Maryland Soccer Player Brittni Souder Takes You Through It

By Brittni Souder

brittI’ve been an athlete my whole life.  Being an athlete wasn’t just one characteristic that made up who I was; being an athlete was who I was.  It defined my personality.  I was dedicated, hard-working, competitive, stubborn, tough and absolutely, unequivocally in love with my sport.  I started playing soccer at the age of five after trying out baseball, basketball and gymnastics.  My family immediately knew it was the sport for me, and I was playing year-round by the time I was eight.  I was well-rounded, also participating in 4-H, raising my own beef cattle, racing four-wheelers and dirt bikes with friends, teaching myself to snowboard and maintaining above-average grades in school.

Growing up as an active kid, I was always hurt.  I don’t think there is a single joint in my body that hasn’t been braced, casted or surgically repaired at some point.  Broken bones, sprains, strains, bruises, casts, wraps, slings and crutches plagued my childhood, but I never slowed down.  I played through it all, giving my family and doctors plenty of grief and gray hair.  Playing through injuries was just part of being a dedicated athlete.  I never thought it would change my entire life.

I’ve spent a lot of time piecing together my concussion story.  It has required searching through my very thick medical file from college, reading through my old social media posts, and asking family, friends, roommates, teammates, and my past athletic trainers plenty of questions.  It is a strange feeling, hearing and reading your own past, your own story, while feeling like an outsider.  The majority of my last 4 years feels like an out of body experience. Looking back, I don’t know how I’ve made it to where I am.  I didn’t realize, at the time, how much I was really going through.  I didn’t understand the concept of this “post concussion syndrome,” and I felt more alone and more lost than ever.  Yet, on the outside, I was in my early 20s, playing college soccer, having a great time with amazing friends, working three jobs and going to school full time.  I was seemingly in my prime.

I was first diagnosed with a concussion when I was 15. I ran track for my high school to stay in shape for soccer, and I was placed in a 4×400 relay in the spring of my sophomore year. My team had a significant lead when the baton was handed off to me for the final.  By the 200 meter mark, I was suffering a full-blown asthma attack.  The spectators could hear my desperate gasps for breath as I attempted to sprint through the final 200 yards.  An opponent quickly gained on me, and, for the last 100 yards, it would take everything I had to not lose the race for my team.  As we crossed the finish line, I leaned slightly forward in an attempt to get an edge.  I tumbled head-first over the finish line. The next thing I remember is being on my back in the grass with coaches, teammates, and my mom looking down at me.  Apparently, I had crawled over to the grass, but I don’t recall doing it.  As I got my bearings, I joined my friends and teammates for the end of the meet awards and cleanup.  A friend has since told me that I was confused, struggling to keep my balance and slurring my words.  When I got in the car with my mom to head home, things went quickly downhill.  I began asking a lot of questions that didn’t make sense, and I had left my book bag, along with the rest of my belongings, at the school. We turned around and returned to the locker room where we met my coach.  Suddenly, I had a terrible headache, was very off balance, and extremely tired.  I laid down on the bench, and struggled to stay awake while we waited for an ambulance.  We had no idea what was going on.  At the hospital, we waited in the emergency room for hours while I rested.  I was finally seen and discharged with no mention of a concussion. I was instructed to take the following day off school, since I still had homework and it was after midnight.

I returned to school, but I remember coming home every day and going straight to bed to lay in my dark room for the remainder of the day.  My friends had to walk on either side of me in school, and the lights were overwhelming.  I returned to track practice but, according to a friend and teammate, I was “nonfunctional.” Regardless, I stubbornly attempted to practice high jump.  After the first jump, I crawled off the mat, wandered into the middle of the track with my hands on my head and fell in the path of an oncoming group of distance runners.  I spent the following practices sleeping on the high jump mat, insistent that I at least attend practice.

A week or so went by and I wasn’t getting better.  My mom took me back to the doctor a few times, insisting something was wrong, before I was finally diagnosed by my pediatrician with a concussion and told to sit out of sports until my symptoms resolved.  I remember climbing off the track bus after a few weeks had passed, and my coach commented that it was nice to see me smile because she hadn’t seen that in weeks.  As soon as I resumed a relatively normal level of functioning, I returned fully to track and spring soccer.

