On the Strange Connection Between Brain Damage and Sex Drive
Sarah Vallance Learns to Navigate a Post-Traumatic Life of Desire
The accident had left me with a panoply of subtle and not-so-subtle changes to my personality. Beyond the extreme chair-destroying volatility I’d acquired, the new me found it hard to think, hard to concentrate, hard to remember. Everything I had taken for granted before the accident was an effort. The new me was bedeviled by the knowledge that I was stupid. My personality had been sabotaged by depression and anger. I had trouble adjusting to my new life. I was party to an arranged marriage with someone I didn’t much like.
Following my accident, I had locked myself away from the world. My mother’s lack of interest in my welfare had hurt me deeply. What kind of monster must I have become for my mother to have abandoned me?
I was sociable, if shy, before my head injury and enjoyed the company of others. It usually took a couple of glasses of wine for me to become talkative, but I was friendly, I laughed a lot, and I loved nothing more than making others laugh. Alcohol had always been an important part of my social life, and my closest friends reported that I was a lot more fun after a few drinks than I ever was sober. I was not lacking in sharp edges—those who knew me well would probably have described me at times as dogmatic, stubborn, or even acerbic—but I had a healthy reserve of charm at my disposal. Post-injury, my charm vanished. So did my sense of humor. It didn’t seem like there was much to laugh about. I had no interest in seeing my former friends; doing so only reminded me of everything I had lost. I would rather be at home with George and Bess and a bottle of wine than out with friends or, worse, trying to make new friends.
I lost the art of socializing. I drifted away from people I had just met, unable to keep a conversation going. Soon after I got the job in aged care, a colleague who had done her best to befriend me told me I ran hot and cold. One moment I could be immersed in conversation, and the next I’d be in what she described as “shutdown mode.” I apologized and told her I was distracted by something in my personal life. That I hadn’t meant to be rude. In truth I had no idea how I came across to other people. That was why I tried to avoid them. When I relaxed, my mind wandered into cul-de-sacs, where the only word that accurately described my state was “stupefaction.” It would take a very patient and persistent person to become my friend.
My impulse control vanished. I acquired the frightening ability to speak before thinking, blurting out comments that were insensitive or rude. I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. On one occasion I was running an errand in the center of Sydney when I saw an old friend from high school. She stopped me in the street and hugged me.
“Sarah! It’s so nice to see you!” she said.
“Maria! You’re supposed to be dead! I heard you had killed yourself!”
Which happened to be true. Another person I went to school with had told an old friend of mine that Maria had taken her life a couple of years before my accident. The words raced out of my mouth, and, as I heard them, I recoiled from myself in horror.
“That was my sister,” she said, looking me over with an expression that suggested I was either evil or crazy or possibly both.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, but the damage was done. I should have told her about my accident, about my problems with impulse control and my inability to hold my tongue. But I was hell-bent on hiding my injury from everyone around me. Maria walked away, and I never saw her again.The job helped mend my battered psyche, and I couldn’t afford to screw it up.
I wanted to find the nearest wall and bash my head against it. Perhaps that would help bring my old brain back. Instead I went home and shared my disgrace with George and Bess, and we cuddled on the sofa. I promised I would leave the house only to go to work.
Somehow, at work, the illusion of someone who was competent and professional held up. When I talked to people over the phone, I kept a notepad in front of me with a series of instructions I had prepared for myself that reminded me to SPEAK SLOWLY!, to LISTEN! and BE POLITE! As tedious as I often found my job, my sense of who I was and who I wanted to be was inextricably linked to work. Slowly I was climbing out from the bottom of a well, trying to rebuild my brain and my life. The job helped mend my battered psyche, and I couldn’t afford to screw it up.
I bounced back and forth between my tiny office and my home, minimizing my exposure to the outside world and concentrating all my efforts on preserving the reputation I was trying to build at work. My only company was George and Bess. I had plugged my phone back in for practical purposes, but I didn’t contact anyone. The only problem with my plan was an unexpected side effect from my injury: I craved sex, and lots of it. Despite the paucity of interest in the subject, the research that exists suggests that most women with traumatic brain injuries lose interest in sex after their injury. One study that surveyed a sample of only 29 Colombian women with traumatic brain injuries found that the majority had “reduced sexual desire, arousal, orgasm function, sexual satisfaction, and lubrication.” That wasn’t my experience.
As my brain began to mend, there was a shocking shift in my sexual appetite. In the past my relationships with men had tended to last for at least a few months. I had never had a one-night stand with anyone. After my father died, I traveled to the Greek isle of Lesbos and met a woman from Amsterdam. We spent two weeks together, and I realized there was absolutely no doubt about it: I was gay. So my exclusive interest in women after my accident wasn’t a huge revelation, but my attitude toward sex had changed dramatically. I no longer wanted to meet a woman and fall in love. Love and sex had become unlinked. I just wanted sex.
