On the Unreliability of Brains: A Story about my Concussion

Hi, I’m Jo, and I have a brain injury.

Let me backtrack a bit. In January this year, I was at my weekly roller derby scrimmage when I took a hit and fell. Roller derby is a full contact sport, so it’s reasonable to expect hard hits, bumps, and falls. (In fact, one of the first things new skaters are taught in derby is how to fall safely.) However, this was one of those weird hits where I ended up flat on my back. My head hit the track, which is laid over solid concrete. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember that there was a meaty sounding noise when my head hit the ground. Thankfully, I was wearing a helmet, but the helmet didn’t prevent the impact; it only reduced it.

I felt fine at the time, and didn’t think anything was wrong until the referee skated over to see if I was okay, and then told me to see our athletic trainer. There’s a relatively standard concussion test–shining a light in my eyes, asking things like what the date is, counting backwards, and so on. I barely passed, but I passed the test, so I thought I was okay.

A concussion is a type of brain injury where, to be completely unscientific, impact with your head causes your brain to jiggle inside your skull. As a result of the movement, brain cells can get stretched or damaged, which affects your neural pathways, and chemical changes can occur. This manifests in a variety of ways and can vary between individuals.

Image description: a simulation of what happens to a brain in a concussion. A hand slaps an open skull, causing the brain to wobble.

About three days later, I started getting symptoms. First it was headaches, especially when it was bright outside, or when I was looking at a computer, phone, or TV screen. Then sometimes things would be out of focus at the periphery of my vision. I found it hard to concentrate. I was irritable and anxious, and my sleep quality went down. I couldn’t leave the house unless it was nighttime because driving required too much brain processing, and walking outdoors during the day hurt my eyes and my head.

I’d also forget things. Sure, sometimes, being forgetful can be funny, in a “ha ha, I’m looking for my glasses and they’re actually on my face” sort of way, and then there’s being forgetful like when you leave a pan on the stove and almost burn down your house. (I set the smoke detectors off at my house twice in the first month of my concussion that way.) After that, my partner had to prep my food or leave me leftovers. For most of my life I’d been blessed with having a pretty good memory, so being unable to remember things like the names of your childhood pet or even what you had for lunch the previous day was pretty concerning.

I think that seeing my brain fail me in ways where I had previously been able to trust it was the worst part about having a concussion. I’m a highly academic and analytic person, and a lot of my identity is tied up in using my brain.  The other thing about concussions is that it can increase the risk of getting Alzheimer’s later in life. There’s something scary about not knowing if my memory will go, and when, and how, especially if it comes with the risk of forgetting who your loved ones are–or who yourself are–somewhere down the line. But, maybe that’s me overthinking it.

But, there are ways to mend. The main treatment for concussions is to rest your brain–basically, this involved avoiding things that were mentally stimulating, getting lots of sleep, and just… not thinking about things. I spent a lot of time lying in a dark room, listening to podcasts on my phone. This was mostly fine if I could cue up the podcast playlist in advance, because looking at the phone screen would make my head hurt. Sometimes when people on podcasts said “s” sounds at a particular timbre I’d get a headache. For someone who thrives on tech and video games, not being able to interact with digital media was hard. I also had to learn how to zone out. It sounds counterintuitive, but I had to use guided meditation apps to help structure my thoughts (or lack thereof) when I was relaxing my brain.

Image description: Pie chart of concussions by sport. Football, boys ice hockey, and boys lacrosse are the primary sources of concussions depicted. Source.

Roller derby is still a relatively new sport, so there’s not a lot of data about the occurrence of head injuries. Incidentally, there’s not a lot about concussions in women’s sports at all—the majority of sports-related head injuries occur in male-dominated sports: football, ice hockey, and lacrosse. It’s hard to extrapolate from the experience of a male footballer twice my size and half my age to understand what my body is doing when it recovers, so a lot of it is guesswork: I’d turn the lights on and see if that bothered me. Then I’d try looking at a phone. And maybe do multitasking. Maybe I’d do jumping jacks and see if I felt like throwing up. Or I’d try some sudoku of various difficulties. And then I’d use those to track improvements.

Recovery was–and is–slow. I imagine a lot of it is making sure my brain can reforge its neural pathways, and I don’t know what needs fixing until I discover it does. I’m mostly back to normal and I have more good days than bad, so that’s promising. Occasionally I still have days where things will set it off. About two months ago (so, almost three months after I initially had a concussion), I was watching Altered Carbon and noticed that I’d have a headache from some of the visual effects, especially if accompanied by screen shakes. It made me nauseous for an entire day.

One of the scenes from Altered Carbon that didn’t make me feel great was this one where Takeshi gets spammed with advertising on his ocular implant.
Description: an upward panning of a futuristic city interrupted by garish neon signage

Sometimes I’ll forget something and wonder if I’m really forgetful or if it’s caused by the concussion. For most part though, I feel fine. I don’t know whether I can go back to normal or even what “normal” means anymore, but it’s something I’m working through and will continue to work through. I’m hopeful that I’ll get better, more adaptive, and stronger brain out of it.

 

Author’s note: This is not intended to substitute for medical advice as concussion symptoms can manifest differently across individuals. If you have questions about how to treat and manage your symptoms, see your doctor.

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JC Lau
“Rock On!”

JC Lau

Previously disguised as a college professor and family lawyer, JC Lau is an Australian video game journalist and writer living in Seattle.

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