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When the lights are on, but nobody's home (Or, "What it's like to get two concussions in less than two months")

>> Sunday, May 25, 2014

This is the scene of the crime. Or at least, the second one.

About six weeks ago, yours truly went out to get something from the shed. It was raining and slippery (but I had my rubber boots on with the good grips!), and as I was leaving the shed I slipped on the wooden planks and had a total wipe-out. I know I hit my tailbone, as it was sore for days afterwards, but the bulk of the force was on the back of my head. I remember laying there for awhile (in the rain), thinking I didn't know if I could get up, and maybe if I lay there for awhile one of my neighbours would see me (which is crazy, as our backyard by the shed is super private and goes into the woods, so who could see me anyways?!) I also distinctly remember thinking "I can't believe I just fell - again.")

You see, about seven weeks before that, I had fallen down the stairs at our old house. That fall I ended up with a damaged tailbone and a mild concussion. The concussion wasn't even diagnosed until almost a week afterwards, and although I was out for a few days, it got better pretty quickly. I'm a bit of a klutz, but still - 2 major falls for me in such a short period of time is definitely a personal record.

Anyway - I don't really remember how I got back into the house from outside - everything's a bit of a blur from then until a few days afterwards to be honest. I do know I got a horrible headache and started throwing up and couldn't stop, so Chris took me to the ER at the hospital in St.Thomas (which PS - has the fastest, most efficient emergency room I've ever seen), and I was there for awhile. Got diagnosed with a "bad" concussion, had some tests, then was told I'd need to be off work (and pretty much everything else) for at least one week, possibly two depending on how I felt). I was given some pretty strict instructions not to do anything involving screens or really anything involving concentration. Basically it was: no work, no TV, no phone, no computer, no music, no reading, no writing, no exercise, no driving).

The first few days that was fine - my head was killing me and I just slept most of the time. After about day 3 though, when I started to be up and moving around again, I started noticing the really weird symptoms, and things I hadn't really had (at least not this severe) with the first knock to the head.

First of all, I was angry, like really, really angry and irritable. I don't remember what I said, but Chris says I said some pretty horrible things. It was like my brain couldn't or wouldn't filter anything. I've always been a very nice, polite person - and very aware of other people's feelings, so this was kind of uncharted territory. It made me afraid to even go out and walk the dog, as if I saw someone do something that for some reason irritated me at all, I probably would have said something really mean to them. It sounds strange to even write it, but I guess it was kind of like I didn't care at all about anyone else during that time and my emotions were ruling. If I was angry, I'd say something horrible. If I was sad, at all, I'd cry.

Chris was fabulous throughout it - the literature they had given us about it said this was perfectly normal, and would pass in awhile. My physiotherapist I'm seeing now (yup - I had to start going to physiotherapy) also said not to worry, and I wasn't going crazy. She'd seen it many, many times before and these feelings of anger, irritability and sadness would pass with time.

The second thing I noticed, and probably the thing that has been the hardest to work through, was the confusion. It's the hardest thing to explain to anyone who hasn't had a concussion before. The way I've been explaining it to people now is: you know how in the summer, there are some days when it's really hot and everyone uses their AC at the same time and there's so much demand for the power that it shorts out the power and there's an outage? That's what it's like. It's like there's just too much information my brain is trying to process, too much demand for brain power, so it just has a 'power outage' and shuts itself down. I would find myself suddenly not knowing where I was, what I was doing, why I was doing it, what day it was, even in essence, who I was. It's not like I forgot my name or anything, but it was like I just couldn't connect the dots in my head, I couldn't put context behind anything. The first few times I did walk the dog after it happened, I kept reminding myself every few steps "I'm walking my dog Franklin, I live at the house at the end of the street, I'm walking my dog Franklin, I live at the house at the end of the street" 'cause I was afraid I would get lost! It also didn't help that this whole time my head was still hurting incessantly, and I wasn't sleeping very well. Every night I had a really hard time falling asleep, and once I did I would wake up pretty much at least once an hour.

