Beth Clemens writes about her surreal life after a brain injury.
The intricate balance of my life began teetering as soon as The Kardashians came off the air. After realising I no longer had a family so absolutely perfect to study, it occurred to me that I would have to study myself.
I will be honest – this new-found way of thinking was amplified by falling down a hill and hitting the back of my head on concrete. I had no one to blame but myself. I vaguely remember yelling at a friend amidst a ‘cocktail’ mixing competition (that I had initiated by bragging for 30 minutes about my skills). I had shaken sriracha and vodka in the vodka bottle. That’s innovation, girls! I was certain the drink I had concocted was of top-notch quality, that of a professional mixologist, that of my previous place of work, a swanky speakeasy cocktail bar in the city. Between us, I actually just worked as a part-time hostess at the establishment, but you pick up a certain knowledge of strong drinks. You also pick up a knack for lying about wait times in order to grift tips from middle-aged fools with more money than sense.
The Boyfriend had done, really, an admirable job thus far in the mission of getting me home post-cocktail-extravaganza. It wasn’t until I made everyone get out of the Uber so I could throw up somewhere other than the outside of the poor driver’s car that it all began to fall apart. My memory of this, foggy at best, has only come back to me in the last week or so. I apparently asked “where the fuck” my handbag was and The Boyfriend, a well-meaning fool, turned around to look for it. I was too quick. Lightning speed. The moment his hand left the small of my back, I was taking a direct flight to the bottom of the hill.
The concrete hit like I’d dived from a 20-metre board.
Honestly, the rest of the night is not so important.
All I remember from the triage room at the hospital was this nurse incessantly, without fail, every half hour, asking me if I remembered the picture she had shown me.
No I could not. I could not remember the photo. What the fuck was the photo? Why did she care about the photo? I was pretty sure I was dying.
She’d sigh and leave the room, saying each time on her way out, “We’ll try again in 30 minutes,” in her vaguely South American accent. Perhaps Argentinian? She was pretty hot.
And then The Boyfriend would turn to me and say, “B, look at me. B. It’s a bird, a teacup and a set of keys.”
And I would attempt to lift my head from the depths of the hospital pillow and say, “Easy, bird, teacup, key.”
And The Boyfriend would say, “Yes, you got this.”
And 30 minutes would go by, and the nurse would come back in again and say, “You remember the photo?”
And I would say, “What photo?”
And The Boyfriend would look like he wished he was the one who was dying.
Afterwards I experienced strange memory lapses.
Afterwards I experienced strange memory lapses. Not in a 50 First Dates kind of way, nor in a Memento kind of way. That being said, the convoluted timeline of bullshit that had become my apparent narrative was giving a little Christopher Nolan.
But, no, memory lapses in more of a I-can’t-for-the-life-of-me-remember-what-my-boyfriend’s-star-sign-is-even-though-I-have-a-million-friends-with-the-same-star-sign kind of way.
If you are like me and enjoy making your problems everyone’s problems, this leads to looking like a freak at the gym, as you ask the girl setting up her equipment beside you what the star sign after Cancer is.
Why am I even here?
“No, it’s not that one.”
God, why is everyone so useless?
Either way, the star sign did eventually come to me. But it took extra hard, extra strenuous thinking with my brain. My delicate, soft, bruised brain. I won’t lie, though, I did feel super proud of myself upon completing that self-appointed task.
Lizzie, my ACC-Covered Concussion Counsellor (alternatively, ACCCCC – wow, love!) would have been proud of me, too. She was entirely encouraging of anything I told her I’d done. She would ask me how I was doing, and I’d tell her something mundane like, “I’m ok. I went to the supermarket today. I made dinner.” And she’d say something super motivational like, “Well, you know, I’m happy for you! Because last week when we spoke you told me you nearly cried going down the stairs to collect your Uber Eats! So that’s like, really, really good. And every step on this journey to recovery is a worthwhile and valid one.”
And she was like, entirely sincere, by the way. She loved it. She’s for real. She’s a real one.
And I’d be all like, “Thank you so much, Lizzie. I am glad you’ve reminded me of how far I’ve come.”
And then I’d feel wildly inspired by my own incredible passion and zest for life for about 20 seconds before remembering how sad it was that I cried, practically crawling down the building’s strangely grand staircase for Epolito’s pizza.
