Rays from the warm Balinese sun hit the ocean surface, making it sparkle with life. Palm trees danced in the breeze, cool air brushed against my face, and the soothing ocean water hugged my body as I excitedly waited for the next wave to come my way.

It was my second month in Bali, and like every new expat on the island, I was learning to surf. Still running on adrenaline from catching my first wave earlier that day, I was determined to ride just one more by sunset.

Within moments, a giant wave started to form 15 yards away. I soon realized it was bigger than anything I’d ever attempted before. In a split second, I contemplated if I should take the safe route and avoid it. “Fuck it… Who knows the next time I’ll be in Bali. Let’s go for it.”

I soon regretted this decision. Spearheaded off my board, I was flung through the water like a ragdoll. I felt a powerful blow to my head, as if someone took a baseball bat to it. Rising to the surface, blood pouring down my face, I realized that the fin from my board had cracked in two, slicing my head in the process.

Still in shock, I paddled back to shore and headed to the nearest clinic. Once there, the doctor ran a series of tests to assess how bad the injury was. Aside from the external pain, my mind seemed unaffected. My thinking was straight, my balance was sound, and I wasn’t sensitive to light or noise. The doctor checked me out and reassured me I’d recover in no time.

As bad as it was, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to take a much needed break from work. I could rest in bed for a few days, chill out, and be back on my feet by Monday. Yet in the subsequent weeks, not only did I not recover, the true symptoms of the concussion started to form. Little did I know, I was beginning to enter the darkest period of my life.

Over the next few months, not only was my cognitive function affected, but I suffered a terrible bout of depression and insomnia, leaving me suicidal at times. As I learned more about brain injuries, I realized this was much more common that I originally thought. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • An estimated 1.7 million people sustain a TBI (traumatic brain injury) annually. Of them:
    • 52,000 die
    • 275,000 are hospitalized, and
    • 1.365 million (nearly 80%) are treated and released from an emergency department.
  • TBI is a contributing factor to a third (30.5%) of all injury-related deaths in the United States.
  • About 75% of TBIs that occur each year are concussions, or other forms of mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI)
  • Direct medical costs and indirect costs of TBI, such as lost productivity, totaled an estimated $60 billion in the United States in 2000

As common as this, surprisingly few people understand the dark realities behind head injuries. In this article, I’m going to shed light on this issue and go over five reasons why suffering a concussion was the hardest experience of my life. In doing so, I’ll hopefully be able to spread awareness towards this issue.

1. Constant Headaches, Fatigue, And a Host Of Other Physical Pains

Before we get into the mental and emotional challenges of a concussion, it’s worth looking at the physical pains associated with a head injury. Here’s a list of the physical symptoms you could experience in the weeks and months following a concussion:

  • Headaches
  • Feelings of pressure in the head
  • Pain behind the eyes
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light and noise

One thing not often discussed is the secondary injuries that can result from the initial concussion. Every area of your body is connected, and when one area is affected, it could send a domino effect towards other areas. After months recovering from the initial concussion, I eventually had related neck, shoulder, and back problems.

Yet as uncomfortable as these physical symptoms were, they were the easiest aspect of a concussion to handle. It’s the mental and emotional hurdles that make head injuries so difficult. The remainder of the article is dedicated to shedding light on what these are.

2. Comforts That Keep You Sane Are Suddenly Stripped Away From You

To better explain what a concussion is like, I’ll share a popular analogy. Think of your head as the basement of your home. Outside a storm is brewing. Suddenly, a lightning bolt smashes through its outside walls. Think of this strike as a concussion. Cracks in the walls start to form, water rushes through, and your basement begins to flood. In order to remedy this problem, you’d need to pump water out and repair the walls.

A traumatic brain injury works in a similar fashion. When you experience a blow to the head, the walls of your brain are damaged, allowing a rush of calcium into its nerve cells. Your brain needs to remove this excess calcium and repair the crack in its walls. In order to do this, it needs to limit activity.

This means removing practically anything and everything that could stimulate your brain. At any moment in time, there are up to 2,000,000 bits of data in your environment that your mind receives – from sounds, to images, temperature, to light, to all the different forms of communication around you and more. The brain can’t repair itself properly while simultaneously processing this volume of information. So in order to recover, you need to strip away practically everything that could stimulate it.

First off – time with friends and family becomes limited. You’d be surprised how much cognitive effort is required to have even a simple conversation. As much as I wanted to be around loved ones during this time, my symptoms would flare up after just fifteen minutes of talking. This left me feeling extremely isolated during the process. My parents flew from Chicago to Bali to visit during my recovery, but half the time I couldn’t be around them as my head would start feeling worse.

