By Chris O’Brien
Sometimes I wonder if I’m even really here. I’ll save you my college-freshman exploration of existentialism and skip ahead to what I’m really writing about. Concussions and Post Concussion Syndrome.
I haven’t felt truly awake since I was 15.
I don’t actually remember what being alive felt like before then. I was playing hockey. Summer league. The underclassmen used the summer games to show their coaches what they could do, hopefully earn a spot on the varsity team.
I did. At a cost.
Years later, now, I assume I suffered a few concussions from ages four to sixteen, either on the ice playing hockey, in my back yard playing games with friends, or generally being an idiot young person who liked to run into things head first, figuratively and literally. My best guess? I have had about six concussions. This one was by far the worst.
It happened and for the next eleven minutes, I didn’t know I was awake. Later, those who watched the game told me I had been down on the ice, out cold, for at least ten or fifteen seconds. I have no memory of that. I was down and up instantly in my mind. Once I realized I wasn’t dreaming, I spoke up.
“I think something is wrong with me.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t know how to describe it. It’s like I was awake but I wasn’t. The coach started asking me questions. My teammates did a bad job of pretending not to be interested.
“What’s your mom’s name, Chris?”
“OOOH MY GOD, HE’S SO FUCKED UP.”
“Shut it, Skip. Chris, do you know where you are?”
I couldn’t answer.
I knew my parents’ names, where I lived, the major facts of my life. I didn’t know what city I was in. I didn’t know if it was April or August. I didn’t know if I’d ever stop feeling like this.
I got out of the game. Off the ice and straight into the showers. As soon as I felt the water, I felt better. At least I thought I did. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to ask for any more help. I didn’t know how to ask anyway, or who I should be asking.
My dad poked his head in the locker room while I was still showering. Seeing me go down like that then leave the game must have been a little scary for him. We’ve never talked about it. He asked me if I was alright. I said I was. That’s the last of the attention this injury was ever given by anyone but me.
Years later, I still sometimes wonder if I ever came out of that dream-like state, post concussion. I have these ghosts of memories that sometimes phase through my mind at unexpected moments. I’ll be drinking early in the evening or floating in that late morning paradox between sleep and awake and suddenly I’ll remember what it used to be like to live in my mind when I was six years old. I’ll remember the smell of my old couch. The way everything towered over me and how it felt like I could get close to every object in my world in ways that seem impossible as a 27-year-old person. I remember remembering things. Everything.
My memory is very finicky now. The irony is almost nauseating, but I can remember having an amazingly sharp memory. Saying I had an eidetic memory would be an exaggeration, but not much of one. Prior to the injury, I never took notes in class and I never studied. I still had perfect grades. After, it was a bit more of a struggle.
Maybe my memory wasn’t (and isn’t now) as bad as I worry, but that’s kind of the point. More than anything, my concussion and the symptoms I’ve dealt with since have destroyed my confidence. I’m incredibly insecure, which only seems to make the problem worse. A feedback loop.
Today, I’m still trying to figure it out. Do I still suffer from Post Concussion Syndrome? How can I find out? Are the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and depression I’m dealing with almost daily a product of this? Is it because I moved 3000 miles away from home, alone, to a big new city, to pursue a difficult career? Is it both?
Like so many with similar problems, mine is hard to explain. I can’t show a doctor where it hurts. When I try to explain what I go through to anyone but myself, I sound like an inconsolable hypochondriac. If I start talking about it at a party before I remember I don’t like to share this information in certain settings, I get suddenly, intensely embarrassed. If someone shows too much concern, I change the subject. I don’t want extra special treatment. I want awareness or maybe sensitivity, but…
Some, a few people very close to me, understand. They are patient. They nurture me. They allow me to practice all the odd habits I’ve developed, to maintain the safety-nets I’ve built for myself–extensive list-writing, always clipping my car keys to my belt loop or backpack with a carabiner, packing and carrying way more stuff than I know I’ll need for the day and taking it with me anyway rather than waste valuable time frozen and panicked that I’m forgetting something important but can’t remember what it is. The love they show me is deeply appreciated, though I could probably do a better job of communicating that sometimes. I forget.
If I look at myself and my life with sober eyes, I’m pretty functional. I have my problems, but they’re manageable. I have quirks, but they’re pretty stealthy. I tend to fly under the radar. Still, I sometimes wonder how my life might be different if I had received immediate medical attention when my worst concussion of my life happened at that hockey game.
Stigma stopped me from asking for treatment. Lack of education stopped others from offering it and insisting I take it.
Chris O’Brien is a writer and actor who used to be an athlete. Currently undiagnosed, but struggles with depression, anxiety, memory loss, and insecurity about all of it which creates a really awesome feedback loop.
Chris occasionally posts writing at Chriswritesgood.com and keeps a portfolio of his acting work at Chrisobrienofficial.com.
Twitter – @microbrien
URL – chrisobrienofficial.com
Facebook – facebook.com/chrisobrienbook
Thank you for sharing your story, Chris. This is something that needs more discussion. I hope you find some more answers to your questions, if you do go looking. All the best to you.
That’s a scary thing to go through, Chris. I can understand what you mean about trying to explain it to get help, but feeling like a hypochondriac.
Yeah, it’s really frustrating to know something is off, but not be able to communicate exactly what or why.
Thank you for sharing this, Chris. I’m certain there are many people living with similar symptoms, but too frightened to share. For myself, I recall being 15 or 16, starting to develop severe anxiety disorder, and having intense moments of depersonalization and derealization, where I would feel like I was watching myself and my life from an outsiders perspective, in a dream state. I remember standing next to my dad when a wave of it hit, and grabbed onto his arm as if he could tether me to the earth. It was terrifying and disorienting, and I also felt like you, that I couldn’t tell anyone because who would believe or understand me? Those episodes would only last a few hours at a time though, and fortunately I haven’t experienced those symptoms for many years. I can’t imagine the fortitude it must take to live that way for so many years. Your strength is an inspiration.
“Stigma stopped me from asking for treatment.”
Brave truth in its rawest form. Thank you so much for sharing with us, Chris. You are truly an inspiration to us all.
I can imagine it being a hard to thing to deal with and even harder to write about. But I am thankful you shared this because I feel I have gained a sense of understanding to something I never would have understood before.
Brave post, and thank you for sharing, Chris. I imagine you’re not alone, particular among athletes. Sports medicine and football injuries are now just acknowledging the long-term effects of concussion on men — there’s quite a bit of data available. NFL data specifically has become available in the past year.
I imagine you could find out more — and even someone who specializes in treating concussion patients — by searching on that.