A year and a half ago, I suffered a concussion injury when a steel trapdoor came down on my head. I stumbled away feeling nauseous and faint; not recognising the symptoms of concussion, and distracted by the agony and gore of a wound to my wrist which had also been struck in the accident.
Unbeknown to me, a slow bleed between my brain and skull was developing, and three weeks later the pressure had built to a point where I had a seizure. There was an eerie 30 seconds where my voice shut down before the lights went out, but apart from a moment of bewilderment, it was painless.
I woke up in an ambulance with a young paramedic watching over me with such serious concentration that I suddenly realised that something dire had happened. This did not alarm me because the young man looked so fresh-faced and angelic, so alert and capable, that I could not help but love him at that moment, as if he were a long-lost son. Inside the back of the ambulance it seemed beautifully quiet, and the ride was so entirely serene as I passed in and out of consciousness that I did not want the journey to end. In the presence of my young carer I found a peculiar peace, and in gratitude I offered him a flimsy smile with all the warmth and focus that a man with a brain trauma could muster.
And then the blur as I arrived at the hospital; impressions of busy nurses, bright lights and earnest doctors. In and out of consciousness I floated, still attempting my forlorn and feeble smile of gratitude. Soon I lay in a peaceful room with family faces; a fleeting sketchy scene which was followed by a trolley ride to an operating theatre and oblivion.
Then, in what seemed like a split second, I woke into a new life. A generous hole had been cut in my skull to take the pressure off – but later, I imagined that this opening also served as a trapdoor through which parts of my consciousness had escaped and drifted up into space, there to disperse among the stars. When the brain is insulted by trauma, parts of the mind can flee and go into hiding – often for years – sometimes never to return.
Concussion injuries may produce an eerie sense of alienation and lost identity. You cannot quite grasp what has happened, let alone explain it to anyone else, but you know that something in your centre has changed and bits of you have gone missing.
As fortune had it, and to make matters worse, a grievous emotional trauma then came upon me a couple of months later: came down on my head with full force. This time there was no smooth ride in an ambulance. I was soon to discover that my two separate traumas had merged and produced a terrible child called insomnia.
I had mostly been a good sleeper, but now I was waking every night after three or four hours’ sleep. Lying there in the darkness, crushed beneath a boulder of despair and stricken with an overwhelming sense of regret, wretchedness, loneliness, futility and the sheer impossibility of life.
Some say that our metabolism is at its lowest ebb at 3am and that we are technically very near to death, while others believe that God comes closest at this time to tell us the difficult and humbling things we need to hear. To a man who had recently sat bewildered and giddy on death’s doorstep, such gruelling nights became deeply exhausting. They went on all through the year until I approached bed at the end of each day with dread.
I tried all the cures, sensible practices and herbal teas – to no avail. I read all the dire health warnings about the consequences of prolonged insomnia. The coming of light each morning seemed like a miracle and the first cup of tea at dawn was an exquisite joy.
Then one night, I stopped fighting it and surrendered. I accepted my nocturnal suffering as a time of epiphany – a time to listen to the mystical voices of darkness. The night itself became an anguished poem; perhaps a preparation for death. Things that were invisible by day seemed clear in the night.
I jotted notes to myself under my bedside lamp. I read random snippets from books. I floundered. I searched for the parts of me that were lost among the stars.
I pondered notes that others before me could well have written in the night. For instance, this mysterious and illuminating thing from the late Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis: “The doors of heaven and hell are adjacent, and identical: both green, both beautiful.”
Michael Leunig’s newest collection of cartoons, Ducks for Dark Times (Penguin, $25), is out this week.