WAKING UP to My Superpower
My Journey out of a Coma, Back to Consciousness, Healing Through Pregnancy and into Motherhood
Hi. I’m Alice. I’m the internal voice of Alicia, who is the actual person on the outside of me. Alicia made up Alice as a name for me when she decided to start blabbing about her personal stories on a blog, because it’s slightly more comfortable for a somewhat introvert to stay somewhat concealed. You get it. The Cul de Sac comic, shared above, features a kindergarten girl named Alice with a bossy personality strikingly similar to mine. My husband introduced her to me while I was in a depression phase of my recovery from a coma. She made me feel better. Even when no one else could see me anymore, beyond the damaged outside version of me that most people saw, my husband could still see me. I never changed, to my own self recognition, along this journey out of consciousness and back into it. On the outside, though, what people could see, I changed a lot. My husband knew how to find me. That’s why I married him, I guess. So, here’s my story.
August 2011 — Grad School
I was going back to film school. What a crazy thing to do, right? I have this silly dream of being a professional screenwriter and documentary filmmaker. While it may seem like a crazy thing to pursue, I’m crazy enough to pursue it. Full of hope and motivated to realize those dreams, I was proudly entering the selective, elite Screenwriting MFA program at UT Austin, my old alma matter. When I finally completed my first feature script the year before, I submitted it as a sample for consideration to get into the program, and I was one of seven students admitted, out of over 500 applicants. That felt like a confirmation that I was on the right track, following these silly dreams. So, back I went, to the old Radio-TV-Film department at UT where I started my professional journey as an undergrad. I was a freelance video editor and worked in several other crew positions on short, TV, and commercial projects for several years with my early film skills after my Bachelors, which evolved to become the foundation of my screenwriting and documentary endeavors lately. My career is still in development.
September 13, 2011 — BAM
I didn’t want to pay for parking on campus while I was starting out in grad school, so I bought myself the best bike ever as my method of transportation.
The Bianchi Volpe 10sp. road bike seemed like a worthy investment, both in physical fitness maintenance, and transportation. I was knocking out two birds with one stone. My husband (who wasn’t my husband at the time) is an avid cyclist, to this day, and while I’d ridden my bike to and from campus quite a bit as an undergrad, it had been a while, and we were across the river by then, in South Austin. I was riding further than I had before for the commute to campus from our little place in Travis Heights.
It was 108° that day. I was melting. I stopped at the library on my way home from class to pick up a copy of our Film History assigned movie for study at the time, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, M (1931.) Fitting. I remember getting an upsetting phone call at the library from my little sister back home in San Antonio, who lived with my Dad at the time in her early young adulthood, and regularly faced drama of one kind or another. I tried to be a good big sister. I was nevertheless distressed.
I found myself here, at what I had foreseen as a big threshold crossing into the next phase of my life, in grad school, still living with the same old tired dramas that I’d always faced. I still had to pay for parking, or bust my ass on my bike in the heat to save pennies on transportation. I still had family drama calling me in the form of siblings while I was out running errands. I still had romantic drama at home waiting for me, while my love and domestic partner, Dustin, and I were in the middle of a big fight over whether we should stay together through grad school, or let me step outside that security and consider taking a full immersion into this film world fantasy, maybe even move to LA. Really, I could already see the challenges that awaited me if I chose the life with Dustin, in Austin, as a wife and mother pursuing screenwriting and documentary filmmaking here. I knew I wanted kids, deeply — more than anything else in my life. Having kids, in Austin, felt like I’d be forgoing my career pursuits. I didn’t know if I was up for it, and I was debating.
On my bike home, in that sweltering heat, I couldn’t bear to wear my helmet over my hot, heavy, long curly hair that day. Maybe I forgot it. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. I remember riding into Travis Heights, ruminating over my crossroads feeling dilemma — to stay or not to stay with Dustin, Austin — and praying with all my heart for guidance, or direction, and a magical fulfillment of my dreams to become a real screenwriter and documentary filmmaker, while being a mother, somehow. Out of nowhere, down a hill, toward an intersection in the valley, a Ford Ranger pickup approached my path and didn’t seem prepared to stop before we crossed. I slammed on the breaks on that Volpe, screeched 10 foot tire streaks on the hill, and SLAMMED into that Ranger running the stop sign. The bike died that day. It’s short life was over.
I flipped up over the handlebars of the Volpe, onto the hood of the truck, and knocked myself out cold. I flew forty feet from there and landed on the road, limp, sliding under a parked car. The only broken bone on my body was my left cheekbone, incredibly, and a few broken teeth. My face took the impact on my head, which a helmet wouldn’t have helped anyway. I almost lost an earlobe too. The residents ran outside when they heard the commotion of the crash and called EMS. I was rushed to Brackenridge Hospital ICU downtown, where my family arrived later.
I don’t remember anything from my coma.
I was out for thirteen days, laying in that ICU bed, sometimes opening my eyes, sometimes even saying words, but not conscious. My body was there, Alicia was there physically, but I was somewhere else. Where did I go? I don’t remember anything from my coma. I don’t have any accessible memory of a spiritual journey, or exciting dreams or fantasies, or anything else. Just blank.
I turned 28 in a coma. My birthday is September 19th, so six days into my coma, my classmates came to visit. The only other female student in my graduate cohort of seven total, five men, two women, shared a birthday with me, coincidentally. She was about seven years younger than me, the same age as my little sister. I still think of her as a sort of a little screenwriter sister. We had made a plan to celebrate our birthdays that year as a group at our favorite Chinese restaurant, which we were excited to enjoy, but then I went and got hit by a truck. I’m sure that was an awkward experience for the cohort.
My mom, and Dustin, were the most intensely affected by the fear that my unconsciousness created. My chances were grim. On a scale of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) severity called the Glasgow Coma Scale, where unconsciousness is rated from 4–15, 4 being next to brain dead, and 15 being mildly impaired, I was a 4. I sustained a Diffuse Axonal Brain Injury, or closed head injury, which is a random scattering of broken axons and contusions all over the brain, from an impact which makes the brain jiggle enough inside the skull to shatter those delicate tissues — Also known as shaken baby syndrome, or a severe concussion. I had an 86% chance of never waking up. The medical odds were against me.
