The hardest lesson I’ve learned from my November 2017 concussion is how to forgive myself for failing. You might think that I should already be really good at this because I'm a graduate student and scientist- so I get rejections all the time! But it's different when you're failing yourself as opposed to some outside outcome that you have little to no control over.
I can barely count the target dates that I've missed for being unable to think straight. I drafted this piece in March as my brain was inching closer toward to nearly full operational capacity. Around that time, I also finally became able to focus on my “real” dissertation work at a semi-normal pace again. By then I was so behind (I’m still behind) that my triage list couldn’t possibly fit something as “silly” as attention to my blog. I have been feeling guilty for not having edited and posted it ever since. When I was finally ready to post, I hit an insurmountable wall of technical difficulties in the field (including Weebly not letting me edit my site from Uganda). Then, suddenly, it was conference time (more on that later). Pre-concussion Kris would have just given up and scrapped this whole piece. It’s so much later than my self-imposed deadline that I might as well chuck it out because no one will read it anyway. And then there is that other little nag that no one wants to read a downer blog focussed on the difficulties of my life.
But this weekend, as I bathe in a different forest, I’m forgiving myself and banishing imposter syndrome. This is my story and I feel better when I write it. Maybe someone will feel better when I share it. So I’m posting this piece late, at concussion pace.
03 Mar 2018
I realized just now, after starting this post and deleting it for the thousandth time, that today is just about the 10th anniversary of my first concussion. Ten years ago, about two weeks before spring break and my 21st birthday, I blocked a direct shot on goal with my face during an indoor soccer match. I don’t know if I lost consciousness, I don’t think I did, but I also can’t remember anyone no asking or checking. The situation was complicated by the fact that I was just playing with some people that I was friendly with, but not a close friend of. If I’m honest, they were a bunch of Cool Kids who recruited me mostly because they needed an extra girl to field their co-ed team and I knew one of the guys from high school. I’d embarrassed myself terribly in front of these guys before, and I was so concerned about whether I had embarrassed myself again that I couldn’t really cope with anything else.
So I limped away, got myself home, and convinced myself it was no big deal, I was just being a wuss and needed to shake it off. I was too ashamed to seek help at first. About three days later, I stared at my computer through tears in devastating frustration for the umpteenth hour trying to write a midterm essay for the toughest undergraduate course I ever took. Even though I had outlined the essay in detail, I couldn’t remember what the hell I was trying to say three words ago, let alone the points I had planned to make three days ago. I couldn’t finish any of the sentences. For the first time in this nerd’s life, my brain, the only thing I could always count on, had abandoned me. My tears were part confusion, part frustration, and part terror that my brain might never come back online.
When I finally got to student health the next day, they prescribed me rest and extensions on all my midterms. The latter part did nothing but increase my stress about them and, consequently, inhibit the resting bit. They told me no booze for at least two weeks and no soccer either. Then they sent me back up to my dorm to pack my bags for break. I don’t remember that they requested any follow-ups, but anyway there weren’t any.
Despite the direct hit to my face and the force that pulsed through my brain with it, that concussion was milder than this one. I was tired and my brain was muddled for the first week or so but I was back to normal by the end of the second week. I wrote my midterms while on spring break in Orlando between Jurassic Park and Animal Kingdom. I turned 21 and drank a bit earlier than I should have but it didn’t seem to have too bad an effect. At that age, it felt easy to bounce back from anything.
Back then, ten years ago, we knew surprisingly little about concussions, especially compared to what we’ve learned about them since. We’ve known that concussions have obvious detrimental short-term effects but we’ve learned that repeated(?) concussions have more confusing and difficult to recognize long-term effects. We’ve learned that concussions require multiple check-ins, follow-up appointments, continuous monitoring- at least for the professional male American football players and maybe for the younger men and boys who play football too. Non-professional athletes with subpar insurance, however, are far less likely to get such devoted treatment. Even this time, there wasn’t much professional help to be had. There weren’t any follow-ups to speak of. Almost everything that I learned about how sudden impacts move through our jelly-like brains, what your brain does immediately after such a blow, and how it continues to heal itself, was through independent research- including one very apropos alumni lecture in February.
So I guess the goals of these three posts (third post forthcoming) are twofold. First, writing anything at all and especially something with a little less pressure than my dissertation chapters, is helping me work figure out my current linguistic roadblocks (My partner disagrees, but I swear my vocabulary is still not up to scratch). Second, maybe weaving the stories my two concussions together with as much of what I learned about concussions generally will help someone else get through a similar situation. I’m sure I’ll repeat bits and pieces of the stories and the information, but I hear learning is all about repetition so that’s probably alright.
One more note, for all of you out there struggling with work-life balance. Though I’m getting much better working a flexible and responsive work schedule, working as hard as I can whenever I can until I can’t anymore, I’m still struggling a little to keep to my self-care manifesto. I still find myself trying to bend my brain to a different work ethic and it’s had some bad consequences. And I still haven’t been able to get myself back into a good exercise habit. Now that I’m in the forest, it’s a bit easier to run into the woods when I need a break and I’ve been capitalizing on the opportunity whenever I can. I still do my best thinking on the trail- which is great motivation. I’m committed to keeping at it. Just keep swimming, right? Or, if you're a tiny chimpfant, just keep climbing.
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.