I was left alone in my room during much of my 6 month recovery. On top of this, there was little I could do while resting. I couldn’t look at bright lights or have anything too loud around me. Things like books, music, television, movies or anything involving technology all had to go. I had to take a step back from working on this site, which was one of the hardest things I had to stomach.

I love exercising, but this too was practically removed. If my heart rate went beyond a certain point, I’d notice my head start to get worse. That meant no to weight lifting, running, swimming, or any other physical activity. Some of the darkest days during the recovery was simply attempting to walk from one end of the bedroom to the next.

With little to nothing to do, my mood started to tank, which leads to my third point.

surf concussion

A few days before my surf accident

3. It’s Extremely Challenging To Both Rest Your Mind and Manage Your Mood

There are two pillars in concussion recovery:

  1. Cognitive Rest
  2. Mood Management

In the last point, we talked about cognitive rest. But managing your mood is just as important. It doesn’t matter how much brain activity you limit, if you’re feeling sad, depressed, or anxious, your healing will stall. Both pillars need to be intact to properly recover. Achieving this balance is harder than you may think.

In the early days of my concussion recovery, I’d sit alone in bed with a blindfold over my eyes; day-after-day, week-after-week. I gave my brain all the rest it needed, but over time it started to feel like I was in a jail cell. Without friends, family, books, or TV, I started to go crazy.

Initially, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to take my meditation practice to the next level. I could simply sit in bed, and meditate all day long. However, a few days into my unplanned ‘meditation retreat’, I realized I was throwing myself into a situation I wasn’t ready for. As much as I tried, the noise in my head got louder and louder and I started to feel increasingly anxious, depressed, and terrified of the future.

I needed to get myself out of this funk, and in order to do so, I needed to add certain things back into my life that made me feel sane again. I got out of the house and socialized, started to swim, read a little, and generally attempted to have a slice of normal life again. It was helpful for my mood, but it was far too much activity for my brain, and gradually my symptoms worsened.

Therein lies the crux of concussion recovery: nailing one pillar oftentimes ensures the other falling away. Resting your mind leads to your mood plummeting. Lifting your mood leaves your mind without the rest it needs to heal.

I fell into a vicious cycle, spiralling down into darkness. As my mood worsened, my healing stagnated, which in turn made my mood plunge further. I eventually suffered from severe bouts of insomnia, going days without sleep. I started to feel massively depressed, hopeless, even suicidal at times. Oftentimes, it would be a win if I didn’t cry that day.

4. The Recovery Process Is Filled With Uncertainty

One of the scariest aspects of concussion recovery is dealing with uncertainty.

If you break your arm or hurt your knee, the recovery process is generally straightforward. The length of time a doctor says you’ll get better in is more or less accurate. Rest for a few months, and you’ll see your injury gradually get better in a linear fashion. Recovering from a head injury just isn’t as simple.

For one, you can’t clearly gauge how recovered you actually are. Aside from getting an MRI, you don’t fully know where you stand. How your head feels could feel vary greatly day-to-day, week-to-week. I’d go stretches of days where I was able to get out of the house, and be a little active. I’d feel hopeful that I was turning a corner, finally starting to inch closer towards being back to my normal self. Then I’d relapse, symptoms would worsen, and I’d be unable to get out of bed for days.

They say there are three windows of opportunity after a concussion where you could recover. The first window is thirty days, the next window is three months, and after that a year. If those windows close, it could take years or more to heal – if ever.

Months could go by, and you could feel no better than you did when you were first concussed. After I missed the first two windows, I started to freak out, questioning if I’d ever be back to my old self. I’d think “What would I do for work? Would I need a caretaker for the rest of my life? How could I fulfill responsibilities as a husband, or as a father?”

The truth is, every brain is different, every concussion is different, and every recovery is different. Doctors will recommend certain practices to aid healing, but the reality is that they don’t even fully know what’s going on when the brain gets injured. All this uncertainty makes the process exponentially more challenging.

IMG_5097

Brain scans at the neurologist’s office

5. It Affects Your Relationships

A concussion could deeply affect your relationships with those closest to you – especially with your significant other.

At the most basic level, roles could change. You may have been the strong, independent rock for your spouse to lean on, but during this time you become patient and they become caretaker. Little things like going to get groceries, paying bills, responding to emails, and a number of other day-to-day tasks are handled by them.

This was harder to get through than I thought. I was never in such a vulnerable position before and found it difficult to need help with so many of my basic needs. I felt like I was a burden, and hated the fact that I was so dependent on her.

