Having a Brain Injury Is Like Going to a Belgian Hardcore Rave
After getting hit by a car, it didn't occur to me that not getting an MRI was a mistake.
Photo: Al Overdrive
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE's website thought it would be amusing to employ a 47-year-old who can genuinely remember rock festivals before NOFX and Bowling For Soup were added to the bill.
In case you were wondering, or simply too lazy to use Urban Dictionary, "menk" is slang for a mentally ill or educationally subnormal person, and is a shortened version of mental.
MENK 67: Yes Sir, I Can Boogie
What I hear first is a satisfying bit of metallic perc, like an old car door opening and closing rhythmically. CLUNK-CLICK! CLUNK-CLICK! CLUNK-CLICK!
Then without warning, there's an eardrum-bursting bass tone. A raw, sawtooth wave coming in harsh blasts with no delay or echo. BAAAAAARP! BAAAAAARP! BAAAAAAARP!
Then it starts.
A flat and muffled kick drops at 122bpm. It sounds like the thing has wound sheets of bubble wrap over his fists and started punching a wall covered in contact mics, but with slightly more pressure on the one. A bass pulse comes in, tongue and groove with the four to the floor.
This audio is snide, scornful, disrespectful of the listener—contemptuous even. But I know what I like and I feel my mouth go dry, my blood pressure rise, and my heart rate increase. I'd lay money, if I were looking into a mirror right now, my pupils would be dilating.
It stops dead, there's a repeat of the door slamming percussion and the three bass tones. A high-pitched synthetic horn stab kicks off at 132bpm with a matching bendy bass tone. BOING! BOING! BOING! BOING! This is more like it! It’s so fucking minimal and unmediated… but breathtakingly loud and heavy. Even with plugs in, it feels like it's brutalizing my lugs. A fatter deeper tone fills out the pulse, and then after a couple of minutes, I can hear an air raid siren modulating over the mix. Another percussive beat drops. It sounds like a builder hitting a scaffolding pole with a lump hammer. But as it goes on, a chiming, struck bell-like quality begins to emerge from the mix. TING! TING! TING! TING!
All the hairs on my arms jump upright. My mouth is now salivating and I can feel tiny pinpricks of sweat dotting my forehead.
I'm getting flashes of being at a rave in the Lowlands, years ago. All I can visualize with any great clarity is some drunk and crazy person—and I swear to god this is true—wearing flared overalls, hobnail, and a beanie hat covered in smiley face pins with one very long dreadlock poking out of the back. Don't ever change, Belgium. Who was I watching? Speedy J? All of these hundreds of nights out have pretty much congealed into one indistinct and threadbare memory now.
Time's dissolving. How long have I been here? Feels like hours, maybe even days…
I'm on the threshold of going to the other place. My eyes are starting to tip back into my skull, my individuality is about to start melting away, allowing me to join something much bigger than myself. What is this feeling? It's not exactly pleasant, but then it's so radically un-quotidian.
Suddenly, I get the sense that someone else is in the room with me, and I get an unpleasant surge of adrenaline. My head is locked tightly in place by a firmly positioned wire cage, and a heavy plastic lid is clipped over that, which means I can’t see anything either. Sweat is flowing freely from my back and beginning to soak through the paper towel and onto the gurney that I'm lying on.
Who's in the room? The noise is deafening. I want it to stop now. My mouth has gone dry again. I can feel the panic button in my hand. Don't press it. Don't be the idiot who presses the panic button. Someone told me some statistics before I came in: "It's only men who press the panic button. Women tend to be fine with the experience…"
But I'm a 47-year-old man and I really want to press the panic button. Life should come with one of these panic buttons hardwired to a 24/7 on-call existential rescue service. I’d press it a dozen times a day. "Yes… yes, I did press the panic button. Will you come and get me? I’ve just come out of a supermarket and now there are three geezers walking down the road behind me in an odd manner." I would press the panic button so much that the service provider would fine me and eventually come around to my house and take it off me. "Yes… yes, it’s me again. I know I pressed the panic button. Will you come around and get me? I’ve just got back from watching Hereditary. I’m lying in bed and I think the crazy-looking girl with the detachable head is on top of my wardrobe. I can’t get up to turn the light on or she might jump on me." I would be sent on a humiliating, weekend-long panic button awareness course in a fluorescent strip-lit church basement. "Hello, yes, it’s me again. Yes, I know I pressed the panic button. Will you come and get me? There’s a strange tapping at the door… actually, it's more like a scraping. Maria? Oh she’s fine! John? No, he’s at school now! I know! Yes I know! They grow up so quickly! Pokemon this… Pokemon that…"
I’m gingerly testing the give on the panic button when all the sound ends simultaneously without warning.
I hear the muffled sound of a door opening and closing through earplugs and defender headphones. A shadow passes across the crack of light I can see under the casing over my face. There is some forward movement as the gurney gets wheeled out of Homerton Hospital's MRI machine. The nurse is in the room, taking the cover off of my face. I pull my ear protection out as she lowers me hydraulically toward the floor.
"Are you OK?" she asks. "How was that?"
"I’m OK. I found it invigorating, really, but 20 minutes was enough."
