I wish I had come by my concussion in a more spectacular way.
Skydiving would have been good. Or throwing myself at a catch in a championship game. Saving somebody from an oncoming train, perhaps.
But no, friends. I fell out of a hammock.
It was a glorious Sunday in mid-July. I was settling in for some extended horizontality, at which I am well practiced. But the second I pulled up my legs, the situation went south, as did I. The hammock flipped and ejected me, rapidly and unceremoniously. My head, and my hip, hit the metal frame. Hard. One second I was going to swing-time sleepyland, and the next I was on the ground, my body ringing with pain.
At first, I didn’t think anything of the fact that I’d smacked my head on a large steel bar. It didn’t ache yet. I hadn’t lost consciousness. I felt nauseated the next day, but it didn’t occur to me why. I was busy with my hip, which had been bothering me for years: A giant, spectacular bruise was developing there, its angry purple deepening with every hour.
But, over the next week, I grew foggier and my eyes increasingly recalcitrant. A few days after I fell, I blew deadline on a column, unable to summon a concluding paragraph. I joked that I must have a concussion, ha-ha, and pressed on.
A couple of days later, I could not see straight, the words on my screen refusing to sit still. My head had begun to pound. A kind of thickness descended, as if I were living in Jell-O.
My doctor quickly diagnosed me and told me to take a break from work and stay off screens for a few days. How hard could that be?
Very hard, at first. I was utterly addicted to scrolling. Bored witless in my darkened bedroom, I snuck peeks at Twitter, fretting at the prospect of missing the steady drip of granular, mortifying updates on our nation’s predicament. But pretty soon, the concussion did what my willpower never could. I went under, unable to look at Twitter, or anything. My brain — my whole self — had gone offline.
A few days turned, incredibly, into four months.
It’s hard to describe the concussion’s special brand of misery. I had written about concussions, but I had no idea how debilitating they could be, or how long they could hang around, even when they don’t seem particularly severe at first.
My head ached all the time, but pain was the least of it. I felt constant pressure that sometimes made my face hurt. Some days, it felt like somebody had strung yarn between my ears and pulled it taut. My head both weighed a ton and seemed like it could float away. Most of all, it just felt weird: Every minute, I was conscious of my brain as this physical object in my skull, a new and unsettling sensation.
Life gave me motion sickness. The world was suddenly too bright and too loud, as if everything was miked: One morning, even the buzzing of bees was unbearable. I wore sunglasses all day and sometimes earplugs, too. I couldn’t sleep. My balance was messed up, and walking — key to my recovery — took all of my concentration. Occasionally, in the beginning, the words I needed wouldn’t come, and I panicked. Conversations longer than a few minutes, or with more than one person, would fell me for hours.
Gorgeous summer days slid past my darkened window. I felt miserable, defeated, weepy, detached. My personality had left me. I didn’t make jokes or laugh at them. My reflection looked the same as always, but it wasn’t me inside.
As summer ended, I wondered if I’d ever be part of the world again.
I would, assured the doctors and physical therapists who cared for me: If I took the medication, did the exercises, and challenged my limits, my old self would reappear. Though nobody could say when that would happen. They counseled persistence and patience. I was supposed to surrender to a timetable that was unknowable.
I am not a patient person. I don’t do surrender. And I was terrified most of the time. It seemed like everybody I talked to knew somebody who’d been concussed and missed work or school for months, or who never fully came back from their injuries, losing memory or math skills.
Most people recover from concussions within a couple of weeks. But a significant number of them — some doctors put it at 20 percent — linger. There’s little conclusive data as to why. Previous head injuries, gender, age, and some prior conditions might be factors. Being a middle-aged woman with a history of migraine might have predisposed me to a concussion that stayed long past its time. It’s possible my continuing to work in the week following my fall contributed too, but none of my caregivers could say for certain. There is still so much about our brains we don’t know.
