I’m mentally exhausted

On post-concussion syndrome and relief.

(Photo credit: NINDS)

The thing about neuroscience is that there is so much that is still being discovered about the brain. I had an MRI done and my doctor told me that, while I had a spot on my MRI, they weren’t sure what it is. In consulting other specialists, they told me this was normal for people who have migraines. Unless my post-concussion symptoms get worse, I have no reason to worry.

My initial treatment was to relax. Stay away from screens. Sleep. Rest. Which, for an MFA student who runs her own editing business and was editing her novel at the time, was a bit difficult. I wanted to get back to work. I needed to get back to work. School was a different story. I could comprehend what I needed to do for clients, and excelled at it. But in doing this, I essentially used up all of the energy I had. I couldn’t comprehend basic instructions for academic assignments, let alone academic readings. Still, I tried.

I was given the opportunity to go to AWP 2016 in Los Angeles — the biggest writer’s conference of the year — and jumped at it. Of course I’d go to L.A., of course I’d fill my schedule with as many panels as possible.

But when I got there, when I started sitting in on panels, everything shifted for me. The more information I took in, the more anxiety I had. Xanax helped, but I could only make it through two panels in a day. I took intense notes, knowing I couldn’t trust my brain to remember all of the new information I was taking in. After the second panel, I’d run back to my hotel room and just sit alone, in the quiet, for an hour or so before I felt okay enough to re-enter the conference world. This meant taking my laptop downstairs to the bar area where I’d slowly work on a drink and blog about my day’s exprerience. When I came back from this trip and talked to my neurologist about it, he told me that I might just be hyper-sensitive to different things now. Maybe I always felt anxious and exhausted after taking trips, after learning new material.

I shrugged it off, knowing this wasn’t the case. But who am I to tell him he’s wrong? He’s the brain doctor.

The thing is, I knew something wasn’t right in the way I was experiencing new things and taking on new material. I knew something wasn’t right when I could only get through editing twenty pages a day instead of one-hundred. The fact that I couldn’t work more than a few days a week, that I felt like my brain was prioritizing what we could expend energy on — this wasn’t the way I normally functioned.

And I was right.

The University at Buffalo (SUNY) performed a study, whose results were shared in 2013, about the using controlled aerobic exercise to help post-concussion healing. Part of the study included imaging done while patients performed different tasks, where they found that “normal subjects used a few specific regions of the brain to accomplish the tasks whereas the patients used multiple areas of the brain. Patients’ brains were lit up like Christmas trees, reflecting hyperactivity of metabolism.” The study also concluded that controlled, graded exercise helped post-concussion patients return to full functioning faster than the previous method. The method I was told to use. I worked on stretching and balancing in physical therapy and while my doctors had asked me if I exercised (yoga, horseback riding), no one brought up a gradually adding aerobic exercise to my treatment plan.

Seven months and ten pounds later, I’ve added the going to the gym to my weekly routine. I want to push myself to do more, but I’ve been able to figure out each week’s sweet spot: just how far I can go before I bring back my post-concussion symptoms.

I can’t imagine what 2016 would’ve looked like if my neurologist had told me that yes, you feeling exahusted is legitimate. I can’t imagine how much better I would’ve been feeling before summer started if I had started physical therpay and weekly aerobic exercise. If I hadn’t been told to veg out, to just rest and wait. If I hadn’t been thinking that the way I was functioning wasn’t right really meant I was just being crazy, I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself.

Finding this study was a relief. My instincts were right about this, that there was something going on and that there was more that I could be doing. But just knowing that is a weight off of my shoulders, a huge one. And even though I’m pretty sure the dog still has it out for me, I know now that everything is going to be fine.