Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
Teetering on the edge of the stair, looking down, I felt a strange sense of euphoria. In 14 years of living in our old Halifax house with its narrow, steep staircase, I had often had terrifying visions of falling. Now, it was happening; in seconds, it was over.
At the bottom, I felt another surge of elation as I picked myself up, apparently unscathed apart from a sore shoulder.
Then, at Emergency for treatment of the shoulder, they asked if I had hit my head. The thought had not occurred to me – I actually had no memory of the fall itself, though I was conscious at the bottom. No, I didn't think so.
Two days later I was gripped by intense nausea followed by agonizing head pain. The diagnosis: concussion. Prescription: complete cognitive rest. A driven academic all my life, I was ordered to retreat to a cone of silence and darkness – no music, no talk, no light, no reading, no computer. I donned a blindfold and listened to myself breathe. Days stretched into weeks.
The irony of it was not lost on me. The accident occurred just as I was about to teach my final English Literature class on tragedy. We had spent months talking about falls from a great height, guided by the Aristotelian theory of a tragic error committed with virtuous intent resulting in a disastrous reversal of fortune and disproportionate suffering. I wasn't sure I qualified as a tragic protagonist – even though I was rushing downstairs to dry off the dog (virtuous intent?) – but I sure was suffering disproportionately.
Slowly, after the fall, I got better. I recovered enough to travel to England to do research. Occasionally, when tired or stressed, I felt minor symptoms resurface, but I was pretty sure I was recovered. One day, while obsessively trawling the Internet, I came upon a statistic: Those who suffer one concussion are three times more likely to have a second; those who have had two are eight times more likely to have a third.
What? This seemed crazy to me. But images of reeling drunks and victims of domestic abuse immediately came to mind to explain the figures. I was safe, right?
Wrong. It happened again. Four months to the day after The Fall, I dropped something on the bathroom floor, forgetting that I had left the cabinet ajar. Straightening up, I bumped my head.
The result was another catastrophic spiral into acute pain and despair – even worse than before. Then, six weeks later, it happened again when I pulled the blanket up to my chin and my hand struck my jaw. And three weeks after that, it happened again when my arm twitched involuntarily while I was falling asleep and hit my head.
I am not a masochist; I have no history of self-harm. I was not trying to extend my sick leave – I was desperate to return to my job. No, my head was made of glass, it seemed; minor hits to the head that normally go unremarked sent me into weeks of acute symptoms.
What does concussion feel like? "Headache" hardly does it justice. Sometimes a giant has his heavy foot pressed down firmly on the back of my head, forcing it forward. At other times he holds a match to the base of my neck and watches the flames lick upward and issue out of the top of my head. Then he squeezes my head with giant pincers. Sometimes he opens a door in my skull to let in a crew of workers armed with pickaxes and they get to work, occasionally setting off dynamite.
But mostly, my brain is not my home any more. When you feel angry or sad, you might retreat to a space you know well and take for granted – a space comfortably furnished, where things are in their places. It's as though my home has been vandalized, the furniture thrown around and the walls defaced. An alarm system rings and rings and cannot be shut off. But I have nowhere else to go. There is no shelter from this, no comfort.
And yet, after the acute symptoms subsided, I did find comfort in a very old technology (accessible through a new one): the technology of the human voice. Audiobooks saved my soul and possibly my life.
In Victorian fiction especially, I found a world not unlike my own – inhabited by invalids in dark sick rooms illuminated only by firelight and candlelight. In these novels, too, there were lessons of endurance, patience in suffering and of the deep consolation of human companionship.
Much as I do not want to be part of the adversity-improved-my-life genre, this experience of dropping out of my busy cerebral life into the essential elements of existence has been an important one. I may even have more to say to my students about tragedy.
Long after Aristotle, Nietzsche claimed in The Birth of Tragedy that "the entire world of torment is necessary, so that through it the individual is pushed to the creation of the redemptive vision."
I know a lot more about that world of torment as well as about the redemptive vision. But I'll also be clinging firmly to the bannister in future.
Christina Luckyj lives in Halifax.