There once was a wooden beam in Edinburgh that switched my lights out. Yes, that’s right, folks I’ve had severe concussion since the beginning of August after I, over-excitedly, jumped up and smacked my head on a low beam in the author’s yurt at the Edinburgh Book Festival (no hard man rugby-playing injury for me…I hit my head at a BOOK FESTIVAL). And when I say “jumped up”, I leapt into the air quite fast…and hit the top of my head damn hard.
I hit what’s known as the parietal lobe of my brain, and seriously damaged this area. This part of your brain looks after memory recall, limb positioning, balance, speech, touch, body temperature control, and motion sensing. I’ve had issues with all of these since the accident.
When I hit my head, I was in and out of this weird semi-consciousness, slurring my words (no alcohol had been consumed by that point in the day, sadly) and my head felt like someone was drilling into it. But, at first, I thought I was fine. I carried on across the festival square, feeling a bit spaced-out. It was only thanks to the lovely Helen Ella for spotting me sprawled out on the College of Art steps, which led me (and the festival team) to realise how bad the injury was. Apparently, concussion symptoms can take a while to appear.
I went to A&E twice in the next few days due to blackouts, exhaustion, confusion, ocular migraines and memory loss. For the first four days I struggled with fully knowing who I was – I had disassociation. The consultant diagnosed severe concussion and I had to, frustratingly, cancel all my work as program host at the festival as well as my own Animal Lighthouse events. Since then, I’ve cancelled numerous author school visits and other festivals in September and October because, well, I bruised my brain so badly I just haven’t been able to handle things like bright lights, noise, complex co-ordination or retention of information.
Some people might argue this sounds like normal life when you’re over a certain age.
The worst part of the injury was not being able to read for almost five weeks. This was due to balance and cognitive issues. I’d never heard of the “vestibular system” before now, but basically my eye-ear-brain co-ordination had been damaged, and along with the whiplash in my neck and crushed vertebrae it meant normal motion control functions – like running my eyes across a page or watching TV – was impossible.
The GP explained I had shaken my head so badly it was like a “brain-quake” and that it would take several months to heal. I’m now at month two and feel around 75% recovered. Another month and I should, hopefully, be back to “normal”, although I’d be lying if it hasn’t occasionally felt like I’ve got some permanent brain damage. However, I understand this is catastrophising (because of the accident), and so I have kept some semblance of faith in the brain’s neuroplasticity, where it can re-wire damaged areas and slowly rejuvenate bruised parts.
The thing about concussion people don’t realise is – if you hit your head hard enough like I did (yipee!), the “quake” makes thousands of tiny little tears inside your brain tissue which cause neurons to either die or not be able to communicate with each other properly. Imagine, if you will, you’re holding a plate of jelly and if you wibble-wobble it from side to side it looks fine when it stops wobbling. But if you were to look at the jelly under a microscope, you’d see lots of little tears in its interior fibres. That’s what happens in concussion to your brain if it’s severe enough – thousands of little tears that cause inflammation.
Those of you who know me well (and many of you do!), I’m generally an upbeat and motivated person so I was determined from the start to recover. However, what I have found the hardest is resting. Because resting isn’t easy when it’s an injury you can’t “see”. But I had to get used to knowing my limits and have slowly, slowly built up my energy levels and function.
I’m still having minor memory issues, some small speech impediments, and I get brain-strain if I do too much laptop work or if I have too many senses firing at the same time (so, for instance, crowds have given me huge amounts of anxiety, although I’m slowly getting better at handling them now). And, on top of all this, because a TBI – traumatic brain injury – is both physical and psychological, the part of the recovery I wasn’t expecting was the depression.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. But not in a depressing way.
When your brain is impacted and literally de-pressed, it leads to depression. But, the depression I’ve had hasn’t just come from the physical impact, it has been about many things: the loss of working at the Edinburgh festival with so many amazing people; the realisation and grief that I hurt myself badly enough not to be able to do the things I love – read and write; being so exhausted I couldn’t go hiking; feeling frightened when I sometimes forget where I am or what I’m saying halfway through a sentence; and just a general feeling of not being myself and struggling with ordinary daily…
…what was I saying?
As you can see, it has been an undeniably challenging time over the past few months, especially following such an amazing, upbeat and positive first half of the year launching The Animal Lighthouse series.
So how did I go about recovering from a devastating injury that, basically, knocked my life path sideways?
Well, the really good thing about all this is I haven’t faced this challenge alone. I’ll thank people in a bit, but before then it’s important to say that one of the main ways I tried to help myself recover was to keep hope in mind. At times, as I’ve explained, with such a debilitating and serious brain injury, it’s been hard to keep going (especially when each day my mind has felt like someone’s shoved a hot, spiky whisk inside my head and turned it on…maybe they did, in the night, when I was asleep?).
