Having A... Concussion
I have a concussion. In fact, I’ve had five of them. And what they’ve done to my life is irreparable. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury (TBI) where the brain makes contact with the skull. It usually involves a violent jerk at the neck (whiplash) from hitting an object like another car or another person. Hitting another person is largely why most concussion information and research is connected to sports. In my research, some 70-80% of the data on concussions is related to sports, specifically football and hockey.
None of mine were related to sports. The first was a terrible car accident 35 years ago in 1987. The second was during a dispute with the Russian mafia while teaching in that country in 1994. The third was when being arrested by the Russian police, while the fourth and fifth (my main issues today) resulted from four poor drivers, three car accidents in the last four years. I was unconscious for a time during all these incidents. Interpreting the world through the lens of someone enduring a concussion has been challenging for anyone looking through the windows to my soul. And I haven’t been able to stand looking through those windows either. Let me explain.
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, symptoms of a concussion are:
Nausea or vomiting.
Headache or “pressure” in head.
Balance problems or dizziness,
Double or blurry vision.
Bothered by light or noise.
Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy, or groggy.
Confusion, or concentration or memory problems.
Just not “feeling right”
I don’t have nausea. How fortunate… However, I suffer from all the other symptoms to some degree, from day to day, night to night. Until more recently, I was working as a writer, screenwriter, and editor for a film production company until a car accident happened while I was assisting another car accident on the highway. A collision had occurred between a car and an 18-wheeler. Since I was pretty bold about my first aid training, I stopped as a good Samaritan should. Everyone was alright but the accident scene wasn’t safe, there was a black car in the darkening sky, stuck in the median. I waited for the police to arrive after I’d reported the accident to 911 and went to sit out the spotty rain showers in my car for a smoke. Sitting in my driver’s seat, I was rear-ended by a car that had tried to avoid the dark car in the median. Initially I was okay, there was no blood, no bodies. I focused on talking the young woman who'd hit me down from her ledge. She was uninjured but was in shock.
“Three times it happened and I was never asked any questions. The question was ‘are you OK?’ Yeah, I’m OK. Well, get back out there.’ That was the way it was handled back then.” — former NHL player Mike Bossy on how concussions were treated in the 1970s and 1980s
The next morning on my way to the hospital to get checked out, I was hyperventilating, and to this day that feeling has never totally left me. I became ultra-sensitive to both light and noise. I felt confused, lost my place in conversations, and had a problem finding the right words for the moment. And I've had a memory problem I call "The Goldfish Syndrome" where my train of thought is five seconds or more. I never returned to my desk at my job, the best job I’d ever had in my life. From that little desk, I had an Academy Award coming, I just knew it. But after the concussion, I couldn’t write or edit, I'd lost my confidence. I felt like a concert violinist who woke up to find he could no longer play the violin.
Concussions are nasty occurrences particularly because there is no way to detect them. I’ve had debilitating tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears, for twenty years. But since the accident, because the sounds had changed in pitch and I often felt them pop like on an airplane, I was sent for tests. When the doctors and insurance company sent me for tests I thought it was for a solution but I found out the reason I’d been sent to a hearing specialist was to see if I was lying since you cannot prove or disprove tinnitus. There is no solution.
For years later, I've belonged to a Concussion Clinic. And to communities for concussion sufferers on social media. My physiotherapists cannot duplicate the hyperventilating events I've experienced again after recent car accidents. I still "see stars" like cartoon characters do when they've been hit in the head with a frying pan. These are very fast semi-circles of light that I see in the sky or on blank walls. And often walls seem to be heaving. Again, these aren't things that are able to be replicated in my therapies. I await an appointment with a neuro-optometrist to assess my visual phenomenon: when I close my eyes, the world doesn't stand still.
Every time you sustain a head injury, the risk gets higher and higher. I always said that if there ever was a point where the risk was more than minimal, I would stop playing.” — LaFontaine upon his retirement
My neck has been the greatest point of suffering in the 34 years since I was 18 and had that first car accident. Now it has additional components like drilling nerve pains that can make living intolerable like I'm carrying someone on stilts. My cerebellum also seems to get inflamed and try to push out the base of my skull. My doctor told me my head is too heavy for my neck. and so I've often worn a neck brace to help sleep. Rarely did I feel comfortable wearing it outside. It just looks like the poster child for pity.
Concussions are like that. For all my agony on display through my eyes and wincing, for all the lack of mobility or range of motion, there is no meter or gauge, no instrument or machine, that can verify a soft-tissue injury. With all this subjective to the patient, it is easy to see why these symptoms are often the subject of fraudulent claims for insurance or leave from work or sympathy from others. You cannot point to a monitor and prove to the world that your body is screaming. And in my cases, post-traumatic accident issues are woven together with insomnia and anxiety to make quite a mess of a person trying to represent themselves, in court or in public.
Typically, concussions aren't forever, as the rest of mine were at the time, though their cumulative effect compounds the problems. The more you have the more likely the symptoms will be permanent. In one of the recent car accidents, I didn’t even know I was knocked unconscious, but I had accidentally filmed the accident occurring on my phone. For the other incidents, for most people, these symptoms lighten or are gone after a few days to a few weeks, but for me, they linger on and aggravate daily duties.
As I was getting treated for a concussion from one recent accident, with the greatest of cutting-edge brain research, I was planning to get a job driving for Uber or Lyft. I was almost standing at the windows to my soul.
