by Élissa Algora
When we were kids, our parents would tell us: « Don’t climb that tree too high, you’ll fall and break a leg! », « Wear your hockey gear, I don’t want you to break an arm! », « Careful with that hammer, last time your uncle did that, he broke his thumb! »… Of course, we were all terrorized with the idea of breaking a leg, an arm, a finger, a toe… But what about breaking your head?
On November 16th of 2017, I was writing a paper about posture for my Injury Prevention class (irony lol). I was lost, completely lost. You know, when you have to give in the paper on that night, you have it in front of you, you read it a couple of times already and you still have no idea how you’re going to finish it on time. I had to do research, it was late and I was getting impatient. There happened to be a wall in front of me, which I slowly banged my head against twice to let out steam. That was the moment where I broke my head.
I had two serious concussions before that one, one was in 2012 in a ski accident and the other one was in 2014 while playing soccer. I don’t remember anything of the ski accident. I didn’t know I had a concussion at the time. I definitely had symptoms, but since I didn’t know anything about them, I just thought that I was tired or catching a virus. I also had 3 dislocated vertebrates and a dislocated jaw. The pain was so high that the concussion symptoms were not so important next to what I had. It’s when I saw my dentist 3-4 weeks later, she noticed that my jaw was in fact dislocated. She pointed out that the symptoms I had were a concussion and I had to take it easy. I went on with her advice and kept on living my normal life with a concussion which had occurred a month ago. The soccer one was taken more seriously. I was playing soccer on my high school team when a girl from the other team cleared the ball about one meter away from my face. I took it right on my head and was knocked out. I went to the hospital directly after because I was having unconscious moments. The doctors ordered me to retire myself from all activities including school for 2 weeks. I followed their advises and my condition was slowly improving. I was back to school two weeks later, but it took a year and a half before I felt normal again.
Feeling normal is all you want when you have a concussion. After my concussion in 2014, I had to stop playing soccer. Not because of the fear of another impact, because when I ran, I felt like my brain was loose and shacking in my skull. It didn’t hurt that much, it just didn’t feel right and I knew I wasn’t helping myself. I still remember the day that I was running and didn’t feel like I had a bouncing ball in my skull. It felt so good and that was the moment that I felt normal again.
Until November 2017, I felt normal and free, but exactly six seconds after hitting my head against a wall (really not hard), I was back in the concussion prison. My vision was blurry, I had the biggest headache ever, I felt like if I was in a big fog, confused and lost… I really experienced the expression of « seeing stars ». I was angry at myself, I had just intentionally caused myself a concussion. I tried to convince myself that I was fine and probably just very tired. I finished my paper (I don’t know how) and went to bed hoping that I was going to wake up fine the next morning. But for two months following that, I woke up in the concussion prison every morning. The headache didn’t go away at all for two months. Four days after hitting my head, I had slept two days straight and my dad decided to take me to the hospital. Now try to explain to the doctor how you have caused yourself a concussion while hitting your head against a wall? I was out of school for the rest of the semester (one month) and had to write my final exams at the beginning of the following semester. The annoying part of a concussion is that nobody can relate unless you were unfortunate and had one.
Generally speaking, anyone who hasn’t had a concussion can’t understand. And every concussion is different so even people that have had concussions hardly understand each other. But teachers (generally speaking again) do not fully understand what a concussion is. The only teacher that understood was my Injury Prevention teacher, which I am very grateful for… But my three other teachers were making me catch up one month of class by myself. And I think it’s fair to have to write the same amount of papers or exams then other people in the class, but what I think is unfair is to make the student catch up one month of class by himself. It’s unfair to make the student read 32 poems that were covered in class for a 5% quiz. It’s unfair to ask the student to study 60 pages of the manual that were covered in class for a 20% exam. It’s unfair to ask the student to read a 200 pages novel in one week that was also covered in class for 25% exam. An advisor suggested to drop out of the semester and I seriously thought about it. But more than three quarters of the semester was done, the work was all done, I only had the final exams to write. Fuck it, I did it. It wasn’t good for me; any doctor would have ordered me to give up on the semester and take the following semester off. I still had a blurry vision and massive headaches. I couldn’t look at screens for more than two minutes. Hundreds of anxiety attacks later, I managed to pass all my classes and am taking four classes this semester.
You look normal when you have a concussion so people think you’re fine. Today, a bit more than five months later, I still have headaches that come and go. They’re frustrating because you’re fine for a couple of days and one day you wake up and feel like you hit your head the day before. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. People around you don’t know that’s it’s happening. It’s really hard mentally because at one point, people think that you’re taking it as an excuse for everything. Once I was talking with people about not being able to go to an event because of its location, and someone in the group told me « I don’t understand why you can’t go, because of your concussion? Hahaha ». You withdrawal into oneself because you don’t want to disappoint anyone. You’re disappointing yourself because you feel like everything is so hard on your brain and you don’t want it to be hard. I took 20 pounds in two months from not doing anything, because you literally can’t do anything apart from sleeping and eating.
When I say you can’t do anything, I don’t mean that you’re not allowed to do anything. I mean that any little physical thing is hard on the brain. Every step that you take hits your brain. Your head hurts so much that even when your eyes are closed you feel like every source of light is too strong. Any type of cardio, you don’t feel your heart beat in your chest, you feel it beat in your head. Oh and the part I find most annoying is the vision, the focus of your eyes is extremely slow and out of nowhere, your vision gets blurry. You also get dizzy out of nowhere. Everything is slow around you. The best way I found to describe my concussion is feeling drunk. You know the part before being drunk when you’re still aware of what is going on around you but you feel like your brain is not attached to the rest of your body, you feel dizzy and everything is slow around you. Well, imagine that, but constantly, for months. It’s not fun, I haven’t taken one drop of alcohol in the past five months and I don’t know if I will because of that. It’s not fun anymore.
People don’t warn you for this. « It’s just a concussion », I have heard that sentence so many times it’s hard to believe. It’s not fun, it’s not an excuse for being lazy, it’s not a joke… I know it’s hard to understand because it’s not something we take seriously enough. Heads are more fragile than what we think. When you break a leg or an arm or a finger or a toe, it can take some time to recover, but you’re still mentally functional. I think we forget, when you « break your head », you’re literally not mentally functional and recovery can be very long from a concussion to another. I wish people could understand that, it’s not something to joke around about. If you go biking or snowboarding or skiing, wear a helmet, that’s’ what they’re for. I don’t want to sound like a mom, I just want people to understand that it’s worth it to protect your head. This is an extreme comparison, but skiing without an helmet in front of someone that has been through what I’ve been through, is like smoking in front of someone that has lung cancer. Just don’t do it, heads are fragile.