ll get it, but you’re like a drowning person grasping at anything stable—and just because they don’t have head or brain injury doesn’t mean they’re consistently on steady ground. So they may drift in and out depending upon circumstances. This will hurt, but you’ll reflect upon your own life and all the times somebody else’s suffering was too much for you to carry. Or the times you judged someone’s suffering as symptomatic of character flaws—some of which were annoying enough that you secretly considered that perhaps they deserved their struggles, that if they were better people they wouldn’t have these struggles and, really, it wasn’t up to you to fix that mess. And that just as you have been put aside now, so too did you put aside others. What you will learn from this: Compassion. We are all suffering. You haven’t been singled out. Listen. Watch. Study others. No one is without fear. You will learn to hold their fear in your cleaned-up, cleared-out heart, and you’ll discover that the compassion you generate for their fear has the power to dissipate your fear as well. And likewise, the compassion you learn to generate for yourself (because you need it more than you initially realize) makes it easier to be present to another’s suffering which, well, makes it easier to be present to your own. And so on.
3. You will lose your identity. You’re no longer a New Yorker (or a wherever-er) or a writer (et cetera) or a boxer (et cetera) or a world traveler (et cetera) or a girlfriend (et cetera) or a very good daughter or aunt or friend (et cetera). You are simply sick. Without these identifiers you will be unsure of what your value is and why you’re on this planet. You will no longer know what to talk to people about and in addition to withdrawing from the world because suddenly the simplest forms of communication are challenging (remembering what an email says two minutes after reading it, following a conversation that involves more than one person) you will withdraw because you’re no longer sure how to explain your existence. What you will learn from this: You don’t need to prove your value—any more than does a bird in a tree. You have flaws, yes. You also have magnificence. You are made of star dust. Energy straight from the heavens animates you. Mama Earth coddles you. Externals fade, rot, change. Your identifiers belong to hordes of others. There are eight million New Yorkers. There are a multitude of writers. Of boxers. Planes and cars and trains are bursting with travelers. And there is only one beautiful, precious, beloved you. You are your heart. You are what you give to others. You are your laughter. Your existence is demanded.
4. Jealousy will rise up in you like noxious fumes from a fire. You will feel left behind, left out. Brains and heads take a long time to heal. Long enough for friends to get married, have babies, write bestselling novels, open hyper successful restaurants, get rich, buy spectacular homes, travel the world, or even heal from their own illnesses. You will be happy for them, but you will also feel incredible sorrow for yourself. You want those things as well. What you will learn from this: Gratitude. You will learn deep, despair-shattering gratitude or you will lose your mind. Every evening you will exchange lists of at least three things you were grateful for that day with a trusted friend and slowly, sometimes begrudgingly, you will discover that despite the challenges you face you have a tremendous amount of wonderfulness all around you.
5. You will grow angry. Very angry. At first, you’ll find other words for it. I’m frustrated, you’ll say. I’m hurt. I’m scared. All of which is true, but eventually you will own up to your deep, potent, powerful rage. How could this happen to me, you’ll demand. It’s not fair! I’m doing everything right. Why aren’t I healthy? Sometimes your anger will have a target (The guy who owned the table that fell on your head. The doctor who gave you the wrong drugs and injured your brain). Other times it will spread out across the Earth knocking against the trees, sinking into the water like a heavy stone, recklessly riding the wind. What you will learn from this: Patience. While anger can help you set goals and move forward, it’s also exhausting. It will drain all that glorious stardust energy that could be going toward healing. Patience will teach you to see your life more vividly, with full spectrum light. It will release the pressure of anger, it will lullaby the demands of your rage. You will grow to understand that brains do not heal in weeks or months or even years that fit on the fingers of one hand. But you will see that you are nevertheless getting well—sometimes more profoundly than you imagined possible. Anger rubs your nose into the places you’re still struggling. Patience celebrates all your miraculous healing.
6. Life is hard. Your life in particular. You will struggle with non-stop soul-crushing head pain, gravity-defying vertigo, potentially-psychosis-inducing (luckily this doesn’t happen for you) insomnia, a thudding-racing heart, memory loss, red hot adrenaline rushes, not to mention the psychological trauma of living through all of this for nearly seven years. You will be lonely, sad, confused, depressed, anxious, desperate for a way out. What you will learn from this: The only way out is by going further in. As one of your friends will post on Facebook after helping an impoverished community in Columbia have access to clean drinking water,“The choice to be happy is an inside job.”On your darkest days, you will find ways to watch in wonder as your cat cleans her paw or to laugh till you cry when your father says something touching and funny or to reach out to a troubled student when the barometric pressure is so low you feel like you’re at the deep end of a swimming pool trying to push yourself back up through the water. You will meet the part of you that is truly, genuinely okay. The part that you admire in some Holocaust survivors who see only the beauty in the world. The part that lamas and monks and nuns train years and years to cultivate. The part that helped your parents survive World War II as children in London when their city was bombed seventy-one times during the Blitz alone. At first, this part of you is only a seed, but you will patiently revitalize the soil and water it and be the sun that shines on it and your happiness will blossom.
