Reflections on my life changing experience with a concussion
In a matter of a week, I went from putting in 8+ hours a day to less than two. I took naps every day for months. You may think…that doesn’t sound so bad, well it certainly wasn’t my idea of a good time. Most of the time my head was buzzing and throbbing and I felt like I had just stepped off one of those spinning rides at Elitches. This is what it feels like to have a concussion.
On March 30th while skiing on a beautiful powder day in Vail, I caught an edge on my left ski after finishing a run on the Back Bowls. I wish it was a more glamorous story, but I was on the flats catching a breath and whamo…next thing I know I’m on the mountain covered in snow. I can still remember it in slow motion, with my eyes closed, how and where I landed. I landed headfirst (yes, with my helmet on) and then my back and butt. Everything was askew. I checked my body. Is everything moving? Does anything hurt? My right ski was stuck in the strap of my fanny pack, and I couldn’t move my leg, but other than that everything felt ok.
Thankfully a ski patrol was not far behind me and saw the fall. So was my husband. It was disorienting. They helped unstick my ski from the fanny pack. Everything was moving and nothing hurt. I was just so thirsty. They helped me get a CapriSun out of the lunch fanny pack, but I couldn’t get the straw in, I felt like a child. Then the ski patrol started checking me over. Was I ok? I wasn’t quite sure. Things felt very off.
The ski patrol skied with us to the lift to take a ride up to the nearest lodge. I got my first ride on a snow mobile. Once inside the lodge I just wanted more water and to find a place to rest and collect myself. Since it was during COVID, I was only supposed to stay indoors for 15 minutes. We eventually bogarted someone else’s reserved place to eat until they arrived and then went outside. I spent the rest of the day cruising greens and blues to take it easy.
In the evening I let my husband, daughter and her friend take care of dinner while I chilled out with a glass of wine and watched TV. I slept hard that night and woke up with a very sore body and didn’t really notice my head. I skied the next two days on blue and green, calm terrain. Decided I’d leave the black diamonds for another day.
After returning home, my husband and I went to get our COVID vaccinations down in Colorado Springs, a short 90-minute drive from our home. Things seemed a little swimmy while in the car, but I wasn’t driving so I didn’t pay much attention to it. On the way home I was feeling a bit tired, but figured it was from the excitement and energy of finally getting our vaccination. The next day was Easter and we were excited to have the family over and spent much of the morning cooking and prepping for the Easter bunny. After it was all ready to go, I crashed on the couch for an hour or so before the crew came over. I figured I was tired as a side effect from the vaccine.
It wasn’t until early the next week when I went to prepare for a speaking engagement that I really noticed something was off. While on the computer I felt nauseous moving around files, working on a slide deck and preparing for the discussion. I found it a little difficult to read my notes and go along the page. I just thought I was tired because of the COVID vaccine.
Things all went to crap when I was in the zoom meeting and it was my turn to share. I shared my screen, I pulled up the chat and started sharing. I felt wacked out in a way I couldn’t explain. Why was doing something so familiar all of a sudden feeling bizarre? Moving my eyes from person to person, looking at the slide deck, bouncing over to my notes and then trying to write in the chat was like being a mouse in an unfamiliar maze. I was dizzy, tripping out slightly and feeling very off-balance. No one but me knew this. I finished my discussion and answered a few questions with the audience. And then I was done…I mean really done. I felt like I had just run a marathon and it was a 5-minute speed session with Q&A. Something was not right. That’s when I figured I must have had a mild concussion. My son had a moderate concussion when he was 11. He got knocked out by a soccer ball hitting him in the throat. The docs did a neurological exam and put him on low/no activity and lots of rest. I figured I just needed to rest and things would be great in a week or so.
Over the course of the next few weeks things did not get better. I was having difficulty driving and looking over my shoulder to change lanes. I had problems attending to things on the computer. Being on Zoom almost blew my mind and not in a funky cool way. I was tired all the time. I visited my acupuncturist and told her what was going on and she recommended that I see a visual integration specialist.
The hardest part was that it was difficult to describe to my family what was going on in my head. It would hurt, throb, make me feel dizzy and swimmy and so very tired. I couldn’t pay attention to virtual meetings. I couldn't focus on people, the chat, a slide deck and listen all at the same time. How was I going to be able to do my job as a speaker, trainer and business owner if I couldn’t speak online without getting nauseous and dizzy? Quite the dilemma. Thankfully I had a bit of a break from speaking engagements and could focus on healing for a bit. But what would healing look like? It’s not like I had a temperature or a broken arm. No one could see it and feel it but me. Sometimes I felt like no one believed me when I told them what I was experiencing.
Then I talked with other people who had had a concussion. That helped me feel not so crazy. It also helped me understand that healing times vary. Symptoms vary. They described similar experiences and issues integrating stimuli. Even read an op ed piece by a guy who was recovering from a head injury due to a snowboarding accident. For the 1st time in my life…I wrote a letter to someone in the newspaper and told him how helpful his article was for me and that I had complete empathy for him and his situation. I have worked with kids and people with sensory integrations for a good portion of my career and I thought I really understood what it was like. WRONG! I now have a much greater appreciation for what integration really means and how sensory integration dysfunction manifests itself.
This experience also gave me a new appreciation for the “invisible” disability. Research and census statistics show approximately 25% of the population has a disability ranging from mild to severe. The majority of those are “invisible” meaning there is no outward indicator that something is causing pain, discomfort, or an inability to attend to activities of daily living. It looks like chronic disease, back pain, heart disease, mental illness, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine headaches, and head injuries…to name a few.
Then I thought to myself 1 in 4 people are dealing with some type of disability and we don’t even know it. Most of us may keep it to ourselves, only talk to our families and friends about it, or just discuss it would our health care provider. Over the past 10 months I have learned to be much more patient and understanding with people because you just don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface. The problem is I’m not so great at being patient with myself. Hmmm….I think there’s a lesson to be learned there.
