Inside The Helmet

The Man Inside The Helmet

This piece captures my journey overcoming a condition that drained me emotionally, physically and mentally. This is not just about how life got really hard for me and how I rised against adversity, but this is an effort to bring awareness to what CTE is.

Who am I?

Some people fail to know what’s beyond the surface, the truth of who one really is, their day-to-day struggles. We see or hear about a person, a couple or a group of people and create this picture in our minds of what we think of them based on second-hand opinions. We colour those words and create impressions based on our personal life experiences and create our own pre-judgements.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a form of Tauopathy, is a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have had a severe blow to the head. This disease was previously called Dementia Pugilistica (DP), as it was initially found in those with a history of boxing. CTE has been most commonly found in professional athletes participating in American football, ice hockey, stunt performing, bull riding, motocross and other contact sports that can lead to repeated concussions or other brain trauma. It can affect high school players who have played for just a few years. The symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety,suicidality,parkinsonism, and, eventually, progressive dementia. These symptoms often begin years or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement.

How it all happened?

Someone once told me I could have a great future in football if I put the work in. I was in my fifth year of tackle football and was creating a pretty decent name for myself. I was one of the top running backs in the city due to my speed, evasiveness, and ability to take and make big hits at such a small size. I was always trying to improve myself especially when it came to making big hits — I always felt I had to prove myself due to lack of size. I was so scared to disappoint or to even lose my starting position that I was willing to do anything to prove my worth to the team.

In my high school career, there were two very big hits that are still branded in my memory. From both, all I remember is opening my eyes, forgetting where I was and being struck with blurry vision. I didn’t speak much about it at the time — all I knew when i came to was that I made a big hit and that I got up before the other guy did.

Playing in Minnesota, I felt like all odds were against me. I had even more to prove and needed to work that much harder to get to a starting position. I was known as “Canada” on the team — being the only Canadian they expected so much more from me, which helped push me to become a way better player than I ever thought I could be. It was late 2006 near the end of my first college football season when I finally worked up to starting on special teams –it was an away game up North East of Fergus Falls. We lost the coin toss and I knew then we would be receiving the ball on kick off as the other team deferred to receiving the ball in the second half. I was nervous going on the field as it was my first special team play of my college career. They kicked the ball off and sure enough it headed my way — I caught it and started to do what I loved to do and that was playing ball. I made one or two guys miss, then smack.

That’s all I can remember. Some say I was out for 20 seconds, some say it was more liker 40. I don’t remember much, but all I knew was that this hit wasn’t like the last two big hits — there was no blurry vision, and confusion. This was bigger than those two. This was an immediate headache. I Couldn’t find my feet, I was disoriented and I couldn’t identify people and faces. It was one of the biggest hits I have ever taken in my life.

Dealing with the unknown

They say it takes generally eight to ten years after experiencing repetitive mild traumatic brain injury to show symptoms of CTE . Fast forward to 2009, I was 21 when I started to really notice that something just wasn’t the same in my life. There were five symptoms that became more apparent as I started to become more aware of my situation. I first started to notice that my sleep patterns were off and I couldn’t stop talking myself out of sleep at night. It was like a constant ringing of voices going on in my head that became harder and harder to just shut out. Then came the dizzy spells — the room wouldn’t spin, but when I closed my eyes, it constantly felt like my head was moving back and forth. There was no escape. Not long after discovering the dizzy spells, I to this day have problems when i don’t exercise for a long period of time that my hands would once in a while lock up when I would close them and it would be difficult for me to open them back up again, I started to notice myself becoming a lot more irritable with loved ones and friends. I was super short with them and would just feel upset when there was a disagreement about something. I then started to notice disruptions in my speech patterns — I started to stutter, I couldn’t quite get words out as clear as I wanted them to. The last thing I noticed was my inability to remember things. I experienced short-term forgetfulness — someone would tell me something and literally 10 minutes later I would forget what they just said. The forgetfulness became the worst part of my condition– I couldn’t recall plans, dates, events. It would irritate me and I would be really hard on myself. It strained a lot of my relationships, both friends and family.

In my last year of football I met a man who became a big part of my life — we moved from Victoria to the big city of Vancouver together, got married and built a life. Like most marriages and relationships, we had our rough patches — a lot of trust issues arose, we were both stressed at work. I started to become depressed. I felt like I couldn’t provide for us the way he wanted me to. Every time we fought I blamed myself and shut down. When I shut down I either tore myself apart mentally and emotionally or put all my energy into my career, often doing 12 hour shifts without any breaks. I convinced myself that I had pretty good control over what was going on with me. My coping habits were not great by any means — I was scared to open up to my own husband about what I was going through in fear that he would just leave me, or simply wouldn’t understand what I was going through.

