I Got Hit by a Car and Now I Don’t Recognize My Own Thoughts
Serious trauma does funny stuff to your brain.
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 68: Can't Stand Me Now
"I'll cut you open, you big-belly cunt."
The unexpected shock of the words is like someone jabbing a bony finger into my eye. I stop dead in my tracks. There are lots of people around but they keep on moving about their business exactly like they didn't just hear the vile outburst. The voice sounded exactly like mine. I glance around, but no one else is paying any attention. If I didn’t know any better, I'd swear I just shouted: "I'll cut you open, you big-belly cunt" at a total stranger. But no one is looking at me.
A man wearing jogging pants saunters past in the opposite direction. He doesn’t notice me. He’s lost in his smartphone.
"Why don’t you get a fucking job, you lazy fucking prick? Look what time it is—you should be out working..."
It’s my voice again. Really loud and clear. It was definitely me—there’s no getting away from it. But again, no one’s responding. He doesn’t look up, he just strolls past me chatting. It doesn’t make any sense… I can’t have said it out loud. What the fuck is going on?
More people are walking past now and it starts pouring out of me like a stream. Horrible, dark shit. Racist. Homophobic. Misogynist. Every appalling thing you can think of right now, that’s what I can hear myself saying. But it’s not me. Or, rather, it is me, but it’s completely unbidden. As soon as one of these nasty epithets appears, loud and fully formed, but from somewhere else, as if my brain's a receiver picking up unwanted pirate broadcasts from a remote radio mast, I react in disgust to it. I start jogging toward home, keeping my head down, trying not to look at anyone. I pick up speed and I’m practically sprinting when I get to the door of my apartment.
When I get in, I’m panting for breath. I put a record on really loudly and sit down on the couch and fire up Twitter and start scrolling quickly down the timeline looking for something to engage with. After a few minutes, I do the same with Facebook. And all the while my teeth are chattering with shock. What in Christ’s name is going on?
After I got hit by a car in November 2016, it didn’t even seem that big a deal at first. Sure, there was some pain and confusion involved, but really I was too out of it to care. To be honest, I felt great for the first day or so, bar the aches. First of all, getting knocked out was the most psychedelic thing that’s ever happened to me. By my best guess, I was only out cold for about 90 seconds, but it felt like I was away for years. The time distortion of a head injury beats that of acid and mushrooms hands down. You know how people say your whole life flashes before your eyes when you have a near-death experience? Well, it was actually more intense than that for me. I relived my whole life, in a pretty surreal, non-linear, nonsensical fashion, but it went on for so long—what felt like years. And I felt that I was away for so long that I could no longer remember who I was when I came around in the middle of the road, underneath the car that hit me.
Later that day, when Maria came to pick me up from the emergency room, I think she expected to find me upset or unhappy, but to be honest, all I was feeling was relief. The nurse spent a long time going through multiple muscle and reflex tests with me. Shining lights into my eyes. Getting me to touch my nose. Hitting reflex points with rubber hammers. Getting me to flex various muscles. Getting me to grip objects. Light mental arithmetic and easy logic tests. So when he told me that I just had a concussion and I would be as right as rain in a couple of weeks—that there didn’t appear to be any serious brain trauma and nothing was wrong physically apart from soft tissue whiplash in the neck—it genuinely felt like I'd just been told I could go on an all-expenses paid vacation in the sun. Okay, I kept on forgetting what my last name was and where I was and what my job was and stuff like that, but it was like someone had finally put the brakes on my life.
When I stopped drinking, on August 1, 2008, I immediately threw myself headlong into working around the clock. If I wasn’t struggling away at my website, The Quietus, I was writing for someone else, like VICE. And if I wasn’t doing that I was writing a book. Or putting a record out. Or DJing. Or lecturing. Or recording radio shows. Or scriptwriting for TV. It didn’t matter how small the job was, the calendar had to be full to the point where it really looked as if I was going to struggle to hit all the deadlines. I was just another recovering alcoholic and former chaotic habitual drug user throwing himself into workaholism. But now, suddenly, I had to stop. I wasn’t given a choice. The guy in the emergency room told me sternly: "No TV. No DVDs. No computers. No smartphone. No tablet. No reading. No unnecessary conversations. Just complete cognitive rest."
"Two weeks!" I kept on saying to Maria, later that day, as we walked in the sunshine, slowly, arm in arm, through the well-tended graveyard of St. John’s In Hackney, like a pair of old folks. It was now two in the afternoon and I’d been knocked off my bike at five past nine in the morning. "Can we go and get lunch? I'm starving. Can we go to Suttons for fish and chips?"
"Of course. We can go wherever you like!” said Maria brightly.
Well, things could be a whole lot worse! I thought, and we walked slowly in the sunshine until we got to the best fish and chip shop in London.