In my junior year of college, the real trouble began.  I suffered three concussions during the fall soccer season, a time period of only two months.  Up until this point, my college playing career had been plagued by ankle injuries that forced me to miss my freshman season and resulted in alternating between crutches and cleats for my entire sophomore season.   I also suffered from chronic, uncontrolled asthma, and my doctor’s suggestions to give up sports were nothing new.  I always laughed at the suggestion as she shook her head at me, with a knowing smirk and signed my physical form, clearing me to play.

On Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, we were playing our first scrimmage of the season.  I had assisted a goal early on, then got moved back to defense for the remainder of the game.  With six minutes left to play, the opposing keeper punted the ball, and I went up for it with another player.14 We knocked together in the air, throwing my trajectory off course.  I took the full force of the ball to the side of my head, instead of my forehead.  Within minutes, I noticed my vision going blurry and the lower half faded to black.  Pressure started building in my head, and I raised my hand to ask for a sub, virtually unable to see.  I walked off the field.  My coach, quickly noticing something was wrong, immediately sent me to see the trainer, who evaluated me on the sideline.  She sat me out and reevaluated me after the game.  I only remembered the first three of the six goals that were scored, had a headache and was too dizzy to complete the balance portion of the SCAT test.  On the following Monday, I was diagnosed with a mild/moderate concussion and was prescribed three to four days of complete rest by the team doctor. I suffered from headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, trouble sleeping, sensitivity to light and sound, and difficulty with concentration and memory for several days before reporting (Athletic Trainer notes: “SA [student athlete] appears to be much better but possibly hiding with make up on”) asymptomatic on Thursday, Aug. 30.  I began the return to play process that day and was fully cleared by the team doctor on Sept. 4.

On Oct 6, I was knocked to the ground and kicked in the back-right side of my head during a scuffle for the ball at a home game.  I didn’t stay down long, and I got up to rejoin the play, flashing the thumbs up to my coaches and trainers.  I suspected something was wrong as I developed tunnel vision, and was having trouble processing what was happening in the game.  At halftime, I avoided the athletic trainer, afraid that I would be forced to sit out of the game.  Regardless, she chased me down and examined the cleat marks that went up my neck.  I insisted that I was fine.  I played the rest of that game, but by the next day, after attempting to go to class, I had full-blown concussion symptoms once again: headache, dizziness, nausea, trouble concentrating, light and noise sensitivity… the works.  I left class, went to the athletic trainer, failed the IMPACT test and was sent to see the team doctor.  Presenting with nystagmus (involuntary eye movements), a positive SCAT test and difficulty balancing, I was diagnosed with my second concussion of the season, sent to get a CAT scan and instructed to go home until my symptoms resolved.

Two weeks later, I returned to school and was cleared for soccer but instructed to not participate in any contact sports outside of the team.  As the end of the season approached and the five seniors on the team were some of my best friends, I wanted to play in their senior game against a very competitive team.  Our team was also struggling with numerous injuries so, despite some lingering symptoms, I passed the IMPACT test and began to go through the return to play process.  Based on athletic trainer notes, my coaches and trainers noticed the sun was still bothering me and my eyes were presenting to be “half open/half closed.” Apparently, I also informed an assistant coach that I felt as though I could not play in our game on Saturday, Oct. 20 because I wanted to be able to play in the senior game the following Saturday.  I was cleared to play with one week, and two games left in the season.

Our final game of the season was a home game and senior day on Oct. 27.  I went into the 15game already struggling with concussion symptoms, and proceeded to play 106 minutes of the 3-2 double OT loss, heading the ball a couple of times.  By the end of the game, my headache, light sensitivity, nausea and dizziness had worsened.  The athletic trainers, concerned about Second Impact Syndrome, convinced me to go to the hospital.  There, they took a CAT scan and, seemingly unconcerned, sent me on my way.  On Nov. 5, I saw the team doctor.  I had developed ptosis of the right eyelid and facial asymmetry in addition to my other symptoms.  I was referred for a brain MRI and instructed to rest completely.

