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Drew Magary on what happened after the lights went out

"The Night The Lights Went Out" by Drew Magary
Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
"The Night The Lights Went Out" by Drew Magary

Over the years, we’ve talked with Drew Magary about sports, science fiction, walking and much more. The last time we talked almost didn’t happen at all.

Three years ago, Magary collapsed after hosting the Deadspin awards ceremony in New York City. Lucky to live, he wound up in a coma, and had to fight back from brain damage, hearing loss, the loss of smell, changes to his mood, and other challenges. Magary’s new memoir of his life since that harrowing experience is called “The Night the Lights Went Out: A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage.”

There's a mystery at the heart of this book, which is, what actually happened to you? And you never really find out 100%. So what questions do you still have about that night?

Actually, I don't have any. You know, in theory it's a book about the fact that I suffered this brain hemorrhage and doctors and the people who saved my life at the time, no one can quite figure out how or why it happened, because I collapsed in a hallway. And no one was in the hallway at that time. And my coworker, Jorge Corona, looked away from me for a split second from another room, and didn't see me collapse, and then looked over a split second later, and then I was down on the floor. So there was never really a good explanation for it. And, you know, if this had been a pot boiler, then I would have really dug down to see if I could get to the answer of that, you know, so it would be like, sort of, like a standard mystery, just happens to be something that happened to me personally.

But ultimately, the book is about me accepting that that will always be a mystery, because I don't think it's something that I can solve, even if I had put all my resources into it. I wrote during COVID, of course. So I think, pretty early on, I was not terribly tortured by the how of why my injury happened, or the why of why my injury happened. Because I was just too interested in recovering. And since my recovery now, I'm still always gonna be in recovery. But I'm in a pretty good spot now. But since then, I've just been pleased with, you know, my progress in that regard. But I think if I went back and did “A Beautiful Mind” thing and start scrawling over my walls about you know, what could have possibly caused this, I think I would just drive myself nuts. And I don't have much interest in doing that.

You lost a lot of time. Because you were out, you didn't have any memory of the event. And there was a lot of activity around you, but you were you laid up. I mean, you were in a coma and so on. How much time did you actually lose?

I lost two weeks. But when I woke up, after my coma, I was still freshly brain damaged. And then you know, the drugs…I was in a medically induced coma, so they had to give me a battery of drugs, including fentanyl to put me into that coma. And during the two weeks, I was periodically taken out of the coma to see if I could tolerate being sentient and I couldn't, and I don't really have much memory of those. And then what happened after I sort of woke up and was taken out of the coma for good was that I alternated between being sort of aware and awake but also hallucinatory, and then other times paranoid, and other times angry. And so it's not a particularly reliable jumble that I have from the remaining three weeks that I stayed in the hospital after the two weeks that I was under.

One thing I really identified with was people who were around you from your job and your life and your friends. They were all desperate to be able to do something for you. And they pretty much didn't know what to do you know. You had people bringing in junk food and trying to contact the old Drew somehow while you were while you were out. Anyone who's had loved ones in the hospital or something like that, sometimes all you can do is just kind of wait.

Yeah, you feel helpless. I just had happen. I had a friend pass away, and you feel you want to do something and you don't know what to do and then you feel bad that you don't know what to do. Everybody wants to feed to feed a problem and then you give a tray of cookies to the bereaved and you know, they've got 50 other trays of cookies sitting around the kitchen. It's hard to sort it out and, you know, that's part of the process for anyone who's been through injury like me, you know, is you know, I had to learn how to be a disabled person and be someone who, you know, who had a brain hemorrhage but also the people around me had to learn what are the best actions to take in an emergency?

Those are just life lessons that you learn along the way. Nobody is ready for that. My wife was 43 and I was 42 when I was stricken down, and I was 42. So you know, she was not really prepared for that to happen. And of course, I wasn't either. Nobody gave me a sheet of paper that said, Oh, hey, you know what, you're gonna collapse in the hallway, and your life's gonna be completely different from now on.

