Thursday, April 1, 2021

Concussion Changed Me For the Better

This isn't some hippy dippy philosophical post about adversity making me stronger, though props to you if that's the case in your life.  I've had enough adversity for one lifetime and it doesn't in fact make me stronger.  No, this is as straightforward as it gets:  Concussion > improved mental health > better life.  The hows and whys are less clear to me.  


I've been morbidly interested in concussion and CTE since watching the PBS documentary League of Denial in 2013 at the height of my benzo withdrawal nightmare.  Now THERE are some people who can relate to being trapped in a broken brain with no way out.  I made it a mission to protect my head at all costs after that.  You only get one brain and, unlike the heart or other organs, there's no such thing as a triple brain bypass or cerebral transplant if you damage it.  And I had damaged it with etizolam abuse which was by far the worst experience I've ever been through.  That was enough for me.  I still deal with the repercussions of that to this day, but that's another story for another time.

So you can imagine my absolute terror when I recently sustained a concussion.  I'd hit my head and injured my neck in the past, but this was different.  I knew instantly that something was wrong this time.  It was a textbook concussion with all the cliche symptoms:  seeing stars, instant severe nausea and that warm rush of SOMETHING flowing to my head followed by hours of dopey brain fog similar to being drunk.  In the ambulance, suicide crossed my mind as a possible solution if I were to be stuck in a brain wracked with worsening depression, anxiety and sleep issues--all things that have plagued me my entire life and possible symptoms of Post-Concussion Syndrome.  I have treatment-resistant depression, OCD and general anxiety among other issues.  I've taken over 20 psych meds at last count and completed untold hours of therapy for these conditions to no avail.  These are all things that concussion is supposed to aggravate... at least temporarily.  But for some unlucky people who can't access quality treatment, they stick around to some degree forever.  

Concussion Basics & My Injury

If you've read anything about concussions you will know that no two are alike.  I hit my right cheek which means the "coup" (direct) impact was to my frontal lobe and the "contrecoup" (secondary) impact was somewhere in the back part of my brain--likely the parietal or occipital lobe.  The back of my head and neck certainly hurt more than the place where my face hit the hard wood nightstand, though I've experienced almost no head pain since the injury.  And this is odd because I was a migraine sufferer before so I expected a worsening of that, as did my doctors.  My arms and legs were bruised in multiple places yet there was not a single mark on my face.  I remember nothing about tripping or anything leading up to the fall... also scary but not uncommon.  

Diagram of coup/contrecoup injuries

The Changes

What I didn't expect was to feel better emotionally after the concussion.  Anxiety, mood and energy levels are noticeably better than before.  My tendency to overthink and obsess, to fill every quiet moment alone with rhetorical arguments and 'what-if' scenarios has decreased significantly.  The internal chatter in my head has gone silent.  Even my lifelong panic response to vomiting has declined by about 50% and it was reflexive before in terms of autonomic nervous system responses like heart palpitations, sweating and diarrhea being triggered by someone being sick.  When I say "reflexive," I mean an automatic nervous system response that wouldn't calm down for hours after it was triggered.  Full-blown panic.  Something I've worked on in therapy for over a year to no avail with exposure therapy and CBT.  I now have a "let's get on with life" attitude where anxiety once held me back.  The very fact that I went to the hospital alone in an ambulance at the height of COVID was highly unusual.  

Even my response to drugs is different; weed in particular.  I used to get a feeling of anxiety and paranoia from microdoses of edibles or joints.  Now I'm able to tolerate it much better.  In fact I'm eating edibles nightly now without issue.  This makes me wonder if I'd also tolerate shrooms differently (they're said to be good for neuroplasticity and concussion recovery).  Psychedelics have always given me a "poisoned" feeling of overwhelming bodyload where I just want to retreat into myself until the experience is over.  It's miserable.  And my opiate tolerance has decreased due to the drunk feeling already present in my head at baseline.  My codeine dose has halved since hitting my head and stayed at this level for over a month--the longest I've been able to keep my dose down since I started using.  

I'm clumsier and dumber overall which will make it harder to live independently and do things like driving a car--that part scares me.  I plan to see my doctor about getting that ADHD medication prescription I've been meaning to get for over a decade now.  Despite all this, I'm glad I got the concussion because I'm just a happier, easier going person now.  The number of arguments I've had with my family has dwindled to zero and that's definitely not placebo effect.  They've noticed too and are amazed.  It's been over a month at the time of this writing and I pray things don't return to the way they were.  That's right:  I don't want to heal from my brain injury.  I can find no information on how to achieve this and almost feel guilty for thinking this way, but here we are.  The thought of going back to my miserable, obsessive, paralyzed-by-negativity self makes my stomach turn.  

A Theory

Transorbital lobotomy diagram

Could I have damaged just the "right" part of my brain that was responsible for my OCD and depression?  It sounds crazy but brain surgery is still performed for severe, treatment-resistant OCD and depression to this day.  Cingulotomy and deep-brain stimulation are last resort options for suicidal patients that work by altering the actual structure of the brain wiring, which is how old-school lobotomy was supposed to work but usually ended up turning patients into vegetables.  I hit my face right beneath my eye which is, ironically, where the lobotomy pick would've been jabbed into the frontal lobe.  There are reports of "difficult" patients with unpleasant, aggressive personalities becoming nicer after TBIs.  What's interesting is that doctors claim it usually doesn't work the opposite way--that nice people don't tend to become mean after a head injury.  I'd say I fit this "difficult" profile based on my need to control others due to my OCD.  I was definitely a contrarian with a need for control.  Now that's blunted quite a bit.  

Inside rare brain surgery for OCD

I've always had a theory that dumb people are happier.  The whole "ignorance is bliss" thing.  And it appears to be true for me.  Controversial?  Maybe, but it's a sample of one and I feel confident speaking for myself on this now that it's actually happened.  And there's some research that supports it (high IQ is linked to increased risk of suicide, addiction and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety).  Autism, which I also have, is associated with increased white matter in the brain which serves the purpose of creating additional connections and memories.  In my case at least, I always felt these connections and memories were excessive and unnecessary.  Why would anyone need to remember all the way back to age 2 or earlier?  And hold onto all the baggage that comes with it?  

Oddly, this man seems to have had just the OPPOSITE effect from his head injury:  he became an acquired savant who also developed OCD, depression and germophobia after his concussion.  While the savant thing seems like a gift to outsiders, I would argue that it's incompatible with happiness and rarely, if ever, comes without major mental illness or negative neurological strings attached.  I would not trade my injury for his if you paid me, basically.  His story is highly interesting and offers amazing insight into how the brain works though.  

Whatever the cause of my improved outlook and reduced anxiety, I'm taking it as a sign from the universe to take life by the horns and make the most of my time on Earth.  The chances that a blow to my head would be The Thing that make me feel better after a lifetime of psychic misery and therapy/medication are so slim I can hardly believe it myself.  Life is stranger than fiction sometimes.  I'm not a religious person but I can't help but think that something outside myself had a hand in this.  If the impact were a half-inch lower I'd have knocked out my front teeth; an inch to the left and I'd have broken my nose.  Lord only knows what could've happened to my brain if it had been injured in a different area or from another angle.  

Any of my readers ever had a concussion or more severe TBI?  What symptoms did you have: good, bad or ugly?  Please leave your experiences in the comments below.  I'd love some firsthand commentary on this weirdness, especially if your symptoms included positive changes.  

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