Drew Magary processes his recovery from a traumatic brain injury in a new memoir
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
One night in December 2018, the humorist and novelist Drew Magary had just hosted a comedy event and was at a karaoke bar in New York City celebrating. He performed "You Got Lucky" by Tom Petty - that's a good tune - in front of a roomful of co-workers from Deadspin, the sports website. Next, he crammed down a slice of pizza, grabbed a Miller Lite and walked through the hallway to the men's room. And then he collapsed. Magary hit his head so hard that he cracked his skull in three places and suffered a catastrophic brain hemorrhage. "The Night The Lights Went Out" is his riveting memoir of that night and the long recovery ahead. And he joins us now to talk about it. Hello.
DREW MAGARY: Hi, Lulu. Pleasure to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pleasure to have you. I want to start with that night because it was not a given that you were going to survive, let alone be in any shape to write a book about what happened to you, right?
MAGARY: That's correct. The surgeon I talked to, Dr. John Curdy (ph), who operated on me, told me when I interviewed him for the book that in general, it's an injury that you can survive if you've gotten an operation within four hours of it occurring. My collapse was right around midnight that night, and I wasn't operated on for various reasons, not until after 6 a.m. that morning. So I was well past the acceptable time for him to survive it. And in general, subdural hematoma sufferers - they have a 50-50 shot at living. And in my case, from all sort of anecdotal evidence and how I presented at the hospital, it appeared to be even less than that. My family did not think I was going to come through. And then I did. So I'm quite pleased I defied the odds there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were in a coma, though, for two weeks. What happened after you fell? There was a lot that went on that you were completely unaware of.
MAGARY: There was. So I was in a medically induced coma, and what I didn't know about medically induced comas is that they are not consistent. You know, they don't say, OK, we're going to put you to sleep for two weeks. And then presto, you're awake, and you're OK. They put you to sleep. They occasionally take you out of sedation, as I was during that two-week period. I have no memory of being brought out of sedation. All I was told was that whenever they did it, I would go full Frankenstein and try to tear tubes out of my head and would succeed occasionally, forcing nurses to scramble. You know, I'm accustomed to comas - I think of them as, like, "Sleeping Beauty." Like, you know, you fall asleep. You're lying there peacefully. And then the prince comes and gives you a kiss. And up you go, and you go about your merry way. That's not what happens at all. And I'm quite annoyed about that. I would prefer it be that way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so there's, like, two parallel tracks to what happens next. There's your own physical recovery. You have to go to rehab unit. You're sort of discovering the damage that has been done. You were depressed after you got out of the hospital. You were irritable with your family. You didn't feel grateful to have survived like everyone told you you should. But there's also this other thing, which is having to deal with medical bills, having to deal with what happens to your family and to your kids, the fight to get compensation. And it's what so many Americans have to deal with when they face something like this.
MAGARY: That's right. And I was one of the lucky ones because my insurance covered the bulk of my brain surgery. And they covered hearing aids, which, basically, no insurer does. And I can't tell you how much I learned about how many Americans suffer from hearing loss and don't get it treated, either because they're too proud or because insurers won't pay for hearing aids. And it sucks. Like, the damage that causes is so pronounced. I swear to God that if we could get more people proper hearing aids, we would have a lot better things going on. And that sounds very generalized and very stupid. But I know from personal experience that having my hearing improved after the fact, by hearing aids and by a cochlear implant, I would not be here talking to you right now in a relatively cheery and happy state. I just wouldn't.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you became deaf in your right ear. You lost your sense of smell, at a certain point, your sense of taste, as well. I mean, your fall happened before the pandemic. And now, of course, many, many more people know what it's like to lose their sense of smell and taste.
MAGARY: That's right. I'm the pioneer.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you describe what that feels like to someone who doesn't know what it's like to lose a sense?
MAGARY: It's devastating on two levels. One is that you can't taste anything, right? Everything tasted like rice cakes to me for a certain period. And the other thing is getting people to empathize with you is nigh impossible because they aren't suffering the losses that you've suffered. I can't tell you to turn your tongue off, so you know what's going on, you know, in my mind as I try to eat, like, a piece of pizza that is not registering with my mind. That, I think, is the hardest thing, apart from just the sensory deprivation.
You know, it's important to be able to smell things not only because, you know, you want to be able to smell farts, and you also won't be able to smell gas leak if it's going to blow up your house. But also, just all of the evocative and existential things that come with smell, how deeply it's tied to memory and, of course, to taste and how much those memories are formative in the bulk of your identity. You know, to lose those things, it's, where do I build my identity now? What - you know, I have no foundations for this anymore. What do I do? How do I - you know, how do I build a new self with so few tools at my disposal?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What I'm wondering is when you're talking about this thing of how it displaces who you are, what comes through in this book that is so interesting is how you build yourself back from something like this, how you piece together the new Drew. I guess this is an unfair question, but do you prefer parts of this Drew now because you've had to do so much change and work?
MAGARY: I think now, yes, because it's nice for me to think that I can have a better life now, even after I've been through what I've been through and that my brain, wonderful organ that it is, rewired itself to live the life that I want to live inside this body that I have. So it took a long, long time. I didn't like this person who I was for a while. But over time and with a lot of work and with - frankly, with a ton of care from my wife and from the people around me, I was able to accept who I was, learn about the person I was and, ultimately, you know, enjoy being that person, which is cool. It's not a fun challenge, but I feel proud of them for nursing me back to health and me for getting to this spot.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this is a pretty granular exploration of what recovery looks like, how hard it is. Why did you want to take this journey and explore what happened to you on the page like this?
MAGARY: I mean, basically, because it was interesting, right? It sounds stupid, but it's like I have a real icebreaker at parties now. You know, like, I wear a cochlear implant processor on my skull. And if somebody asks me about it - and, sometimes, people are nervous to ask because they think that you'll be offended. But if they ever ask me about it, I love telling them the story. And then they're like, wow, that's what happened to you? Holy smokes. And then we're off and running. And it's - you know, I grew up in college, like, jealous of the other bros that I hung out with because they seemed so - they seemed like they had so many stories to tell, and they told them so well. I finally have a compelling story to tell people. And, of course, I don't like how I happened to get that story, but I knew it was a good story. And so, you know, I'm like any other writer. I know a good story when I see it, and I write it down. Why not?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Drew McGary. He's now a columnist at Defector Media. His latest book is "The Night the Lights Went Out." Thank you very much.
MAGARY: Thank you so much for having me on.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT ON")
MAGGIE ROGERS: (Singing) Keep reaching out, then I'll be coming back. And if you're gone for good, then I'm OK with that... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.