As we discussed earlier, a concussion takes a serious toll on your mental health. You could be plagued with things like depression, anger, anxiety, irritability, and a slew of other negative emotions – sometimes all in one day. Not only this, but you start to think completely irrationally. The window through which you look at your life is completely distorted.

On top of this, your partner isn’t going to be in the best headspace either. They have their own set of fears, worries, and frustrations to work through.

All of this adds up to become a perfect storm in your relationship. Stress will get the better of you both, and it becomes nearly impossible not to argue or fight over a number of issues.

Open communication is essential during this time, but unless they’ve personally experienced a head injury, they won’t fully understand what you are going through. And since concussions are so rare, it’s hard to find anyone around you who is also concussed or has been in the past, that you can talk to. There are forums online such as neurotalk.org, but it’s hard to find this sort of support in person.

This furthers your feelings of isolation and could drive a wedge between you and your loved ones.

Conclusion

A serious concussion could be one of the hardest experiences of your life. Comforts that normally keep you sane are quickly stripped away from your life – from work, to hobbies, to everything in between. Your mood could plummet, and continue to downward spiral throughout the process. Healing could be rocky and filled with uncertainty. When you need your relationships to be at their strongest, a concussion could rock their very foundation.

All these challenges come together to break you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Yet if you find your way out the other end, it instills a strength and level of gratitude inside you, that you didn’t even know was there. And although this article has been uber depressing, in part two we bring light towards the solution – tips and tactics to best heal from a concussion.

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Have you or someone you know experienced a concussion?  Tell us about it in the comments below.

Creator of warrior.do. Digital Nomad.
  • Kristin Gablehouse

    Very well written post. I think you have summed up so much of my own experience perfectly. Thank you for sharing. I’m a year and half post-injury and posts like this help me remember that while I still have a long way to go, I’ve already made a lot of progress.
    http://tbito100.co/

    • Hey Kristin, thanks for the kind words. Great to connect with someone whose also been in the TBI trenches. I agree, it’s far too easy to forget how much progress you’ve made, and focus on the lingering symptoms from the accident. I’ve found that journaling is a great way to keep things in perspective. You can read entries from a few weeks/months back and realize how far you’ve come. Also, great blog – very inspiring story!

  • Suzanne Napier- Resetarits

    I suffered a severe concussion after a roller blading fall 20 years ago. I was sent home from the hospital 2 days later. I lost my short term memory and still can’t remember some things in my past. There was no therapy then for a TBI like mine. 5 years later I enrolled in community college to try to stimulate my brain. I t took me 7 years to earn a B.S. degree with honors in Psychology. However I retained little of what I learned. I could pass a test by cramming the morning of but by the next day it was vague information. Its been a life changing event and I am still and plagued by fatigue, memory problems and confusion. I wish that therapy had been available to me. My doctor brushed it off as a minor thing but it was actually a major event that continues even today.

    • Hey Suzanne, thank so much for sharing your story. My recovery period was about 1/2 a year, so I can’t imagine what you’ve had to go through. As I mentioned in the article, my doctor also brushed it off, since my concussion symptoms hadn’t fully formed yet. More research needs to be done in this field for the medical community to find better treatments. Awareness and open discussion like this is a solid first step to make that happen.

  • Julia

    My son suffered a moderate TBI when he was hit by a dirt bike while in the woods in 2012. He lost his short term memory, suffered from extreme headaches and had many other issues. He has made strides but still has lingering issues.

    • Hey Julia, sorry to hear about your son. Sending him love from Bali.

  • Jill Allen

    Hi Tony. I much appreciate your sharing. I suffered a closed head injury in June 2013, but I was alert and oriented with no cuts or bumps, so the ER doctor sent me home without even a CT scan. I had a headache and felt “fuzzy headed” and anxious for several days, and finally went to the dr. She ordered a CT scan, which came back normal. So I just shrugged it off – or tried to – and went through two more months until they found breast cancer. I went through surgery and radiation treatment, and we thought all was fine. But I didn’t recover from what we thought were the fatigue and cognitive problems that radiation can cause 1-year post radiation, I still felt like the dirty sock that gets stuck behind the washer or dryer. Two and a half years later, a dr ordered a brain MRI. It revealed major frontal lobe atrophy, which explains so many of the mood, memory, behavior, and cognitive issues I was feeling buried under. Some head injuries cause some kind of protein release that results in loss of brain tissue. Too much time (3.5 years) has passed to benefit from TBI rehab, but now at least I understand what is going on. Ritalin has helped some and the pain is better, but I know I still isolate too much and have thinking and sleep problems that impact every thing big and small. But you learn to live with the changes. It’s just a different life now, and it’s good to hear from people who understand the experience. Thank you.

