I Got A Concussion And It Nearly Made Me Kill Myself And Changed My Brain Forever
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Before I had to start taking them, talking about antidepressants made me uncomfortable. I thought of them as a crutch relied upon by people who didn’t lead healthy lives, or who looked to pills to solve their problems.
I was wrong. Antidepressants helped save my life.
My depression came overnight, literally; an inky tar that seeped into my brain as I slept.
The evening before, I was eating dinner at a nice restaurant when a busboy ran into the back of my head with a stack of plates. Sometimes you get dessert after a meal, this time, I got a concussion.
When I woke up the next morning, the only thing worse than the searing pain my head was in was the desperate urge I suddenly had to kill myself.
The world, my world, had changed. There was nothing good, nothing to look forward to, and nothing to be happy about. There was just nothing.
As I looked around my apartment, I contemplated the objects I could harm myself with: kitchen knives, razors, pens, fireplace tools, a hatchet.
I decided that sleeping pills would be less traumatic for my sister, who I lived with at the time and who would likely be the one to find me. I didn’t have any, so I started putting my shoes on to go get some when I got an email from my best friend Megan.
Megan had dealt with serious depression before, and as much I didn’t fully get it myself, I knew she’d understand. In a moment of lucidity, I called her. I told her that I felt like everything had gone to shit, that I could barely find the energy to leave the house, and that I wanted to die.
She told me to go to my doctor, immediately.
Thankfully, I listened.
Once I sat down in my doctor’s office, I started weeping. It was embarrassing, but I couldn’t help it. I told her I was depressed and needed help. She did a PHQ-9 test with me, and I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression.
When she asked if I was suicidal, I said no. "Girl, Interrupted" came to mind, and I thought that if I admitted to my doctor that I wanted to kill myself, she would institutionalize me. It was an irrational fear, but at the time, it seemed very real and to be avoided at all costs.
My doctor prescribed me Cytalopram, an antidepressant of the selective serotonin reuptake Inhibitor class (SSRI), and put me on the list for a cognitive behavioral therapy group starting in a couple of weeks.
In the days that followed, I was too fucking sad to leave my house.
I spent most of my time in my room, and when I got hunger pains, I’d lethargically chew on stale bread or raw pasta. My appetite was gone.
My writing contract at CMT, a television station that I’d worked at for the past year, had just ended, and I was supposed to be looking for work. I tried, but I couldn’t look at the computer for longer than 5 minutes without my eyes blurring and my head throbbing.
I cried a lot.
I wrote old school style, with pen and paper, but grew frustrated by my inability to spell the simplest words, and by my total lack of word recall. It felt like I was operating at the level of a grumpy 7-year-old.
I cried more.
Yearning for some kind of contact with the outside world, I indulged my miserable self in an Instagram selfie.
Someone commented on the photo, “Is your left pupil larger?”
My left pupil was three times the size of my right. Because of this, and the fact that my headache, vertigo, ear ringing or blurred vision hadn’t subsided, I took myself to the ER where they diagnosed me with a concussion.
The doctor also scolded me for not treating it sooner.
“What should I do?” I asked him.
“Rest. Do nothing,” he said, before going through a laundry list of possible concussion side effects -- depression, anger, irritability, forgetfulness and frustration among them.
I went home and back into bed. My bed became my home; my room my entire world, and pain killers the only temporary respite from the pain I was in.
Days passed like hours in that darkened room. I read sometimes to prevent myself from thinking terrible thoughts. After a few days of this, at the urging of my concerned friends and family members, I went outside for a walk.
The sunshine hit my face and my thoughts began to race. An electric anger pulsed throughout my body. Everybody passing me was an asshole. I wanted to yell at all of them, but they avoided my steely gaze.
I walked faster. I felt invisible, but invincible, like I could tear down the city.
On a promotional poster in the distance, I saw the face of a musician who was unkind to a friend of mine. His smug grey eyes stared at me until I ran up and ripped him down. I looked up and saw the same poster was taped to every pole on the street. One by one, I maniacally shredded them up and stuffed them in the trash.
Eventually, a girl came up to ask what I was doing. “His face offends me,” I said, walking right up to her, nostrils flaring like an evil villain. She turned away and I continued on my mission until every poster was gone.
(I'd like to note that despite being completely out of my mind with uncontrollable rage in this moment, I still threw the torn up paper in the recycling bin. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle forever.)
Walking home, I was actually looking for police cars to throw myself onto. I wanted to be arrested. I wanted to fight and scream and hurt.
I left the lights off when I got home, sat down in my Poang chair and tried to settle my bouncing hands in my lap, but I couldn’t keep them still. They trembled as I fiddled with the fraying sleeves of my sweater, and picked at and bit my fingernails.