Before my accident, I had slept with three women. Maybe four. I had never met anyone in a bar. On the rare occasions I had attempted to enter a lesbian bar, I was turned away. The Sydney lesbian scene in the early 1990s was a tightly guarded community. Once, before my trip to Lesbos, I cajoled a friend from work to come out to a lesbian club with me. The woman at the door ushered my friend inside but stopped me. “Straights are not allowed,” she said. My friend had been happily living with her boyfriend for five years. “How is she ever supposed to know if she’s gay or not if you don’t let her in?” she protested. “Not my problem!” the woman said, holding her arm out to forbid me from entering. The problem seemed to stem from my face. I look frighteningly clean-cut, and I could be mistaken for a Sunday school teacher or the wife of an evangelical preacher—the kind of person who should be home sewing doll’s clothes or baking gingerbread men for school fundraisers, not trolling lesbian bars for a date.
So I had a problem: I wanted to be alone, but I also wanted sex. In order to have sex, I needed to gain entry into a scene that had consistently rejected me in the past. To get past the gates into Sydney’s lesbian bars, I needed a guide.
I gave in and called James, an old friend from my first job in Parliament House, and asked him to take me out. James was the first gay friend I ever had, and the only person I knew who was out at work. Everyone liked him because he had the courage to be himself. Impeccably dressed and fastidious about his appearance, he loved taking me aside and counseling me about my dress.
“Promise me you won’t buy any more clothes unless I’m with you,” he used to say, winking, as if to lessen the blow. It was true that I had no fashion sense whatsoever, and I stayed within the safety of navy, black, and gray skirts or trousers and striped or white business shirts, which I rarely bothered to iron. My appearance did not interest me in the slightest. If my colleagues hadn’t realized it before, they did the day I turned up to work wearing one black shoe and one navy one.
“Why don’t you ever wear makeup?” James asked me once. “Is it just laziness?”
“Partly,” I answered. “And partly because I have no idea how to put it on. I would look like a clown.”
“All you have to do is ask!” he said. “I could make you look gorgeous. If only you’d let me!”
“You know what I mean. More gorgeous.” When I called James out of the blue asking him to take me out on the town, he couldn’t have been happier.
“Where the hell have you been?” he asked as we flopped into two lounge chairs in a corner of the room in a bar on Oxford Street.
“I’m not sure,” I said, and I meant it. James hadn’t heard from me since my father died.
“Are things getting any easier?” he asked.
“No. I still miss him as much as I did when he died. I don’t think it’s ever going to get any easier.”
“It will,” he said, putting his arm around me. “It must.”
For most of our friendship, James knew me as a poorly dressed heterosexual. My recently found gayness was a source of mirth. He insisted I give him an intimate account of my limited history with women.
“Well, who would have thought!” he chuckled, leaning back in his chair. “You’re a lesbian!”My induction into life as an out lesbian and a closeted brain-damage sufferer began.
“I am,” I said, slightly embarrassed. “And I don’t want a relationship, just sex.”
“You want a woman solely for the purposes of having sex?”
“More than one, if possible. A small number would be ideal, so I can rotate them.”
“And they need to be pretty?”
He sucked air in between his teeth and looked around the room. “That might not be as easy as you think.”
The bar was empty but for men.
“You’d better not leave me and run off with someone,” I said. We sat and talked, and drank, and my induction into life as an out lesbian and a closeted brain-damage sufferer began. After about four hours and six Long Island iced teas, we were both drunk.
I stared into the dregs of an empty glass and came to believe that my real love, apart from George and Bess, was alcohol. The drunker I got, the less I thought about sex, and that could only be a good thing.
I was a late starter when it came to alcohol, but I made up for it fairly quickly. I did not drink anything until I was 20 because I didn’t like the taste. I discovered my love for alcohol when I first started work at Parliament House, soon after I graduated. People who worked in politics drank wine with lunch, and then met after work for drinks in the parliamentary bar. Parliament House was home to a large assortment of alcoholics—mostly crusty old men with stained ties; jackets flecked with dandruff; and lank, greasy, combed-over hair.
My drinking went awry when I started working with Tim in Corrections. Fortunately for both of us, we worked together for only a year. Occasionally we would begin drinking as early as 10:30 in the morning when the bar opened at Parliament House. At lunch we would share a bottle of chardonnay—two if we were bored—and somehow, after a few hours’ work, wind up back in the bar at five, and we would drink until it closed. How we ever managed to avoid getting fired remains a mystery. For one year of my life—my 25th year I believe—I behaved like a lunatic.
