Six hopeful lessons from having a concussion
So I finally joined the club. Not sure that makes me happy. I joined the club of people struggling with the ongoing symptoms of concussions. It's my first one, and relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. It has taken me away for a while, so I thought I'd write a bit about my experience and share what I've done and am doing to manage my symptoms.
This is a complex and ever shifting condition. When you injure your leg, you put it in a splint or cast, rest, take some anti-inflammatories, and wait until it heals. You can effectively isolate that part of your body for the several weeks you need to restore function. You can't stop using your brain. You can't put it in a splint and wait. Everything you do uses your brain. Thinking, reading, watching a movie, your emotions, sensory input, movement - your brain touches every part of your physical body. When it's trying to heal, your brain will put some things on hold while it works to recover. This is perhaps the most frustrating part of concussion recovery - waiting to see what parts of the brain don't work so well today.
I was working on closing out a spacecraft test when I got my injury. I was hit on the right side of my head, just above the ear. It was hard enough to knock me off my feet. At first, I didn't think it was serious. After all, I've been hit on the head before and after a few minutes of feeling a bit dazed, I am usually ok. But as time passed, this got serious. The headache was intense. I started getting dizzy and my vision was impaired. I don't have any better words for what was going on visually. I was super light sensitive. I couldn't read anything, but it wasn't blurry. It was almost like any information from my eyes was scrambled before it could be processed by my brain. I was having a hard time staying upright.
In the emergency room, the doctors did a CT scan and found that I had no fracture or apparent bleeding inside my skull. That was great news, and then came the discharge instructions.
Take some acetaminophen for pain, and try not to think. Don't read, watch TV, look at screens, or move around. Um, yeah. How do you do that?
For the last two weeks, I've been convalescing. And it's really hard. Convalescing is the gradual return to health after an illness or injury. Just because the acute phase of the illness is over doesn't mean your body is ready to jump right back into your hectic life. In fact, it is not ready at all.
Convalescing with a head injury is different than recovering from pneumonia or a broken leg. Brain injuries require you to not only rest the body, but also rest the mind. So there's no catching up on all the books on the nightstand, no writing blog posts, no keeping up with email, not even long chats with friends and family. Even so, there's several lessons to be learned from this experience - and maybe you can benefit from my experience.
1. Rest when you're tired. You might have just awakened from a nap, but if you feel tired, sleep some more. It might be 8pm and you're tired. Go to bed and sleep. The best way to keep your brain at rest is to sleep. If you feel tired, it's likely because your brain needs some space on its own to recouperate.
2. Let other people help you. It's really hard for a person who is accustomed to being the one who gets things done to let things go undone, or to feel like you're imposing on someone else to do your tasks. Despite my insistence to the contrary, this is a serious injury and pushing through it has risk of permanent impairment. Let other people bring you what you need, and ask for things that will make you more comfortable. You'll be better able to rest (see lesson 1) and recover more completely.
3. Do one thing at a time. When you do get enough strength to start resuming some activities, just focus on the task at hand. You probably only have enough brain power for one thing at a time, but trying to multitask will make you really, really frustrated. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson I've learned - and one I will carry with me beyond this period of convalescence. Yes, you can be engaged in many things at once, but you're really only doing one thing at a time. Do that one thing with your full attention.
4. Offer yourself grace and patience. It just takes more of you to do things right now. It takes more time, more energy, more focus. You're not going to be awesome at stuff that used to be second nature. Allow yourself to take the time and energy you need - which is a lot easier when you are doing one thing at a time (lesson 3). Symptoms from a concussion can stick around for months, and sometimes you don't even notice them until you start getting back to your daily routine.
5. Re-enter your life slowly. When I work with clients, I always structure a plan to build a solid foundation for health, then work to replenish any deficiencies, restore balance to delicate systems, and build resilience. Re-entry from convalescence is no different. During the rest period, I'm building the foundation. I'm not ready to jump back in at full speed until I've got my body and mind back in balance and supported with adequate nutrient supplies. Take more time than you think you need, and remember lessons 1-4.
6. Don't forget to be awesome. Life is different now. That doesn't mean it's any less amazing or that you're any less awesome. In fact, right now you have a very special gift of focus and attention. The way you see the world is more colorful, more beautiful, more aware. Breathe that in. Celebrate your new perspective. Don't forget to be awesome in these new and incredible ways.