First published on December 8, 2017
One thing I remember very clearly about the moment that my head hit the wall, was that my first thought was “I have to be here for Imogen, I can’t leave her on her own.”
The wedding plans had been building steadily over the course of the year. We had hired YHA Langdale for the weekend, and were going to have a mini festival in the Lake District in the middle of November. We had about hundred and twenty guests coming from all over the country and family from Italy, not to mention the celebrant and her husband (who are also good friends of ours) travelling from Portugal. We wanted the wedding to be a weekend to remember, and here I was rubber skulled, lying on the floor of a sports centre with bruises blossoming on my frontal and temporal lobes. Timing, as they say, is everything.
Of course preluding the wedding day itself was the stag night. We had plans to go and see Alabama 3 in York, go for a meal, all the usual stuff. However, I was in no fit state for a night out. I insisted that my party still went out on the stag as it had all been arranged. This was the first incident of my head injury impinging on the wedding arrangements, and although the day itself was glorious, I do feel a little hard done by that I could not celebrate in the way that we had planned.
However, instead of the night out in York, a friend and I went to a hotel for the night and then onto Manchester where we were going to see a show in the evening. It was a wonderful alternative to the York gig, but even a gentle evening at rather splendid restaurant was too much for me. My sleep was interrupted with headaches and anxiety levels that were simply off the scale. At the time of writing I am still experiencing awful anxiety, but the anxiety that may be caused by Post Concussion Syndrome is different to anxiety as a reaction to external stimuli. To explain, usually when one experiences an anxiety attack, it is often a psychological response to trigger incident that takes place in the environment, a phobia is a good example: scared of spiders, see a spider, feel frightened. Cortisol is released into the brain and the limbic system goes into overdrive, highjacking the brains higher reasoning and triggering the flight or fight response, resulting in anxiety. However, there were no external stimuli here, the heightened state was being caused by trauma to the brain, this was coming from within and as such I felt (and feel) powerless to take control, this anxiety simply would not subside; it was there all the time, stalking me through the long grass.
So the stag was a bit of weird event all round, but we gave it a bash and everyone that went to York had a good time, which pleased me. However, now that I look back on how little I was able to cope with then, I realise how crazy it was to even contemplate returning to work. However, it had been two weeks since the incident and at the time I felt that this was ample time to get back to work. I would let my manager know and make sure that staff were aware that I was not one hundred percent. We would be travelling up to the lakes on Thursday evening, having taken Friday off for the wedding, so it was going to be a short week, even more reason for me to be just fine.
It was a nightmare.
First of all, you need to understand that I love my job. I am a school librarian in an Academy with high aspirations, clear and supportive leadership and I have been given a huge amount of freedom to create a learning space using my own skills and ideas. I have a background in performing arts and training in Occupational Therapy, so there is both breadth and depth to the Library. As well as being a normal lending library it is classroom, a one to one space, a meeting place, a place for quiet time and interventions to take place and, I hope, more besides. However, on returning to work, I found that I could not stand being there, everything felt alien to me; as unfamiliar as if I had started that very day. I decided the way to get through this bizarre experience was to shoulder through it and not make too much of a fuss. However, with partial hearing and tintitus, the hubbub and constant movement of a school environment was driving my anxiety levels into the new, uncharted territories of “just what the absolute fuck am I doing here?”
Those four days were an ordeal. However, there was a glimmer of a reprieve, I had a doctor’s appointment on the Tuesday of that first week back, and at this appointment the GP confirmed Post Concussion Syndrome. I had been aware of this condition but had avoided thinking about it too much as I had enough to worry about as it was. Also, up until this point I had been of the understanding that there was some minor bruising to my frontal lobe, but nothing else. At this appointment the doctor confirmed that I had in fact two bleeds to both the temporal and frontal area of the brain. When I took this information to my operations manager and explained the trouble I was experiencing he suggested an earlier finish each day to manage energy and reduce anxiety. This, I thought was a good plan, especially with a wedding to celebrate.
My wedding was that port in the storm. It was a truly beautiful and magical event where so many friends and family came to gather and bear witness to a union of love and happiness. For four days I forgot about the brain malfunctions that I had been experiencing. It was an oasis for me – and also for everyone else around me who had been suffering my affliction as well. Remember that I had been experiencing all manner of mood swings, tiredness and the constant need to talk about my problems; this can get very boring for people but fortunately I am blessed with great friends and an extremely understanding wife. Although I did need to keep topping up on sleep at the wedding, I had a an absolute ball, and so did everyone else – including my wonderful wife.
Perhaps the most poignant moment at the wedding was when everyone was gathered for the ceremony. I was struck by the faces that I saw, and I said to my friend and best man, “I can’t believe they are all here for us.” I was overwhelmed by the fact that all these people had come to help us celebrate, to bear witness and support us on this very special day. It was an epiphany to see the reality of all the relationships that mean so much to me, and since the accident, it has been people and interactions with them that has kept me going. From the support that I was given straight after the accident by a friend, to the continuing support from my wife and the kind words of friends and colleagues from around the world: it is people that help us heal. This is the most positive thing to have come from this whole experience, and to anyone suffering this kind of affliction I would say this: find the people whom you trust and ask for their help, they will be there for you, don’t be alone, don’t isolate yourself anymore than you already are. Whether it is through conversation, through writing or through whatever medium you choose, reach out and connect with those who mean the most to you.
The Tuesday after the wedding I returned to work. I thought that it would be okay this time because the Wedding had been so fantastic, I thought I was probably getting better and I should just stop worrying about things. Okay so I was a bit deaf and I couldn’t smell properly, but so what, people have to deal with worse and still go to work, so why should I be any different – right?
I could not have been more wrong. Work was sucking the life out of me, I knew that I was withdrawing further and further to the point of zero interaction. I couldn’t bear to look at people, the pupils annoyed me, I was getting angrier and angrier all the time I was there. I could feel my thoughts begin to race as soon as I walked through the door. By Thursday I was asked to come and have a chat with my manager and the senior vice principal, both of whom I hold in high regard and I know have the utmost respect to the work that I do. I had already asked for a referral to Occupational Health so that I could talk to someone about what I was experiencing. In my irrational state I had convinced myself that if I told my manager what was really going on I would risk losing my job – again, I could not have been more wrong.
My colleagues asked me what was wrong and told me that they were worried about me. I had not been myself for two weeks and I was clearly getting worse. My energy levels were dropping, I was looking pale and in a constant state of upset. I was so grateful for this intervention. It gave me the opportunity to say what I so desperately needed to say. I felt supported and cared about in an environment that I had been finding increasingly hostile (it is not a hostile environment, but this was what my addled mind was telling me). I was sent home and the next day the doctor signed me off work for a month.
“I’m sorry it’s so shit,” he said, “but these are the symptoms of post concussion syndrome. You need time to regroup, you need rest, it will take time.”
It was official – it was time to go home.