My mom says Demon Nurses would come into my ICU unit at night, when she was there with me, and whisper to her that she should just pull the plug and let me go peacefully. They told her I’d never recover. I had no chance, according to them. My mom, being crazy, like me, enlisted mass prayer vigils with huge groups of strangers in the lobby of the ICU, tearfully begging for a miracle. My in-laws, my Dad, and a lot of people in my life, don’t credit her with much for my survival, because she’s not as practically instrumental. I do.
September 26, 2011 — She’s Awake
On my mother-in-law’s birthday, I was being transferred by ambulance from the Austin Brackenridge Hospital to the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation (BIR) in Dallas, where Dustin’s family, my practically instrumental in-laws, had fought to get me admitted for the next phase. Even though I was still unconscious, insurance demanded that I leave the critical care ward at the hospital and go to a Traumatic Brain Injury treatment facility, where I could get specialized access. At around 3am, I woke up.
I don’t remember this, but my husband tells me stories. He was with me when I woke up. He says he awoke to the sound of my whimpers, crying about something. He jolted alert and asked what was wrong, astounded that I was responsive and awake. I said, “How could you let this happen to me? You let me fall apart at the seams.” He had no idea what I was talking about. It took a while to make sense of my unintelligible ramblings of discomfort, but he eventually figured out that I thought I was going to rehab for a drug addiction. I thought I was addicted to Placebos. Obviously, I had some level of awareness to keep track of the plans for my transfer to rehab in Dallas, and I felt like I was on drugs, but I didn’t have the capacity to interpret the reality of my situation in full, so I filled in the gaps with fiction. I’m a writer, what can I say? I find this hilarious. My Placebo addiction was a theme for the next couple of weeks, that now laces the worst parts of my early recovery with some brilliant comedic levity.
The next two weeks of my early recovery are also blank in my memory, known as anterograde amnesia. I couldn’t record new memories. I was also, probably partly due to the intense confusion that this cognitive impairment created, wild and agitated. The phase of early recovery associated with symptoms of extreme behavioral outbursts, emotional irregularity, restlessness and reptile brain dominance is known as the agitation phase. My Dad and Dustin were there with me for this most difficult stage of early recovery. I hit them, kicked them, bit, scratched, cursed and insulted regularly. The caregivers at Baylor were no exception, and I kicked a physical therapist in the nuts and a pregnant rehab nurse in the belly apparently, but my Dad and Dustin got the worst of it, probably because of familiarity. I imagine that this must have been discouraging, but they were reassured by the professionals that my behavior would stabilize as my healing progressed. Considering my internal, fictionalized narrative of my placebo addiction being responsible for my unfocused state of disorientation, I frequently demanded, “my fix.” I told my Dad once that I “winced and squirmed and put up with his addiction to fat women. The least he could do was give me my f_cking placebos.” At least there was some comedy every now and then.
On that note, when I didn’t know the answers to questions I was asked, due to my self identification amnesia, I’d just make it up to compensate. I’ve never been interested in acting, or theater, even as much as I love movies, but this experience showed an undiscovered talent for performance that I didn’t know was there. I couldn’t remember myself. That was the hardest thing to overcome in this recovery process, and it took much longer than the rehab could ever have followed — my identity was damaged. I knew I did something cool, but I couldn’t quite remember what, so when I was asked what I was studying in grad school, I’d say, “I’m a photographer.” I’d bullshit. I was close, but not quite hitting the mark. That happened often, and continued well into the recovery process, as a way of trying to cover up my impaired cognitive ability. I DID NOT want to carry around a label of ‘damaged’ or ‘TBI victim’ or ‘brain injured.’ I wanted more than anything to be ‘normal.’ What is that?
The net cage on my bed, pictured above, has apparently been banned for use in TBI patient cases due to its inhumane nature. I HATED that cage. In spite of my inability to walk, due to significant balance impairments, I repeatedly got up and tried to walk anyway, since I could never remember my condition, and I’d fall. This was scary for everyone responsible for me, because further head trauma would have been catastrophic in my delicate state, so they compromised my pleading for more comfort in my care surroundings, in favor of my safety. I resent this choice on all counts, to this day. Me, being feisty as hell, in protest at one point, I stripped naked and climbed that cage, like an animal. I’m not the least bit ashamed.
While this physical Alicia was there, in the net cage, beating up my Dad and my future husband, where was Alice? Was I in there too? Since I don’t remember being there, in my own narrative, I must have been somewhere else. Where was I? Where did I go for the month of my coma and anterograde amnesia agitation phase that are blank in my memory? I’d like to find out.
October 10, 2011 — She’s Really Awake
My Mother arrived to take over the shift of a family member being with me in Dallas after the second week of agitation, when Dustin and my Dad had to go back to work, and the worst was over. The morning my Mother arrived, she brought back my memory. I came back when my Mom made it safe. I find this piece of the story quite significant, and it makes perfect sense to me. My Mother was my first guardian of safety in this world of physical existence, from birth. Her body expelled me into the world, and her body protected me from it. I’ll never forget our first interaction that morning.
I woke up from sleep, as you do every morning, in the unfamiliar and strange surroundings of a hospital room, clearly, with a TV on that I couldn’t see outside the net cage surrounding me. I heard my Mother’s voice in the hallway, asking the nurses something. I called out to her, “Mom.” She came rushing over to the side of the net cage and met me with a smile. “Oh, good morning.” I asked, “Mom, where am I?” Her greeting seemed rehearsed. She said, “You’re in the hospital. You were in a coma. You had an accident on your bike, but you’re okay now.” It seemed like she was prepared to answer that question again and again, since I didn’t retain new information, but this time, it stuck. For the first time in my personal narrative, as Alice, I was back inside my head. “Wait a minute, I was in a coma?” I still don’t quite understand exactly what that was for me, Alice, the person who identifies as me. All I know is that it’s been a hell of a ride driving this Alicia body around ever since that morning.
The one thing that I distinctly recall telling my Mother in that first interaction with a certainty and conviction that seemed premonitory at the time was, “Mom, I want to marry Dustin.” Obviously, some unconscious processing must have taken place, regarding our debate about the state of our relationship. Not only did I decide that I wanted to stay in Austin, with him, but I wanted to marry him, as soon as possible. I didn’t stop talking about that desire until we did marry two years later, led by Dustin’s wise instincts to wait a while first.