Whatever the reason, there I was, unable to write, read, hold up my end of a real conversation, play piano, ride in a car, eat in a restaurant, garden, listen to music, hike, or do most of the things that had defined me. And so, especially in the first couple of months, I spent a lot of time doing nothing.
That was frustrating, mostly. I was angry about the columns I couldn’t write. I missed the death of Senator John McCain, whom I had admired, despite my disagreements with him. I missed the remarkable ascendance of Ayanna Pressley. And I missed the Brett Kavanaugh debacle. Lord, I could have written every day on that, my fury burning hot even amid my fog.
But, I have to say, being forced to detach from so many things had an upside, too. Not being able to follow the horrors of the Trump administration minute-by-minute gave me a relative calm I hadn’t felt for a couple of years. And, unable to cram life’s empty moments with the reflexive scrolling to which I’d become addicted, I started to appreciate the space being truly away from work gave me.
I watched my garden change through late summer and early fall, the flowers rising and wilting in the changing light. I haven’t felt that closely tethered to the seasons since I was a kid.
With so much extra time, I got as close I’ll ever come to being June Cleaver.
My 11-year-old had all of me, for the first time in his life: Undistracted by calls and deadlines and my stupid phone, I was fully present for him. When he got home from camp or school, he’d come sit on my bed, or we’d eat Popsicles on the porch, and have unhurried conversations about his day.
I tried recipes as complicated as my feeble focus allowed, treating my family to cozy dinners together. I was determined to conquer dessert, my nemesis, going into regular battle against a particularly defiant recipe for baked ricotta cheesecake. (Reader, I lost. The remains of my latest, oddly mealy, attempt have sat forlornly in the fridge for over a week.)
Audiobooks were a joy. They couldn’t be too complicated, or the writing too pyrotechnic, and at first I could tolerate only those read by women, whose voices were easier to hear. I listened to books by Ann Patchett and the brilliant Kate Atkinson, to Amor Towles’s delightful “A Gentleman in Moscow,” and to beautiful, spare stories by Kent Haruf. On good days, I could also manage super boring reality TV shows, like “Escape to the Country,” in which retired British couples go on slow searches for frowsy new homes in sleepy towns, and nobody gets excited about anything. It was perfect.
Who knew there were so many hours in a day? Being forced to do nothing for lots of them leaves you no choice but to think.
Often, I thought about Aaron Hernandez. All head injuries are different, of course. There’s no way to know exactly what the Patriots tight end experienced after being hit in the head, and it’s clear that, even in the context of professional football, he was an extreme, and tragic, outlier. Though it was irrational, I wanted to take back the columns I’d written about him — even more so after the Globe published its series on his violent, anguished, and unprotected life. The idea that we continue to send kids, and grown men, into a game essentially built around head trauma troubled me even more than it had before.
I thought, too, about my enormous privilege. That one moment on a Sunday afternoon — and the four months away from work that followed — didn’t lead to financial ruin for my family. My company offers disability pay, and my bosses encouraged me to take as much time as I needed to get well. I have health insurance that covers most of my medical expenses, and savings to cover the rest. Those who work low-wage jobs, whose employers have no patience for long absences, who have no way to cover medical expenses or lost pay, could never afford the luxury of time to properly heal after an injury like this. That’s a crime this country still refuses to reckon with.
Gradually, the treatments, the rest, and the passing weeks brought me back to myself. The brain is a fragile thing, but its ability to repair itself is a wonder. Mine is still a bit hinky, but I can write again. I am almost back to where I was before the hammock beckoned on that summer day.
I’m determined not to get all the way back there, however. I’d like to hang on to the gifts my concussion gave me, like the nothingness it forced into my life — the space to think, cook, and really listen to my kid. I’d like to be less of a slave to screens, though I’m ashamed to report that that resolution is already slipping as my symptoms dissipate. I’d like to hold on to the gratitude I feel, for escaping worse damage, and for the friends, colleagues, doctors, and therapists who have been so kind to me.
I don’t know if the fall has changed me. I hope it has, a little.
I’m sure of one thing, though. My skydiving days are over.