I first heard of Abigail Bruley’s story last fall, when she submitted a short, fascinating essay about memory loss to the Man Repeller Writers Club. Unsure whether it was fact or fiction, I got in touch and asked if she’d be willing to tell me more. Over the course of the next few months, she told me everything that happened to her, first via email, then phone call, and finally over a five-hour visit to her home in Philadelphia. Her story is unlike any I’ve heard before, but woven through it is something curiously universal—a flash of clarity in the chaos of the human condition.
Abigail Bruley doesn’t remember her wedding day. She knows she was 24, that she married her boyfriend Ryan. She can say there was a mashed-potato bar and that she danced to the Beach Boys, but she knows these details like I know my mom got married in a cowboy hat—not because I was there, but because I want (and choose) to believe the story. Bruley’s husband has told her the day was a blur of playing host and managing logistics, which she imagines is partly to blame. “I guess I wasn’t that emotional on my wedding day,” she reasons with a shrug. “And the best way to access memories is through emotions.”
The human brain captivates Bruley. The way it processes new and old data, tracks patterns over time, tucks information away in mysterious places, like the nervous system or dark recesses of the mind, just out of our conscious reach. Her fascination is not borne of fear or even curiosity, but veneration for something she doesn’t fully understand. After losing “millions of memories” in a car crash, she’s been forced to form an unflinching relationship with the unknown. This is, among other things, one of the unlikely benefits of her traumatic brain injury.
The neuro-fatigue is less welcome—it creeps up on her every day around 3 p.m., a mental weariness that, if not carefully heeded, can make her behave as if she were black-out drunk. Ditto the expressive aphasia, which inhibits her word recall, or the fact that she can now only hover around the edges of parties rather than thrust herself into the milieu. Her processing speed isn’t ideal. Sometimes she’ll think of a witty remark hours after it ought to have been delivered, something “old Abigail” might have found embarrassing. But even these downsides have their upsides: motivation to use her energy and words wisely, a sense of self untethered to her social standing, a disinterest in the insincerity sarcasm demands.
Of course, to digest the facts of her life this way requires a kind of blunt optimism, but that she has in seemingly unlimited stores—a survivor’s response, no doubt, to an intimate brush with death.
A sharp left turn
On February 5, 2013, a then-30-year-old Bruley and her husband Ryan Kerrigan touched down in Costa Rica for vacation. Their hotel was a few hours from the airport, so they rented a car and proceeded down a narrow, winding road that was crowded with traffic. It was hot, they kept getting stuck behind trucks with heavy exhaust, and soon they grew impatient. Then they noticed other cars passing trucks in the left lane—the one reserved for traffic going the opposite direction—and decided to follow suit. They successfully passed trucks twice. On the third time, Kerrigan pulled into the left lane right as another truck came out of nowhere, heading straight toward them. To avoid a head-on collision, he yanked the wheel to the left, inadvertently exposing the side of the car containing Bruley to a near-fatal crash.
Bruley and Kerrigan were rushed to the hospital, where Kerrigan, who suffered minor cuts and bruises, proceeded to endure the worst 14-hour period of his life, one in which he did not possess enough Spanish to discern whether his wife was alive or dead. Eventually he learned she was in critical condition, that she had broken her femur, her hip, and some ribs, and dislocated vertebrae in her lower back. The most serious injury, though, was a contusion to her right frontal lobe—the part of the brain concerned with language, memory, and judgement—which caused shearing, or tearing, of brain tissue underneath. The head trauma was also axonal, meaning it reverberated in her skull, causing bruising in other areas, too. Initially this injury was not apparent, as her head appeared unharmed—the first challenge of what would become a lifelong invisible illness.
