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It was shaping up to be one of my best years. In 2017, my partner and I travelled through Europe, I was recognized in my industry for my work, I ran half marathons and my career was progressing. I felt like I was winning and was eager to accomplish more.
Then, on a crisp fall night at our local curling rink, I threw myself in a chair to lace up my shoes and whacked my head on a table behind me. I remember saying, “that was embarrassing,” before getting up to play fives ends. It was more than embarrassing. That moment led to a concussion that brought my entire life to a halt.
I’m Shannon Busta, an audience strategist at The Globe, and that night I developed a headache I couldn’t shake. A visit to the doctor three days later landed me with a diagnosis of a “mild concussion” and strict instructions to take a week off work and to avoid screens. Despite my best efforts to recover quickly, that single week turned into several weeks and then into several months.
Unfortunately, lurking around your house, trying not to overstimulate your brain, is not exactly conducive to feelings of accomplishment. In those early days, I would wake up and try to be productive. I would do laundry, garden or listen to podcasts. But the more I did the worse the headaches and sensitivity to light, sound and smell became. Even basic conversations elevated the nagging pain in my head. I quickly became haunted by the lack of stimulation and achievement in my life.
The hardest moments came when my head hurt so much that I couldn’t get out of bed. These were the times I battled the most persistent demons. What if I never get better? What if I’ve peaked in my career? Will I lose my friends and family because of this limiting condition? What value am I to the world if I can’t do, create, win? When would I be back to 100 per cent? What if I never got back there?
As my colleague Kathryn Blaze Baum recently captured in her beautiful piece Brainstorm: How my “mild concussion” became a dizzying, year-long ordeal, we still have much to learn about concussion recovery, and for patients who find themselves in a post-concussed state, there are few clear answers. All you can do is wait. And so I waited. I went from flying through life to barely moving.
For more than half a year I laid low on medical leave and focused on a future time when I could once again do, create, win. Why our culture obsesses over momentum and accomplishments is a more complicated topic than I intend to tackle here, but my experience with a life on pause made me acutely aware of my own preoccupation with such things. I do know this: being a young woman in a male-dominated industry means I have always felt compelled to excel. And that drive often made its way into other aspects of my life. I look for opportunities to become more well-rounded, more accomplished – I join boards, I mentor, I take on more and more, any way to improve myself and showcase my value.
My fears in the absence of achievement manifested in odd ways. I became very good at baking bread after realizing it didn’t trigger my symptoms. I Marie Kondoed our house before I’d ever heard of the Netflix sensation. I listened to audiobook after audiobook, being sure to track my progress on Goodreads. And at some point, possibly while braiding a perfect loaf of challah, it occurred to me that I might have an unhealthy relationship with accomplishment.
Pursuing a path of continuous improvement is one of the things that makes life worth living. But my concussion made me aware of the risk that accompanies focusing so heavily on the next milestone that you fail to appreciate that progress has already happened. I don’t even remember enjoying the bread I baked. I just wanted to keep getting better at it. But if I didn’t enjoy the bread, what was the point of baking it?
Being forced to hit pause on my life was hard. My injury forced me to relinquish control to my body. It was emotionally challenging for me and my loved ones. I lost acquaintances because I stopped attending events, sending e-mails, checking in. I had to defer my MBA. But hitting pause also showed me a side of myself I had been moving too fast to see.
Slowly, I tried to embrace the fears that filled my head. I worked to understand where they were coming from and refocus my attention on the aspects of my life that remained intact since that night at the curling rink. My relationship with my partner was thriving because I was home and emotionally present more, my family and friends kept showing up, and supporting me in ways I will never be able to repay. My life was, and is, incredibly rich. It was enough, and I was enough, even if I couldn’t do, create and win in the ways I had.
It’s been 18 months since I hit my head and I am still not quite 100 per cent. I still have hard days, when Advil is my best friend and all I can do is crawl into bed after a long day. I am still waiting, but I am also doing. I am working full time, and am nearly through my MBA. I am practising being kinder to myself and learning to recognize the small wins. I intentionally do less. I have come to feel oddly grateful for the whack to my head. And for now, I’ll keep reminding myself to slow down and enjoy the bread.
What else we’re reading:
Being able to read things for pleasure again has been one of the best parts of recovery. This delightful piece from Tina Jordan in The New York Times chronicles the 11 days in 1926 when famed mystery writer Agatha Christie went missing. International media covered the author’s disappearance with frenzied enthusiasm. Over 90 years later, biographers still debate what exactly happened. For me, Christie’s vanishing act serves as a reminder that life is complicated, and sometimes we just need to hit pause and get away.
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