Another February 5th means another 365 days have passed since my most recent concussion four years ago. Since I like keeping track of things, that’s 3495 days since concussion number one, and 1461 days since concussion number three, the aforementioned most recent one.
Four years feels like a long time. You’d think that that would be more than enough time for things to get back to normal, but unfortunately, there’s no straightforward path to healing a mild traumatic brain injury. One of the main reasons why it feels like such a long time is because of the rate of progress that I talked about last year. The upward spiral of year two allowed things to improve at an encouraging pace, but the plateau of year three caught me off guard and took away the momentum I was starting to gain.
This past year has come full circle in a way, initially continuing that plateau, and now currently back into the mandatory discipline that was required in year one.
From February to July, the lockdown lifestyle of the previous year continued, which meant no work, no sports, and no environments that triggered my symptoms. As before, things were improving, but improving very slowly. Then, after about a year and a half, my transition back into the real world began.
In August, I started working a 25-hour per week job and braved the stimuli of church in person again. In September, I resumed helping out at my church’s Youth Group as well as working my seasonal, part-time job (typically 5–10 hours per week). In October, I finally got to step on the ice again and play hockey, and in November, I no longer had the use of my parent’s vehicle (after having finally moved out in October) which meant lots of walking and lots of time spent riding the bus. In short, I went from 1.5 years of nothing on my schedule and nothing triggering my symptoms to having a schedule I wasn’t sure I could manage with symptoms once again pushed to their limits.
Initially, things were very discouraging. My headaches were significantly worse, as were light and noise sensitivity, and stimuli-filled environments were overwhelming. These were lingering issues that were fine with a very sheltered life, but while they were discouraging, they were at least expected. The issue that was surprising though, was how hard of a time I had with my eyes. That was an area that I thought was back to normal, but playing hockey and riding the bus proved otherwise. Essentially, because my brain wasn’t used to these environments, it didn’t know what it was supposed to focus on. This results in my eyes trying to take in everything all at once, which is not what they were designed to do. My eyes end up working overtime which adds to my mental and physical fatigue while I squint and blink and open my eyes as wide as they can go to try to get my brain and eyes to cooperate.
Exposure to things that trigger your symptoms is a good thing when done properly. I was hoping that it was just an adjustment period and would result in better progress over time. Thankfully it did, and all of these issues have improved quite a bit since being thrown back into everything. It’s still difficult, but I’ve done pretty well at pushing my symptoms to the right amount. I’ve even finally forced myself to work with my office light on at work, which was the biggest area I was babying myself in. The headaches are worse and it’s much harder to focus, but after a month, that decision has started to pay off as symptoms have begun to lessen.
The hardest part of this journey has always been the mental and emotional ups and downs. While my hormones still derail me quite a bit, especially when exacerbated by physical issues and external circumstances, they’re finally starting to trend toward normal! This means that other than when my hormones act up or I push my physical limits too much, my mental and emotional health are relatively stable. After years of constantly being on a rollercoaster, any semblance of stability is such a gift. It finally feels like I have one hormonal cycle instead of twelve, and the number of days I get to “be me” continue to slowly increase.
The most game-changing part of this past year was solidifying a daily walking habit. While initially forced into it as part of my commute, walks soon became incorporated into my everyday and have been the primary reason work has been sustainable for me. A lot of my issues are related to not getting proper blood flow to my brain, so walking a lot, especially in the cold, has greatly improved my cognitive functioning throughout the day as well as contributed to less severe headaches. Prior to my daily walks, even three to four hours of work seemed insurmountable at times, but thanks to walking before and after work, I’m now able to manage three consecutive eight-hour days as part of my weekly schedule. While that’s still pushing my limits and far from a normal forty-hour work week, being able to work an eight-hour day is immense progress and has been very encouraging.
With that being said, I’ll be starting another seasonal, part-time job next month. This, combined with my other two jobs, will be more than 40 hours per week at times, so I’ll soon find out how far away from “normal” I still am.
My current day job is a one-year contract and my goal going into it was to finish the year with my health not any worse off than when I started. Fortunately and unfortunately, the only way for me to achieve this is absolute discipline. I’ve definitely slipped up, but have been pleasantly surprised at how well I’ve handled things, especially considering the major changes to my schedule and responsibilities. I credit this to having internalized how crucial my health is in both the short-term and long-term, which has kept me on track and allowed me to not lose sight of the bigger picture.
One of the more challenging aspects of this year has been the feeling of not having any free time. Throughout the week, I basically get home in time to get ready for bed, and any pockets of time I have on the weekend (when I’m not working or at church or playing hockey) are spent trying to recover in time for the next thing. With hobbies and passions and side projects all put on hold for the time being, it feels like who I am is also put on hold, so things are definitely starting to get to me. If it weren’t for my commute, I think I’d be going crazy by now. While it takes up a lot more of my day than I’d like, it gives me space to think, and time to listen to podcasts and audiobooks, which taps into my love of learning, giving me at least one area where I feel like I get to be myself.
While (at least) a year of absolute discipline is an overwhelming burden at times, it’s a beneficial thing to be forced into. With each year that passes, my habits improve, and the healthy lifestyle changes I incorporate will compound for the rest of my life.
I don’t know what’s ahead after my main job finishes, but being on my own for the first time able to cope with life, support myself financially, and take care of myself physically, is a place that at the beginning of this journey I didn’t think I would ever get to. Things are still very challenging, but I’m plugging away and am proud of all the work I’ve put in over the years. It doesn’t always seem like it at the time, but it’s paying off, and despite the ups and downs, I continue to get better each year. I’m incredibly grateful for how far I’ve come and all that I’ve learned along the way, and though I hate to admit it at times, this journey has been a blessing that God has used for my good.