Inside My Head Part II
I started taking yoga almost two years ago. At the end of our 90-minute class, we lie in corpse pose, Shavasana, to cool down. We clear our minds and meditate for 10 minutes. As we wrap-up the end of this moment of calm, our yoga instructor will say, “As you open your eyes, notice the detached feeling. Wiggle your fingers and wiggle your toes.” I always know when I’ve had a good meditation because I am intimately familiar with that “detached feeling”.
The first time I felt it I was seventeen years old and I was lying on my back on the ice. I opened my eyes and my eyes tried to catch focus on the trainer kneeling over me. His lips were moving, but everything was quiet. I felt like I was outside of my body. When the fog cleared and the sound returned the trainer was asking me if I could wiggle my fingers and my toes (he was also asking me if I knew my name, where I was, and what day of the week it was).
I played hockey at a high level until I was sixteen years old. All the other kids were getting bigger and stronger and I was just getting taller and skinnier and I couldn’t keep up with the demand to perform at an elite level. So, I dropped down to house league and joined the Select team, which is essentially a travelling all-star team. With most of our games played in some sketchy corners of Toronto let’s just say that things were a little less civilized than the rep league I was used to playing in.
That night, somewhere in the bowels of Toronto I discovered that it’s possible to experience a “detached feeling” shortly after someone swings a hockey stick baseball style at your head and connects with full force. This being 1992, once I passed all the tests and could stand up on my own I was allowed back in the game. I did miss one shift, only due to the fact that the blow to my head had not just knocked me out but also knocked all the screws loose in my helmet and the trainer had to tighten them all.
Concussions: 1, Doctor’s Visits: 0
A year later, I was lucky enough to get knocked headfirst into the goalpost. This was back before the nets had those fancy magnets to hold them in place. Instead, there was an eight inch long, inch thick steel rod that stuck half into the ice and half into the hollow post, also made of steel. Suffice it to say that the goalpost won that battle and I once again found myself opening my eyes to that “detached feeling” and the trainer kneeling on top of me asking if I knew my name. The new helmet held up nicely and I didn’t even miss a shift!
Concussions: 2, Doctor’s Visit: 0
A year after that, I was playing in the nether regions of Toronto again. This time against a team that had a “husky” young lad as their not-so-secret weapon. We had some small guys on our team and some of the parents were worried that they would get creamed. As it turns out, the shorter small guys made out okay and were able to weasel out of the way without taking on too much damage. The gangly orange on a toothpick guy (me), didn’t fair so well. I can remember the feeling of my nose coming into contact with my facemask as the three hundred plus pound Fat Albert of a hockey player squished my head between his gigantic chest and the glass.
I remained conscious but had a hard time making it back to the bench in a straight line. One of the parents, who may have been a nurse but at the very least was a concerned parent, came over and checked me out. “How many fingers am I holding up? Andrew! Focus. No, look at my hand. There you go. Look here. How many fingers?” I shook my head and tried to focus. “I see two of everything.” I didn’t play the rest of that game.
Concussions: 3, Doctor’s Visits: 0
Those were the big ones. In the same three-year time frame I managed to run head first into a tree trying to escape the fuzz as they crashed an underage drinking party we had going on, ran full tilt into a tree branch running from a couple local jackasses. That resulted in a couple black eyes and a nice gash on the bridge of my nose. Oh, and I can’t forget the time I was learning to do my first ever snowboard trick. I pulled off an almost perfect method air, carrying a nice fifteen-foot table top, only to get leaning too far forward and land on my face.
Concussions: 3, Head Traumas: 3, Doctors Visits: 0
Then there was that time back in 2006 I went snowboarding with a coworker at night. I slipped coming out of a turn and fell straight back, my head bouncing off the hill and springing me back up on my board. Wobbling my way back down we took to the chalet for a break where I promptly vomited up my hot chocolate.
Concussions: 4, Head Traumas: 3, Doctors Visits: 0
Which brings us to 2011. On a weekend retreat with some old university buddies, we took the boat out for some tubing. The object of the game: get the guy to fall off the tube. I went first. The spotter tells me that I flew a good two boat lengths off the tube before the back of my head smacked into the water. It took them thirty seconds to get to me and by then I had come to. The last thing I remember before blackness was the feeling of something like a two by four hitting the back of my head. The first thing I remember after being dragged into the boat was that “detached feeling”. Oh, and the nausea. And confusion. And how everything hurt from the inside out. My friend Sean drove me the 45 minutes to the hospital.
Concussions: 5, Head Traumas: 3, Doctors Visits: 1
I was off work for three months. My supervisor told me that my performance was sub-par, even six months after the accident. I went to see a chiropractic neurologist – the same type of doctor who worked with Sydney Crosby after his concussions. A year after the accident the “detached feeling” finally left me. What it left behind was a damaged brain I could no longer trust.
My memory turned to shit but has improved a bit since. If I can get things into my long term memory I’m fine but my working memory is trash. It’s likely due to a combination of copious amounts of alcohol, various herbal abuses, head trauma, and being in the fortunate position of getting older. A friend who is a neuropsychologist and told me that I needn’t worry about long term illness like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (the dementia-like degenerative disease many football players get) but there’s a question that’s always in the back of my mind whenever I’m having a mental lapse. What if this feeling of being lost and confused doesn’t go away?
As if suffering from anxiety and panic wasn’t enough under normal circumstances I have my doctor saying things like, “Please don’t hit your head again. The next hit could kill you”. She doesn’t say it to terrify me into being ultra-cautious, she says it so I understand the gravity of the situation. The brain is fragile and really doesn’t like being smacked around once, let alone repeatedly.
It’s been more than four years since that sunny day on the lake. Before then, outside of the concussions and head traumas, I could count on one hand the number of really bad headaches I had experienced. Now? I can’t count them on one hand, but certainly I don’t need all my toes to add up the number of days I’ve gone without a headache. Just now I’m coming off one that almost kept me away from work. It lasted more than seventeen hours.
“You look fine to me.”
“Your memory seems good.”
“You don’t look like you’re in pain.”
Comments I’ve had to face having no way to clearly articulate what’s going on inside my head every day. So, I talk about it. Unlike the panic and the anxiety I’ve talked about it – a lot. Anything to get people to understand even a little bit what it’s like to have a brain that doesn’t work. Why am I so insistent on a particular routine? Because then I don’t have to remember. Why do I need white noise or a fan on all the time? Because my ears won’t stop ringing. Why do I need to keep my pills in one of those days of the week containers? Because I got tired of standing in the kitchen with the bottle in my hand wondering if I’d taken them or not.
Why do I need the pills in the first place? Because I can’t sleep, but that’s another story.
Andrew is a 40-something married father of two living in Cambridge, Ontario. He will tell you that his first published work was Losing Vern as part of the Orange Karen: A Tribute to a Warrior anthology but in reality it was a 500-word anecdote about how he accidentally lit himself on fire that made it into the third installment of the Darwin Awards books.
Fire is not the only foe for Andrew as he has received four severe concussions and four “minor” ones, the last coming in the summer of 2011. It goes without saying that he is totally on board with head protection and brain health. He also advocates for LGBTQ++ and is a firm believer in equal rights for all members of society.
Andrew sometimes lets his love of attention override common sense. Evidence of this can be found at http://potatochipmath.com.
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