    • Hey Jill, thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s so common for doctors to check for concussion symptoms that day of the injury, only to send the person off while the true symptoms rise to the surface later on. Hopefully more doctors will begin to realize this trend and closely monitor their patients the weeks after the accident.

      On top of all this, you found the breast cancer. What a journey you’ve had. Can’t imagine what you’ve been through, and how strong you’ve had to be throughout it all. But as you’ve said, you learn to redefine what ‘normal’ is in your life, and adapt. Thanks again for sharing, and sending love your way.

  • Jamie Hancock

    I’m a left brain stroke survivor –several TIAs, 2 small strokes and 3rd major stroke. Physically at 38 I appear completely healthy/fine but below the surface lies all the cognitive/emotional struggles from my major stroke which occurred at age 32. I couldn’t dance/listen to music in beginning which was extremely difficult being a lifelong dancer (contemporary, jazz etc.) I still struggle with issues written in this article and thank you for writing about the strain on relationships— it has been quite difficult for my husband/me at times.

    • Hey Jamie, thanks for sharing. It can feel frustrating / isolating when those around you simply see the tip of the iceberg, but don’t really grasp how difficult your reality can be at times. Brain injuries are rare so it’s difficult to find others to connect with. Online groups are great, but many suffering with brain injuries can’t be using things like computers and screens.

      I’m a huge music lover as well, and it’s been my refuge during other challenging times in my life. The right song at the right moment can be tremendously healing. Not having that to lean on during the recovery was a hard pill to swallow.

  • tinamsullivan

    Hi Tony. I shared this on my Facebook page, “Nourish Your Noggin!” 500+ shares already for you!!

    I described your article on my page as the BEST I’ve ever read for understanding the invisible symptoms from the inside out.
    I am the mom of a 20 year old son who had several concussions – 1st one at 13 yrs. which was not diagnosed which led to others – a brutal debilitating 6 year journey.
    He has experienced all of what you described. He was on the couch for his whole freshman year of high school – when all of his peers were launching – he was home with his mom – not great on so many levels 🙂 – with no ability to handle sound, lights, etc. All he had was his mind/thoughts to hang out with – which, as you describe, can be a dangerous place to spend all your time. Our family was in chaos, his younger brother took over the basement because no noise was allowed upstairs – he was only 10. A family living in fight-or-flight all the time – let’s just say it takes a long time to learn how to breathe again.
    As an outside-the-box thinker, I researched many different therapies and positive things we could do. I was an integrative nutrition coach at the time and we turned our mess into our message by writing a book with the same title as my Facebook page above – “Nourish Your Noggin! Brain Building Foods & Recipes…” – it’s on Amazon.
    My son is now 20 finishing up his sophomore year of college (with honors) and getting ready to transfer to a 4 yr school to major in Psychology because of everything he has been through. Like you, he is very compassionate and empathetic and will use this trauma experience to help others going forward. We are blessed for sure.
    I have to share with you and your readers the therapy that helped my son regain his life better than any other – and helps thousands of TBI, stroke, and neurologically impaired individuals every day. “Functional Neurology/Chiropractic Neurology”. It’s not Chiropractic care – it’s specific brain rehab that understands how the whole body functions together. Here’s a link for you to check out (they have several pages & videos too) – you can also go to the American Chiropractic Neurology site after to find a practitioner in your area.
    Tina Sullvan/Nourish Your Noggin
    http://cerebrum.com/concussion/

    • Hey Tina. Thanks for sharing the article on your Facebook page. It seems to be resonating with your audience.

      I can’t imagine dealing with a concussion at 13. When I was that age I was barely able to manage my rollercoaster like hormones and emotions even with a healthy brain. So for your son to be thrown into a head injury at that age and deal with the mountain of negative emotions that comes with it must have been so tough. What a warrior. Not only him, but your whole family. It’s a challenge for everyone, and not enough light gets shed on these type of ancillary issues.

      But so inspiring to hear how far he’s come. I’m sure he’s wise beyond his years after the journey he’s been through. Hopefully he will take those lessons with him alongside his Psychology degree to help others.

      Thanks for letting us know about Chiropractic Neurology. It’s funny you say that, the turning point in my recovery occurred when I went to a physical therapist. She helped work through muscle issues in my neck, shoulder and back. When those were worked out, my head started to feel much better. I didn’t realize just how connected the body was until then.

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