Three days later, when Bruley and Kerrigan’s insurance provider sent a small plane to bring them back home to Philadelphia, her behavior became erratic. She kept trying to tear the tubes from her arms, and was making lewd comments about the nurses. This is consistent with what doctors call “post-traumatic amnesia,” or PTA, a period of time after brain injury defined by bizarre, uncharacteristic behavior, and especially an inability by the injured to form memories or conceive of their situation. Soon after being admitted to Thomas Jefferson Hospital, she was put into a medically-induced coma and sent into a series of surgeries that involved outfitting her lower back with brackets and her femur with titanium rods. A month later she was transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, where she’d wake from her coma and begin the most treacherous months of her life.
“Your oldest brain wakes up first—your primitive brain,” Bruley tells me of coming out of a coma. She’s sitting on a velvet couch in her sunny Philadelphia loft, her two little dogs, Arnold and Potato, napping to her left. It’s been seven years. Her posture is a little stiff, and her words come slowly, methodically, as if she were reciting them from memory. “Your primitive brain… reproduces, eats, sleeps.” She pauses, looking for one more: “Prevents death.” It’s the part of the mind in control of base instincts like fight-or-flight, and she spent her first weeks at Magee like that, not understanding why she was there, dizzy with terror and confusion. She has no memories of this time, as the brain’s recording function is turned off during PTA, but it’s been recounted to her by her family and team of doctors.
How long a patient stays in PTA is said to be the best measure of the brain injury’s seriousness—under one hour is considered mild, anything over 24 is severe. Bruley’s lasted for three weeks, a period during which doctors were focused on reassuring her safety and repeating basic truths, like that she had been in an accident and was in the hospital. At some point, she started retaining small pieces of information, a sign that other parts of her brain were waking up. Her doctors called this “clearing.”
“I think they meant it as her clearing stages,” Kerrigan tells me over the phone. “They would always say, ‘She has cleared.’ And the next day, ‘She has cleared again.’ Eventually, she got over some kind of hurdle and she now knew who her sisters were.” But there was no single climactic return to mental form for Bruley, not like in the movies. Although she always remembered Kerrigan, something they both point out with quiet pride, most of her memories were gone. Tessa Hart, PhD, an expert in rehabilitation for traumatic brain injury, says this kind of loss is unusual, but that no two brain injuries are the same. Bruley had to relearn the rhythms of conversation, the days of the week, the meaning of expressions like “no strings attached” (one she’s finally nailed after much repetition). More than that, she had to reacquaint herself with her former life: her friends, her family, her apartment. A process of self-discovery brought to its physiological extreme.
Forget & forgive
Bruley was born in 1983 in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. She was a silly, energetic kid, riding bikes, playing basketball, trying to make her family laugh. Her early teens were a bit more turbulent. “I went through many phases—found punk rock, got kicked out of Catholic school, ran away, the whole deal,” she says. Things changed when she landed at a public high school, where she blossomed, made great friends, and played field hockey. At Drexel she studied Dramatic Writing, where she combined her love of words with a new passion for film. Her twenties hit a lot of familiar beats: She interned, worried about making the most of her career, got married, balanced her paid work with hobbies like comedy, art, thrifting, and exploring Philadelphia.
Then, at 30 years old, when cultural mythology says all that will coalesce into a sum greater than its parts, Bruley forgot who she was. When she arrived home from the hospital, everything was unfamiliar. What is the identity of this person with this name and this apartment? she remembers thinking. Who chose this haircut? Her apartment was filled with old records, her closet with vintage knits and dresses. From this, she gathered she liked old stuff—an affinity that, along with painting and storytelling, has become one of her strongest threads of continuity with her former self. Today she’s wearing camel cords and hi-top Converse, a cream sweater layered over a red-striped turtleneck, and her hair in a messy bun with thick bangs. “My sense of style, everyone will tell you, is exactly the same as before,” she says. It’s hard to imagine a more acute achievement of authenticity.
She shows me a photo album her family made for her to study those first months, a reference guide to her loved ones. It has an orange fabric cover gently scratched and stained from use. It’s filled with men and women and kids I don’t recognize; a perception I imagine Bruley once shared. On the first page are photos of her with her husband and dog. “Abigail & Ryan & Arnold,” the label reads. On the next are pictures of her with her mom and two older sisters, dressed up for a fancy event she doesn’t remember attending. A man with gray hair and glasses in a red sweater smiles warmly—“DAD.”
