Concussions. I rarely speak about them anymore to be honest. Not something I spend much time thinking about. Very few people, by just looking at me, would have any idea that I have sustained at least eight concussions, but in fact, some medical professionals have estimated that I may have sustained anywhere upwards of twelve concussions. The number is crazy; I am well aware. But I blame no one.
You see, most of these concussions were sustained playing sports, something that I love to do. I played through concussions often in high school. Most would say, “who the hell were your coaches and why did they let you”. I don’t for one second blame my coaches. They were some of the most influential, positive and hardworking people in my life, and although there were times I wish they would have told me to stop playing, how would they have known my head was becoming a problem – I had become an expert at passing concussion tests. Deep down I truly wanted to keep playing hockey, and rugby, so I did. And I did it at a competitive level, even though I am in no way a professional athlete, I can respect the effort that I put into sports and the hundreds of hours that I put into perfecting skills. I moved away from home to play sports when I was just 14. At the time I probably had about two concussions on my record. I left high school with four recorded concussions. Realistically I probably sustained closer to seven. I want to stress that I blame no one, high school was an amazing time in my life. We were a school that focused on winning, and character building. There was always pressure to perform, and I was always chasing a higher level, a call up, or some goal. I thrived on the pressure, I hard work, I loved the challenge, and never once did I feel like I was being forced to play, or do something when I didn’t want to. I agree that there is a fine line between toughness and stupidity, and I probably walked the line, but it’s hard to put into words the pull of a sport, the pull of your teammates, the pull of a classroom, and the pull of everything you had ever known. For those reasons, I blame no one and honestly, I regret nothing about any concussions, diagnosed or not, that I sustained in high school.
The thing is, it is a lot easier to hide symptoms in high school then it is in university. Academics aren’t as tough in grade nine as they are in first year. The workload is different and concentrating is something that is essential, rather than just recommended. I was ready for university, about as ready as anyone could be. I was and always have been an overachiever– I graduated high school with great grades, got accepted to McGill, and was going to be playing for the McGill Varsity women's rugby team. As I said, I was ready, and beyond excited.
My first year was going great, it really was. There was an injury on our rugby team, so I quickly jumped into a starting role, which placed me on cloud nine. It’s an athlete’s dream – to be on the starting line of your university team, when you’re only a few weeks into your first year. But there was a game that changed how things went for me. We were playing Laval, and I started the second half. I was playing prop, meaning that my job was to hit people so that other people didn’t get hit, and when called upon, inch your way up the field with the ball. We weren't playing well at all and it was turning into a bit of run around when this girl ROCKED me. Like I flew backward, hit my head on not only the other girl’s head, but my head hit the ground very hard. I wasn’t ready for the hit and take full blame for that. I remember nothing from when the hit happened until I got home about 6 hours later. The only thing I do remember was that I finished the game. But my friends remember that I was, dazed and confused. But I finished the game, I went into autopilot, went through the motions and got myself from point A to point B for the rest of the game. I don’t really know why or how, but I guess that happens. I took two practices off, to brush off the cobwebs, then insisted that I was good to go and could play the coming week. So I did. And everything went back to "normal".
What I didn’t realize is that my "normal" was becoming pretty interesting. Running in a straight line was getting tougher, but in my position that wasn’t that big of a deal, looking back, a headache was consistent throughout most days, and I pretty much stopped reading completely. It was so gradual that I didn’t really notice anything changing. It was no one’s fault, it just kind of happened. Again I blame no one.
In our biggest game of the year I got another concussion, as well as fractured my nose. I’m not really sure what happened, but I know my nose was not straight and there was lot of blood. But we scored on the play and I was so into the game I really didn’t even think about it. That was the best game I ever played at McGill. My new normal now involved the room spinning though, and I would often see stars, but it was again, very gradual so I thought nothing of it. The rest of the year went off without a hitch and I was just doing what I normally do, and trying to get better. But lifting weights was getting so hard – as in it was harder than it should have been. Getting lightheaded from lifting isn't uncommon, but this was different – I almost felt like I would black out. But I was so good at hiding it, and I would often just think that I was very out of shape, so I would push myself harder. Looking back that probably wasn’t the smartest. Not to mention I was engaging in many normal university activities, many of which often involved drinking, and if anyone knows what a party at McGill is like when you're in first year and living in Molson hall, I think you can fill in the blanks of how some of my nights went.
