On June 2, 2012, I sustained a concussion. Some of you who follow my blog already know this. I must admit that at the time, like most people, I had no idea how serious a concussion can be. Over the next few months, I learned first-hand that a concussion is a brain injury that “may take 3 to 6 months to heal.” (Picture me doing the air quotes, and you’ll see why below.) Another name for a concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury.
It’s referred to as “mild” only because your head isn’t split wide open and you aren’t laying unconscious in the ICU.
I didn’t go to the doctor right away, because I thought I was okay, at first. Here’s what happened (and my apologies to those who have read this previously): I was clobbered with my 18 hand, 1700 lb. horse’s huge head as he swung it around toward me, from under my right jaw, slamming my jaw and teeth together and driving my head up to the left. My tongue was cut on the left side from being slammed against my teeth, and my face was swollen at the connection of jaw to skull, worse on the left. My face was sore for a week or more under my cheekbones and my teeth hurt. I very nearly was knocked unconscious, and had to “shake it off” like a boxer. I got a headache immediately. The next morning I was nauseous, but didn’t really connect it at the time. I went out with friends, went walking, did all my normal stuff as though nothing had happened. Yes, my physical injuries hurt, but I would heal. No big deal, right? It wasn’t until a friend mentioned to me that I didn’t seem myself and maybe I should go see someone about it that I seriously considered the doctor. By then I realized that everything – and I mean everything — was upsetting me, that I was getting these bad headaches when I got upset and then needed to sleep (like, immediately – in the chair and zonked out for an hour or more). I finally saw a physician’s assistant over a week after the incident, and he said I had a concussion and sent me for a CT scan to make sure I wasn’t bleeding in the brain. It was pronounced “normal.”
But “normal” on the CT scan doesn’t mean there’s no damage.
Funny thing about brain injuries – you don’t know quite how bad you were until you’re better. I found a blog entry from about a month after my injury, and found all kinds of typos in it that I hadn’t noticed at the time. I remember being a lot more optimistic about my condition at the time than I probably should have been. The migraines were horrible. I was mentally searching for words and not finding them, or finding them and having them come out in a way they weren’t intended (sometimes in quite amusing fashion). The fatigue and light sensitivity plagued me for a year or better, and the headaches continued every day. My memory was (and remains) terrible. I had to take a leave of absence from grad school because I couldn’t spend very much time reading without getting headaches and falling asleep. I couldn’t be in places where there was too much sensory input; I would grow tired and confused in such environments.
I had to finally go to physical and occupational therapy for balance and eye convergence issues (that have still not improved as much as I had hoped). My physical and occupational therapist also helped me with understanding why I got migraines in the passenger side of the vehicle but not while driving. It seems that driving kept me focused on a narrower field of vision (the road and that periphery), whereas while riding, I could look around a lot more, and it was too much for my injured brain to take in. This lasted for about 2 years.
I’ve always been a writer, a wordsmith. The day that I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to spell “aisle,” I cried. I still have moments of complete and utter frustration because I can’t think of the word I need to succinctly express my thoughts. I still miss seeing my own typos and forget to add the small words like “a” or “at” or “the.” And no matter how many times I proofread, I don’t see the mistake, though I will catch it days later.
And I find now, almost 3 years later, that if I don’t do something right away when I think of it, it usually doesn’t get done. I have to keep telling myself that Post-it notes are my friend.
Here are some facts about TBI that I came across recently on a medical website:
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can be classified as mild if loss of consciousness and/or confusion and disorientation is shorter than 30 minutes. While MRI and CAT scans are often normal, the individual has cognitive problems such as headache, difficulty thinking, memory problems, attention deficits, mood swings and frustration. These injuries are commonly overlooked. Even though this type of TBI is called “mild”, the effect on the family and the injured person can be devastating.
Other Names For Mild TBI
Minor head trauma
Minor brain injury
Minor head injury
Mild Traumatic Brain Injury is:
– the most prevalent TBI
– Often missed at time of initial injury
– 15% of people with mild TBI have symptoms that last one year or more
– Defined as the result of the forceful motion of the head or impact causing a brief change in mental status (confusion, disorientation or loss of memory) or loss of consciousness for less than 30 minutes.
– Post injury symptoms are often referred to as post concussive syndrome.
Common Symptoms of Mild TBI
Dizziness/loss of balance
Feelings of depression
Other Symptoms Associated with Mild TBI
Loss of smell
Sensitivity to light and sounds
Getting lost or confused
Slowness in thinking
These symptoms may not be present or noticed at the time of injury. They may be delayed days or weeks before they appear. The symptoms are often subtle and are often missed by the injured person, family and doctors. The person looks normal and often moves normal in spite of not feeling or thinking normal. This makes the diagnosis easy to miss. Family and friends often notice changes in behavior before the injured person realizes there is a problem. Frustration at work or when performing household tasks may bring the person to seek medical care.
