Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Traumatic Brain Injury and the Consequences of Decaying Brain Matter

Over the last 27 years I've had 28 recorded traumatic brain injuries; concussions, as they're frequently referenced. Ranging from mild to very severe in damage, some I've been sent home with and others have landed me in the hospital overnight, or even in the ICU for a few days. They've been caused by a myriad of events including falls, slips, bonks and, my personal favorite, landing on my tailbone too hard. 

Research has shown us that some brains are more suceptible to damage because of a complicated genetic makeup, while others can miraculously survive horrific damage and emerge virtually unscathed. Luckily for me, I possess the latter. Unfortunately, even the strongest grey matter has a failure point, and mine is no exception. 

In the past two years, I've only sustained one head injury. But in the four years prior to that, I had fourteen concussions. Since I was 18, I've hurt my brain more than 20 times and in irreversible ways. Ways that I felt, even when I wasn't seeing a neurologist. Headaches, light and sound sensitivity, temperature bounces, forgetfulness and the worst: mood swings and emotional bursts.

The mood swings aren't just slightly inconvenient, either. They cripple relationships, confuse the hell out of me and crush my everyday productivity. Imagine being fine one moment and then, for no reason whatsoever, growing irritated and then angry... Without any provocation. Or having a great day, only to dissolve into heaving sobs in the parking lot because the world feels so dark. Spending sprees, uncontrollable rants, despair, drinking... The symptoms go on and on. The forgetfulness and emptymindedness spur frustration and a lot of the moods; for someone who has always been wordy and capable of communication, being unable to come up with a word or a thought is infinitely heartbreaking. Knowing I know something but having it elude my mental grasps... It is one of the most terrifying feelings in the world. It feels like being lost in my own brain.

There are ways to fight back. Once I decided to question and confront the problems, my neurologist and I came up with a plan. I started seeing a speech therapist, a psychologist and a behavior specialist, and we all work together to keep my mind from dropping off the edge. We moderate my ADHD medication depending on my activity and hormone levels, and I try to keep my diet and exercise regimen steady. I do brain exercises -- memory, attention, focus, mathematics, speed -- every morning. I read as much as possible and try to limit my screen time, and I regulate my sleeping patterns and water intake. However, all it takes is a few small missteps, and I'll careen off track. 

My point of all of this brutal honesty? 

Brain damage, right now, is irreversible. Do I hold out hope for stem cell research and neurological advancements? By Christ, I do. I hope and pray that one day science and medicine can correct what foolishness and ignorance created.

Why? Because I didn't wear a helmet. Because I wasn't aware of the consequences. Because we just didn't know. Because I was stubborn and proud and stupid. Why am I writing this? Because it's important to me to share the importance of helmet use and brain injury awareness. Because if my story strikes fear and curiosity into the hearts of parents and athletes alike, GOOD. Because if one person has a longer, stronger, better future because of helmet use, then it's worth it. And because even after a TBI, there's a life. 

I'm writing this because our limits don't define us. What we are capable of is far more important than what we aren't, and the only prisons we build are those we create for ourselves. 

My life, and my legacy, will not be one of fear or shame... I'm writing this because I'm tired of holding people at arms length to protect them. I'm tired of constantly worrying about when my mind will go, and I'm desperately afraid of losing control. I'm writing this because I can't continue to ignore the risks and consequences of being a professional athlete, and to not address my decision to pursue racing. 

Life is short and because of that, I'll keep racing. My mind isn't a lost cause, and it's not a death sentence... It's mine. And to the people I love, all I can say is this: 

Wear a helmet.