One Year Ago, Today
On October 19, 2015, I was in a car accident.
It happened while I was sitting in traffic on my way to work. Traffic was running slower than usual and I was going to be late. I wasn’t happy about that, mostly because I was just coming off a full week out of the office with an on-again, off-again fever. But I had recovered. And it was Monday! A chance for a new start. And, for the first time in almost ten days, my morning commute felt almost normal. I was almost better. Almost okay.
And then the car behind me ran into me. Hard.
Have you ever been in a car accident? I’ve been in six. Before you judge, none have been my fault, legally or otherwise. However, in each of the six— even when I wasn’t driving — the point of collision was on the side of the car in which I was sitting. So, yes, between the cars, trucks, busses, and deer that keep running into me, after my second car was totaled, I bought a Volvo. Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. But I digress.
Because I have done this a few times, I remember very clearly that — as I realized what was happening, after the impact but before my car stopped moving — the only thing that went through my mind was, “oh no, not again.”
My second thought, as the anger washed over me, filling me with the strength of the Dark Side, was, “I’m going to be so late for work.”
In a car accident, after the immediate collision, you have to quickly catch your brain up on what has just happened to your body. You have to say, “Hello, Brain? Yes, well, I know that wasn’t pleasant, but here we are and we have to make sure this car isn’t about to explode. Can we do that? Super.”
Once you determine that the car isn’t on fire and you aren’t under attack by snipers or in a TRANSFORMERS sequel, you have to figure out if you are alive, can move, can get out of your car, can find your cellphone to call the cops, and your insurance card to make sure your good neighbors, the State Farm people, will magically pop out of thin air and make witty marketing banter with you. The amount of time this process takes depends on the severity of the accident, and whether or not you get knocked out.
I didn’t get knocked out. Which was great! I was, for all intents and purposes, unconscious, but I didn’t know that at the time. And I thought I was doing a fantastic job of dealing with a really annoying situation.
I didn’t find out until later that the gentleman who had seen the accident and was kind enough to leave me his card had to yell and honk at me six times to get me to turn my head and look at him.
Did I finally turn my head, open my car door, call my mom, call my office, call the cops, talk to the Arlington County Police and assure the paramedics I was completely fine and generally handle the entire situation in a respectful and legal way and then tweet a thank-you tweet? Yes — yes, I did.
Did I also sustain a concussion in the accident and not have any idea that it had happened or was possible?
Yes — yes, I did.
And that’s why, a year ago today, the moment the nice lady ran into me, my whole miserable, pathetic, wonderful, embarrassing, awesome, delightful, directionless, hilarious, perfect, crazy life stopped. And it’s been on hold ever since.
Not “on hold,” like hitting pause in the middle of a Netflix binge session so you can get more chips. “On hold” like losing power, losing Netflix, losing the chips, and sitting in the suddenly staggeringly silent primordial dark.
Which bring us to the PSA portion of our program.
A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. It’s called “mild” because there is nothing sticking in or out of your brain, including parts of brain that should be hanging out with the rest of the parts of your brain.
A mild traumatic brain injury, mTBI, or concussion, is often the result of a hit, fall, or a severe shake, like you would get in a car accident, for example.
You don’t have to hit your head, and you don’t have to pass out. I’m going to say that again, because, really, who knew?
You don’t have to hit your head, and you don’t have to pass out.
Although concussions are not usually life-threatening, they are serious, and must be treated in an accordingly serious fashion.
But, how do I know if I have a concussion?
Have you recently:
a. Been in a car accident?
b. Been hit or tackled in a sports game?
c. Been punched by a masked vigilante?
d. Been violently shaken by a 1950s weight-loss device?
e. Taken one too many spins on Space Mountain?
f. Passed out due to excitement while waiting to get into the Uptown Theater on the opening night of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, hit your head on a stanchion on your way to the ground, but refused to be taken to the hospital until after you saw “J.J. Abrams” on screen at the end credits?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should go to a doctor!
But why should I go to a doctor when I can just WebMD myself?
If you think you might have a concussion, you need to find a doctor or clinic that specializes in concussion or brain injury and ask them to do the tests they need to properly diagnose you. Because, although there are:
Ways to Tell You Have a Concussion
You lose consciousness, and, or: you do not lose consciousness, but still…
a. Can’t recall things before, during or after the hit, fall, or accident.
b. Appear dazed, stunned, or disoriented.
c. Are confused, cognitively slow, have trouble answering questions or respond in a delayed fashion.
d. Are physically clumsy or unable to maintain balance.
e. Your behavior, mood, or personality changes.
f. Feel dizzy, nauseous, have a headache or sensitivity to light or sound.
g. An actual, real doctor who knows what to look for checks you out and tells you that you have a concussion.
The only way to be certain, however, and then to get the help that you need to fully recover is if:
g. An actual, real doctor who knows what to look for checks you out and tells you that you have a concussion.
