It was the damn video game on the big screen that did me in.
There I was at our favorite superstore, staring at Mario Kart as my son played, and my vertigo kicked in. It was all those karts and colors and fast moving things.
The vertigo I had suffered from during the previous year—viral vertigo, as fate would have it, brought on by stress or a virus—hadn’t affected me for months, and there I was, in the middle of Target, wanting to lie down and make the world stop spinning.
I made it to the car and, after loading the kids in and asking the wife to drive, lost my balance and took a hard spill, whacking my head against the frame of the door of the family wagon.
And that was it.
Hello concussion. Hello migraines. Hello new, awful world of brain pain.
The day was the Ides of March, and, being an English teacher, the possible irony wasn’t lost on me—I had not been aware of senators lurking in the patio furniture section or treasonous opportunists in the dollar aisle. I am no Caesar.
My banishment to live as a walking sweatshirt
It wasn’t my first concussion, but it will hopefully be my last.
I had suffered minor concussions and whiplash before, but never this level of brain pain, mental fog, and nausea this awful. That sickening wash over your body from skull to the neurons in your feet, the want to cry because you realize you’ve bruised your brain (and the fact that you are a brain, and a brain is all you have because it makes everything work), and the stress and anxiety over ever extra strain and pressure from readjusting to daily life.
It was all part of a package I hadn’t asked for, but was now mine. My eyes wouldn’t stop flittering and my face bones hurt.
I began a new journey, at home, for weeks as a walking sweatshirt. Me—a tall teacher, coach, and dad, reduced to sleeping under covers all day, and hiding from the lights and sounds that made the pressure and headaches worse, missing out on time with my wife and children, and feeling like I had been given a new body that no one should inherit.
All I could do was pull my hood and cap over my eyes and sleep with minimal light. My eyeballs hurt. My forehead ached. The spot above my right ear where I hit my head hurt for months.
And your new life-long friend is…the migraine
Headaches had never been a thing for me—I have suffered here and there from a host of ills: broken bones, mononucleosis, back problems, tendonitis, IBS, colitis, gastritis, anemia, pneumonia, ear infections, hernias, depression, anxiety, and stress. Doctors love me.
Vertigo had been my newest diagnosis until the concussion, and one that my neurologist said would also be my friend for life.
I had never really suffered from a headache, however. Toothaches, belly aches, back and shoulder pain, yes. But headaches were never my thing.
Certain anti-inflammatory drugs I knew very well, but I would begin the round robin tournament featuring several doctors, various types of drugs, and my central nervous system that would like, reject, or over-object to pills that often “would take a few weeks to build up in your system” or cause dizziness and nausea while offering to cure dizziness and nausea.
This lasted for months (and is ongoing, even a year after), and the greatest remedy is a low-stress, low-light, and low sound environment. However, my life is full of sound, light, and screen.
Friends, students, and strangers confided in me, secretly, of their similar plights, and the drugs and remedies that worked for them, some who had suffered multiple concussions, migraines, and had spent between months and years recovering.
Years recovering? When I first felt that bottomless pit of brain drudgery, as if my shoulders were melting into my shoes and my head was an ice brick slowly being crushed, I figured I would recover in two days—maybe a week—and be back to work, performing for my English Language Arts students.
Constant noise, light, and action in the classroom and hallway would provide to be dangerous obstacles, as would standing upright without feeling dizzy or nauseated. And–this is a fun fact–my loud, booming voice gives me headaches. My own voice.
As a coach I feared the soccer balls that my talented student-athletes would kick at 90 miles an hour, or the rough play on the field somehow taking me down with it.
Any time I dinged my head on a wall, even ever-so-gently, I spiraled into hours and even days of headachery.
When my children would jump on my back and slightly hit my head by accident, it would send visible ripples through my dome. I made sure my eight and six-year-old reminded me every time that when I went into the basement I had to be careful not to hit my head. My wife knew the damage I had done to my head before the major concussion when she would hear a loud thump of the pipes in the basement, followed by loud cursing and me ascending the stairs rubbing my head.