My sister walked through the front door, and as soon as we locked eyes, I started sobbing.
I didn’t know what had happened to me. I didn’t know what I was. I couldn’t control my emotions, or my brain. I was petrified.
She sat with me and I told her how angry and terribly, inescapably sad I was. She was so concerned, but didn’t know what to do, so she helped me make a list of things that (used to) make me happy.
“Do some of the things on the list tomorrow,” my sister said. “You should paint something.”
We had a large canvas in our kitchen that the last tenant left behind.
The image that kept coming to my mind was the female wolf –- la lupa. She’s the symbol of Rome -- an endless source of strength, guts and fearlessness. In Italian, when people wish you good luck, they say “in bocca al lupo,” which means “into the mouth of the wolf.”
I needed all the luck I could get, so I began painting her.
During this time, my writing brain had slowed down to a near stop. I couldn’t put together complete sentences, I spelled my own last name wrong three times in a row on a form at the doctor’s office, and I forgot countless everyday words. Somehow, though, I could still paint. I was far from Michelangelo, but painting was something I didn’t have to think about, something that didn’t intensify my headache.
I painted the wolf, and enjoyed a mild sense of happiness and accomplishment I never thought I’d feel again. So I painted more: a butterfly, a flower, an elephant, and some Springsteen lyrics. Painting became my emotional release.
On the first day of group therapy, we mentally unstable Knights of the Round Table sat down in a circle, and I quietly, judgingly listened to their sob stories. Even though I was in the same boat as them, they made me uncomfortable. The air hung heavy in the room as people cried, or chocked back tears, telling everyone about their depression. When it was my turn, I said, “I’m just really sad, and angry,” and that’s it. I was miserable, closed off and didn’t feel like telling them any more.
As the weeks passed, I got to know my group members. They were fucked up, sure, but also incredibly smart, talented, sensitive, and brave. I realized that I was just like them, and there was nothing wrong with that.
Crazy was normal in that room, and it became a safe place to talk about our thoughts, demons, issues and emotions. We helped each other work through the day-to-day problems that depression presents using cognitive behavioral therapy methods like thought records. With thought records, you keep track of your debilitating negative thoughts and map them out logically until you can prove them wrong.
I didn’t love the thought records, but doing them did get me back in the habit of writing.
It’s been a slow climb for me, writing wise, and I’m still not in the place I was pre-concussion. In fact, a few months ago, I pitched a story to xoJaner Mandy in which I misspelled meditation about, oh, 17 times (sorry, Mandy). I read that thing over and over and over, and couldn’t see the errors, and I didn’t see them until a few weeks after I hit “send.”
Totally embarrassing and potentially career-harming, yes, but this whole experience has seen me mourn the loss of my old, reliable brain. That brain could spell well, write quickly, and edit with confidence. It could also prioritize emotions, sometimes to my detriment when I’d swallow down anger instead of expressing it.
Meditation, reading and different online memory tools and games are helping me get some of my mental alertness back, but it’s an incredibly long road to “normal.”
What I’ve lost in quickness, however, I’ve gained in depth.
The experience has been a lesson in empathy and patience. The person I’ve had to learn to be the most patient and understanding with is the one I was always hardest on -- me. I’ve also had to reexamine personal relationships, identify unhealthy patterns, and try to change them.
Before getting one, I didn’t think much of concussions. You hit your head, it hurts, then it heals like any other bruise-type-thing, and life goes on. But heads contain brains, and brains are fragile, fascinating things.
Professional (and unprofessional) athletes know this all too well. Depression and suicide among football and hockey players who have suffered concussions is increasingly prevalent. Pittsburg Penguins star player Sidney Crosby has been out for a good chunk of his professional career thanks to the concussions he’s endured.
He called those concussions “worse than a broken jaw,” which he’s also had, and says, “concussions are tough to deal with because you can’t do anything about it -- nobody can tell you when it’s done.”
I might never get back to where I was, but I’m not sitting idle. I’m more aware of my emotions now, and freer about letting them out. Anger is something I work with, instead of hide from, and meditation is an integral part of my life. My relationships with friends and family members have improved because I communicate more openly with them.
On the song Mississippi, Bob Dylan sings, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” Such has been my experience with seeing the other side of sanity. I can’t unsee it, nor do I want to. It’s a part of me now.
My head still hurts sometimes. I still feel depressed at times and get mood swings, and I rely on antidepressants to level those moods out. I also go to psychotherapy to talk about all those frustrating feelings and situations that I don’t normally feel comfortable vocalizing.
I’ve worked really hard to bounce back from that hit, but it’s far from over. Like life, it’s an ongoing cycle and your work is never fully done.
You just have to keep on fighting.