I recently submitted this to a writing competition. The prompt was ‘reentry.’ This is what I came up with.


My first view into being Joseph Merrick

This was before they reattached my skull, I think. I don’t remember.

I stood on the horizon between life and death. I came closer than most would imagine. However, now is the time to return to life, sanity, and the ultimate goal of independence. This return voyage has been full of mishaps and terror. Crises are still being mediated, but the beacon of hope burns brighter than ever.

The Incident occurred on September 22, 2019 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I was on a scooter and a car hit me. I was sent flying off the bike and onto the concrete. I recall nothing of the event. That is a blessing for me because those memories would have given me more to overcome, but it’s tragic that others remember every agonizing detail.

I was rushed to an ER. I was unconscious and the medical staff began saving my life. My skull was shattered into dozens of bones. That gave me severe memory loss and epilepsy. I have had many seizures, but I don’t recall a single one. I only have the reactions and knowledge of people that helped me through them. Deleted memories. I have many months of them, and still have difficulty remembering basic things.

The middle bone in my right ear was sheared, giving me permanent hearing damage. My right shoulder blade was broken, along with four ribs, one of which punctured a lung. The doctors had to drain it and I developed a rare infection. Even they didn’t know what it was.

I was put into a medical coma so that they could perform a craniectomy. The doctors took my skull’s shattered fragments and reattached them with titanium wiring. I was in a coma for four days. After reawakening, I was intubated and clutching onto life.

I was bed-ridden when I was taken out of my coma, and for a long time basic mental and motor functions weren’t possible. I had to relearn how to think, eat, talk and walk. The physical aspects were the easiest to overcome. I don’t even remember the broken shoulder blade. I have a permanent dent in my skull and can feel all of the cracks, seams and ridges where they were shattered and wired back together. That was and still is a mere curiosity for me. A distinct reality of something new, something to explore with my fingers to see how my skull was reshaped.

These challenges were met with dignity and my progress was easily quantifiable. The mental aspects were far more difficult to overcome than the physical ravages.

My brain was unable to process basic truths, which frightened everyone. The most jarring was that I couldn’t tell which way was up or down. I was outwardly afraid if my girlfriend stood up when talking to me. I was convinced that she was upside down, anchored to the ceiling by her chair. If she stood, she was going to plummet to the tile below. I thought the only thing keeping her from crashing down was some strong glue that kept her safely out of gravity’s desires.

I was unable to speak for a long while. When I got around to it, I’d frequently change what language I spoke in. I went back-and-forth from English to German to what little Korean I know. I didn’t control nor notice this. I was alive, but it was clear that I was just hanging on. My brain had been completely broken and was struggling to neurotically readjust to calamity.

Near the beginning of my rebirth into society as a functional human, my mother and brother came to visit me from the US. I later learned that he even wrote a eulogy for me. I’ve never asked to read it, but that’s how close I was to death and the unknown. But I didn’t know they were coming. I was in-and-out of consciousness the entire time. Figuring out what was real and what wasn’t was a difficult tightrope to try and traipse across. Whimsically unsure of everything.

When my family arrived, I was exuberantly happy with how god damn GOOD the Thai medical staff was. They had hired such good actors to portray my family! To give me a sense of normality! They looked like Mom. Sounded like her. Looked like my brother. Sounded like him. Damn. These people trained some fine actors!

I didn’t believe they were who they said they were. I asked them for proof, for things that actors wouldn’t have had time to learn. Old memories that I could still grasp. Birthdays, information about Dad, the games and memories we had as kids, and other details that don’t arise from scratch. Once they answered, it still took a while for me to truly believe that they were really them. It’s impossible to look back and try to understand how I couldn’t remember and recognize them. I was just a broken shell of a human.

When they had to leave me, I had more mental sanity and comfort. I was more mentally coherent. It was a glorious reprieve. Still, I continued to struggle with the fundamental, psychological depression of existence. I was thrilled to be alive, but I didn’t want to live like this.

This was worsened by the physical trauma I had to overcome. The worst pain came from my ribs. Learn to not breathe in too deep. Don’t expand your chest. You’d like to try not to laugh, but to take away humor from life is to further subtract from your reason to exist. The absolute worst is something that can’t be controlled. Sneezing. With four broken ribs, every sneeze was a volcanic eruption of pain. That agony melts away, but the more profound effect was the one it had on my psyche. The underlying threat. It stripped me of my humanity and pride. Once I was able to somewhat control my thoughts, the pain helped take away my former sense of self and ushered in the floodgates of helplessness.

You can’t control the physical pain, but you can learn to just deal with it. This is how you can refuse to be further sunk into the depths of anguish. “Fuck it. It just hurts. I’m still here. I ain’t shook.”

This was crystallized when I struggled to relearn how to walk. Merely getting out of bed was an ordeal. Standing up on my own was the first victory. Nurse Linda would help me walk five steps and lead me back to my bed. It was exhausting. Then I made it to ten steps. Eventually, we got up to a hundred. With renewed vigor and competitiveness, I started to escape my bed in the hours when no one was around and I was supposed to be sleeping.

