Today, like so many anniversaries, is bittersweet. One year ago I smacked my head into a wall and concussed my brain. This ordinary “life happens” day has been a threshold to a newness of life. And yet, it has been the toughest experience I have had. Hell, actually. I am such a natural optimist that even though I have experienced immense mental struggle for years, I think deep in my heart of hearts in the most abject despair I still clung to the belief that life was good, God is great, and that I would overcome. It is, He is, and I will. However, I had to go to the bottom.
After the injury, aside from the stabbing pains in my head, and the pain that referred to my jaw, hands, and back, my memory and recall were noticeably slower than usual. Counting sequentially was more laborious. I would have to stop and consciously think about what number came after 16, etc. My reading comprehension was pretty poor, too, for a lot of months. It was hard to read more than a sentence at first. The spelling of familiar words eluded me. I was off balance, stumbling around, trying not to run into things. I would reach to pick something up and find I had misjudged the distance by several inches. As I drove, I couldn’t center my car in the lane. It would list to one side or another, and I often parked skiwampus in the driveway in spite of my best efforts to park straight.
How do you spell that?
These symptoms are much improved. Even a month ago, though, I honestly could not remember how to spell serum. An odd word to remember how to spell, I know, but even if in the past it might have taken me a few seconds of recall to figure it out, now sometimes the correct answer just will not come to mind. Is it syrum? cirum? When I am tired words can still start to lose their meaning. Although my stamina for reading and thinking deeply is slowly returning, and I feel as though more and more of my brain returns each week, it kind of stinks to face life in what feels like a semi-altered state of consciousness.
Having experienced great functional improvements, it is easy to see how bad it was and how much worse it could have been. What if I had damaged my memory more severely and needed to relearn how to count altogether? What if my vision had been worse? Contemplating the what ifs highlights my gratitude even more. Even so, for months on end the experience felt like a river I could not cross over.
Words, communication, and making symbolic connections are a huge part of my identity and professional toolkit. I could not access them to the same degree; I felt devastated. After trying to force myself to work for a couple of weeks, and finding that my head pain intensified with mental exertion, I quit working and gave myself as much time as I needed to convalesce. I was so blessed to have that option and not have to rush back to fully functioning when the injury had laid me so low.
A brain is not a bone
A broken bone and a wounded brain are not the same thing. It is one thing to temporarily lose use of a limb that will reconstitute itself and another to work with a damaged network of connections that no one fully understands. Every case is unique, and research into effective rehabilitation for concussions is ongoing. The conventional wisdom about concussion recovery these days, though, is that it is vital to get up and moving as quickly as possible to get blood flow to the brain to facilitate healing, along with eating well, getting enough sleep, and progressively returning to normal activity.
The concussion flattened me, however, and for three months I could barely get out of bed except to go to doctor’s appointments and therapy. My sleep was awful, and I can only imagine that my healing might have progressed more quickly had I been able to sleep well. I benefited greatly from vision therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy, but I was so low that it was quite hard to do even the small, yet extremely helpful, exercises meant to be restorative. I went what seemed like months without much of an improvement, and then made a huge leap. From then on the progress was upward, but not without huge regressions or relapses into more symptomatic days.
Dealing with certain cognitive restrictions was an entirely new experience. Aside from academic performance anxiety, the actual task of learning was usually one that I could handle pretty easily with enough effort and focus. My memory and ability to retain information and make connections was actually quite good, I discovered, once I learned what reduced functioning was like. It is humbling to see that how well I function is largely a gift from God. If God were to take more of my brain away, that would be extremely disheartening, but it would just be the way things are. I am grateful that God has seen fit to continue to heal my brain, and I hope that I will appreciate it even more as I improve.
Imagine a crying emoji
Anyone who has had one of these injuries knows that the emotional fallout can be significant, a cue that the brain is not able to perform its normal functions while expending the usual amount of energy. The glitches in my brain were magnified, meaning lots of crying, panic, obsessions, and depression. I mourned the loss of my intellectual pursuits. I worried about being able to get them back. I worried about my symptoms becoming permanent. All of these fears played in a continuous loop in my brain, amplifying the distress.
The injury would be a frustrating disruption to anyone’s life. It was a particularly disheartening blow because for the previous two and a half years I had been fighting to be healed from fierce anxiety, OCD, and depression. It was a daily, often minute-to-minute fight for my life. I felt like I was poised on the edge of a breakthrough (and, actually, I was; just not the kind I had hoped for or imagined), and to be flung backward with such force into that mental and emotional morass I had been desperately trying to escape was incredibly depressing.
I had just barely begun to see glimmers of light during the day again. Five minutes here and there (not an exaggeration) without mental torture. I had begun to see the beauty of the world like I had when I was younger. I had reestablished a rhythm in my belief about God and was able to have a more stable foundation in that way. Even though I was moving in the right direction, I was still struggling mightily (a story for another day!).
