It's been one year since my accident, one year of having a concussion. I had been dreading the day, July 12, for weeks. I can remember clearly the first few weeks of my concussion; first there was denial (I hosted a party! Went to work! Attended a fancy Bastille day party at the French embassy!), then there was the crash (sitting on the sidewalk waiting for a cab to pick me up and feeling like my whole body had melted into a puddle on the ground), and finally there was this intense sense of urgency of when it would all be over and my life would go back to "normal". It felt like everyone I talked to would immediately tell me about their friend who had a concussion and it lasted for a year, two years, three years, oh and they never got better. A word of advice - NEVER tell someone about your friend who had a concussion (which might be me!) because whatever phase they're at in their recovery, I can tell you it's the most disheartening thing to hear. All I could think was, "that CAN'T. BE. ME.". And if you're struggling with what else to say, how about something like "I've heard every concussion is different. You are strong, and I'm here for you".
The thing about anniversaries and birthdays is that they make us take stock of where we are and where we've come from. I always liked that. But wait, it might also be because I like parties (it runs in the family). Maybe that's why I dreaded the 'one year' date, because I feared that when I looked back all I would see was the pain, and when I looked forward I wouldn't have hope for improvement. Here's the thing that I've figured out though, that life is not a zero sum game. That it's never just good or bad, but always this smattering of column a, column b and all kinds of in between. This past year was the hardest year of my life. When I think about that, my eyes sting with tears. But guess what else, I got married to a wonderful person surrounded by this community of people who lift me up. Also, I learned to meditate. I reconnected with creativity through writing, drawing and painting. I managed to read over 25 books, within a limit of a maximum of 30 minutes a day. I appreciated time outside by the river, walking the dog.
Have you heard of equanimity? It's still new to me, and seems to have many definitions. Within the Buddhist tradition it's a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight. Another definition is that it's a mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situations. Sounds dreamy. Sometimes I I strive for this state, but other times I think this doesn't necessarily reflect who I am. Let's be honest, I have the capacity to be calm, but I definitely feel intensely the highs and lows. I laugh loud and cry hard. I don't want to change that, but instead want to make sure that I make space for the in between, and continue to be a student of calm and balance.
This might sound obvious, but it's amazing how much better things look when you are viewing your situation through a lens of hope. If you had told me when I got injured that I would still be struggling one year later (like the many people who talked about all these "had a concussion friends"), that I still wouldn't be working, that I would still feel pain at some point every day, I would have wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. But I've shed the urgency of wanting to get back to exactly where I was (most of the time...eep!). People talk about recovery vs. resilience. That recovery suggests trying to return or recover the life that you had. That instead resilience is more focused on the strength that you build from going through these experiences. (I know, I know, I'm edging very close to the realm of hashtag inspiration, quote of the day territory, but stay with me!). A good friend sent me a text early on that said "one thing we know for certain is that you my friend are resilient", that was the boost I needed - I thought, if someone else thinks so, then it must be true!
Here's the good news: no one has the monopoly on resiliency. So consider this my reminder to you, whenever you might be going through a difficult time, that you, my friend, are resilient.
Setbacks are hard. No matter the context, we are programmed to desire forward motion, and anything that pulls away from that is frustrating, and can feel like a failure.
I've been trying to get better like it's my job. Mostly because I want to get back to my actual job. I take the moments of more energy and the breaks from the pain to learn more about what I now understand is "post-concussion syndrome" (which can happen to approximately 30% of people who suffer a concussion) to try and figure out what I might be missing, what the secret is to my recovery. Is it drinking coffee? Putting butter in it? Taking magnesium? Lasering my brain? It reminds me of the mindset of a high performance athlete, trying to figure out how to best fuel your body, what supplements to take, the best therapies to try. In the case of the athlete, the goal is to gain an edge over the competition and to perform at their absolute best. In my case, I want to "win" against this cloud that follows me around. In both cases, there's a lot of pressure put on the various forms of success, and any setbacks along the way are both physically and mentally challenging.
"It's always darkest before the dawn" is a line I have always liked from a Florence and the Machine song (aptly named "Shake it off"). Every time I get to an emotional limit I have a meltdown and think some version of "I can't do this anymore". I feel the cold of the floor on my cheek, my chest is constricted, my breath comes out in heaves and little streams flow out of my eyes. My dog, supposed companion, won't come near me when I'm like this (which incidentally was the reason I lay down on the floor in the first place). Oddly, it seems to be that release that opens me up and makes room for a re-start. If you look up cheesy quotes about setbacks you'll find something along the lines of "a setback is just a setup for a comeback". Wait, pep talks and cheesy motivational quotes...? Now we're talking!
Sometimes in those moments I realize that when you aren't so focused on going forward, that it's actually much easier to find enjoyment in where you are. So I guess that's what all this mindfulness stuff has been getting at...who knew? (Answer: everyone but me).
I've become somewhat evangelical about a book I listened to called "The Book of Joy" (also aptly named) that captures a conversation between the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Either I read it at just the right time for it to sink in, or it just really is THAT GOOD. It speaks to the fact that "passing through difficulties" (as the Dalai Lama would say) is all part of our curriculum, and provides us a greater appreciation of joy. That stress and anxiety come from expectation and ambition. Expectation of who we want to be, what we want to achieve, and where we want to go. I'm not saying that those are bad things, but maybe they are when they take a form of the pressure we put on ourselves, and self-judgment.