After the first week off, I was going to attempt to go back to work on the Monday. I was still feeling pretty rough, but was determined to "tough it out" and give it a go. On the Sunday beforehand, Chris and I decided to go see my parents at their farm near Port Dover. I hadn't driven yet since it happened, so Chris suggested I drive for a bit to see how it went so he was sure I was okay to drive to work the next morning (I commute about an hour to work in London). Well . . . it didn't go so well. I made it out of Port Stanley, but about 5-10 minutes in I started feeling really weird, and had to pull over once we made it to St.Thomas. I got really nauseous, the pressure in the back of my head got really bad, and apparently the confusion got really bad too. If my brain was having a hard time filtering incoming information, it was as if driving and trying to filter information while moving, made all the symptoms even worse. The whole rest of the day I was pretty out of it and not feeling well, so I ended up taking off the second week as well to recover more.

So fast forward to the end of the second week. By this point I'm telling myself "alright brain - you've been off for two weeks now - get it together!" I still wasn't feeling great, but was putting on a good front I think, as I didn't want to be seen as a wimp. I now fully realize that a concussion falls under the "traumatic brain injury" category, and is not something to be taken lightly.

I was nervous to go back to work, as I knew I wasn't feeling like my normal self, but I was also excited, as being off work for two weeks not being able to do much is really, really, really boring. Seriously - I know most people would think "oh, I'd love to be off work for a few weeks and not do anything", but when you really can't do anything, let me tell you - it sucks!

I drove myself to work that first day, and . . . it didn't go well. I don't really remember a whole lot about that day. I know I somehow made it through the whole work day (I now hear from my co-workers how out of it I was that day and how they knew I wasn't ready to be back - apparently I was really confused and had to keep asking for help as I couldn't remember how to do things and wasn't able to make even the smallest of decisions). I somehow got home, only to start throwing up again and had a severe headache, and ended up back in the emergency room. The doctor said it was a relapse, and because I had attempted to go back to "normal life" before my brain was fully healed, it was like the concussion had just happened. I was back to square one, and had to begin the concussion recovery steps all over again. I was out of work for another week, and it was then that I was also referred to a physiotherapist, to follow me as I recovered.

After that third week, I was now back to work, but did a graduated return to work. That first week back, I worked 4-hour shifts, the second week back I worked 6-hour shifts, and this last week was my first week back at 8-hour shifts. It's been slow going, but I'm now back to a regular work schedule and feeling like things are slowly getting back to normal.

I'm still doing physiotherapy, but now I'm down to one appointment a week. We do some neck stretches and balance exercises and stuff, but the main component is getting electro-magnetic pulse therapy. They attach little electrodes to my earlobes, and it sends pulses to my brain. It helps to reset the pathways in your brain (that's the easiest way to describe it I guess). Is it helping? Well I'm back to work and down to one appointment a week, so I think it definitely is! It's been really helpful too to just have someone to talk to each week who really knows about concussions and walk me through the recovery.

I still have a "permaheadache", and this last week while I was working full shifts for the first time, they got really bad. I sometimes get really bad pressure at the back of my head, and it almost feels like my head is filling up with water. That's a signal to me that I need to take a break and let myself zone out for awhile. I can tell my brain's still having a hard time processing all the information that's coming at me all the time at work. I also work in a really bright, noisy environment, so it's been tough. My work place has been fabulous though and very understanding. I can tuck into the office for awhile, turn down the music and put my sunglasses on, and give my brain a break when I need to, and everyone's been really accommodating when I ask them to slow down a bit when they talk to me. I've been pretty upfront about what I can and cannot understand, and when I need help with something. As far as the confusion goes, the hardest thing now I'm finding is when people are either trying to talk to me when there's other conversations or noise going on in the background, or when people are talking really fast. It's kind of like I then hear the first sentence or two they say, but everything after that turns into gobbly-gook and I can't understand what they're saying. I'm also still having a bit of a hard time reading - I can read and write, but if I'm reading something that's on a full page of text I have a hard time deciphering what I'm reading. One trick I'm doing now is to just cover up the rest of the page with a blank piece of paper, so only the paragraph I'm reading is visible, and then I just move the blank paper down as I continue reading the rest of the page. It's frustrating, but I'm making progress.

Noise in general is tough - I haven't listened to music in 6 weeks, so I really miss that, but I can listen to talk radio no problem. I think with music, it's just again - too much information to process. Each separate instrument coming at me, plus singing, it's just to much. Hopefully that passes soon, as I had just downloading a few new albums from iTunes right before this all happened, and I really want to give them a good listen!

Driving is fine now - I wear sunglasses while driving now, even on the cloudiest day, as it just mutes the colours a bit. Thankfully at least half my drive is in the country, so it's a bit of a calmer environment to drive through than the city.

