Essays, opinions and rants

Doctor’s Orders

Doctor’s Orders

Note: Greetings after a medically imposed hiatus (details below). This post first appeared March 22 on Grub Street‘s writing blog

After a head injury, a lifelong word-lover – a voracious reader and dedicated writer – is forbidden by her doctor to read or write. She’s instructed to instead fill her time with “mindless activity such as television, which requires no thinking.” She can’t even play Words With Friends or text. What will become of her?

Fairly twisted as plots go, right? What sort of sadist would inflict such ironic misery on a person? Sadly, this is non-fiction, and I have the answer: The doctor who examined me after I fell skiing and got a concussion, that’s who. (Indeed I was wearing a helmet, but the rock-solid ice scrambled a few things right through all those layers of whatever helmets are made of.)

Reality not yet sinking in, I laughed as the doctor laid out a protocol, and confessed that I was an unlikely candidate for watching TV given that I do not even know how to turn it on: When I watch TV, which I do religiously every year during the Academy Awards, my husband or daughter must turn it on, identify which remote controls operate which components, which cabinet doors must be open and which closed, what the proper channel is and how to use the volume control and the pause button. The TV seriously may as well be a Blackhawk helicopter.

After the doctor visit, I explained the new regime by phone to friends. “I can’t exercise, I can’t walk the dog, I can’t use my brain, all I can do is go to the movies or lie on the couch and watch stuff,” I moaned, resigned to becoming a shadow of my former self for an unspecified amount of time. I added that I could also go grab a cup of coffee or some food if they were available (which of course they weren’t).

Most professed envy at the forced sloth and swore to immediately figure out ways to become concussed themselves. They recommended many, many shows they believed I would enjoy, even though these are people I’ve known forever who know damn well I enjoy about one show every 10 years, and I’m still in my Mad Menviewing decade. I did not write down or make mental notes regarding the shows they recommended because oh darn, not supposed to write or make mental notes!

When a writer friend called and got the scoop, she understood. This was bad. Funny, but bad. A non-reading and writing me? It was like an evil being turning me into a different person, like in Get Out.

The doctor had suggested watching movies if TV didn’t appeal, which was way easier than using the TV: You just drive to the theater with a very large purse filled with homemade popcorn, water bottle, and Kleenex, and pay the man/woman/whoever.

I embarked on weeks of alternating between two local theaters, Netflix, and a stack of DVDs from the library. My brain refused to remain in a passive state, however, and insisted upon endlessly analyzing the movies, fretting about long-term cognitive damage and assorted other matters. My brain was non-compliant. It even directed me to occasionally jot notes down in a notebook under the couch. But movies filled my time, for the first time ever.

According to the notebook under the couch, Selma,with David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr, should be required viewing for everyone. The documentarySearching for Sugarman was mind-blowing and everyone should watch that too, especially Bob Dylan fans, not that it’s about him. A Bigger Splash, featuring naked and frolicking Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, was possibly the worst movie ever, “the kind of movie that makes one hate the whole human race,” my husband said. Paddington Bear would have been a more powerful aphrodisiac, we agreed before falling asleep muttering disgustedly into our pillows.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was an emotionally exhausting masterpiece. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s By the Sea was ravaged by critics, but viewing right after A Bigger Splash seemed like Citizen Kane meets Out of Africa. The Post was passionate, cool, unsubtle. Get Out deserved Best Picture. Call Me By Your Name was sexy and romantic and a powerful reminder of how we all looked dancing in the 80s.

The weeks-long cinematic orgy dueled with something like panic over not being able to read and write. It was like looking through a window at the person I might have become without writing constantly flowing into and out of me. That person was emptier, flatter than me, and as my brain healed, I felt grateful for life-defining word passion. Then I was doubly grateful to be reminded of that, since the writing life can at times feel more cursed than blessed.

The concussion protocol called for gradually introducing activities back into my routine, and after nearly a month I began emailing a little, walking the dog, then writing a newspaper column and opening up Words With Friends.

I tiptoed back into a book and was ecstatic to devour Patti Smith’s magnificent Just Kids without getting headachy or falling asleep. I started winnowing down the sliding stack of New Yorkers. And I’m back now, with deepened appreciation for things I had taken for granted (and for high-quality helmets).



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10 thoughts on “Doctor’s Orders”

  • Welcome back! We’ve also seen our share of good and bad movies lately (I advise you to skip “Downsizing.”)

  • Michelle – You always find a way to make the bad situations funny. Thanks for giving me my laugh today with my cup of coffee while staring at a computer screen.

  • Hard to keep a gifted writer down for long! Glad you are feeling better, whimsical and fun piece about a tough time for you..

  • So glad you’re feeling better and back to the pen and laptop! Wish I could have been there for some movie theatre R & R!

  • So glad you’re feeling better. Know what it is like to not be able to read–post-surgery trauma. It’s weird, isn’t it? You have some great recommendations for movies though…I trust your tastes. Glad you can use your eyes and brain together again!

  • Loved this piece because without having doctors orders to basically stop thinking and reading, it can happen to us all. Made me want to read the piles of books by my bed that I’ll read “tomorrow nite”’

  • As someone who watches sports and news religiously on TV, I can’t quite relate with your agony but I can fully appreciate the humor of it all. Welcome back!

  • Welcome back Michelle! I would love to chat movies with you but I really missed your literary voice.

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