Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
Sitting at the back of the bus reading The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker, I had no idea that my own world was about to change in significant ways. I saw nothing, it happened so quickly. Passengers informed me that my head hit hard against the exit barrier as the driver stopped suddenly to avert a collision with a truck.
It is so hard to explain "foggy brain" and the feeling of "not being right." It started slowly; the erosion, piece by piece, of a simple life filled with interesting activities and people: Saturday-morning breakfasts with friends; volunteering as president of my local strata council; walking up 185 stairs to my office; noon-hour jaunts in a vibrant downtown core; writing group, book club and Weight Watchers meetings; date nights with my darling, and a dedicated 90-minute morning practice of reading and writing my diary.
Each week, one by one, these activities dropped out of my life until I realized that I was spending all my time just recovering from one day in the office to the next. Weekends were spent in seclusion to avoid the challenges of noise, irritability, crowds and light. I struggled to hide my diminished abilities and raw emotions, but once I could no longer work I had to surrender fully and acknowledge my situation. As I recover from postconcussion syndrome and whiplash injuries, I find myself on a "retreat" in my own home and neighbourhood.
I used to love retreating from my busy world. That time was used for reflection, inner searching and growth. I loved that I could go inward, calm my body and steady my mind. But unlike the many retreats at which I have searched for mindfulness, observing the present moment with appreciation, this retreat finds me journeying into mindlessness, where it is best to remain empty-headed so as not to provoke another headache.
Resting the brain so that it can restore itself and heal is an extremely difficult task. Medical practitioners encourage me to walk in nature, meditate, take long, hot baths, sit quietly in soft light and, with a regulated schedule, gradually bring cognitive and social activities into my routine. How ironic that these restful activities are the exact ones I craved during my normal active life. Now they have taken on a new meaning – I do them not by choice, or because I've earned time apart from employment, but because my recovery demands it. There is little joy in them, as pain dominates.
Concussions and their consequences are a nasty business. It is difficult to have so much empty time without the energy, focus or ability to engage in life’s many offerings. I am learning once again that life is full of messy circumstances that require patience and understanding from us and others.
In my personal haven, I complete a daily ritual of silence, stillness and rehabilitation aimed at releasing pain and reconnecting to wellness. One of the most frustrating elements of concussion recovery is how fast the days pass when you do nothing and have nothing to show for them. As the days drift, you can’t help but feel adrift. I feel worn out by the tension of not knowing when my life will come back.
As my world shrank into solitude and dim light, though, it also expanded in unexpected ways. There is beauty in the unfocused moments and the wandering. Emptying my mind allows me to think more clearly and focus on what really matters. As a fiercely independent individual (sometimes to my detriment), I have had to face my fear of asking for help to complete some basic tasks, and surrender to receiving the compassion and kindness of others.
I had been wrestling with the notion of selling my city condominium and moving to a smaller, more tranquil community where I could have the home of my dreams – one with a front and a back door, a clothesline and garden on a small piece of land. Now I know that this city of world-class hospitals, brilliant medical minds and neighbourhoods where everything I need is at my doorstep or a taxi ride away is where I have the best chance of full recovery. I am most grateful for this realization.
Though I always felt I was empathetic to people dealing with chronic pain, illness or injury, I realize now that I didn’t understand fully until it happened to me. As I was explaining to my neighbour, I would like to have two small, discreet signs pinned to my body – front and back – with the simple message, “Invisible disability – recovering from a head injury,” so others would know to speak carefully while looking into my eyes, and not come too close.
My neighbour is a large man, who responded that he would like one as well: “Invisible disability – suffering from a broken heart.” As my heart reached out to him in that moment of vulnerability, our friend joined in with: “Invisible disability – just returned from root canal.”
There are many walking wounded. My colleague Anna said it so well: “We need to be kind to one another. One never knows what internal wars someone is fighting.”
Debra Dolan lives in Vancouver.