I had just carved a perfect turn, rocketed through the wake on the return, and was feeling the endorphin rush of what I was sure was my best ride ever. I’ve only been wakeboarding for a few years, but it was a nice segue from years and years of snowboarding. Feeling truly in command of my board, my body, and the water, I remember thinking to myself I finally got this. I smiled at my son and one of his buddies in the boat, adjusted my grip on the rope handle, and positioned myself for another shot across the wake, knowing I was totally on my game. The tension on the rope, the push from my knees and quads to create the torque, and then BLACKNESS.
As I groggily lifted my head from the water, just in time to take a deep gasping breath, my brain seemed to be going through a reboot and a system check. OK, I’m breathing. OK, I can open my eyes. OK, I see the water. OK, I can feel my body. OK, my central nervous system is working, and it is sending off alerts.
It was as if I’d been watching a movie, mid-scene, and someone turned off the TV. I was having the ride of my life on my wakeboard, my buddy Mitchell driving the boat, our boys Cooper and Oliver spotting and hanging in the boat, and then, whack, instant blackout.
I managed to get my arm up in some sort of “I’m OK,” which I think probably conveyed “I’m alive” more than I’m OK.
As my mind tried to piece together what happened, they brought the boat around, and I could see from the look on the boys’ faces that their question was more than just, “are you OK?” Later on, my son Cooper told me, “Dad, I wasn’t sure if you would ever walk again. That looked really bad.”
While I have no memory of it, I realize I must have caught a front side edge in the water, effectively stopping the board, while my body, aside from my feet which were locked into the board, continued to try to move forward at rapid speed. By the time my brain figured out to let go of the rope, I was accelerating like a physics formula with my upper body and head arcing directly down towards the water’s surface. Yeah, I know, I also think of water as soft. But when you hit it at a high rate of speed, it feels more like concrete.
Fast forward through a week of dizziness, headaches, and general mental slowness. When I returned to work and tried to really think, analyze, and focus, I knew I had a serious problem. I knew I had taken a blow to the head, but everyday I had just presumed I’ll feel better tomorrow. My presumption was wrong. I had a concussion. A concussion is a real thing, and no amount of my immortality complex or alleged grit was going to send the concussion away.
So, my concussion journey began. That was four months ago. I’m nearing full recovery now, and I’m sharing my story because I think it will be helpful for anyone recovering from a concussion. There’s so much information and misinformation out there that I wanted to assemble what I have learned and share it. I’m not a doctor or a traumatic brain injury (TBI) specialist; I’m just a person with a concussion, and soon I’ll be a person whose concussion and symptoms are (hopefully) completely in the past. Even writing this is therapeutic and part of a full recovery.
Headaches, headaches, headaches. Three times, for the three types. I had (and still have) headaches on the forehead, around the eyes, nose, and ears. I had the top of the head and all-over headache. I had the back of the head and top of the neck headache. For about 10 weeks, I had some version of one or more of these headaches 24 hours a day. They decreased in intensity over time, but it wasn’t until week 11 that I had my first headache free hour. It was glorious.
Stamina. Very little of it. I’ve always been someone with a long battery. Getting tired or any form of worn out just wasn't ever part of me. The lack of stamina was in two forms: my ability to think for any long stretch of time was severely diminished, and my mind would just feel tired. This also seemed to create an overall weariness. I need a nap was the major feeling.
Words. I had trouble finding them. I would stop mid-sentence as my brain searched the hard drive, sometimes taking a few seconds to find the word and sometimes just not finding the word, and instead switching to a description of the word so Suzi or the kids could help me fill in the blank.
Thinking. Slow processing, the inability to synthesize information, and a general inability to focus, think, conclude, or decide.
Balance. I had decreased ability to stand on one leg and do other types of physical balancing.
I was very lucky that I did not have nausea, dizziness, or any sort of vertigo as an ongoing symptom. I know that many people do, and these can be some of the most difficult symptoms.
What I Have Learned
Truth: Every concussion is unique, so there is no one size fits all prescription.
Truth: See a specialist in concussions and traumatic brain injury.
Truth: Understand it may be more than a concussion. It is commonly two things: concussion and whiplash, a brain injury and a neck injury. Presuming CAT scan and X-ray rules out anything broken, we’re talking about an injury to the brain and an injury to the muscles in the neck, and potentially to the shoulders and back.
Myth-busting: Do nothing and stay in a dark room. This is outdated guidance. Depending on your symptoms, activity that doesn’t worsen them may be good for you.
Myth-busting: Just rest, and it will get better on its own. While I suppose this can be true, I’m saying the best practice is to see some professionals.
This video helped me understand concussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QssZJokP0pU
The Experts I Saw
Traumatic Brain Injury Specialist: This could be a neurologist or a physiatrist with a specialty in traumatic brain injury and concussions. Not every neurologist is a concussion specialist.
