10 years later, reflections on a head injury

Ten years ago, on July 1st 2009, I dove into Ruby Lake on the sunshine coast without incident and had a pleasant swim.

That’s not where you thought this story was going.

Here it comes: then I attempted a front flip and hit my head on the rocks.

I didn’t know anything about concussions, head injuries, or post-concussion syndrome back then. I thought hitting my head was the same as a bad scrape on my leg. That I would need to clean up the blood, be sore for about a week or two and life would go on as before.

Self portrait in the ER waiting room at 2am.

The next day, I was sitting cross-legged in the middle of my living room, not knowing why I was suddenly crying. The ER cleaned my wound and did some cursory tests on me (checking my pupils, moving my arms and legs, making me walk in a straight line, but no MRIs or anything like that), and sent me home with a handout of possible symptoms. I dug out that piece of paper and saw mood swings listed. Also headaches, sensitivity to light and noise and some other things I can’t remember now.

I would go on to experience some of those symptoms for years.

Thankfully, I didn’t know that yet.

On the tenth anniversary of my head injury, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve learned from it. Someone, just yesterday, asked me if I believed things happen for a reason. Fuck no. I don’t believe that. But I do believe we can learn from things. And that we need to tell stories and make meaning from our life events. And thankfully, we get to make our own stories and meaning from our major life events. Hitting my head became a major life event for me, and I’ve learned a lot while wrestling with my recovery.

Pushing through.

Rest is complicated. I’m a naturally busy person.

After the first week of slowing down and letting myself recover, I went back to my regular life. At the time, I was working for SFPIRG three days a week, helping run an activist resource centre at SFU; two days a week I worked at the Vancouver Public Library as a graphic designer; and since it was summer, planning and organizing for Under the Volcano was in full force – I was the volunteer coordinator for the day-long activist music festival.

But increasingly, I wasn’t okay. I kept getting these tension headaches, that I could only describe as migraines, anywhere from a couple to up to four or five times a week. When I got the headaches, I was pretty much done for the day. I wouldn’t be able to do anything else. I was also unable to control my emotions. I felt like I was a toddler, or hangry. I was a hangry toddler and it was embarrassing.

I see myself as strong and capable, so I pushed through. I didn’t listen to my body and its new limits. I didn’t want it to be true and I thought I could will myself through the symptoms (which I didn’t even recognize as symptoms yet).

It was November by the time I went to my doctor and told her about my headaches and mood swings and inability to get through the work day.

Why now? I asked. I made it through the summer and planning Under the Volcano and it’s been months since the accident.

You were running on reserves, she said. And now you’ve run out.
She referred me to GF Strong, a rehabilitation centre that specializes in head injuries.

What’s underneath all that busyness?

At GF Strong, they asked me what I did to relax and I said I liked to read and listen to podcasts.

No, they said, that uses your brain too much. You need to rest.

What is rest?

Meditation. Taking a bath, but without a book. Naps.

So basically having no input or stimulus to my brain.

Oh that is so boring. Just to sit and be with yourself? No escape. No distraction. I know that sounds bad, but seriously, when someone tells me they’re going to a Vipasanna retreat all I can think about is how can you sit and do nothing for 10 days? That sounds like torture. And not for boredom, though that too. More like, what’s beneath the busyness? I had an inkling that there was something underneath the fact that I liked to be so busy, but I didn’t know what, and I didn’t want to find out.

I went on sick leave from SFPIRG, but kept on at VPL for two days a week. But even though I was on sick leave, I felt the need to do something with my days. I had to be productive. I remember one day labeling the jars in my pantry so that I would feel like I did something that day. I couldn’t rest.

I slowly started to recognize that the feeling underneath that drive to “do” was tied to my self worth. I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me I had low self worth. I liked myself and felt warmly towards myself, but there was no denying that there was also this feeling of needing to earn my stay here on earth. Like I had to be productive in order to be of value and being of value was like love. So I had to be productive in order to be worthy of love. I think we all have something like this underneath the distraction and the work. I didn’t like looking at it. I didn’t like feeling it. So I kept giving myself projects so I could feel worthy of my own love. That is the biggest lesson I learned from my head injury. And the lesson kept revealing more layers to it, like an onion.