Anyway, this has turned into a really long post. I think I just needed to write out how I've been feeling, both to make myself feel better, and also to help explain to people what this experience has been like.

I know it could have been much worse. I am terrified now of hitting my head again though, as I could get permanent brain damage. For the life of me, I can't understand why athletes would continue to play after getting a few concussions. Before this happened (even after the first one which wasn't bad at all compared to this one), I always though concussions were something you recovered from and weren't that big of a deal. I now know they're a big deal, as your brain is your brain! It's you - how you act, how you think, what you do. It's the centrepiece of you as a person. If you injure that, it can be very hard (sometimes impossible) to recover from.

Thankfully I am recovering from it, and from where I am now in the recovery process, I can look back and say I've learned three major things from this experience.

1) As my husband tells me often - "you need to slow down!" I've gotten better these last few years at taking longer breaks from things (really relaxing on vacations, days off, etc), but I still have a tendency to rush through my "normal" days. I can very much be a "what's next?" kind of person. Always rushing through the current task I'm working on, so I can move on to the next thing. That's probably what I was doing when I was out at the shed that day. Just moving too fast and not paying full attention to the moment. I'm now forced to be slower at some things, and as frustrating as that can be, it's definitely been something I've been reflecting on and learning from. 

2) Compassion for invisible injuries - a head injury is most often an "invisible injury". Unlike a broken arm or leg, unless you tell someone about your injury, it is most often impossible for someone else to know what's going on with you. As upfront as I've been with my co-workers about it, it's obviously not something I'm broadcasting to every customer I help at the store, and I've had several embarrassing moments so far at work where I'm trying to help someone with something and have had to call for assistance as I just can't figure something out (whereas before these things would come to me no problem). The first week back I think I cried every single day at work (privately, not in front of people), because I was just frustrated at myself for not being 100% yet. There've been instances where I can tell people are looking at me like "how many times do I have to tell this girl what I'm looking for?!", because they don't know that I'm recovering from a concussion and am having a hard time understanding what they're saying. On my end, it's made me much more understanding of other people's behaviour in general. Sometimes I deal with people who get really angry, or say inappropriate things, or just act strangely. Whereas before I'd think "who do they think they are?" or "wow - that person is out to lunch", now I think "well maybe they have an invisible injury, maybe they have some sort of disability that makes them act that way". Of course, some people are just mean or inappropriate, but it's given me the insight to understand that some people really can't control the way they act, and they need just as much compassion and consideration from me as anyone else.

3) Life is short. We all know this, but this experience drove it home a little bit more. I wasn't planning on falling and hitting my head again that day. I wasn't planning on injuring my brain and feeling for weeks like I was lost in my own head. You just never know what's around the next corner. You just never know how long you'll be here. It ties into #1, but just that theme of really living your days, soaking in what life has to offer you, and really being thankful for each day you have, that's been a huge reminder to me throughout all this. It's also changed me in the sense that I no longer have time for nonsense. It's almost as if that emotional / no filter thing that started happening a few days after this concussion has never fully gone away. Thankfully the anger part has (which I'm sure my husband is very greatful for), but the part of me that before would have maybe filtered my words or behaviour when it came to dealing with "nonsense", is now gone, lol. I've always been fairly upfront and honest when it came to expressing myself when I disagreed with someone, etc. Now it's like I'm a little more abrupt with it. It's not as if I'm not polite or anything, it's more like I just realize I don't have the time to tip-toe around any issue anymore. I've become even more "tell it like it is" - I don't know if that's a result of the concussion, or it's a result of realizing how truly short life is and I don't want to waste my time or my words, but so far it's actually been a really positive change.

Well, that's it for now. If you actually made it to the end of this, thanks for reading it, and hopefully it gives you some insight into this sort of injury in case you have someone in your life who has been through it or will go through it or something worse in the future.

I'm now entering Week #7 of recovery, and am confident that soon I'll be back at 100%. These past few weeks I've just been getting used to being back at work, and outside of physio appointments have kept things pretty simple - just work, physio and sleep for the most part. Now I'm slowly starting to re-integrate other areas of my life into the "rotation", and I'm so happy and thankful I'm at that point. 7 weeks is nothing in the grand scheme of things, I know that. But it's been one of the weirdest, most challenging areas of my life so far after 34 years on this planet. It's driven me to learn more about the brain and how it works, and to re-examine areas of my life that I know I need to change.

Thanks all.




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