7. You will study Tibetan Buddhism for two decades with one of the greatest lamas in the West. You’ll attend teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. You will also listen to interviews with and read books by many of today’s leading spiritual guides. They will tell you that now is all there is. Only this moment. Breathe into it. Which you will. Meditate on it. Which you will. And still your mind will be caught up in what you did yesterday and what you imagine doing tomorrow. Then a table will fall on your head and you will receive terrible emergency care and be given the wrong drugs which result in brain injury. What you will learn from this: There really is only now. Pain, fear, disability—these are extreme but handy tools to keep you in the present. There is no past. There is no future. There is only the exquisite pressure to be present to your now in order to survive.
8. You will think that someone needs to heal you. That if you can find the right doctor who can give you the right medicine or the right practitioner who can give you the right treatment then you will get well. Your health will improve, but not enough. You will try anything in order to be free of this hell, so modalities that you used to smirk at (energy medicine, psychics, and so on) will suddenly seem worth a try. You will crack open that Western mind of yours and let other influences flow in. Many of these people will help, some of them tremendously. Some of them you would be lost without. But in the end, their gifts only go so far. What you will learn from this: You are your own healer. Your body—grounded and calm and wise—is your teacher. Physical symptoms are one way she communicates with you. You will discover that your mind is the proverbial monkey loose in the temple. You will learn what quiets her. You will learn the language of your body. You will heal yourself.
You will learn that you are your own darkness and likewise your own light. You will learn that you need both in order to survive. You will learn that it’s not always darkest before the storm, but that the storm is pretty fucking dark too. But, you will learn, that in the center of your storm is you. You will accept that what you’re living through is horrible. Something you wouldn’t wish on the guy who owned the table, on the doctor who failed to treat you properly directly after the accident, or on the doctors who gave you the brain-injurying drugs. You will understand that no matter how horrible this is, it is your life. Your life. You will move into the love and generosity of your friends who’ve made this journey with you. You will move into the mind-blowing kindness and support and love of your parents who have spent their eighties caring for you when you wish you could have been caring for them. You will move into the love and humor and tenacity of your beloved kitties who live with you and your goddog who spends a lot of time at your house. You will move into the unexpected compassion and support of strangers and fellow teachers and neighbors who, at first, barely know you. You will even move toward the also unexpected community of Facebook. And you will be grateful and relieved and awed by the goodness of the world. But you will move mostly into yourself. Your sweet, loving, junkyard-dog-tough self. And you will celebrate. What will you celebrate, you wonder. You will celebrate all that you have survived. All that you have learned. This fresh language that enlivens your tongue. But more than that, you will celebrate all that you don’t yet understand but know to be true.
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Jane has her MFA from Columbia University. Her short stories have appeared in New England Review, The Sun, NER Digital, The Intima. “You Can’t Be Too Careful” was selected as a Best American Short Stories Notables 2013. Her novel, The Free Fall (Henry Holt), was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the most notable books of the year. She has an essay in Lost and Found: Stories from New York edited by Thomas Beller. She has also written for numerous magazines and websites including: Vogue, The Huffington Post, Vh-1, Interview, Guernica, Tricycle and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.
All of Jen Pastiloff’s events listed here.
I couldn’t read this fast enough and I wanted to go slow. These illuminating words, this incredible light, will take time to digest and absorb. Thank you for writing and sharing your gift of life!
Thank you for sharing this. I’ve had a few concussions in my life, from horseback riding accidents. The last one, as an adult definitely changed my brain. Although I think in most ways I’m the only one who knows it, but it makes you feel like you’re going crazy. Thank you so much for sharing.
This is wonderful – tear and awe inspiring in its clarity and wisdom. I don’t grapple with a chronic illness and I still feel very affected by your beautiful writing. I have a friend who broke her poor head. She lived near me for two years, and I was constantly in awe of her. She has astonishing gifts and talents – and is now an osteopath with 6 years of university study behind her. Amazing
Amazing. Utterly amazing.
This is wonderfully encouraging and helpful. Thanks for sharing your incredible wisdom.
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