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Assistant Head Wrapper

Editor’s Note: This piece was awarded an honorable mention in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

I’m an antique. I started working as a junior copywriter at Time in 1972. I was a token Jew, a token hippie and a token “female professional” among hordes of perky typists and preppy males. The executives wore Cartier cufflinks engraved with initials and numbers, like GSW III or CMJ IV. My bosses were George the Third and Christopher the Fourth, while I was J, the only.

The men had gone to Princeton or Dartmouth, as had their dads and granddads, who’d endowed a building or two. I’d gone to Berkeley and majored in tear gas and mace. I came from immigrants, some of whom had survived pogroms and the Holocaust.

All the guys in my position had a wife, a nanny and 2.3 kids. The nanny made meals and took care of the wife. (Also the kids.) They lived in Greenwich, CT; I lived over a cab garage in a crumbling neighborhood with no trace of college grads.

My typewriter—the cutting-edge writing technology at the time—sported what looked like a grey metal golf ball with letters, which somehow got punched onto the page.Then we had IBM Selectrics and Kodachrome days. This was before PCs and search engines.

When I began in media, we used pen, paper and news judgment. Women were paid fifty-seven cents on the dollar compared to men doing the same jobs. All men were not created equal, and women were even less equal. I became witty, gritty, off the wall, efficient, proficient—and then anonymous, as a freelance ghostwriter. Ghosts were paid more, and gender seemed less significant.

A few years before, while in college, I’d wrapped gifts at a chic high-end store. At Christmas, we asked if the customer wanted gift wrap with angels or endless Noels. We got tons of paper cuts and tried hard to keep our blood off the gifts.

My writing job–packaging news and views–felt way easier. I worked for Time, People, HBO, Nova and Time-Life Films, combining facts and fun. My clients owned Oprah and Martha and Elmo and Mickey and Kermit. They got the credit, and I got the cash, which worked fine for me.

Then, in 2006, things changed.

Suddenly I was parked in a room with people whose names I couldn’t recall. We were outpatients in Neuro Rehab. I learned that I’d been hit by a drunk with a truck. I learned and forgot this a few hundred times. The good news was that I’d survived. The bad news was brain damage. I had both aphasia and amnesia.

Every weekday, my “brain training” colleagues and I sat at tables where we rolled Play-Doh balls and pounded pegs into boards. There were thirty of us there—and thirty people not there. They were who we were before.

In our first lives, we were a falafel maker, an FBI agent, a physician, a farmhand and a football coach. In our “afterlives,” we were learning to put one foot in front of the other, one word in front of the other, one thought in front of the other. You can’t imagine the effort it took to stand without swaying, speak without stumbling and walk through the door. I was more fortunate than many: One day I counted six of us sitting at the table, but just nine legs below. I still have two legs and two arms, two hands and two feet.

There were two Brain Training programs–one for brain-injury survivors, and one for caregivers. I was the only survivor who was a caregiver, too: I took care of me. Caregivers were told to separate their “new” child/parent/spouse from “the one before the accident.”

How do I separate the new me from the old me? I wondered. How can I help the new me? What allowances should I make? Where should I draw a line? Also, how can I draw a line? I’m the one with the injury!

I slammed between selves like a hockey puck, happy enough for both of us or sad enough for both of us, depending on the situation.

I lost a piece of my mind, and sometimes it shows on my face. I pray that it won’t, but I know that it does. It happens when I have to be somewhere I can’t find, do something I can’t do or say something I can’t say. It’s as if I need nine ingredients for a recipe but have only three—or need twelve words for a thought but only have five.

Before the accident, I had thousands of words for different types of finches and schooners and sutures and futures.

Afterwards, I couldn’t say “shower.”

I couldn’t say “cup.”

I couldn’t say “up.”

I couldn’t say “down.”

I couldn’t say “Please help me put on my socks.”

My cognitive scores, spanning a low of 22 to a high of 99, are literally off the charts—both too low and too high to be in the same brain. That means at just about any time, I can catapult from pretty smart to not smart at all.