The Boyfriend is a Virgo, by the way. My mind was an absolute prison.
Sometimes the memory lapses had me suspicious that I had a gas leak in my house. I mean, I’m always a little suspicious I have a gas leak – that or that everyone around me must be fucking with me. I guess it’s impossible that I would have had a gas leak as my stove is electric. This I was relatively sure of. So the chances are slim, but never zero.
I couldn’t for the life of me remember which of my kitchen taps was hot and which was cold. My instinct would whisper to me that left is cold and right is hot. But then my inner monologue was all, “Ah ha, ok. This is a trick. This is a funny little trick that my brain is playing, and the left is hot and the right is cold.” I’d reach for the right tap and then at the very last second I’d change my mind, thinking that my self-imposed mind game would be somehow changing the end outcome of tap temperature. But it wouldn’t, and I was wrong all along. The right tap was cold. Which I guess makes sense, as this would be the most frequently used tap and we live in a right-hand dominated world (an issue we can discuss at a later date). Then, after all the fun and games of filling up my water bottle late at night, it would occur to me that had I simply turned the kitchen light on, I would have known which tap was which from the beginning. Alas, who doesn’t like a little trick of the mind?
I did actually try to convince a friend of mine once that she had a gas leak. This doesn’t sound like a particularly kind thing to do but, I promise you, I only have my friends’ best interests at heart. In case you can’t tell already, the person who writes these words is one of high moral standing.
We stood in her mid-century kitchen; she was getting me a glass of water from the tap. This friend, A, told me that on more than one occasion she had found herself standing in her kitchen, staring at a product she had just bought at the supermarket, wondering how the hell it had ended up at home with her. According to her, she had stood in the spice aisle for about ten minutes trying to find tarragon. When she found it, she had specifically pulled it off the shelf, checked the price, read the packaging, and put it in her trolley. And I believe this. She’s quite a particular woman. When she got home, she found that she had, in fact, purchased saffron.
There’s a few weird things about this. One being that they’re entirely different price ranges. And colours. I told her that it was a coincidence, she’d been working too much, not getting enough sleep, etc. Had she been drinking?
“No. It was the middle of the day, B.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you, bitch.”
She then told me it had happened multiple times, all within the last few weeks. First the herb/spice debacle, then a lemon instead of an onion.
I got a little excited at the thought that one of my friends might actually be going entirely mad. “A, I think you have a gas leak!”
I spent the next 20 minutes looking up gas-leak stories on Reddit in an attempt to convince her. For a minute there, I think I got close. I was halfway through a story about a man who thought his landlord was breaking into his home and leaving notes in order to slowly drive him crazy, when suddenly she looked up at me with relief.
“B, I don’t have a gas stove.”
“You never know with these things, though.”
“Yeah, I do know. I don’t have a gas stove, so I can’t have a gas leak.”
I shrugged and leant back onto the bench. “Well, the chances are slim, I guess. But never zero.”
This one didn’t even have any head trauma (that she knew of).
She asked me if I wanted to stay for dinner. She was making eggplant on saffron rice.
I had been very well behaved after the accident, staying home, not drinking for a month, etc, etc. The first event I went to post-head-hitting was an Art Opening. Everyone’s favourite! Not only do you get to talk to people you don’t like about things you don’t understand, but you also get to feel sad when the last free gin mixer is taken by a girl you don’t know, but you know you hate her vibe, and you don’t even like gin. Ah, it’s not so bad. Sometimes the art is… something, and you can find solace in an unexpected friend who offers conversation on something non-intellectual/academic/art-world adjacent.
Sometimes the art is… something
After being dragged to the bathroom by a girl with a large fake ponytail to talk about a boy who would inevitably break her heart (let’s not even get into that story), I was ready to leave.
It seemed almost as if we were gravitating to one another.