Physical Therapist: Dry needling, manual manipulating, and exercises focused on vestibular system, whiplash, and muscle-tightness through the head and neck.
Neuro-Optometrist: Treating headaches related to vision and learning eye exercises to improve my fusion ability.
Cranio-Sacral Therapy: Treating headaches and stress from the impact.
Massage Therapist: Working with muscles and fascia in the head, neck, and shoulders.
Chiropractic: A few adjustments of the hips, back, and neck. The guidance I received was to avoid the chiropractor for the first several weeks.
My Recovery Protocol
For me, the recovery protocol was to eliminate social activities, preserve what brain power I did have for work and family, and severely restrict my work schedule. I spent lots of time listening to podcasts and audio books, rather than reading. I slept a lot more than usual, including a regular nap. I religiously took all of my supplements, followed the dietary guidelines, and as of week 5, started exercising daily. My complete list follows.
Supplements: Working with a TBI specialist and a friend who is a holistic health practitioner (and who also has experienced her own concussion) – Andrea Abenoza – I have been taking supplements to help my brain, my eyes, and my body recover. The full details are here.
Diet & Nutrition: No caffeine, no alcohol. Yup, none.
Exercise: Research shows that maintaining 25 minutes at 80% of your max heart rate helps speed recovery time. However, this is only true if this level of exertion does not trigger or worsen the concussion symptoms. There is a process to follow to build up to this level that should be directed by a health professional. I started exercising regularly again at 5 weeks.
Sleep: Nap as much as desired during the day, but ideally keep naps to 30 minutes or less, so that you can still sleep at night. During my first 6 weeks, my naps were a lot longer, but it did make for some nights of difficult sleep. A true block of 8 to 10 hours of sleep at night is vital. This is when the real healing is happening.
Limited reading: Whether on screens or paper, I had to cut my reading way back. My headaches were severely compounded by reading or any focused use of my eyes. I joined Audible, and audio books and podcasts became my best friends.
Doing nothing is doing something: Accept that for the brain to heal, it needs to be resting. Not reading, not working, not thinking. Brain relaxation is a serious part of the recovery protocol.
Guided meditation: Twice a week, I worked with a private yoga teacher who led a 10-20 minute guided meditation. I also periodically tried to do my own meditation. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I wish I had found recordings of guided meditations I liked to do on my own.
And yes, I understand the hurdle of the cost of all this, the support and resources required to seek treatment and allow myself the necessary time to heal. But I needed my brain back, so that I can earn a living and be the parent, spouse, and person I want to be. The investment of money and time was a must for me, and I realize I’m incredibly fortunate.
Perspective & Awareness
Traumatic Brain Injury is serious. Similar to mental health, the struggle isn’t visible like a cast on a leg with crutches or an arm in sling. But make no mistake about it, it is debilitating. And just as real. Health is health, whether bone or brain, whether physical or mental. As hard as this experience has been for me, there is a silver lining. I will be forever more empathetic to those around me… as a friend, as a parent, as a business partner, and as an employer.
In our company, I will support anyone that deals with a brain injury. Now I understand that people with TBI may need the flexibility to work less, or do a different type of work for a while. They may need help with financial resources or seeking treatment options. Their recovery will likely be shortened if they have the support and time to get better.
Recovering from the concussion was not a solo affair. Not only did it take a team of specialists, I am fortunate to have an amazing group of people who supported my recovery. My thank you list, in no specific order:
Andrea, for sharing your knowledge and story with me, so that my journey could be less difficult than yours. Your optimism and realism were always in the perfect dose. Moc, I’d felt for you during your concussion journey, and now I know I’m able to feel with you… thanks for ensuring I took it seriously, and thanks for knocking me down to earth when you knew I wasn’t going to take it seriously enough. You were very right. Jackie, your words of encouragement and humor were a valuable part of my recovery prescription. Thanks for continuing to check in on me and care. The MofGP, your well wishes and visits made me feel missed and appreciated. Thanks for keeping my chair at the table. Suzi, being the spouse must really suck during this kind of episode, but you never seemed frustrated or annoyed no matter how useless I was or how much I complained, and you always stayed optimistic. Coop, Oli, Finn, I love that you guys were extra nice to me, quiet when needed, and accepted my limitations. Mike V., as a friend and biz partner I can imagine it was disconcerting to have me on some version of the limited-use/disabled list, but your permanent, relentless support, and never a whiff of frustration was incredibly kind and helped me focus on getting better rather than extra-stressing about work. Daisy & Gina, for the work/home support combo doing everything from organizing meds to meditation, and everything in between. My whole team at work, who stepped up big time in my absence and showed how well the show goes on without me.