Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Life with Post-Concussion Syndrome

As I was saying in my previous post, I got a concussion after hitting a rock with my face while whitewater rafting. The morning when my brain quit on me, I agonized through a meeting that I was leading, but that I simply did not have the brain power to lead. I could not figure out what the topics of discussions were and was unable to answer simple questions. My headache was unbearable, it was making me nauseated. Also, everyone was talking way too fast, what was wrong with them and why were they asking me to know what the meeting was all about? I barely made it through the meeting without either bursting into tears or killing someone. At some point during that meeting I knew that I was in trouble. I called the health line from my desk and the nurse strongly advised that I see a doctor that day.

I went to a walk-in clinic in Ottawa and saw an awesome doctor. She listened to me and asked a lot of questions. She allowed me time to think and respond. She checked my eyes, the bruises on my face and my balance, of which I had none. It was like I was drunk: my brain was so foggy and I could not stand straight. She told me I had a concussion, gave me a doctor's note so that I take a week off to rest and gave me a one-pager with information on concussions and what to do/what not to do. It didn't say much, only to rest and have someone check over us.

And so, I went home and rested. I was so tired, I don't know if I have ever been this tired in my life. My mood was all over the place during that first week: one minute I was laughing, the next I was very agressive and then I was mellow. On the morning of day 7 after my concussion, I spoke on the phone with my friend. All was good, until about 20 minutes after I hung up. It hit me like a ton of bricks: the suicidal thoughts. They were insanely real: I knew that I would take all the pills in my house and just end my life right there and then. I thought that maybe I didn't have enough pills in the house to finish the job, so I thought I would go to the pharmacy later to get more. I didn't feel any emotions while I was having those thoughts. I was planning my suicide like I would plan a bike ride. Eventually, I started to freak out and called another friend. We met up not long after and that's when I cried for the first time since the concussion. It would take another 2 months until I cried again. The suicidal thoughts left as suddenly as they appeared, but I remained terrified that they would come back.

The second week after the concussion, the symptoms were worsening instead of improving. The fatigue was getting worse, the headaches wouldn't let up, I was foggier than ever and very agressive. I got scared that this was the new normal for me and somehow convinced myself that I would have to grieve the person I had become in the past year. I loved that version of me. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to be me. I stopped caring so much about people's opinions of me and started to live my life according to my needs and desires. I discovered the person that, deep down, I knew I was, but hid from the world: an adventurous spirit, eager to connect with people and to try new things, with a strong desire to push outside of her comfort zone to experience the world in a whole new way. I had only been 'me' for a few short months and now it was back to square one. The thought depressed me more than any other thought I have had in my life. I knew I should fight back, but I didn't know how and I didn't have the energy to do so.

My time off work was extended. All in all, I wouldn't go back to work before 3 weeks post-concussion. When I went back, I found myself overwhelmed by the noise, the lights, the people and all the action at work. Working on the computer was extremely hard, but I pushed myself to do it because I felt I didn't have any other choice. My director gave me permission to use my sick leave to work shorter days, which I was thankful I could do. The first two weeks, I worked 4.5-6 hour days. On my third week back, I decided it was time to work full-time, but I knew I was pushing it as my symptoms were getting worse by the day. The headaches were unbearable, my eyes did not want to stay open when I was on the computer, I could barely follow conversations, let alone participate in them and I would crash on the couch as soon as I made it home each day. I was becoming more and more depressed at the same time as my aggressiveness was reaching an all-time high. I was particularly aggressive towards the people who were trying to be nice to me. For some reason, they were the ones that got on my nerves the most. Every day was torture.

Thankfully, I had a week of vacation coming the week after, so this was helping me hold on. I rented a cottage close to Quebec City, where I would get silence, peace and solitude. That week was wonderful: I rested a lot, both physically and mentally and I started on my vestibular rehabilitation exercises. These exercises brought on dizziness and headaches, as well as stupidity (my brain could not count from 1 to 15 if I was doing something else at the same time, like moving my eyes between two "x" on the wall).

When I went back to work the week after, I crashed. I couldn't stand to be working on the computer, could not stand conversations with colleagues, the surrounding noise was unbearable. One morning, we had an early morning teleconference, which I took from home. The call went on for hours and I cried my way through it (thank God for mute). Once I hung up, I called my manager and advised that I would not be going back to work until I saw my sports doctor the next Wednesday. I finally admitted to myself that this was a serious injury and that I had to treat it like a serious injury. This was 2 months post-concussion.

When I saw my doctor, he took a look at my imPACT test results and said "you can't be able to work with those types of results" and he put me on sick leave for the next 6 weeks. I was shocked and relieved at the same time. Shocked because it confirmed that this was serious. The thought made me quite depressed for a minute, until relief at not having to go back to the office to stare at a computer all day spread over me.

Tomorrow will be 4 months post-concussion. I am still off work and will be for at least another 5.5 weeks. More on my treatment later, I'm getting very tired now.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Whitewater Rafting on the Ottawa River

On July 26th, I went whitewater rafting with my friend Sonia. After hearing all my adventures, Sonia decided to challenge me to try something new with her and we decided to try whitewater rafting. None of us had done it before and we both had it on our respective bucket lists. We were planning a girls' weekend and thought it would be the perfect time to go on an adventure. Like everything in life that is both scary and exciting at the same time, it sounded like a much better idea in June than it did a few days before it took place!