I had to learn to walk again, to write, to eat, to cook, to drive, to brush my teeth, to function as an adult woman in the 21st Century. I had about as much familiarity with myself, the world, and my place in it — and control over my primal urges and impulses, as a newborn baby; but I had the vocabulary and academic intellect of a Screenwriting MFA student, and the life circumstances to boot. Incredibly, with the help of a wonderful team of therapists first at BIR, then at St. David’s Neuro Rehab Center in Austin, I was able to progress through inpatient rehabilitation stages in Dallas, and an outpatient rehab program in Austin, rather quickly. I was done with both before Christmas 2011. That didn’t mean anything for my personal recovery narrative, though, I’ve come to find out.
On my way out of inpatient rehab at Baylor, I was invited to participate in a cutting edge scientific drug study of a synthetic pharmaceutical Human Growth Hormone (HGH) as a potential treatment for recovering survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI.) I, of course, opted in. I had to take shots of a substance daily for the next six months, which wasn’t my favorite, but the potential benefit of the treatment was worth it. HGH is the only known organic substance that will regenerate damaged neuron tissues. Typically, in an adult body, once the tissues are damaged, they’re done, since they don’t regenerate like other muscles. However, during early life development, from conception through puberty, HGH surges through the body growing everything, as well as any potentially damaged neuron tissues. I didn’t know if I was getting active synthetic HGH or placebo during the study, but being tracked by Baylor was enough to keep me in a good step ahead of the recovery process. I appreciate that.
Halloween 2011 — Homecoming
We had a Welcome Home Halloween Party at our little quadplex apartment in Travis Heights with my classmates when I returned to Austin from Baylor in Dallas, much earlier than had been expected. Initially, when I arrived at BIR with my barely conscious TBI prognosis after a Glasgow Coma Scale rating of 4, it was assumed that my inpatient rehab time might require as long as six months, or more, to regain independence. I blew through that nonsense in five weeks. I remember coming home to my apartment, trying to place myself and piece together my identity again, which was an amnesia laden mystery suspended in intuitively recognizable reminders of self regularly. I looked at our furniture, the decor I’d chosen based on our limited budget and means, and when I saw my wardrobe in the closet I fell into my clothes with ecstatic joy for the fun of wearing all those great outfits. I loved my taste! What a relief. I guess I was worried my taste might have changed.
When my classmates came over that night to hang out and welcome me back to my life, I was especially excited about seeing one guy in particular. He’d been texting me for a while by then, since early stages of waking up. I’d only been in touch out of class with two of my classmates; the other female, my little screenwriter sister who shared my birthday, and Canada Bob. Canada Bob was the only other student who lived in South Austin, he was the only other student who’d left behind a real, high-management-level professional job for this screenwriting grad school fantasy nonsense, and he was the only other student even close to thirty. He was older than me, 32. He was a heart-throb. When he found out I’d made it, he texted me, and rekindled instantly a flirtation we’d been building since we met a month prior, at the outset of this new program. We were connected not only by a romantic attraction that presented quite the complication for my pursuits, but also very practically because we shared a similar place in life. Dustin would be with me, loving me in reality, the way that a real romantic partner should, and there’d be another text from Canada Bob, taking my attention and annoying him. It was tough.
So, Canada Bob came over for the party, along with most of the rest of my class, and I had the first opportunity to test my social function. I think I did pretty well. My memory of that evening is vague, but I do recall asking a lot of questions and trying to gauge my readiness for being on my own again, out of rehab. I wasn’t fully confident, at all, and I relied on Dustin, or my little sister, Larissa, for a lot of reorientation. Even in my shaky independence, I was insistent on covering for my deficiencies, but I expected a certain level of understanding and exceptional grace from my social network. It was quite a conflicted state to exist in, of reliance on social support, while simultaneously expecting to be treated no differently than anyone else. I was asked at a certain point in the night when I’d be returning to class, if I thought I’d be returning to class, and I didn’t know how to answer. I knew then that I’d be up against a mountain of a challenge to get back behind the wheel of my life.
And so I went — on the climb of my life.
[Just before grad school began, I hiked the Conundrum Peak outside of Aspen, with my two best girlfriends for life. It was early summer, and the snow hadn’t melted yet, so when we hit mile seven on that hike, and trudged into snow up to our knees, we struggled. There were a couple of doubtful meltdowns and serious consideration of turning back before we got to the 9 mile reward of hot springs. We made it up, and camped, and enjoyed those springs in the morning. Then, we all started married lives with children.]
January 2012 — Back to School
In the Spring semester of 2012, I eagerly re-entered the sequential screenwriting program that I’d abandoned for the Fall semester, while I was comatose in ICU, and later early rehabilitation. My mind was very foggy, to say the least. My intellect was still sharp, but my memory was still rebooting, and my identity was in the most delicate, unfamiliar, reforming shape. Nevertheless, my fighter’s instincts and motivation to outperform my ghost of a past self could never have been stronger. My greatest compromise, at this stage of my recovery, was a lingering haze of deceptive euphoria, carrying over from the moment my memory began recording again, when my Mother brought it back to me after agitation. I was blissfully overjoyed to be back here, in my body, in this world, as we know it. Despite the challenges of my rehabilitation process in early recovery, that delight in my survival and return to conscious awareness, even impaired, was overwhelming. As the bliss haze started to fade, and cracks of pain crept into my ignorant new reality, the real personal hell of this experience began to present.
Graduate screenwriting workshops were the best possible cognitive rehabilitation I could have asked for, especially for a storyteller, like me. The routine of my coursework and class schedule was absolutely critical in helping to reset the processing power of my healing brain. While I certainly struggled to keep track of the work, and it was exhausting, doing that work was the best thing I could have been doing at that point in recovery. It was awesome. I was getting art therapy, essentially, through my immersion in this professional craft honing exercise of reading, writing, workshopping scripts, and watching films. Best of all, the study of screenwriting is essentially a study of human behavior, which was a lifelong bank of experiential knowledge that had been all but almost erased for me. As I sat in class, I built it back slowly.
