Things I’ve Learned After My Fourth Concussion

Brains
“Brains” by Neil Conway via Flickr

On December 28th of 2009 I stepped on what I thought was a puddle. It was a good, confident, I’m-ready-for-this-day-even-though-it’s-six-in-the-morning-and-winter, step. And then I slipped on the “puddle” and fell down (the puddle was ice). And I’ve probably been falling down, one way or another, ever since.

I tried to go to work that morning. I walked in and my co-worker said rather unabashedly, “You look terrible,” and asked what happened. I responded with “I hit my head,” even though it felt like what had happened was so much more significant than that. “I hit my head” makes it seem like I opened the cupboard door on my forehead, or I misjudged the ceiling when I got out of my car. “I hit my head” is something you say right before you erupt into giggles at a sleepover. It’s cartoon characters with jackhammers or unbelievable Hollywood stunts.

If I could have, I would have said something like, “There’s been an earthquake. In my brain. 8.0 on the Richter scale at least.”

I was diagnosed with a moderate concussion and told to take the week off from work. I went home, but I’ll admit that I still did some work. When my brain recovered a few weeks later I marveled at my perseverance–I could read a novel and not remember what happened at the top of the page by the time I got to the bottom, but I could turn in my TPS reports on time, or whatever it was that I thought was so important.

Six years later I understand that what I thought was perseverance was poor judgment.

My second and third concussions were unremarkable. For the second, I slipped on the ice again. For the third, I fainted and hit my head on the way down (we don’t know why I fainted and no, I wasn’t pregnant…). These concussions were unremarkable in that they were mild. The effects were tolerable for the most part, and I was back to my old self within a little over a week.

The fourth concussion was stupid. Dumb luck. The kind of situation that makes you think, really? She’s having this much trouble because of that?

My dog hit me. Like a boxer, he reared up and clocked me right under the chin. Uppercut. I didn’t even fall down. And yet, this injury has tipped the scales of my life in ways that have completely knocked me over.

I have post-concussion syndrome. It’s been over a month since the accident and I still experience dizzy spells, an inability to concentrate (I’ve started calling this “brain squeeze”), stuttering, fatigue, and balance problems. Like my first concussion, I’ve had to turn in “TPS reports” and I’ve made the deadlines. But every time I do my body retaliates. With enough of these moments I’ve come to accept that “returning to my old self” might not happen for a long(er) time, or that maybe my old self was not the kind of self I should return to. (Four concussions, she must not be very bright.)

After quitting side jobs and removing myself from unnecessary obligations, I feel like I’m faced with a blank slate. Even though I’m still having trouble remembering instructions given orally, or I get stuck enunciating words with lots of consonants, my brain is taking in new information. I’m altering my behaviors and trading unhealthy habits for healthier ones (I haven’t eaten a meal at my desk in weeks!). This is what I’ve learned as I recover from my fourth concussion.

The body is a wild, intelligent creature. 

I assume, though I can’t know for sure, that after the injury, when I don’t want to drink coffee, and beer tastes like Scope Mouthwash, it’s my body’s way of saying, “Don’t drink that shit, we’re trying to heal a brain, here.”

If I try to do anything that puts strain on my brain, my body just doesn’t cooperate. Dancing? It’s as if my feet, ankles, and knees are all disconnected from my hips. Typing? Too many words and my fingers just slow down, or stop.

I realize that my body was probably sending me messages like this even before the accident. I was just too distracted to pay attention.

Hard is not the same as bad. 

I quit my side job as a fitness instructor. I taught one class a week on Saturdays. I told myself I was “getting paid to work out” but really, it was just another job because, money(!), and I wasn’t getting especially healthier. I was just maintaining the same level of health I always had. And let’s face it, with my limbs not cooperating that would have been a mess of a fitness class.

That being said, I love my clients. They are wonderful, wonderful people. Choosing to give up this Saturday morning routine, teaching an hour of fitness to a group of women I truly enjoy, was very hard.

But after I made the decision, something happened. I wanted to exercise. I started doing 20 minutes of yoga every morning. I was inspired because it felt like something my body wanted (see lesson above). I had begun exercising in ways that matched my body’s actual abilities rather than what the fitness choreography demanded.

Letting go can mean letting in. 

After I quit the fitness job, I really started to look at my life and ask the question, “What else am I doing out of obligation?” I started saying no to people and to my surprise, they accepted it. No one yelled at me. No one pleaded or begged. I said no and they said okay.

And after I started saying no, new opportunities and hobbies showed up that made me want to say “yes.” I started listening to audiobooks. I can still enjoy a good story, and it’s easier on my brain than reading. After spending so much time recuperating at home I’ve taken pride in my living space. I picked up a few houseplants and (with help) I repainted the master bedroom. I started doing the kinds of things that crossed my mind, the things that made me think, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” when I was too busy doing something else.

Receiving help requires asking for help. 

This one may seem obvious (cut me some slack—I have a brain injury). I am an independent person. I like doing things on my own and I’d like to think that I’m reliable. With a brain injury, all my reliability seems to be flying out the window. I’d start working on something with a deadline and then I’d get so dizzy I couldn’t read the sentence I’d just typed.

I’m fortunate to have lots of really good, compassionate, warm people in my life, and after the accident many of them said, “Let me know how* I can help.” My usual response is, “Okay, thanks,” and then I struggle on my own, not wanting to bother anyone.

This struggle has reached a point where I can’t ignore my shortcomings. I have truly needed help. And so I have asked for help, and accepted the help I am given.

*It’s important to note that the best help can be given when you know exactly what you need. When I was able to say clearly, “I need you to read this draft of a grant application and give me feedback before I send it out,” that is exactly the help I received.

“Why does this keep happening?!” 

My most recent setback was a trip to the ER last week for what looked like symptoms of a stroke. Thankfully, all of my tests came back clear. As I lay in the hospital bed, waiting to be discharged, the doctor asked me if I had any questions. I did. And I asked.

“Why does this keep happening?!”

The poor doctor, not being a neurologist, didn’t have an answer, and the question I was really asking him was, how can I be having these neurological episodes if all my tests are coming back clear? But I think I was asking something else, too. I needed to ask the question out loud, and the doctor just happened to provide the opportune moment.

Why does this keep happening, to me? How can a person who doesn’t play contact sports, or rock climb, or work construction have four concussions?

I got my fourth concussion on December 27th, 2015, almost, to the day, six years after the first one. What kind of f@$#ed up coincidence is that?

I was talking to someone who also fell and got a concussion just two weeks after my most recent injury. She said, “It’s weird. So many things feel different now. I feel like I got the sense knocked into me.” And I knew exactly how she felt. It took the inability to use my brain to begin to use it wisely.

Post concussion syndrome isn’t permanent and many of the things I’m experiencing will resolve themselves, or have resolved in the month and a half since the accident. Maybe getting some sense knocked into me was about giving myself permission to start over. To have a second chance at being me. To learn how not to fall down, and more importantly, how to stand up.

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