After the Crash

RIP Sarah Burke (September 3, 1982 – January 19, 2012)

The Concussion Blog had a good post the other day — Action Sports an Issue Too — with a couple of videos that have really haunted me since I watched them.

I’ll show them again here:

There’s some mention at The Concussion Blog about high impact falls and the fencing response (which everyone who plays sports and is concerned about concussion should be aware of), which is good food for thought.

And it really did get me thinking. Because looking at Mr. Huston taking those falls, then lying there for a while and shaking himself off and jumping up to have another “go” at it is exactly the kind of behavior that gets so many of us into trouble.

I’m not sure if it’s the sudden release of glucose into the brain cells, or the whole rushing extended metabolic cascade of concussion that makes those neurons fire like crazy, but there’s something about getting hit on the head — and I hate to say it — that makes you want to go at things even harder. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary development from days of yore when warfare was largely hand-to-hand, and head trauma was just another part of the fight… and if you got hit, you couldn’t just lie there and wait for your opponent to make mincemeat of you. You had to jump back up and go at them even harder than before. Consider the eons of warfare humanity has been embroiled in, practically since the beginning of time. If darwinistic evolution has anything to do with how we’ve evolved as a species, and if the ones who could rebound after a blow to the head and keep fighting to the win, no matter about the dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, light sensitivity, cognitive deficits, poor risk assessment, etc…. and procreate along the way… and if the children inherited the qualities of their warfaring sires… then it makes sense that we would be in the situation we’re in.

‘Cause people have been running around, getting in fights, slugging each other over the head with sharp and blunt objects, and basically, wreaking havoc with the hidden grey matter since before recorded history. And if we as a species are conditioned to bounce back up and head back into the fray, well, then, it makes sense that Nyjah Huston is falling and hitting his head, apparently sustaining obvious concussions in the process (as indicated by the “unnatural position of [his] arms following a concussion. Immediately after moderate forces have been applied to the brainstem”), lying there for a moment or two to collect himself, then hopping up, grabbing his hat and board, and heading back up to the top of the stairs to try again, regardless of the “overt indicator of injury force magnitude and midbrain localization”.

Says Nyjah, “It normally takes that one fall in a trick like that to, thought, ride away and kinda like realize what you have to do to actually land it. And yeah then after that one that I rode away on, the next one was perfect, and it felt so good riding away from it after that battle.” (See the Berrics video at 2:19 to hear the roar of the crowd — which is really what so many of us want, right?) And all the while in the background, a band is playing “Well, you’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone / But you went on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on…”

And so it goes. We fall, we get hurt — sometimes seriously (whether we know it or not) — but we get back up and run right back into the fray, regardless of possible consequences.

And the crowd cheers.

Because we value “resilient” athletes of all kinds, and we applaud them to no end when they actually succeed at the things they’ve practiced, over and over again. We value “resilient” employees and individuals who can “take a licking and keep on ticking”. We reward people who make sacrifice after sacrifice for the greater good, even when that “greater” isn’t so good. Even when it’s something as transitory and non-essential, like a Saturday afternoon ball game. Not that sports don’t matter – they certainly do. But is the temporary distraction of fans from the humdrum, sometimes uncomfortable facts of their lives as equally important as the long-term health and well-being of the athletes at play?

At what point does entertainment — and that’s what so much of it is for spectators — become more important than the health and safety of the entertainers.

Granted, entertainers and performers of all kinds have a long tradition of taking risks for the enjoyment of the crowds. Think high-wire acts, trapeze artists, bullfighters, bull riders, and people who play with fire to please an audience. In some ways, entertainment and distraction are as vital to human survival as food and air and water. We have to have them, or we wither amidst the constant rigors of the everyday. Something has to keep us going through it all. So, we have our sports and our games and our shows and YouTube and Twitter and so on.

And in watching those games and shows and performances, we learn lessons about what it means to be human, what it means to struggle to overcome adversity, be resilient, and keep on. We get reinforcement for our values, and we cheer on those people who support our values and demonstrate successful practice of the qualities we value most — the ability to take a hit, the ability to jump back up after a particularly hard fall, and get back in the game, not letting anything stop us.

Once upon a time, I was like that. I would get hurt, and I would jump right back into the fray. I wouldn’t take any time off, I would just push myself, no matter what. I would crash — and sometimes burn — but I’d be back eventually. Before anyone even really noticed I was down for the count. And I kept getting hurt. Like Nyjah Huston, I would lay low for a short while, then gather myself and plunge right back in. I kept recovering as best I could, then rush back into the action — in sports as well as in life. Knocked down and way woozy for a while? No problem. Just prop me up and turn me loose again. Smashed up in a car accident and unable to read with comprehension or understand what people were saying to me? No worries. Just give me a few days and a job change, and I’ll be right as rain before you know it. Went down a flight of stairs and smacked my head hard and can’t talk or think straight? Forget taking some time out. Let’s just get going — and move even faster than before.

