My wife says she’s going to buy me a helmet.
New Year’s Day 2017 I woke up to a CRASH. My mind was blank. It took me a minute to even remember who I was. I thought I was still a kid living in Tennessee. What was this door in front of my face? Oh, right, I live in Minnesota now. I’m in… my bathroom? I’ve never seen it from this angle before.
I slowly sat up and looked around. Everything was foggy and going in slow motion. I looked down and saw blood all over my white hoodie. I realized I had a splitting headache and my nose hurt. I slowly pulled myself to standing and faced the mirror. I looked like a bloody ghost. Face white as a sheet, giant purple bruises on my forehead and a gash in my nose that was bleeding impressively.
I woke up Alyssa with a phone call. “Hey… I think… I might need to go to the hospital…” 5 hours in the ER and I officially had my first concussion.
Recovering the first time was weird. I had regular waves of nausea for a few weeks and I felt weak and fatigued. I would randomly start crying. I felt discouraged all the time. It was about a month and a half before I could get back into running and working out. It seemed then like things were fairly back to normal, but a few months in I started getting these awful headaches and had to go back to the doctor. At about 6 months those subsided. I was back to normal and running harder than I’d ever run and hiking up and down mountains.
Life was GOOD! :)
Until August 16–just a few months ago: My wife and I were 4 miles into our 8 mile hike for day 1 in the Rocky Mountains. Scrambling over some boulders, I planted my foot and launched myself up and heard a loud CRACK run all the way through me. I felt like my neck and shoulders collapsed into each other and holy **** my head! I sat straight down, still seeing stars, world buzzing. I immediately knew I had done more than just bonk my head.
But we were 4 miles from the trailhead. In the mountains. So I sat for a while, stretched and massaged my neck and shoulders, waited for my head to unfuzzy itself. Then we were off again. As we kept walking my head started aching worse and worse and I started getting nauseated and dizzy. I kept half-tripping, very off balance. My epic best friend Alyssa insisted on carrying my backback along with hers (keep in mind, these are day-hike backpacks full of food and gear and clothes for mountain weather and a gallon or two of water). I sat down a few more times and we took it kind of slow, but we made it the rest of the way. Having made it to the end of the day I figured I must be okay. I started feeling extremely dizzy and anxious the next couple days in the mountains, but I attributed it to the elevation (14,000 feet is a lot of feet).
We got home and I went back to work. Then things really started going downhill. The more interactions and problem-solving I had to do at work, the more I just felt “off” somehow. I was totally missing things people would say to me. I was forgetful and often confused. I couldn’t find words I was looking for. Staring at my computer screen for 8 hours was miserable. I constantly felt this intense anxiety that was getting worse and worse.
Finally I went to the doctor who said I’d reconcussed myself and told me to take several days off work, go home and sleep, stop looking at screens, and not do any strenuous activity. Unfortunately, we were moving that week. Shout out to my awesome friends Ethan and Colin for dropping everything to help us! We couldn’t have done it without you! I felt like a wimp when I kept having to sit down till my head stopped spinning. The more I did, the more disoriented and uncoordinated I’d get. My speech would start slowing down and slurring and I couldn’t think clearly. A few days later I started three online classes. That was even rougher.
This second time around, recovery has been a lot harder and weirder. I felt like the concussion drastically changed a lot about my disposition at least temporarily. I have felt very introverted and have had a ton of anxiety. Thank goodness the nausea was way less this time, but the headaches have been way worse. Every couple weeks I have tried again to run or go to the gym, and every time have ended up with shot nerves, foggy brain, and a splitting headache the next day. And this time it didn’t get better–for 4 months! It felt like for every one step forward I took two steps back. Only in the last few weeks have I been able to really get back into running and working out, and screens are just now starting to get less painful for me. The worst part of it this time around has been the intense anxiety.
I am so, so thankful that I’m starting to feel much better now. Finally!
The thing about concussions is that nobody really fully knows how they work. But having personally experienced the confusion and frustration they can bring, I want to share a few things it may help you to know in case you ever bonk your head too hard or love someone else who bonks their head too hard:
1. Concussions affect everyone differently.
First of all–who knows what will happen! Nausea for weeks, fuzzy eye-sight, headaches, confusion, slow word recall–quick recovery, slow recovery–you really don’t know what to expect. It’s hard to understand or plan for your recovery. Take lots of omegas, lay in bed lots, and don’t look at screens. Those are three easy steps to follow. But how your symptoms go from there is anyone’s guess.
(Quick note: From here on out, I make a lot of “concussions do X” statements. Of course, not everyone with a concussion experiences each of these symptoms in the same way.)
2. Your brain hurts.
This one seems obvious, but it can be weird and disconcerting to experience. It doesn’t just feel like a bruise. After both my concussions, when I would spend time thinking hard, strain hard physically, do quick or impact-filled activity (like jogging), or spend time looking at screens–I would get this foreign feeling of intense pressure in my head. The first week or two this would even happen as a result of just walking. Not quite the same as a migraine or tension headache. It would just feel… off. It felt fragile and … pressury. Then I’d get dizzy and lethargic and all I could do was sit down and hold my head. That can last quite a while. The rest of your body can way outpace your concussed brain’s capacity to handle life.
3. Your emotions go haywire.
I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for how big a deal this one actually was. But since experiencing it, I’ve heard the same from others. One friend recently told me her two tough high school boys got concussions playing football, and while recovering would randomly burst into tears… “Mom, I don’t know why I’m crying!!!”
Your feelings just go crazy. Some people get extremely irritable. Some people get very shy. Some people get super anxious. Some people just cry and cry. The first time I got a concussion I would just feel this awful sense of sadness come in random waves for a good month afterward. The second time, more often than not, I had this terrible sense of doom, this feeling of being threatened, and an awful general anxiety that has very slowly subsided over several months.
