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It was the last Sunday in March of this year and I settled down to my usual weekend morning routine:  My cat on my left side, a cup of coffee on my right, and the New York Times app open on my iPad.  I clicked on the first story that caught my interest and started reading.

Oddly, it didn’t quite register.  Though I read the full article, I seemed to miss the author’s key point.

So I read it again.  It was a Sunday, after all.  I had all the time in the world; the cat was purring, the coffee was hot.

Again, the key point of the article escaped me.  “That’s strange”, I thought.   Usually, articles in the New York Times are very well written and researched, so their themes are clear and transparent.

I read the piece again, and once more I didn’t understand.

Suddenly it hit me.  It wasn’t the article. It was me. I didn’t understand.

I tried several other articles, with the same result – I could read the words, but was unable to grasp the meaning.

Alarmed, I reviewed the other oddities that I had experienced that week.  Lights had been far too bright, sounds too loud.  I had been unusually fatigued.  Strangest of all, everything had seemed to smell uncharacteristically  bad.  At first I accused the neighbor’s cat of marking his territory too enthusiastically.  The cat theory weakened when I experienced the same smell at the mall, at a restaurant, and at the grocery store.

Now very concerned that something was wrong with my brain, I went to see my doctor the next day.

He asked one question as soon as I had explained my odd experiences:  “When you fell, did you hit your head?”

Indeed.  Just over a week earlier, on a Saturday morning, I had tripped on an uneven sidewalk. I was on my way to a friend’s house for brunch, flowers in my left hand, iPhone in my right, following the “little blue dot” on the map for directions.  I did not see the slight change in the height of the pavement, and as I catapulted through the air, a moment of hesitation – wanting to avoid  crushing the beautiful bouquet of flowers I was holding – meant that I  hit  the concrete full force with my chin rather than being able to use my hands to break the fall.  My nose was bloodied, my arm twisted and bruised, my pride wounded.  Shortly afterward, I had gone to the same doctor to have my arm put back into place, and had then promptly forgotten about the incident.

Luckily, the doctor had not forgotten.  He remembered the fall, and now he diagnosed a concussion.

Shrugging, completely unworried, he told me that the odd mental effects I had been experiencing were common after concussion – in fact, hallmarks of a post-concussion syndrome. He was very reassuring. “You’ll be fine.  Just rest.  No reading, no computer, no radio or TV.  Just rest.”

Feeling much better knowing that my strange experiences did not mean I was going crazy, and assuming I would be as good as new in a few days, I did as he suggested.  At first this was refreshing.  I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and I listen to news and stories on the radio for hours on end.  It was something of a “reset” to put those passions aside and pay attention to the world around me in a different and quieter way.  I took naps, watched the birds, and pondered the budding trees of Spring.

This new way of being quickly became isolating, however.  Throughout my life, I have been passionate about language.  I was frustrated with books at the age of seven, very irritated that they had pictures.  I didn’t want pictures – I wanted the words to paint the pictures for me.  I studied Spanish, Polish, Russian, and German, recognizing that foreign languages painted different pictures and opened up windows to different worlds.  At the age of twelve, my best friend taught me sign language.  I was captivated.  I realized that I think in English, Germans think in German.  But deaf people, I wondered?  How did deaf people think?  In addition to my regular university courses, I studied psycholinguistics just for the fascination of it, and worked as a sign language interpreter for several of my college years.

Thus a world without words, a life without language, was a new universe to me.

And that universe expanded.  By the end of the first week after the concussion diagnosis, as the slow swelling from the impact of the brain hitting the inside of my skull gradually progressed, I could not read at all.  Letters and words are symbols, symbols for spoken language – and spoken language had also begun to escape me.  I could engage in face-to-face interactions, but could not follow conversations on the telephone or voices on the radio.  Even music, my lifelong friend, became unbearable – any song with lyrics was now just a cacophony of noise to me, and I learned to rely on simple piano music as my sole companion during the day.

My doctor remained unconcerned.  “Ah, that’s normal,” he shrugged.  “It’s just a concussion.  Probably you need another twelve weeks to heal.  Happens to people all the time”.

