The Bizarre Case of Being Trapped Inside Your Body
Jake Haendel spent months trapped in his body, silent and unmoving but fully conscious. Most people never emerge from ‘locked-in syndrome’, but as a doctor told him, everything about his case is bizarre.
By Josh Wilbur / The Guardian
Jake Haendel was a hard-partying chef from a sleepy region of Massachusetts. When he was 28, his heroin addiction resulted in catastrophic brain damage and very nearly killed him. In a matter of months, Jake’s existence became reduced to a voice in his head.
Jake’s parents had divorced when he was young. He grew up between their two homes in a couple of small towns just beyond reach of Boston, little more than strip malls, ailing churches and half-empty sports bars. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 19. By then, he had already been selling marijuana and abusing OxyContin, an opioid, for years. “Like a lot of kids at my school, I fell in love with oxy. If I was out to dinner with my family at a restaurant, I would go to the bathroom just to get a fix,” he said. He started culinary school, where he continued to experiment with opioids and cocaine. He hid his drug use from family and friends behind a sociable, fun-loving front. Inside, he felt anxious and empty. “I numbed myself with partying,” he said.
Despite his worsening addiction, Jake married his girlfriend, Ellen, in late 2016. Early in their relationship, Ellen had asked him if he was using heroin. He had lied without hesitation, but she soon found out the truth, and within months, the marriage was falling apart. “I was out of control, selling lots of heroin, using even more, spending a ridiculous amount of money on drugs and alcohol,” he said. In May 2017, Ellen noticed that he was talking funnily, his words slurred and off-pitch. “What’s up with your voice?” she asked him repeatedly.
On 21 May, a highway patrol officer stopped Jake on his way to work. He was driving erratically, speeding and swerving between lanes. That morning, he had followed his normal routine, smoking heroin before brushing his teeth. It was also normal for him to smoke, or “freebase” heroin while driving, heating the powder on a piece of foil and inhaling the fumes. “I actually got pretty good at that,” he told me. As the officer approached his car, Jake could feel that something was different in his body. He needed to conceal the baggie of heroin, which lay visible in the open centre console, but he couldn’t reach over and close the compartment. His arms flailed uselessly against the dashboard. The police arrested him for possession of a controlled substance.
Jake made bail, but could hardly walk out of the station. In the next two days, his condition deteriorated and, on 24 May, his wife called an ambulance to their home. He stumbled to the front door, leaning on the walls to support himself. The medical responders thought he might be having a stroke, so he was rushed to hospital. Brain scans showed an unmistakable imaging pattern: profound, bilateral damage to the white matter, the bundles of nerve fibres that facilitate communication between different regions of the brain.
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