Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to take a break from writing due to an unfortunate flare-up of my post-concussion syndrome from a head injury that I suffered more than 3 years ago. Ironically enough, these symptoms reared their ugly heads on the exact day that I had been planning on writing about head injuries and their unique relationship with mental health… the universe certainly works in mysterious ways.
Now that I’m back on the keyboard, that desire has not changed. Although a head injury is not a mental illness, I’ve learned through my experience that these out-of-the-ordinary ailments can have extraordinary similarities to and influences on day-to-day mental health.
Before I get into the good stuff, I want to share a critical disclaimer: just as every individual experiences mental illness differently, every individual has a unique experience with head injuries.
Although this is the case, I’ve found some significant similarities between myself and others who are recovering from head injuries and, in turn, how these injuries impact our lives, our mental health and our loved ones. I’d like to share some of this likeness with you today to encourage and contribute to a larger dialogue around what happens when one of us monkeys jumping on the bed falls off and bumps our head.
1) No one is harder on us than us.
It took me a while to realize this (most likely due to the giant bruise on my brain), but I was ruthless with myself when it came to my progress in recovery. I felt shame if I didn’t improve day-to-day and was deeply embarrassed if I managed to somehow reignite my symptoms. When I finally realized how tough I was on myself, it taught me two important things: 1) that the professionals who were helping me (my chiropractor, my sports medicine doctor, etc.) were INCREDIBLE because they never judged me for where I was in my recovery; and 2) that it deeply impacted me if someone told me I should just be more careful, watch where I went, or take better care of myself. This is similar to experiencing depression and someone telling you to “just cheer up”. If only it were that easy.
2) One step forward, two steps back.
To build off of number one, every day is different. Often, we take a great step forward and then, out of nowhere, two major steps back. For example, you could have a great day where you are actually able to socialize and then it gets followed up by two days of dizziness and vision-altering pain. The most important thing that I want to get across here is that it is not our choice. We are not choosing to do one thing and not the other. The head injury chooses for us. Our mental health chooses for us. So if we have to miss out on something yet we were able to do something else, it isn’t a game… it’s what we have to do to get through the day, plain and simple.
3) We have changed and sometimes it terrifies us.
It also took me a long time to realize that there have been changes to my personality since my injury. Some are funny – like my newly developed road rage that leads to fits of laughter or my now selective and altered memory of song lyrics. But there are others that are scary. Just like experiencing a mental illness, it can be terrifying to realize that you might not be the same person who you were before it happened. As a loved one of someone going through a mental illness, a head injury, or both, this is so important to try to understand and sympathize with.
4) Sitting alone in the dark can make you feel alone in the dark.
Last but certainly not least, one of the hardest things about having a head injury is that there is nothing that you can do to get better… and by that I mean that literally doing nothing is the best way to get better. Being away from light, noise, and stimulation may be the best medicine, but it is also simultaneously the worst medicine for your mental health. It can be a very lonely journey. I was incredibly fortunate during my recovery (and still am!) to have a support system that would literally sit in silence with me if that was what I needed.
Head injuries are complicated. Mental health is complicated. Human beings, on the best days, are incredibly complicated. So, if I can leave you with just one takeaway if you or a loved one are recovering from a head injury, a mental illness, or both, it is this: do whatever you can, day in and day out, to let them know that even if they are literally sitting alone in the dark, they are never alone in the dark.
About Kathryn Christie
As an HR Consultant with a deep passion for Mental Health, Kathryn spends her days pushing paper and her nights volunteering with the Canadian Mental Health Association as a co-facilitator of the Family and Caregiver Education program. Her passion extends beyond the realm of her volunteer work which has brought her to Healthy Minds Canada to share stories, support and inspiration with her community.