September 2017 Samantha Horn Olsen
September 1, 2017
Samantha Horn Olsen September 2017
A sunny Friday in February was the day my energy slammed back into town. Sitting at breakfast at the Augusta House of Pancakes, I felt the familiar vibration of my body ready to move and explore. It had been that way for years now, except for the past months while I had a concussion. In November, a friendly basketball game resulted in an accidental sharp elbow between my eyes, breaking my nose, snapping my head back, and causing a mild traumatic brain injury. I spent months seeking care that was effective, and I had to rely on my family for virtually everything, including help researching treatment options.
For those few months, my brain was so offended at my carelessness that it decided to play the cruel joke of making me move at half-speed and sapping my energy, leaving me no choice but to nap like a toddler and avoid light, noise, sound, screens, reading: my connections to the outside world. My brain had also gone on strike and refused to reliably remember the simplest of recent events or to formulate the basic outlines of a plan for getting anything done.
My friend Patrick, sitting across the booth from me on that February morning, didn’t let on whether he noticed my sudden flood of nervous energy, but I suppose it would have been hard to miss. Even as I then took a walk, went to the dentist, and drove home, the energy stayed with me—moving in and around me like it had a life of its own. The contrast from the months of enforced torpor was stark. But even though I welcomed this new electric energy coursing through my body and the air around me, I noticed that there was something missing: the connection to ground—the centeredness that was an important part of my being, and which I had cultivated as I healed, was elusive. I could concentrate and call it forward to me now and then, but it kept lagging behind and wouldn’t catch up and stay with me as I zinged out ahead.
Later in the day, I stood in my kitchen, thinking about the fact that I was now home, and talking to my older son about school and other current events. As we spoke, I realized that I couldn’t see a path forward and I couldn’t see a path backward. There was the weekend ahead, and because of my custody arrangements, I needed to go spend it elsewhere. There were several options, quiet events, friends to see, my mother to visit. Ordinarily it would have been but a moment’s work for my brain to order it chronologically, prioritize it, consider logistics, and choose the options that maximized efficiency and provided optimal chance for fun and productivity. Because that’s what my brain and I did—together—all the time—automatically. You need a plan? See Samantha. She’ll have one for you in a jiffy.
But in that moment, my brain had not seen fit to provide cognitive services at the same rate it was returning my physical energy. So there I was, standing, totally bewildered, in the middle of my kitchen, staring into space. Truly, I had not even recognized the nature of my dilemma. All I knew was that I couldn’t seem to go forward with a plan, or back up and start over. It was my son who then observed that my energy had returned, but I did not have the brain power to know what to do with it. As he said it, I knew he was exactly right.
My boys both have brains that are not naturally organized. Their talents lie in being creative, expressive, insightful, compassionate, and smart. Prioritizing, structure, and memory for tasks did not come with that wonderful package. They both have challenges with attention. In that moment, standing in the kitchen, I suddenly understood. Emotionally understood, not just intellectually understood, what it can feel like to have all of the pieces of the puzzle floating in your head, as if they were literally whizzing through the air, circling you Harry Potter- style, but stubbornly refusing to settle down and align themselves into the picture that you know is there somewhere. It was hopeless to just try harder to make them settle, and my temptation was to throw up my hands and say, “forget it, who needs to make a puzzle anyway, I’ll just have a snack instead.” How tempting it would be to let someone with more organizational skill take care of those “details” and let me float through my existence doing what occurred to me in the moment and what felt intuitively good. Ahhh…now that would be a relief.
Even a few months later, as my cognitive abilities were slowly catching up with my physical recovery, I felt the opposite forces of rapid action and centered thought pulling at me, as if they existed separately in my body. I had not re-learned how to integrate them into a confident but compassionate and thoughtful self. I was having a Jekyll and Hyde experience of wanting to march off in whatever direction occurred to me, but recognizing the folly. To have had the experience of being a natural organizer and then be plunged into an existence where I had to take each moment, each day on its own and for its own merit was a shocking change.
Since that time, my recovery has been nearly complete. I was fortunate that a clinical neuropsychologist who specializes in concussions discovered a hidden visual problem that was holding back my recovery. After a month with prism glasses, I was making much more rapid progress, and her guidance, as well as good physical therapy, craniosacral therapy, and my dedication to a structured, supervised exercise program, got me slowly back to work and physical activity. Fortunately, my employer and my staff were understanding and very supportive. In March I started back part-time, in April I was full time limited-duty, and in May I was allowed to supervise again. From there I continued to rebuild my capacities, both at work and with exercise. In August I climbed Mount Madison—not as fast as I could before, but I am working on it.
Reflecting on the last 10 months, the effects that have really lasted are not the brain damage. Sure, my short-term memory is a little lacking, and sometimes I don’t feel quite as sharp as I used to, but I’m really pretty functional and I don’t spend time wishing for perfection in those areas. What has lasted is what I learned. Cognitive function helps make us unique, and we all have different capacities—losing executive functions can sometimes reveal creative talents. Being understanding of others with different cognitive capacities is critical; helping them obtain excellent care when they cannot research and advocate for themselves is a beautiful gift.
Primary care providers often are not well-informed about the latest concussion information; if an adult is not recovering well within a month, help them find an appropriate specialist. If you meet someone who does not take traumatic brain injury seriously, tell them a good story or two that will stick with them and make them think twice. And my most important lesson is gratitude—for my cognitive capacity, for my family that helped me, for the opportunity to learn about fascinating science, and for my new understanding of my boys’ experiences so I can be a better mom.