What they don’t mention is that, when someone is over 40 and sustains a mild traumatic brain injury, it takes a lot longer to heal. And that you may never return to the normal you knew before the brain injury.
So, okay. At this point, I know that I will never be the same again. I will never be the same Cindy that I was before this accident; I will not be adept in some of the areas I once was. I have had to accept and adjust to this “new normal.”
But there are GOOD things about the new normal, believe it or not, and I want to talk about those.
1.) I am not afraid of public speaking anymore.
Psychologists and social scientists say that the fear of public speaking is a normal human response to a threat situation. If you think about it, it would be terrifying in the natural world if so many eyes were fixed on you in such a way. (Fight or flight situation, adrenaline starts coursing, etc.)
The injury knocked that fear right out of me. I used to be terrified to stand up in front of a crowd (like I did last night, speaking on this very subject). I would shake and sweat and nearly puke beforehand. Even when showing my horses, I had such performance anxiety that I would actually throw up and/or have a panic attack. Maybe I don’t have enough normal brain cells anymore to be scared, I don’t know. But in my line of work, it’s a godsend. I have to speak in front of an audience on a regular basis.
2). I learned how to ask for help and cut myself some slack.
I’ve always prided myself on being this strong, independent woman. And for some reason, especially when I needed help the most, I would insist that I could do it all myself. And I would grumble and bitch the whole time and feel slighted and unloved. But whose fault was that? Only my own. Having a horse farm and a brain injury made me have to reach out for help where I would not have before, because I COULDN’T do it all myself – far from it. I could barely do any of it.
My perfectionist tendencies have had to go by the wayside, too. How can I be a perfectionist when I make so many mistakes now it’s embarrassing (or it would be if I still got embarrassed about stupid shit that doesn’t really matter)? It’s all about perspective. It’s all about allowing yourself to be human and make mistakes. Basically, I got over myself. My shamanic work is all about getting Ego out of the way so that I can be a conduit for Spirit. That seems to be much easier now, in all situations.
3.) I learned to stop over-scheduling my life and simplify.
At first I just couldn’t do it. I would get so tired by mid-afternoon that I would have to take a nap. And spending much time in stimulating environments would send me into a painful migraine. I went to the Gem & Mineral show with my partner and my friend Suzanne and could only stay for a little over an hour. Too much noise, lights, input. Overwhelming. It was that day I realized I couldn’t possibly go to colloquium at grad school and sit and listen to lectures all day for 4 days. It was a physical impossibility for me.
Over time, I started adding things back as I felt I could handle them, slowly… but I’ve recently realized that I need to cut back again; that, as my brain improves, I am falling into the “superwoman” trap again. However, NOW I’m savvy enough to recognize when it’s all getting to be too much and do something about it.
If I can keep this mindset, I will probably live longer.
4.) I’m better at math.
I’m not sure why the rewiring improved my mathematics capabilities, but I am grateful. I was the girl who had to take Algebra twice in college to get a C. I always sucked at math — and now I can do it in my head with a lot less effort. Amazing! For instance, there is a meme going around on Facebook that compares old math with the new Common Core math. And I get it! I figured out the purpose of the new way. And I was able to explain it to someone else! For me, that’s unbelievable — and a validation, a reminder, that my brain works quite differently than it once did.
5.) I understand traumatic brain injury first-hand, and so am able to empathize with others having similar challenges.
And this, I believe, is what this was all about, why the injury happened. I am trying very hard to get a Masters in Counseling Psychology because I want to work in equine-assisted psychotherapy with veterans and abuse victims with PTSD and depression. When I got injured I only had one semester finished. (I’m a little over halfway through now.) I was reading recently (I think in NatGeo) that so many of our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are returning home with closed head injuries from blast force; i.e., mild traumatic brain injury. I now know what that’s like and how difficult it is to adjust to the effects, to live with this new normal. It’s an injury that no one can see, and yet it manifests in everyday life in ways that are hard for others to understand. Well, who better than me to help with that? This was my initiation into that understanding — so that I could be in a better position to help others with TBI. I was meant to learn from this, and to speak about it.
6.) I realized not long after the injury that this has been a cosmic clue-by-four, a divine intervention of sorts.
I thank the Universe for teaching me humility. I thank the Universe for teaching me what I needed to know in order to help others. I thank Spirit for removing my fear of public speaking so that I can share the things I came here to share in this life. And for making me vulnerable so that I would have to ask for help and in doing so, find a strong, loving community. I’m so grateful that I have discovered how to be more accepting of myself and others because of this mishap. (And hey, the math brain was just the icing on the cake.)
It’s almost as if the Powers-that-Be said, “She’s not listening. Well, the only thing she seems to pay attention to is horses, so let’s hit her over the head with one!”
Well, I’m sure listening now.