We ignored our fears as best we could and talked each other into remaining enthusiastic and excited about the whole thing. When we got to the place where the activity took place, we got a bit nervous when we looked at the people we would be rafting with that day. It was not yet 9am and it was already a very festive crowd... Most people were much younger than us and some acted as if they were already a little drunk. I don't mind party people, but I do mind being on a boat in rapids with people under the influence of alcool or drugs! This freaked us out. The pre-briefing did not really do anything to calm our nerves. The organizer told us how the day would proceed and then read the waiver form to us. The whole time he was joking and speaking lightly about the risks involved in going rafting. He mentioned there was the possibility of being evacuated by helicopter if we got hurt, but that they had never done it before and it was very expensive (hint, hint: don't be the first one to be evacuated by helicopter, will you?).

When we got onto the school buses taking us to the start point of our adventure, we had no idea who we would be sharing the ride with. Sonia was ready to throw a fit if we were teamed with the group who had been drinking during the briefing. Thankfully, we were matched with a group of people our age, who were there for fun but who seemed to care about safety. This got us into the rafting boat... We were ready to call it a day if we didn't feel safe getting onto the boat. We were relieved and eager to get started.

The first few rapids were fun. I was expecting to be more scared than I actually was and I relaxed and started to really enjoy it. This was fun! Paddle, paddle, paddle, watch out, paddle, paddle, paddle. And in between the rapids, we had a nice friendly atmosphere in the boat, everyone telling jokes and stories and just having a good time. We stopped for lunch and got excited about the afternoon ahead.

The rapids were bigger after lunch and it was more challenging to stay in the boat. I kept repeating to myself the directions we had been given, to make sure I would remember if I needed to: how to paddle, where to swim and where not to swim if I fell into the water, what to do if the boat capsized, not panicking and counting to three if I found myself under water, holding on to my paddle if I fell into the water, etc. This anxiety came in handy when I was ejected from the boat into the "Waikiki Bus-Eater" rapid. I don't remember what happened: one moment I was in the boat, angry at one of the guys because he was taking up all the space and I was uncomfortable, then next I was at the bottom of the water and repeating to myself "don't panic and count to three". I had to count until 5 before I floated to the surface of the water. The waves were coming at me from every direction and I couldn't grab the paddle that was offered for me to grab. I was quickly pushed in a direction away from the boat and I could see the fear in one of my boat mate's eyes a second before a huge wave hit me from behind and sent me into panic mode.

The next 1-2 minutes were among the most traumatizing of my life. I was carried away in the rapids and there was nothing I could do. I tried swimming to the right like I had been instructed but there were so many rocks and the current was so strong that I deemed it safer to move back into the running water. I was having a hard time breathing, which I assumed was because I was panicked, but found out later it might have been from the blow to my head. All the time I was being smashed by waves, I was convinced I would drown and die. I was not afraid to die, I knew I was going to die. It was truly terrifying!

Eventually, I made it to the bottom of the rapids and another rafting boat was able to pick me up. I got off the boat and went to sit on a rock to calm down and talk myself away from the terrible fear I had just experienced. People were willingly jumping into the rapids to experience bodysurf. I watched them and emotionally detached myself from all the scared faces I saw emerge from the bodysurf experience. When my friend Sonia came to ask me how I was doing, I told her with a lack of emotion that it was very scary and I thought I would drown. The rafting guide asked if I hit my head and I said no, but really, I did not know and I should have said that.

I got back on the boat, but got off for the next big rapid. I walked that one, but I tripped and fell while walking, which I attributed to my wet shoes. My anxiety levels sky-rocketed when I had to get back into the boat and face more rapids. Although milder, these rapids were too much for me to handle and soon, I felt like a little child, alone and scared with no one listening to me and validating my fears. I couldn't have been happier to get off that boat when the adventure was over. The bus ride back to camp is a blur. People were laughing, singing and being silly, but I was a bit stunned. So tired. I again fell on my butt trying to get off the bus, which I again attributed to my wet shoes.

It was not until I got back home that I really realized the emotional trauma I had just been through. I stayed up until almost 5am that night, talking about what happened and getting comforted. The next day, I had one of the biggest headaches ever, as well as nausea. I had a nice bruise on my cheekbone just under my eye, and my face was swollen. Looking at myself in the mirror, I felt I did not look the same. I felt foggy, but I blamed the sleeplessness of the previous night for it. I had taken the Monday off work and I spent most of it napping. I was still nauseous and the headache wouldn't go away. I was unmotivated to do most things and feeling overwhelmed. I went to bed early that night but I didn't sleep well.

I went to work on the Tuesday, but everything felt surreal, as if I was a distance away from what was happening around me. It felt like everything was moving too fast, people were talking too fast and using words that were too complex. I felt foggy and blamed the headache. As soon as I got out of the office and had some quiet, I felt better so I went for my planned MTB ride. It was the best ride ever, I had so much fun! But then, the next morning, the headache was 10x worse than the previous day and at that point, I could not figure out what people were telling me. I could hear it, but it did not make sense. I felt so slow and as if I was out of my body, watching people living life from a distance. Just before lunch, I decided that it would be safer to go see a doctor and I got diagnosed with a concussion.

I got my diagnosis on July 30th. Post-concussion syndrome reared its ugly head a few days later. More on this later - I have written too long and have a massive headache from it now.