At a party once, a friend dared me to drink a large bottle of gin on my own; I did it and suffered only a dull headache the next morning. My ability to hold my alcohol was legendary, and friends watched me in astonishment. My parents enjoyed a glass of cask wine with dinner most nights, but they were not big drinkers and I had never seen them drunk. No one in my family had a history of alcoholism. When I was 26 I saw an ad in the newspaper with the headline “Worried About Your Drinking?” I visited a clinic at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where a doctor took notes on my drinking history, drew some blood, and let me know I was well on my way to becoming a full-fledged alcoholic.
I told her I was the only person I knew who had never vomited from drinking. That was something I had always considered to be a badge of honor.
“That makes you higher risk for alcoholism than anyone else!” she said. “You miss all the warning signs.”
She asked me how many drinks I had in a night, and I told her I tried to stop at six. Or eight. But that on Saturday nights that number could double with no ugly side effects. Well, none that I could detect, anyway.
“How many nights a week do you drink?”
“Four or five,” I said.
I told her about the bottle of gin.
“You are an alcoholic,” she said, insisting that a 750-milliliter bottle of gin would kill most people. “Do you really want to die from drinking? It’s not a nice way to go.”
The news that I was already an alcoholic rattled me. Sitting in the chair with the doctor opposite me, I was visited by an image of myself hunched over a shopping trolley stuffed with all my worldly possessions, dressed in filthy clothes, spending every last cent on gin. I pledged to eschew all alcohol for the next year. I lasted about half of that, but I did manage to moderate my alcohol intake somewhat when I started drinking again.
James cast his groggy eyes along the line of women who had entered the bar and were sitting opposite us. “None of those appeal?”
“Sorry.” I shook my head.
“Let’s go out on Sunday. Sunday is lesbian night in Sydney.”
“Thanks,” I said, and hugged him.
I met James on Sunday for dinner at a café on Victoria Street. The place to be, apparently, was a bar not far from Kings Cross railway station.
James looked at his watch. “We’re going to be way too early.”
“Why?” I asked. It astounded me that I had to stay up so late in the vain hope of having sex with someone. Heterosexuality was so much simpler. James and I took our time over dinner and headed to another bar he knew just around the corner before making our way over to the lesbian bar at 11 pm. We sat on stools, getting drunker and drunker, and studied the patrons.
“None of them?” James asked.
Then a new woman appeared. She had shoulder-length blonde hair, brown eyes, and good teeth. She looked at me and smiled. I smiled back. She approached us.
“Hi,” she said.
I returned her greeting. “Would you like to come home with me?” I asked. She turned around and walked away.My problem wasn’t just my unfulfilled desire for casual sex but the puzzling internal conflict it created within me.
James looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“You scared her off!”
“You don’t get it,” he said. “You need to do the legwork!”
“Buy her a drink, take her to dinner. That sort of thing.”
“I don’t want to have dinner with her! Is that what you do every time you see a man you like? Buy him dinner? If we did have dinner, I’d probably lose all interest in her!”
“Girls are different! You have to get to know her!” he said.
“I just want sex! Then, if it’s good, I’m happy to get to know her. I’ll buy her dinner then. What’s the problem with that?”
James thumped his head on the table. “This could take years.” It took a month of going out twice a week before I met an attractive travel agent who actually offered to come home with me. In the taxi on the way back to my place, she stuck one hand inside my shirt and her other hand down the front of my jeans. I liked her immediately. So did the taxi driver, whose eyes were fixed on his rearview mirror. Once home, we headed straight to my bedroom.
“I get excited doing things to you,” she whispered into my ear. I tried to reciprocate, but she pinned me down to the bed. She started to lick me and told me that she could do that all night.
“Go ahead,” I said.
After we had sex—or rather, after I got sex—she told me she’d had a good night. I assumed, in jest, she meant meeting me. “That too,” she said. She had also found a wallet in the street with $500 inside.
“Did you hand it in to the police?” I asked.
She looked at me like I was from another planet. “Why would I do that? If some idiot is stupid enough to lose his wallet, someone is going to take his money. That’s what happens.”
“Yes, silly,” she said, turning to kiss me. Before we fell asleep she told me she had a girlfriend but that they had been fighting.
“Oh,” I said. “Does she know where you are?”
“She’d kill me.”
I slept with one eye open, worried she was going to rob me. I woke before her and made sure my valuables were still where they should be. Nothing appeared to be missing. When she woke, she wanted sex again. Well, her idea of sex, to which I was not averse.
“Can I see you again?” she asked, before getting up and putting her clothes on.
“Good. I like you.”
