There were 10 minutes left on Christmas Day…

Settling in

I’d watched the movies and the football games, eaten the food, and spent time with family. All the workaday folks were winding down and heading to bed, while the night-owls stayed up, surfing the channels, talking into the wee hours, and making up for time lost between visits.

It had been a good day, a morning melt-down notwithstanding.

And the next day promised to be a good one, as well. And it was.

Now the visit is winding down, we’re getting ready to pack up… last-minute cups of coffee and time to chat and just spend time in the same room with each other… It’s been a good visit, with far less drama and upheaval than other holidays. Part of it is that I’m managing better. Part of it is that we’re all a lot more willing to just let things go. We’ve all got a much clearer view of what’s important, and we’re sticking with that.

Here’s what I wrote on Christmas night…

These visits are never easy, to be completely honest. Seeing my family, seeing the next generation of nieces and nephews who have their whole lives ahead of them, I am taken back, time and time again, to a place in my prior experience where I was as convinced as any of them that I was bound to do something big and important… that I didn’t belong in that place with those people… that I was made for bigger things… that I had what it took to make my dreams come true, and all I really needed was time and freedom to move and build what I had in my head and heart.

I think all of us have that, when we’re young. And it’s a good and wonderful thing. Imagine how the world would be, if we didn’t. I’m not sure it’s a place I would want to be part of. And I’d have to take it upon myself to change it.

What I never imagined would be the case, was that the “passing” issues I had would not pass. That they would become bigger issues. That they would stick around and snowball and lead to other issues. And the relatively minor deals with my abbreviated attention span, my susceptibility to distraction, my spotty working memory, would ultimately morph into much bigger problems, simply because I didn’t understand the nature of them… and I would never take steps to substantively address them till many decades later, after much harm had been done – to myself and to those around me.

How could I have know how far from myself I would stray, and how many flawed perceptions of myself I would ultimately indulge and evolve over time, creating an essentially altered state for myself that kept me from doing and being all those things I dreamed of doing and being as a young kid.

Yes, it’s the end of the year. And now that we’re winding down, I think back to when I was much, much younger, when I was really struggling with memory issues in school, struggling with a spotty attention span, struggling with remembering to do things… thinking all the while that I was intentionally not doing things… thinking that my inability to keep things in my mind for long was a sign of individuality and rebellion, rather than the after-effects of concussion. I’m not sure I had a thorough enough understanding of my situation to get scared by it. All I knew was, something else was always turning out to be more interesting than what I was working on for extended periods of time. I had no way of knowing that it wasn’t my individuality asserting itself – it was an impaired working memory, constant restlessness from the concussions I’d had, and big problems with impulse control and thinking through my decisions.

And my teachers thought I was a loser. Lazy. Immature. Way too impulsive for my own good. They did not know or fully realize how I’d been concussed – not once, not twice, but at least five times by my senior year in high school. Heck, maybe many more times than that, because as a younger kid, I’d had balance problems and had been a real rough-houser – hitting my head and getting dizzy and groggy, and getting up and keeping on playing, was always just part of the game. It wasn’t a reason to stop playing, it was a reason to keep playing.

It sounds bizarre to think about it now, but all those times when I got dinged and felt like I was about to wobble off my axis, there was something about the experience that actually energized me and got me all jazzed up. I didn’t want to back off at all, when it happened. Oh, sure, I’d slow down for a little bit, but I was back in the thick of things soon enough, regardless of that sick feeling in my stomach, the woozy feeling in my head, and the feeling that I couldn’t find my feet. It was just part of the game for me, getting knocked around and such.

And you know, if someone had come to me and said, “Dude, you have to sit this one out, ’cause you’re dizzy and are sensitive to light,” I would have laughed them off. The times when I actually did get taken out of games were when I was so obviously punch-drunk that there was no sense in me being on the field anymore. Those were also games that had adult supervision, and I’m fortunate that I grew up in an area and a time where adults had a sense of serious responsibility for protecting kids – because they were kids – not pushing them on and on like we were miniature soldiers who just had to be goaded hard enough to act like grown-up soldiers. We were kids, and that was that, and nobody screwed around with making sure we didn’t feel badly about ourselves if we crossed a line. When a line was crossed, there were consequences, and tough luck if you didn’t like it. You were a kid. They were the adults. Everyone was clear about the chain of command.

