A fall down the stairs. Because I was in a hurry to get to work. And yes, there it was concussion by “whiplash!”
I’m an occupational therapist with 25 years of experience. Even I didn’t know that you could have a concussion as a result of whiplash. Whiplash without your head even hitting a surface. My concussion diagnosis was a surprise to me. As it is a surprise to many adults and children too who experience a concussion…or more than one.
I have been learning to live all over again with post-concussion symptoms. With the extreme consequences of this stupid accident for a year now.
Head injury symptoms days later that last weeks, months and years. A year of intense learning. My brain wants to rest. I do not want to relearn how to live every day. But, I admit it has been a year of extraordinary discoveries too!
It was very difficult to realize that in one second everything had changed. I used to wear several hats: mom, wife, a catechist for young people in my parish, caregiver for a parent at the end of life, general occupational therapist and specialist in driving, significant professional involvement in my work environment. Furthermore, over the last few years, I had several patients who were referred to me as an occupational therapist for post-concussion cognitive therapy.
My foot slipped on the first of 12 steps in the house and all those “hats” I used to wear suddenly fell off. I could no longer listen to my daughter tell me about her day. The noise that I created myself by combing my own hair attacked me. I would endure unbearable headaches 24/7 for weeks. The natural light in the house was intolerable. Most days it seemed like everything was an irritant.
Rest seems like a simple concept. Except when you have a constant headache. Everything is intense. Strategies that used to work to relax, like reading a book, or listening to music are no longer tolerated. Even something like an aromatic face mask is now an attack because of the scent.
And I had to leave my home for treatment. Appointments with doctors, various specialists, the vestibulo-ocular physio, my psychologist, and so on. A calendar that must be organized. It took all my energy to plan and organize my meetings and my transportation. I absolutely could not drive with the headaches. I would get instant pain in my eyes the moment I wanted to look around.
Being an occupational therapist, I always told my patients every day to reduce sensory overload. To do things one at a time. Respect their limits. But to find me as a patient too, well, that was something else altogether.
I quickly forgot all these beautiful instructions which seemed so simple when I was the one giving them out.
One of the most difficult things to manage on a daily basis, even one year after the concussion, is the auditory and visual stimulation. Sensory sensitivity is part of my daily life. Now, I can tolerate noise and light a little better when I am at home. But outside, no way! Grocery shopping was a nightmare for several months and it is still difficult at times.
I drive, but I had to adapt my driving, avoiding the heavy traffic hours. I drive during the day only and I have not tried long distances yet. My social outings are limited to going for a hot chocolate in the evening when there are almost no customers in the little cafe nearby. I managed to attend some performances but with my earplugs to eliminate the noise and decrease the fluctuations in the intensity of sounds and intonations.
And of course, I have not resumed my volunteer activities, I am still on sick leave and I am no longer the friend who offers help to everyone. The new me is the friend who asks for help now.
Do I need to emphasize that big box stores and shopping malls are a no-no? Just thinking about them makes my head hurt!
I found a wonderful resource to complete my grocery shopping: the sensory-friendly hours with reduced noise and light. This has been a real gift from heaven. Some grocery stores offer a few hours a week when there is no music, the volume of the “scanners” at the cash registers are greatly reduced. In addition, the number of lights turned on is fewer, and the employees do not collect grocery carts during these hours. Sensory-friendly shopping is increasing in popularity, thank goodness.
These strategies are all wonderful for my post-concussion symptoms. To not have to hear the noise of the carts being pushed around is a soothing balm for me! Because there is no background music, I realized that I can spend more time looking at the products. I can then choose what I want. I find myself discovering specials and new items!
Finally, I am able to drive home without being exhausted!
It is trendy to talk about “being in the moment.” It’s fashionable and cool to say: I do things one at a time. Or, I am present “in” the moment. Alternatively, I have to be aware of only the present moment because of my concussion. So, I can tell you that to live that every day is something different altogether. These are not voluntary choices. These are my needs. My injury forced me to change. To be present only “in the moment” and it’s not an easy thing to incorporate all day long in everyday life. My brain is in survival mode. It is still healing. Moreover, it is incredibly fragile.
Post-concussion syndrome forces me to be aware of my symptoms. My new limits. The noise and lights that are just too much to handle. The times of day that consume my energy. My daily life is never Zen enough for my brain. However, I have started meditating, which does me a world of good!
So, I continue my rehabilitation process as a patient and not as an occupational therapist.
I help my brain to recover and refresh itself.
My brain and I move forward at our own pace within our limits.
We will see where it will lead me!
Yona Landry is the mother of two girls (19 and 14 years), and occupational therapist at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Dr George L-Dumont. She is originaly from Lévis in Québec but has made Moncton, New Brunswick her home for the last 25 years.