There were logistical difficulties in this process. The feature script I had written to apply to the program was the only feature script I’d ever completed, so I didn’t have much to work with in the Rewriting class of that Spring semester in the course sequence of the program. The rest of my cohort was rewriting the scripts that they’d just completed in the first semester, fresh and ready to get a second look. Since I only had the one I’d applied with, I was rewriting that — but I couldn’t even remember the story. I knew a bit about it, and the background behind it was based on my own family heritage in the New Orleans seafood business, but I had no idea how to begin to conceptualize a rewrite of the script. My cognitive capacity was far too limited for that level of vision. Besides, I had practical life complications to address, like my lawsuit to recoup the frightening financial damages of my traumatic medical care. Even with a catastrophic health insurance plan, just in case, my bills were near $1 Million. I was terrified of the crippling debt threat looming over my head. Our medical system in the US is broken, and desperately needs reform, on many levels — especially for the compromised population of TBI survivors, who are preyed upon by the industry like cash cows. I won’t take you down that rabbit hole, though.
By Spring Break that semester, it was clear that I needed to do something to focus on my case. I am a film student, after all, so I decided to commit myself to producing a ‘settlement video’ to encourage resolution between the parties and recouping the damages of my bills, at least, out of court. Besides, my memory was not really working very well, it was clear. So, I technically withdrew from credit for the courses and the program, planned to restart in the Fall with the incoming new cohort of students admitted to graduate in 2014, and get the sequence of courses straight from the beginning. I got a do-over, basically. Considering that I was paying tuition for this program anyway, with student loans, I was entitled to that. I turned my focus to the settlement video, which was also a constructive exercise, and I still attended class and kept up with work as much as possible.
Canada Bob, the flirty heart-throb who lived nearby in South Austin, had stepped up as the gentleman in my class who offered to share driving to campus and parking expenses with me, since I was certainly no longer riding my bike. He was so sweet… Boy, did that backfire. Canada Bob’s passive flirting became a somewhat explicit expression of attraction at one point in the car, and freaked me out, confused me to death, made me doubt my own nature as a woman in my own relationship, and turned my internal world upside down a bit. I put my head down, though, and I didn’t let it stop me. I kept up with the coursework and driving arrangement as much as I could, and was looking forward to summer break.
Summer 2012 — Eurotrip
One of my closest girlfriends for life since Girl Scouts, as wee ones, was recently married to an Army Officer who was stationed abroad in Germany, while she was pregnant with their first baby. She was the first one in our holy trinity of solid sisters to have a baby, and she was all alone in Europe, so I couldn’t let her go through that by herself. Besides, I needed to see my Rachel, especially with a baby in her belly. She was able to reignite my memory like only she could do, as a sister should. [Rachel was living in Colorado when we went on the Conundrum hike. That’s why we did it.]
My Great Aunt Doris, had just passed away, at her time, and left to the family her wealth accumulated over a lifetime of savvy business and investments. She didn’t have kids, so she doled out equally among all of her relatives from Bay St. Louis Mississippi to New Orleans an inheritance of her riches, quite generously. I was so blessed to receive that gift when I did.
I planned a trip to Europe to visit Rachel, reacquaint myself with my traveller’s spirit after two previous trips abroad as an undergrad, and just see who I was in the world again. I flew into Berlin and saw the Berlin Wall, took a train to Vienna, Austria, met up with Rachel in Prague, my favorite city on earth, and drove with her through Bohemia to her little base housing unit in Bamberg, Germany. Overall, the trip couldn’t have been more restorative. Something happens to me when I travel. I assume it happens to everyone, but for myself at least, I hype up my instincts to be on the top of my game. This old jet-setter version of me kicked right in again on the trip, and I was happy to see her come alive. It was amazing to see Rachel, in her beautiful world, ready to welcome her new baby into it. I knew she’d be just fine.
The one complication in the midst of all this excitement was the beginning of the souring of my connection with Canada Bob. I would be on a train, enjoying my experience, and I’d reach out to him via email, instead of Dustin, my partner. Weirdly, while I was reaching out to Canada Bob, I’d tell him all about how much I loved Dustin, and why I loved Dustin. I was in the middle of a web of romantic conflation and confusion. All the lines were crossed. Poor Canada Bob must have felt pretty awkward himself about all this nonsense. When I didn’t hear right back from him, in response to my gushy, overexposing emails, I’d get nervous, and work myself into a tizzy over whether I’d done something terribly wrong. This became a pattern. Canada Bob wasn’t willing to engage the level of open expression that I invited in these exchanges, at all. He’d get back much later with a simple, one or two line response, shutting it all down. I was getting pissed.
Fall 2012 — Grad School, Round Two
In August 2012, I restarted the Screenwriting MFA program at UT, just as I’d done the year prior, but with an entirely new cohort of seven original students, plus me, the eighth. Just like the first round, being back in the RTF department where I’d completed my undergrad felt a bit like backsliding, rather than really moving forward, but I considered it necessary and a worthy step in my professional advancement as a screenwriter. I remember that early in the first two weeks of my first attempt to enter the program, in 2011 before the accident, I was debating seriously whether I really wanted to be a screenwriter, or documentary filmmaker. I’m a storyteller, is all I knew for sure. In this second attempt at taking a new focused direction of this endeavor, I committed to find out what meant more to me.
I made friends quickly with most of my classmates, and as the local Austin RTF returning student, I had quite a natural position of leadership in the cohort, much like happened in my original class. In this round, however, I prefaced everything about my presence and availability in the social group with a caveat about my recent near death experience and coma, which were still quite fresh. I was unsure of myself and unsure of how this would go. I was going for it, nevertheless, and I appreciated their grace. I learned, over time, what a tragic mistake it was to give people that kind of warning. American society today, and I’d imagine it’s fairly global, is completely ignorant and insensitive as to how to address head trauma survivors and adequately meet our unique needs. I trusted, based on my own naive faith in people, that prefacing my own introduction with such an overshare would be helpful to frame our interactions with exceptional understanding, in my favor, in case I was weird. The effect, however, was instead to diminish my intelligence in a competitive intellectual environment, which was horrible. Despite my cognitive, physical balance, memory and emotional sensibility impairments, I was quite an intelligent young woman, in that head, still. It took time for me to affirm that reality for myself, and stop taking the roll of scapegoat in many social situations.
