What a Concussion Taught me About Life
I got a concussion and as it turns out, I’m not that unique. I learned that 3.8 million people experience a concussion every year. That fact became very evident to me when I shared my experience with others, most of whom responded with “I’ve had a concussion before too” as if it was a rite of passage. Yet, as common as this experience seems to be, I felt that no one prepared me emotionally for it. You see when you have a concussion, like your head, your entire life turns upside down. You can’t do basic things like read a book, write an email, focus on your work, exercise at your full capacity, watch youtube videos and movies, browse the internet, or communicate with people on your phone. These activities come with excruciating head pain and you are forced into a lifestyle that feels unfamiliar, lonely, and confusing. But, like most uncomfortable experiences — it gave me a new perspective about life. As my head injury continues to heal, I hope to remember these life lessons it left me with:
Mood Swings — Where do they come from? As a calm person who almost always maintains her cool it was the weirdest experience being moody. If I couldn’t do a small task such as looking something up on the internet, frustration would vertebrate through my body. I got hot, angry, and impatient. If someone said something that confused me, I became defiant, annoyed, and agitated. I felt like I couldn’t control my emotions or my reactions and that scared me. This experience made me consider — what makes someone moody? I realized that “moodiness” is a fragile state that any of us can enter when we don’t feel good — it can be physical, mental or both. This feeling destabilizes us and we lose our grounding making us particularly vulnerable to passing emotions. Experiencing this myself I realized how important it is to be compassionate with others when they are caught in a mood swing. Someone who is moody is in a very vulnerable state, and instead of getting frustrated with them, I think next time I’ll try to be more patient and understanding. I see mood swings now as humane moments where we release some of the emotions that help us deal with our struggles. Because if we keep carrying them only inside of us — I think most of us fear they will take over and we will lose ourselves in it. We can and most of us will get past these bouts of moodiness especially if we understand where it comes from and what we need to let go of our pain.
Life behind the Screen — are we losing touch with ourselves? When my life changed from a concussion the first thing that I noticed was how reliant I am on screens. I work on a computer screen, I communicate with my friends and family on a phone screen, I read books on a kindle screen, and I watch shows and movies on a TV screen. It’s a scary reality to be so reliant on technology for my happiness. Unable to rely on these interfaces for most of my daily activities I’ve realized how much of a distraction these devices provide in my life. Instead of scrolling through social media, or one of my favorite activities scrolling through clothes online shopping, I was forced to instead sit alone with my thoughts and surroundings. I often would light a candle, play music lightly in the background, and lay with myself. I’ve realized that these breaks from technology and a fast-pacing world are really important for staying connected to ourselves. Away from technology there is no one to compare ourselves to, no one to impress, no one to measure up to — and I think if we make space for those moments when we return back to the world of screens, it’s a world we can better manage and enter on our own terms.
How to be Present with Pain? I believe in meditation. It’s a practice I’ve engaged in for years now. But, when you have a concussion and searing headaches, the idea of being present with that pain feels a little masochistic. Yet, to my surprise it was easier to sit with pain than I thought it would be: I sat down on a blanket in the grass and in the sun, I closed my eyes and focused on my body and my being. Did I feel throbbing pain in my temples? Yes. But that wasn’t the only thing I felt. I heard the beating of my heart, I felt grass tickling my toes, I felt my belly growing and shrinking, I heard birds chirping, children laughing, a breeze brush against my cheeks and lift my hair ever so lightly, I felt a dryness in my lips, I felt pain in my hip which had been masked by the pain in my head, and I felt the sturdiness of the dirt beneath me. It was this moment that I learned how to sit with pain — physically but also mentally. I think a lot of us are afraid to sit with our pain — the thought of it makes us anxious: we don’t know how long we can live with this hurt, we don’t like the way it makes us feel, and we want it to go away but feel like we don’t have the power to do so. That’s why instead we don’t sit with it — we distract ourselves from it, run away from it, and some of us pretend it doesn’t exist. But as someone who allowed herself to be present with pain, I can tell you that once I accepted it, I was able to see everything it was masking. I could also see it in relation to the rest of me. Acknowledging its presence, I realized that I could sit with it and it wouldn’t overtake me. I felt the ebbs and flows of it too — it’s harshness and then its lightness. All of these observations made it easier for me to live with the pain. I then decided in this moment that the next time pain comes into my life — and it will — I will be present with it. Otherwise it will take up a much larger part of my life than I’m willing to concede to it. Because pain can’t consume us when we are no longer using all of our energy to hide from it.