She's really the unsung hero of this book. But also, I mean, of your survival to a certain degree. You were several states away from where you live, no one knew what had happened, let alone what the prognosis was, and she had to relocate with your three kids and kind of figure out how to get you better.

She did, yeah, she had to do all of that. And it's just very taxing. Like, it's not only the emotional strain of it, but also the logistical strain, you know, like you have to fill out God knows how many forms, you got to make God knows how many phone calls because of the health insurance. There are other logistical matters, you got to do financial planning, and all this stuff. So there's a lot of like, horrible grunt work you have to do all in the midst of this turmoil. But she did it.

I think the worst tendency that guys have is to say my wife is a saint, you know, because it's like, I get to be the bad person, and she, you know. But my wife was like, a, just a good human being and a good person. And just someone who really did all the right things in an emergency, even though she was, you know, incredibly fatigued, and in shock, and didn't quite know how she was gonna do it. But she put one foot in front of the other and I'll never stop admiring her for that.

Obviously, it was a sudden trauma and a change of routine, but how much did your kids understand the dire straits that you were in?

I don't know how much because they did not see me in the hospital, I believe, until I was out of a coma. But even then, the boys I saw me the hospital and realized this was not very, a very pleasant place to be, and I was connected all these tubes. And, and so they didn't want to stay there for too long. And I think, you know, the kid move is to sort of play it off. Whether you're consciously doing that or not, you just sort of, you know, you on the surface, it doesn't look like it's affected you much. And then it comes out later, or comes out some other time. And it came out with my older son. And I think it came out of my younger son at times too, and my daughter after the fact. So my wife did all that she could to essentially protect them from the really the details of it. Of course now it's in book form, and my daughter wants to read it so I have to sit down with her and ask her, Do you really really want to know this stuff? Because if you don't want to, that's OK, too.

She's a teenager now, right?

Yeah, she's 15.

Yeah, so I mean, there's probably some stuff in there she doesn't want to know but she's definitely old enough to handle it.

She's old enough to handle it for sure. But also you know, she gets to be a carefree teenager. She should honestly get have the right to be as self-obsessed as any other teenager so you know, if it's gonna cause her anxiety to read it. She's had anxiety in the past, so if it’s going to cause her anxiety to read about me and think, Oh that could happen to me, this could happen to people I know just out of the blue because it really was out of the blue, there was no warning sign that this would happen to me. I don't want that hanging around her if she feels like she is unable to put it out of her mind and just go back about her teen business after the fact.

There's something very human in this book, which is, you were extremely fortunate just to survive and you write later in the book about this state of nothingness that that you entered for a while. But then you did live and it led to all of these challenges and you know, kind of picayune annoyances that go with everyday life, except now you had all these multiple physical challenges to overcome. And it's very funny to me that, you know, the bliss of having lived doesn't necessarily carry you through the paperwork you've been mentioning.

No, cuz life is a pain in the ass, right? So it's like, yeah, I lived but Oh, god, no, I can't hear anything. This sucks. Like, you're in this weird spot where, you know, I was grateful to be alive. And I was told repeatedly that I should be grateful to be alive, which was true, but I also sort of internally resented it. Because I wanted the right to, you know, live like any other person who has whatever beefs they have with life in general. I wanted the right to have that. And I didn't want to just skip around all day behind, so lucky to be alive and all that stuff because there were things that were things I had to tend to, you know. And what happened was, once I tended to do those things, and learned to live within my new skin, I was much more grateful to be alive, and I am more grateful today. So it's weird, that gratitude, you think it would be there right off the bat after coming back from you know, your dance with the reaper, but it was a much, much longer process than that.

If you had to give yourself like a percentage today, as far as how much you've regained, what number would that be?

I mean, it's hard to say because, like, you know, like, like, I still can't smell so, you know, like, that's 0% you know, that, that part of me, But also I've learned to live as a person who can't smell. So it's not that I’m this tank that fills up or anything like that. It's more like the in the engine is new, that's inside here, and I had to learn how to operate it. So in that regard, I'm operating as well as I can, yeah, I'm 100% for a guy who can't hear out of one ear and can't smell and tastes a little different than I used to be able to taste food. But otherwise, I feel as physically and mentally good as I ever have.