I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth.  What if he was just trying to soften the blow, so to speak, unwilling to tell me, just yet, that I would never read again?  My typical response to any type of medical diagnosis is to do endless research on the internet, but that avenue of inquiry was closed to me.

So I opened up new avenues instead.

I thought about the people I know who live lives that are not steeped in language.  Dancers, musicians, landscape architects.  Dog walkers, baristas, choreographers, woodworkers.

They represented ways of living that  I had rarely even considered.  Prior to the fall, I spent my days surrounded by people like me – marketers, software specialists, and business people.  Given their similar experiences, they had similar viewpoints to mine.  I had not even recognized my deep assumption that language was the substance of life, until that substance was taken from me.

So I reached out to those whose lives centered on passions independent of language.  Through interviewing them, I discovered new ways of looking at the world.  I invited the dancer for coffee, and she described how she expresses her life experience through the most subtle movements of her body.  I observed dog walkers and the joy they took in the simple pleasures of canine companionship.  I talked with a musician who perceives a universe of meaning where others hear merely a melody.

I had not realized my own bias – my belief that the one and only way to experience, and to express, meaning, is through written and spoken language – until that language was lost.  Though language will likely remain precious to me, I am grateful now that I see the world with an expanded comprehension.  I now truly understand that my words and explanations may not be the most accessible way to communicate with a dancer.  An image of a loving pet may be just what is needed to open a door with a dog owner.  I recognize that the musician may best hear my message if I embed it in a melody.

And thus I am intensely grateful for the community represented by the SAP Community Network (SCN).  Here, I discover a world of people whose way of experiencing the world and expressing their views on it is so very, very different from my own – yet so very, very universal.  Here, my colleagues and friends express themselves in ways that help me truly access their humanity.  Photographs, videos, blogs, music, cartoons, podcasts – each of us has a forum to express ourselves in a way that shares our understanding with others in our own creative ways, joining together in a common mission to help the world run better.

After several months, I’ve now finally recovered from the concussion and am able to return to my work that depends so heavily on my language skills and verbal communication; this is my first official blog since my return.

It feels like coming home, to once again use words to reach out to the world and weave a collaborative web every day with my colleagues.  But I have returned a different person – one who much better appreciates the multitude of dimensions of experiences and ways of obtaining meaning from the world. I’m certain it will make me a better marketer and will help me build richer and more fascinating personal relationships.

I am grateful and relieved, though, to have the opportunity to once again live in the world and express myself in the way that suits me best, and I write this now to encourage the “lurkers” – those sitting on the sidelines, hesitating to contribute to SCN, worried that their language, or their art, or their music, is not the “right” way to express their views. I had to be hit on the head to recognize that there are many right ways of expression, each of which resonate with a lot of people.

Your way of expression is the right way — and it is the only way for you, for it is how you can best say what you have to contribute.  So go ahead, use it for the benefit of all of us to enrich the community. Don’t wait until your language is lost to discover that for yourself.

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35 Comments

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  1. Thorsten Franz

    Dear Marcia,

    You are such a uniquely gifted writer, I’m genuinely thankful that language came back to you and enabled you to share with us the story of its absence in your life.

    I am primarily a person of words (music is second), and I’ve often wondered what it would be like to suffer from some form of aphasia, the loss of language. It’s a dreadful idea for me, but I notice that you were able to look at it in a brighter way and see it as temporarily gaining access to a new experience from which you took away insights and new perspectives.

    Your blog post struck another chord with me: Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been an avid reader of the wonderful neurological case studies of Oliver Sacks (of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” fame). If you don’t already know them, you should definitely give them a try, especially “An Anthropologist From Mars”, which contains, among others, the story of a painter who loses color vision, and copes.

    Best,

    Thorsten

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    1. Marcia Walker Post author

      Thorsten, Thank you so much for your kind words.  Your support in the SCN community was instrumental in my decision to write this blog.  How perfect that you, too, are an Oliver Sacks fan!  I love his books and how they make me question what I would otherwise accept as definitive reality.  (Another gem in that vein, from a different author, is “The Minds of Billy Milligan”)  I have not yet read the “Anthropologist from Mars” series:  It will be my next Kindle download!  (Do we have a “Book Club” here on SCN?  Perhaps we should!)

