Head injury was a fact of life for Malek since elementary school, when he slammed his head into a brick wall while roller-skating. Not long after, he noticed his behavior beginning to change. “I was a well-adjusted kid with good parents, a good family, good home, and within a few weeks I developed a terrible temper,” he recalls.
Over the next decade and a half, Malek suffered three additional head injuries, all accompanied by concussion-like symptoms, an increase in the severity of his dark moods, and a host of new ailments, including hypergraphia: an obsessive need to write even when he wished to stop; and jamais vu: a frequent inability to recognize familiar people, places, and even his own face in the mirror. This contributed to a state of mind which led Malek to take up self-mutilation and to attempt suicide on more than one occasion; but for him the worst effects were his impulses to inflict violence against those close to him, which, though they never manifested, had his future fiancée, Shule, hiding kitchen knives.
At age 36, Malek made an appointment at the Amen Clinic, where he came under the care of Dr. Arsalan Darmal, who performed a brain scan that showed trauma to Malek’s left and right temporal lobes, as well as his frontal and parietal lobes. Dr. Darmal prescribed Gabapentin to stabilize the activity of the temporal lobe, and Wellbutrin, an energizing antidepressant. While the drugs were not able to fully do away with Malek’s symptoms, they were enough to bring them under control to the point where his loved ones no longer had to fear for his life, or for their own.
A year later, during a trip to British Columbia with Shule and his two children, Malek lost his medication but thought he would be okay without it. Within a day, the symptoms returned more violently than ever.
As they drove back from the beach, Shule turned on the radio in an attempt to calm Malek, but the easy-listening station only aggravated him. Malek opened the sliding door and stepped out of the family minivan, which was traveling at 45 miles per hour.
“His feet touched the ground for a second but they flew right out. Really his head hit first,” Malek’s 17-year-old son, Taylor, recollects. “When it hit the pavement it made a sound like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was like a gunshot ringing through my head.” Moments later, Shule was on her knees, attempting to staunch the flow of blood spurting from Malek’s head, while his children prayed at the side of the road.
Malek was admitted to Victoria General Hospital in Vancouver, where he remained comatose for six days. On the seventh day, he regained consciousness and the neurologist came to assess the effects of the new damage, expecting to find severe memory loss and a need to relearn speech. Instead, what he discovered was that not only had Malek kept all his faculties, but the symptoms of his original brain damage were gone. For the next few weeks, he suffered from severe physical pain — migraine headaches, a backache, and an ulcer — but Malek’s feelings of depression, rage, and confusion, which had burdened him since elementary school, were now all but absent.
“The machine got whacked and rather than being less functional, everything aligned in a way that was actually tremendously valuable for him,” says neurologist David Simon, co-founder of the Chopra Center, after reviewing Malek’s case. “In the old days, when a television set was not working properly, sometimes you could just smack it, and it would come into focus. It’s hardly scientific, but I think in a lot of ways what happened to Malek is very similar.”
Dr. Darmal agrees, citing cases in which people become calmer and more reasonable following a stroke. “Areas of the brain that were generating an angry impulse get damaged and then shrink over time,” he says. According to Dr. Darmal, because Malek’s left temporal lobe received more damage during his first four injuries, and the right temporal lobe received the bulk of the damage in the final accident, the negative impulse activated by the original trauma had in effect been canceled out.
But what may be the best barometer of Malek’s recovery, more than any medical explanation, are the differences those closest to him have observed. “Touch was not something that’s been really comfortable to Malek. A little bit more of an aggressive touch was alright, but those soft caresses weren’t okay before,” Shule recalled soon after the accident. “Now he was reaching for me in a soft caressing way.”
Malek’s 13-year-old daughter, Demaris, also noticed differences. “He used to always be on the computer and not really want to hang out and snuggle, and now he does.” As for Malek himself, he’s just grateful to have his mind and his life back in his control. “I have more brain damage than ever before, but I feel great,” he laughs. “But successful brain damage is something that very few people get, so I think I’m going to stop here,” he says. “I am very careful now.”