She shows me a note she wrote to herself early on, blue pen on an old Simpsons Post-It: “It takes a lot longer than you think,” it reads, and on the other side: “Keep starting over.” She doesn’t have much from this time—“I got rid of a lot of my stuff because I was like, I’m done being brain-injured,” she says. But what’s left tells an interesting story: A black weighted vest she had to wear to rebalance her center of gravity, which shifted in the accident (“It sounds poetic but it’s actually real”); a small printed-out photo of Mary Tyler Moore making a fist and a wince, saved by Bruley for its perfect embodiment of how she felt; a painting she made about brain injury. In the painting, a dark, ominous cloud fills the canvas, lightning striking from its center. A small woman watches motionlessly from a chimney below, a slingshot in her hand and a propeller attached to her back. “It’s the only painting I just can’t seem to sell,” Bruley says. “I think it’s because I’m supposed to hold onto it.”
Her pre-accident life isn’t a blank page. Some memories have returned to her over the years, especially those associated with intense emotions. She doesn’t remember her wedding, but she does remember being proposed to (“that feels more important”). She’s accessed these recollections through doing memory-recall work with her therapist, and through exposure to triggers like photos, stories, or either of those things in repetition. But she says there are an infinite number of memories she’ll never retrieve, and even if she did, they likely wouldn’t be enough to stitch together the narrative arc of her former life.
This doesn’t distress her nearly as much as it does me, a writer who hoards memories like infinitely shrinking nesting dolls. And as I try to tease out the specifics—does she remember graduating college? What about meeting her husband?—I struggle to conceal how devastating I think it all sounds. But over and over, she meets my questions with a gentle disinterest, forcing me to reckon with the idea that identity isn’t quite so linear. That losing your old stories could be neutral rather than catastrophic. It’s also difficult, I realize, to mourn something you cannot recall, and Bruley has no desire to think her way into melancholy. Her loss registers more like a mental hurdle. She does not listen to old songs, she does not wonder what she’s forgotten. She only looks ahead.
“Remembering your past is useful if it helps you recognize patterns within yourself,” she concedes. “But I need all my energy to build this new life. I don’t want to waste energy trying to remember that old life. That seems like heaviness I don’t really need to be concerning myself with.”
Heaviness would be medically inadvisable. “Once brain-injured,” she explains, “you don’t heal back to where you were before, it’s not like a broken leg. It’s a disability like any other.” This means the separation between “old Abigail” and “new Abigail” is more than one of differing data sets. How she thinks, talks, and processes have been permanently altered. By many estimations this makes her life more difficult—“old Abigail” was a freelance writer, “new Abigail” struggles to put complex ideas to words; “old Abigail” liked to go out, “new Abigail” can’t handle too much stimulation. Whether as a means of survival or through some miraculous force of personality, however, she sees these shifts as opportunities.
“I most likely think vastly differently [from before],” Bruley says. “But setting back to zero—fading back in from black—means a natural revealing of reality as it is, a close-up of truths.” “Old Abigail” never would have had the pleasure.
Still, her life these days is carefully organized around her brain: what it wants, what it needs, what it can and can’t handle. I imagine this is something like monitoring the temperature in the room, or how often you breathe. There are certain realities I’d rather accept and forget forever, like my ability to absorb new information until my brain burns to a crisp and sends me to bed. Bruley doesn’t have that luxury. Her mental capacity must remain a focus for the sake of her safety and ability to live a reasonably normal life, and that’s made her an expert in what you might call “cognitive self-care.”
Slowing down by design
Bruley and Kerrigan’s apartment is one big, industrial room. There are leafy plants everywhere, crowded book shelves, a velvet couch next to a leather couch next to a leather chair. Light pours in from five eight-pane windows. There are records, trinkets, little pieces of art nestled in corners. Their bedroom is tucked behind a curved pony wall, like something out of a TV show about friends living in New York City. Except we’re in Philly and here it doesn’t feel so unrealistic.
