This piece originally appeared on Bed Crumbs.
“Her greatest asset betrayed her.”
Carly said those words with such devastation, such disappointment, such despair. It was 7 on a Friday night and we were drinking vodka and gin and talking about Joni Mitchell instead of weekend plans and our love lives and gossip, things that 20-somethings theoretically should be discussing.
“Can we talk about Joni?” I had asked with a sense of urgency as we sat down to dinner. My mind pleaded that she had read the same earth shattering news I had earlier that day. I didn’t want to be the one to break it to her.
Joni had a brain aneurysm.
Weeks ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I got off the subway at Central Park and glanced at Twitter on my phone. My feed was flooded with news: Joni was in a coma, Joni was on life support, Joni was going to die. My head pounded and I sat down on a bench and tried to process what I was feeling. I blinked back tears. This couldn’t be happening, I thought. Our heroes and legends and visionaries are supposed to be immortal. We couldn’t lose Joni. Not yet.
When I was 8, I took a softball to the face. It was pitched straight at me, hitting the bridge of my nose at an alarming speed. It happened so fast. It was so unexpected. It left me gasping for breath, not only from the pain, but from the shock of it all.
Friday’s news felt kind of like that.
I read the headline at work. The rumors of death had been dispelled, giving everyone a false sense of security. Everything was okay. Everything was fine. Something so gravely serious as a brain aneurysm caught me off guard. I stifled a stunned sob and immediately double checked the source. It was no rumor, like the news a few weeks ago. I then wordlessly got up, slipped into the bathroom, and silently cried.
We have been conditioned to think that death is the worst fear of them all. Death is feared not because it is so finite, but because it reminds us of our own mortality. Every time someone we care about dies, yes, we hurt, we ache, we miss them terribly. We reminisce all of the memories and lament all of the could haves that will go unfulfilled. But we also think, somewhere in the back of our minds, of ourselves. We are reminded that that’s going to be us someday, maybe sooner than we expect.
What we fail to think about, and what we should consider, is that there are fates worse than death.
Our brains are full of arteries, powerful veins connecting the head and the heart quite literally. Nearly 20 percent of the blood flowing from the heart flows to the brain. With this much blood flowing, sometimes an artery can develop weak spots, spots that bulge and become deformed, spots that leave the already delicate brain even more vulnerable, only this time it’s our own bodies that can do the damage. Sometimes aneurysms cause no symptoms. Nearly 1 in 50 people in the United States alone have an unruptured brain aneurysm; it’s not terribly uncommon.
The heart doesn’t know that the brain has been weakened, and it beats madly on. Blood continues to pump through its course. Sometimes, as artery walls take on more wear and tear, the spot grows thinner, and blood, the blood that comes from our own hearts, pumping to our brain to allow us to think and write and speak and sing, becomes the enemy. Pressure increases, aneurysms can rupture, and that same blood escapes into the space around the brain.
A ruptured brain aneurysm requires immediate medical attention. There has been no confirmation that Joni did indeed suffer a ruptured brain aneurysm, but one might assume so from a two month long hospital stay. Unruptured aneurysms are generally treated and recovered from much sooner. It’s catching the time bomb before it goes off versus intense damage control.
Ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal about 40 percent of the time. For those who survive, about 66 percent will suffer permanent neurological damage.
“Speech is difficult, but she’s communicating,” a source says.
A person will never be the same after a brain aneurysm. Their emotions, behavior, and mood change. They’ve lost cognitive abilities they once had, abilities that once made them special. How do you go from being a master of language, able to communicate through words the way others cannot to this?
“Her greatest asset betrayed her.”
Carly’s voice echoed in my ears for days. Sad can’t even begin to describe the emotional weight of those five words.
“It is important to remember that these changes are caused by the aneurysm itself, and not the patient,” warns the Brain Aneurysm Foundation.
How do we do that? How do we accept this fate that is worse than death? We of course rely on our brains for everything, for day to day life, but can you imagine really relying on it? Imagine your brain contained thoughts and poems and images that no other brain had, and suddenly, one day it was gone. That suddenly, there would be a day where you were no longer the brilliant, able-minded person you were before. You just were. Not dead, but certainly not alive.
Carly was right, and it stings to think about it. Joni’s brain is the organ that sets her apart from everyone else. It’s what makes every great artist different. It is, truthfully, an artist’s greatest asset. How shocking to realize that it can suddenly stop working for you, that it can attack itself mercilessly.
In his memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby described the feeling of being a quadriplegic with locked-in syndrome following a massive stroke, the feeling of being a once-brilliant editor resigned to his blinking eye as the only movement his body would allow:
“In the past, it was known as a ‘massive stroke,’ and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony.”
Even without an official statement of how serious Joni Mitchell’s condition is, it has me thinking regardless. How do you believe that things happen for a reason when these things occur? How do you make peace with the artist that was and accept to live your future, however that may be?
We fear death the most.
We fear not that our own bodies, once our champion, can work against us, can sabotage all of the amazing things we’ve done with it, can imprison us within.