Head trauma, and how it helped me
To many of us, the hospital is a place we avoid. It can be a synonymous with fear, injury, and death. Hospitals are the settings for many of our saddest stories, yet also the birth place of miracles and new beginnings. It’s often the last place we want to find ourselves, but in 2008 I woke up in one.
I was a junior in High School at the time. I was a trumpet player in marching band, and I had little clue of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Like many my age, I was still finding myself; making risky decisions and acting without thinking.
That summer, I went out with some new friends. All of them were long-boarders. They had been doing it for years, and I wanted to fit in. So being good friends, they loaned me a board. After a few pointers, I was riding beside them through the streets. About an hour passed until we we found ourselves standing before a steep slope.
My friends didn’t hesitate and rode down the hill. They said it wasn’t as scary as it looked; I just needed to carve back and forth to control my speed. Oh and one more thing I should mention, I wasn’t wearing a helmet.
As I’m sure you can imagine, that didn’t end well for me. By the time I was half way down the hill, I had gained enough speed to make my vision blur. Suddenly, the board wiggled out from under me and the concrete was the last thing I remember seeing.
It was like a scene from a movie.
I woke up surrounded by nurses. One of them was using long metal shears to cut my shirt off, and for all I knew she was cutting into my chest. My consciousness drifted, and moments later, I was at the mercy of a giant rotating machine — scanning my brain.
That amount of shock is enough to make anyone hurl. And that’s exactly what I did. I released whatever was left of my lunch and blacked out again.
Traumatic brain injury
The results were in. My brain was bleeding in three separate areas, and the pressure was building. I was told that if my brain did not clot and release pressure, surgery would be necessary.
A week crawled by until the deadline arrived, and by some miraculous chance, the pressure halted. I did not need my head drilled.
Something wasn’t right
When I was released from the hospital, one thing was very clear: I was different. For starters, I couldn’t walk. My equilibrium was completely knocked off and I was forced to relearn to walk. The second problem was I couldn’t smell much of anything anymore. The third and more frightening realization was that I was forgetting things way too quickly.
The psychologist compared my brain to a broken roller coaster. At first, everything seems normal as the cart rolls down the first hill. Then as I tried to complete daily activities and focus on school, my brain couldn’t find the info it needed. The roller coaster began to climb up the second hill, but the chains never kicked in and it rolled back down.
I think that metaphor is stupid.
In reality, it felt more like my head was a giant book or encyclopedia. Only, someone had glued a bunch of the pages together. So, when I needed the information, I couldn’t reach it. I knew it was there, but it was just outside my grasp.
It’s terrifying — not knowing where your memory is going. Constantly, I’d walk into rooms and forget why I did, or I’d begin tasks and their purpose suddenly eluded me.
I searched everywhere on the internet on how to cope with my deteriorating cognitive function. I played mind games, read articles and even tried to learn a new language. None of it worked.
So, over the years I gained new experiences that all those scientific studies failed to teach.
Rehearsing vs Memorizing
This one’s easy, but way more important than I ever thought. In school I was used to taking notes, then cramming like everyone else before a test. However, my brain was no longer processing long term memories easily as it used to.
So I started rehearsing instead of memorizing. If you’re in school you should try this one. After the first day of class I would take a moment to read through my notes before bed. Then, on day two I would read my notes from day one and day two. On day three I would read my notes from day one, two and three. You get the idea.
By the time the test came around, I knew the first day’s notes like the back of my hand. No longer was I relying on my long term memory.
I was rehearsing my short term memory to create long term results.
I apply this to my work life too. After every task I get, I write it down on my to-do list, make a post-it note for it and say it aloud.
Happiness is literally the best medicine
Later in life, I found myself living with a girl who had zero patience for me. I was constantly forgetting things, losing my train of thought and making mistakes.
Her lack of sympathy and constant insults led me to wonder if I was losing my mind. My memory and cognitive abilities were rapidly failing. For example, I was forgetting why I walked into a room at least three times a day.
But then I left her. I found ways to seek happiness. I did things that made me happy and stopped worrying about winning the approval of others.
The results were immediate.
I was remembering tasks better and rarely forgot why I walked into a room. My train of thought was easier to control and my memory was getting better. I didn’t just take control of my life, I took control of my mind.
Happiness is a legitimate medicine, and it’s free.
Feed your brain with fresh experiences
Next, I got myself out of my comfort zone. I stuffed everything I could into a backpack and traveled alone across Italy for 10 days. I stayed in hostels, met new people, tried new foods and ultimately rediscovered myself.
I was alone in a place I didn’t know, surrounded by people who didn’t know me. That forced me to make new memories and learn new skills.
It’s the same concept as learning a new language, except you’re throwing yourself into an unfamiliar situation. You are forcing your brain to learn a ton of new things all at once. It doesn’t have to be traveling, as long as it’s something outside of your comfort zone.
One side-effect was my smell started to come back. Not even kidding. My theory is I had new memories to associate with new smells, so my brain could recognize them.
Find someone who supports you, unconditionally
After a year of searching, I finally fell in love with someone who actually supported me. I can’t stress enough how important this one is.
She is patient with me. She understands my struggles and works with me. She reminds me of my daily tasks multiple times to keep it top of mind, she put a monthly calendar on the wall to guide me, and she never allows me to insult myself. I didn’t feel like I had to fight this alone anymore.
You have to find someone who understands your daily struggles, and is willing to go the extra mile. Feeling the guilt of knowing you’re annoying someone is most crippling feeling for someone with a mental disability. But when someone builds you up and helps you, your mind is able to cope and recover.
The trick is she makes me feel like a normal person. So my brain feels optimal and it's able to learn and function like a normal brain.
Surround yourself with people smarter than you
Part of my problem was I just didn’t feel smart anymore. My word choice and diction was practically 4th grade level. That part was killing me.
So I needed to surround myself with people who were intelligent and eloquent speakers. Here’s where to find them:
Find coworkers and mentors at work who are great leaders. Go to lunch with them, talk with them after work and spend more time around them.
YouTube is full of great speakers who are both encouraging and intelligent. Listening to them puts new ideas and words into your head.
Dump your druggy friends who never say anything smart. Dump your pessimistic friends who don’t encourage you and hold you back. Instead, grab a beer with the friend who is successful and optimistic. Find the friends whom you look up to, and who actually have your best interest in mind.
Yeah, you. You can do this through meditation and writing. Writing this blog is literally my way of helping my brain grow. The written version of me sounds so much smarter than the spoken version of me. I learn new words and thoughts then I try to use them in conversation. Plus, it helps me to put what I learn to paper.
Happiness is the first step to the cure
My head injury changed my life forever. I thought it would cripple me and keep me from attaining my goals. But now I am living my dream and my brain is recovering.
A spoon full of happiness is all it takes.
Thanks for reading! ❤ Please share! ❤
UPDATE: I am doing very well now. Crystal (the girl I spoke of at the end) and I are now happily engaged!