Inside, waiting for food to come, I was just… drifting. Letting Maria talk. My head was empty like a shoebox. Sunlight was flowing in from the windows, straight through my eyes and warming the empty and spacious attic of my brain. There was nothing more substantial in there than dust motes illuminated by daylight. With the sense knocked out of me, with no work to worry about, I was almost effervescent with thoughtlessness.
There was an amazing song playing on the stereo at Suttons. It sounded both familiar and seductively alien. I should ask the woman behind the counter the name of the song. It’s such brilliant music! I thought to myself.
"How do you feel?" asked Maria.
"Honestly? I feel like I’m on ketamine. Like there’s nothing but popcorn in my head. Not the popcorn they make onsite at the movie theater, but the sweeter, more toffee-coated, processed kind. Or just the hard caramel coating and not the actual popped corn. Or perhaps that’s too hard, too brittle… maybe inside my head feels like something that’s halfway between those two things in terms of sweetness and brittleness. Yes. I’ve got it: My head feels like the inside of a Crunchie Bar."
I clicked my fingers along with the beat and then started air drumming energetically until Maria looked at me incredulously and said: "What are you doing?"
I ignored her, shrugging and kept on air drumming while laughing to myself.
She carried on: "Seriously, are you feeling OK? You know this song is by The Libertines, right?"
Holy shit, I'm out of my fucking mind. Is this what it feels like to be a serial killer? I thought.
The next song came on. I recognized it as "Sing for Absolution" by MUSE. The restaurant must have been playing some kind of drivetime Indie Rock Anthems playlist off of Spotify. It sounded like celestial theme music fit for the gods formed from the golden magma spurting from the giant caldera of Olympus Mons. I would have told you hand on heart literally 24 hours earlier that this song was one of the low watermarks of all human endeavor and worthy of a show trial at the Hague, but now it sounded sparkling, febrile, monumental, and moving. I was never stupid enough to believe the myth of good taste, but it was mind-blowing to suddenly have it demonstrated just how ephemeral one’s perception of quality really was. When it occurred to me that my taste in music might never revert to what it once was I just started laughing again.
Maria said: "You’re starting to worry me. What do you think of this track?"
I couldn’t lie, so I just held my hands up: "It sounds amazing!"
Our food arrived and we ate it laughing. "Yes!" I shouted through a mouthful of chips when "Place Your Hands" by Reef came on. I should have been worried, seeing it as a precursor of what was about to happen, but I wasn’t. I just thought it was hilarious. I joked to Maria that maybe I would get some handsomely-paid freelance work now that I was into Radio-X indie rock anthems.
But the laughter didn’t last that long. With each passing week, long after the feeling of sweetness and carefreeness had departed, it was clear I wasn’t getting better, but worse and worse. The injury to my neck slowly dissipated, the cuts on my legs slowly healed and faded from view, but my sense of bewilderment, my inability to articulate even the most simple of thoughts deepened and deepened until I was constantly on the verge of hysteria. I struggled to cope with even the most simple of everyday tasks now that my head no longer felt like it was made of honeycomb toffee, just handfuls of gravel.
Of all the indignities thrown at me I found hardest to articulate the rage I felt at having both my memory and vocabulary damaged, as they were the kind of assets that no writer—not even a hack —can continue without. For a long enough period, I was barely fulfilling the role of domestic skivvy. Maria learned quickly that unless my routine for the day was written down, there was a high chance some or all of the things weren’t going to get done. While I was off work she outlined my chores for me each morning in a large notepad in the kitchen. I would copy keywords to the back of my hand in biro before daring to set out into Hackney.
I seriously considered having the following unwieldy acronym tattooed on the back of my hand: LCNCNS-EED-WED-DP-CYTDL (Low carbs. No caffeine. No sugar. Exercise every day. Write every day. Don’t panic. Check Your To Do List.) Who knows, I may still do it.
But then, seven months after the accident, everything changed when I receive the results of an MRI confirming that I have a mild traumatic brain injury, and I found myself attending a small brain injury support group.
In a tiny room, five of us are addressed by a neurologist while a student takes notes. "The word 'mild' in mild traumatic brain injury is not intended to minimize or deny your symptoms," she tells us. "The odd thing about the MTBI is that you’ll often seem normal to other people, so they may have trouble believing there’s anything wrong with you. But there is something wrong with you—don’t worry! I’m here to tell you it’s not all in your head!"
She explains the biological processes which have come into play. During an accident, long tracts of nerve cells in the brain can become stretched, leading to shearing or tearing—this confirms what it says in my letter from the hospital: "A few areas of gradient echo susceptibility in the left frontal lobe which represent some tiny microhemorrhages." She said that these rips in the brain were consistent with an injury where a rapid force acts on the head and that they take about 12 weeks to heal physically. She said that it was standard for the symptoms to hang around longer than this, though because as biological contributors fade, others snap into play.