Reading about your cochlear implant, I was curious if you saw the movie “Sound of Metal.”

I did see it and I thought was a great movie. Even though my experience with cochlear implants was much, much different than the movie depicted. So there are parts during the movie where I was like, well, that's wrong. But I knew why they were doing it in terms of, for narrative economy, and things like that. And also because I know that my experience with cochlear implants is not necessarily universal among people who've gotten them. I know people who've gotten cochlear implants and not had success with them. So in my case, it was a it was a miracle, it was an absolute miracle and I am still in awe that I was able to get one and have it work so well. In the movie, the cochlear implant’s a villain and does not work terribly well for the protagonist. And it makes for a really compelling story because it's about someone essentially learning to be a deaf person, which I never really did. I didn't really have to do because the implant so it was interesting to see that story told from that perspective, even if I was like, Well, you know, he didn't have to go through any implant training after getting the surgery or anything like that, but I then the movie would have been eight hours long.

Yeah, a half hour built in of him trying the apps out and so on.

Mostly I just wanted to know how he could afford a trip to Paris at the end of the movie.

Drew, you've written a lot throughout your life about drinking, when it's been good and bad for you. And recently on Defector, you said the words for the first time, ‘I am an alcoholic.’ And I was curious how you came to that determination, that one that that applies to you, and number two, that you would say so publicly?

I think just thinking about, you know, when I when I was drinking at the time, it just didn't seem like…I had I had a fairly set definition of what an alcoholic was in my head, someone who really could not control themselves from drinking at any time, you know, drank every morning, you know, drank and drove all the time. When they drank they did horrible things like could not restrain themselves from committing acts of violence or sexual impropriety or things like that. And, that's just not how alcoholism works. It operates differently depending upon who has it. And in my case, I was someone who, you know, got happily blitzed, you know, four nights a week. You know, I didn't get in a car, not after I'd gotten pegged for DUI in 2009. But I was still you know, I'd still lapse back into heavy drinking and enjoying myself in that regard and caring more about the drinking part than perhaps my personal relationships. And that I think is where the definition is a bit more liberal a definition of alcoholic but probably a bit more of an accurate one.

So, you know, I didn't want apply that title to myself without seeming like I was being overly dramatic, which sounds absurd, right? And I told my wife that she I don't think she quite knew the extent of my drinking because like I would sneak swigs from a vodka bottle, or, or from a bourbon bottle at night, like if I just felt like cutting out the middleman and getting it into me. And you know that's not terribly restrained behavior when you're dealing with alcohol. And I remember thinking about the amount I drank, and, you know, what it probably did to my body, and what to potentially do to my brain, you know, it's potential that that is the reason I had my hemorrhage. So all of those things, you know, whether or not…I wasn’t drinking 30 packs, and then, you know, going motorcycle jumping, like, every night or anything like that. But I was drinking in a way that was hurting myself. And that seems like as close to a definition of alcoholism as you can get.

It was a cold turkey situation for you to stop. Because after this traumatic brain injury and hemorrhage it was just something you can't do anymore. But are there things that you have to do now to make sure you don't drink? Or was it just one day you switched off the light switch?

I mean, in the beginning, it was very testy, like, especially right around cocktail hour, right? Like, right, like, right around 5 o'clock, like on a Friday, like and I had to sit at dinner, and like drink like water, like I was very pissy about that. But then it went away. One day at a time is, you know, the mantra of AA and for any recovering alcoholic, and, you know, it sounds like an existential thing. But really, it's just a practical matter where it's just OK, you know, you get up this day, and the only thing you have to worry about is this day for not drinking, and you get through this day without drinking. And, you're like, Oh, I got to the end of this day, that wasn't so bad. And then it's very practical. And then as you go everyday going forward, it, it becomes less, you become less aware of the one day requirement and just sort of fades away, and you're just someone who just doesn't drink anymore. But at the beginning, you know, you sort of, you know, there is that, that, you know that that tug, you know, I was sort of tempted and drank and interested in it. But also knew what had just happened to me. And not every, not every person who has an intervention has one quite that drastic. So, you know, I was always thinking about what had happened in the back of my mind. And that always was always plenty to keep me from touching a bottle again.

