What It’s Like to be Trapped Inside a Concussed Brain

From the anchor desk to the darkest period of my life, how I’m finally finding the light again

Natasha Zouves
Jan 8 · 5 min read

From 12 months ago to today feels like whiplash. This time last year, I was in the thick of a severe concussion recovery — trying to find words; my sense of taste and smell gone; unable to handle light or sound; experiencing skull-splitting pain.

The accident happened at work, after I wrapped up our morning television newscast.

I had finished anchoring and was walking across the studio floor when my legs flew out from under me. Someone’s can of hair product had exploded, leaving a thick, slick, almost invisible coating on the ground. I fell backwards and the back of my head cracked on the concrete.

Twenty-four hours later, light was unbearable. I had blurry vision, couldn’t stop throwing up and was asking the same questions over and over again. In the emergency room, I was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, a serious concussion.

Everything about this period of time was dark.

My world was a cycle of retching nausea, double vision and the kind of headache I’d never experienced before, akin to an ice pick lodged in your forehead. My mind often ran in confused circles.

Lying in the dark, my thoughts would barely surface before they slipped away again — like a dream you’re desperately trying to cling to as you wake, only to see it dissolving like so much smoke.

Numbers have always been somewhat intangible for me, like a second language that is still foreign in the mind, clumsy on the tongue and far from mastered.

But words, words have always been my friend. As a child it seemed like absolute magic to me, almost like science fiction, that as humans we’re able to transmit complex inner thoughts and feelings to other people, and in turn understand and enter one another’s private worlds. I remember some words feeling round and smooth to me, some plush and tender to the touch, others florid and sharp enough to draw blood.

Suddenly, my words were gone. And, unable to do my job, my identity was gone too.

Just weeks before the concussion, I had won two Emmy Awards. I had the privilege of standing on stage and looking into the audience, close enough to see the tears glistening in my father’s eyes and my mother gripping his hand as I thanked them for everything they’d given me, for allowing me to walk this path.

The brain injury forced me to move back in with my parents.

My mind would often try to trace the line of this sharp vicissitude of fortune, trying to make sense of it, struggling not to feel like I’d disappointed the people I’d tried so hard my entire life to make proud.

The damage to the nerves and brain caused me to lose my sense of taste and smell. Even the food I loved most was like cotton in my mouth. This loss felt deeply personal and was two-fold, both the obvious lack of flavor and also the memories those scents triggered.

My dad’s old car smells like an awful stale cherry air freshener because we lost one under the seat decades ago; every time I smell it, it reminds me of being a little girl and getting hot chocolate with him on a Sunday from the little cart outside of our local grocery store. My significant other’s particular smell takes me right back to our first date in a train-car-turned-restaurant more than nine years ago. And at the risk of over-disclosure, my little dog’s paws mysteriously smell like Fritos.

I mourned the loss of all of these, and countless other fragments of life I had taken for granted. I had never heard of post concussion syndrome before this accident. I felt trapped inside of my concussed brain. I was still there — somewhere — but I couldn’t seem to find my way back to a life that I recognized.

Making it back

More than seven months ago, with the help of my parents, loved ones and a great team of doctors, I managed to make it through a tumultuous recovery and return to my job as a journalist.

My taste and smell slowly returned; I cried when tasting the food I missed most, my mom’s Thanksgiving turkey, which she made for me unseasonably in July to celebrate my newfound ability to smell the ginger and orange peel in her generations-old recipe.

The novelty hasn’t worn off. Even the smell of garbage feels like a blessing. But healing was months-long and painstaking; progress was not linear.

Reflecting on all of this makes today feel unimaginable.

As I write this, I am sitting at a coffee shop on the Stanford University campus. I was offered to join this year’s JSK Fellowship cohort, and it still feels fresh and new. I just ate a mushroom and zucchini frittata with mixed greens — luscious and fluffy with a touch of acid (I only just managed to turn down the ricotta pancakes and am still not entirely sure I made the right decision).

As a morning news anchor, I’ve woken up at 1:30 a.m. every day for seven years. Today, I woke up at 7:00 a.m., and instead of being greeted with the oppressive pitch-darkness of the pre-dawn hours, the sunlight was gently illuminating the leaves of my new gardenia and lemon plants.

I am meeting award-winning journalists who have seen things I cannot fathom and dedicated their lives to awe-inspiring work at a time when it is most needed. I am starting to work on a project that I look forward to telling you more about in a future post. I am moving among creative and passionate minds on campus and in Silicon Valley, and there’s a hum of energy and purpose that I haven’t truly felt a part of in a very long time.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae, the small tasks and mundane micro-decisions of the day-to-day. But other times, I am so overcome with gratitude that I feel it viscerally in my chest — a twisting, exquisite pain that shoots all the way to my fingertips.

To have walked on the other side of things so recently, and to be this blessed makes my head spin (this time, in the best possible way). I am changed. I have been granted a second chance. And I’m intent on making the most of it.


If this post resonated with you, connect with Natasha by subscribing here.

You can follow her journey on Instagram.

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S.

Natasha Zouves

Written by

I’m an Emmy-winning journalist, french fry lover and earnest optimist. Concussion and TBI survivor. Currently a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

Natasha Zouves

Written by

I’m an Emmy-winning journalist, french fry lover and earnest optimist. Concussion and TBI survivor. Currently a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

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