Essays

A Brain Infection Destroyed My Marriage, But Made Me A Writer

For two years, I lost much of my ability to communicate. I clawed it back, but not before realizing my husband and I didn't have much to say to each other.

My husband and I were as different as night and day. In our marriage, he spoke the language of computer software and Bluetooth; once, when the principal at the high school where he taught asked all teachers to start providing him weekly lesson plans, he created a computer program to generate them automatically. Me, I balked at learning to navigate a new computer or phone, but cherished language, treating my words like pets and people: each with their own personalities and preferences, each one familiar and loved.

Fundamentally, my husband and I understood language differently. Words had specific meanings in my mind:  “Angry” was different from “livid” which was different from “strongly irritated”. For my husband, though, words were imprecise.  “Weird” was his blanket term for anything he couldn’t describe – from incompetent school secretaries to students who played out-of-tune. Other words passed through his vocabulary like fads: one day he asked me if he looked like a “curmudgeon” in his new suit. I would spend days dissecting his phrasing and sly grin before I realized he thought that was a good thing.

One day three years into our marriage, I stood up after teaching a violin lesson and my feet refused to lift from the ground. I shuffled to the door as if I were ice skating, then dialed my mother-in-law to rush me to my doctor. I would have called an ambulance if I’d thought they would know what to do with me, but how do you explain to a paramedic that you forgot how to walk? The months of biting fatigue, the clumps of hair darkening the drain, the wobbly feeling I got when I wore heels—all the clues suddenly came together to reveal a sickening conclusion.

One day three years into our marriage, I stood up after teaching a violin lesson and my feet refused to lift from the ground.

“Cerebritis,” my doctor called it. “You have inflammation in your brain.”

My sense of time, my short-term memory, my long-term memory, the sensation in my left arm, and my understanding of the world around me unraveled over the next month. But what frightened me most was losing my words.

I used to chatter about my students and crack jokes with my husband as we sat in the kitchen slipping bits of steak or corn to the dogs. Now I lay listlessly sipping coffee from a travel mug with a bendy straw stuck through the hole in the top.

“How was your day?” he’d ask when he came home from work.

“Bad,” I’d say simply.

Not painful, depressing, harrowing, or disturbing. Just bad: a word so general in its negativity that it barely conveyed any meaning at all.

Aphasia. A beautiful name for the implosion of the bridge that connected me to the rest of the world.

Aphasia. A beautiful name for the implosion of the bridge that connected me to the rest of the world.

I felt some comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone. Many survivors of brain trauma struggle for words, struggle to communicate. I watched video after video of Gabby Giffords mouthing “watch” or “spoon” for her speech therapist. I slept with a tattered copy of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight in the bed beside me, often waking up to read a sentence or two about her recovery to carry me through the night. But could either of them tell me how to get my words back?

A woman in a red sweater with chin-length brown hair posing for the camera in her living room with a blue chair in the background.

Author Meghan Beaudry today.

My mother-in-law moved into our house to take care of me in August and stayed until March. I struggled to communicate my basic needs to her from the bed in which I had become trapped. I asked her one day for “a thing that you put another thing inside and then put it in the mail.” When I needed a pillow, I requested a “head thing.” She grinned and brought me a hair brush.

As I struggled with my aphasia I wondered for myself if this inability to find the right words for thing was what my husband felt all the time. It was so still, foreign but peaceful.

“I feel like I understand you now,” I once said to him.

“Sure,” he replied.

“Do you like me like this?”

He looked at me with a tight-lipped red-eyed smile that I couldn’t read. Then he looked down at the floor.

Maybe we could survive like this, I thought, neither of us able to articulate but connected by mutual nonverbal understanding. I imagined us holding hands in silence and walking together in a park when this neurological disaster was all over.

I imagined us holding hands in silence and walking together in a park when this neurological disaster was all over.

As the months passed and my body grew weaker,  I stopped walking almost entirely. My husband came to visit me after work in the spare bedroom where I was confined to bed. He seemed to walk through the door later each night. Sometimes when I asked him to bring me water or a snack, he left the room and I didn’t see him again until the next day.

Reentering the world without my words terrified me. I resolved to write five hundred words a day to force my brain to recover what my disease had stolen from me. Sentences grew into paragraphs, paragraphs into essays and stories. All the anguish of losing my way of communicating with the world trickled out onto the page in front of me.

In the hours I spent in bed with my laptop propped up on pillows over my stomach, I waited to pounce on the few words that crept into my consciousness. When I managed to capture an interesting turn of phrase, a pun, or a complete sentence, I immortalized it in a text message to my husband.

Hair today, gone tomorrow, I captioned a picture of a clump of my hair on the floor.

A-pear-antly, I typed under a photo of a pear before I ate it.

I didn’t hear back from him.

“I want to be dunked in a vat of immunosuppressants at my next doctor’s appointment,” I joked one night as my husband stood in the doorway of my room after work.

He looked at the floor straight-faced. “You told me that one yesterday,” he said.

My loss of health and language revealed cracks in our marriage that I hadn’t seen before.

More than anything, what I was trying to tell him was that everything would be okay: that the inflammation that had swallowed my brain would one day recede like the ocean tide, and bring his wife back to him. But I didn’t have the words.

I spent the next two years clawing my way back to health. I relearned how to walk, my legs carrying me from the bedroom to the living room and eventually out the front door. My brain, stimulated by my new writing habit, began to mend the places where it had broken. I started a blog. I attended writing classes. My vocabulary expanded. Being surrounded by others who loved words as much as I do felt like coming home after a long journey.

I recovered from my illness, but my relationship with my husband never did. My words had stitched our relationship together when I was well. My loss of health and language revealed cracks in our marriage that I hadn’t seen before.

Five years after the breakdown of my brain, I still carve out time to write my daily five hundred words. Working hard to relearn what had once come naturally only deepened my love of language. The man I married is no longer part of my life, but I remind myself how lucky I am that words still are.

Creative Commons photo by Mary West.