The first year after I had a concussion was a blur. I was dead to the world for three months, going in and out of sleep, exhausted. I had vertigo and difficulties with light, sound, and language. No reading. No computers. No writing. Definitely no multitasking. I had to rest for far more hours than seemed viable and consequently had to suddenly quit a few organizations I led, with no succession plan in place. I closed my small press, or as it turned out, put it on hiatus. I simply had no choice.
As with a stroke or cancer, a traumatic brain injury can be an opportunity to reexamine one’s life and priorities.
I had been heading towards burnout, and my concussion forced me to adopt a more balanced life, once I’d recovered enough. Now, when I overdo it, I go on concussion protocol: no screens, no concentration, less activity. The concussion encouraged me to do fewer things better, to slow down, to spend more time in nature and quiet and with friends. To go deeper, not further.
I stopped attending so many activities. I moved out of the city and started working on editing more, writing deeper. This concussion changed my capacities. I still can’t concentrate for those fourteen-hour editing and writing days like I used to. After one or two hours I need a full break. But I can go deeper because of the slowness and the focus needed to keep on a track.
You probably had a concussion as a kid. About six out of a thousand people per year get one. After a light bump you may see stars but not black out and feel fine within fifteen minutes. That’s a mild, or Grade 1, concussion. If you’re knocked out and lose memory from the time around the impact, it’s severe, or grade three.
The kicker is, each time you get a concussion, the next will be worse. I think I’ve had four or five of them, with two at a grade-three level. The one that tipped me over was a Grade 2 concussion.
I now know of a dozen poets with lasting effects from concussions. Some struggle with physical balance, some with emotional balance, others with energy. Laura Stanfill writes eloquently of how her concussion brought aphasia. A.H. Reaume describes how brain trauma affects her writing. As she makes her way through the brain fog and frustrations of not “getting it,” there are days with spoons and days when she says: “there is no way I can push myself past my capacity even though I desperately want to.” Jane Cawthorne has been compiling interviews which will come out as a book in mid-2021: Impact: The Lives of Women After Concussion.
The brain is a complicated thing. It follows that traumatic brain injury is as well. Some patients with severe injuries rapidly recover from symptoms, while some with mild injuries have severe, long-term post-concussion symptoms that disrupt daily functioning for weeks or months. When it’s longer, it’s called post-concussion syndrome, which is what I have. (If you’re curious, there’s a scale here.) I’ve always been called out for persistence. I guess sticking to things is on a cellular level.
My reading rate is slower. I’m impatient for speed, but because life feels more fragile, I have to balance being present with resting enough. I can’t do extended concentration like I used to, and I have to switch up my routine more since extended reading or writing or editing isn’t given carte blanche bodily clearance anymore. So, I compose in my head. Instead of moving ideas visually or digitally, I compose by rolling things around in my mind, editing there first. And by letting things go, instead of making precious and publishable the minutiae. My memory is short, and my working memory is small.
I try to treat myself as I would a pet. Soft voice, kind acts, clean water, good food. It takes more energy to do things, so I am more conscious of investing or calling it a waste and cutting losses. I prioritize a few people more because I have fewer spoons to go around or to do All The Events. I give myself permission to leave early, to show up late or to not show up, instead of being the first one to come and the last one to go. I socialize mostly though my computer since outings are more taxing. During outings, I take more breaks, pressure myself less. I float and accept catching less than I did.
Perhaps in combination with anxiety meds, the concussion means I’m better at being methodical and tracking deadlines and calls. Who knows? I may write less, but I get published more. My writing is different, at least. I’m a different person, and so I can resonate with different people. But would I opt to get a concussion? A big no to that.
Pearl Pirie’s fourth collection, footlights, comes out in fall 2020 from Radiant Press. Her newest chapbooks are Call Down the Walls (Frog Hollow Press, February 2019) and a haibun collection, Eldon, letters (above/ground, August 2019). Her next chapbook will be Not Quite Dawn, out from Éditions des petits nuages in the spring of 2020. Her next epistolary haibun chapbook, Water loves its bridges: Letters to the dead, is due out in December 2020 from The Alfred Gustav Press, by subscription.
Photo credits: Pearl Pirie (header banner); Brian Pirie (headshot)