Angela Washington retired and moved to Ireland in 2014 and a couple of years later she went to her first creative writing course. After a work-life-time spent working with people with brain injury – and writing reports for them and their families, for the courts, for all sorts of reasons – she relishes being able to write in a different way about this silent epidemic that has occupied such big spaces in her life for so long.
A parallel world
A friend observed the parallels with autism
I hadn’t thought of it like that before; anoxic
brain damage mimicking a different dysfunction
living in a world inside himself, not communicating,
not responding, trapped in the shadows of his mind,
wrapped in a sort of fear, turning his frustration,
bewilderment, anxiety, distress on me as he turns
away shouting and yelling, becomes rigid at my touch;
his ability to connect frozen in the depths of his self.
My efforts to help are met with indifference that turn
to hostility. Nothing prepared me for the rejection;
not being able to reach in and help is excruciating.
It was in the early days. The volcanic eruption
flickered, flared, burst alive before I had time
to blink. I fled upstairs with him in hot pursuit;
we did a weird full-bellow circuit of landing
to bedroom and back to the top of the stairs
in what had been my haven, my space, now
usurped, expropriated, become a battle field.
As he paused at the top of the flight glaring,
menacing, red faced, out of control, I stood
rooted to the spot – terrified of tumbling
to a heap at the bottom. His body too close
for comfort I held my ground, wondered
what my face was showing. After an eternity
he stood aside; we both breathed again …
The worming creature
The sudden outbursts the loss of control the shouting
the yelling the screeching the swearing all red in the face
prodding the air up on his feet a volcanic eruption white
heat burbling gurgling its way with ferocious speed
spewing its lava all memory of it gone in an instant
once the frustration and anger is spent he stands
oblivious indifferent almost confused as if he’s come
back through the ether shambles off to who knows
where without a backward glance …
We both live with this strange, invisible, inhospitable
thing that lurks in his brain – or is it his soul; my changeling
partner in thrall to his maimed grey matter now all
at sea as he thrashes about in this uncharted territory
like a worming creature trying to accommodate
those vulnerable spaces, wiggling between the cracks
and gaps of connections that no longer work, wiped out
by those undersea encounters that left him so changed
yet unable to know those changes …
What she saw was someone who wanted
to be with her for the foreseeable, to share
her life; a partner, soulmate, friend,
a lover, her knight in shining armour.
When she came to see beyond this
illusion she found a small child
in the body of a big strong man
indulging in temper tantrums,
tossing the toys out of the pram,
spitting the dummy; no remorse,
no apology, just more of the same.
He’s frustrated by his inability to be
the self he remembers, the self he grew
up with, the self that was smashed
asunder in the most pernicious
insidious way, altering everything but
looking as if nothing had changed.
Working it out – slowly, painfully, pains-
takingly, unearthing layer after layer
of indications, of signs, signals, clues, hints,
inklings, is what’s kept her hanging on.
His damaged brain’s inability
to perceive or value the humanity
of others, his loss of empathy
and imagination, his immersion
in self are what define his injury;
it’s how his brain functions now.
Caring about others, loving them,
empathising with them,
liberates each of us;
this bereft figure, devoid of connections,
is prisoner of his ego –
or is it his id –
just as much as he is punisher of her.
Trying to make things better, trying to
make things right, she’s crucifying her
self instead, losing her self, changing into
someone she neither recognises nor likes.
Don’t talk to me about fair!
You and your mum and dad move to the mountains.
You love it there – make friends – do well at school.
Your sisters have flown the nest; one’s a nurse
the other at Uni. Your dad dies. Your mum has a grief-
melt-down. You’re the only one there to support her.
You get through your exams, win a cadetship to Uni.
rent a house with a bunch of friends, have a ball.
A couple of years in you think you’d rather be a teacher
but you miss the enrolment date for the course
land a year-long job as assistant lighthouse keeper
to tide you over until the next enrolment. It’s right up
your alley – an unusual job with a bit of a learning curve
and plenty of spare time; you get to know the locals,
start taking this fishing lark seriously, do some research,
talk with boffins, visit the USofA to see how they do it
there, train in safe diving techniques down the coast,
get a licence – rare as hen’s teeth and very expensive –
set up in business with a good mate as partner – doing
stuff that’s never been done before – breaking new ground
selling to markets in Japan. You’re the brains behind it.
The government department of fisheries is interested.
The markets go wobbly – you keep focussing – diving
a bit – travelling a lot – keeping it all afloat. The business
expands, you’re employing twenty staff, you’ve been going
for ten years, you’ve a house, a car and a gorgeous girl
friend when Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, dies; the nation
mourns; their fish markets close; you can’t keep
the business going; not this time; it goes under
you go with it. Nobody knows it’s the diving
you do that’s been quietly, surreptitiously, dis-
connecting your brain; you don’t know it either
so you keep on doing it. Those disconnects change
your life, turn it upside down, inside out, distort your
perceptions, bring chaos, confusion, crisis, catastrophe.
You lose everything. You lose your self, try to find
your self, grapple with the changes in your self, lose
again. Your changed self falls out with your friends,
tests your family to the limit; ends up with nothing,
nowhere to go, no one to turn to, spends a decade
in the wilderness. A dog you call Spot adopts you.