When you did head back to Maryland, from your extended hospital, stay in New York City, you are very anxious to start working again, as soon as you could. And you're a very prolific writer and publisher online, in addition to your books. Did it take any time for the writing to come back? Did you face new challenges in that respect of your comeback?

No, no, whatever, whatever brain damage I had suffered, that part of my brain was left intact, I could still write. My mood at the time colored my writing. So in other words, you know, my, my lack of anger control. And this is very funny, because, you know, I used to be jokingly angry in print all the time. But I was working as a political writer in 2019. Covering the Trump administration and stuff like that, and my visceral anger toward them, however justified, came out onto the page, you know, with without much in the way of restraint. And you know, that was a reflection of who I was as a person at the time. But that was, again more about who I was then my writing itself. I don't think my writing really suffered I mean, your writing, in general can get rusty or repetitive or formulaic, in certain ways as you get through your career, and I and I tried to be conscious of that. But in terms of the injury, I don't feel like I've lost much in that regard. And hopefully the book proves that. Right? It would suck if the book happened to serve as existential proof I couldn't write more.

You say in the book that, unlike the cliché, you didn't wake up and have this bucket list of things that you wanted to check off now that you had a second lease on life. How come?

Because there’s too much to do! You can run around like a chicken with your head cut off, trying to mark off, you know, 1000 things because you don't want to have FOMO on your deathbed because you didn't go see the Taj Mahal and you have to accept that, you're not gonna be able to do everything, right. And that's fine, there's still an endless supply of new things that you can do. Until the day you die, and you'll be left, you'll die without having done certain things, but you'll still have done a lot and you'll still have been fulfilled and happy So I don't I don't think in those terms anymore. There are some things I want to do. And they're still goals I have, but they're not as you know, they're not as tied to, you know, however I identify my deathbed legacy or whatever because I'll be too dead to care after that.

Has this experience given you any insight into the big questions of life and death? Like, why we're here and that kind of thing?

I mean, the why we're here part, no, because I'm very agnostic about that. Like, I just think of it in terms of science and in terms of, you know, quantum physics and, you know, evolution and things like that. I don't think of it in terribly spiritual terms. I'm a bit and you'll notice from the book, I'm a bit overly dramatic and feeling as if I really did see death, which is probably not true. My heart did not stop. It got real close to stopping, but it didn't stop. My lungs stopped. And so I have a different, I have different thoughts about death, after what happened, but in terms of the meaning of life itself, I've always felt that, you know, just endeavoring to sort of explore that question is the point, if that makes sense. It's about the journey, not the destination, so I'm OK as with many things, not having a concrete answer. Like I'm not gonna be 80 years old, and be like, oh, oh, I've got it. It's to watch lots of TV. It's different things for different people. And that's what makes it so cool.

Does a big Vikings win or loss hit differently now?

No, that's still the same I'm still pissy if they lose for like, you know, sort of a few hours afterwards, then I get over it. And then I'm all right. And then I'm very, very elated after they win. And it keeps me all light and airy after that. But again, the aftereffects are not terribly long lasting. You know, it's like it's a sugar rush.

You mentioned watching a lot of TV. You're developing a TV series right now. What can you tell us about that?

I can't tell you anything about it right now. But if it ever happens, then I'm gonna tell you everything about it. And I'm gonna be like, hey, Ian can you have me on again so I can promote the TV show?

OK, fair deal. Before we wrap, up question for you. Do you want to remember a guy?

Yeah, let's remember a guy.

David Segui.

David Segui! I remember David Segui! He was good.

I've said this to you before: I'm so glad that you did survive. We're all better off for it. So just keep on writing and keep on going.

Thank you so much, Ian. It never gets old to have people say that to me. It's always very, very kind and it's always a good reminder that I have what I have. So I really cannot thank you enough for saying such nice things.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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