These, and other symptoms may show up immediately or take hours or days to appear. Therefore, even if you do not need immediate, emergency care, if you have been hit, fallen, or shaken, please go to a doctor for a full evaluation.
This PSA brought to you by the still-concussed brain of Tia Shuyler.
Thanks for hearing me out on that one. I feel strongly that I should use my celebrity and charisma to help others. Oh, okay, it’s because it is the exact opposite of what I did. Because I did everything wrong.
In my defense, I don’t remember doing anything wrong, mostly because I don’t really remember anything after I got back into my Volvo and drove to work. But! I have many reliable and upstanding witnesses, all of whom have helped me piece together the hours, days, months, and now year, since the accident. And the basic gist of that piecing-together is that I cannot be trusted to take care of myself.
In my defense, the above PSA sounds pretty straightforward and logical, and easy to handle. Right?
The problem is, it fails to take into consideration the one major impediment which is, of course: you. You have to identify that there is something wrong, advocate for yourself, get yourself an appointment, go to the appointment, explain your symptoms, demand to be tested, and then get the help you need to recover, all without the help of your entirely absent brain. Which is, of course, absolutely impossible. Not because you do not love yourself, or value your health, or cleanse your chakras, or cherish your chi, or eat activated cashews, or whatever people who actually pay attention to their body do, but because — no matter how many times you cleanse those chakras — if you’re as out of it as I was, you won’t know you’re out of it.
Now, maybe you are an NFL player, or you played sports in college, or you are a physical therapist, or a doctor, or married a neurologist or something. If you fall into one of these categories, you might already know what to look for in case of concussion, and you don’t need this PSA. Also, congratulations, your family is so proud.
If you are like me, you have no idea what a concussion looks like, let alone feels like.
Which is why, after the accident, I didn’t go to a doctor. And why I drove away, went to work, and kept going to work until the back spasms I didn’t realize I was having made it impossible for me to sit, stand still, or breathe regularly. And why, when I started physical therapy because I couldn’t sit, stand still or breathe regularly, and my physical therapist asked me what else was wrong, I said, “nothing.” And then I told her I was healed after one visit. And then I made brussels sprouts vindaloo for Thanksgiving. Really.
Although it probably saved my life, the damage to my Volvo was minimal. I assumed that any damage I had suffered was equally superficial. I had no idea that anything more serious was wrong with me. How was I to know? And — even though I spent all day sitting, staring blankly at the ceiling from their couch — how were my parents and family to know? They thought I was exhausted because of the pain. I had literally no capacity for thought whatsoever.
After six weeks of physical therapy to “fix” the superficial damage in my lower and middle back, I was left with extreme, needle-sharp jolts of pain every time I moved. I was referred to a sports medicine doctor.
And so, fifty days after the accident, I walked into her office. After we wrapped up a quick discussion about my back and had an x-ray and MRI ordered, the nice doctor leaned in and said, “And what are you doing about your concussion?”
And I said, “What concussion?”
She held her hand up in front of my face. She said, “Follow my finger with your eyes,” and moved her hand from side to side, then up and down. And, dizzy and nauseous, I had to put my head between my knees to stop myself from passing out.
One of the most difficult parts of identifying a concussion is the fact that you, or the you that you are used to, is completely unreliable. You are alone, adrift, and essentially useless.
But that is part of what makes a concussion such an exciting adventure!
I didn’t wake up the day after the diagnosis and say, “Oh, this minor obstacle will be such a wonderful learning experience, and a golden opportunity to grow and become a fuller, better, more mindful person who listens to their body and eats activated cashews! Thank you, thank you, hooray,” and then sing a song while getting dressed with the help of woodland creatures.
I had amazing friends, new and old, a good job, the very best boss, and great colleagues. I had just gotten an offer for a ridiculous job, which made me feel like I wasn’t a complete impostor. I had just worked on an actual movie that had a big festival premiere and everything, and I was about to finish my own first short film.
I was at a turning point, and didn’t know what I was going to do next, but it could have been anything, anywhere. I had momentum. I had experience. I had prospects.
And then, the nice lady ran into me and, in a moment, it was all gone. And there was no way of knowing when or if I could get any of it back.
I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
I think that brings us to our second scheduled PSA.
If you are hit, fall, or are badly shaken, you may have a concussion. If you get diagnosed and treated immediately, you may have to sit around eating Snickers bars in the dark for a week.
However, if you do not treat your concussion seriously, you may increase your risk of suffering from post-concussive syndrome.
Post-concussive syndrome usually starts within the first seven to ten days after you sustain a concussion and lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Some cases persist for a year, or longer.
Post-concussive syndrome is long, drawn out, dramatic, and unending. Like Waiting for Godot, but without the jokes. Like a houseguest that won’t leave, but also eats all your Snickers bars, never goes to the store to get more, and makes you dizzy, confused, nauseous, and tired. And then makes you forget.