As she reeled off the symptoms, I ticked them off affirmatively one by one. Reduced information processing skill, vestibular problems such as vertigo, imbalance, and dizziness, severe headaches, sensitivity to noise and light, fatigue, anger, and anxiety. And it turned out people with MTBI tend to face difficulties managing their workloads: "People who have this kind of brain injury tend to do a lot of work, they tend to either be perfectionists or worry to an abnormal degree about the quality of their work. So the irony is that the kind of people who would be more worried about getting back to work straight after an accident are more likely to suffer from an MTBI than people who don’t really care so much. People who immediately try and get back to a 100 percent workload find they can’t cope, catastrophes about the resultant fatigue, and this feeds back into the problem, reducing their ability to work even further. They tend to withdraw from work altogether and become depressed and anxious."
There are groans of recognition from all around the room. The other patients are an author, a rabbi/school teacher, a researcher, and a senior teacher.
It’s not me who brings up the subject of personality change, but it’s such a relief to hear it being thrown into the mix. I find myself opening up for the first time about what is for me the most worrying and upsetting aspect of the past year.
I say: "It's quite difficult for me to talk about this. I haven’t told anyone else about this before today, not even my girlfriend because I was too embarrassed. The effects were profoundly unpleasant; I can only be thankful really that they didn’t last for that long and it wasn’t there constantly, only when I was tired. So, what happened was, about four months after the accident, when I was quite low, I sort of turned into an elderly Daily Mail reader. For a few weeks running, if I was out of my apartment going to the shops or whatever, if I passed by someone I didn’t know I’d think the worst things about them. Really appalling things. Quite racist, sexist, homophobic things; quite hateful and violent. But it wasn’t really me, if you see what I mean. I could just hear my voice saying these really horrible things, as a kind of knee-jerk reaction. And then I’d be appalled. You know, thinking to myself, Christ! Where did that come from? I mean, even when I was an alcoholic and I used to think about topping myself constantly and I was mired in these bleak thoughts at all times unless I was drunk... even in my lowest moments, I wasn’t thinking stuff as bad as this.
"You know, it was upsetting, really. You live your life in a certain way. You have certain beliefs, and then you get hit by a car and then you're unable to stop thinking things that directly counteract those beliefs."
I’m about to start wheedling; to tell them that I make regular PayPal donations to The Guardian—I can tell I'm about to go a bit #NotAllMen—so I stop talking.
The rabbi/teacher who looks to be about 50 years old addresses me in a friendly conciliatory way. It is such a simple act of kindness, but I’ll never forget it. He salves my obvious discomfort by saying: "You got more right wing… I got more left wing."
And then he tells us his own weird story. He is a teacher with a lot of responsibilities, and one day at work he took a bad step and fell down a flight of stairs, braining himself at the bottom. He knocked himself spark out and came to in a pool of his own blood. After a trip to the hospital he thought he was OK at first, but then his personality started to change. Apparently, a once strict dad, he suddenly became quite liberal, letting his kids stay up really late, letting them have tons of sweets.
He adds: "And then out of nowhere, I got into post-rock and hardcore punk. It’s all I could listen to. My children would be like, 'Abba—what is this terrible music? Please turn it off!' And I would be like, 'But my children, this is Godspeed You! Black Emperor…'"
About four months after my accident I threw in the towel. It was a moment of collapse and one I’m not proud of. I deleted a book project from my computer and phone permanently. I gave up on the idea of writing and started thinking about what else I could do instead—a move back into factory work probably. I think it was probably meeting that Rabi that made me change my mind. There was a time when I would have just gone straight down to the pub and tell everyone about him, the details getting enhanced with every pass and each new round of drinks. ("But my children, this is Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra La La Band.") But it is 2018 and now there is no pub and no audience. I have to write these things down otherwise I will forget they even happened. And I don’t want to forget this Rabi.
When I get in from the hospital, I create a new Google document—the first of its kind in three years —and mark it: "MENK 2018: Notes."
The period of hatefulness didn’t last that long. As grim as it was, it went away quickly and it didn’t come back. Yet again, I was forced to concede that things could have been much worse. As upsetting as the experience was, it didn’t actually lead to me doing or saying anything out of character. Where had it come from, though? You make certain assumptions about yourself and your personality and yet, deep down, there’s this whole other layer that you’re not even aware of that completely contradicts these nice assumptions you make about yourself. Yet again, I’m forced to ask: How much agency do I even have? I feel sick with worry even thinking about the extent to which I can control my own life.
Later on the same day, my phone goes and it's mom up in Liverpool: "It’s your dad. He’s ill again."
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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.
You can read all the previous editions of John's Menk column here.