March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. In honor of a cause that holds a very special place in my heart, I have decided to share my own TBI (traumatic brain injury) story:
I skated up to the lift on shaky legs, sitting down harder than I intended as the seat hit the back of my knees before I could react. My heart beat fast, as if in anticipation of something. Rays flickered down on my face, filtering through the pine needles as we climbed. I put my goggles down. I put them up again, winced, and put them back down. I knew. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me or anyone else to confirm my fears. I just knew.
Three years prior in October of 2016, I was warming up for the last soccer game of my eighth grade season when I took a shot to the right temple. I was only thirteen years old. Little did I know that my life had just changed. It was diagnosed as a minor concussion, my first. But as time moved forward, my progress did not.
I distinctly remember one moment early on in my recovery when I emerged from my hobbit hole of a dark room. My brother had brought me something and tossed it to me from a foot away. In that split moment between his “head’s up” and his toss, I panicked. Startling, my hand closed on empty air. I was a lacrosse player. I was a coordinated athlete. I could catch things — one-handed — lefty — in my sleep. Who was this person that had taken over my body?
I struggled with a constant headache, spikes of migraines, light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, and countless more symptoms on a daily basis. I was in and out of specialist’s offices from sports medicine to neurology, on and off of medications that gave me every side effect from depression to tremors, all while juggling high school. Sports were my sanctuary, and even my participation there fluctuated day by day, season by season. I spent years barely scraping by, talking myself through life, hour by hour.
Which brings us to my opening moment. My biggest fear after my first injury was hitting my head. I truly believed that I wasn’t strong enough to do it all again. Then, on February 12th, 2020, just over three years after my original brain injury, I crashed ski racing in Maine, shooting into the ground at 40 mph, sliding headfirst through the next gate. I do not remember much of what happened, nor much of the weeks that followed. I feel blessed to have walked away on my own.
So there I was, riding up that chairlift, skating to my team, keeping a hand firmly planted on my teammate’s shoulder to keep my balance, mixing up the location of the accident. Looking back, it feels like a dream. I was sleepwalking.
But the sharp stab behind my eyes tells me otherwise. I have additional vision issues now. When I am tired my right eye droops, not tracking with my left. I struggle with screens and reading. I run into doorways. Every minute of every day, I have a headache.
After the second accident, it took me a month to let myself fully grieve. I was petrified that if I let myself feel, if I let the walls crumble and I fell apart, that I would never be able to pick up the shattered pieces. But I did, painfully, piece by piece.
For a while, I lost a part of myself. I was forced to give up things that were parts of my identity, some of which I haven’t gotten back. I struggled in school with simple problems, I couldn’t follow a conversation, I missed the jokes. I had to reconcile the fact that I am not the same as I was before, and I can’t go back to that person. All of this – twice. After my first injury, I found my new normal. I got back up off the ground for the world to lay me flat again. I have to once again make peace between who I was and who I am.
It is in this that I found LoveYourBrain and Concussed. For so many years, I told myself that post-concussive syndrome and traumatic brain injury were two very different things. I cut myself off from the TBI community because I didn’t believe that I deserved to be there with my “minor concussion.” But it wasn’t a minor situation. And slowly, I began to open myself up. Thanks in part to both LoveYourBrain and Concussed., I continue to do so.
Sometimes I wish that I could have insignificant teenage problems, like figuring out what to wear or who my friends are, but that isn’t the hand I was dealt. My injury happened at such a young age, when one is discovering so much about themself, that I truly don’t believe I would be the same person if not for my injury.
And I love the person that I have become. My injury taught me patience and self-love and resiliency. It taught me that life is not fair and that I won’t always have control over the important things and that bad things happen to good people without it being punishment for something. I learned that the athlete, buckle-down mentality I’ve always had is not to be at the expense of my health and wellbeing. (Read more about this here.)
Now, over five years later, I am grappling with my future. As I apply to college, I ask myself whether my brain will be able to handle the science- and math-heavy paths I am interested in. I struggle every day with the idea that I have so much of my life ahead of me, and yet that many decisions I make will most likely be impacted by this injury. But not all of them will be.
I have recently started journaling. In the morning I write down three things that I have control over, three little things that I will choose to do that day. At night I write down three tiny moments that brought me joy. I am working to focus on the aspects that I can control. (You can read more about my journaling here.)
People say that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But what if it isn’t a tunnel? What if it’s a deep, dense forest, but you don’t need to make it to the other side? What if all you need to do is find the glints of sun through the trees? Listen to the birds chirp and find the little bits of light in your life. It is a process, but you don’t need to make it to the end of the tunnel to find happiness.
There are two traumatic brain injury organizations that are very close to my heart. In honor of Brain Injury Awareness Month, please consider donating to LoveYourBrain or Concussed. foundations. I am not affiliated with either, but they both mean a lot to me. Donations go to supporting TBI survivors and caregivers in acquiring resources, continuing research, and sponsoring individuals to go on TBI retreats. As someone who has attending such a retreat, I can tell you firsthand that it is a life-changing experience. Thank you for considering, and Happy Brain Injury Awareness Month!
disclaimer: partially adapted for a college essay.