I walk out of the MRI room and into an adjacent cubicle to get changed, with one hand manually clamping my hospital robe shut at the rear. I don't trust the ribbons they’re supposed to be tied with and I adopt a belt and braces approach to preventing my own nudity in public at all times. Healthcare staff have a hard enough job as it is without them having to look at my ass.
My clothes and shoes are in a red supermarket-style shopping basket, and perched on top of that is a CD from the Analog Africa label—still in its plastic wrap. My letter from Homerton Hospital had informed me that I could bring my own music to listen to during the procedure (as well as lightly sketching out the awful fate that would befall me if I forgot to tell them about any metal implants, intimate piercings, or pacemakers I might have). But when I turned up clutching the album, one of the nurses sucked her teeth and gave me a look that said, "Look, we’ve been working since 8 AM and we've got another four hours to go and we're just fine listening to Cardi B on Spotify in the control room. Go ahead and try making us turn it off just so you can listen to your hipster dad compilation of 'Cameroonian boogie from 1982 to 1986…' We double dare you."
This seemed eminently reasonable to me, so I left the CD unopened.
When I was hit by a car in November of 2016, I ended up in the emergency room, and the decision that I didn’t need a brain scan was taken while I was in the room but without me really getting a say, as I didn’t know what was going on. At first, it didn’t occur to me that this was a mistake. Not much of any thing occurred to me at all for the first two months I was out of action.
The period that followed was like a massive comedown stretched out over half a year. A journey through clarity via confusion to utter wretchedness. What felt like the transition from a period of revelation into psychic disintegration ending in prayers for a sudden end. Initially, the time off work was just spent in a daze. It was bleakly funny at first, finding myself outside of my home and not knowing how I got there, not knowing why I was outdoors. I would simply head back inside with the uncanny feeling that perhaps I’d been going in and out of the flat repetitively for quite some time before. There was something undeniably amusing about my new, dynamic lack of balance. Once, I went around to my friend Mark’s house, and instead of sitting on his futon, I fell straight on the floor. It was hilarious. We were both in stitches. I was constantly toppling over at the swimming pool while trying to put my trunks on, but it was impossible not to find some humor in it. I couldn’t leave a room when tired without bouncing off the door frame or walls. I had become permanently over excited—a punch-drunk stuntman in the slapstick movie of my own life. But after some time, you stop being able to put a positive spin on it.
The thing I couldn’t get used to, despite it happening constantly, was not being able to remember anyone’s name. My mental contacts file had suddenly become corrupted and partially useless. I would be stopped in the street by people I no longer recognized and had to pretend that I knew who they were. There wouldn’t be a flicker, by the way. Absolutely nothing there. Who is this person and why are they talking to me? Sometimes, mercifully, they would give away enough biographical material in the short stilted conversation that I’d be able to work out who they were, but not often enough.
I was finding it near impossible to articulate any of my distress because my vocabulary and ability to construct complex sentences capable of capturing nuance seemed to have been fatally compromised. The cumulative effect of not being able to define what was happening was shattering. Each time I couldn’t summon a word I needed, each time I couldn’t craft a sentence, each time I stood in front of someone I’d run into on the street pretending desperately to know who they were, another fine layer of depressive dust settled on me. Eventually, after another two months, I deleted an entire book project I’d been working on, expunging all notes from my phone and laptop. After all—what was the point? Less than two years earlier I’d written my first book, and now I could barely string a sentence together. I could hardly ask for a carton of milk at the store some mornings without embarrassing myself. The nurse at told me I’d be back to normal after two weeks, but over half a year later, I was barely functioning as an adult, and for the first time in years, I back to the exhausting business of constantly thinking about cashing my chips in.
Back at the house, I do some admin stuff—file some invoices and send some emails. Something occurs to me, so I nip into the bedroom where I keep the CDs. It takes me forever to find what I’m looking for because they’re not alphabetized and I have thousands of the albums. But then I catch sight of it—Speedy J’s Public Energy No. 1, some industrial techno from 1997. I bought it from the Our Price in Welwyn Garden City and would listen to it on my Discman while walking to a night shift in a factory on an industrial estate that looked like a dead tarantula on its back. On Monday, I would be glowing still after the weekend’s pills, sweating beer, wine, and whiskey out with every step; the evidence of another weekend night out at Turnmills or the Blue Note, echoing fainter and fainter with every step… BOING BOING BOING BOING! TING TING TING TING! And then back on the machines. CLUNK-CLICK! CLUNK-CLICK! CLUNK-CLICK! I stand looking at the cover art for a while, but then put it back on the shelf unplayed, feeling slightly deflated. I use my thumbnail to open the Cameroonian boogie CD and put that on instead. I have 15 minutes on the couch listening to it while sipping a mug of chamomile tea and looking at clouds out of the window before heading off to work.
When the MRI test results come back a couple of weeks later, they confirm something that I’d suspected a long time ago—that I have brain damage after my road accident. A mild traumatic brain injury. Slight echo degradation to the left frontal lobe. And it only took seven months to confirm.
This column was the inspiration for John Doran's acclaimed memoir 'Jolly Lad', about the recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. A new expanded edition has just been published by Strange Attractor Press.