Six years ago, I fell smack-bang onto the top of my head, seeing stars.
I was two weeks away from doing an Ironman and had decided to take a rare night off from rigorous training to go to a concert, where a friend of mine suggested hoisting me onto his shoulders.
With pints in our hands, it seemed like a good idea – until we tumbled forwards. But I didn’t black out, and after recovering somewhat, we carried on the party.
Fast-forward three months, and that seemingly innocuous incident had turned nasty. I was dizzy, short-tempered and unable to work, exercise or read. I was also sleeping constantly.
It turns out that those ‘stars’ that I’d seen were the sign of a concussion, or mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). The force of banging my head had interrupted the delicate structures in my brain, which took a further shake inside my skull.
The worst thing about having a concussion is that you can’t recognise it in yourself, and I lived alone so no one noticed the changes in my behaviour. It wasn’t until six weeks after the accident, when a friend of mine who is a surgeon and knows how fit and sporty I am, became concerned when I mentioned I was having regular daytime sleeps.
And suddenly it all made sense – I hadn’t put two and two together and linked my symptoms to the fall until this point.
After seeing my GP, I was referred to a specialist sports physician and neurosurgeon expert in traumatic head injuries, who would oversee my care for three months, with weekly reviews and neurological testing.
Unable to function normally, I spent much of that autumn distracting myself by making blackberry jam – I live in the countryside and have spent most of my life picking blackberries from hedgerows. But even that was fraught with danger; my balance was so badly affected that I fell in ditches and bramble bushes when picking the berries and the concentration required to get jam to boiling point tired me.
The sports physician ordered me not to tax my brain in any way so no work, reading or watching TV. I wasn’t even allowed to wash my car. I was permanently exhausted, tearful and suffering constant headaches.
I like to stay fit but exercise, and the Ironman I’d prepared for, went out the window. I was also concerned because, being self-employed, I couldn’t earn any money.
It was very frustrating.
I’d also gone through a breakup right before the accident, which compounded the emotions I was feeling.
I initially had a ‘just get on with it’ attitude, but the lack of energy was increasingly difficult to deal with. I wasn’t allowed to do any of the things I enjoy.
I got some support from friends and family, but I resisted much of it as I prefer to battle on alone, I always have.
It took six months before I was able work properly and 12 months until I stopped needing naps to get through the day.
Looking back now, it all seems like a blur. I remember thinking it would end once I’d started treatment and being annoyed it involved seemingly silly exercises like walking in a straight line and saying the days of the week backwards.
It didn’t end though, and there have been lasting effects. I am more forgetful and emotional than I was before the crash. I also spell phonetically when I’m writing, which, as a journalist, I find annoying, but it’s one of the less distressing symptoms from my concussion.
I was prone to depression and anxiety before the accident, and may arguably have been more ‘up and down’ since. It’s difficult to really gauge whether it has worsened or if that was a result of the accident, but I understand it’s a common side-effect: half of all survivors of brain injuries suffer in the year after injury.
The experience has made me realise that I can’t take my brain for granted.
It has also increased my awareness and ability to spot concussion in others and realise that the brain is more complex than we give it credit for. If it is hurt for any reason it needs time to heal like any other part of the body.
I know that I’ll still be recovering for years to come.
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