In October of the next year though, I just physically couldn't do it anymore. It had all come full circle and I was so done with rugby. Looking back, I wasn’t done with rugby –I was done with getting lost on campus, scared of getting hit again and again, when I had never been one to be fearful, and so damn frustrated with where my head was at. I told my coaches and teammates I wasn’t playing anymore and they were awesome. I had told two of the girls before the practice and kindly asked that they didn’t say anything until I talked to the coaches. They kept my wish and if it wasn’t for them I don’t know what I would have done – there is a good chance I would still be playing today, but they knew, better than I did, that I needed to stop playing and risking my brain. For once my stubborn pride did not win. I thought it would start getting better. But I couldn’t get myself to go to the doctor for a few months, because I refused to think I was done, and I kept telling myself I’ll be fine. But when February of 2016 came around, while already on concussion recovery protocol, I got the worst concussion of my life… from slipping at a party.
I was the sober one that night – I did not want to drink because of my concussions, but someone took my phone so I ran after them and slipped, flew backwards and smashed my head. I remember one of my best friends looking at me and I could see the look on his face, it was the look someone gets right before they say, "Oh shit". The rest of the night was hell –it's pretty personal – but for the first time in a long time, I was terrified. My friends were worried, and I don’t blame them, but from the bottom of my heart, I cannot thank them enough for sticking with me for the next year. It was just as bad for them as it was for me. I had a friend who would check in on me nearly every day, friends offered up their apartments because they knew I didn’t want anyone to know if I was having a bad night. Friends offered to write my assignments because I couldn't look at computer screens, there was mental health concerns and a good friend of mine never once ignored my calls and became one of the only people I have ever truly trusted. Friends would sit with me in the dark, and wait till I fell asleep to leave. I don’t know how my stubbornness didn’t chase them off, but every single time I needed something, they were always there, even if it was addressing the same issue for the tenth time in a month. I could go on and on about the people who helped me, but those are some things that stand out. Anyone can talk about doctors and appointments, but my friends are the people that pushed me through. I didn’t want to worry my parents, so without my friends I have no idea where I would be. When someone knows you’re in a tough spot and they allow you to be honest and vulnerable with them, and they continue to be endlessly encouraging and supportive about you getting better, those are friends and things that you cannot, and never will, forget.
There has been so much that has happened in the past year, one month and eighteen days. So many appointments, setbacks, and changes. Some things will probably never go back to the way they were. Some things happened that I will probably never talk about. I have some manageable but difficult anxiety that creeps into almost every facet of my life, that very few people understand or can identify. I have a twitch in my left eye, that started around the time I got that last concussion, and sometimes I can’t remember things, or sit still very long. I will also never play a contact sport again.
A lot changed for me, but I gained so much from the past couple years. I learned the difference between someone who asks you how you're doing and someone who asks and waits for an answer. I learned to be more forgiving of myself. With the help of some of my best friends, I am slowly gaining some true confidence. I learned to be kind to every single person you talk to and to never judge someone or their situation until you have been in it. I learned that people who care about you will make time for you, no matter what. I learned that there is always more to give, always a way to be kinder, more understanding, and that it’s ok to need protection and support on your worst days. I learned the power of an honest and simple apology. I learned that sometimes you have to laugh about the serious stuff, even if it is your brain. I learned to always reply to text messages, because it can make a difference. I learned that self care isn't selfish. Most importantly I solidified in my mind that I don’t regret anything, I learned so much, and I didn’t do everything perfectly, but I don’t regret it.
