It's Better to Recover Fully than Push It
By Alex Slobodian
On the morning of August 21st I was walking to the gym and I got hit in the head with a door.
Yes a door. You can laugh. It really is ridiculous. At the time I didn’t think anything of it. It hurt, as it was a heavy metal door and it clocked me right in the temple. But people get hit in the head all the time and walk away completely fine.
At least that is what I thought at the time.
I went to the gym. My head felt weird, but I thought it was fine. As the day progressed I felt really tired, but it was the end of August and I chalked it up to the fact that I had just come off a large volume block. That afternoon I biked to work. I still felt exhausted so I treated myself to an ice coffee from Bridgehead hoping the caffeine would chase away the exhaustion so I could get through my shift. As my shift progressed, the exhaustion didn’t wane, but increased instead. I had developed a small headache and there was swelling in the area I got hit. I have a history of migraines, so having a headache was not something that greatly concerned me. Still, thinking that something may be wrong, I called Ben and asked him to pick me up from work.
The next morningI still felt awful and the word concussion had crossed my mind many times that night. But I still wasn’t convinced. I had just spent the past year being injured and I didn’t want another one. I wanted absolute proof that something was wrong. So I went to practice. We were doing skate agility and sprints and I was off balance, I couldn’t sprint and I felt all over the place. I lasted 45 minutes at practice before I gave up and went home. At this point I knew something was wrong.
That afternoon I went to see the varsity Athletic Therapist at Carleton. We ran through my symptoms and did a SCAT 2 test. I scored a 55, which is pretty high considering you should be at 0. But the real indicator was when they tested my eyes and my balance. My eyes couldn’t follow a big black dot on a popsicle stick, and when I stood with one foot in front of the other, I tipped over; not wobbled, tipped over.
So I was diagnosed with a concussion. This prompted the following conversation:
Me: So how long is recovery?
AT: We don’t know.
Me: Well whats the average recovery time for someone recovering from a concussion.
AT: It varies drastically.
Me: Well what can I do to speed up my recovery?
AT: Get rid of your symptoms.
Me: Can I take Tylenol or Advil to get rid of them?
AT: No, that just masks them and this puts you at risk for making them worse.
Now for those of you who are unaware, those answers were not based on ignorance or lack of education on the matter. There is just so much variation in concussion recovery from person to person.
That being said, when I spoke to Dr. Taylor, a Sport Med doctor at Carleton she told me that 65% of people will recover from a concussion in 2 weeks. But you can still experience symptoms after that. Needless to say I was hoping to be one of the 65%!
Unfortunately for me, I drew the short stick when it came to things that caused symptoms. I was sensitive to noise and light so I spent the 3 weeks in a dark room with ear plugs in at every moment of the day. I was constantly dizzy and nauseous. I always had a headache and felt pressure in my head. I felt like I was living in a fog. I was emotional, nervous and anxious. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. I had trouble stringing together sentences and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was so sensitive to noise that the sound of my own heartbeat would worsen my symptoms. Even now, I struggle to remember most of late August, the entire month of September and early October.
I tried to take charge of my recovery. I had my mom write down all my symptoms and keep track of what I did that day. But in the first few weeks, this didn’t really matter because doing nothing made my symptoms worse and since I was already doing nothing, I couldn’t really do anything less.
So after two weeks of my symptoms not improving I became one of the 35% who don’t recover in the first two weeks.
At this point, from a training perspective I was not really phased. I was really bummed that I couldn’t train, but in the grand scheme of things, 2 weeks for me wasn’t that big of a deal. After spending a year on the sidelines I was chomping at the bit to get going again. But, you hit bumps in the road sometimes and it’s better to recover fully than push it. Especially with concussions.
However the weeks started to tick by.
5 weeks – school started and I was only able to do one class. First year French.
6 weeks – I was able to walk for 30 minutes, but then I had a regression and my symptoms got worse again.
8 weeks – the first big jump in recovery. I did physical activity every day. I was on the bike for 20 minutes, I did some body weight strength and I went for a 45 minute ski walk.
