It was a lovely June Sunday, and I’d really enjoyed the chance to catch up with a running friend of mine on a club cycle ride. We talked about the Thunder Run, about losing weight, and about family news, especially our sons, who both have autism. We’d pedalled through a lovely country estate … and that’s all I can remember, because my next memory is being in an ambulance and being told to wake up.
I’ve since been told that a rider in front of me had had a puncture, lost control, and had veered across my path, causing me to fall. I was well looked after, because one club member sorted my bike out, another came in the ambulance with me to the hospital, and another called my wife. This took a while, because apparently I was unable to recall the 4 digit pass number that unlocked my phone to access my ICE contact details!
I have no idea how long this all took, but at some point later that afternoon I was leaving hospital with a broken collarbone, a sling,road rash and a dented helmet.
Four weeks later the summer term has ended, and I’ve been off work the whole time. Initially my sick note said ‘Fractured clavicle’, but this post is about the head injury. As a psychology teacher, I teach a whole module on psychological disorders, but now I’ve gained a personal perspective – although I’m not sure how much my boss will appreciate my going to such lengths to deepen my professional subject knowledge!!
I’ve heard a few friends tell me their own stories of partners and friends who have had concussion, which was very reassuring, so here now is my own version, for whoever may be interested to learn about what concussion can actually be like.
I always thought that concussion meant that a person had had a bump to their head, and someone needed to keep an eye on them for a couple of days, but that after that they’d be fine. How wrong I was.
I have been told that I didn’t lose consciousness in the fall, but I have no memory of the accident, or of getting into the ambulance, and only patchy memories of the rest of that day. I did have a headache, and remember the relief when someone finally gave me some paracetamol. My head hurt a lot that night, and was tender to touch for a few days afterwards. The doctor at the fracture clinic two days later signed me off for two weeks, confirming the fracture, but commenting also on the fact that I’d had a head injury. As the days followed, I learned why I needed to be off work, and that two weeks later the GP was signing me off again.
At first I felt vulnerable and sore, but I was at home and safe, so I was happy to rest and focus on one-handed self care. I soon realised, however, that the vulnerability I was feeling was not just about trying to protect my shoulder, but it was about not ‘feeling myself’. It was as if the batteries in my head were running out of charge. Here are the symptoms I have been experiencing –
- Inability to make decisions – I normally really enjoy spending time planning meals for the week ahead, but even just making menu choices at a restaurant was exhausting. Last week I went to Waterstones for a book on allotments, and there were three I liked, but I had to ask Carol to tell me which one to buy, because it was too hard to decide.
- Over-sensitive to loud noises – I found myself seeking out quiet places whenever I was out and about, and the dog barking was almost unbearable.
- Impaired short term memory – within seconds I had forgotten what I was thinking. The other day I was in Tesco, and walked past the soap. By the time I caught up with Carol on the next aisle to ask her if we needed to get some more, I’d forgotten what it was I was going to ask her about, and needed to re-trace my steps to find out what product I’d seen.
- Slow functioning – if someone says something important I have to write it down straight away, and will need to ask them to say it again. Sometimes someone will say something and I just won’t respond at all, because it requires too much effort to work out what my response should be.
- Inability to find the right words when speaking – I’ve been trying not to speak to anyone except people I trust, because its embarrassing fumbling around to find what word I’m trying to say. I have now got used to telling people on the phone that I have a head injury so can’t speak very well, or I just won’t answer the phone at all.
- Weepy – Facebook videos, texts, thoughts – anything sets me off
- Pessimism – this relates to travel. When I told her that I was bracing myself for a collision at every junction as a passenger in the car, the GP said this was completely normal. Its freaky, though – because this is irrational thinking – Carol is safe driver. She drives much more slowly now when I’m in the car, and this has helped me to relax. Even when I’m in a cafe looking out of the window I find myself being surprised when drivers complete a parking manoeuvre without hitting anything. I’m expecting a collision.
- Fatigue – this is the real disability. Since the accident I have only had one day when I haven’t had to nap at least once during the day. By ‘nap’ I mean that the fatigue will appear quite suddenly, which is fine if I’m at home, but the other day I’d walked into town on my own, and then realised this was a bad idea because I needed to sleep. I sat on a bench at first, but felt embarrassed being out in the open, so went to the library and found a quiet corner there.