Ignoring the tirade of negative thoughts – about brain damage, permanent disability, and that I may not recover fully at all – have often taken more effort than doing anything else. But this is subsiding now and, all along, I’ve tried to listen to the many people who have said this injury isn’t permanent and put my trust in neuroplasticity (see more on this in my resources section at the end).
Another thing I have tried to do since the accident is eat healthily. With a brain injury, it’s important to get as much blood flow to your head as possible. So, I’ve been eating LOTS of fruit and vegetables, especially blueberries. And, as alcohol inflames the brain, I’ve not drunk anything since the beginning of August (oh the withdrawal symptoms!).
I have kept myself going with gardening, listening to podcasts, sleeping A LOT, drinking tea and dunking biscuits, talking to my cat Watson (who has looked after me), going for walks when I eventually could (because physical exercise is key to any recovery), seeing friends, and slowly attempting to do some writing and editing, although this has been cognitively very difficult to do. I can only write in very short bursts still – this blog took me ages to write!
Now, to the thank yous…
I’d like to thank the many lovely people who have messaged me and regularly checked-in on me, come to see me and generally helped me feel not quite so alone in my private little concussion battle.
First of all, I’d like to MASSIVELY thank all of the wonderful, supportive team at the Edinburgh Book Festival for their help. This especially includes Catherine Jones, Keren Green, Sophie Moxon, Janey Seymour, Rachel Fox, and Nick Barley. Thank you Keren for staying at A&E with me. Thank you to Sarah Broadley for the support, chats and cake in Newhaven’s wonderful café The Haven a few days after my accident.
The biggest, fullest amount of gratitude and love goes to Miriam Craig (who I was sharing a flat with in Edinburgh). Without Miriam’s support, hugs, reassuring chats, joint podcast listening, and Miriam’s brilliant cooking I would never have got through the “acute” phase of the injury. I wasn’t allowed to drive for two weeks due to the blackouts, so I couldn’t go home to Somerset. So, Miriam – you are a lifesaver and I feel lucky to have you as my friend.
Thanks to the lovely Sarah Mackie who chatted me through her experience of working with children with brain injuries for the Brain Injury Trust and made me feel like it would all be ok using your “smashed M1 analogy”.
Thank you to the two smashers that are James and Julian Edwards (and little one) for my much-needed halfway pit-stop near York when I could drive home.
After I did get home, I had wonderful support from my neighbour David and Sophie/Rob, and the fabulous and everso caring Jo Nadin. Both Imogen Cooper and Nicki Marshall helped immensely with walks and cake around Frome and also some physiotherapy advice (thanks Imogen’s mum!).
Further thanks go to my brilliant besties Jan Dunning for visits and coffee meetups and Emma Perry for check-ins, Charlotte Teeple-Salas for offers of a sanctuary, Tamsin Rosewell for the check-ins and gorgeous Viennese whirls, Bella Pearson for the stunning flowers, Liz Scott and Lydia Silver for unending understanding and support. Thanks to Catherine Holland for such lovely, reassuring messages and insight into her own concussion incident which really helped me keep the faith in recovery. Thank you also to Jenny Rees for the caring messages and to the lovely Kate Spurrier for regular motivational messages!
Thank you also for health check-ins – which VERY much helped – from Kay Weetch, Cathie Kelly, Andrew Guile, Joan Haig, Michelle Carr, Vashti Hardy, Gina Blaxill, Ness Harbour, Lindsey Fraser, Ben Bradmore, Susan Bain, Philippa Francis, Ian Hunter, Murray Fisher, Caroline and Lucy Holden, Lou Boulter and Mike Teare, Craig and Katie Robb, Robin Bennett, Ciara Flood, Teara Teara, Cat Black, Sinead Gillespie and many others. Sorry if I’ve missed you out.
I hope this blog might help someone, in the future, who is going through a similar injury to mine. In the meantime, I can say with some confidence now…I will get back to my full, mischievous self soon!
But, seriously, that’s enough about me…how have you been?
I listened to this fantastic podcast series about the cultural, physical, psychological developments surrounding our historical and medical understanding of the brain and mind whilst I was recovering: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Stephen-Frys-Inside-Your-Mind-Podcast/B09QXFZ5YQ
This series of videos helped me stay positive and gave me so many self-care tips; they were amazing: https://youtube.com/c/CompleteConcussionManagement
Here’s what neuroplasticity is all about: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity
If you ever need help with your mental health during a crisis, these are the people to talk to: https://www.samaritans.org/