Recovering from a Traumatic Brain Injury: What Worked For Me

Getting ready for yet another round of medical tests.

If I could sum up in one word how it feels having a brain injury it would be frustrating. Incredibly frustrating. I remember crying during one of my doctor visits. The doctor asked why I was crying & I said ‘because I remember how it felt to be smart.’ Life had become much harder since the accident.

I graduated high school with honors. I was in Honor Society & the Accademically Gifted program. I graduated from a University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in (ironically) Psychology. I made A’s in college calculus classes without ever studying. I was enrolled in graduate school at the time of the accident. I was only one semester away from graduating with my Master of Business Administration (MBA). Now I couldn’t even remember if I should wear a jacket when it was cold or hot outside.

You have no idea how many MILLIONS of pieces of information are stored in your brain until they’re gone. I would stand in front of a rack of clothes at a store & just stare at them. Purple shirts. Did I like purple? I had no idea. When do I wear short sleeves? When do I wear long sleeves? No clue. Is $10 a good price for a shirt or is that a lot? I’m still not much fun to go shopping with because I have trouble making decisions.

I would have to concentrate on everything. Mundane things that I had done thousands of times before would now feel like I was taking a college exam. I would get in the shower then think ‘ok now what?’ Sometimes I forgot to take off my socks before getting in the shower. Other times I would wash my face then get out, not remembering what else to do. Or I would get out then not remember how to dry off. Having to concentrate that hard on everything, all day is incredibly exhausting. And very frustrating.

My home away from home. One of many doctor exam rooms I visited weekly.

I went to several doctors after the accident including:

Neurosurgeon– He originally diagnosed my TBI & did lots of tests & scans. Thankfully I didn’t require surgery.

Neurologist – She also did lots of tests & mainly helped manage my headaches & migraines.

Neuropsychologist– She did many, many tests to find out exactly what parts of my brain were damaged & gave me homework to try to help recover my memory & problem solving skills. She also gave me lots of tips on ways to cope with my disability, which included things like keeping a journal (which is where this blog came from) & putting my medication with my toothbrush so I wouldn’t forget to take it every day. I still do those things.

Orthopedic surgeon – He managed my many aches & pains, especially in my back & neck. He was also the doctor that I saw first after my accident, who recognized my brain issues & referred me to the neurosurgeon.

Psychiatrist– He helped with mood/emotional issues which are extremely common after a TBI.

All of these doctors worked together to treat me (I still see most of them & probably always will). I have put together a list of what they recommended for me & my specific injury (all of these notes are from my personal journal, otherwise I would never remember them). Please keep in mind that this is what worked for me & may not work for everyone. I am not a doctor & you should get your own medical team to diagnose & figure out what would work best in your particular situation. Also remember that we tried many different treatments, some helped & some didn’t. You will likely have to go through your own trial & error to see what works best for you. This is just a list of the things that helped me in particular.

Antidepressants

Depression was very real following the accident. I began taking antidepressants (specifically Prozac) & that helped me more than anything. The doctor said that antidepressants actually speed up the mind & help you think clearer, both things that I was struggling with. I still take them & probably always will. We tried weaning me off of them but my mind & speech slowed significantly so I stayed on them. Prozac has dramatically improved the quality of my life. There are many different antidepressants & it can be tricky finding the right medication & the right dose for you. I’m not saying everyone who has had a TBI should be on them, I’m only saying what worked for me in hopes that it will help someone else who is struggling. Don’t be scared of taking a medication that can change, even save your life. Big pharma didn’t throw me on the ground so they can make $4 a month off of me.

Brain Games

I started doing puzzles & other brain games as recommended by my neurologist. You can go to the App Store & find tons of games that challenge your brain & keep your mind in better shape. My doctors said to think of your brain as another muscle: use it or lose it. Some of the games that I play daily are puzzles, word searches, seek & find, & crossword puzzles. I like to switch them up so I don’t get burned out on one kind of game. Lumosity has a lot of great games but it costs money every month so I cancelled & found some random free games instead.

Rest

Rest is super important for recovering from any injury & your brain is no exception. Try to get a good nights sleep & nap during the day if at all possible.

Water, lots of water

I really upped my water intake after the accident & it helped lessen the severity of my headaches. Unfortunately I’m not a big fan of plain water so I started adding Mio or other flavored drops to my water so I would drink more. I wish I liked plain water but no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t drink enough plain water every day to keep well hydrated.

Protein

I was also told to eat more protein since it helps repair your body including your brain. I don’t eat red meat or pork so I started drinking protein powder shakes to help get extra protein in my diet.

Exercise

Luckily I didn’t have to run marathons or anything but I did make sure to walk every day. I aim for 30 minutes of some form of cardio daily: stationary bike, treadmill, elliptical, walk around the neighborhood, any of those will do. Just depends on what you’re comfortable with & what you have access too. Exercise really helps with my mood as well. I’m much happier & positive when I exercise.