I felt like I was back in college leading a double life. I tried to be strong while dealing with the stress of work, my moods, no sleep, negative self talk, headaches, dizziness and just feeling like something wasn’t right with me but not knowing exactly what it was. There would be times when I would take two hour breaks in the staff room to nap for an hour just to catch up on another sleepless night. I tried my best to deal with what I was going through the best way I knew how.

The Downfall

Divorce comes with a price — it’s an emotional rollercoaster filled with self doubt and failure. When I finally decided to step away from a toxic relationship I felt a sense of relief but simultaneously told myself that I could have done more, or that everything was my fault. I felt trapped because I never felt good enough and I convinced myself that I wasn’t. My divorce was one of the hardest things I ever dealt with in my life. Being with someone who doesn’t understand where you come from, or who doesn’t care to know or try to understand your upbringing can be a hard pill to swallow when dealing with a condition like mine. It only added to the feeling of being all alone.

At 24, I was trying to deal with my condition, a fresh divorce, opening my own private gym, dealing with renovation issues, feeling lonely and all by myself. I was scared — scared of failure, afraid that my friends and family wouldn’t understand me, or worse yet, that they would be upset with who I had become. All these thoughts and issues turned out to be too much for me during that time. I broke down and went through the darkest time of my life. I drank more than I ever have in my life, I was fighting with friends, plus my symptoms were at their worst. The vicious cycle kept ruling my life — once again, I became depressed, I got irritated with everything and everyone, I got into more fights with those closest to me. I was on a very ugly downward spiral. It got to a point where I attempted to harm myself in a very selfish way that could have taken my life.

I started to back off on all my workouts and eating healthy wasn’t my priority anymore. I was losing way too much weight, getting down to 139lbs from 156lbs. I looked unhealthy and very sick — at my lowest of lows, I didn’t know how I was going to get myself out of this mess.

I wanted to give up and just be at home where life could be so much easier for me — I thought about packing up and leaving Vancouver to move back home to Edmonton. Just like that, I wanted to give it all up after all the hard work I put in, and have no one else to answer to but me.

The Rise

During this low point, I remember being a very negative person, always bitching about what I didn’t like, failing to see anything positive. Unsurprisingly, that’s what I attracted into my life — negative people, negative relationships which started to create a negative impact on my work and with my clients. I was absent, unable to pay attention, moody, always mentally exhausted and forgetful.

Sometimes I wonder how I ever made it out of such a dark place. I remember talking to a client about the negative people I attract and how I don’t understand how there can be that many negative people in the world and why they are the way they are. He simply said to me “most times in situations like yours, it’s usually not the people you keep meeting that need to change, its usually you that needs to change.” For whatever reason, that stuck with me. As much as I didn’t want to hear it, i knew that he was speaking the truth. It stung every time I would repeat his words in my head — it held so much weight yet i didn’t know why. My mind went off to a million places that night, i wanted to drink but i stopped myself and just tried to digest what he told me.

I realized what he meant — I am in control of my own happiness and who I bring into my life and who I let go of. From then on,i knew what I had to do, but didn’t know where to begin. So I reached out to my siblings, my unwavering supporters. I then set out to take a trip away from everyone and everything, escape the madness, the pressure, the stress, the loneliness and all things that triggered my condition..

I rented out a house for a week on a beautiful island all by myself to reflect and really put some work in to get back to the man I truly was and wanted to be again. I wanted to know how to work through my condition and make more rational decisions, make people smile, not be afraid of accomplishing great things. I was determined to be an ambitious, loving, community and family oriented man. I told myself I would try new things that usually didn’t interest me — it was all about getting out of my comfort zone and looking at life through a different lens.

I read a book called The Four Agreements.This book helped me get back to understanding that I should confront my CTE condition and get help. I hiked a big ass mountain by myself and soaked in nature and tried to absorb its beauty. When I made it to the top, I enjoyed my lunch, took in the view and for the first time in four years, I broke down and cried. Just like that, all these emotions just poured out of me. I didn’t really know what to think, I didn’t try to suck it up because I knew that’s what needed to happen. I didn’t know it then, but I look back at it now and realize that was a very big turning point in my life. I went from almost losing it all, to getting back to me, and giving back to myself.

Closing

Beyond my surface sits failure, success, lies, truth, struggle, all things that make me human. I am not perfect by any means and don’t strive to be. I only strive to become a better version of myself everyday. My journey may not be the greatest but it has definitely carved me into the man I am today — a man who realized it’s okay to fail, but you just need to get back up and keep fighting to do and be better.