Battling against the depression – It keeps accompanying chronic illness.
I blinked the speckles out of my eyes, revealing a plain blue sky. On a sweltering summer day in California, this is the kind of thing you’d expect. With the sun setting down, my hands patted the soil on underneath me. Without a rider and Untethered, a horse was standing on the ground. My head was foggy, and I could feel a stiffness going down my neck. “Damn it,” I thought to myself.
When Diagnosed with Concussion
In the summer of 2020, I was bucked off a horse and launched over her head, landing on my feet. I had a minor traumatic brain and neck injury. I’d been diagnosed with a concussion for the third time. I anticipated this one to go the same way as the last two, which had gone away in a couple of weeks. I later discovered that the complexity of the brain causes a wide range of concussion severity, with mine being at the top of the list. I tried to ignore the symptoms for as long as I could, but they continued.
I was experiencing excruciating headaches, extreme mental weariness, nausea, and, eventually, vertigo and disorientation (for comparison, I imagine the combination of a severe hangover and all-nighter would feel similar, with the difference being no amount of sleep or greasy food would relieve the symptoms).
My headaches were regularly managed with Tylenol and Advil. I drank coffee and rested when needed to give me just enough energy to get through the day. I focused on my mother’s motto, “mind over matter,” which she had ingrained in me since I was a youngster. Unfortunately, for the first time in my life, the sentence did not work.
The extreme was the beginning
I needed to use the toilet in the middle of the night after around three months. As soon as I sat up in bed, the room began to spin. My spinning merry-go-round was made by my translucent white drapes, Aloe Vera plant, and navy-blue love seat. I stood up, leaned against the wall, placed one hand in front of the other, and mimed my way down the corridor to alert my roommate.
Before falling outside the room, I managed to knock on the door. A shudder ran down my spine, followed by perspiration. It scared both of us, and we went to the ER, not understanding what was going on. Prior to that night, I had never experienced or even heard of vertigo. The experience jolted me awake; this was a major brain injury, and I wasn’t getting any better.
As reality sunk in, melancholy crept in as well. I’d never experienced anything like that before. I later found that between 1.6 and 3.8 million Americans suffer from a mild traumatic brain injury (i.e. concussion) each year, with 10–20 percent of those suffering from symptoms that persist months or years. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I wasn’t alone. As a consequence of the injury’s invisibility, some friends faded away, while others became closer as a result of their relatability. My ex-boyfriend was the first. Despite the fact that our breakup intensified my depression, it was also the catalyst for my recovery. I realized I needed help when I hit rock bottom.
As a consequence of the injury’s invisibility, some friends faded away, while others became closer as a result of their relatability.
Recovery phase was challenging – when I saw a neurologist
When I finally saw a neurologist, I was taken aback when he told me he couldn’t assist me. Medication or surgery will not help you recover from a concussion.
When I finally saw a neurologist, I was taken aback when he told me he couldn’t assist me. Medication or surgery will not help you recover from a concussion. He continued, “We don’t know a lot about the brain, but we do know it has the ability to heal itself.” He was referring to the brain’s ability to mend severed connections, which is known as neuroplasticity. The same brain’s ability is responsible to slow down Alzheimer’s disease progression. Because the brain is made up of billions of neurons, a concussion can produce neuronal damage that is generally invisible on MRI and CT scans (nerve cells).
The brain, unlike many other parts of the body, has just a few locations where new cells may be grown, implying that damaged cells cannot generally be repaired. Neuroplasticity, on the other hand, allows the brain to reorganize itself and train non-affected cells to take up the tasks of the wounded cells. This revelation lit a fire under me, giving me a ray of hope.
Physical, visual, and vestibular treatment were used to reorganize my brain’s connections, but it would not have been possible without mental therapy. My initial consultation with my psychologist was strange and unpleasant. I’d never seen a therapist before, and my family had always frowned on it.
We sat in a small room with only enough room for two comparable recliners about five feet apart, with sunlight streaming in through a central window that divided the space in half. She had long brown hair and wore a huge sandy knit sweater with flowing black and white dress pants. I thought I was wearing something similar.