Your support system

This is a big one. Try to surround yourself with good people that care about you & support you. A good support system is good for life in general but it is golden when it comes to TBI. Recovering from a TBI or any other serious illness or injury is no time to deal with added stress or negativity, you have enough on your plate.

I am still not the same as I was before my injury but I’ve learned to accept my new normal. I still have headaches everyday, my mind doesn’t work as fast as it did before the injury, I forget what I’m saying while in mid-sentence, my words often come out jumbled, & I still get very frustrated. Some days are better than others but I try to be thankful for every day that I have a second chance at life.

 

 

The Accident

I’ve been an avid equestrian my whole life. Horses have always been my passion & I’ve spent every second I possibly could in the saddle. Exactly 6 years ago on February 4, 2012 that all changed. I had a young mare (female horse) named Moonpie that I had bought, sent to a horse trainer & was trying to put miles on (aka: give her different experiences to boost her confidence, typical of what you do with a young horse). I had taken her on trail rides through woods & fields, ridden her in a cowboy mounted shooting clinic and competed on her in equestrian obstacle courses. We even won champion in our division in the obstacle course show with some stiff competition!

The Champion horse blanket that we won at the High Cotton Obstacle Course.


Moonpie & I riding in a cowboy mounted shooting clinic. She had only been started under saddle for 42 days at this point. I was shooting a .45 caliber revolver off of her (blanks! Not live rounds) & she handled it great. By the way, I highly recommend cowboy mounted shooting! 


In a costume contest with Moonpie. I was the wicked witch & she was my flying monkey from Wizard of Oz!


We were having lots of great adventures together but still had some challenges that are typical of young, inexperienced horses. Young horses, just like young people, are still learning what behavior is acceptable & what isn’t acceptable. They will test you at times & they may throw tantrums which are extra dangerous when they weigh 1,000 pounds! Each horse is different just like each person. Some horses are easy to train while others are more challenging, some are excitable while some are laid back. Moonpie was overall a good horse but would still test you at times. I’m more of a laidback person & aggressive riding just isn’t my style. Needless to say Moonpie knew that & would test me, trying to be queen bee in the pecking order. Basically I was the pushover parent & she had my number.

One day I decided to go with a group of friends to a cowboy mounted shooting event about 2 hours from home. It was a cold windy day, which can make horses ‘feel their oats.’ In other words they tend to be more feisty & excitable when it’s cold, windy, or stormy.

I got up early on the morning of the shoot & hooked up my horse trailer to my truck, noticing that the trailer lights were not working. With the help of my stepdad (a retired electrician), we got the lights working. It was an inconvenience & made me run a little late but wasn’t too big of a deal. I now look back & realize that was the first warning sign. I never believed in signs until that fateful day.

I loaded up Moonpie & pulled out of the barn driveway. A small tree was leaning over the driveway, probably pushed over from the wind. I maneuvered around the tree but a branch hit one of my running lights on my trailer & shattered it. That was my second warning sign. Not deterred, I headed to my friend’s barn just a few miles down the road so we could ride together to the shoot.

I arrived at my friend’s barn, unloaded Moonpie from my trailer & then loaded her onto my friend’s trailer with her horse. There were several people going to the shoot & there wasn’t enough room in the truck for everyone so I rode in another friend’s car, following behind the horse trailer. We got about halfway to the horse facility that was hosting the shoot when the tire on the horse trailer blew, ripping the fender off of the trailer in the process. Warning sign number three. Luckily we were very close to a rest stop so instead of unloading horses on the shoulder of a busy interstate, we limped the trailer to the rest stop. Once we parked the trailer at the rest stop we immediately unloaded the horses & got to work changing the tire. The tire change went quickly while curious onlookers asked to pet the horses & take pictures of them, which we obliged. We loaded the horses onto the trailer & the spare tire went flat. The horses once again were unloaded from the trailer, the spare tire was removed & a friend took the tire to a gas station several miles down the road for more air. A few of us stayed with the horses while the tire was being inflated. We were relieved to see our friend arrive back with the spare tire. The spare was once again put on the trailer & the horses were loaded. The spare tire went flat AGAIN.

Once again the horses were unloaded, the spare was taken off & the tire taken to a service station. This time it was inflated correctly, put back on the trailer, the horses were loaded & we were on the way to the shoot. We got close to the facility but got separated from our friends at a stoplight. My friend & I had been to the horse complex multiple times before but couldn’t find it this time. No big deal, we would look it up on our phone’s GPS. Well GPS took us somewhere but it certainly wasn’t the horse complex. We finally made it our destination (which turned out to be about a mile away) around 30 minutes later.