The following weeks consisted of headaches, struggling through classes, and poor sleep.  My MRI came back negative and I began looking for neurologists and concussion specialists with the help of my athletic trainers.

Up until this point, I can honestly say I did not grasp the seriousness of concussions.  To this day, I still have a hard time believing that concussions are the reason I am a completely different person.  I had seen the NCAA concussion educational videos at the start of every season.  I had been shown the horror story Second Impact Syndrome videos of the football players who swallowed handfuls of ibuprofen to make it through games and then were tackled and never got back up.  But to me, and the majority of the sports world, it was “just a concussion.”  It doesn’t require a cast or crutches or a brace.  It’s not severe enough to need surgery, and people continue play after getting knocked in the head all the time.  Most people have heard the story of Pele playing through a broken leg.  A BROKEN LEG! I mean, come on, no one has “just a broken leg.” So, why would I think twice about playing through “just a concussion?”13 I saw the women’s Canadian goalkeeper get railed in the forehead by Alex Morgan’s knee at full speed, AFTER getting kicked in the head by Abby Wambach in the same game.  She was knocked out cold on the field, stayed in the game and was later mentioned in passing by a Buzzfeed article ending with, “Bindon finished the game, surviving what proved to be a rough day.”  I truly figured, at worst, my symptoms would get worse for a little bit, and then I would recover, essentially just postponing my recovery an additional week or two.

On Dec. 10, I saw a neurologist.  I described to him my lingering symptoms and told him my history.  I had been attempting some light exercise and shooting around a soccer ball in the previous two weeks but was still suffering from headaches, vision problems and difficulty concentrating.  He reported that I was a “healthy young lady” and that my “examination was normal.”  He released me to begin playing again and sent me to get a neuropsych exam to evaluate my concentration problems in school.

On Feb. 28th, I saw a concussion specialist for the first time.  I was told that Occipital Neuralgia (inflammation of the occipital nerves, likely caused by the kick to the back of the head) was the cause of my headaches.  Glad to finally have an answer, I began a series of medications and had doctor appointments every two weeks for the following months.  I sat out of my spring season, only allowed to stationary bike (admittedly, I snuck in an indoor game here and there). I continued to battle headaches, dizziness, neck pain, vision problems and concentration difficulties.  I had to leave class or miss class multiple times a week, and would have to sit in the trainer’s room for at least an hour to recover from 30 minutes on a stationary bike.  On many occasions, I would have to get a ride back to my apartment, unable to drive myself.

By the end of April 2013, six months after the last concussion, my doctor told me he believed the concussion was gone and that I was now suffering from the Occipital Neuralgia and Post Concussion Migraines.  I was still on a slew of medications and went through a series of steroid injections in the back of my head to attempt to tame the occipital neuralgia.  When those didn’t work, I was scheduled for an appointment with a neurosurgeon to remove the scar tissue and inflammation in my neck and the base of my head.  Doctors cut into the back of my head less than two weeks after my 21st birthday.

Luckily, the surgery seemed to work.  Despite the terrible headache I woke up with, the weeks following the surgery consisted of only minor headaches in the morning and evenings, but nothing like the constant headaches I had before.    I was even able to attend a concert with a friend a month after the surgery.  Two weeks before the start of my senior preseason, I was finally cleared to run.  I was a captain for the upcoming season, but I was beyond out of shape.  I went through an extensive return-to-play process, began a cervical strengthening rehab 16program and was slowly worked up to full-contact practices with the exception of headers.  I was required to fill out a symptom sheet before and after every workout/practice/game. I had to pass multiple fitness tests and practice heading in a controlled situation before I was finally released to play limited time in a game on Sept. 10.  I felt great, scored a goal and my team won its first game of the season.  To this day, it’s still one of the happiest days of my life.

 

Within a few weeks things quickly went further downhill than I ever thought possible.  I was put on a beta blocker for my headaches and my heart rate plummeted.  I was in the emergency room less than two weeks after my first game with nausea, dizziness and a heart rate in the 30s. I missed one game and was limited to only 30 minutes in the game after that.  Two days later, I went to an all-day outdoor concert with my family and friends as a late birthday present.  Halfway through, I was debilitated with a migraine that made me sick and I literally crumpled on the ground in a crowd of hundreds of people, clutching my head with both hands.  Unsure of what was going on, the EMTs offered to take me to the emergency room.  Instead, my step dad and cousin had to carry me like a child to the car.  The next day, I was dialed back to only a light warm up and non-contact practice.  A few days later, I returned to playing my allotted 25 minutes per half.

