I spent three months comatose, hooked up to a life support machine in the Royal London Hospital after being run over by a hit-and-run driver in the early hours of New Years Day 2010. My skull, and other parts of my body, were smashed like a mirror. My skull alone was left in 30 pieces.
When I woke up, gradually, over about a fortnight, I was utterly disorientated. I couldn't have told you whether I was ten or 100. After a time, when reality started to bleed into the fog, I became obsessed with one thing: finishing my degree. It was the horizon. Eventually, I wound up graduating last year with a 2:1 in English and Politics from University of York-three years after having been effectively written off as a lost-cause.
The thing with recovering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is that you have to find even the most simple, seemingly pathetic goals to focus on to motivate yourself. Each day must be an incremental step towards something else. In the early stages of my recovery, I couldn't even sit up in bed, but trying to do so became my daily routine. I tried to run before I could walk, too-almost literally. I grew very frustrated with myself and my new, robot-like body's limitations, and wound up getting all kinds of bruises I should never have got.
If I was to go through any kind of traumatic, life-altering injury like the one I had again, I'd want some kind of guide. Or, if not guide, at least a few galvanizing words that say: slow the fuck down, take your time. Here's a few words to that effect.
EMBRACING THE TITANIUM
So, upon coming to terms with the fact that I'd apparently been the victim of a very severe brain injury, I also had to learn that the left side of my face was made of titanium, due to having been smashed like a cheap piece of pottery. Around 33 pieces of titanium needed to be inserted for me to restore my humble visage. My part-robotness is down to the wisdom and expertise of surgeon Simon Holmes, who fought against much doubtful speculation as to whether this was really worthy surgery to undertake. The chances that I had of regaining consciousness-let alone with the ability to appreciate my facial appearance-were seen as so slim (my destiny was widely viewed to be a life in a care home at best), that many contemporaries dismissed operating on my face as worthy. Regardless of my recovery, it was bound to be significantly harder-for friends and relatives, if not for me-if my former face was unrecognizable.
Jack in a coma. Image courtesy of the author.
DON'T GET TOO CEREBRAL
The intensity of my injury meant that my facial surgery was carried out a couple of weeks after my accident as some of the swelling had to recede (my face still looked like a hamster's for all of 2010) before an operation could be conducted. But Jesus Christ, I'd glad someone took a chance on me. It's taken a while to reconcile the fact that I have enough metal inside me to build a new car, but at some point, with injuries like mine, you have to give into absurdity. Medicine and surgery is fucking absurd. The way they can invade and turn bodies into something almost new is almost not worth the headspace-too abject a thing for us proles to tackle. You just get on with it. You have to. I don't even set off metal detectors, either.
DON'T LOOK BACK (IF YOU CAN HELP IT)
I'm a right sucker for cliché metaphors. Some people find them annoying-"Everything will be alright, son" is, to some people facing an uncertain future, about as useful as a rhubarb shoehorn-but in my book, I attempt to justify their existence. Whatever works and all that. So, while the severity of my injury means that I'll probably never be able to shed all traces of it, there is a bit of a like-it-or-lump-it-ness about it all. I cannot dwell on the fact that I was in a coma for so long because, well, it happened. I can't re-live it to do it differently. I can only process my thoughts surrounding it now, in the present.
Yes, it's a shame that I'll never be "normal," but I can't bear those doctor's surgery-style magazine articles full of claims of how some abominable experience turned somebody's life around for the better. It doesn't-it can destroy you. It's about how you rebuild. The way I see it is-and the way a lot of people who have post-traumatic thoughts and syndromes are helped to see dramatic, painful episodes-is to accept what has happened and believe that it's something that I can largely carry throughout life, rather than be carried by it. To that end, though, if you do find yourself unable to exorcise flashes of a traumatic event-particularly one involving body trauma-you must seek help. No one is going to think you're weird for doing so.
LIGHTEN UP, MAN
Flippant as this may sound, embracing a less earnest view on life has allowed me to overcome what has happened. Again, this is recycling an old trope, but I've come to believe that most stuff just isn't a big deal. Being basically dead will do that to you. Still, whatever you're doing in life and whoever you're doing it with, it could probably always be better, and almost certainly worse. But you know what? The world doesn't revolve around you. It doesn't revolve around me.
WRITE STUFF DOWN
Having a severe TBI leaves you with all kinds of strange thoughts. Naturally. I've always been introspective, but the accident just intesified it. I think I'd have lost it completely if I hadn't lanced my thoughts somehow. Writing was the only thing that helped me, in the end-I've never been once for punching stuff (not that it would have been physically possible, anyway). It brought peace in a frought, desperately frustrating situation. Initially, writing about my experience was little more than cathartic release-a way to catch the overspill of my brain. Around last summer, though, the writing reached a stage where I felt that-while it could, in theory, forever be extended-I needed to be free of it.
The publishing game is certainly not a fun one to play, and not taking things too personally throughout the process of trying to get a book published (getting a rejection email in itself becomes flattering) is integral. Eventually, this spring, another person (someone at a publishing house this time) took a chance on me in this whole strange experience. It was a bit like joining the circle up.
Jack's book Battling a Brain Injury: The Life That Jack Built is out today.