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Commentary : Writer, Struggling to Cope After Accident, Finds Order

<i> Roger Rose now works as a publicist. His clients have included the Austine Studio Gallery in La Jolla and the Aesthetics Collection, a corporate art consulting firm</i>

Rarely can we peek behind a finished hanging canvas to witness the inspiration, frustration, excitement and technical methods that go into the everyday work of the professional artist. The recreation of art is commonly seen as a mysterious phenomenon beyond popular understanding. Concept, sketch, painting and repainting are masked behind the polished surface on display.

--Roger Rose, Aug. 20, 1983

When I read this passage recently, I thought it was someone else’s writing, not mine. The bell of familiarity didn’t sound in my mind. When I wrote those words, I was a free-lance arts writer for The Times. Writing was a special pleasure and relatively easy. That was before a serious auto accident left me comatose and robbed me of a once-photographic memory.

After five years of rehabilitation, I am back at work in the arts field. But today, even as I draft this passage, I have to think about each word. Everyday life requires exceptional discipline and structure to accomplish what was once so effortless.

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On Oct. 23, 1983, I left my North Park home, heading downtown to carry my notes to the news room. As I wound south on Park Boulevard, an oncoming truck turned into the San Diego Zoo, directly in my path. Unable to stop, I drove head-on into the truck’s passenger door. My loose notes, I am told, were left scattered over the grass at Zoo Place.

My skull was fractured and the right frontal lobe of my brain had hemorrhaged. For almost three months, I lay in a coma in Mercy Hospital, hooked to a virtual wall of monitoring devices, under 24-hour medical supervision. The doctors did not know whether I would wake up and what my condition might be.

In mid-December, I began to emerge from my coma. Unable to move or speak for days, I silently “tracked"--my eyes darted left to right to follow any movement in my room as I struggled to make verbal contact with the world again.

The first few days out of my coma, I was disoriented, angry and agitated. One particular day, I argued with a nurse, insisting that I had not gotten lunch. With my uncontrollable hunger and my short-term memory deficit, I had forgotten that I had just eaten.

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My rising anger brought three medical aides to hold me until I had been successfully injected with Haldol, a powerful tranquilizer. When all hands were lifted, I landed a foot firmly in the buttocks of one nurse, sending her across the room and over the empty bed beside me. Then, the tranquilizer successfully sedated me.

It took weeks before I had an awareness of where I was and why. I awoke at 4 a.m. one morning and quietly slipped into the shower. Sounds of splashing water echoed down the silent hall and sent nurses running to my room.

“Roger! You can’t take a shower unsupervised. And at this hour!”

“I have to get ready,” I told them. “My brother is picking me up at 5 to go bonito fishing.”

On Christmas Day, I was visited by Bill Furlow, my former editor at The Times. At his previous visit, one week earlier, I lay in bed with eyes fixed--unresponsive and unaware.

This day, Bill found me propped in bed, pecking at a portable typewriter on my lap. Though I didn’t see or talk to Bill during his previous visit, I was aware that he had been present.

A short time later, I started work with physical, speech and occupational therapists. It was an accelerated program of relearning to walk, to speak and to perform basic daily skills.

One month after I was stable, I was discharged. Imagine trying to function in the world when you have lost control over your body, your thought processes, your memory, your senses, your judgment and decision-making abilities--and are left with diminished sight and hearing.

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All these unseen disabilities were very much present after my severe head injury, but they were covered by an attractive facade. I retained a high degree of verbal skills, which helped me to persuade others, misguidedly, that I was ready for independence. In denial of the difficulties ahead, I found support to live without supervision while I fought for the funds to begin a comprehensive rehabilitation program.

I lived alone in North Park for two floundering years.

Being an “easy mark,” I was frequently victimized. Because of my impaired judgment, I sometimes perceived people as friends who, in reality, were only taking advantage of my weakness and misplaced trust.

I was aware--sometimes dimly, at other times sharply--that I could not do what I wanted to do. This started a growing frustration.

My moody temperament put a firecracker’s fuse on my anger. Walking up my driveway one evening, I was stunned to find the screen door propped open. The front door swung freely.