My carefully constructed mental coping strategies were severely disrupted by the injury, and my faith began to suffer again. Trying to believe in a God I cannot feel reliably (but that I truly believe is there) only amplified the agony. And not being able to read scriptures, an activity that I receive spiritual uplift from doing, or focus on talks at Church and draw personal connections, made me feel even more distant.
Hadn’t I put in my time dealing with these demons? I had dedicated my life, mind and body, to the premise that healing through Christ was possible. After receiving innumerable miracles to that end, why couldn’t I be healed yet?
Letting go of going to law school was another blow that sort of knocked the wind out of me. That path had been my way out of what I viewed to be an insoluble predicament. The quest for a meaningful profession had been my sole, relentless purpose for the last four and a half years, and to fall short of achieving it again was devastating. Why did I keep getting funneled back into an experience with unemployment and illness when all I desperately wanted was to establish a career through which I could find financial security, independence, and confidence?
Immediately, I knew why
In one of my favorite children’s books Zen Shorts, by Jon J. Muth, a panda bear who is based on the Zen teacher and artist Sengai Gibbon, tells a story about a farmer. The farmer experiences a series of apparent misfortunes or blessings. His neighbors rush to congratulate or console him based on their perception of the auspiciousness of these events.
When the farmer takes in a horse that has wandered to his door, the farmer’s neighbors praise his good luck. He replies, “Maybe,” the same response he offers regardless of how negative or positive the event appears. The following day the horse throws his son, who breaks his leg. A pitiable event, it prevents the son from being conscripted, and so it goes.
When I hit my head, I had an intuitive realization/spiritual impression that it needed to happen. Somehow I knew right away that I had gone as far as I could in my healing journey without additional help. I literally hit a wall, and the injury has been a guide to healing. This misfortune was a great fortune. I was blessed to be directed to some health practitioners who have aided my healing immeasurably and who have taught me how to manage my health in new ways that have elevated my mental health to levels higher than it was pre-concussion. I am gaining a new perspective, learning to persevere even more.
Going with the flow was a challenge. Pink Floyd’s existential lyrics start playing in my head: “So you think you can tell heaven from hell, blue skies from pain.” There is something undeniably transformative about walking through hell to get to heaven: “I have refined thee, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction” (1 Nephi 20:10). Although I had been through years of suffering and misery, I don’t think I had ever truly felt hell on earth. The eternal optimist in me somehow managed to muster hope in my heart of hearts. Beside the many just plain old bad days, there were days that felt like hell, and after I went through them, things began to improve even more. Luckily, I had traveled close enough to the bottom enough times that I knew I could not give up.
This is the word that allowed me to begin to stop judging myself for my progress, or seeming lack thereof, in the direction of my dreams. It’s never just one thing. The concussion alone is not responsible for how I am feeling, neither is biology, nurture, false beliefs, or circumstance. All of these converge to create a pretty sticky, tricky quagmire. At times dealing with it feels impossible and I feel terribly behind. I am not where I would like to be and have not been for years. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
I had to have this experience. I needed it. I needed to learn everything I have learned. This is what I signed up for. This is my life. This is the path I have always been on, and these are the circumstances I need to keep working with. I can’t change my lineage and all the anxious peeps who passed along their experiences and their genes. I can’t thank them enough for all the good things they passed on, either.
God has preserved me through it all. It is humbling to think of how much worse the injury could have been. I can’t change what happened or how I dealt with it. I did my absolute level best under the circumstances, and I become more proud of my efforts each day (a huge milestone for a hypercritical person).
And you know? It was so good that I was forced to take a break from obsessing about God, from figuring out the universe. It was good to have my brain jogged a little bit and lose my bearings because I can’t really know the future. And I have been gently guided to live more from the heart. My spirituality has taken on a different cast, too. I had to be satisfied with reading a verse here, and praying a few words there while I have been getting my brain back. And I am trying to make these little spiritual practices more of a habit, put them in their proper place during the day, and not ruminate endlessly on existential and theological implications.
In spite of the sometimes excruciatingly slow healing pace and the exhausting lows, I am coming back together, and a few days I have felt better than I ever did before the injury. The storm has quieted, and he and I are old friends, after all. I am being given the gift of true confidence that comes from knowing that I can face my own individual insurmountable task, over and over and over again, until I learn the skills I need to know to not be thwarted (as if in a celebratory homage to the injury, I smacked my head again yesterday, although with only enough force to give me a headache and not, I hope, to give me another concussion).
And, let’s be honest, everything is just grace. Being alive at all is grace. The gift of healing is grace. I will never be able to conquer on my own strength of intellect. I will continue to learn the divine art of surrender to Christ. My striving can only get me so far. As I travel to my uttermost limits, Christ is always there to carry me across the next threshold.