I learned how to unhook myself from the IVs I was attached to. I would walk around the hospital for as long as I could. My goal was always to outdo myself by going farther than the day before. I knew that I had to do it alone. I needed to be independent. I needed to prove to myself that I could, free of medical support. If you can’t do it alone, then you can’t do it. My midnight jaunts brought me closer to my primary goal. I’m proud, not only of each step forward, but also that I was never caught breaking hospital policy.

I demonstrated that I could walk a stretch, but any other action would overwhelm my brain. Walking was a distinct focus. Each step. I wanted to recreate the ability to care for myself. There were still barriers. I was able to get to the toilet but was unable to wipe my own ass. I was 32-years-old. Someone had to do it for me. The act of processing ass-wiping thoughts while sitting down and balancing would start my fiendish tremors again. I simply couldn’t do it on my own yet. I’d fall. I did several times. The humiliation of that reality was painful, but also led me to again compete with myself. If I can’t do it now, I will make sure that I can in the future. Because I am literally going to be taking care of my own shit. But I was at least able to get to the toilet. I wasn’t able to before. Take a victory wherever you find it, or you further your mental spiral into further futility.

I needed to do something on my own. I didn’t want Nurse Linda to help me. I wanted to brush my own teeth. I had to get from my hospital bed, which I considered to be my prison cell, to the bathroom. I had to get my toothbrush and do the steps we all know. Previously, I had fallen over on several attempts. Once smashing onto the bathtub. Nurses were called, but not by me. I was simply incapable of doing another thing I’d learned since childhood. But one day, I finally did it all on my own. Such a simple task, but one that was previously impossible. It was another box I got to check off. I accomplished something by myself. A true Medal of Valor. It really was for me.

This gave me the courage to take on further challenges and set new goals. Each of them was of profound importance, no matter how simple they seemed. They were each a step towards being an individual again. I learned how to eat rather than be fed. I learned how to control what language I was speaking. I learned to be able to concentrate and follow a baseball game. Simple, simple steps. But each of them was crucial to getting the building blocks of your life back together. It was just like being a child, figuring out how to navigate all of these skills, but just doing it as a 32-year-old man. Every single one of those trivial accomplishments were important. Combined, they led me to a great escape that I had dreamed of ever since I was first able to put coherent thoughts together in my own mind after The Incident.

After a couple months, I was released from the Thai hospital and returned to America. The flight was a nightmare. I idiotically watched a serious film where the main character is constantly struggling with reality and how different perceptions, either outwardly or inwardly, profoundly affect his view of the world and if he is able to come back into it. He eventually does, in his own unique and evil way. I watched the entire film, but I took several breaks to the bathroom to cry. It felt like I was watching a documentary of my own life. One that didn’t paint me in a positive light. In this version of reality, I was a tragic figure that ends up being mentally corrupted and dangerous to the rest of society. No one saw me shed my tears. I maintained my steady face on the plane, but I was full of traumatic nightmares of what my future might become.

The plane landed safely and without incident. Instead, I was the human wreck still trying to recover. I was happy to be around my nephews and family. I felt more normal. That was a crucial step. Get the injuries behind you. Suck ’em up. Then you slowly elevate towards being treated like a normal human being instead of a patient in need of constant care. Rather than a soon-to-be corpse. Reentering society is crucial for your mental health. Rise above uncertainty rather than sink into it.

My recovery continued apace in such a wonderful environment. However, soon enough I started to feel relentless stagnation. I wanted to rejoin the world by myself rather than be an invalid under my family’s loving care. I immediately started to look for work. I felt adrift and homeless despite living comfortably in my brother’s or parents’ house. Even though I was still struggling, the prospect of going back to a world that I knew and understood was too tantalizing. On MY own. Making MY money. Doing MY thing. A place to foster and grow. Recovery continues, but on my own terms. Along with the rewards and consequences of liberty.

I finally got a job and returned to Korea. Only later did I realize that I was coming in far too steep. There’s the danger of bouncing off the atmosphere with too much unwarranted enthusiasm. With my epilepsy and legitimate brain damage, I had many hurdles to overcome. I did the best I could. More adventurous than most, but troubles still surrounded me. Too much and too soon. The goal of independence was far stronger than the idea of preservation and recovery. To hell with that, I said. Without being on my own, I can only slide further into my manic insanity. Despite, or because of, these desires, I flung myself back into their depths.

I actively made this worse by continuing my abject drinking habits. Every medical professional sternly told me to quit. What can I say? I’m stubborn. Tell me to do something and I’ll do the opposite just to prove I can. This is not wise, but it’s where my brain was and still is. I play a dangerous game of escapism. I just want to be. Me. Not someone else’s diagnosis.