We sit in their living room on separate couches for hours, exchanging words carefully. Talking to her is pleasant. She’s kind, thoughtful, a bit chilled-out like a stoner. In many ways she resembles someone neurotypical, but the subtle differences amount to something significant. We meet at 11 a.m., when she’s mentally strongest. Barely audible classical music floats through her speakers because “it’s brain-injury-friendly.” When I fail to space out my heavier questions, we pump the breaks. Get a tea. Take a beat. Sometimes she’s exuberant and verbose, other times careful and unsure, pausing often to ask, “What’s the word?” She’s accepting of her wavering energy, doesn’t apologize, asks for what she needs. It’s around the one-hour mark, nestled into her vintage furniture, that I realize that there is a lot to learn from Bruley. That her modus operandi may be one of medical necessity, but broken down for parts, it isn’t so different from self-respect.
Consider her relationship with consumption. Due to her processing limitations, Bruley must be hypervigilant about what she takes in. Whereas most people budget time regardless of their energy, she does the opposite, safeguarding her energy like a precious resource. This means looking forward instead of back, committing only to things in which she finds purpose, dropping lines of thought that don’t serve her. Anything less is a threat to her wellbeing.
In her first year of recovery, a psychologist advised her to pare down her Facebook friends. “We went through my feed and unfollowed or unfriended anything or anyone that wasn’t interesting to me or beautiful to look at or helpful,” she says (would that I could). She’s unable to binge-watch TV, so she chooses episodes and movies carefully, watching them in short chunks, and not often. She doesn’t do well with the endless scroll of online shopping, or the aimless wandering of thrifting, so today she buys with intention: “The only way I can shop now is to get something in my mind that I want and search for that one thing.”
She requires a lot of quiet. While many of us internet-dwellers go to great, toilet-scrolling lengths to avoid being alone with our thoughts, Bruley needs to create that space for herself. The relaxed schedule and stretches of undistracted time have led her to meditation study. It helps her process her thoughts. Even her conversational training has had a zen-like effect on her worldview. “The steps to turning every human interaction into a connection is remembering the steps,” she says. “Pause, relax, open, trust emergence, listen deeply, speak the truth. Six steps.” Trust emergence is her favorite. It reminds her to enter conversations without expectation or assumption. If you shine Bruley’s coping mechanisms through a wellness prism, they look a lot like healthy habits.
But if her life is beginning to sound like a day at a Goop retreat, I’ve overstated it. Bruley’s days require an incredible amount of forethought. “If we are going to dinner with friends on a Saturday night,” Kerrigan tells me, “we’re not doing anything Saturday morning or afternoon. We may be taking a nap. We’re certainly not doing anything Friday night and we’re probably not doing anything all day Sunday. All of that just so we can go to dinner on Saturday night with a few friends for two hours.” This frustrates him only insofar as it’s hard for others to comprehend, especially when Bruley seems just fine. This is one of the challenges of invisible illness, and why Bruley carries a card in her wallet that says “I am a person with a brain injury,” with her name, address, and a list of symptoms on the back, including poor coordination, slurred speech, sensitivity to light and sound. (She says she’s never used it, but has been tempted when people are assholes.)
Kerrigan is otherwise unfazed. “She’s my best friend and I want to spend time with her and I want to be with our friends with her,” he says. “If this 20-point checklist needs to happen for us to do that, well, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Over the course of our phone call, Kerrigan’s indefatigable support of Bruley strikes me as more romantic than any mid-budget romcom about memory loss I’ve ever seen (Overboard, The Vow, 50 First Dates, to name three of literally dozens). “I still see that person that I met 15 years ago,” he tells me. “If she’s different now, I’m ignoring that in a way. From the moment all this happened our whole entire world fell to pieces. If it feels anything like it did 10 years ago that’s a massive compliment to the two of us. This is a person I deeply love and I’m going to find those things again in her.”