I blame no one, instead I am abundantly grateful for the friends I have, and the experiences I have been through. A few years ago I probably would have said I have tons of friends but no one I really connected to. Now I would say I have less friends, but a few whom I can trust, and that is my biggest success. Concussions changed a part of my life, but it is what it is, and I chose to make the most if it. Everything happens for a reason, but a friend once asked me if I was mad at all the people who didn’t stop me from playing and getting hurt. And I always have the same answer – They never would have been able to stop me, I loved sports too much, I needed to stop on my own. For those reasons, and all the experiences I have stated, I blame no one, and regret nothing. Concussions are a big deal and they affect every part of your life, but sometimes the only option is to put one foot in front of the other, and for me, that has never been a bad option.
by Shannon Cambell
It’s extremely difficult for me to comment on life after a concussion.
There’s two reasons for this. First of all, head injuries manifest in many different ways. Often, the symptoms and recovery period vary from person to person. Furthermore, I have very little specific memory of the months immediately following my accident.
In the aftermath of my concussion, I experienced the typical physical symptoms: fatigue, headaches, nausea, balance problems. Thankfully, these symptoms were fairly short-lived and I returned to seemingly normal life quite quickly. The funny thing about concussions, however, is that they can have a resounding impact on the deepest levels of the human brain. As a result, concussion victims often forget how to learn. In my case, I think it was probably the dangerous combination of the inability to retain information and the inability to concentrate that made this true.
Rebuilding the Foundation
I struggled through more than a year of a full-time course load before I realized something was off. It didn’t seem to matter how much time I put into readings and other studying; nothing ever stuck. The only measurable progress I was making was in my study of Portuguese, which I was pursuing on my own time.
Wait a minute.
I was making progress?? There had to be a reason why I was successful in this area of study over all my others. It was extremely frustrating, struggling to no end in school while achieving inexplicable success in a subject that would have no direct impact on my academic standing.
Learning a language requires a special combination of many methods of absorbing information. Any experienced student of languages will tell you how important it is to interact with other people in the language that you are studying. That is, you must immerse yourself. I had dedicated myself to this method of learning. I was spending a significant amount of time each day essentially living my life in Portuguese.
It took me a while to realise that it was this approach to learning to which I should attribute my rapid jump to conversationalism. I dawdled, entertaining the unapologetic notion that it was my natural ability with languages that had contributed to my early success. Eventually, I came around to the fact that learning something new comes down to one thing: the concept of immersion learning.
The next step I took was to apply this approach to my other subjects of study. It’s not always clear how to accomplish this, but I’ve developed a pretty good technique. When learning a language, you try to live your life as if you are a native speaker. The language needs to become a part of your everyday life. This means that you should incorporate whatever is it you’re trying to learn into your day-to-day activities. For me, this meant addressing each problem that my life outside of the classroom presents as if I was already an expert in my subject of study. This frame of reference not only changed my attitude towards these issues, but also had me seeking out new information beyond what was taught in the classroom. The involvement of my own life drove me to be a more thorough, creative and positive student.
The use of practical application is not an unfamiliar concept to many experienced educators. Problem-based learning is a self-directed form of study in which students work to solve a problem for which there is no defined solution or answer. This encourages critical thinking, personal research and continuous learning.
Immersion learning that many language learners recommend is a form of problem-based learning that forces us to address communication issues before we have the capacity to do so. When we don’t know a specific word, we learn to talk around it and describe what we mean. Our approach to learning other subjects should reflect the experience of learning languages. First, we encounter a problem. We must then discover what knowledge we need to directly solve the problem, and determine other potential solutions.
Immediately following my concussion, I believed that my mental capacity had been permanently damaged. My discovery of problem-based learning showed me that I wasn’t damaged. I was simply different. While this approach to learning is certainly useful for all students, my hope is that it will be specifically relevant to other concussion victims. Anyone who has suffered a concussion will be familiar with the despair that comes with post-concussion syndrome. Remember that recovery is always possible when you embrace the person you have become.
"Times of great calamity and confusion have been productive for the greatest minds. The purest ore is produced from the hottest furnace. The brightest thunder-bolt is elicited from the darkest storm."
Charles Caleb Colton
Sources and further reading:
Towards a language-based theory of learning, M.A.K. Holiday.
Foundations of Problem-based Learning, Maggi Savin-Baden and Claire Howell Major
Place-based Education: Learning to Be Where We Are, Gregory A. Smith