Posted by: Kate | March 12, 2011


Among the plethora of physical and mental quirks, conditions, ailments, scars and oddities that accumulate to create that which is me, I have one persistent, nigh unshakable tendency.

Like my ability for – and, now, full dependence on – lipreading as a means of supplementing my poor sense of hearing, this particular trait is one that I developed without conscious awareness.

Like the stretches and pseudo-meditation deep-breathing exercises I have taught myself over the past few years, to help loosen the muscles and tendons and mental stress wrapped around my lower back due to spondylitis, this habit is something I can function without… but if I remember to start my day with deliberate attention to it and revisit it every so often, my moment-to-moment existence is more pleasant.

Like my rapacious capacity for cynicism, wordplay and hubris, it’s not a deliberate skill that I can switch on and off.  It’s stuck in the on position, not 100% of the time – because that would be creepy – but often enough that its rare absence is noteworthy.

I’m referring, of course, to my tendency to be right.

Just ask Willem, he’ll tell you: I have an answer for everything, a reason underlying every choice (and if I hadn’t articulated that reason ahead of time, I can think on my feet fast enough that you won’t realize I’m making it up as I go), and an explanation at the ready.  When mixed with a liberal helping of sarcasm and an honest inability to treat myself with anywhere near the level of forgiveness and empathy that I grant anyone else around me, it creates a formidable sense of predictability and rationale in my world.

Sounds like a good thing, right?  Seriously: no one on earth is feeling the tiniest shred of sympathy for the woman who is always right.  I know.  But, truly, I would love to be able to shut down this particular aspect of my brain, at least some of the time.  Sure, it’s fun to win arguments and rarely feel completely shocked or let down by the actions of another person or the world in general… but I also know that it’s intimidating to deal with someone who always has the answers.  I know that I have inadvertently caused loved ones to doubt themselves, or various other sorts of hurt and upset feelings, just by second-guessing them or showing impatience or otherwise failing to temper my own, well, temper.   And I don’t get to experience a whole lot of simple, huh-well-whaddaya-know sorts of surprises, because I can think several steps ahead on the chessboard of life… I don’t always correctly choose the outcome of a given series of events, but I do (almost) always compile a thorough enough list of potential outcomes that things very rarely completely thwack me up-side the head, out of left field, piano-falling-from-the-sky.

All of which is a very long, drawn-out way of saying that, while I am deeply grateful for the completely unearned and lucky accident of intelligence, it would be kind of nice to be able to shut off my brain once in a while.  To just float along and do random, poorly (or even not-at-all) thought-out things.  To take two stumbling, gape-mouthed steps back and gasp, “Holy… what the… how… I never saw that one coming.”

And it’s also not truly, present-tense accurate.  It turns out that brains don’t much like spending time in a coma, particularly not when coupled with the intensive pitchfork-and-shovel sorts of surgeries and broad-spectrum kill-’em-all antibiotics that I received at the same time.  Have you ever seen those America’s Funniest Home Videos clips of people just coming out of general anesthesia, all loopy and confused and emotionally unstable?  It’s kind of hilarious when you know it’s just a short-term result of having one’s wisdom teeth removed, so the individual might ask the same question four times in a row, or fall asleep mid-word, or otherwise prove that old PCs are not the only entities capable of displaying the Blue Screen of Death.

But when it’s you, following a week and a half in a coma, and you have somehow misplaced the entire year leading up to the coma and cannot be certain if you’ll ever be able to learn your child’s teacher’s name  and have to train yourself to obsessively create to-do lists (that include items like find car keys again and change baby’s diaper every three hours because you honestly need those sorts of reminders), then somehow it stops being quite so funny.  I can mock myself a little now, gently and tentatively, because I haven’t forgotten the pediatrician’s name for the past three appointments and I can find my way home from the grocery store without solid reliance on the GPS… but the past year has been an experiment in disorganization and forgetfulness, and the results are solid: turns out, I like being lost a whole lot less than I (kind of) disliked being right all the time.

Happily, though, I’m slowly starting to ease back into my former me.  Not entirely, and that’s fine… in fact, it’s right and appropriate: no one should go through the stuff I went through and come out unchanged.  I’ve learned humility and patience and even a little bit of self-forgiveness that I never had before.  I’ve learned to be gentler with myself when it comes to things like judging my own appearance or accepting low productivity or functionality, because it was either that or destroy myself and take my loved ones down with me.

I’ve learned not to talk quite so much, and am continuing to hone that particular skill.  I learned, not long ago, that when I make the choice to fully and unhesitatingly open myself to another person, I need to pay attention to how I feel when the conversation is over.  If I walk away feeling like that was a good, intense, give-and-take sort of experience, then, fabulous, that’s what friendship should feel like.  If I walk away feeling like I just babbled an hour of my life away and am now self-conscious and embarrassed that I couldn’t just shut up, then that’s not an equitable friendship.  That’s an unpaid therapy session, walking face-first into the misery of having over-shared without being trusted in equal measure.

Would I have learned all of these same tidbits, over time, anyway?  Probably, or at least some version thereof.  I expected that the biggest challenge ahead of me, when I hobbled out of the hospital and limped back into my home life, would be the physical recovery.   My body had to figure out how to close up a grapefruit-sized hole in my abdominal wall; how not to lose a toe or three to gangrene; how to eject all of my long, thick, straight hair and regrow still-thick but now curly stuff in its place; how to make it up a single flight of steps without assistance from more than the new handrail and fear of humiliation if my children came home to find their mother stuck halfway up the stairs, sobbing and exhausted.  I knew that there were any number of psychological challenges ahead, as well, but I had dealt with variants on those themes before and so I imagined that it would simply be a case of applying prior knowledge to a new and bigger problem.

The physical recovery was hard, it’s true; but it turns out that my pre-existing coping skills were either woefully inadequate or lost somewhere in that pre-coma fog.  The past 12 months have been a crash course in WTF101, and I suspect it’ll be a while before I get that particular course grade back.


  1. Hi Kate. Been ages since I caught up but you pop up in my reader. Hard to know whether you would have ‘mellowed’ anyway but God knows the shit you’ve been through last year is enough to try the patience of a saint. Hope all is well and the family fine. Apologies, I’ve been a bad blogger and an even worse follower. Take Care. Helen

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