If you think you understand concussions well enough, you are probably wrong.
Unfortunately, I myself am overly informed. By sharing my own experiences with TBI (traumatic brain injury), I hope to educate others on its potential graveness, as well as eradicate certain concussion misconceptions.
1. A minor impact cannot cause a concussion.
My major concussion resulted from being struck in the head by a volleyball. Yes, a volleyball. I learned the hard way that there is no relationship between the severity of the collision and the magnitude of the resulting concussion.
2. A concussion can only occur in conjunction with loss of consciousness.
Unlike in the movies, I remained alert and awake following my accident. Because of this, nobody around me even asked if I was okay. Despite common belief, most concussion sufferers never lose consciousness and are therefore not given immediate medical attention.
3. Symptoms cease after a short period of rest.
One head injury may heal in a few days, but another may last several months or longer. My own concussion persisted for three grueling months -- one of which I was completely inactive, and two of which I fought through the pain and confusion to continue my life.
The Everyday Reality of TBI
While my memories of the painful months that I suffered from TBI are hazy at best, what I can recall are the constant feelings of exasperation and desperation -- neither of which I could escape even momentarily.
In the first and most incapacitating month, I remember lying down in my childhood bedroom and staring at the walls. (Reading, television, and any device with a screen were forbidden.) I remember my mother responding to my texts for me. I remember blurry vision and nearly being hit by cars on the occasional walk -- my only doctor-prescribed form of "exercise." I remember feeling dizzy, disoriented, and dependent.
After a month at home, I felt stable enough to return to college for the fall semester. However, upon resuming computer usage, studying, and a social life, my symptoms relapsed. My options were a leave of absence or to struggle through the semester with an unresolved head injury.
Since there was no guarantee that my symptoms would resolve during a semester leave, I stayed in school but made several lifestyle changes. I was not allowed to play tennis or squash, both of which I had played at a national level and were a huge part of me. I limited texting. I took breaks after minimal periods of studying. I avoided loud parties and crowds -- aware that even a minor brush to my head could set back my recovery immensely. I took addictive sleeping drugs to combat the month-long insomnia that drained what was left of my positivity.
I often buried my head into my pillows as my head spun, scolding myself for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time when I was injured. Rationally I understand that what happened was not my fault, but all I could feel then (and what I still feel now) was shame, helplessness, and most of all, loneliness.
Others' Reactions to a Concussion
My friends and family were incredulous. They found it unlikely that such agony could result from being pegged by a volleyball of all things. Their doubt made me feel weak and slightly insane.
The most confusing part for them was how long my symptoms persisted. I cannot count the number of times someone asked, "You still have your concussion?"
Some friends grew tired of listening and chose instead to fabricate what they would not take the time to comprehend. Nothing infuriated me more than being asked something to the effect of how my headaches were. (Headaches?! You think that all I'm dealing with is a headache?)
People's insensitivity was almost as frustrating as my seemingly stagnant recovery. Being homebound was not leading toward a speedy resolution, but rather toward depression. Recognizing this, my physicians had me resume whichever usual activities I could tolerate (with the exception of the obvious dangers, such as alcohol and sports).
My partial resumption of college life led people to forget that I was still concussed. To me, that meant I had to suffer in solitude. To everyone else, that meant I had recovered and was back to normal.
Struggling To Be Normal
Minimizing my pain seemed necessary, because as I quickly learned, confiding in friends only seemed to push them away. They felt held back by my limitations and weighed down by my frustrations.
I apparently succeeded in this appearance of normality, because some people stopped believing that I was still legitimately concussed. I was accused of "allowing it to drag on" or "using it as an excuse." I was even kicked off a board of a club for that reason.
How could this happen? Well, there was no visual evidence of the chaos I felt inside of my skull. I appeared to be functioning. Almost nobody knew how many doctors I was seeing, or how I broke down behind closed doors.
Becoming a Victim to TBI
TBI affected every aspect of my life, including my identity. While I had always perceived myself as strong and able to overcome anything, I became someone that I had never imagined possible: a victim.
I became a victim, to 1) my concussion but also to 2) the lack of support and understanding of everyone around me. My loved ones were not proud of me for staying in school, or holding my head up high no matter how ill I really felt. Partly because nobody else gave me credit, I never gave myself credit.
Changing the Current State of Concussion Misinformation
Concussion research is a booming topic in medicine right now for the exact reason that few people really understand the complexity of TBI. Hopefully once more light is shed on the subject matter, concussion sufferers will no longer have to experience the shame and isolation that, despite the head injury, I remember so well.