In month ten of Brain Training, I encountered a catch-22. The head guy (pun intended) said that if I were more screwed up, they could do something; if I were less screwed up, they could do something. But I wasn’t either of those, so they couldn’t, and I was shown the door. Under the painstaking care of no one at all, I relearned some of the skills I hadn’t learned in rehab.

In my first life, it was normal to learn something and then write about it a few seconds later. When you’re brain injured, that gets reversed: You knew something a minute ago, but you don’t know it now. Sometimes my vision cuts out, and that part of the screen is missing—or that part of the curb, or the page, or my life.

Before I was brain-damaged, I taught writing once in a while. Afterwards, I couldn’t teach anything. I couldn’t read or write. There’s not much demand for brain-damaged writers, and I have earned little or nothing since the accident.

A few years post-truck, I met a friend at a café, and I was happy to see her. I was trying to be the “me” I’d been before. I knew that when she paused, I needed to say something. But the harder I tried to make sense, the harder it got to breathe. I could not make sense because I could not breathe, and I could not breathe because I could not make sense.

She didn’t know if it was me at the table, or someone else who wasn’t me at all. Neither did I. Thoughts burned through my mind: I need to order; no, I need to take a sip; no, I need to order; I need to try harder; I need to order…I’m trying as hard as I can.

Eighteen years post-truck, similar scenes have happened hundreds of times.

Disabled people are the world’s single largest minority—and likely its least heard from. We’re also the only minority that anyone can join at any time. Every nine seconds, traumatic brain injury breaks another American brain.

At some point in our lives, most of us lose people we love. I lost the person I was. The new me had never read the books I loved, never shared favorite times with my child. I can now write, but it’s way harder to do than it was in my first life, as are all other things—if, in fact, I can do them at all.

That said, I’ll keep keeping on.

Judith Hannah Weiss freelanced for twenty-five years writing promotional print and broadcast copy for New York, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue and other major media. In 2006, she was hit by a drunk with a truck, which put things on a long pause. Her post-truck work has appeared on NBC News and in The Washington Post, The Oldster, Iowa Review, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction and the Bellevue Literary Review and is forthcoming in HuffPost. She was a finalist for The Iowa Review’s Nonfiction Book Prize and winner of the 44th and 45th New Millennium Writing Awards. She lives near Charlottesville, VA, where she makes art for humans and homes for birds. “The homes are made with salvaged wood. This piece is made with salvaged words.” You can find her at judithhannahweiss.substack.com.

Comments

17 thoughts on “Assistant Head Wrapper”

  1. Beautifully written. I was especially struck by your description of being both “screwed up, and not screwed up enough “. Sadly this is the case for so many individuals living with a brain injury. Insurance companies don’t want to pay for services for those people “not screwed up enough”, yet truly struggling to get by every day. I wish you all the best and please continue writing as you certainly are still a gifted writer.

  2. I cried, when I read your account. When you couldn’t say cup.. neither could I.
    I had a stroke, I couldn’t say anything beginning with a hard ‘c’ and would find myself dribbling out of the side of my mouth which was embarrassing. And I had ‘twitches,’ so I stopped going out. Now I also write.
    Keep on writing 🙂 words are there to be rediscovered.

  3. I am utterly felled by your honest portrayal of life after a traumatic brain injury. Words are pretty inadequate to express how I feel after reading it. I guess I just want to say that I wish you the very best in your healing journey and am grateful you were willing to share your story with the world.

  4. What a superb essay! I am so sorry for what you have endured; as you noted, life can change in a minute. I am also awed by how beautifully you write. You are an insightful, courageous person. Keep keeping on!

  5. Yehudit Reishtein

    Thank you for this unique insight into the world of those with brain injuries. Too often people think that after rehab, recovery is complete. You describe beautifully the on and off nature of brain function after injury. I wish you success in your continued healing and in your writing.

  6. Your writing is completely engrossing. Completely inspiring. Thank you for your open heart, incisive mind, and uniquely witty expression.

  7. you’ve still got beautiful writing – loved the word play of “different types of finches and schooners and sutures and futures.”

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