One thing about Obi, she always looks beautiful. She looks as if she has stepped out of a high-end ski resort in Switzerland, and has to quickly show face at a fashion show, on her way to another event. No, she looks like her husband owns a private lodge on a mountain at Lake Como. She is taller than me, but not aggressively so – we have discussed this topic at length. Her hair and eyebrows are incredibly fair – golden and wispy. Her hair sits at her collar bones and is flicked constantly as she speaks. Even though she does bleach it, she’s not like those other girls. Those girls who say they’re blonde, but they’ve been secretly getting a full head of highlights since they were 19 to hide the fact that they’re actually brunette these days (‘Dark mousy blonde’ isn’t a thing by the way, Jessica! You just have brown hair). Obi’s roots are still light and ashy; she just needs a little booster from time to time. She likes to wear snow boots with long, ruched skirts and layered long-sleeve tops. Sometimes a thin scarf finds its way into the mix, wrapping itself around her slender neck in a way that seems endless. Her mascara remains a permanent feature, smudged delicately around her pearlescent blue eyes. Her eyes are quite intense. I mean that in the nicest way.
We stood on the balcony of the gallery, her smoking a cigarette, me sipping on watermelon ice vape juice (I’ve since quit vaping and I’m reaaalllly high and mighty about the whole thing).
“Have you been watching the new Gossip Girl?” She asked me. Had I? I had!
“Yes. And I have lots of thoughts.”
“Really, I thought you had a concussion.” She smiled slyly.
“Don’t you think it’s kind of wild that the teachers are distributing child porn within the first episode?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I love it. Tavi Gevinson, though…” Obi rolled her eyes.
“Ugh, I know. She’s terrible. Her voice alone takes me close to just skipping the whole affair.”
“Have you seen the new episode?”
“Oh! There’s a new one? Why are we still here?”
Suddenly Tavi Gevinson’s voice wasn’t so irritating anymore and I would much rather be watching her fumble her way through an average reboot than standing in the cold.
“I was going to go and have a blaze and watch it.”
After a short but windy walk home, one full of salacious gossip, we arrived at Obi’s apartment. God, our lives were just like the characters in Gossip Girl. Except we lived in Auckland and were not heirs of millionaires. She might be. I actually don’t know. She offered me a glass of water before sitting down to roll a joint.
I’m not sure what it was about that joint that sent me past giggly high to catastrophically stoned, but about 30 minutes after we smoked it, I couldn’t move a muscle without being hyper aware. I wasn’t anxious, per se, more fixated. Probably all the swelling. I shouldn’t have been inhaling shit.
Obi and I sat on opposing ends of the large couch that sat in the middle of her lounge. She had a beautiful lounge. It was huge, it was basically the entire house. With big, low windows out onto the street. Although it was probably not always the best street to look out onto, it had charm. It had trees with big leaves that blocked strangers from easily seeing in the window, while still allowing you to peek through them to observe the passers-by. The curtains fell from the high ceiling, sweeping across the glossy, hardwood parquet flooring. Obi and her friends had adorned their living room with art. Art of their own, their friends, their enemies and everyone in between. N seemed to have garnered a candle collection that served as something of a shrine for the large television that lived in the centre of the room as a pièce de résistance. A small rickety table sat by the window, adorned with rolling accoutrements and ashtrays and, at times, nail polish. It does make sense to paint your nails by the window.
Perhaps most invasive was the gigantic mirror that stood practically floor to ceiling, directly across from the window. You simply had no choice but to look in it every time you swanned through the living area. Not that I was complaining! It really did just remind you that you were in a house of gays and fashion cunts, though.
I think I must have been telling Obi about some film The Boyfriend and I had watched. The Boyfriend was always getting me to watch movies I wasn’t interested in. Most of the time he was right, and I liked them once I put my stubbornness aside. But I couldn’t stand the horrors. I think it must have been this that got us to the subject – I mentioned my disdain for gore.
“Oh my god. No!” Obi cut me off. She had pulled her knees up to her chest and her hands up close to her eyes as though she had to shield them from something.
I was only talking about it.
“Oh my god! No! What?” This was kind of funny. Obi unfurled a little, peeking out from her self-built cage to look at me.
“No, I’m not good with that stuff, B.” She shook her head and held her arms out in front of her – her palms protecting her from this evil, evil idea I had poisoned her evening with.
“No, I know, neither. That’s what I’m saying.”
“No, like I really, I like, I can’t do it.”
“Really? Like exactly how can you not do it?”
She looked at me sincerely. Perhaps the most sincerely she had ever looked at me. What the fuck? Was she about to tell me about her trauma? No, surely not. We were way too high for that.
