Doctor’s Orders

After a head injury, a lifelong word-lover – a voracious reader and dedicated writer – is forbidden by her doctor to read or write. She’s instructed to instead fill her time with “mindless activity such as television, which requires no thinking.” She can’t even play Words With Friends or text. What will become of her?

Fairly twisted as plots go, right? What sort of sadist would inflict such ironic misery on a person? Sadly, this is non-fiction, and I have the answer: The doctor who examined me after I fell skiing and got a concussion, that’s who. (Indeed I was wearing a helmet, but the rock-solid ice scrambled a few things right through all those layers of whatever helmets are made of.)

Reality not yet sinking in, I laughed as the doctor laid out a protocol, and confessed that I was an unlikely candidate for watching TV given that I do not even know how to turn it on: When I watch TV, which I do religiously every year during the Academy Awards, my husband or daughter must turn it on, identify which remote controls operate which components, which cabinet doors must be open and which closed, what the proper channel is and how to use the volume control and the pause button. The TV seriously may as well be a Blackhawk helicopter.

After the doctor visit, I explained the new regime by phone to friends. “I can’t exercise, I can’t walk the dog, I can’t use my brain, all I can do is go to the movies or lie on the couch and watch stuff,” I moaned, resigned to becoming a shadow of my former self for an unspecified amount of time. I added that I could also go grab a cup of coffee or some food if they were available (which of course they weren’t).

Most professed envy at the forced sloth and swore to immediately figure out ways to become concussed themselves. They recommended many, many shows they believed I would enjoy, even though these are people I’ve known forever who know damn well I enjoy about one show every 10 years, and I’m still in my Mad Men viewing decade. I did not write down or make mental notes regarding the shows they recommended because oh darn, not supposed to write or make mental notes!

When a writer friend called and got the scoop, she understood. This was bad. Funny, but bad. A non-reading and writing me? It was like an evil being turning me into a different person, like in Get Out.

The doctor had suggested watching movies if TV didn’t appeal, which was way easier than using the TV: You just drive to the theater with a very large purse filled with homemade popcorn, water bottle, and Kleenex, and pay the man/woman/whoever.

I embarked on weeks of alternating between two local theaters, Netflix, and a stack of DVDs from the library. My brain argued endlessly about remaining in a passive state, however, and insisted upon endlessly analyzing the movies, fretting about long-term cognitive damage and assorted other matters. My brain was non-compliant. It even directed me to occasionally jot notes down in a notebook under the couch. But movies filled my time, for the first time ever.

According to the notebook under the couch, Selma, with David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr, should be required viewing for everyone. The documentary Searching for Sugarman was mind-blowing and everyone should watch that too, especially Bob Dylan fans, not that it’s about him. A Bigger Splash, featuring naked and frolicking Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, was possibly the worst movie ever, “the kind of movie that makes one hate the whole human race,” my husband said. Paddington Bear would have been a more powerful aphrodisiac, we agreed before falling asleep muttering disgustedly into our pillows.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was an emotionally exhausting masterpiece. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s By the Sea was ravaged by critics, but viewing right after A Bigger Splash seemed like Citizen Kane meets Out of Africa. The Post was passionate, cool, unsubtle. Get Out deserved Best Picture. Call Me By Your Name was sexy and romantic and a powerful reminder of how we all looked dancing in the 80s.

The weeks-long cinematic orgy dueled with something like panic over not being able to read and write. It was like looking through a window at the person I might have become without writing constantly flowing into and out of me. That person was emptier, flatter than me, and as my brain healed, I felt grateful for life-defining word passion. Then I was doubly grateful to be reminded of that, since the writing life can at times feel more cursed than blessed.

The concussion protocol called for gradually introducing activities back into my routine, and after nearly a month I began emailing a little, walking the dog, then writing a newspaper column and opening up Words With Friends.

I tiptoed back into a book and was ecstatic to devour Patti Smith’s magnificent Just Kids without getting headachy or falling asleep. I started winnowing down the sliding stack of New Yorkers. And I’m back now, with deepened appreciation for things I had taken for granted (and for high-quality helmets).

7 comments

  1. Sarah T.

    I can see how this must have been a challenge! “Turning off” one’s brain is harder than it sounds. ps Does this mean we can play WWF again?

  2. Heidi

    While I’m sure it was an exercise in patience for you, we also suffered from not getting our necessary doses of your writing. As always, a joy to read. Welcome back!

  3. Diane Taylor

    I feel so sorry that this happened to you. I understand to a certain extent the feelings brought on by brain deficits from illness or accident. I myself have cognitive loss from multiple sclerosis. It would break my heart not to be able to read or write. I’m sure folks have suggested listening to recordings of written work. Or making your own recordings rather than writing. But those suggestions are little comfort in the real world. I sincerely hope your recovery will be soon and complete. Otherwise it’s time for you to invent something completely new
    For reading (taking in new information)
    and writing (expressing ideas)…..
    I truly believe ideas are out there floating in the universe waiting for someone like you to discover or invent.

    • Thank you! The reading has come back, but the writing is taking a bit longer. However, ideas are being compiled constantly, awaiting the chance to jump to life on the page.

  4. Jessie Manchester

    I have missed your brain! I hope that watching all those movies will assist as you craft new scenes. Welcome home to the world of writing and hair pulling.

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