What is my identity if I can’t do any of the things that bring me joy or meaning?

GF Strong did a number of tests on me and determined that I was clinically depressed. It didn’t surprise me, I could no longer do any of the things that brought me joy or helped me define myself. Up to that point, I saw myself as an activist and organizer. But I couldn’t go to meetings or take on tasks anymore. I loved concerts and get togethers, but I couldn’t handle crowded places or interacting with a lot of people anymore. I loved photography and design but it’s hard to be creative when you feel like shit. All of the things I liked to do for fun were no longer fun. I could still ride my bike and go to yoga class, but I had started thinking of these things through my productive lens and was going in order to tick something off my list of things to do to get better.

So if my hobbies and interests were gone, and the work I used to defined myself was gone, who was I? Again this is one of those things that if a friend said it, I would have all these seemingly reassuring, but ultimately meaningless things to say. But when it’s me feeling it, I was lost. I didn’t know. And I didn’t know how long this would last for. Was this the new me? I really hoped not.

Recovery can take a long time.

I remember my partner at the time saying, One day you’ll look back on all this and you won’t even believe you felt this bad.

It’s true. Looking back now, I can’t believe I felt so bad and for so long.

I was at a party a couple of years into the head injury recovery and someone said, I had a bad head injury, it made me stop drinking.

Oh? I said. How long did it last?

5 years, she said.

FIVE YEARS? I couldn’t believe her. Don’t tell someone two years into something really hard that it might take five years to get through it.

It did take me about five years. During that time Ariel and I moved into a co-op that was undergoing construction. It was shrouded in opaque white tarps that were left up for over 2 years because the construction company went out of business and it took forever for insurance to hire a new team. Those tarps felt symbolic of what I was going through. I was going deeper inside myself and a little bit removed from the world. I was trying to find meaning and make new patterns. Find joy despite the obstacles.

I continued to work at VPL, but increasingly I couldn’t make it through the workday. Around 3pm I would start getting headaches. I also hated sitting a desk from 9-5 even if there was nothing to do. I hated having to find more work or look busy. As a creative person I wanted to go for walks, look out the window, sort my laundry. Sitting at a computer all day is not a great way to stoke creativity. I ended up quitting after they moved my department onto the sixth floor and my desk looked into the federal building next door. The sixth floor of the federal building housed immigration and border services. I kept seeing people in orange jumpsuits sitting with lawyers or talking on phones in empty rooms. I came to Canada as a refugee when I was a kid. Had things gone wrong, we could’ve been in orange jumpsuits held by immigration. It was too much to look at everyday while trying to work. And it was too much to think about the fact that I couldn’t even look at it. I quit with no real plan and got a job as a graphic designer at Vancouver Community College before I even finished my two weeks notice. That was lucky. My plan was to freelance or run my own business but I didn’t really have a plan, I just knew what I didn’t want.

The next year, four years into my head injury, I stumbled upon a coding bootcamp run by the same women who started Ladies Learning Code and I signed up. I jumped on a plane and went to Toronto for 3 months. I was worried my brain wouldn’t be able to handle the fast-paced learning. Monday-Friday 10am-6pm classes, but often I stayed until 9 or 10 at night. And every weekend we had to build a website or program from scratch. My brain handled it. I didn’t miss a single day of class for the nine weeks of the bootcamp. The tarps came off my house and my brain. I felt confident in my abilities again.

New life

It’s not an exaggeration to say that my business came out of my head injury. I work from home now. I take walks when I need to and look out the window and fold my laundry. And I actually create more work in a year than I ever did at a 9-5 in-house design job. I have a lot more free time as well. I can’t work a standard job, but I probably never could. That’s another big lesson I learned from my head injury. All the things I couldn’t do were already hard for me, but I had the ability to ignore my feelings and push through. The head injury stripped that away from me. I could no longer push through anything I couldn’t do. It made me make hard changes that ultimately led me to a better place.

I’m no longer as busy as I once was. I’m much better at resting. I’m better with sitting with pain and uncertainty. I’m better at knowing that hard times will pass. I’m better at knowing myself and what I really want. I still struggle with finding meaning and joy sometimes, but that’s life. I still get really hungry especially when I’m in a new place and have to process more. I still act like a toddler, but less frequently now.