I went through the Fall semester with much the same kind of attitude toward my writing and short film assignments that I’d had in undergrad, operating mostly with a somewhat flippant approach of not quite taking it seriously. I did my best, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t have the maturity, confidence, or self-familiarity at this point in my recovery to be able to take a more professional approach to my work. I was figuring out a lot of things. Still, I was on time to class, I read everyone’s material for workshop, I submitted my pages and films on time, and I was a good student, as I’d always been. The program was very demanding, and I was somewhat overwhelmed with the workload at times. I remember sleeping, a lot. I’d go to bed at night and sometimes sleep for twelve hours. I wasn’t supposed to be drinking at all during this period, especially as a drug study participant, but mostly because alcohol is poison for the brain. That was a challenge in grad school, but I kept it to a minimum if I did drink.
In the wee hours of the morning on October 3rd that year, in the middle of a night of disturbed sleep when Dustin’s best friend, Josh, who is responsible for introducing us, texted me a cryptic message out of nowhere at around 3am. He said, “Come homeward. Follow Dustin’s call.” I had no idea what he meant by that at the time, and I was so wrapped up in my grad school work that I didn’t even try to figure it out. That morning, by odd synchronicity, I woke up to a notification from Rachel that she’d successfully delivered her baby girl the night before. I was delighted. Then, tragically, that evening, on my way out of class, I got a call out of the blue from Josh’s mom. She was crying, and she told me Josh committed suicide. He struggled with severe manic bi-polar disorder and on a mixed mania episode impulse that night, he walked across IH-35. I physically couldn’t cry, at this point in my recovery, so I remember choking up and sobbing when I got the terrible news, but no tears would come out. Talk about frustrating. A roller coaster of emotional extremes hit me then, all at once, birth and death, love and loss. My sensation of them, however, was notably dulled by my injury impairment.
That holiday break, on our four year dating anniversary and through my wild journey to the other side of the moon and back in my head, Dustin proposed to me on New Years Eve. He had initially asked me to be his girlfriend at the Auditorium Shores Fireworks event on New Years Eve 2009, so he took me back to Doug Sahm Hill to propose to me on New Years Eve 2013. Of course, I said, YES. Finally. My deepest desire, as I’d expressed to my mother when she brought me memory back, was being fulfilled. While marrying Dustin was indeed the strongest magnetic pull of my heart, my soul couldn’t wait to be the mother of his children. I wanted a baby more than anything else, already. Talk about baby fever… Try a near death experience and see what that does to your drive to procreate. Not to mention, the confusion of my fantasy romance with Canada Bob, who had become a sort of ghost already by this phase.
Spring 2013 — Kodachrome Downward Spiral
In the Spring semester of 2013, everyone in the Screenwriting MFA program, First Years (me — started over) and Second Years (my original cohort,) along with Michener program screenwriting focused scholars were invited to participate in the first ever unique Television writing course, set up like a writers room. A new professor in the program that year, a woman from LA, offered the course and had taken over the curriculum in the RTF program for TV writing. This was smack in the middle of the Television format and content revolution, when the old sitcom and hour-long drama shows of the past were being completely swept out by incredibly complex series stories, like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. I had developed the concept for an episode of Mad Men in the previous Spring semester that I attempted in 2012, for the TV Writing basic course where we wrote spec scripts. It was pretty good, even according to Cindy, the TV professor. I’m glad I got that experience. But, there was nothing like this Kodachrome course ever before. The most appealing thing about it was that Cindy and her producing partner, Scott, would take our work on the original series that we’d developed in the course to a production company in LA and pitch it to be optioned, which would get us all paid as writers. We’d break in, just like that. I very optimistically was thrilled at the idea, and put all of my energy into the course.
Simultaneously, being newly betrothed to Dustin after his proposal, I was also getting started planning a wedding, and wrapping up final contact with my lawyer for the lawsuit to recoup damages for my medical expenses. I found out in February that Spring semester that my settlement video work was a success, and the defendant offered a settlement for the lawsuit that I considered acceptable. It paid off my medical bills with the majority of the money, and the little bit left over would give me a little nest egg, or dowry of sorts, to get started on my marriage journey with Dustin. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get me out of the lawsuit with no crippling medical debts. The lack of compensation, in retrospect, for the significant career setbacks that I’d come to face from the timing of this case were insufficient, but I don’t cry over spilled milk. Dustin thought it best to keep me motivated to work toward my goals anyway, and as usual, he was right. I’ve never been more motivated or confident in my convictions to make a film before now.
In Kodachrome every week, as I’d share the exciting process of developing the arc of the first season of this original new show with my peers, I was starting to dip into depression, in spurts. The external target of my internal struggles was all wrapped up in Canada Bob, because he refused to talk to me, or acknowledge my existence. We sat across the room from each other in workshop that semester and he completely stonewalled me. It was excruciating and beyond confusing to have this guy, who seemed like a mutual crush the year before, completely turn on me — as if I’d done something to deserve it. It was insulting. I have no idea what he was thinking, but I assume, because the timing coincided with my engagement, that he must have decided that he’d spare me the opportunity to mess up my relationship with Dustin, since it seemed pretty serious, and just back off. Whatever the case, I ruminated on that sting, and doubted my approaching commitments to Dustin.
Besides the Canada Bob saga, I had a strange social conflict situation with a classmate that raised questions about my longterm mental health, which I’d been happily compartmentalizing. I was ‘unfiltered’ during this period, or in other words, I didn’t quite know when to keep my mouth shut. I’ve always been one to overshare, and express more than repress, but I didn’t quite get the social rules of the game anymore. In a moment of awkward power struggle with a classmate who I’d gotten stuck with as a partner, because nobody liked or wanted to work with him or me, the brain injury girl, I flat out asked him bluntly, “Are you a pathological liar?” He got up from the table at that point, coldly and creepily, and left the coffee shop where we were meeting. I freaked out. I called Dustin in a panic, seriously thinking the guy would murder me for this, and I went over to my friend Autumn’s apartment, desperately banging on her door for help because Jay was going to kill me. She was out. I ended up getting a therapist after that, which was much needed anyway. The medical treatment system at the time made no effort to follow up on my care progress — due to the for-profit, insurance based, American restricted access healthcare models. It took this kind of debacle to bring me to the professionals. I’ve seen a therapist pretty regularly ever since and it’s given me an entirely new perspective of myself, how to handle problems in a healthy way, and psycho-emotional health management in general. It’s a really good thing.
That summer, the Second Year class graduated and moved to LA, so goodbye to Canada Bob, and Dustin and I bought a house in Austin. My choice was made. I was marrying Dustin/Austin.
