March 24, 2015, I had a fairly unique experience at the dollar store in town. Perhaps the most unique part was the location, because I do not believe the dollar store experiences such a thing with any regularity. I figure I caused a bit of psychological scarring for dollar store manager Travis that day.
For me, the experience started with blurred vision. The next thing I knew, I was in transit to Sanford Hospital in an ambulance. In the less than 30 seconds of consciousness I experienced in the ambulance, the nice man attending to me explained that I had a seizure and hit my head. I recall thinking in the moment that I was clearly having some strange dream and I am fairly sure my facial expression conveyed this.
Poor Travis encountered me in what he reported was a convulsive, seizure like state trying to communicate something to him. I have no recollection of this, but I cannot help but wonder if it had something to do with making sure he saved my cart for later checkout. I can see where this might have mattered to me in the moment. But thank goodness for Travis, as he handed me off to the ambulance folks instead of allowing me to remain a curiosity on aisle three.
My next 30 second blip of consciousness occurred in the emergency room. Those 30 second blips came and went for many, many hours. I stayed a couple of nights in the hospital and was out of it the bulk of the time. It was a surreal experience – I would have brief moments of being perfectly alert and coherent and then I would be out again. I am sure this was likely a blessing in some respects as had I seen the state of my appearance while in the hospital I would have had quite the meltdown. There was nothing attractive about my hospital look – nothing.
They did a number of tests on me. I was unconscious for most of them. That was probably a good thing for the Sanford folks as I would have asked dozens of questions and likely made an annoyance of myself. I surmise my brain just needed the rest.
They sent me home with a heart monitor, instructions not to drive for three months, and seizure medicine. I had more tests and doctor visits over the weeks that followed and the ultimate conclusion was that I likely did not have a seizure, but instead blacked out (but they still restricted my driving for three months to hedge their bets – I was not thrilled about that). They found no underlying reason for the blackout with all their tests, but my running hypothesis (based on what I have learned) was that the blackout was likely due in part to a B12 shortage. Not that I am a M.D., but I am a Ph.D. with access to WebMD and confident enough in my medical research and self-analysis skills to be dangerous to myself and annoying to others. Hence, do not consult with me for medical advice as I am a malpractice suit waiting to happen.
I did learn from the neurologist that I have a plump cerebellum – to which I quipped, “Are you saying I have a fat head?” I tried poor Dr. Sam’s patience as a patient. He assured me having a plump cerebellum meant my brain was in good shape for my age. I cannot tell you how often I bring up my plump cerebellum in conversation now that I know I am so blessed, it validates (for me at least) that my children should listen to my advice more.
At the end of the day, the one thing we all knew for sure after my dollar stove dive was that I suffered a significant concussion and that it was going to take a while to heal, with the operative term being “a while.” Concussions can cause a whole complement of pre-identified challenges, but the combination and extent of the way these challenges present themselves can be as varied as the individuals that experience them. I know this to be true from personal experience. My first concussion in North Dakota happened over 15 years ago when I slipped on ice. It had an identifiable short term impact, but it was nothing compared to what we now lovingly refer to as the “Great Concussion of 2015.”
It was on the other side of the hospital and doctor visits that my odyssey truly began. I became an unwitting member of an interesting and somewhat covert club that I refer to as “concussives.” This club is not for those who experience a concussion like I did all those years ago – one where the effects are gone in a matter of days or weeks. This club is for those who suffer longer-term impacts (some which may not be readily apparent). These are the folks who, when they struggle six months, a year, or multiple years with effects of the brain injury, stop saying much out loud to others as they have learned that it is difficult for others to understand why they are not already healed. Indeed, there actually appears to be a stigma that clings to these concussives in that sometimes others think they may be exaggerating the effects of their injury or using it as a convenient excuse. I can say this with confidence as I have glanced askew at folks in the past who have attributed things to enduring concussion injuries. But that was before I was given the opportunity to walk a mile in a concussive’s shoes. I became a concussive whose injury would not heal in a few weeks or a few months. Over a year out from the injury I still have varying levels of impairment.
When I meet fellow concussives I know we can speak freely about our experiences because we understand the real challenges of being in this club that none of us chose. Indeed, it is as a result of fellow concussives who have shared their stories that I have been able to maintain humor, hope, and realism about my own situation. Hearing stories of others who struggled for two or three years but came back stronger than ever has been a blessing and an eye opener.
