12 Things That Happen When You Get a Concussion

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.

It’s terrifying.

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.

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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.)

5 Life Things I’ve Gotten from Running

I’m a runner. Running makes me feel alive. I run often and I run hard and it makes me feel strong and accomplished and really, really, really happy. But I’m not an extremely talented runner.

I used to jog a couple or a few miles at a time. If I could manage to make it to the two-mile marker without stopping, I was pretty happy. I averaged about 10 minutes a mile on what I thought at the time were long runs. On rare occasion I would run-walk an entire 13.1 miles–a half marathon–and it would take me a few hours. A couple years ago I started running harder. After a year of on and off practicing, learning more about running as I worked on it, I did probably my proudest run: About 9 miles at under 8:30 per mile. And I could sprint over a half mile in 3 minutes. And then I fell over one day and got a concussion, and it took months before I could push myself to anywhere close to what I used to do. I’m still not there.

I have actually learned a lot from my (fairly humble) journey as a runner (fairly humble because I’m really not a great runner and may never be–did you know that Olympic marathoners average under 5 minutes a mile for 26 miles straight? I can’t even come close to running just one mile that fast). I’ve noticed that while I’m running regularly, I’m happier and more confident and I feel better about the way I handle myself and direct my life. I think it’s because the more I run, the more I realize . . .

  1. You can be passionate about something without being the best at it. Respect the passion you see in yourself and in others.

It’s a competitive world out there. It’s very hard not to constantly compare yourself to the next person, and the trouble is there will always be someone out there who’s more skilled than you.

Some of my friends think it’s amazing that I’ll go for a ten mile run. But some of my friends go for hundred mile runs. Here’s the thing: If you go for a jog–walk breaks and all–for a half mile, because you want to run, you are a runner.

It’s easy to silence ourselves, or let others silence us, because we’re not the best–or not even very good–at something we love. But if you love it, be proud of that. Respect it. It’s still amazing. Trust me, I know who I am as a runner. I’m solidly mediocre, and incredibly happy to be a runner.

And I never want to put out someone else’s flame by making them feel like it’s not big or bright enough.

  1. You can push yourself harder than you think.

I remember the exact day I went from being a comfortable runner to working for it. It was a 5k around my town–3.1 miles. I was running pretty hard–much harder than usual. I knew I was going to have to slow down–maybe even walk–after the first mile. But then something in me told me to keep going.

I think it’s the first time running has actually felt like really hard work. I had to concentrate on taking deep breaths and just push myself through the pain. Then I had to focus on not letting my legs slow down as they started to fatigue. I had to run through the tummy thrills and nausea, deciding I was going to win the mental battle and keep going.

I ran those three miles way faster than I’d ever done before. I was on top of the world, and it completely changed the way I run.

The more I pushed myself as a runner, the more I noticed myself exercising strength of will day to day in all areas of life: Sometimes you have to have scary conversations that it would be easier not to have. Sometimes you have to say no to the sugary snack calling your name. Sometimes you have to choose between feeling safe and comfortable, and making a big life change you know you really want. There are so many areas of life where if you really do the emotional, mental, physical work–and don’t back down–and keep going–and keep going when it’s starting to really hurt–and just be determined–you’ll do so much more and so much better than you ever thought you could.

  1. Don’t take unhealthy shortcuts. Be patient. You still want to be able to run a year from now.

If you google “Mistakes new runners make,” you’ll find things like this at the top of just about every list: “Doing too much, too soon; Being too ambitious; Too far too soon; Not resting; Ignoring the pain.”

It’s almost comical how many times I’ve hurt myself running and not learned the lesson. There’s a lot that goes into doing something in a healthy, functional way. For running, some of these are: “Warm up and warm down; Don’t stop moving right after running; Don’t stretch when you’re not warmed up; Take plenty of time stretching afterward; Let your body rest and recover; If you haven’t been running 3 miles, don’t jump straight to 6.”

We often get so amped up about the thing we’re working on right now in our life that we forget we have to do it in such a healthy way that we can still be doing it a year from now.

A few other ways you can take unhealthy shortcuts: Working 70 hours a week on salary to try to build a career–and burning out; Trying to make emotional relationship work fit neatly into your schedule–and finding out too late the message that gives; Suddenly committing to never eating anything unhealthy again–until you suddenly go on an eating binge because you just can’t take it.

Most great things in life take patience. A shortcut that gives you a burst of endorphins and confidence today might later leave you even weaker and further from your goals than when you began.

  1. Consistent baby steps add up.

Saving a little bit of money regularly can make you incredibly wealth. Learning a little bit more every day can make you an expert. And running a little further and a little faster every week will add up. I know this from experience.

Very few people suddenly become amazing at their thing. Even people who seem like they have come out of nowhere to suddenly realize incredible success and popularity have probably been stretching themselves further and trying harder day by day for a long, long time.

“Any time you see what looks like a breakthrough, it is always the end result of a long series of little things, done consistently over time.” – Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge

If you want to go a long way, you have to take the first step. And then the second. And then the third. And if you keep taking those little steps, you’ll get there.

  1. There’s a lot of beautiful world out there for you.

Sometimes you just have to open your eyes and look around you. Head outside and see for yourself.

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Thanks for reading!

Whether you’re a runner, a writer, a cook, a teacher, a traveler, or a friend–be proud of who you are, never give up, and may more and more happiness be with you!

Peter running
10 miles, Eden Prairie, MN