Early in October, I began having severe, burning/electrical pain in my jaw, temple and basically the entire half of my face and head.  It was a bone deep pain that I can only describe as someone taking an electrified probe, jabbing it into the side of my head and electrifying half of my face from the inside out.  It would change which side it would attack but would only be on one side at a time.  In addition, I got headaches that caused my right eye to droop. 19 It would appear as though the entire side of my face was slowly melting off (the first time it happened my trainer feared I was having a stroke.)  I checked in with my concussion specialist, who said my symptoms should improve throughout the season but I still may have some good and bad days.

Late at night on Oct. 9, I was checked back into the emergency room with unbearable, constant pain on the entire left side of my head and face.   I remember laying in my bed in my apartment for hours, shoving my head onto ice packs and heating pads, praying something would take the pain away before finally going to the ER.  I was unable to speak or even function through the pain.  My trainer came into the ER sometime after 11p.m. to the sight of me curled into the fetal position on the bed, my head buried in my mom’s chest, shaking uncontrollably with pain.  After a couple rounds of morphine, I was released.  I missed the game the next day.

By the middle of October, I had been diagnosed with Trigeminal Neuralgia (also known as “The Suicide Disease” due to the large number of patients committing suicide as a result of the pain).  The pain became a regular thing.  It just started one day, and after that, it could come out of nowhere and sufficiently halt my life for hours.  During my life, I had broken bones, torn ligaments, knocked myself out, burned myself… etc.  I prided myself on having a high pain tolerance and “toughing” things out, but this pain completely and totally brought me to my knees.  I cried. I begged for mercy. I sang Maggie Rose’s “I Just Wanna Feel Better” to myself as I laid alone at night, in too much pain to sleep.  I took Vicodin and other narcotics like they were candy. I drove my face and head into ice packs and heating pads with all my might.  Eventually, I even moved my microwave into my bedroom at the foot of my bed, because it caused me too much pain to walk into the kitchen to heat up my heating pads.

Some days I would be OK.  I could leave my bed, go to class, go to practice, eat  somewhere between three and 12 meals, and go to bed.  Some days I would sit in class, shaking my leg, and avoiding people to disguise my pain.  One day, I tried to practice through the pain. It got 17increasingly worse until I could barely think straight.  It took everything in me just to stand up and focus on what I was supposed to be doing.  But I didn’t want to pull myself out.  I hated nothing more than showing pain or weakness in front of my teammates and coaches.  But in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to have someone pull me out.  Call me stupid or stubborn or just call me an athlete, but I would never even consider pulling myself out.  If I am able-bodied, then my job is on the field, and I was able-bodied (or so I thought).  I was pulled out, and laid down in the athletic training room, my head surrounded with ice, where I remained for hours, with dizziness, uncontrollable shaking and searing pain up the side of my face.

 

The nights were always the worst.  I dreaded bed time because I knew around midnight every night, I would wake up with that familiar, terrible pain.  Your thoughts don’t go anywhere but dark places when you’re severely sleep deprived, beyond exhausted and in the worst imaginable pain.  I remember telling my mom once, in one of my worst moments, “If childbirth is anything like this, I’ll never be able to have kids.” She just sadly shook her head at me.

Near the end of the season, we had an away game.  I started the game with what I had come to define as “manageable” pain: meaning my face was being electrocuted, but I was able to stand up, function and put a smile on.  By the time the game was over, it took everything I had to sit through the postgame talk, skip the team trip to the locker room and showers, and get on the bus.  I was all the way in the very back, in my normal seat, curled into the fetal position, pressing my face into a bag of ice, hoping I wouldn’t draw attention.  When the team stopped for food, I couldn’t budge.  A teammate got my food for me, but I was never able to eat it.  I shook with pain the whole way home.  The season ended with another double-overtime game against the same team (this time a tie), but the pain continued.