I had forgotten to lock the door! My rage exploded when I walked in and found my new component stereo system stolen. Instantly, I kicked at the front door, leaving a hole in the hollow door.

Self-hatred was fanned by memories of everything that was once effortless. I cried when a pile of newspaper clippings--articles that I once wrote--fluttered to the floor.

My self-esteem was so weakened and my self-confidence so shaken by my injury and by my realization that I was not yet fully able to live independently, that I couldn’t bear to think of myself as less than I once was.

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During those two years, I vacillated between denial and acceptance of my disabilities. Early on, I viewed my disability as an enemy that could be conquered or overcome. Those demoralized years caused a feeling of “helpless surrender.” While I had the loving support of my family, most of my friends and associates shied away from me.

There were changes in my appearance and in my speech patterns. On two occasions, the police stopped me, thinking I was drunk. One of those times, I ended up in detox for several hours.

Damaged self-esteem fueled a growing anxiety and depression. One bleak afternoon, I planned my suicide. I headed downtown to look for a gun shop. Luckily, when I rushed off the bus, I (literally) ran into a longtime family friend. After a few happy hours of talking and laughing, he left me in good spirits.

At the end of my two-year downhill slide, after a bitter and protracted legal battle, I received a cash settlement that finally allowed me to enter a program for head-injured adults. The re-entry facility I attended, in Hyannis, Mass., is intended to teach basic living skills to those who want to return to independent living.

The “classes” or small discussion groups at the facility, dealt with improving verbal skills, as well as learning effective strategies for memory. There were also classes on the function of the brain.

When I left my home in 1985, I was aware of little in the way of inclusive head-injury therapy in San Diego. This situation has since changed. Today, a head-injured San Diegan can find all-encompassing local care of quality.

From the time of my discharge until today, the Sharp Rehabilitation Center has been my one steady anchor. Soon after I returned to San Diego, I leased an apartment and started at the Acquired Brain Injury program at Mesa College. This innovative course ranges from cognitive retraining to vocational assistance. In fact, the program sparked my desire to rejoin the work force and to end the monthly disability benefits that supported me during my four-year rehabilitation.

Five years ago, the thought was nearly unthinkable that I might again someday be using my verbal skills professionally in the field of art.

As I learned about head injury in general and about my deficits in particular, I finally accepted the stark reality: There is no “cure” for the permanent injury resulting from a closed head injury. I realized that I had moved my recovery into my own hands. Therapists and institutions no longer led an effort that I blindly followed.

I learned that disability could be dealt with by adapting new and creative strategies to fit my problems. The utter powerlessness I first felt was alleviated when I saw my disability as a life challenge.

There is nothing innovative in my use of common practices to patch the leaky holes of memory. These practices range from an erasable wall calendar that hangs on my bathroom door (to post prioritized weekly duties) to a simple cup hook fixed by the front door to hold household keys.

I am helped by a pocket calendar I carry as my constant companion (I call it “my frontal lobe”) as well as an inventory I hang on my freezer door knowing that, with an afflicted memory, “out of sight is out of mind.”

Writing daily journal entries is the most effective memory aid I employ. Before I sleep--and the memories soon evaporate--I write detailed descriptions of the people, conversations and events that filled my day. When I review my journal, otherwise fading details are reinforced in my long-term memory.

My rehabilitation has been a long and circuitous route that is never-ending.

Rehabilitation, indeed, is a lifelong learning process. The way stations on my path have helped me to learn the practices I now bring into my daily living.

“You only fail, if you fail to try” has been my watchword. My desire not to fall into the pattern of dependence common among the disabled fueled my desire to achieve successful autonomy. As I approach the fifth anniversary of my accident, the startling changes which have occurred in my life come into clear focus.

Before my accident, I had found rules too binding. They were for someone else, not for me. I was among those people who pushed away order. I thrived on spontaneity.

Now, I’ve found a new freedom in order. (What a switch from the person, then!) Since my crash, I’ve learned how to live in a way that I had always rejected: a life with order, discipline and structure. I don’t know if I love that, but I like what it enables me to accomplish.


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