What It's Like to Live With Post Concussion Syndrome
It’s another morning. I wake up and the room is spinning. I’m nauseous again, just like the day before. I don’t want to get out of bed, but I have a class at 9 am and a busy schedule today like everyday. It’s been nearly two months since my accident and life’s been returning to normal. My left arm and shoulder are healing and I won’t need surgery like the doctors initially thought. Most of my bruises and swelling have gone down too, and scars have formed on my left wrist and knee. Life has almost returned to normal — externally.
But internally, something’s wrong. My head pounds with a low drum beating most of the day. I’m nauseous most of the time and I’m either unable to eat or stuffing my face to overcompensate in order to take my medication. I can no longer think straight. It’s my small concussion and secondary whiplash that doctors thought would heal speedily. It’s still here, however, and it does not look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. But you wouldn’t know that simply from looking at me.
For two months, I’ve lived a disjointed life. Though I put a wide smile on my face, I’ve been unable to function normally. Everything from having a simple conversation, to taking a test, to even sleeping through the night has become difficult and sometimes nearly impossible. I’m unable to think clear thoughts; I’m unable to focus; I’m unable to get the proper words out without stammering or stuttering. I’m embarrassed to have serious conversations with friends, family, and loved ones. I’m usually so collected and can gather my thoughts rather well, but I can’t do that right now.
Normally, I’m a good student. I work hard for good grades and love stacking my school schedule so I can do optimal things outside of the classroom. Nowadays, I can barely get through readings for class, so I skip them. They make my head pound a little too hard; they’re the cymbals that add to the steady beating drum. I spend double the time I should on papers and haven’t been able to hand them all in on time because my thoughts are too disconnected and fuzzy. I can’t study because I can’t collect myself so I failed an exam. This isn’t the ordinary me.
When I failed my exam, I tried to explain to my professor what had happened and if there was an opportunity to improve my grade.
“Professor,” I pleaded, “you know I’m a good student! I’ve been trying to get back to normal. Can I please potentially have an extra credit assignment? Just to boost my grade a few extra points!”
“Rachel,” he said, “I apologize and I know that you missed several classes recovering. But you had a lot of time to study. Perhaps you should have read the textbook more carefully; you ask a lot of questions in class that could’ve been answered if you looked closer at the text.”
Not all professors have been that way. Some have been very understanding and given me a few special accommodations because they know I’m trying. Some ask for documentation though, and I’ve accumulated a file that’s larger than one of my textbooks.
“Which would you like? I have documentation from the ER, my orthopedist, physical therapist, and neurologist. Or maybe you would like to see the results from my x-rays, CT scans and MRIs!”
They rest their cases.
For two months, I’ve been unable to concentrate. If I’m able find the stamina and energy to focus on something, it takes all of my brain power and means I’m forgetting about something else. I’ve forgotten my house keys at home, my phone charger on my bed, if I davened or made a blessing before or after eating and everything in between. It has gotten so bad that I sometimes forget mid-conversation the statement I made prior, no matter to whom I am speaking or what I am talking about. I’ve begun to doubt myself and have resorted to questioning my sanity on a daily, and often hourly, basis.
Then there’s the fatigue. For the last two months, I have been exhausted. I’ve been unable to both fall asleep and sleep through the night - whether it’s been because of the nausea, the headaches, or because I had too much schoolwork to do the night before. This sheer exhaustion has led me to be unable to stay awake in classes, at my internship, or while doing homework. I doze off without even realizing it, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot keep myself awake. It’s also one of the factors, along with my physical injuries, that has kept me from driving and restricts me to public transportation and the assistance of others. My peers are not always so understanding of this.
“Why are you taking the elevator? You live on the third floor!”, one girl snarked a few days ago as she pressed the button for the fifteenth floor. She continued to whisper to her friend, “She does not have a heavy package and isn’t even injured.”
I wanted to scream back, “I’m exhausted and in pain— if only you could see it.” Of course, I only thought this to myself and didn’t dare argue or cause a fight.
So each day now goes. I feel helpless and at the mercy of my drowsiness as it determines when and to what extent I can do normal activities and operate my daily life.
The worst of all is the nausea. Everyday, without failure, it is like the sureness that the the sun will rise in the morning. I wake up with nausea and am unable to eat for hours, sometimes not until the latter portion of the afternoon. Often I must force myself to eat something -- anything -- to be able to take medication in the morning. Other times, despite my efforts to keep the food down, I throw up and then am less enticed to eat for another couple of hours for fear that I won’t be able to stomach anything edible. By the time that I am finally able to eat food again, I’m starving and cannot help myself from stuffing my face to compensate for the extreme hunger, resulting in more nausea from overeating and throwing up again. It’s a dangerous, annoying cycle, and it drives me crazy.
While this entire situation has been a living nightmare for me, there have also been others indirectly affected by my concussion. Firstly, my family has to put up with my forgetfulness, as well as my inability to focus or to drive. I’ve become as dependent on my parents as I was in high school, and I feel like an imposition and a burden. There are also my friends who I no longer get to see as often as I’d like because I’ve been too busy catching up on various forms of work, while also participating in regularly-scheduled extra-curriculars. Unfortunately, this injury has caused my social life to suffer in the process, and to those friends that I’ve become too busy to have time for because of it, I truly am sorry.
Finals are coming and I’m terrified. While Disability Services has gone above and beyond to try and get me the accommodations I need, my neurologist told me that he thinks I should consider taking medical leave for the courses I need to put excess effort into -- even if that would risk me not graduating on time. I feel trapped in my own mind, as if I am unable to escape from a prison my own brain has trapped me in. While my sling has been hung up in my closet and most of my external injuries have healed, my injuries are still very real, and there, unfortunately, is no healing in sight.