The following months were honestly some of the worst of my life.  The pain was incessant.  I no longer went out with friends, I could barely attend class and it hurt to even eat.  I rarely left my room, was too exhausted to text friends, and when a friend did come over it was understood that “watching a movie” likely meant me sleeping.  You really do find out who your friends are when you’re suddenly a chronic pain patient as a college student.  I was re-diagnosed with Occipital Neuralgia, to accompany the Trigeminal Neuralgia. This gave me constant headaches coupled with searing pain that shot from the back of my head to my eyes, and from my ear to my mouth and nose and forehead.  I was sleeping only an average of 20 hours a week; I was on a whole list of medications from muscle relaxers to anti-seizure meds to straight up narcotics.  I was 21 years old, living in an apartment with three friends, and I had never been less social or felt more alone in my life.

In early December, I met with the Neurosurgeon again, and it was discussed that I would have another surgery, this time to remove the occipital nerves, after the New Year.  He felt that I would have significantly decreased symptoms and treatable migraines after the procedure.  As I 20began my final semester of college, my symptoms prevented me from going to the majority of my classes and staying on top of my work.  I visited my eye doctor for my recurring vision problems, and he found that I had a torn retina, likely from one of the concussions.  (I had it repaired in mid January.) After missing a full week of classes due to unbearable symptoms, I had to withdraw from school the second week of February 2014.  I had a second surgery on my head, on Feb. 21.

The following months were just recovery.  I was back living at home, completely disconnected from my friends, slowly learning how to be a person again.  Eventually, I felt better than I remembered you could feel.  I began making trips to school to visit and attend sporting events, I returned to working and eventually started jogging again.  As spring turned to summer, I was working full time, running, sprinting and lifting every day.  The more progress I saw in my training, the more I began to think about the coming fall.  I would be returning to school to 21finish out my last semester, and, thanks to my freshman year ankle injury, I still had eligibility to play.  The Trigeminal Neuralgia and Occipital Neuralgia both seemed to be tamed since the surgery, and, despite migraines, I was feeling pretty good.  I talked with my family and my doctors and decided to return for one more season. Yes, my family was worried.  Yes, my trainers were worried.  But yes, I got cleared. And, God, I loved this game.

The last season started off well.  I was in great shape, successfully completed the preseason injury free for the first time, and my concussion symptoms finally seemed like they were gone. I still suffered from Trigeminal Neuralgia attacks occasionally (quite a few more sleepless nights), but they were much more controlled.  I went into the season vowing to be more careful – but, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, I just don’t know how to dial myself back.  I wound up in the hospital, dosed up on meds for a few days in September with severe pain in my side and pneumonia, after taking two nasty shots to the ribs in previous weeks.  I missed one game, but quickly got back into the next game two days after my release.

My confidence with heading the ball grew as the season went on.  I was avoiding them in practice when possible, but actually scored off a header in a game.  As my team celebrated, my mom yelled, “that was an expensive header!” from the stands.  As worried as my family was, they loved watching me play, almost as much as I love playing.

On Sept. 17, we had a home game against Rosemont College.  I don’t remember taking a shot to the head, but I remember suddenly not knowing who we were playing, what half it was or what the score was.  I was freaked out, and started frantically searching my opponent’s jerseys for their name.  Unable to find it, I grabbed the ball to take a goal kick and asked my keeper (one of my best friends) who we were playing.  I remember her giving me a confused look before answering.  I chalked it up to just being an odd occurrence and didn’t really think about it again.

Once October came around, things went downhill quickly.  The day before a game on Oct. 5, we12 were practicing corners and I took a bad header.  I knew it immediately. I just shook it off and dialed back my play for the rest of practice.  By the time the game rolled around the next day I was just gone.  That is the only word I can use to describe it.  My play didn’t seem drastically impacted, but I’m not sure how.  I felt terrible and didn’t look much better.  My eyes were empty and I looked like a zombie.  At this point in the season, I basically stopped practicing.  We had six games left, and I was determined, after all I had been through, to finish them all.  In all my years being a collegiate athlete, I had missed countless games (at least five per season) due to injury.  But, so far that season, I had played in all of the games except the one I missed while in the hospital, and had started all of them but the one immediately after that.  Finishing with a perfect season (starting and playing all games) had been my goal since I decided to return to play.  I knew that wasn’t possible anymore, but I could get close.