Our friends from the Double L Bar shooting club were already there & competing. I grabbed my horse & saddled her up then took her to the big indoor arena where the shoot was already taking place. We watched the shoot from the fence until it was our turn to go for an exhibition run (practice run). We entered the arena & did the pattern, weaving around cones. I was so proud of how amazing my horse handled everything & was beaming as we completed the pattern. At the end of a run you ride your horse in a circle, slowing them down before you walk them out of the area. This is where things went bad.

The rest of the events are very foggy but some were caught on video that I have watched since then & my friends helped fill in the gaps in my memory.

I remember not knowing which end was up & which was down, extreme vertigo. Gravity soon forcefully showed me which end was down. I was very disoriented & couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or if I was in reality. I remember hitting the ground very hard & hearing every vertebrae from the base of my skull to my tailbone cracking at the same time. I thought I was paralyzed which had always been an incredibly huge fear of mine, since I have a quadriplegic & a paraplegic in my family. I remember coming too, several minutes later when someone handed me the reins to my horse that had run away after the accident. I was walking somewhere but had no idea how I got up or where I was going. I remember someone saying ‘your hood is filled with dirt’ then emptying my hoodie on the arena floor. I remember hurting all over & being very angry. I remember wanting to ‘get back in the saddle’ & ‘not let her get away with throwing me’ but truth be told, I had torn my groin (yes, women have groins) so bad that I couldn’t lift my leg high enough to reach the stirrup. I told everyone I was fine even though I was confused, hurt, angry, sad & wanted to just hide & cry. But cowgirls don’t cry (in front of other horse people anyway, it’s a pride thing), so I put my horse in a stall, sucked it up & stayed at the show until nighttime.

Evidently we even went to eat at a restaurant after the show but I don’t remember. I slept the entire car ride home. My friend kept my horse, truck & trailer at her barn for the night while another friend dropped me off at my house. My mom called me & I yelled at her which I never ever do. I trashed my room then went to sleep. I mainly slept the next 2 days, only waking to eat & use the bathroom. The day after the accident was the Super Bowl. I slept through it & thought it was football season for many months afterwards, like I was stuck in that place in time. Light & sound were unbearable so I closed every curtain in the house, kept the tv off & slept. I had constant migraines. My eyes felt like they didn’t line up correctly, which affected my vision. My speech slurred, my thoughts were delayed, I had no short term memory. I did weird things like put electronics in the refrigerator & put milk in the cabinet. I was living alone at the time so no one knew the extent of my injury.

The accident was on a Saturday & the following Monday I went to the doctor to get a muscle relaxer or something since every muscle in my body ached. I got lost driving to the doctors office that I had been to many times before. I tried filling out the forms at the doctor but realized I no longer knew how to read. I could say the word on the paper but had no idea what it meant. Words had lost all meaning to me. I told the receptionist I couldn’t read & she asked if I ever knew how to read. I told her yes, I had graduated college, was currently in grad school & working full time. I tried paying my copay with a Lowes gift card & couldn’t understand why the receptionist was giving me a hard time.  She got the orthopedic doctor who immediately sent me next door to a neurosurgeon’s office. I was very mad about having to go to another doctor but I went anyway. I checked in then fell asleep in the exam room until the doctor came in & woke me up. I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury or TBI. I was told to be very careful & not to damage my brain any further or my injury would be worse and my impairment could become permanent.

At the time of my injury I was wearing an ASTM/SEI approved equestrian specific helmet. My neurosurgeon said that my brain was probably damaged by the violent shaking I experienced in the saddle so I probably had the TBI before I ever hit the ground. He said that helmets won’t prevent a concussion caused by shaking but they do help prevent skull fractures. For the record, I’m still pro helmet.

A few weeks after the horse accident I was in a car that was rear ended at a stoplight. I went back to all of my doctors as my symptoms had worsened. Any healing & progress I had made was completely lost & I had to start the process all over again. I started improving again very slowly. Then I was a passenger in yet another car accident a few weeks later while coming home from a doctor’s appointment. I regressed yet again, & had to start from the beginning again. My doctor’s were stunned that I could have that many brain injuries in such a short amount of time.

The next few years (yes, years) were a blur of doctor’s appointments, tests, more tests, referrals, specialists, therapy, medicine, & having my mom drive me everywhere. I wouldn’t speak in front of anyone for about a year because I was embarrassed by my speech & the fact that I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I wasn’t allowed to drive. I carried a notebook everywhere, writing down everything (including meals I ate, people I had talked too, if I had fed the dog that day, if I took my medicine, etc.). I literally wrote down every detail of my life. I have since replaced my notebook with a smartphone & still have to rely on it for many every day tasks. Fortunately I have come a long way but still deal with issues every day of my life from my TBI.

My doctor’s told me to never ride a horse again or I could have a much worse prognosis if I received another brain injury. I struggled with adapting to my ‘new normal.’ I needed to find a new hobby that would take my mind off of the loss of my lifelong passion.