Busted Brain Journal: Memory

Imagine you are a painter. You’re standing in your studio in front of a blank canvas and your task for the next week is to replicate the Mona Lisa. You don’t have a print or photo of the painting to go off of. Instead, you must rely strictly on memory, which is gonna be a pain in the ass because you have a Traumatic Brain Injury, so your memory is pretty good on some things, but spotty at best on other things. Images, sounds, smells or anything sensory can be clear and true, but they can also be clouded and formless when emotional elements introduce themselves and further distorts past reality. In no time, your rendition of that Italian chick with the calm face and serene smile can come out looking like an old stripper with a cleft lip and a weave.

Three weeks ago, I was informed by my superiors at work that my second job of cleaning wheelchairs to provide the supplemental income I have come to heavily rely on must come to an end because of reasons I can only guess at. So the financial instability created by losing 9 hours of overtime per week made my Lisa’s hair a bright pink. The emotional instability of knowing that I would have to rely on my parents for even more financial support until I find a second job made the plain brown tunic Lisa’s wearing into a bright red jagged pirate’s shirt with torn and stained black ruffles around the neck and ends of the sleeves. The impending effort to find a second job necessitated by losing those overtime hours turned the vague image of foliage behind Lisa into raging hell fires burning alive cute bunny rabbits by an assortment of angry Muppets wielding cans of gasoline and Tiki torches. The constantly fluctuating nature of my work schedule since I moved out of my ex-girlfriend’s house and moved into a one-bedroom-with-kitchenette apartment turned the Mona Lisa’s nose into a long Pinnochio-esque snout and transformed the painting’s frame of solid, glossy oak around Lisa into a 9-headed rattlesnake poised to sink its teeth into any art appreciator that ventured too close.

I have been engaged with several of my superiors at work via email trying to convince them that my memories of when I stopped cleaning wheelchairs, and thus stopped working overtime hours, my version of the Mona Lisa, was the real painting and I should have received more money for those hours I had convinced myself that I worked. There was no doubt in my mind that I had worked 14 hours up until I went on vacation two weeks ago, my superiors, however, gently insisted that I was wrong.

Then yesterday, I received yet another email from another superior insisting that I had ceased the wheelchair duty on a specific day and I was not due the overtime hours that I had convinced myself I had worked. She gently stated that she would like to review the issue with me in person. Then all at once, I remembered that I had texted my parents the day that I was informed that the wheelchair cleaning must come to an end, so I went back and reviewed the text history to my parents and sure enough, I found the text where I stated the precise final date I would be doing it and it was exactly the date that my superiors had been insisting on. It was akin to admiring the bastardized, hideous image that bore marginal resemblance to Leo’s painting, then hearing a knock on the door, answering it and the FedEx guy handed over a package and made me sign. I shut the door, opened the package and staring back at me was the real Mona Lisa of the truth. I had somehow convinced myself that my version of passed reality, that my memory, that my monstrous Italian broad was, in fact, the real Mona Lisa.

So, last night, I sent an email response to every one of my superiors informing them that nope, I checked, I was wrong and they were all right. I had not in fact worked the hours I had insisted I had worked because the dark cloud of despair, doubt, memory deficiencies and just plain pride had twisted my perception enough to be satisfied with my Mona Lisa and even insist that it should be displayed in museums across the land!

I’m no doctor, but I’ve done enough research to know that virtually every survivor of a Traumatic Brain Injury has problems with their memory because memory is linked to so much of what our brains do. Every TBI survivor suffers their own personal list of fall-out symptoms from their injury or injuries and they all cloud our memory to some degree because all sensory input is intrinsically linked to our past experience. You add some emotional turmoil to that, regardless if the cause is physical, mental or social, and we survivors can convince ourselves that damn near any memory is precisely the way it happened because, in our minds, that’s the truth. And the cherry on the sundae is when other people tell us, often repeatedly, that we are wrong and we walk away deflated and, depending on the survivor, pissed, depressed, despondent or some combination of these because we are, quite literally, existing in a reality, distorted by our damaged brain. In support groups, both virtual and in real life, TBI survivors testify about relationships that have changed or just ended because their reality is, simply yet starkly, different from everyone else.

This is my reality. My Mona Lisa. Complete with, in my saner moments, kind eyes and patience beyond measure. But when the darkness falls and the demons come, that bitch is just wearing a patronizing, condescending smirk. I know she’s not real. Yet she hangs on the wall smack in the middle of my mind every day.


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