Paradigms of Productivity — what does it mean to be productive? An annoying fact I learned about a concussion is that it takes forever to heal. It can be months or a year before you return back to normalcy. As a workaholic who is constantly productive this reality was my worst nightmare. I craved to work, but my body would not let me. This is extremely frustrating. But it made me consider all the ways that I viewed productivity. To me productivity was producing something, achieving a goal, checking a box off a to-do list. Did that mean for months or a year I would no longer get to feel productive? By that definition — yes. But I’ve come to think about productivity a little differently with a concussion. I realized that underlying all the compulsive goal seeking was a feeling I craved: to feel purposeful. And I know now that work is not the only way to feel purposeful. In the last few weeks/ month I have found other ways to experience this feeling: making my friends and family feel loved, petting my cat until he purrs, washing dishes, cooking a meal, caring for my body by eating, sleeping, and giving it water and coming up with new ideas and thoughts. Sometimes productivity is just simply I showed up today for my life and I was here to experience it. We don’t have to accomplish something to have purpose in this world. We are so much more than these things, but I feel we often reduce ourselves to these markers of production. I’ve also learned that this desire of accomplishment can be blinding. For example, I had outlined a chapter of my dissertation before my concussion. At first, I was frustrated that I couldn’t complete the task and finish the chapter. But weeks of walking and thinking made me realize an entire new way to think about and write this chapter. Now, when I finally have the ability to write it — it will be better and completely different than what I imagined. I think we have to approach productivity differently: to find purpose in everyday moments and to not be so quick to seek immediate satisfaction that goals and to-do lists can provide us. Because this satisfaction is fleeting and we are so much more than checked boxes.
Why Healing is so Hard? Recovering from a concussion I’ve learned that it is hard to let ourselves heal. To be honest, I didn’t need a head injury to figure this out. But, the experience of healing slowly over a long period of time has made me reflect about the process of healing more thoughtfully. Healing is a particularly vulnerable and mortal phenomenon. No one wants to be constantly reminded that they are human and fragile, especially me. As we heal: we are reminded of our mistakes — what led to the pain in the first place. We are reminded of our limitations — we don’t always have the power to change our circumstances. We are reminded of time — things don’t usually happen suddenly but happen over long periods of temporal space. We are reminded of our past — this isn’t the first time we’ve experienced pain and it can remind us of past trauma. Healing requires patience and it forces us to come to terms with harm in our life. But it is also a powerful process to witness. With time and acceptance, the most unbearable types of pain can disappear — and if we are really fortunate — it can be replaced with something stronger, more resilient, and more self-accepting than we could have ever imagined.
How do we Face Consequences? Up until this point I haven’t disclosed how I got a concussion. And it’s a little embarrassing. But how I got the concussion has proved to be just as much of a learning experience as how I dealt with the injury. I’ve never been one to consider consequences before acting. The truth is I break many rules and have a complete disregard for consequences. I’m impulsive and brave. Moreover, I don’t believe anything is impossible. And while these character traits have allowed me to experience a lot of success in my life and do things that many would have considered unlikely or impossible — they have also made me face my limits, which I have unfortunately discovered that I have. I got a concussion because with very little training in doing headstands I decided to do a complicated trick moving from a crow pose to a head stand. I didn’t consider the consequences of trying the trick (which I rarely do). I didn’t carefully consider protecting myself while trying something new, such as laying down a pillow under my head, and when I hurt myself the first time I tried again. This is how I got a concussion — not recognizing or accepting my limits and trusting that by shear will power anything was possible. Well, I can confidently say that hitting my head on the hard wood floor (twice) knocked some sense into me finally. This experience has made me accept my mortality. Don’t get me wrong, I still see a world of possibilities — but as I enter that world now I see myself differently. I’m not the immortal person dressed in protective armor who can face anything and do anything. I’m a strong but also a fragile human being.
I think if we can accept that about ourselves it doesn’t mean we can’t achieve a lot of impossible things — it just means we may not always do it alone. Next time, with the help of a pillow, a friend spotting me, and some strengthening exercises beforehand — a yoga trick may be possible, but I don’t have to sacrifice myself to find out if that’s true.
Concussions are a scary and prolonged injury. But I hope if you ever have an injury like this that you find a way to learn from it. An injury isn’t an isolated occurrence — why it happens, how we deal with it, how we heal from it — is all a part of who we are.