Still, weathering this kind of storm changes you as a couple, and last year they sought out counseling. “At first, he was my caretaker,” Bruley says. In fact, a whole team of people were tending to every aspect of her recovery, but Kerrigan’s life had been up-ended, too. “He was greatly ignored because I took the spotlight for so long, and then it wasn’t until last year, when one of my wounds kind of brushed up against one of his wounds and some conflicts started happening.” Talking to someone proved transformational, and Bruley’s since become a public advocate for couples counseling following traumatic brain injury—even before people may think they need it.
Moving on, in earnest
Before I head back to New York, Bruley and I walk to a cafe down the street from her apartment for lunch. “They have an exciting menu that is slightly disappointing when it actually arrives at the table, is my review,” she says (this turns out to be perfectly astute). The pop music here is loud and I worry it will bother her, but she seems okay.
Our conversation turns to writing. Bruley used to be a freelance writer and editor, covering fashion, culture, and music for various digital publications. But her expressive aphasia—which she describes as “knowing what I mean to say but not being able to say it with words”—sounds almost like a diagnosis for writer’s block. A year and a half after the accident she tried to return to her career and was fired from multiple jobs. This was heartbreaking. Ever since, she’s turned to more visual forms of storytelling, like film and painting, which are more in tune with her creative sensibility post-accident. In seven years, she’s written and directed three short films (all of which you can watch on her website).
There’s a humorous element to all of them, but she says she’s mostly parted ways with comedy. Whereas “old Abigail” was sarcastic, quick-witted, and in the middle of making a sketch comedy series with her friends, she’s since lost her taste for that kind of humor. “There’s a superiority attached to sarcasm,” she says. “Like a pretension.” At one point she uses finger quotes to explain something then immediately apologizes. She hates finger quotes. She thinks they’re patronizing.
Dr. Tessa Hart says this aversion isn’t unusual for someone with a brain injury of the right frontal lobe, where language pragmatics are stored. “Language pragmatics are things like your tone of voice in speaking and listening,” she says, “understanding and being able to express things using tone of voice, getting humor, getting subtleties, getting the social parts of language—not the actual words and phrases, but more their connotation.”
Bruley still can’t work full-time—her mental energy is incompatible with a 9-to-5—but she finds the freelance projects she does at home fulfilling. She’s also currently training to teach mindfulness, loves to cook and look after the house and dogs. Her life these days is one of calm precision. It’s also one of constant adjustment and renegotiation, not just of her time and energy, but of her life story. It can be hard to fathom the loss of one’s narrative arc, or the kind of self-mythologizing implicit to looking back. Early on though, she learned the challenges were not her enemy; her own resistance to them was. “Change is difficult for people, period,” she says. “But resistance is what stops people from embracing the strategies they need to make or build change.” Bruley no longer resists. Instead, she’s soft with herself, and she believes this is the difference between knowing one needs to grow and actually doing it.
That Bruley’s compensatory strategies for dealing with brain trauma feel so culturally and emotionally relevant to everyone may seem coincidental, but Dr. Hart isn’t surprised by the connection. She references the concept of “universal design,” a principle which asserts that things designed for people with limitations are better for everyone. It’s most often applied to products, like OXO kitchen gadgets that have big handles for arthritic hands that are actually easier for all hands. But she thinks it can be applied to the rehabilitative process for brain injury, too: “Things that help you calm down, reduce your anxiety, and give meaning to your life; the love, support, and patience of other people—those help everybody.”
It took time for Bruley to see her accident as an opportunity rather than as a deterrent, and the fact that she eventually did is a testament to the impact of working with rather than against oneself. “There’s a reason why you are how you are,” she says. “Don’t give yourself a hard time about anything. Because it all really leads back to something tangible.”
For her, it leads back to a left turn she hoped might save some time but that ultimately saved her life. This is why she is how she is, and maybe, if you change some of the details, it’s why I am how I am, or you are how you are. We could spend our time sifting through the particulars, assigning blame or regretting things didn’t turn out differently, but Bruley thinks we’d do better to look ahead. Be soft. Write new stories.
Photos by Alexa Quinn.