Although I had reentered society and was on my way with a new job and independence, the mental disturbances continued, fed along by my abject refusal to follow helpful and meaningful advice. I only had one visual hallucination that I can recall. It was a man, who was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle green, wearing a blue jacket and a Yankees hat, lighting a smoke. I saw him from my balcony and just needed to know if he was real or not. I watched him for minutes. I called my girlfriend over for confirmation. She, calmly and politely, told me that there was no one there. He was there, having drag after drag. It was all in my head, but he was there. I was looking right at him. Thankfully, he didn’t return my stare.

More importantly, I was utterly and constantly inundated with auditory hallucinations. Sounds would be fabricated or amplified, and they completely surrounded me. Teaching at my new school, the ruffling of paper, the rolling of a pencil, the chewing of gum, let alone the chitter-chatter of children, would become that moment’s entire existence. This continued for every moment of every day. These sounds were typically shaped in aural gears and would go back and forth along a pathway of sound and intensity. The sounds would rotate around me. In private, I could usually control in which direction they flowed. In public, however, they became so loud and frequent that I could not function any more. I didn’t know what reality was anymore. Something was about to break. Again.

This led to a new strategy. I still have auditory problems, but I simply learned to not even care if they were hallucinations. I have done plenty of hallucinogenic drugs. I know what that is like. I know how to react to them. It’s one of my favorite realities. My collegiate drug use was the best training regimen for the troubles that followed and continue.

The issue is to simply determine if these sounds represent Reality or Irreality. I will hear something and go around the house to determine the source. It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. I just want to know.

“Is that sound real?” Search. OK, found it. Confirmed. Check.

“Is that sound only in my head?” Search. Yep, it sure is. Check.

I am not concerned anymore. I just want confirmation. Once I find it, I am satisfied. If I cannot, I am just as sated. I simply want to know if the noises are real or part of my hallucinogenic struggle.

This eventually led to my having a psychotic break. I had to leave my job. I simply couldn’t escape, nor deal with, my insanity. The deluge of incomprehension became too much to bear. I had to put up a White Flag and went back to America to stay with my family. Once I returned, I didn’t help myself. Without a job or any friends to hang out with, I furthered my bad drinking habits.

Once, I drank myself into a seizure at my parent’s house. My Dad, being him, splashed a glass of water on my face to try to wake me up. I did, but I don’t remember the details of these moments in any way. It’s just another part of my memory that has been deleted.

I still desperately needed to get out on my own. My first foray back into the world was too sharp and I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t sure if I was at this point, either, but I needed to give it another shot. I kicked my alcohol habit for several months in an overt attempt to subtract a known enemy to my recovery.

Through a friend, I scored another teaching job in Korea in March, 2021. I didn’t know if I was able to begin again, but I knew I had to try. I felt much stronger, both mentally and physically. I felt that structure was crucial to help me conquer and overcome my previous failures.

I landed and got right back to work and towards independence. I have now been teaching at my school for five months. None of it has been easy, and I haven’t stopped all of my bad habits, though I have curbed them. I have my medication and have not had any real physical struggle. My classes are going well and I work hard. I have my own apartment and I’m making good money for a person in my trade. I am absolutely not perfect. I still have problems every day that I need to talk myself out of or force myself into confronting. I see the perils and constantly focus on my own wanton inability to adjust to reality and its consequences.

On my reentry, I am through the atmosphere but I haven’t yet touched ground. My parachutes have deployed to keep me safe in my lofty descent back to Earth. There are still gusts and storms that push my astray, many of which are of my own creation. Things are better now than they have been in nearly two years. However, the gravity of my issues and my continued tendency to amplify them have not yet been fully resolved.

While still descending and fighting the Gulf Stream of my damage and imperfections, I dream of being able to stick the landing. I have a ways to go, but that Olympic goal is coming closer and provides me with more confidence. I focus on the positives that fuel my ability to overcome hardship and crises. Never ignore the negatives, but cherish every victory you earn. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. No matter how small and unimportant they seem. They aren’t. Wear them as medals of valor for your mission homeward. Self-respect and honor are priceless on the pathway towards independence. Respect them and yourself.

I am working hard and am on my own, living as I want to and supporting myself the entire way. The troubles have diminished with my growing ability to navigate the strident currents that remain. The recovery isn’t over. Medical professionals told me that the First Year of Recovery was to get back to ‘normal.’ To be able to think, eat, talk and walk. The Second Year of Recovery is when you go back into the world and do your best to start anew. Universally, they said Stage Three is the rest of your life thereafter. What you are able to achieve after The Incident. Getting back on your own two feet, able to fully reenter the world with grace and dignity. It profoundly represents the glory and importance that comes with having fresh eyes upon the world.

September 22, 2021 will be the start of Stage Three. I’m ready to bang on the door with righteous pride and vigor. I set myself out there once again to explore, discover, learn, and further recover. I am on my way, currently working and living my OWN life, struggling to maintain discipline, but helping to ensure that I can do the best I possibly can. I am not going to let this stop me. This is my rebirth. I’m ready, and I ain’t gonna back down.

Onward. Upward. Always.