I have been thinking a lot this week about what is invisible. If you looked at me now, what you would see was myself, looking (I hope) pretty much as I did before all this happened, save for a stick; a wonky leg and some sadly uncoordinating footwear. What you perhaps wouldn’t be aware of are the host of less visible and tricky-to-deal-with symptoms that mean that the stroke and its effects are always present to me. I am troubled by dizziness and vertigo pretty much constantly; my body feels uncomfortable most of the time; it takes tremendous effort and concentration simply to remain upright; and performing small everyday tasks induces a fatigue that is crippling and all-consuming. I think about these things a lot not just because they are really annoying but because I am, here in the hospital, surrounded by people who all carry about their own very different invisible things. I encounter a cheery person in a wheelchair, but what I don’t see is her double vision, her loss of spatial awareness, the trouble she has finding words, or the daily difficulties she faces dealing with the loss of bowel and bladder control. And the problem is compounded by the fact that all these symptoms and feelings are not just invisible, but often seem beyond language. In the attempt to describe and get at what’s going on inside — to make the invisible visible — we reach for different kinds of tropes and figures. I’ve recently become very aware of some of these. For example, I notice that I roll out my own stock set of similes when I am asked to describe how I feel: in the days before the stroke I felt like a coiled spring; the stroke itself was like a gun going off in my head; the effort of my damaged brain trying to “find” an inaccessible muscle feels as though I’m on a roller coaster. I first used these figures entirely unconsciously, but then started to realise that that they all relate to machines and contrivances. In their reference to mechanical volition, these tropes are perhaps a way of suggesting how inhuman and dissociating I find my recent experiences — how much the stroke is not me.
Through talking to other people with brain injuries, I have noticed just how many metaphors describing the invisible parts of their experience involve dissociation or separation: dividing one’s sense of essential you-ness from what is emphatically not you. For example, I have a pal at the exercise class who, when he is having a bad day, mentions the misbehaving “beasties” in his head. I had a good chat with my friend about his “beasties” and what his account first put me in mind of was an episode of Spongebob Squarepants where evil Plankton, in an effort to steal the prized Krabby Patty recipe, takes control of Spongebob’s brain. Much hilarity from Spongebob’s altered behaviour ensues, but the recipe remains elusive.
I then also remembered The Numskulls, who I was intrigued and not a little troubled by when I was a kid. Beezer readers will recall that the Numskulls were tiny folk who inhabited the head of “our man”, controlling all his neurological functions and behaviour. Failures in communication between “our man” and his numskulls were the source of much of the surreal mild “humour” that characterised that comic in the late ’70s and early ’80s. . .
I think that what bothered me about the Numskulls was much same thing that terrified me about the original version of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers when I first saw it as a child: the loss of free will and one’s identity being subsumed by forces that are not you, but are nonetheless inside your head. This is very much how my friend with the misbehaving “beasties” feels: it is as if his head is full of malicious presences who are willfully impeding his speech and his cognition. The trope of being colonised does not in any way capture his interior experience, but it is nonetheless a very powerful way of expressing it. I think that this feeling of one’s identity being invaded, usurped, or controlled is probably the most hideous and frightening of the invisible effects of brain injury (at least it seems so from where I’m standing). To me, it raises very tricky philosophical as well as neurological questions: can the injured brain become integral to one’s sense of self? Is there a “new” you post injury, or is recovery really about restoring the “old” you? Are there ways (or perhaps metaphors) of dealing with those invisible feelings of dissociation and the loss of control that are better or more helpful than others?
For a few days immediately following the stroke, I experienced things in much the same way as my friend does now: as if I were being invaded or controlled by an alien thing. Though I was always fully aware of what was going on (and was often very scared of it) I felt as if my mind had been emptied out or blanked. I couldn’t concentrate on anything at all — even looking at a fashion magazine was impossibly stressful — and it seemed as if there were something inside me blocking the movement of my thoughts and ideas. I was also a little prone to what the neuropsychologists call “inappropriate behaviour” — in my case laughing uproriously at things that weren’t funny. It may sound odd, but at the time it really helped me to think about these things in figurative terms as possession or colonisation. Separating the invisible symptoms from my own sense of self, and describing them through metaphor as being caused by an exterior force or agency, meant that I could hold on to the idea of what my identity should look like. What is really interesting to me, however, is that, as time has gone on my attitude to my own numskulls (or what I have described here as monkeys) has radically changed. It may sound daft, but I think that figuratively visualising my own brain-monkeys has helped me to adjust to the stroke as a process to work with rather than a thing to be fought against. I hesitate to tell you this, but I regard the monkeys as essentially benign presences. I often envisage them and sometimes even address them (though, you will be glad to hear, not out loud). I imagine them toiling along with me during my exercises and working away while I rest and sleep, rerouting my damaged neural pathways. They are a little unpredictable, and perhaps a bit confused right now, but I think that, fundamentally, they are really smart monkeys, and that they will figure it all out eventually.
I have only just started to think about these issues: I am sure they are discussed in the writing of Oliver Sacks and that of Jill Bolte Taylor who I have yet to read (I am really looking forward to Bolte Taylor, but the experience of stroke is so raw to me right now that I confess I am a little afraid of reading about other people actually having one). I’ve also been put in mind of Elaine Scarry’s groundbreaking Body in Pain which I read a long time ago and which (to my mind) knocks the socks off anything written by Susan Sontag on the topic of the body and figurative language. I’m always grateful for your recommendations, and if you know of good books and essays to read about describing mental or bodily experience through metaphor, please do share them and I shall chase them up as I explore this topic further.
In other news:
I am getting out and going home. Hurrah! More on this later!