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      1. Thorsten Franz

        Ordered. 🙂 And have you already discovered V. S. Ramachandran? He is, to me, the next-generation Oliver Sacks.

        He has written about such fascinating topics as neuroplasticity and how the body-image in the brain (often broken after amputations, leading to great phantom pains) can be altered with tools as simple as mirrors, and how simple illusions can cause amazing experiences, such as perceiving a wooden table as a part of one’s body, and about the neurological foundation of synaesthesia (I’m synaesthetic).

        My recommendation to any fellow Oliver Sacks fan. 🙂

        Best,

        Thorsten

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        1. Marilyn Pratt

          Late to the party but echoing your words Thorsten.  Marcia is a gifted, articulate writer.  So very glad she is a part of this community and I should think that for someone of her talents, losing language would be like a graphic artist losing sight, or a musician losing hearing.  I can’t even begin to imagine how it must of felt.

          We are so grateful to have her back! And thankful she has her language back not only and most importantly for her sake but also by extension for us all.

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    2. Nagarajan Viswanathan

      Hi Marcia,

      Welcome back! I had no idea that a concussion could cause a damage of this sort. While reading your Blog I felt that I was watching a movie, I could visualize all what you have mentioned.

      Regards,

      Nagarajan Viswanathan

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  2. Astrid Gambill

    Hi Marcia

    Good to hear from you again, I had wondered what happened to you. 

    Was this a form of aphasia?  I’m glad you’ve been able to fully recover.

    Regards

    Astrid

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    1. Marcia Walker Post author

      Astrid: Thank you – several people said they assumed I had just gotten too busy to blog; it is interesting that in this day of texting / blogging / Tweeting that you can just completely disappear if you suddenly lose the ability to do those things.  No one ever used the word “aphasia” during the experience, but it seems you’ve hit the nail on the head (no pun intended.  Please don’t hit anything or anyone on the head!) 🙂

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      1. Astrid Gambill

        My father had a mild stroke a couple of years ago and suffered similarly, but thankfully his aphasia only lasted a few hours.  He is also very language driven and not being able to do his crossword was a big clue that something was wrong.

        Makes you wonder how boxers and football players cope with all the concussions they can receive.

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  3. Chip Rodgers

    Wow, Marcia, it sounds like that was a pretty terrifying and disorienting experience. Thank you so much for sharing.  I’d never heard that before about concussions — the brain is such a complex, mystifying instrument.

    So glad you are back to 100%.  Your fall certainly didn’t negatively impact your ability to write beautiful prose to tell a compelling story.

    Thank you for telling the storye and we look forward to hearing more from you as always!

    Chip

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    1. Marcia Walker Post author

      Chip:  Thank you for your kindness.  The experience was indeed disorienting; oddly enough, though, it was not at all terrifying.  In many ways it was “zen” – without the distractions of radio, TV, computer, newspapers, etc., I simply existed

      And I learned that that is beautiful, and peaceful – and enough.

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    1. Marcia Walker Post author

      Thanks to Jitendra, Chandra, Khushi, and Gali for your nice comments.  One thing I did miss during the “weeks without words” was this type of interaction on SCN – communicating with people all over the world.  Nice to “meet” all of you in this space.

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  4. Gali Kling Schneider

    A beautiful blog that truly brought your ‘wordless’ journey to light. It was indeed thought provoking for me as I too am a voracious reader and rely heaving on the written/spoken word but I believe also on many sights, color, and body language. I think I’ll be more attuned to it in the upcoming days 😉

    I’m glad that you are now fully recovered and decided to write the post.

    Gali

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  5. Moya Watson

    Stunning, scary, and wonderful: I’m so glad you wove this tale.  What a great way to recognize diversity on the SCN – even though it seems like the medium is all via “language.”  I love your approach to challenge your understandings beyond your assumptions, and the value you bring for sharing your incredible story with us.

    thank you! so glad you’re back! you were definitely missed.