I smiled. I didn’t like her particularly, but she knew how to find my clitoris, loved sex, was pretty, and had large, perfectly formed breasts that I liked very much. George, who wasn’t an especially good judge of character, refused to leave her side. She tickled his ears and kissed his nose. Bess kept her distance. The travel agent called me later that day.
“Can I come over?” she asked.
But you only just left! I thought. “No. I’m sorry, but I’m really busy,” I said. I needed some time to find and lock away my grandmother’s sapphire bracelet. I toyed with the idea of hiding it in the chimney, but settled on a spot downstairs underneath the floorboards.
“Tomorrow?” she asked.
“Okay.” She arrived at seven o’clock the next evening and led me straight to the bedroom. Too bad she’s a thief, I told myself, but that seemed to be a small price to pay for my sexual satisfaction.
“Do you want to go out and eat?” I asked after we had finished. “There’s a new Thai place up the road.”
“No, I’m happy here,” she said.
We continued to have sex for the next three weeks. I couldn’t explain my sex drive. I was a brain-damaged, sex-crazed lesbian. Only one good thing came of this. The travel agent seemingly never picked up on any hint of my brain damage. It was a good sign. I had reached a point where I could disguise my shortcomings—until someone asked me what a hypothesis was, or to spell “rhythm.”
Then one day we had sex, and when it was done, I decided I never wanted to see her again. It was over. I couldn’t explain what had happened.
“I need to focus on my Ph.D. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all,” I said.
“You used me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. And you do have a girlfriend.” I showed her out. After a final scout through my house, I realized I was missing a jumper she once admired on me and a pair of knee-high boots.
My problem wasn’t just my unfulfilled desire for casual sex but the puzzling internal conflict it created within me. Most of my friends were men. My troubled relationship with my mother had left me with an unconscious hostility toward women. I had a deep well of resentment toward my mother for walking away from me after my accident. And then, when I thought about it, I realized women had caused me grief for most of my life. The only exceptions were my grandmother, who died when I was 11, and one of my high school English teachers.
In both primary and high school, a succession of female teachers seemed to dislike me on sight. I was rambunctious and didn’t like being told what to do. Worse, I struggled to sit still and delighted in distracting everyone around me. Our family doctor had told my parents he thought I was hyperactive. They hoped it was something I would outgrow.
My aversion to authority came from my father.
“How can you be expected to listen to someone you don’t respect?” he asked me after the only parent-teacher night he ever attended.
I looked at him solemnly and nodded. “Exactly,” I said.
“Mind you, I think your English teacher is very good. And she likes you,” he added. My English teacher was a Polish woman in her late 20s. And it was true that I liked her, even more so after she took me aside once and said, “I used to be just like you at school, really naughty. Don’t change!”
Later that night I heard my parents arguing. “Tom, you really aren’t helping matters when you tell her every teacher she has is an idiot.”
“I liked her English teacher!” he said. “And she was the only one who had anything nice to say!”
One evening a couple of months after I stopped seeing the travel agent, I was invited to a birthday party where I met Laura. Laura had a pretty face with full lips, pale-blue eyes, and thick dark hair, and resembled a taller version of Kate Winslet. She was polite and well-mannered and had an excellent sense of humor. I looked at her closely and wondered, What’s the catch?
As the night progressed, we found ourselves engrossed in conversation. When we weren’t talking, we were doubled over in laughter or trying to compose ourselves. I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much in a long time. At the end of the night, when I asked Laura for her phone number, she gave it to me and kissed me on the cheek. I called her the next day and asked her out for dinner.
We met in Bondi at a restaurant by the beach she had been eager to try. Laura was obsessed with good food and wine. I bought her dinner, and we talked until the restaurant closed. She told me about her favorite books, her favorite artists, her interest in design. I told her that I had always wanted to be a writer but that I took a few wrong turns and ended up in aged care. She dreamed of having a furniture shop—selling pieces she had handpicked from around the world and restored. For the first time since my accident, I forgot all about my damaged brain.
We left the restaurant and wandered around the rock pools at North Bondi Beach.
“I have a hypothetical question for you: What would you do if you found a wallet in the street with $500 inside?”
“Call the owner of the wallet if there was a contact number, or hand it in to the police,” she said.
“Would you remove the money?”
She looked at me as though I was crazy. “Of course not!”
“Do you want to come back to my place?” I asked. “We don’t have to do anything, but it would be nice to spend the night together. And you can meet George and Bess.” It was a shocking and genuine request.
“Sure!” she said, and took my arm in hers as we walked back to the road to find a taxi.
She spent that night at my house. I wasn’t seized by the need to lock away my personal belongings. I knew she wouldn’t steal anything.
From Prognosis: A Memoir of My Brain by Sarah Vallance. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Little A. All rights reserved.