Fall/Spring 2013/2014 — Graduation
My second year of the program flew by in a flash. The Fall of 2013 consisted of intensive wedding preparations, and getting comfortable in our new house. I didn’t waste time taking any of the steps necessary in my life to situate myself comfortably for motherhood, which was still my primary intention, despite any challenges imposed by these inconvenient events, like head trauma recovery related misunderstandings. Seeing my therapist regularly during this period became a privilege of self care that I had never considered worth my time or effort, previously. Before my accident, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me requiring professional treatment — that was for damaged people. Well, my perspective of ‘damaged’ people, like myself, was in the process of being reformed.
A significant personal component of this recovery has been my resurrection of an active spiritual life and practice that I had grown to neglect in my young adulthood, up to this traumatic event. I do believe that a healthy amount of doubt is a natural part of faith, but I was raised in the Church of Christ until my parents divorced when I was twelve, and I’d come to doubt more than believe by the time I started grad school. Dustin, my husband to be, was raised atheist. We weren’t exactly in a comfortable position to go church shopping all of a sudden, but leading up to our wedding, I wanted to find a church, deeply. It was a need for my existence to be solidified again, somehow, through the ritual and timeless wisdom centered story steeping that you can only get in church. When I’d spent the summer in Europe in 2012, I was romantically attracted to all the churches I’d tour in Vienna, or Berlin, or Prague, and I wished we had one like that in Austin. We found one. We started attending Central Christian Church downtown, which has a beautiful building, and happens to be a Disciples of Christ denomination, which is the more ‘liberal’ version of the Church of Christ I’d grown up in. To top it all off, it had a female pastor, Peggy Edge, who happened to be giving a sermon about Transcendentalism on our first visit, after Dustin had just expressed his wish that we could just attend the church of Transcendentalism, instead of this politicized Christianity. Peggy eventually married us, and we attended Central Christian Church regularly until our move made it inconvenient. We’re Episcopalian members today, at St. Alban’s Church, which is also beautiful, and also has a female pastor.
I was recommended by Dustin’s uncle Hank, who was a practicing Native American Shaman, to another shaman for a ceremony known as, a Soul Retrieval. In Native American spiritual traditions, after someone experiences something like I did, a coma, or Near Death Experience, they perform this ritual to bring them back to earth, because people can easily become suspended between worlds, in such circumstances. That felt like exactly what I was experiencing then, and I’m calling my documentary Liminal Space, because of it. He didn’t feel comfortable performing the ceremony himself, as Dustin’s uncle, although he’d already held a sweat for me with my Dad, Dustin, and Dustin’s Dad all present to mark the end of my journey away from death, back to this world. It was nice to have those formalities. I had the Soul Retrieval ceremony with this LPC/Shaman in her office, and I laid on the floor while she drummed, and then she sang some chants and we felt the energetic shifting that such a ceremony brings. Her narrative of what she could sense about my soul retrieval was that I was hung up and questioning so much with this Canada Bob character because we’d been lovers in six past lives. That was interesting. I’m still not sure if I believe that, necessarily, but it makes a good story, at least. I was ready to go ahead and take my vows after that.
Since the mainstream medical system had always been prohibitively expensive, deficient, and somewhat too difficult to navigate for me anyway, I had a very effective method of treatment for many of my health needs with Traditional Chinese Medicine, and I went back to my acupuncturist. He was able to treat me with surprisingly healing and effective therapy on a weekly or bi-monthly basis. On his referral, I saw a kinesiology-based chiropractor, at his recommendation, who gave me the key to the next big turning point in my recovery — exercise. He told me, “If you want to change your brain, you have to change your body.” It clicked.
“If you want to change your brain, you have to change your body.”
Leading up to my wedding, I practiced yoga regularly, partly out of superficial interest in looking good, but also because the healing was palpable for me to track with a consistent practice. I like hot yoga, or Bikram style, which is a sequence of 26 postures practiced in a hot room over 90 minutes, with dialogue cues repeated the same way every time. I tune out on some level, and tune in on a physiological one. It’s a 90 minute moving meditation. It’s incredibly powerful for me. I struggled, tremendously, starting out again in a consistent practice, but the more I did it, the more I knew about myself inside my body again. I was becoming a good driver of Alicia. I also went back to running, and swimming, and essentially worked through the giant knots of nervous system condition irregularity, known as PTSD, very slowly.
I developed close bonds and real friendships with my classmates in this cohort, which I still maintain as much as possible, in our busy, transitional lives these days. We’re early witnesses to each other’s development as artists in this wild world of creative careers, as writers. We’re solid. I wrote three original feature scripts, two episodes of two original television series, studied film all over again, and made some movies. In September that Fall, I reconnected with an old friend from my undergrad RTF experience who was a Producer at KUT, Austin’s local NPR station, and started an internship with her for her first original Podcast — Two Guys on Your Head. It was a reviving and restorative experience to work with her again, as a friend, and as a wonderful mentor. I stuck with Rebecca and Two Guys through the rest of my coursework, until even after graduation.
On December 28, 2013, Dustin and I took our vows and promised to be together through thick and thin, as we’d already been, until death do us part. I was a wife, all of a sudden, and my identity started to shift somewhat. At every stage of progress that I made in recovery, every advancement that I had in my perceptual awareness, or memory improvement, or cognitive focus, I’d have a perpetual sense that I was finally all better, finally done with recovery. I was certain that there’d be some end point, at some stage along the way. I wanted deeply to pick up where I’d left off, and be me again, without this stain of head injury on myself. What I’ve learned, over time, is that such a desire is the ultimate delusion, ensuring self defeat. This is who I am now. This is part of my story.
I completed my MFA in Screenwriting, and submitted my Thesis script, which was a rewrite of my script for the application to the program, in August 2014. I graduated. That thesis script was the only story I’ve ever been invested in perfecting to a degree that I’ve rewritten it again, and again, and again as I’ve developed my craft. It’s based on my family heritage in the New Orleans Seafood business, and it’s a world I know and love well. I felt a level of accomplishment when that thesis draft advanced to the second round of the Austin Film Festival screenwriting competition in 2015. I was on my way as a professional screenwriter and independent filmmaker.