While there is no way to guarantee that you will avoid post-concussive syndrome after a concussion, no matter the severity of your injury, treatment and rest have been shown to prevent and shorten the length of post-concussive syndrome.
Which is why it’s so important to catch and treat your concussion early, and thoroughly.
This PSA brought to you by the still-concussed brain of Tia Shuyler.
I’ve had post-concussive syndrome for, probably, the last eleven months and three weeks.
In those eleven months and three weeks, some of my dearest friends have gotten married, (finally) gotten pregnant, had babies, tackled first jobs and internships, been epically promoted, started companies, quit nightmare jobs and found perfect new ones, started and ended relationships, written books, made films, passed legislation, dropped Lemonade and gone on the Formation World Tour, finished PhDs, moved across country or to an entirely different country, gotten the first woman nominated for President of the United States, continued being awesome, and had a hell of a lot of brunches.
And I have missed it all.
And, worse than missing the events themselves, even if I had been aware of them, I wouldn’t have been able to celebrate, or support my friends through these milestones with so much as a 🎉 or 👎🏼 in a Facebook message.
For the last eleven months and three weeks, I have been suspended in that pitch-black primordial silence, with only my reptile brain urging me toward the most basic form of survival, with only the most essential impulses: DRINK WATER! OUCH, PAIN! FIND WARMTH! LAY DOWN! ORDER MORE CAFÉ BUSTELO!
While the world moves on without me — rapidly and ruthlessly — my brain has been on sabbatical, in recess, taking a vacation, a break, a leave of absence, an intermission, a hiatus. It’s stepped out for a moment, been indisposed, furloughed, taking 10. It’s sojourned and gone walkabout.
And it’s possible that it would have stayed that way. That I would have remained brainless, helpless, hopeless — unemployed in Greenland — forever. Sick, whiplashed, dazed, unable to sleep, move, or remember anything. And, instead of losing just one year of my life, it could have been a decade.
But I got really lucky.
I went to a doctor who diagnosed me, and then was able to find an amazing neurologist who helped me find an amazing physical therapist, and then an amazing speech therapist. And my parents and my sister put their entire lives on hold to take care of me, feed me, keep me safe and warm, and help me get to all the appointments with all of these people.
Thanks to all of them, I have spent the last ten months in rehabilitation, healing and recovering. And, thanks to them, and so many more, I have made incredible progress.
So, here I am, a year later. A year I barely remember. Blank calendar page after blank calendar page that I can never get back.
A year of my life, gone.
I have no idea how this year (and the unknown amount of time I still need to fully recover) will shape the rest of my life. What I will or will not be able to do. What plans I may have to give up on. What new plans I have to make.
It took me twelve days to write this — you’ll forgive me if it makes no sense. I still can’t drive. I can’t leave the house by myself. I get dizzy when I move my head or raise my heart rate too fast. I can’t have dance parties. I have headaches and am constantly fighting cognitive and physical fatigue. My emotions are confusing and uncontrollable and my body is weak, broken and bent from trauma. I have hours of physical therapy exercises, and hours a day that I can’t even sit up on the couch. I can’t survive without my heating pad and I grind my teeth like I’m digging to China. And I still don’t know what activated cashews are.
And I have a lot to say, about all of it.
And I have so, so many questions. I mean, have you been on Twitter or looked at a newspaper recently?
I don’t know how this ends. I don’t even really know what the third act looks like. I’m editing it together without an ending.
I hate that.
But I’m not stupid or concussed enough to not get that it also makes me incredibly lucky.
Of all the Volvos, on all the highways, in all the world, the nice lady behind me a year ago this morning, ran into mine.
In doing so, she gave me the chance to start over, completely.
A chance to stop, take a breath, look around, get perspective, prioritize. To listen to my teachers. To find new teachers to help me learn about my brain, my body, the way they work together, and the things that make and keep them healthy.
I would never have done something so indulgent or frivolous on my own.
In a million years, no matter how bad things got, how exhausted or burned out or miserable I was, I would have just kept going, never allowing myself the luxury of stopping in my tracks and thinking, “Is this healthy for me? Is this the right way? Is this what I want? Is this helping anyone?” Even if I was knocked down temporarily and had a moment to ask those questions, I would never have listened to the reply. I would never have taken the time to consider a new course.
I would never have stopped. Not on my own.
Thanks to the nice lady who ran into me, I didn’t have to. Thanks to the nice lady who ran into me — once I get my brain back — we get to start over. Together.
And maybe even sometime soon. Because, today I can read. I can walk. I can think. I can sit up. Sometimes I can read emails and texts, sometimes I can respond. Sometimes I can talk on the phone, sometimes I can scroll through Twitter or Instagram. Sometimes I can use my camera. Sometimes I can walk through the grocery store. Sometimes I can tell jokes. Sometimes I can sit and have an entire conversation. Sometimes I feel almost normal. Almost better. Almost okay.