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    1. Marcia Walker Post author

      Moya:  I would not be on SCN without you!  I missed you guys, too – I had not fully appreciated how much your Twitter conversations and SCN posts were a part of my weekly existence until I couldn’t access them any more.  It’s great to be back, and catching up on your doings during my leave.  It seems I missed out on a lot of goats and cat videos! Mostly, though, I was sorry to miss the “gathering of thinkers and weirdos and nerds in the desert:”  That sounded awesome! 😎

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  6. M Ho

    Happy to see you back fully recovered. Thanks for sharing.

    Please everybody, do not move using your phones, you may get hurt, or worse hurt somebody else. Do one thing at a time, unless you are some sort of circus employee.

    Lately I saw a young mother almost trapping her baby in bus doors while using her phone. Of course she didn’t hang up, i don’t think she even noticed what was happening.

    Cheers Michael

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  7. Sarah Kellman

    Wonderful piece, Marcia. I will echo the sentiments of our colleagues and community members: powerful, lucid, and (yes) enjoyable to read…despite the horrific incident that led you to these insights. Your story should give pause to anyone who relies on writing for their livelihoods as well as for creative outlets.

    Like you and others in this thread, I’m a fan of V.S. Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks, and just finished Sacks’ wonderful new book “Hallucinations”; it describes the odd and sometimes wonderful world of visual, auditory and olafactory sensations experienced by people who suffered accidents or other organically-caused illnesses. Your story especially brought to mind the cases describing what people hallucinated (or “saw”) once deprived of sight.  

    So glad you’ve mended, and that your voice on SCN is as strong as ever. I hope to work with you again for the next SAPPHIRE NOW. You were the blogging superstar who taught me that humor, authenticity and generosity of spirit is indeed possible in corporate communication.

    Best,

    Sarah

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    1. Marcia Walker Post author

      Sarah:  Your final sentence is the kindest, most meaningful compliment I have ever received in my career.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.  And I, too, want to work with you on SAPPHIRE NOW!  Clearly I am destined to write a blog about mobility and safety!  😉

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  8. Jason Lax

    Your story reminds us that, despite our power, we too are just as fragile as the technology we surround ourselves with.

    I’m very interested in how languages shape thought: not only does English speaking person think in English but also thinks like an English speaking person. This really took hold after my sister pointed out that I sound like a different person when speaking French (I never thought of it!). And then, as you point out, there are other forms of expression and comprehension that go beyond language: something that is really inspiring when you think of all the diversity to be found across our world, never mind just SCN.

    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Marcia Walker Post author

      Jason:  I came across this article the other day about precisely that topic:  How language shapes thought (Learn Estonian to help with procrastination!)  For years I felt like I was searching for a universal language – at first I thought it was sign language, but recently I’ve decided it is probably music.  I love your statement, “There are other forms of expression and comprehension that go beyond language”.  Very true!

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  9. kishan P

    Your blog just blew my mind.

    I used to be an avid reader and (personal) blog writer for sometime now. But the reading just came to a complete halt a few years ago and the blog writing has suffered in the last six months. In the pursuit (or should I say the rut) of running behind a successful professional career, I’ve started to care less for the little things in life. But reading your blog has given me the creeps. I can’t imagine a life without language and communicating. It is strange that we take some things for granted. We don’t realise the importance of some simple things until we face a situation (or as in your case, bump on the head).

    I will definitely take a few lessons from this blog and make amends in my life. Thank you for the lovely article. And might I add that you have such a wonderful style of writing. Totally loved it!

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    1. Marcia Walker Post author

      Kishan:  Thank you for your kind comments.  Yes, we do tend to take things for granted. I do believe the lessons I learned from the experience are worth the price that I paid to learn them….I’m much more “present” in my everyday experiences.

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    1. Marcia Walker Post author

      Nitin:  Thank you.  I shared a few of my writing tips here.  A new discovery – not covered in the earlier blog – is one that I learned from improvisational acting.  It is to “start in the middle”. Instead of starting with the fall, I started with the result of the fall.  I find that the lessons that I learn in improv help me in all areas of my life – perhaps one day I will blog about that as well!

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