Let Me Tell You a Story #13: Concussions

I just saw one of the innumerable posts on Tumblr about shit that writers get wrong, and concussions came up on the list; mostly because they can be incredibly serious and are not often treated with the gravity they deserve.

In college, I got a concussion.  The story of how is actually pretty boring–the story of how it affected me is much more interesting.

When I realized my bump on the head was probably more serious than I first thought, a friend took me to the campus clinic.  The nurse checked my eyes, patted my shoulder, and handed me a pamphlet detailing 27 different possible side effects of having a concussion.

I read all of them and felt queasy.  Queasy was one of them.  Fortunately that one didn’t stick around.

The two major effects that I ended up with were, quite possibly, the worst two for a college student to have: short-term memory loss and narcolepsy.

My friends all knew what had happened: those I didn’t tell directly told the others, and everyone was patient with me when I failed to show up for planned outings or completely forgot entire conversations.

But after a week, one of them asked me over lunch…what does short-term memory loss actually mean?

It meant, I told her, that I knew I’d gone to breakfast that morning before class, because I wasn’t more hungry than I should have been.  But I didn’t remember what I’d eaten, or who I might have sat with.  I could supply both of those answers from remembering my pre-concussion routine–I’d probably eaten some combination of bacon and cereal or grits, and depending on the day of the week, I’d probably been sitting with this friend or that classmate or whoever…but I didn’t actually remember.  There wasn’t even a hole where breakfast should have been–my memory jumped straight from waking up in my dorm room to being in class, with nothing in between.

As you might imagine, that made it hard to study for tests.

The narcolepsy was actually easier to deal with, though I wouldn’t have expected it to be.  My visit to the clinic resulted in all of my professors being notified of my condition–I wasn’t excused from class, because the concussion symptoms would take weeks to fade, but they were all aware that I was impaired, somehow, with the specifics remaining to be seen.  Fortunately that semester all my professors were cool–one even made the final exam optional because he suspected I’d fail it, and allowed me to write an extra research paper instead, because I could work on it at my own pace, when I felt up to it.  Which was awesome.  I thanked him about a dozen times.

So after the narcolepsy revealed itself, I just told all my profs and classmates: hey, if I fall asleep, just wake me up.  I’m not actually tired, my brain’s just not working right.  And that was that.  I didn’t fall asleep standing up or moving around, so I was never in any real danger of nodding off in a precarious position.  I’d fall asleep in class, I’d fall asleep studying or watching TV or reading.  If someone didn’t wake me, I’d usually sleep for about an hour before waking up on my own.

Strangely enough, though I didn’t realize it at the time, that was also the precise moment my handwriting became less legible.  A few years later, sorting through my class notes, I could pinpoint the exact day of my injury just from my handwriting–it got looser and loopier, I had trouble keeping the words straight on the lines, and there were unfinished sentences that mark me falling asleep mid-lecture.  Sadly my cursive script has never really recovered.

So that covers the actual physical effects of my injury.  But the repercussions didn’t end there.

I became a different person.  As sweet and understanding as my friends were trying to be–and they were heroes, I promise you–I’d still hit a wall sometimes.  Someone would ask me a question and I knew I should know the answer, I knew it, but my brain wouldn’t cough it up, and I’d stand there with my mouth hanging open, frustrated and embarrassed.

You know the feeling you get when someone makes a cutting remark at you, and you feel small and young and stupid?  I felt like that all the time.  Except it was my own brain who was making me feel that way, not the scorn of someone else.

I’m an extrovert.  I’m talkative.  I’ve been accused of being a know-it-all, less so now than when I was younger, but in all fairness, yeah, I could be an ass sometimes.  I’d been raised to believe that being smart was something to be proud of, and never to hide my intelligence because I was a girl and I wanted someone to like me better.

Words actually fail me to describe just how horrible I felt when my memory failed me.  I can’t bold, underline, or italicize the word stupid hard enough.  If this were a notebook and not the Internet, I’d have dug the letters into the page so hard the paper would tear.

I became moody and withdrawn.  Since my ability to express myself properly with words would randomly desert me, I gave up trying.  It got too hard to start saying something only to have it evaporate from my brain when I realized I didn’t actually know what I was trying to say…so I stopped.  And the me that didn’t talk was not a quiet observer who only weighed in at the right moment, like all the most excellent introverts I know–I was sullen and angry and always seemed to be hovering only a few words away from breaking down into tears.

When I finally, slowly, started to feel like myself again, I tried to explain to my friends what I’d gone through, and they’d hug me and let me cry when I needed to and tell me I was getting better.  But to this day, I feel like they still didn’t understand.  How could they?  How could I make them?  Even now, this long-winded explanation doesn’t seem like enough.

So, this is all incredibly personal and specific to me.  There were 27 different side effects, and I could have had any combination–so could any character.  There’s a lot more to choose from than just Oh, yeah, I hit my head so I’ll be woozy for a while.  But your character won’t recover in a day or two–I felt the effects for about four weeks before I started having good days without any signs of trouble, and it was another two weeks before I considered myself “me” again.

On the upside, choosing to throw a concussion at your character means you do have a lot of leeway in the physical side effects and can choose the ones that make your story more interesting…as long as you realize the injury is going to do a lot more than make the character drowsy sometimes.  Really dig in and think about how having whatever effects you choose would change your character’s daily life and their interactions with the people around them.

I was a different person because of that concussion.  One that I didn’t actually like much.

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