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One morning last December, I was power-walking through my task list, and I didn’t notice someone open a heavy, metal door beside me. It hit me in the temple, and it hurt – like a slab of metal to the head. I went on with my day – straight to work at a downtown law firm, then a meeting, then another meeting; I was home by midnight. It was a regular day, except for the innumerable painkillers I took to stifle the piercing, clanging, splitting pain.
It was the shift in my head that scared me. Where I could usually depend on sharp, fast thinking, everything was slow and cloudy. Where I could usually rely on clear memory, I couldn’t remember what was said two minutes ago or whether I’d done something that I’d just done. Most difficult for me, I couldn’t understand what I’d read. I couldn’t follow complex thoughts or piece them together into an argument. I couldn’t stay with the thought long enough.
The next morning, I went to yoga, despite the pain that made my worst hangover pale in comparison. Within minutes, my teacher saw my swollen forehead and unfocused eyes.
“You looked concussed,” she said. “You need to see a doctor.” In the ER, neuro exams confirmed that, yes – I had a concussion.
I had to slow my roll. I stopped working for three weeks, stopped any high-impact activities and didn’t go to a single party for months. I prioritized sleep for the first time in my life. I put blue light filters on my devices and reduced my commitments to the bare essentials. I scheduled self-care time for hot baths and long walks, and I listened to my body when it told me to stop – because I had to. When I tried to push myself, my thoughts would get cloudy, and I’d get dizzy. Sometimes, nausea would come, but always the headaches – clanging. In short, when I didn’t listen to my body’s needs, it forced me to.
When concussion symptoms last for months after the event, it’s postconcussion syndrome. It’s been nine months now. I’ve learned to be conscious of the moment I’m in. And that I need to practise compassion. In the past, I had no tolerance for weakness – in myself or others. Now, I’m making a practice of allowing my vulnerability.
Surprisingly I’m happier at this point than I’ve ever been in my life, Even though, on a daily basis, I am doing less to advance my career. As a millennial, that goes against the grain. I’m 33 years old; and, it feels like my peers are speeding ahead. Meanwhile, I do my work, day by day, and practise faith that the right steps will show themselves – when I get there, on my path. The reality is that I’m more content.
I find that now I have compassion to spare. I just finished a course where a colleague was having a hard time. She was frustrated, crying almost every day and pouting a lot. In the past, I’ve been irritated by this sort of behaviour and judged the person harshly. This time, I gave her my compassion and offered to listen.
In the healing process, people have been so kind to me that I’m astonished. My yoga teacher, my pastor, my naturopath, friends and family – their generosity replenishes me like water. They were kind and loving before the concussion, but I couldn’t receive it. I would run myself at such a pace that it would drain into my chronic exhaustion. Now, there’s rest at the bottom of my days and self-care as the baseline. So, the generosity that people give lands where it can grow and flow out to others.
I can still fall into old patterns; but now, I catch myself. When a colleague came to work ill, I felt annoyed. That’s my preconcussion, judgement in action. Postconcussion, I stopped and asked myself why I was so irritated. I realized I was annoyed at her hitting her human limitations because I’d spent years rejecting mine.
I’d spent my life refusing to accept that I am limited by time and space, like all humans, and that I have to make choices. Sometimes, it’s one commitment or the other, not both. When you drain your body with exhaustion, there’s little room for compassion, generosity or kindness – to myself or others.
My concussion is the best thing that could’ve happened to me. It gave me a new modus operandi to treat myself gently and practise faith that I’ll learn enough, grow enough, love enough that it will leave a positive impact on the little world around me. I’m not marching in protests or running campaigns, like I did in my student days. But I am showing kindness and compassion to the people whose lives cross mine. I put my energy and consciousness into the things that I love.
Me and my concussed mind, we’re starting this season with clarity: I can’t change my world or myself by running on empty. Living with postconcussion syndrome means I can’t force my own body into the machine that I wanted it to be. I can only care for myself and live in the moment. So, I’m going to breathe through those moments, be conscious of their beauty and trust that’ll be enough.
Roselyn Kelada-Sedra lives in Toronto.