I decided to listen to my acupuncturist and set up an appt with the vision integration specialist who focused on patients with head injuries, strokes, sensory integration issues and many other vision disorders. She ran me through a battery of tests and finally I could see how my head injury was manifesting. My field of vision was constrained, limited and below normal limits. My balance was affected, and my eyes couldn’t track with my head. I finally felt “not crazy”…I could “see” where the deficits were and she let me know there were exercises and therapy to make it improve and heal.
It would take time though. On my second visit…she had a bit of a “come to Jesus” discussion with me. I was frustrated with the pace of my healing…not fast enough for sure. In a direct and kind way, she let me know that I would never “go back” to the way I was before. It was time to focus on moving forward and embracing the gifts and challenges that would come with it. I asked her how she knew. She shared with me that she had 3 significant head injuries from a variety of causes and was able to recover from all of them only once she accepted letting go of what was and moving forward to the new and exciting her that was waiting. It began to sink in, and I got very emotional.
After exiting my appointment and “lost my proverbial shit”. You know the one…snotty nose, the ugly cry, sobbing uncontrollably. What I realized after that discussion was that not only did, I need to let go of the past me from the head injury, but the past me from a hip injury over 8 years prior. I had been trying to “heal” and get physically back in shape like I used to be before I tore my labrum. I was so frustrated starting to feel better physically, only to slide back into pain after doing things that used to never bother me. Owning that vulnerability really sucked. That day I started letting go of the pain in my body and my head and started looking forward to what the new me was going to be. I’d love to tell you that all the pain went away, and I was a new woman. Alas, that was not the case. It’s been a cyclical journey. I’ll start feeling better and then do too much and then go down a spiral and continue with the healing process. A bit like a Ferris wheel sometimes and damn I'm ready to be totally off the Ferris wheel.
Part of the healing process was staying connected to nature. When I would get frustrated with the process, I would take a break and go outside, sit on my deck, absorb the sunshine, and walk on the trails near my house. I tried riding my bike, but the bouncing on the trails was too much, so I stuck to walking and hiking. The other part of healing was to stay physically active when I wasn’t sleeping. I would adapt workouts on the computer to fit my mobility ability. If there was too much bouncing or putting my head toward the ground, I’d make it low impact and reduce the range of motion. That 30 minutes of movement each day was a path to sanity. The summer was not full of all the adventures that I’d hoped. I had to be very conscientious of my activity choices and movement. Anything that involved bouncing, running, spinning, etc. was all too much. I kept it moving so I could be as active as possible when my family went on vacation. I didn’t want to miss any of the good stuff and in the end, I only missed a little bit.
I still have challenges with intermittent memory issues too. I’ve taken to writing most everything down. Sometimes when I’m speaking, and I can’t remember the word for something I invite the audience to place charades with me. It’s frustrating because I know the word, the phrase or the metaphor is there, but I can’t put words to it. My kids have fun laughing at…I’m mean with…me when I don’t quite get it right or forget something I just said recently. I find the memory challenges are getting farther apart and I can’t always blame it on my head…sometimes it’s a little bit of age. It’s helped me to learn that limitations are always limiting. You have to learn how to find the work around. I think I’ve been in the process of learning that for almost 25 years as I’ve worked with people with disabilities and seen all the ways they have made life work with the gifts, not the deficits, they’ve been given.
So how did this affect my business? I had to totally focus only on the present and immediate needs of my business and clients. Everything else could have waited, got put on hold or sent to the back burner. And guess what…nothing imploded. Several projects were put off until a different quarter. I was able to focus on the now and listen to my body and rest when I needed to. Most importantly do it without feeling guilty or that I was being a slacker or that I was letting myself or my clients down. I could break up my time on the computer with time doing things that required me to be physically present.
I had to limit my screen time (computer, tv and phone) at first to a mere 2 hours a day and gradually increase as I was feeling better. I started listening to podcasts more. My friends and colleagues shared some interesting things that worked for them. The laundry became an off-screen break, so I baked and made new recipes for dinner. I spent time with my daughter when she came home from school, sometimes to her chagrin. I no longer had a “9-5” business day and what business owner has that anyway. I learned to be more flexible and forgiving with myself. It would sometimes take me 8-10 hours to get 4-6 hours of work completed so I could be focused and present while I was doing it.
I was grateful when my clients returned to in-person conferences and experiences. Being with people and presenting in person was energizing, soul reviving, life giving. The prep on the computer and the research took a little longer, but the reward of being with the people was awesome.
10 months later…I can focus for longer. I still have to listen to my head and my body when they’re ready to tap out because when I don’t I pay for it for much longer. I’ve discovered I still can learn, connect, present and share. Talking about my concussion and invisible disabilities has become a caveat in some of my talks when sharing about discovering people’s unique needs and to not make assumptions. My capacity for empathy for those with invisible disabilities has grown tremendously. We all have something going on beneath the surface that people can’t see. Being open to embracing that has helped me be a better human and business owner. I’m finally getting better at asking for help, asking for what I need, and asking better questions that help me get to know people better. I tell people more often what I’m thinking and share observations.
As crazy as it sounds, my business grew while I’ve been healing from my concussion. The business I had put in place before and the business I created during the healing doubled the work I was doing. It’s a part of my life experience now. It adds to who I am, despite being a pain in the butt…I mean head. I’m more attuned to my audience and clients. It sounds even more crazy that maybe I’m grateful for my concussion even as the healing process continues. I hope to reach that place where I can acknowledge, accept, and appreciate my new self without hesitation and know that me and my business are better for it. In the meantime, I’m ready to get back on the slopes and ski again, sans falling.