March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Click here to learn more about Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitation at the UVM Medical Center.
Like many Vermonters, this winter I slipped on the ice and fell. I didn’t sustain a brain injury, but the fear always lurks and makes me terrified of winter weather. My family jokes that I should wear a helmet at all times. My brain injury challenges with balance, depth perception, and vision make me more accident-prone than I was before my mTBI (mild traumatic brain injury or concussion).
In October 2011, I was vacationing in Germany. It was the night before my husband and I were scheduled to fly home. I decided to shower the evening before our flight so I could sleep later that morning.
Turning on the shower, I tested the water with my hand as I’d done thousands of times before. Then I began to step in. Left foot first, like I always did. It happened in an instant. My left foot slid on the tub’s bottom and I flew forward, thunking forehead first into a ceramic tile wall. My right leg crashed into the edge of the tub an instant later. My arms instinctively thrust forward to stop my fall, but not fast enough. Flashes of light flickered briefly before my eyes as my brain, like pudding in a bowl, smashed first against one side of the my skull and then against the opposite side.
I later learned my injury is called a coup contrecoup brain injury. I never lost consciousness, though I lingered for a minute or two in the limbo between consciousness and unconsciousness, unable to speak, to see, to move. My thoughts were not entirely lucid, but there were snippets of clarity. I could hear perfectly.
After my husband pulled me out of the tub, I swallowed a few ibuprofen because I was worried about my swelling right knee. I needed to return to my stressful job in corporate communications and had no time to deal with a knee injury.
Upon my return to the U.S., my symptoms worsened. I began to slur my words, to walk unsteadily, and a few days after the fall, to vomit. A trip to a hospital emergency room and a CAT scan showed nothing of concern. I was diagnosed with an mTBI and instructed to go home and rest. Most injuries like mine resolve in a few weeks.
According to the Brain Injury Association of America, falls account for 35 percent of all brain injuries. Seventy-five percent of all brain injuries are classified as “mild.”
After three months of brain rest and little improvement, I began to wonder if I was going crazy. Because I looked and acted “normal,” it was difficult for anyone looking in from the outside to understand what I was experiencing.
I began to doubt my own intelligence; my self-esteem plummeted. I was diagnosed with major depression. I did not know it at the time, but a recent study from the University of Ontario shows that people who experience concussion experience suicidal ideology three times more than the general population. I always presented a happy face to the world, so few knew of the darkness I felt. I could no longer read a book, follow simple instructions, or remember short-term information. Everything by which I had defined myself was stripped away. I had to leave my job which I could no longer do, my only child was going off to college, and I was turning 50 and dealing with taking care of aging parents. While I appeared successful and happy on the outside, I felt hopeless on the inside.
I didn’t know where to look to find help, so I launched a blog (http://www.IWantMyBrainBack.com) to document my frustration and to provide resources for others who were experiencing debilitating effects from “mild” brain injuries. I never returned to my corporate job. Now I work as a freelance writer and professional keynote speaker. I’ve learned to creatively compensate for my new brain and I take naps when I need them. With the help of speech and language pathologists, a physiatrist, physical therapists, mental health therapists, I’ve created compensatory strategies that have allowed me to rebuild my career – into an even better career than I had before.
I now speak and write about the nature of intelligence, challenging conventional ideas about what makes us smart. I speak on neuroplasticity (the idea that our brains are always capable of creating new neural pathways), not just as a buzzword for aging baby boomers, but as a practice that all people (whether or not they’ve experienced a traumatic brain injury) can nurture for a lifetime to make their brains more healthy. I’m convinced that my lifelong love of games, languages, and music were beneficial to my recovery. These activities use both sides of the brain and put the brain in a more resilient state.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, I continue to creatively compensate for my “new” brain – fascinated by the wonders of brain circuitry. Sometimes I am irritable and frustrated with symptoms that continue to challenge me. I’ve discovered hidden gifts and talents. I’m grateful for that…and for the supportive team I have. I am a better, albeit a much different person, than I was.
Ann Zuccardy is a two-time TED speaker, teacher, and author. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker who challenges conventional ideas about intelligence and creativity. Watch her TEDx talk, How a Brain Injury Made Me Smarter, on YouTube.