“Honestly, it’s like–,” she started, then stopped. She looked around. She flicked her hair behind her ears and shuffled her body towards me.
“You know what I’m really scared of?”
“I’m literally dying to know.” I leaned in.
“Ok. Don’t laugh, cause it’s serious. But I have a phobia of zombies.”
I laughed, of course. “Really? How? Is this… are you being… serious?” I always knew this bitch was kind of crazy.
“Yes. Like, I don’t know. Ever since I was little. I just, I’ve always been so scared of them, B. They are the most terrifying thing to me. I can’t even, I don’t even wanna think about it.”
“What are you scared of? Like, that they would eat you?”
She sank back into the couch, her head rolling back up to the ceiling for a moment, then spiralling back down to meet my quizzical face. Her body was tense with anxiety. “Yes. Exactly that. I’m scared that they will eat me.” She started listing on her fingers. “I am scared that they will run after me. I am scared that I will be one of them. I just – what if I was the first one? You know?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna be completely honest. This doesn’t feel like a real fear to me. This feels insane.”
She looked genuinely hurt. “No, if I watch a zombie movie I’ll actually pass out. It’s happened.”
“I have to tell you something crazy, Obi.” I will admit, this was a little cruel of me. “And that thing is… zombies aren’t real.”
“I know! But what if they are? That’s when… that’s… you know?”
I didn’t know. Obi shook her head in disgust at the whole situation, looked at me as if to convince me once more with the pure fear in her eyes, and then went to the door for our food. I wasn’t going to drop that conversation lightly. I needed to know more about my freak friend.
And as it turns out, she was pretty serious about it. A week or so later she sent a screenshot from a medical site – because we all know diagnosing ourselves from the internet is not only safe, but sensible and legitimate.
The screenshot was of a definition of the word kinemortophobia. The very real, very debilitating, fear of zombies.
She had circled a sentence at the bottom that read, “If you believe you have kinemortophobia, get help from a psychiatrist.” It’s good advice.
I had returned her sincere terror with humour, but I was just as sincerely fascinated as she was afraid. I joked about tricking her into watching Train to Busan, a horror that follows a father and daughter on a train that has a zombie outbreak on it. I wasn’t actually going to do it.
Obi really thought she would be patient zero, didn’t she? She was hyper-aware of her own mortality. Strangely, the undead were her biggest fear, not dying itself. She feared living on, but not being conscious? Not being in control of her own mind and body?
I didn’t blame her.
So, I was like, fully admitted and all that because I was still caking it three days after the incident. The bump on my head was still huge. I was having trouble seeing and I was dizzy all the time. The doctors wanted to run a routine CT scan just to check I didn’t have any internal bleeding. Scary and exciting. I didn’t really feel that way on the day, if my memory serves me well (clue: it doesn’t). I believe I actually just moaned about the tube in my arm and the food ban I was on for four hours before the scan – which itself took all of two minutes. Afterwards, I desperately needed to pee. I waved over an orderly to show me where the bathroom was. I stood up, gripping the drip bag in a deranged kind of way, and waddled across the hall. While peeing, I forgot to keep the bag above my arm and when I finished all this blood was coming out of my arm and down into the tube.
I opened the door and was all, “UUUHHH, UHHHHH, please, the blood… UUUHHHH…,” sauntering in a cool yet probably quite zombie-like way.
And the hospital staff were all, “We don’t care, bitch! Are you dying? No! Shut up!”
Just kidding, no one said that, but they definitely had more important things to do than tend to my dramatics.
The emergency department was, by the way, super depressing. As to be expected, but it’s never any less dismal, whenever you’re lucky enough to pay a visit. While I waited for my results, I watched the man next to me. He had counsellors and police talking to him about how they had arranged a carer for his six-year-old daughter, and he would have to appear in court to decide how often he’d be allowed to see her. From what I gathered in my overhearing (eavesdropping), the guy was an alcoholic. Like, really, this guy drank. They were arranging rehab options for him.
It did make me feel better about being in hospital because of excessive drinking. Finally! I can’t quite explain the mood I was in. I was out of it due to the hit to the skull, super sad given how big of a fuck-up I’d made, really sad because of the like, whole vibe of the ward, concerned about how long this would take, embarrassed for my behaviour, and just generally being a hater.