- Difficulty concentrating – I think this has what’s kept me off work. Cognitive load – in other words, having to think hard is what exacerbates my fatigue. This week I spent all morning doing one-handed weeding and painting, and didn’t feel tired at all, but the moment I sat down to try to do an online grocery shop the fatigue kicked in and I gave up. I did actually go into work one morning this week – just me and my line manager planning for next term. I couldn’t believe how hard this was – within 20 minutes I was yawning, and very soon I was wondering whether I could find an empty classroom and sleep. When Carol came to pick me up at lunchtime I got in the car and cried – I was utterly exhausted for the rest of the day – just by listening, understanding, responding, planning – it amazed me how easy this is usually, and how challenging it was with a head injury.
So what’s improved? I’m better outside now – a couple of weeks ago I walked half a mile on my own down a busy street and was tired out by the trauma of it. I was hyper-vigilant – flinching from every movement around me, from walkers, cyclists, cars – I don’t do that now. and have recovered my pre-accident confidence on the street.
I can tolerant noises better now, and am more relaxed in the car. I am getting more confident with my speech, too – I participated in an online meeting with Open University lecturers the other day quite successfully, which was a real confidence booster.
I’m avoiding cognitive load anyway, because of how tired it leaves me, so I can do painting and gardening without getting too worn out. I am learning how to live slightly differently, but this is where I’m interested to understand more of where I’m at. This is because I ask myself “is this really fatigue or is this what any teacher is like at this time of year?”. Am I, in fact, actually getting over the concussion, and the fatigue is what normally happens when people have time on their hands, have choices about what to do next and choose to have a nap? Maybe I’m fine now?
If that’s the case, then I should ‘man up’ and start taking more responsibility around the house. With a head injury I know you need to rest, but for how long? Am I just being lazy now? What test could I apply that would tell me if I’m recovering now or am still impaired?
Maybe the answer to that is driving. The consultant stopped me from driving for four weeks – which means in a couple of days I can start again. Ooooh – I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’d be great to not feel so trapped in the house, and be able to get out a bit further on my own, but will it tire me out because of how much I’ll have to concentrate? I guess I’ll find out!
The big test then will be next weekend, because I’m due to take my son to Nottingham to camp for the weekend, and volunteer at a 17 hour ironman triathlon event on the Sunday. I’ve only just started to realise that this might be a tad optimistic. I may need a plan B if fatigue kicks in – have a sleep at the service station on the way down, perhaps, or get someone to help to pitch the tents, or not do the whole 17 hours … we’ll see about that, and my son will just have to deal with whatever state I find myself in. Whatever happens, the state I’m in is unlikely to be affected by alcohol, because another change since the accident is that I have no desire to drink alcohol at all! I’ve had two half glasses of wine, under duress, and didn’t find it tasty at all. I’m not a big drinker normally, but I’m surprised to suddenly have no desire for it at all.
The other random effect that I can’t explain is numbness in my left lower leg??? – answers on a postcard please about that one.
And finally – no cycling for six weeks the doctor said. I wonder how I will feel about getting back into the saddle. Right now I don’t want to cycle, but I do want to exercise. I recognise the value of the outdoors and that moving about improves your mood. I’ve been pretty low at times the past couple of weeks, especially when I’ve felt stuck at home with no one to interact with, so being out is good, but being on two wheels? I’m not twitching for that yet – maybe I will later, maybe I’ll just garden instead, because I reckon it burns off calories just as well – and you get vegetables for your trouble when you’ve finished! I’m on the waiting list for an allotment, so perhaps, maybe, I don’t know … I’m through with the cycling thing? … time will tell …
So there it is, that’s my experience – its been fascinating observing and noting what I can and can’t do, and I’m interested to see what the time scale will be with this – funny, but this year was all about gearing up for donating a kidney, but as it turns out, the kidney thing was a walk in the park compared to having a ‘little bump on the head’.
Do add comments below (rather than on Facebook), because this post might be of use to someone like me one day, not feeling themselves and wondering if its normal … I’m interested to know what you think