9 to 11 weeks – another big regression.
12 weeks – first time on skis! 30 minutes before symptoms appeared.
13 to 15 weeks – Some days were great whereas others were spent in bed.
15 to 18 weeks – slight regression but improvement continues.
18 to 20 weeks – first time where I could do some form of physical activity most days for two weeks.
Thankfully my recovery is still going up. It feels like 3 steps forward and 2 steps back, but even at that pace you are still moving forward.
I’m not going to lie, I had some really dark times over the past 4.5 months. It really sucks having sat on the sidelines for a whole year only to be put back there again. Recovering from my knee surgery, even as frustrating as it was, has come nowhere close to what recovering from this concussion has been like.
The most frustrating part for me was my difficulty sleeping. One of the symptoms of a concussion is sleeping a lot, but another symptom is having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Sleep is critical for concussions recovery, but no matter how exhausted I was, for the first month of my recovery, sleep was out of my reach. Even when I took Melatonin.
The other thing I struggled with was a lack of coping mechanisms. When I tore my ACL and I wasn’t able to do physical activity. At the time I felt like I had lost one of my biggest coping mechanisms – which I had – but there were so many other ways I could deal with what I was going through. Whereas with this, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t listen to music, or guided meditations or even other people talking. I couldn’t watch t.v. or play cards, knit, stretch, write, draw or doodle. Some days I tried to pass the time by thinking about mountain biking in Italy or skiing at Nakkertok, but I’d usually last 1 minute before that brought on symptoms. All I could do was lie in the dark. I felt lonely and isolated. Even though my support system could not have been better, I felt lonely, isolated and abandoned; and I had no way of coping with this.
That is something a concussion does. It isolates you. When I was recovering from my knee surgery, I could talk to other people who had gone through the exact same thing. We had the same scars, we had the same rehab program and we all had the same brace. Weirdly enough, there was a sense of comradery.
Whereas with a concussion, everyone is different. In Athletic Therapy at Carleton, in the early stages of my recovery, there were several other people recovering from concussions. Some were sensitive to light, but could listen to heavy metal music without a care in the world. Some lost their balance but experienced no other symptoms. Some had to walk around with sound proof headphones but other than that, they could function normally. It’s so drastically different, that trying to talk to someone else who is recovering can actually make you feel worse. I know it did for me. We’d try and support each other, but the only thing we had in common is how much it sucked having a concussion. I either ended up feeling jealous because they were recovering faster, or they had less symptoms; or they feel that way about me. Hence the feelings of isolation.
One of the best decisions I made in my recovery process was going to see a sport Psychologist who specialized in concussion recovery. Speaking openly about what I was going through made a huge difference in my mental state. She suggested I try painting as a coping mechanism, so I started by putting paint on paper with not rhyme or reason. The first time I painted for 5 minutes. At the time, it felt great to do an activity, even if it was just 5 minutes. I slowly improved, and was able to start thinking about why I wanted to put a color in a certain place and I was able to paint longer. Although I’ve never been skilled at art, painting definitely had a big impact on my recovery, and I would not have tried it otherwise.
With that all said, my biggest improvement – both in my mental health and my physical health – happened when I made the difficult call to not race until I feel better. This was really hard, but once I had said it out loud, all the pressure I had put on myself to recover so I could race disappeared. After 3 months of not training, the stress I felt about the approaching race season was having a major negative effect on my recovery. The decision was really hard, especially after last year, but it was the only option and it was the right option.
At this point things are on the up and up. I’m having more good days then bad and the really bad days are few and far between.
One of the best pieces of advice I got during this whole ordeal was from my Dad. He told me “You have two options in life. You can lay down and die, or get up every morning and do what you can do.”
And that’s precisely what I’ve been doing. At the beginning of this, the most exciting part of my day was unloading and reloading the dishwasher. Now I can ski for an hour!
It’s really hard to see how far I have to go, but looking back and seeing how far I’ve come makes it a lot easier to keep going.