But when the adults weren’t watching, there was all kinds of hell to pay. I dished it out. And I took it, too. I was a scrapper and a jock. I was one of those kids who was always out on the leading edge, pushing the envelope and pushing my body to win, win, win. Because it felt good. Not only because people cheered for me, though they did, but because that’s who I was and that’s what I did. The times when I got yanked out of games because of injuries were some of the worst times for me. Because the minute I left the field, “incapacitated” by my coach’es decision, I stopped being the “me” I understood and valued the most. The minute I was off the field, away from the team, not part of the action, was the minute I started being less of a person… and more of a loser.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t be part of the team. It was that the part of me that I recognized the most, the part of me that gave me the greatest satisfaction, the part of me that had rules and guidelines to follow and was rewarded for something in my life – for once – instead of being constantly punished for crap I didn’t fully understand… that part was gone. And it wasn’t coming back till I could get back on the field.

I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t played youth sports can understand the loss that comes from being yanked off the field because of a “bump on the head”. It can be devastating. Because it literally – to your reeling brain – makes no sense. You can’t understand on your own what is happening to you, and you can’t detect the things that may be obvious to the trainer or the coach or your other teammates. It just doesn’t make any sense.

In my own case, when I got that concussion during that chance pick-up tackle football game, even when I was down on the ground, dazed and wondering WTF… and then I got up and was unable to run in a straight line, hold the ball, or follow basic calls… it still hadn’t registered fully to me that something was wrong. I was ready and willing to keep playing, no matter what. Nothing could stop me, aside from my obedience to a coach who saw something was wrong with me and stopped the game completely, when I refused to sit out.

And thinking back to how it was, how it felt, how I experienced it, I think perhaps one of the most important things a person can do with a concussed kid, is to help them understand what the hell is going on with them. Even if every brain injury is different, even if we can’t always tell what’s going on with a particular individual, even if the symptoms can shift and change and evolve over time, still, it’s vitally important to get young athletes to comprehend what is going on with them. We may not have all the answers right off the bat, but it is certainly possible to at least work with the athlete and help them cultivate some measure of self-awareness about their condition and their capabilities, that lets them not only better assess their own symptoms and experience as they (hopefully) clear, but which may also help them avoid future situations that can put them in more danger.

It’s a tough one – a very, very tough one – this work with concussions among young athletes. It’s tough with athletes of any age, but especially with youth who have so much ahead of them, who stand to lose so much, and whose brains are more susceptible to long-term injury… there’s so much at stake, and so much less room for error.

God, when I think back… and I think about how things might have been, had I not been hurt so many times when I was a kid… But who can say, really, how things would have turned out? I might have become a good, dutiful citizen who makes all the “right” choices and has all the “right” answers in life, all the while racking up the social points and the kudos and the degrees and what-not.

But then again, I might have become the perfect tool for the perfect system, and just turned into another cog in the machine that turns the world ’round and ’round. And I’m not sure I would have wanted that. I might have gotten it all right, only to discover one day that getting it right wasn’t what I wanted at all.

Still, though, having those concussions made it a hell of a lot more difficult to decide what I wanted for myself – and to stick with it. I may have known briefly what I wanted, but I just didn’t have the resources to stick with it. Just didn’t. Those resources sorta kind evaporated over time… and I was left with a handful of strategies that I pieced together bit by bit, that worked now and then, but rarely consistently, and certainly not over the long term.

And here I sit, pushing 50, sitting in my in-laws’ spare bedroom, wishing to god that I didn’t have to get up and face my hyper-achieving relatives in the morning. But I do. So I guess I’ll call it a night and get some sleep. These things are easier to do, when I’m rested.

So, I’ll rest.

Good night.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

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