The feelings are all very real and intense, make no sense at all, and constantly take you by surprise–so frustrating!
4. You get way overstimulated.
Loud noises and music, fast talking, big crowds, lots going on–all this can become way more overwhelming than it used to be. Your brain isn’t ready to handle what it usually does. You can be the biggest life-of-the-party, turn-the-volume-up type person and then after a concussion hardly be able to handle being around people or noises or sights.
5. Your thinking gets foggy.
You just don’t think as well while your brain is recovering from an injury. Following a train of thought becomes exhausting. You get easily confused. You miss a lot of things. I stopped hearing a lot of the things said to me, or if I did hear it I couldn’t process it quickly enough to keep up. You get spacey and forgetful. I showed up an hour early for a meeting that happens at the same time every week, decided after ten minutes it must have been cancelled, and didn’t even realize what had happened until the next week. Talking gets difficult. You can’t remember words. Sometimes it’s nothing you can describe exactly: Just a weird fogginess.
6. “Toughing it out” just makes it worse.
Here’s one of the only sure things the doctor will tell you: Trying to be a hero and pushing through your concussion by continuing to exercise, going right back to work, etc–just makes it worse!
You know when you sprain your ankle and after a few days in a boot, you get exercises to do that will help to start restrengthening it? Your brain doesn’t heal that way. It doesn’t want exercise to heal, and it doesn’t like physical strain. (At least not at first. After a while, there may be some cognitive therapy that can help your brain continue to recover.)
In both of my own experiences, the times I took away from work and took it very easy, doing nothing but resting, I made the quickest improvements. When I tried to push through it (against the doctor’s orders), it was miserable and the fuzziness and exhaustion just got worse. Best case scenario–take a legitimate chunk of recovery time off work, don’t go to the gym, get off your phone, and don’t watch TV. Rest.
7. You lose a lot of life things for a while.
Here’s one people don’t realize. You can lose a lot of your normal “life” things–things that make you who you are. For example: Running, working out, writing (on my computer screen), watching artistic movies, and spending time with people are all big parts of what makes me me, and all of those got overwhelming and painful. It seems obvious things like running and working out might have to slow down during recovery. But a much broader range of activities are affected than people might assume.
If I break my leg and have to stop running, I can sit and watch Netflix all day, or read more, or maybe start hanging out with people more. With a concussion, you might lose your ability to handle all of those all at once. It’s very sad. You feel like you lose a lot about who you are and unfortunately it can take a long time to get those things back.
8. You can’t SEE a concussion.
You just can’t. So people return to work too quickly and try to live up to their normal routines and social expectations, because saying “I feel fuzzy and anxious and I bumped my head three weeks ago” doesn’t sound legit.
9. You feel lonely, misunderstood, and embarrassed.
You feel awkward trying to explain how you’re doing to people, because–again–people can’t see how you’re actually doing. Especially after you look and sound normal. As the days turn into weeks or even months, and you’re not back to “normal” yet, you start feeling like people’s patience and understanding will run out. You feel silly that you can’t think as clearly as you used to, embarrassed that you feel like your work performance isn’t quite what it usually is. You can start to feel like you’re in it alone and that you can only ask people to cut you so much slack. You can even start feeling guilty–maybe you haven’t been able to go to the gym, and you’ve been doing more anxious-eating with your crazy emotions, or you haven’t been able to keep up with all your relationships. You can start to feel like you’re not good enough.
10. It affects other people in your life.
This is another big one. Your concussion doesn’t just happen to you. Your concussion happens to your significant other who is used to counting on a certain level of strength and companionship in you. Your concussion happens to all your co-workers who suddenly have to pick up a lot more slack and might have to do so for several weeks. Your concussion happens to your friends who might not see you or hear from you as often or might not feel as much warmth from you. They’re all in it with you in a supportive way, but that means they can also be drained and hurt by the experience just like you–especially the closer and more valuable the relationship. I sometimes feel like my wife needs to recover more than I do after supporting a few weeks of Concussion-Me.
11. It’s actually really scary.
You’re not yourself anymore.*
You can’t think clearly.
You wonder if some things will ever get all the way better. And some might not. And now you’re at higher risk if there’s a next time.
You have no idea how tomorrow will go. Your doctor can’t tell you how your recovery will go.
And you just want to feel like you again.
12. After a while all of this gets very overwhelming and exhausting.
Any or all of these symptoms can last a long, long time. Longer than you’d expect. Sometimes it takes a few weeks, sometimes it takes months. Some people will keep the effects of their concussion for the rest of their lives. And dealing long term with this wide array of frustrating effects can get incredibly overwhelming and exhausting. You can become deeply burnt out and just feel like it’s all too much.
So what can you do to help a friend or loved one who has a concussion?
Try to understand them.
Help them feel safe.
Be empathetic and compassionate. This is an awful experience for them.
And GIVE THEM THE CHANCE to recover.
Shoutout to my epic best friend Alyssa who has been incredibly supportive since the first minute, especially with this last one that has taken months to heal.
Here’s an epic picture of her about 15 minutes after my last concussion, cheerfully carrying both our backpacks up the mountain four miles away from the trail head.
Thanks for standing by my side through all this, Lys.
*I said “You’re not yourself anymore.” I want to say one more thing about this: You’re not yourself, but you also still totally are yourself. You don’t feel like you’re used to feeling, you get confused and you have unpredictable emotions. But deep down, you are the same person you always have been–you’re valuable and loveable you–and that is something you can hold on to, and it’s something your people can hold on to.
(It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: While I hope my personal experience sheds some light on what concussion recovery can be like, I’m no medical professional.)