Where’s Colin?

I’ve been away for a while. I had a vacation, then a bunch of work, then a conference, so that ate up three weeks. And then I had a concussion.

I fell off a stage and hit my chin on Thursday July 27th. Luckily there’s no lasting physical damage, and my mental recovery is finally looking up this week. I want to give you an idea of what it was like.

The night of the injury I had a headache. I didn’t realize all of the different places I had been injured – I knew I nailed my chin, my elbow, and my toe, but didn’t notice my hip and collarbone until the next day. I iced my jaw, took some Advil PM (which might have contributed to the problem), and went to bed.

The next day I had symptoms that I recognized as being a concussion. I didn’t know how bad it would become. I took notes at the last day of the conference, which probably exacerbated things. I flew home and tried to get some rest, deciding to see a doctor if things weren’t better on Monday. They weren’t. I saw a doctor.

For those who don’t know, the symptoms of a concussion vary, but typically you have trouble with:

  • Looking at screens
  • Coming up with words
  • Remembering things
  • Thinking hard
  • Thinking quickly
  • Mental fatigue

Imagine that every time you think about something too hard, it feels like you just filled out tax forms for eight hours. Every time you have to make an effort to remember something, you get a headache.

Severe concussions (which often result in loss of consciousness) lead to cranial nerve damage and all sorts of motor-neurological things, which is why they do that test when they move a finger in front of your eyes. Mine wasn’t severe, but it was bad enough.

I tried to go into work half-time that week. I was useless after half an hour. I had to rest for at least another hour before I was useful again. It quickly got to the point where that rest time needed to be overnight.

At home, I tried to take “brain rest”, which is all they can prescribe for you when you’re recovering from a concussion. Here’s what brain rest looks like:

  • Limited screen use, including computing or watching TV or movies.
  • Limited reading.
  • Limited hard thinking.
  • Limited exercise. Don’t even walk too much or too far, as it can jar the brain.
  • No drinking – it kills brain cells and you just lost a bunch of those. Also, if you drink enough that you fall down and get another concussion, just go ahead and mark all of your symptoms as “permanent.”
  • No driving. You cannot make decisions quickly. You also can’t multitask or filter out distractions, like someone talking or music playing in the background. Do not kill someone by driving with a concussion.

I could write sometimes, but not for long, and I couldn’t read what I had written afterward. I could cook, if I didn’t need to look at a recipe. I could clean. My stove has never been cleaner. I could do martial arts forms slowly, but only the ones I remembered well. No trying to re-learn old forms.

This was the weirdest sick time I’ve ever taken in my life. Everything I would normally do while sick is on that list above. For much of the time I sat there in bed listening to podcasts until I realized that they, too, were giving me a headache. Then I just sat there in bed. Doing nothing. For hours.

The next week I took off from work entirely. (Hooray for unions and for sick time!) I went to my partner’s parents’ house in the Massachusetts countryside. I didn’t even bring my computer. Things continued to get worse for a day or two. On the worst day, I could no longer listen to music. All I could do was to sit there in a chair in the shade, with sunglasses on, watching the clouds from when they entered my field of view until they it.

They say that depression can set in about a month after a concussion. I am not surprised.

After two weeks, things finally started looking up. I was able to read a few entries in Marvel’s Guide to the Avengers without getting a headache. The next day I was able to read a few recipes. Reading from a screen was not an option, and screens are still difficult now.

I found that my symptoms varied widely while I was recovering. The feeling of pressure in my head and the fuzzy brain were common throughout. I also have trouble with fluorescent and LED lights, which are basically the only types we have in my house.

Early on I felt incredibly mentally fatigued. I slept so much that my body was probably the best-rested it has ever been. However, this was also when the sleep apnia started kicking in. If you’re not familiar with sleep apnia, it’s where your body stops breathing until your brain wakes up to kick it back into action. It can be terrifying. I found that doing 10 minutes of exercise before bed cleared this right up for me.

Once that started wearing off, I became hyper-aware of my brain chemical levels. If I was hungry, I was unable to put off eating for more than 5 minutes without getting a headache. The same was true if my blood sugar was low, if I hadn’t had enough salt recently, if I needed water, if I needed caffeine, or if I needed protein. Each of these had its own distinct type of headache that I came to recognize over the course of about a week. This is subsiding right now, but still present.

At this point, after 3 weeks of recovery, I’m back at work part-time, hoping to go up to full sometime next week. I have some special glasses that my partner got me to cut out some blue light, which helps with screens. I can think pretty well again, though my memory isn’t perfect. I can read, though I need to hold back, because I can easily read enough to give myself a headache. It’ll probably be another week or two before I’m at 100%, assuming that I get there.

90% of people recover from a concussion within a month. Of the remainder, most recover within three months. Some people never recover. I am very grateful to be on the track to recovery.