The common style soothed me and made confronting the emotional stew that was seething inside of me easier. I told her about the accident, although it was not about the slip and fall attorney but had hurt me bad; the daily physical pain I was experiencing, the loss of a job I like and was proud of, the cancellation of weekly activities such as concerts and hikes, the shattered relationship, and the uncertainty of it all. She sat relatively calmly, but by guiding my thoughts, she showed that I had been grieving the loss of my identity. It took several more sessions for me to fully understand and accept it, but on that particular day, she described the pain and turned down the fire to a low simmer.
She sat relatively calmly, but by guiding my thoughts, she showed that I had been grieving the loss of my identity.
I chose to return home not long after that. I knew I’d be able to heal only if I was surrounded by people I cared about. I’d want to say that I’ve been getting better every day, but healing isn’t a straight line. There were a lot of ups and downs. Unfortunately, the bad days were worse in the beginning due to gastrointestinal pain that put me in the hospital for months, necessitating several tests, liquid meals, and endless nights in the bathroom.
Mast cell disease was eventually shown to be the source of the problem (likely a life-long chronic illness). The combination of additional symptoms to my existing ones drove my mental health to its breaking point. But, as a consequence of my ongoing treatment, I became more self-aware of my emotions, decided to be content every day, and learned to manage with the highs and lows via meditation and mindfulness. My newly gained ability to detect and regulate my thoughts came in handy both for myself and when listening to others.
A friend reached me late one night, distraught and weeping about the loss of a five-year relationship. In the early stages of my illness, I despised those who were enraged about little problems in comparison to my own, but I learned through my mistakes that everyone has the right to the sensations that come with their trauma, whatever it is. Listening to her narrate the breakup, it was evident that we were both in pain, despite our differences in experience.
When the pandemic hit, I was relieved to find that my solitary existence’s loneliness had become global. It gave me a break from my continual need to be active, and I enjoyed a fantastic spring and summer with my family. The good days finally outweighed the bad, and I decided to return to work in the fall. My doctors advised that I gradually resume activities, but after 1.5 years’ post-injury and symptom-free, I thought the advice was no longer valid. Well, I was wrong.
The longer screen time and video talks exhausted my limited brainpower, and all of my difficulties reappeared. Because my vestibular-ocular reflex was damaged, my vestibular system was suppressed, and I had to rely on my eyesight for balance. As soon as I saw anything move, I felt like I was moving. I’ve also been diagnosed with a bunch of vision issues for which I’m undergoing therapy. I went from being fully functional to being unable to read, watch TV, walk, drive, or even sit at the dinner table when my parents’ hands moved too much as they spoke. Depression reared its ugly head once more. The prospect of a life-long illness lured me like a never-ending plague. It was easy to bemoan the present when the ambiguity clouded the future. What was the catalyst behind this? Will I be able to heal completely? What’s going on inside my brain, exactly?
No one could provide me with answers, so I decided to look for them myself. I started doing as much research as I could, from listening to neuroscience audiobooks and memoirs about other people who had brain injuries to communicating with friends and friends of friends who had similar experiences to joining a variety of brain injury Facebook and support groups. Every story I heard made me feel better and gave me hope for the future.
It was easy to lament the present when the ambiguity clouded the future.
This voyage has taught me that in order to find the light, you must occasionally enter a dark place. By sensing and managing emotions both inside and externally, I was able to make the search process go more smoothly. And, while discovering the light might take a long time at times, it is a wonderful thing. When I get there, I’ll have more time to think about what I want to do.
I’m sitting on a sofa in my childhood bedroom, which has been transformed into a dad-den. Despite my father’s refurbishment, the bulletin board with my childhood mementos still hangs over his desk. Magnets from various world travel pin up items, such as photo booth photos from suburban malls, an American Idol VIP pass from the time my teenage dream came true, and a handmade high school poster with my graduation photo bordered in sparkles and the superlative “most likely to succeed at everything she does.”
For the girl who had left this house ten years ago, those words had signified professional achievement. And, while I’m proud of my professional accomplishments, the person sitting here today recognizes that success comprises so much more, including the ability to overcome life’s challenges. I don’t like what happened to me, but I am grateful for how it has affected me.