“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
– Woody Allen
The summer of 2013 was a good one. I was back in los Estados Unidos, where I had taken a couple of trips to a couple of beaches, and I was getting used to being back at home. When fall semester began, and I went back at work teaching English composition classes while I prepared for my next big adventure: grad school. I had my schools picked out, I had begun filling out applications, and I was getting ready to re-take the GRE since my scores from 2006 had expired.
Then I was rear-ended. As a result of a wreck with surprisingly little visible damage (at least to my amateur eye) I sustained a concussion and a neck injury that made things difficult over the subsequent weeks, months, and years. The concussion and my experience with post-concussion syndrome are the subjects of this post (which, as if in testament to the limitations I speak of, has taken me far too long — literally several hours over the span of several days — to write… and rewrite… and re-rewrite). I’ll describe some of my experience in case it might be useful to anyone who comes across this post in their quest for information on recovery from concussions and/or post-concussion syndrome.
“Concussions play by their own rules.”
What I have learned over the last four years is that a concussion is an injury that keeps on giving. In my case things have progressed from very bad, as during the first several weeks… to moderately bad… to progressively less bad. At the moment I’m much better. Am I back to where I was before the wreck? Unfortunately, no. Am I doing as badly as I was in the acute stage of the concussion? Thankfully, no.
One of my doctors said, “Concussions play by their own rules.” I wrote that phrase down or I probably wouldn’t remember it, and I’m glad I did. In my experience coping with a concussion and post-concussion syndrome, different medical professionals offered different information and prognoses. Some said I would probably be back to normal in a few weeks or months (wrong, unfortunately), while others said I would probably never be just the same (wrong, hopefully). Now, it has been more than four years and while I have, as I said, improved a lot, I am not back to being the “me” I was pre-wreck. Some of my concussion symptoms — extreme light sensitivity, constant ringing in my ears, insomnia, dizziness, trouble maintaining balance, and others — have faded with time. But some symptoms — most notably decreased attention span, poorer working memory, difficulty reading certain texts (especially small and/or ornate fonts), headaches — persist to this day (indeed, as I type this I feel the now-familiar pain in my head).
Below are seven unauthorized tips, based on my doctors’ advice and my own experience, for recovering from concussion and post-concussion syndrome. I call these tips unauthorized because I am not a medical professional, and I have no medical training. Additionally I myself am not back to where I was pre-concussion, so by all means take these tips with a grain of salt; there doesn’t seem to be a “cure,” and as noted above concussions seem to play by their own rules.
Unauthorized tip 1: If you are in a car accident or suffer a blow to the head, take it easy for the next few days.
I felt “off” after the wreck; I had a headache and my neck hurt. Being a lifelong athlete, I did what I had always done: I exercised. My friend and I had planned an easy hike at Kennesaw Mountain on what happened to be the day after the wreck, and thinking that a little fresh air and exercise would help, I went. Whether this made my concussion worse or not no one can say; there’s even a slight chance the increased bloodflow to my brain made things less bad (again I’m no doctor). But to err on the safe side (as it’s unlikely resting will do you any harm), my advice is to avoid exercise if there’s a chance you’ve sustained a head injury.
Unauthorized tip 2: Don’t be surprised if you have “weird” symptoms.
I won’t go into this more here in the interest of brevity, but I will repeat that concussions play by their own rules. This is frustrating because you don’t have as much control as you would like, but it’s the reality. Get used to it as best you can.
Unauthorized tip 3: Avoid screentime.
“Screentime” is any time you have your eyes focused on a screen, whether it’s your phone or tablet, a computer, or a television. In my case, I had extreme sensitivity to light in general AND text seemed to move around when I looked at it, so I avoided screens for a while, and I believe this helped in my recovery.
Unauthorized tip 4: As much as possible, don’t fight your symptoms.
Like I said, I had extreme sensitivity to light, but I realized quickly I couldn’t fight it; for weeks I wore dark sunglasses both inside and outdoors and I also kept the windows covered and spent almost all my time indoors, lying on my living room sofa. If you’re light-sensitive, keep away from light; if your brain isn’t working, don’t try to force it to do what it cannot. Which brings me to the next tip…
Unauthorized tip 5: Rest as much as you can.
You may have trouble sleeping when you have a concussion. I certainly did. Nevertheless, I did my best to rest as much as I possibly could, both mentally and physically. According to pretty much all of my doctors, this is the best thing you can do for yourself in the acute stage. Is it easy to lie around all the time? Not at all. Will it help? Probably.
Unauthorized tip 5: Do your best to meditate.
Before the concussion, I was a regular meditator; I meditated daily or almost daily. After the concussion I found that my carefully-honed ability to calm and concentrate my mind was gone; my mind raced from thought to thought no matter how hard I tried to tame it. Nevertheless, I stuck with it as much as possible. I even ordered some guided meditation CDs, which I listened to often. They helped because when my mind wandered away from the meditation (and it did) the CDs kept playing and eventually I would come back to them.
Note: Meditation can be challenging without having suffered a concussion. With a concussion it is very nearly impossible, at least at first. Try to do it anyway.
Unauthorized tip 6: When you feel ready, challenge yourself.
You may or may not return to your pre-concussion self, but in time you will almost certainly improve. Let improvement be the goal, rather than a return to your former self.
Once I was out of the acute stage of recovery, my doctors recommended I challenge myself, starting in small amounts, to build up my abilities. I started by returning to work (which was extremely challenging and led to many difficult and embarrassing moments when I just plain couldn’t do some of the things I did before), and little by little I have improved. After a while I also went back to studying my second language, Spanish, to challenge myself and help my brain continue to heal.
Your brain has the ability to get stronger, and by challenging it to work harder and in different ways, you will be taking advantage of that ability. Besides, it builds character.
Unauthorized tip 7: Keep the faith.
This is tough. I have spent a lot of time being frustrated with myself for not being able to concentrate the way I used to or for being less organized, more distractable, less this, more that. Sometimes, now, I start talking and then forget what my point was going to be. I also lose my belongings far more often than I used to because I have no memory of where I put them. Worst of all, I can be careless in ways that are downright scary at times (if this happens to you, be sure to let people close to you know so they can help keep an eye out). But I do my best and I trust that little by little I will continue to improve. A concussion can be an invisible and long-lasting injury, and this is frustrating. But I trust that if I keep doing the right things — eating nutritiously, exercising regularly, challenging myself in reasonable ways, meditating daily or almost daily — I will get better. Will I ever return to the pre-concussion me? Maybe not. But hopefully I can be better five years out from the concussion than I am four years out, and so on. Some things are within my control and some things are not, but to the extent that I have any control I can and will do everything I can to keep the faith. If you’re recovering from a concussion, I suggest you do the same.