Dr Nice Guy said, “So, the scan shows no signs of internal bleeding, which is good!”
But then he was like, “But, you know, sometimes, with routine tests like these, things come up that we aren’t exactly looking for…”
“The scan has shown a small growth in your pituitary gland. We can’t really say what it is at this time, we don’t really know. So we’ll get you referred over to a specialist for an MRI so we can start to figure out what this is.”
After Dr Bad News left, my father was so obsessed with him. Which is weird, because he had just told him his daughter had a growth in her brain.
“Don’t you think that guy is so great? Gives you all the facts. Very kind man, has a good nature. Where do you think he’s from? Very efficient, too.”
I wanted to scream, “EFFICIENT?!”
Instead I sort of just cried a little and asked if we could go home yet. I was so upset and worn down I couldn’t even yell anymore.
Then Dr Dumb Guy made a comment about how funny it was that I was desperate to get the tube out of my arm.
I felt like I was floating through the hospital as we left to find the Uber. I may have cried on my father’s shoulder. I hadn’t felt so unstable in years.
It was dark when I got home. Waiting all day to eat had destroyed my appetite. The Boyfriend was calling me but I kept declining. I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. I felt so disillusioned by all the change that had happened in the last few days, in myself and in my world, that it felt a little like anything really, really bad was possible. And I was really, really, scared.
So I lay defeated in my bed, not even wanting to watch television anymore.
Going through a concussion, my therapist tells me, is like this. Imagine your brain is a library. But then there’s this huge earthquake and all the books, low and high, fall from their shelves. They scatter on the floor. Pages have been ripped by the air on the way down, spines have been broken, chapters are jumbled. Your brain, in the weeks (more like months!) following a concussion, is this library and it has literally one (one!) poor employee (me!) picking up the books one at a time, dusting them off, and putting them back on the shelf.
I like to imagine that there was another librarian (also me) helping to sort everything out, except she’d experienced a recent brain trauma, too, so she was not helpful at all, and she would keep putting books back in the wrong place.
And where do we find ourselves when we are so uncertain, so hurt, so confused by our own recollection of events, that we no longer believe them to be true?
Because now, on the other side of much of this, I couldn’t tell you, reading back, what I know to be true and what is a figment of my imagination. It’s highly likely to be both. Some unthinkable, evil little mixture of reality and fable, like some riddle given to you by a trickster who tells you it’s totally solvable, if only you work hard at it. But it’s not. The riddle doesn’t make sense. It’s entirely blended together. It’s a cake mix and you’ve just realised that it’s supposed to be baking powder not baking soda, but the mixer is already churning and there’s no way you could pick granules of baking soda from a bowl of flour. Could you? No, you couldn’t.
It’s like when you accidentally take the sleeping pill instead of the Accutane, but it’s only 7pm and you don’t want to have to vomit up that nice fish dinner you just enjoyed on the balcony. So you convince yourself that most pills are placebos anyway, they aren’t real, you just believe they are. So if you just think about glowing skin, that’ll happen, and if you don’t think about slumber, you won’t sleep. But that’s not true at all, and sleeping pills are, in fact, quite real, and quite powerful.
There’s no harm in sitting on the side of your bed in the early evening, mentally willing a pimple to go away, but then you wake up at 7am and the day is different and new and there’s like, wayyyyy too many birds awake like, right outside your window. Then it feels like perhaps you may have caused yourself a little harm.
And you wonder if that whole cake-batter situation was last night, and oh god did anyone notice the bitterness? It was bad, wasn’t it? Memories string back and you are reminded that the only person who called you out on your baking soda fuck-up was that pesky Riddler! Wait, no, those were both dreams. Hard to tell if they are separate or the same. The tricky Riddler isn’t real, is he? Either way, you are back at square one.
It’s not important the who the what the when the where – not in this frame of mind. Those details render themselves irrelevant in the ongoing chase for sanity and truth. Because if you go too far down that rabbit hole, you will begin to think that the Riddler is you.
This piece is featured as part of Issue 06: Vibe Shift, guest-edited by Tayi Tibble. Click here to read more essays in the series.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.