This I Believe

Steve - Los Angeles, California
Entered on September 24, 2008

I believe that life is an imperfect experiment; life-changing events are often unanticipated, and our experiences are connected in the way they shape our perceptions. Scientists value repeatability, but that hardly exists in life. When I was fifteen I suffered a traumatic brain injury. I was riding on the hood of a friend’s car for no real reason. When he stopped abruptly at my house, I somersaulted onto the asphalt. The injury to the left side of my head caused blood to accumulate and squeeze my brain into the right half of my skull.

I felt my life was out of control before The Accident. Some of my friends had begun associating with self-proclaimed “skin-heads”. The personal risk of riding on a car’s hood seemed inconsequential compared with the fear of being beaten on a whim while at a coffee-shop or concert.

Miraculously, I lived through the experience.

I don’t remember much of the four days I was in the hospital, except waking up on more than one occasion asking what had happened, and my Mom telling me there was no permanent damage.

I spent the next two months at home. Friends who visited were amused at my new, more open and friendly attitude, or horrified when I had difficulty recalling words or spoke without subtlety. I experienced periods when I would stare into space feeling that my capacity for words was gone, that my mind was damaged beyond repair.

After The Accident, I learned, to my relief, that the most threatening of the interlopers into my social life had gone to jail for robbery. His brother and their friend would turn up in the local newspaper in the years following, as victim and perpetrator of murder.

I went back to school a slightly less polite but more outgoing person. Thanks to teacher visits to my home, I was caught up on on my schoolwork, except Algebra, which my home teacher didn’t feel comfortable teaching. With time I caught up on that too, and I went on to study physics and german at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Over the years, my anxiety about my mental faculties has given way to humility, and gratitude for the chance to continue to live and experience new things.

I and my friends from childhood have moved on. Some of us bear deeper scars than others. Though I no longer speak with some of those friends, I believe we’re bound by those experiences. Having played tag and hide-and-seek with most of them, and shared some of our first conversations as adults, I have a hard time seeing our lives as out of the ordinary.

Nearly fifteen years have passed since the night of The Accident. I finished my doctorate in geophysics and astrobiology at the University of Washington and I am beginning my second year as a NASA Postdoctoral Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

The doctor who treated me warned my Dad that my math abilities might not recover. I’m happy that my parents withheld that information until recently. Had I been any more concerned about my recovery, I might not have persisted in my studies. I still wonder how my personality and my life might be have been different if not for the Accident or the events surrounding it, but I don’t spend much time worrying any more. I have real experiments to think about.