Injury lessons 3: Brains

I think I’ve made it fairly obvious that sometimes I get injured. I’ve also been pretty open about how poorly I deal with it. I tend to become quite depressed, and have an extremely unhelpful habit of training before healed enough to really be doing so.

Roller derby is a pretty questionable sport for me to take up, considering all of that. Its injury rate seems disturbingly close to Black Friday in a Walmart and I’ve been particularly clumsy. Before my first year of training was over, I had experienced a sprain bad enough for a brief spell on crutches, which I complained about roughly as much as people who break both their legs and maybe a wrist, landed on a haematoma, which made me scream embarrassingly, and concussion.

Concussion means you have a headache and feel weird for a few days and then you’re fine, right? You might get light sensitive or feel kind of sick but it’s hardly as bad as that sprain. Right?

Wrong.

This is the worst injury I have ever experienced. When I had an abdominal tear, it was devastating to be basically unable to move for so long. When I hurt my ankle, that brief spell of being on crutches made it really hard to even eat (it was a good few days before I was able to eat a hot meal, and that was a Subway sandwich) and knocked my confidence hard. And that was partial weight bearing – people who have a break have a MUCH harder time than me. Having my shoulder get injured over and over again has led to me paying a hell of a lot for physiotherapy, without which I would never be able to climb or do parkour again. And the haematoma thing was just really cringeworthy. Oh, and it hurt. But with a concussion, what’s injured isn’t a limb or a joint. It’s ME – everything that makes me myself.

The initial concussion came about when I ran at someone on roller skates (I’m pretty sure that’s basically how you play derby, right?) and fell over backwards, smacking my head off the floor in the process. I was checked for concussion symptoms and told to sit out for the next three jams, which I did while staring mournfully at the coach like a sad stray puppy stuck outside in the rain. And also a truck has just swerved and splashed muddy water all over it. And also it was just abandoned by a family who were moving and didn’t want to take it with them. And… anyway, you get the idea.

A couple of hours later, I started feeling very unwell in the pub, falling asleep and hacking up bile in the bathroom. I was taken to hospital. I remember bits about this – I was completely convinced I was going to be in trouble for saying I was fine during training, I cried on the bus about the stickers on my helmet, I was afraid of the doctor’s pen when he asked me to track it with my eyes and I had a CT scan before being taken┬áhome at about 2am. Not my home. A loyal buddy had stayed with me the entire time, and took me back with her, where I stayed in a nest of blankets and sofa bed for two days, cried a lot and made her put the Babadook on Netflix because I thought the sounds would be soothing.

I didn’t go back to work for over a week. I spent my time asleep. I don’t remember a lot, but I know I didn’t eat much. I couldn’t cope with going outside to the shops – at one point I came across a derby friend who works in a local supermarket, and started crying helplessly because I hadn’t been able to find bin bags for days. She found me bin bags. I lived in a constant brain fog, and it was an achievement the first day I only needed one nap.

When I did go back to work, it was a nightmare. The phone ringing hurt. Two people talking at once would overload me and leave me staring blankly straight ahead. The screen hurt my eyes. I had no emotional control over myself. I had two weeks of leave coming up, and spent most of it resting. At some point when symptoms went down, I worked through the recommended steps for return to exercise – short periods of cardio, gradual introduction of harder stuff – until I was back to roller skate fights.

This was a mistake. I wasn’t actually fully okay. I still had memory issues, was a little slower, and had burst of intense anxiety. And then it happened. I ran at someone, I fell backwards, I whiplashed and there I was again. Not as badly as the first time, but bad enough.

So as of now, where am I at, and why is it so bad?

I’m back to work. It’s difficult. I have problems with headaches, processing instructions, spelling, multitasking… this has all improved a lot lately, but for a good two weeks all I could do was come home and sleep.

Training is very limited. I can swim and do mobility. I hope to start running soon. I’ll probably be able to skate next month, but not contact. I won’t be touching any contact sport until at LEAST October.

There are quite a lot of things I have lost.

  1. I don’t write so good no more. This is the first time I’ve been able to write a long piece for three months. I make silly mistakes, like mixing up there/their/they’re and to/two/too. Numbers are a lot harder, too.
  2. My personality is bad now. I have negative feelings. It’s harder to interact with people, partially because I get tired and confused easily and partly because I’m just not me. During the worst of it, I was like a five year old. I’d cry at anything, I needed a nap every hour or two, I barely knew how to feed myself and I was incapable of coherent thought. Now? I feel like I don’t even know me, let alone like me. I’m really not sure I like me.
  3. I can’t do all the things. My life revolves around climbing stuff, running around, skating, jumping, lifting things – I can’t do this right now. There was a brief period between concussions when I could, but my symptoms got worse and I had to stop. It was a major milestone when I went swimming two times last week and did some contact juggling.
  4. I was never a calm person, but after concussion 2 I was having panic attacks on the tube in the morning. I’ve lost a lot of ability to deal with crowds, especially commuting.
  5. I do not have confidence now. I can only think a few days in advance. I can’t imagine skating properly again, although I talk about it like it’s a thing. I doubt myself constantly – even telling people about concussion effects makes me feel like I’m a wuss or a hypochondriac, because many people have no idea what a concussion can do. I know that physical brain damage can be present even when concussion symptoms are fully clear, so I’m going to be terrified even when all the symptoms are gone. I got a cold this weekend, and panicked in case it was my brain regressing again.

There are a couple of good points in all of this. Firstly, people have been really great. I’ve had helpful medical advice (from qualified people), derby friends checking in on me throughout the whole thing, and let’s not forget that one person who stayed with me until 2am in a hospital and fed me chicken nuggets for two days while I whimpered on her floor.┬áSecondly, some of it is slowly going away. The most helpful thing so far as been acupuncture. I hate needles and I don’t like alternative medicine, so god knows why. I don’t even care why. I’m desperate.

The scariest thing about this, though, is that I’m not at all alone. There has been a lot of media lately about the previously ignored effects of concussion. This guy’s experience is particularly upsetting, with a ray of hope. There’s a whole community of derby players out there who have suffered badly after concussions. Some have had to quit their jobs. Some skate again, some never do. It’s not much fun.

I don’t really know how to end this. Mainly, I just want people to know what a concussion can do. I hear people talk casually about them like they’re no more serious than a bruised-up knee. They can change your life completely, and put everything on hold. So yeah. Helmets don’t save you, don’t fall backwards, and try not to be me.