Summer 2014-Summer 2015 — Post Grad
I was incredibly honored to find out while I was at KUT working with Rebecca for Two Guys on Your Head one afternoon that I had been selected as an intern for the Spring 2015 semester at Richard Linklater’s production company in Austin, Detour Filmproduction. I was thrilled. These little rays of light and hope that rewarded my efforts reassured me that I was still on the right track, pursuing this artistic career, in spite of the doubts that it raised for me to not have any assurance of making a living in the arts.
As my emotional sensation slowly reconnected throughout the academic writing workshops of grad school, or yoga class, or acupuncture sessions, or social mishaps that highlighted new levels of perception, I rebuilt a lot of the broken axons that had been damaged by my injury, and formed new neural pathways. When I graduated, though, and the pace of life slowed down, and my stress level decreased, my emotional sensation started to amplify very quickly, at a rather unmanageable rate — positive sensations at times, but mostly negative. I struggled throughout this period with slight dips into fits of frustration, or angry outbursts, that were usually triggered by some kind of personal interpretation of being misunderstood, or treated as an assumed damaged person — a TBI victim. The most frustration that I encountered of this nature, at this time in my recovery, was with my family of origin. I can’t speak for them, but my understanding of what created these dynamics was that they’d gone through their own version of a traumatic experience facing the possibility of losing me entirely, which they didn’t, but I wasn’t exactly myself fully either. My family went through their own grieving process, and their own story of what I was experiencing, based on their peripheral connections to my practical, busy life at the time.
I went on summer vacation in August 2014 to my mom’s hometown of Schenectady, New York, upstate, where I’ve spent some portion of almost every summer of my life since childhood, with my family. My sister and I decided to fly into the city (NYC) together, because we didn’t want to drive with my mom, who actually likes the three day road trip from Texas. We got a hotel and planned to see the city, then take a train upstate to meet my mom and the rest of the family. On the flight into New York, the beginning of the vacation, my sister started to exhibit signs of a contentiously condescending attitude of judgement and scrutiny toward my thoughts, opinions, memories and intellectual capacity — essentially, doubting my brain function. I’m not sure what to say about that, other than that it’s not unique to me at all, as a TBI survivor. That’s the standard social response to such a devastating injury, in this society today. Very quickly, in the city, we ran into direct conflict over a few things, especially when my cousin joined us to go sightseeing and I felt outnumbered, so I blew up in a fit of frustration in Central Park and walked away from them in a huff. That was only the beginning. There was another outburst that she had in our hotel room that night, refusing to answer my questions and treat me with any decent level of respect, so I pushed her, and she ran downstairs hysterical and told the front desk that I tried to push her out the window. She got on a train the next day without me, and didn’t bother to tell me anything. This insane behavior and entirely inappropriate, degrading conduct on her was reinforced by the rest of the women in my family later in Schenectady because I was the one with the head injury, and she couldn’t possible be accountable for our social conflicts. It was all me.
My frustration, lack of any coping skills to handle the level of emotional agitation I was experiencing, and literal suicidal fantasies to escape from the hell of this misclassification and complete invisibility to the people I come from, my own mother, reached a climax. I had buried it all for long enough. I was almost three full years from my accident, I had completed my MFA in spite of my obstacles, but I couldn’t bear it any longer.
At the end of the trip, at a hotel in Abingdon, Virginia, one of the most haunted cities in the United States, after a night of no sleep in a hotel room with the rest of my family that I was guilted into expecting for a comfortable night of rest, I flipped my lid one morning and attacked my mother, trying to punch her. I almost jumped out a window myself, but my brother tackled me and pinned me to the ground with one of his wrestling moves. I went into hysterics. I was admitted to the oldest mental institution in the United States, the Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute, and locked up. It was actually a nice relief, to be there for a couple of nights. It was definitely haunted, and I had a visit from the Chaplain to bless my stay. Thankfully, my case was reviewed by a panel of doctors and lawyers after I was interviewed by a psychiatrist who recognized that the problems weren’t with me, but instead, with my family dynamics. Among the rest of the people in the ward, who were definitely of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest caliber, I was no match. He released me to my husband the next day when Dustin arrived to pick me up and sign me out. My mother had stayed around the hospital after I was taken in and tried to get them to release me, but they legally could not release me to her, at the doctors orders. It threatened my safety.
As to be expected, this incident created quite a complex fracture in my relationship with my mother. The holiday season that year is foggy for me, but I know that I quit smoking on Thanksgiving 2014, for the second and final time in my life. I smoked cigarettes through my teens and twenties, quit before grad school, and picked it up again as a coping mechanism after my accident. It was just as gross as it had ever been, and I was ready to get away from it. I wanted to make my body ready for a baby.
I went on to start my internship in January at Detour with Linklater and his crew and it began an entirely new phase of my professional pursuits. This was as big time as it gets, in Austin. I absolutely loved everyone Rick surrounds himself with, especially his personal assistant, who runs everything in that office like a maven. We developed a close affinity, and I also connected with his editor strongly. I still admire Sandra Adair deeply, professionally and with feminine aspiration. Rick was in and out of the office most of the time, but we had a few good conversations, and it was enough for me to get a strong sense of his genuine appreciation for me and my stage of career development. He’s a wonderful mentor, in his limited capacity to be available to his interns.
I then went on to intern (again) with a local documentary crew producing an American Masters career profile of Rick, Linklater: Dream is Destiny. I was a Production Assistant and Research Assistant, technically, and they did pay me for some of the work, which was nice. The crew was almost entirely female, with a female director, Karen Bernstein, female editing team, and more women in the post production office than men. At the end of a thirty day yoga challenge that summer, which I began because I wanted to harness my internal power in a way that felt necessary at the time, I got pregnant. It worked. I harnessed my power, alright. That pregnancy was the beginning of the end of my neurological recovery journey. I’m still healing, I’d say, on some levels, but aren’t we always healing from something?
August 2015-Earth Day 2016
Every day during my pregnancy, I noticed lifts in my mood — not only from the blissful hormonal cocktail of optimal baby environment, but from memories coming back, and with them, self-identification — and restored identity. I was healing exponentially faster than I had before. As my amnesia was healing over the four years since my accident, it was hard to know at any given point along the progression of returning figments of function when I was done, or if I’d ever be done. Still, being an eager optimist, I recall frequently proclaiming and qualifying myself as all better now, along that journey, each time I reached a new stage of awareness, and slowly recovered from my head injury. I couldn’t have known the complexity of the cognitive impairment that I faced until it resolved. It’s been a very strange endless string of self rediscovery, this process. All I can say is that during my pregnancy, those tiny, easily taken for granted aspects of my memory and my self were suddenly accessible again, in abundance. I felt whole again.