I went right back to work after the incident. I could not conceive that my classes could go on without me and there was only six weeks of classes left at that point (here is a secret folks, life goes on with or without you). I quickly realized the extent of my impairment that semester and have struggled with it in the two subsequent semesters. Typically, the better rested I am, the higher my functioning level; but, on occasion, for no apparent reason my speech will slur, my vocabulary will slip just outside my mental grasp, and I will become frustrated at my inability to communicate at the level I know I should be capable of. I also still experience instances of dizziness, sensitivity to light, visual over-stimulation, random incidents of confusion, reduced verbal filter (this has caused moments of both horror and hilarity), and a lack of impulse control (I cannot even click past HSN or QVC on cable without buying something). My memory is horrible in all the ways I need to regularly use it, but oddly, I now recall with clarity long forgotten names, experiences, and facts from when I was young (things I would not have easily remembered pre-concussion). Hot flashes, a thing I had relegated to my “done that” column, came back with a vengeance in my first six months as a concussive. This was more than just an annoyance as they disrupted my sleep even more than I was already struggling with as a result of the concussion. I still have to really focus to take the stairs up or down as I am not as sure-footed as I was (not that I ever anxiously sought out stairs in the past). I also find that my brain stops functioning at some point during the day and at that point no activity requiring intellectual capacity will occur. Thankfully, my brain operational hours have been slowly increasing over time. What started out as a handful of hours at the outset, are now a fairly regular showing of eight hour days. I now understand brain dysfunction and the ways it affects one’s sense of self and self-confidence. I understand the frustration of those who can look at a simple object or a person whose name they should know and have no word and no reference point. Its maddening and scary and debilitating all at the same time.
I confess, I am a bad concussive. I did not take time off work and I did not cut down my activities like I should have. I think I would have healed more quickly had I done so and I do not recommend the approach I took. But, in my own defense, some of the challenges you have as a concussive do not emerge right away. In the beginning I was so focused on the most basic functioning – the dizziness and nausea were challenging – that other things were ignored. My number one priority in the early months was to drive again and free my children and myself from the driving Miss Daisy predicament the driving limitation imposed. I was so focused on getting back to “normal” quickly that I attempted to steamroll over the reality of what it takes for a brain to heal. Well, my brain was having no part of that. I received a good-sized serving of humble pie when I realized that I was not going to be in the driver’s seat when it came to dictating the speed of my brain’s healing.
So why am I telling you all this dear readers? I am telling you this because it underpins two important missions I now have as a concussive. I want to share those missions with you.
The first mission is to share the level of understanding I fell into as a concussive in regard to others who suffer similar brain challenges. And when I say brain challenges, I mean all things neurological. The brain is both amazing and confounding; in my complement of issues I have become more appreciative of struggles associated with other neuro-challenges. I was unaware of the extent to which folks could seem outwardly quite “normal” in passing, while still suffering with significant impairment. For a jarring look at how extensively a jolt to your brain can affect an individual’s functionality, I strongly recommend the book, The Ghost in my Brain, by Clark Elliot. I am so very grateful that my experience has been less traumatic than Clark’s experience. The wonderful thing about Clark’s book is, in the telling of his experience and healing, all concussives can find hope for, and patience with, their healing.
The second mission is to communicate that I see this experience as a gift from the universe. Not the kind of gift you wish for, like a pony at Christmas or winning the lottery, but rather the type of gift that challenges you to evolve as a human. As a result of this experience my understanding of brain injuries has increased and so too has my empathy for others who struggle (often silently) with such injuries. I also have become more pragmatic on some fronts and more appreciative of the importance of engaging my voice on others. I now look more closely at what I put out into the world and the impact it has. These days I more regularly stop to ask myself, “Am I being a nice human?”
I believe the things we experience come to us for a reason, and perhaps my concussion was the universe literally smacking some sense into me. Life is short, but the opportunity to grow is continuous and a blessing that not all receive. I am reminded of a former colleague, Tim Campbell, who suffered a very similar injury to mine and did not live to tell the story. I feel obliged to acknowledge my gratitude that I am still here and able to continue my life’s story.
My friend Mary encouraged me to write a book about my experience as a concussive titled, When Reality Hit. The thought of the whole thing makes me laugh as I have neither the ambition, nor the capacity to do so. But I must say, there is a part of me that would love to tell the world about my plump cerebellum. For now, I will have to settle with leaving that tidbit here for my blog readers. 🙂
Another day in the new forty – obla di obla da