At our next game on Oct. 11, I took another hard hit.  I hadn’t felt great going into the game, and I went further downhill afterward.  Luckily, the following week was fall break, so it gave me a break from classes and games.  I was able to recover (to a certain extent) from the hits I had taken.

On Oct. 21, we travelled to play against the defending national champions.  Messiah has been a powerhouse for multiple years, and its players are always big, fast and strong (two things that, at this point, I definitely was not).  They attacked our goal incessantly for the entire first half, rocketing powerful shots from all over the place.  As one shot was fired, I instinctively jumped up to deflect it away from the goal.  It was an absolute rocket of a shot that completely knocked me senseless.  I don’t know if I fell or just stumbled, but I know my keeper and other defenders repeatedly asked if I was OK.  I was taken out of the game at halftime, and a teammate was sent to walk me to the locker room. Four days later, I would step onto the field for the last time.

As the announcer began to count down the last 10 seconds of the game, my opponent dribbled down the field looking for one last chance to send the game into overtime.  We were winning 1-0 at home, on senior day, against the team we went into double overtime with the previous two years.  With seconds remaining, I sprinted toward the girl with the ball with everything I had and… Black. Nothing. The video of the hit shows my opponent getting a push from a player behind her, before raising both of her forearms and slamming them into the left side of my head as we collided at full speed. My head bounced off the turf as I fell backwards. The hit was not only the end of the game but also the end of my collegiate soccer career. My coaches allowed me to “start” the remaining two games of the season, and I walked out with my team wearing my jersey two more times before hearing my name announced for the last time.

18I can’t tell you a lot about the next six months.  I remember pain, painkillers, a lot of bright light and loud noises.  I remember rarely being able to walk straight, never having an appetite and sleeping, a lot of sleeping.  I couldn’t watch TV, so I just listened to shows I had seen before.  I couldn’t bear to look at my computer or do any work, so I was unemployed and once again unable to go to school.  I lost more than 20 pounds and sank into a severe depression.  I could write another eight pages on the horridness that is post-concussion depression, but I’ll save that for another time.  Just know that, after everything, it was almost my permanent undoing.

Now, it has been a year and a half since that last hit.  I’ve managed to finally finish college and have even been accepted to grad school, but I still struggle every day.  I had to leave a job I loved at a golf course because working in the heat was making me sick.  I’ve suffered anxiety attacks that have left me unable to move my entire body, a prisoner inside my own mind.  I struggle with sensory overload in the majority of public places.  I have headaches every day, all day long.  I get fatigued very easily and vomit when my body is over worked.  The list goes on: dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, memory loss.  On top of it, I haven’t had an appetite in two years.  I have to force myself to eat enough food to sustain my body – literally trauma-induced anorexia.  My body struggles with regulating my breathing, temperature and heart rate, which ranges from 50-150 with normal standing, talking, sitting and walking.  I recently started brain rehabilitation (thanks to an amazing fundraiser held by the golf course where I worked) after having countless specialists, neurologists and doctors giving me no answers.  I feel as though I’m finally making progress.  I now at least have decent days to accompany the horrid ones, and I’ve managed to gain some weight back.

Looking back, I know that I’ve had many more concussions than what I’ve had diagnosed.  The last hit I took in October of 2014 was my sixth diagnosed concussion.  Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with a few more from simple things like bumping my head doing laundry.  At this point, any hit to the head can put me down for the count for a week.  I’ve fueled my love for soccer by making the transition to coaching.  This past season, I was on the sideline during a game when I got hit in the back of the head as the ball girl attempted to throw a ball over top of me.  I sank to the ground, remained there for a bit and then missed the next few practices.  Now, the magic number is nine.  Nine diagnosed concussions.  Of course, that doesn’t count the time when I was maybe 10 years old playing an indoor game when my head was slammed into the fiberglass wall causing me to stumble, head in hands, off the pitch. It doesn’t count any of the concussive blows I sustained growing up that my parents and I now know were concussions. Hindsight is 20/20 isn’t it?