I felt like a house of cards, ready for the wind to take me.
Feeling wounded, weak, and inside out
After the concussion I felt like I was destined to live in fear of the next blunt force trauma to the head. It was part caution, part paranoia, and part familiar trope. The thought haunted me and crept in my daily life—and still does. My internal current shifted, and my inner colors tinted to a new shade and hue.
When you have such pain in your head that you can’t open your eyes, you tend to feel that the next logical step is to shut down and enter a final rest.
With the concussion and subsequent migraines that followed, I was a wounded animal, feeling helpless and fearful that one more hit to the noggin could spell untimely doom. And these feelings are hard to shake when you’re living inside the head that is constantly processing the pain inside your head. At least broken bones, an upset stomach, and back pain are ills you can have while still being able to think without being interrupted by a headache.
But when your brain is swelling and inflamed all the time, rational thinking seeps out of the ear and into the bed sheets or couch.
I think of the poet and Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson calling himself a “transparent eyeball” while observing nature: I was a brain, thinking with my brain, observing my brain as my brain hurt. All functions of my bodily and thought life went through and were operated by the same damaged thing I was trying not to injure anymore.
Feelings, thoughts, fear, dreams, all of it: they come from the brain, which I felt trapped on the inside of.
You only get one brain, and that’s it. You shouldn’t knock it around.
Screens, screens, all types of screens
Ne’er pull your hat upon your brows/Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak/Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break. –Macbeth, 4.3
Students came to my aid when I returned to work—two of them who had recently gotten over concussions. “Hey Mr. McKeen, no more screen time for you,” they’d say, in a caring way, along with checking up on me throughout each week. They knew. Concussions were serious, and people with them needed time and a quiet space to heal.
I wasn’t talkative with many people at work about my concussion and migraines because I had never been wounded like this before, and when people sense weakness, they take advantage and assume you’re down for the count (even though I work with wonderful teachers who are compassionate, empathetic, and extremely giving). My spirit had altered itself to be a protective force–I was more anxious than ever, as my brain had taken on new fears and characteristics that my general extroverted nature wasn’t used to.
In the first months after the concussion, I lost words as I typed and thought, and felt myself thinking slower. I would lose my place more often while lecturing and quickly recover, but the change was apparent to me, if not to my students.
I’m not a crier, but I felt that anger and frustration that makes you want to cry, and still feel it. Sometimes it’s as if my tear ducts dry heave, grieving for the loss of old friends who had been lodged inside my grey matter.
My neurologist suggested working a half-day schedule–I wish. My career doesn’t exist in a world where you can work from home or take half-days, and two-thirds of my life are taken up in front of screens. If I wasn’t writing on the smartboard at work, I was using a P.C. or laptop to write and create lesson plans. There was also the smartphone. And t.v. And tablet. The world was all too much to stare at.
Good thing I love to read paperbacks.
Getting my life back, one cup of Bergamot at a time
When your brain is broken, you don’t get a new one.
It’s been a year since the concussion and the start of my daily struggle with headaches, head pressure, and full-on, awful parade-length migraines. Depending on the weather and amount of stress, I’m learning to manage trying to be the strong, productive citizen I’ve always tried to be, and the best husband, father, son, friend, and worker I can be.
Over the last twelve months I’ve gone days (and even weeks) without brain pain, thanks to the right balance of medication, sleep, and weather. I’ve also had weeks of touch-and-go headaches that didn’t care what rest or pharmaceuticals I tried.
A year ago I thought I’d escape a concussion unharmed, and instead ended up starting an un-magical row of seasons where I literally take things a morning and a cup of tea at a time.
Hopefully one day I will be migraine-free and enjoy all the light, noise, and stress that life tries to offer. Until then, the lights will be turned low, I’ll be simplifying things, and I might just need a little extra time to get my brain on the right page for whatever adventure might appear in the wonderful world that is daily life.
Photo: John Voo/Flickr