Another term I hear a lot in the mindfulness world is self-compassion (it's possible that by now my Dad's eyes have rolled right out of their sockets...sorry about that). To me, a simpler way to think of it is: GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK! With whatever physical cue works best: hand on the heart, hug, pat on the back, high five, ...or maybe a double-gun? In my version, it means telling myself that I'm doing a good job, and that the pace of my recovery (slow) isn't a reflection of the effort that I'm putting in (a lot).
I'm considering this a reminder to bring my long-term view a little nearer for a few days at least, and to see what can pop up when I take the time to let it in.
"I'm bored." I always hated that expression, used by self-absorbed teenagers who are oblivious to the great lives that they lead. I try really hard not to use it, but I fail. The problem is, I'm supposed to be "bored". I'm supposed to quiet the mind for rest rather than follow the birds in the trees, the movement of the clouds, the thoughts of what tasks I need to do. No screens, no sounds, no reading, no exercise.
Lying on the bed, looking out the window, I think about which part of my head hurts. There's a ringing in my ears that increases and decreases in volume. I look down and recognize my body, but can't put it into action because it's attached to this head. I run my hands through my hair over and over trying to distract from the pressure and the pain that moves around to different parts of my skull. Sometimes the tears flow and I can’t control them.
A concussion isn't the worst thing that can happen to you, far from it, and it's not even the worst thing that's happened to me. But it's certainly a lesson in patience and mindfulness. Physically I look the same (my nose and face healed up pretty well within a few weeks, and now there's just a very faint scar above my lip that's my little reminder). I sound the same. But there's all this pressure and pain in my head that's following me around like Joe from Li’l Abner with his dark cloud.
I went to work and it was an epic failure. I was handed a document in a meeting and I couldn't read. All of a sudden it wasn't just about this pain in my head but the fact that my brain actually felt broken. That terrified me. Everything seemed hard. The pressure in my head swells with every task I try to do. I’m learning that concussion recovery is not linear, and that the mental struggle in some ways gets harder as time goes on.
Time is passing, most notably marked by the changing seasons. I've never been so aware of the seasons. I spend a lot of time watching them out the window, or noticing them when I go for walks. In the summer I could rest outside, although sometimes the sounds of birds, crickets, lawn mowers; it was screaming in my ears! The fall was an amazing colour scheme of reds, yellows and oranges. I watched every last leaf fall off the tree outside the window, and then there was snow on the ground. Now the blooms are pushing up through the dirt and it makes me wonder how many seasons I'll go through with this pain in my head, the ringing in my ears, and the times when I can’t find my words.
Today it occurred to me that, just like that, I disappeared from my previous life. The lives of colleagues, friends, acquaintances all carry on, but somehow mine feels like it's standing still. It's like being on a moving sidewalk, where I used to feel pride in the fact that I maintained the same pace as the people, routines and environment around me. Keeping pace with a job that I loved, my relationship, friendships and exercise. But now all of a sudden the mechanism for forward motion is broken. Everything else keeps moving, but I don't. And when I do try to move, it feels like the sidewalk is now a treadmill, and no matter the effort I put in, I stay in the same place while everything else passes by my periphery going out of reach, specks in the distance, and then out of sight.
I started to feel better, seven months in. It was like the shell that I'd been stuck inside started to crack, with light coming through. Like the weight that had been my brain lightened so that my neck and shoulders could manage again, and with that release I could finally take things in. It's still there - the constant ringing in my ears, and pressure in my head, but it's just...easier. Life has finally gotten a little bit easier.
I am absorbing information voraciously. My curiosity is insatiable. I try to balance my desire for news, fiction and non-fiction in the one hour per day that I can manage reading or listening. The tales being told light my mind on fire with thoughts, ideas, and information. Descriptions jump off the page (or the podcast), and having someone else guide my thoughts is a welcome change. I want to hear stories of life outside my house. I feel the stories of others so much more deeply now that I have a greater sense of focus from so much time where distractions are minimized down to nothing but the movement of the branches outside my window. Or the breathing of the sleeping dog lying on the floor beside me.
Where am I now? I’m thankful that the pain is no longer constant. I’m frustrated by the fact that every day is different and brings its own challenges to my body. I still don’t feel in control - never knowing how much time I have before the pain sets in again, or how much to push my limits to try and improve my stamina. I oscillate between moments when my hope swells for the possibility of going back to work or being able to make plans, and the fog of depression that rolls back in with the pain on a daily basis. It’s been 9 months and I still have little idea how long this process will be.
It’s hard to not see this practice of writing things down as an exercise in naval-gazing, and not to roll your eyes when people start talking about the present moment, gratitude and compassion - but those do describe the thoughts on my mind on a daily basis. I feel more present, am so thankful for the family and friends looking out for (and after) me, and I think I understand better the fact that each of us is working through different challenges in their various forms.
I imagine that, as the dark cloud lifts, as the moving sidewalk slowly starts up again, the usual distractions of life and work will take over, which is what I’ve been so desperate for through this entire period. But until then, I’ll take it in, I’ll take it slow, and I’ll feel thankful for the experience of the seasons as they pass.
I’ll wrap it up here before having us all make an affirmation, chant in a circle and hug it out. Let’s see what tomorrow brings!