I know that I am a big part of the reason that I am where I am today.  I do not blame my doctors, parents, coaches, athletic trainers or anyone for what I have gone through.  I do not blame my sport and I do not even really blame myself anymore.  I’ve come to accept that everything happens for a reason and I choose to believe that my reason is awareness.  I could suffer in silence and watch as kids and pro athletes alike continue to play through brain injuries.  I could let the depression finally win over and just give up fighting like I’ve done in the past.  But I think it is time that I use my story to show that we aren’t doing enough to protect athletes.  The culture needs to change.  Until the world acknowledges that concussions are serious injuries that can and will leave lasting effects if not treated properly, athletes will continue to try to play through them.  Concussion tests can easily be passed when an athlete is far from recovered, leaving only the athlete’s word on how they’re feeling as an indicator for returning to play.  I’ve been unable to walk and visibly not okay but would still insist “I’m fine.”  Athletes lie.  We were bred to lie.  The culture of the sports world is to just “shake off” a head injury.  “Oh, he just got his bell rung,” is one of the many sayings used to play off a head injury.  If athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators truly understood that, “getting your bell rung” just the wrong way or just one too many times can easily impact a player for the rest of their life maybe it would be taken more seriously.  I can honestly say that it never even crossed my mind that I would be where I’m at today.  Sadly, if someone had told me that this is where I would be, I’m not even sure I would’ve believed it.  At 20-22 years old, it is hard to see three to four years down the road, much less the rest of your life.   Even so, I had never heard of people suffering for years with depression, anxiety, rage, exhaustion, and pain.  I had never heard of the people who survived the multiple hits and struggled just survive each day, even after the sport was long put behind them.  So, that is why I’ve decided to speak out.  So that athletes, and parents, and everyone else can know that head injuries can affect every aspect of your life, for the rest of your life, and they need to be taken seriously.

I’m also writing this for the sufferers, the caretakers of the sufferers, and any doctor/trainer that may treat a head injury victim.   Someone that I consider to be a good friend, and a huge part of my recovery once told me, “you have to meet people where they are.”   This can apply to a lot of different situations but I thought it was a really good way to think about head injuries.

As a post-concussion sufferer, whether you’ve just had your first concussion, or if you’re many years into what will be a lifelong battle, you have to meet your brain where it is.  This is when you have to make self-care your number one priority.  Whether that is staying home and in bed, with all of the lights off and a pillow over your head, or quitting your job, or changing your diet, or moving back in with your parents, or whatever it is that you feel you need to get through the day, or the month or the next 30 years… do it.  Ignore the voice in your head that says you should be doing more; know that you can only do what you can, and you have to let that be enough.  Ignore the world that doesn’t understand looking fine but not being fine; take the day off anyway. Ignore the doctors that tell you there’s nothing wrong with you, or that they can’t help you; keep searching for new ones until you find one that can.  Never stop fighting.  Know that it will get better, in time, if you just listen to your body, and meet it where it is.

To the parents, spouses, teachers, doctors, athletic trainers, therapists, and to everyone else: know that every brain is different, just as every athlete is different.  You cannot box a brain injury victim into some preconceived idea of how they have been affected or how they will recover.  The brain is such an amazingly complex organ; you can’t even begin to make assumptions about how someone may be affected until you know many small details about their injury and history.  Therefore, to best accommodate a head injury patient, you have to be willing to evaluate where they are, and then meet them there.  They may suffer from severe depression and/or anxiety, they might have vision trouble, balance issues, dietary issues, lack of appetite, severe fatigue, dizziness, temperature control issues, a variety of emotional issues, memory problems, chronic headaches, sleeping trouble, mood swings, sensory overload, or any combination of these plus a variety of other things.  We have to remember that our brain controls our entire body.  So, when it isn’t functioning properly, a lot of our other body systems can be compromised as well.  You, as someone interacting with a person who has suffered a brain injury, have to understand they may need help in different areas than another head injury patient.  They may recover faster or slower, or may never fully recover.  You can’t put expectations on a head injury; you have to evaluate where it is, each and every day, and go from there.

 

 

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