That was pretty much the story of my life until 2007, when I started to notice that things were falling apart, and I didn’t understand why. Then it all caught up with me. And the rest is history. Here I am, working at rebuilding my life as best I can — and finding ways to do even better than rebuild — to actually build from the ground up, in so many ways.

In a way, what I’m doing now is a long, protracted rebound from the extended fall(s) I took over the course of my life. And this time I’m doing it a lot better than ever before.

Because I’m taking time off. Not 100% out-of-commission time off, but I’m stepping back from the crazy rush of everything, moving at a more sensible pace, and I’m not letting everyone else drive my action. It’s been an incredibly difficult change to make, but it totally makes sense for me. It’s a shift away from the reactive to the active, a move away from letting others define me and my life goals, and going with my gut — what I want and need, not what other people tell me I want and need. I’m not pushing to reach some brass ring that’s forever out of reach. I’m backing off… being more introspective about my approach… and giving myself time to come up with answers that make sense to me, not just the rest of the world.

It’s an entire life change, which hasn’t been easy. But it’s been necessary. And long overdue.

After the crash, when you take a hard hit, it can be a really good idea to step back, reassess, and only return to play after getting to a place where you’re truly good to go. If you got injured pretty badly, it may take some time to get back to that place, but you’ve got to resist the temptation to race right back into the fray without giving your body and mind some time to recover. If you take time off, you may actually figure out if you’re hurt, and how badly, and what you need to do to get back into decent working condition. But you’ve got to give yourself a chance to catch up with yourself. You’ve gotta be smart and self-defensive, not succumb to the pressure of the cheering crowds which can push you out into dangerous situations all over again.

Now, you can’t just sit out indefinitely, losing your conditioning and your abilities by being over-protective. And you can’t run away from the urgings of others, who may actually see things in you that you don’t see in yourself. That’s another danger that’s very real and present, and I’ve seen a lot of people pass up great opportunities in life because they were afraid they weren’t ready or up to it. At some point, you’ve got to find it in yourself to move on and act on opportunities as they arise, provided you’re up to it.

If you don’t, then brain injury has taken over your life, and you’re a hostage for as long as you let your fears dictate your future.

Now for the disclaimer: For brain injury survivors, self-assessment and accurately gauging the levels of your abilities can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. So, you may find yourself in “interesting times” as the Chinese phrase it, with all hell breaking loose, thanks to disconnects in your abilities vs. interests. It can be helpful to have the input of others who are realistic as well as supportive. Indeed, taking steps to get back in the game may in fact reveal that you’re better off not getting back in the particular game you want to rejoin. Self-reflection and objective observation of real feedback about your life and your abilities may show that you should find a different game — metaphorically choosing tennis or golf, instead of ice hockey or football. Whatever you find and whatever you choose, the important thing is to not get STUCK in one place, and to NOT GIVE UP trying to find a different way. The brain is a big place with tremendous plasticity. And history has shown that even significantly injured individuals have recovered and developed abilities that nobody expected or realized they had.

It’s a balance. And it’s a very hard balance to strike.  Especially after the crash, when your brain is telling you go-go-go… not necessarily for any particular reason, just to GO… and the rest of the world is cheering you on, urging you to get up, dust yourself off, and jump back in the action ASAP.

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.

3 thoughts on “After the Crash”

  1. Well put. Anyone with multiple brain injuries can identify. You keep getting up, brushing yourself off and just keep going lacking fear of anything. Simply, because the most significant or detrimental injury may not have occurred yet and it’s only a matter of time. And others, including employers expect you to return to normal immediately or within a day or so following injury. Eventually, the brain will take only so many injuries or at minimum needs time to recover. Too often, the urge to get up and walk away also ends in death with certain types of brain injuries. So we are fortunate (or maybe not?) most people believe if one survives.

    When someone sustains a serious brain injury and they know you well they will take a bit more caution to prevent the same from happening to them. No one want to live with a brain injury by choice! My mother-in-law wore a helmet everywhere she went as she got older and started to fall. She never wanted to have a brain injury as she was around me all too often and I applaud her for that. I just wish those on skateboarders and other sports would wear protective gear at the very least since there is so much more information and education to prevent brain injuries now. I literally got chills watching the videos! From someone who has been there all too often … and fortunate until just one more injury!

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  2. Thanks for writing. Those videos were chilling, weren’t they… especially in light of the recent death of freestyle skier Sarah Burke, and the career-ending accident of Kevin Pearce. The thing that amazes me is that when I was much younger, getting hit on the head was just part of the game. In fact, I sometimes felt like I played better after I got hit — like this altered state I went into. A few too many times…

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