Out of the blue, I was rear-ended by a Porsche that wrote off my car. It was back to square one but with accident-induced hernias and anxiety. And while that left me standing in row 28 at Walmart dripping diarrhea or popping my pain pills over the limit, I was healing yet again with the same routine of exercises and mindfulness training - when a car ran into me on a freeway on-ramp and took off. Three accidents in three years, none my fault, have damaged my life and taken away what I took for granted. My passions of driving, writing, and film all turned into anxieties. Through rigorous training, I’ve gotten closer to that window, the apparent metaphor explaining that I would immediately be at the windows, where ordinary people stand.
I’ve had an incredible concussion-focused medical team helping me succeed at recovery each time. My occupational therapist has introduced me to meditation and mindfulness. From the glossy cover of a brochure, this sounds harmless and ineffective but they’ve played key roles in my healing. In fact, I balked at one treatment from the outset, neuroplasticity. That is, retraining the brain to use different neural pathways to achieve the same goal as the damaged portion of the brain. I refused to see its utility even as I went through the exercises, month after month, only to find that I had rewired my brain! My "The Goldfish Syndrome" where my train of memory problem is five seconds or thereabouts often makes me forget where I am in conversations, I forget the topic, and I forget what to say when it's my turn to speak.
Meditation wasn’t for me, not initially, and even now, it isn’t a benefit every day, but when it does work - it is a tool in the drawer. I have an app called "Waking Up,” and it provides me a million times more guru data than I need to conduct a meditation session, but it aims and encourages everyone to participate for indeed, says the host and apologetic Sam Harris. It will come with years of practice. In the beginning, I was like an engine running at 5500 rpm and devoid of any mechanism to interject or ease back on the throttle. Having suffered from chronic insomnia since I was five years old, my mind was always going at a rate faster than one can throw a meditation wrench into it. However, along with the app and training with a group as well as tip and hints from my healthcare team, meditation has proven to be relaxing, stress-abating, and at times, to use an apt word, lucid.
Concussions have companions. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and specifically instant traumatic events, ones that are sudden and go crash or boom, have bent my tinfoil hat out of shape. In the passing blink of an eye, I can relive a traumatic several hours or days. And I can be instantly depressed and anxious and unable to make a coffee with a friend or a medical appointment. It’s like films of the bad stuff in my mind are always playing in one part of my brain and – suddenly somehow it gets played on the big screen in my head. Suddenly I’m watching something graphic and repulsive that happened decades earlier. Suddenly the world I see has another movie playing overtop it. That is PTSD and I was diagnosed two dozen years ago with it. And anxiety. And possibly bipolar.
For PTSD and chronic pain, you need therapy, psychiatry, and drugs. For myself, I don’t think there’s any way to get out of a deep dark hole than the ladder of medications. Fight it as I have, the fight is not for vanity or stoicism, it’s for self-preservation. But when the protection has worn away and you’re stripped of hiding places, medication does provide solutions. And we’re further ahead of where we were, miles ahead of even Prozac, which has been a household name since 1988. We’re further along in therapy for concussions and better at catching things early.
When I was in a car accident that killed a good friend on grad weekend in 1987, there was no therapy, no books, no self-help or group help, there was no medication or mindfulness provided to me; I actually didn’t actively seek it or want it, not knowing the ramifications of the situation. I was 18 years old and unwise, if not conceited about recovery. I had a burned arm in a sling and the beginnings of post-traumatic stresses overtake my dreams. I could find nothing anyone could do with my broken mind. It was only after the Columbine murders in the US that the notion of support counselors for trauma victims became big news that I was aware of. It seemed therapists were around everywhere for young people in need, they were even being sent to the homes of kids who were off school sick. And by the time I dealt with the Russian police arrest in 2001, I had available therapies, exercises and medications finely tuned for my conditions but only once I returned to my home country; Russia’s not big on post-traumatic therapy groups for people it arrests.
It wasn’t until very recently that I’ve been able to write anything worth reading. My second book took me 22 years to write because it involved taking a lot of trips and trains to go around the world. But after that accident four years ago, it took me over two years to do what should have been two months' worth of editing and rewriting. I was stalled by my concussion. The ideas were there—I never had to worry about writer’s block from a lack of ideas—but writing pieces became impossible because the process itself got blocked and mangled. It's hard enough these days to get someone's eye to drag across 1000 words, let alone when there is nothing but a word salad. A new medication, an anti-depressant, broke through the walls to where I can now focus and contribute.
That concussion challenge has become my story. If you’re reading this, know that it came from a place where the darkest of mental illnesses live, where every room is haunted, and from which there is no reprieve except to wait it out. I never saw myself writing articles and finishing them, let alone believing what was inside was worth my time or any reader's time. I have lived in the darkest days any soul can imagine, and with PTSD I'm never far from reliving them, but here I am putting a period on this sentence with a smile on my face.
Concussions are generally only for a spell, and the mind is adaptable, malleable, and recoverable. Beyond that, when a concussion victim to yet another concussion and another, I find myself in a dark room with the open world a dozen steps away, it is best to take it step by step, no faster. It will come back. It took me years after the first rear-end concussion-causing accident to again stand at the windows to my soul…
OF RUSSIA: A Year Inside
Brent (Brant is the Russian version) Antonson has seen a Russia few foreigners have. Indeed, few Russians. This young Canadian ventured to Voronezh, eleven hours south of Moscow by train, to spend a year inside a country torn by strife, fresh into a new century, and struggling with the clash between history and future. Tasked with teaching English to students at one university, and then a second, his story is riddled with romance and deception, and punctuated with near disaster and disappointment. Antonson's candor and insights set Russia on the edge of failure and achievement – much like the students he educated, filled with a dash of hope and a lump of fear. His wit did as much to get him in trouble as it did to keep him out of it.