As any pregnant woman does, I had vibrant, strange cravings, often times driven from nostalgia, and that was a source of much of the memory restoration — food. I eat a very healthy diet most of the time, but in my first trimester of my pregnancy with my daughter, I wanted an Egg McMuffin for breakfast, with a hash brown, often. I’m a child of the 80s. I grew up on Mickey D’s. Not that I’d forgotten, but enjoying the sensual experience of eating my Egg McMuffins allowed me to unlock childhood memories that had been buried either by average time and other preoccupations, or by my unique neurological contusions from the head injury. It was all washed away during my pregnancy, is all I know, and I found myself inside again.
There’s a delicate, vulnerable, sensitive tenderness of self that we all so often grow to protect, more than expose in this harsh world. I am no exception to that rule. Especially after such a catastrophic traumatic experience as a Near Death coma and head injury, though, I was guarded before my pregnancy. I can’t say for certain how much of my softening to my own vulnerability during pregnancy was due to healing from the head injury, or just from the evolutionary demands of motherhood requiring that sensitivity to a small child’s needs, but I know my sensitivity restored. I would say, fairly confidently, that I’m slightly above average sensitivity, being my whole self. Beyond that, my neurological ability to access my buried memories was restored significantly during my pregnancy, and that I do believe is an incredible superpower of the female reproductive capacity.
At the recommendation of another pregnant friend, I read a great book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies, sometime in my second trimester. The author, Jena Pincott, is a science writer who was pregnant herself when she wrote the book, and she experiences all the stereotypical, irrational pregnancy things. Then, she uses her science research skills to find a biological basis and explanation for those stereotypical, irrational pregnancy experiences. It’s a wonderful book and I recommend it for any pregnant woman. In the chapter, What the Baby Leaves Behind, she explains my superpower: neurological restoration during pregnancy.
As an aspect of evolutionary biological preparation for the demands of human motherhood — which is the most demanding job that a mammal on Earth will ever do — her body goes through a process of restoration and optimization during pregnancy. Not only do the stem cells, white blood cells, and other healing, baby making materials creating the fetus in utero travel through the mother’s blood stream to repair damaged tissues from injury throughout the body — The mother’s brain, specifically, gets a makeover. Moms rely on our brains primarily to alert us to the needs of our entirely dependent infants, and thus, our brains require a bit of cognitive and neurological remapping to fit us for the job. Our priorities are remapped to make meeting the needs of our babies the most important thing to us, as survival would require. Beyond the neuro-re-wiring, Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which I knew from my drug study to be the only organic substance scientifically proven to regenerate damaged neuron tissues, surges through the mothers blood stream during pregnancy. A developing embryo grows from two cells to a fetus in nine months. That’s an incredible growth rate! No wonder HGH is produced by the mother’s endocrine system abundantly again, which benefits her brain too.
What I can trace the best to understand my process of recovery were the most externally evident elements of my injury — my balance and my ability to sense emotional experiences — my ability to cry. I physically struggled for balance significantly in early recovery, although I compensated well, and I always tried to cover it up. I couldn’t easily stand on one leg for anything, and I relied on support. When I reached my personal turning point, unlocked by the kinesiology trained chiropractor who opened my eyes to the importance of physical exertion to retrain my brain, my balance was magically regained at the end of my 30 day yoga challenge, when I could hold balance postures on one leg for 90 seconds again. I also got pregnant at that point. My dream and deepest desire to be a mother was coming true. Over the next nine months, I cried a lot, readily, and I’ve not lost my sensitivity to fully experiencing my emotional sensation. In fact, I’d say motherhood has expanded my emotional bandwidth quite a bit, as I’d imagine must be the case for all parents.
I do believe that my body’s own HGH surging again in my body during pregnancy in 2015/16 repaired my damaged neurological connections from the Diffuse Axonal Injury I sustained in September 2011. I also believe my emotional chemical makeup was restored by the endocrine reset that I went through, that every woman goes through, in pregnancy and postpartum. The postpartum recovery was hard, don’t let me fool you, and I discovered that I was struggling with an anxiety condition that I believe I was facing prior to my injury. I’ve since learned to manage it well, with the help of the professionals, who I’d have otherwise not sought, if I hadn’t experienced such a traumatic event. I don’t know if the synthetic HGH that was tested during my drug study is as effective as the one that my body produced, and I found out later that the study showed inconclusive results to support HGH being prescribed as a standard reliable treatment for recovering head trauma patients. In spite of these required studies supporting the facts, I know that women, like me, have a super power — we can create life, and heal ourselves in the process.
I was reborn into motherhood, when I gave birth to my daughter.
April 22, 2016 — Present
Over the past three and a half years, since this wild experience, I’ve been immersed in research to understand my blessings and share my story. I’m making a documentary, called Liminal Space, and I’d like to open the conversation around head injuries like mine to a more educated and informative approach.
Arlene Atherton, of the Traumatic Brain Injury Recovery Association, is hard at work to official change the legislative policies and systemic standards in treatment of head trauma, because it is unfortunately, incredibly deficient. I was quite fortunate, to have had the resources and life experience prior to my injury to set me up for the recovery path that I took, seeking out and finding alternatives to the traditional western medicine treatment protocol that I was offered, and didn’t work for me. Not everyone is that lucky, but we should all have access to the same level of care.
I followed up with my shaman who performed my soul retrieval after my daughter was born and told her my story, of unbelievable recovery through my pregnancy. She said, “Of course you came back together! You met your daughter on the other side, and you made a pact.” It certainly felt like my truth to hear her explain my experience with such a spiritual story. All I know is that I never wanted to have a baby more than after my Near Death Experience, and having my baby brought me back into my body again. I certainly would say that I’ve known my daughter eternally. Did I meet her on the other side? I’d like to find out if there’s a way to confirm that.
Since my daughter came along, I’ve grown quite a bit into myself, I’d say. This Alice pseudonym persona is a fairly recent invention, just for fun. I hope you’ve enjoyed my story, and please, if you liked it, share.
Thanks for reading!