By Meena Krishnamurthy
A couple of months ago someone asked me the question that I have dreaded being asked most. The question was a simple one: Are you fully recovered?
Let me back track a bit. Almost three years ago, I suffered from a severe concussion. I had cognitive and visual problems, endless dizziness, migraines, and neck pain. Together these symptoms left me in bed in a dark room for almost 7 months. I was able to brush my teeth and shower, but I wasn’t able to grocery shop or cook. I was able to see people, but only for short times. I was largely isolated from my husband and my, at the time, 6 year old daughter. The dog was really the only one I could tolerate for longer periods of time, but at times even she was too much to handle.
For the most part, through hard work and some good luck, I’ve managed to get back to the things that I love. In the fall of 2016, I started a new academic position and in the winter I returned to teaching. This year I returned to a full teaching load. I’ve also returned to travelling and giving talks on a very limited basis. Most importantly, I am able to spend time with my family and to do the simple things that I love like grocery shopping. Even though it didn’t quite stick, I even managed to start running again this summer. All things considered, things have been going very well for me. I am proud of the progress that I have made and continue to make.
Given all of this, one might wonder, why was THAT question so difficult to answer? In part, it is hard to answer because I had recently been asking myself the same question and I hadn’t come up with a good answer.
The question itself confuses me. It isn’t clear to me what being recovered looks like at this point. If the person (and myself) was asking whether I am back to being the same person that I was before my head injury, then the answer is no. And, what comes next is difficult to say out loud and to admit to myself: I am not the same person that I was before my head injury. Sometimes I have still have days (sometimes many days) where I can’t out of bed. Sometimes, I am still overwhelmed with migraines, nausea, and numbness for weeks at a time. Sometimes, I am still cognitively hazey (this is probably the hardest thing to admit as an academic). More fundamentally, I am aware of my vulnerability, sometimes overcome with (irrational) fear that I will return to that dark room and be unable to do the things I love most.
On the other hand, perhaps I have just changed. Perhaps this is all part of my new norm. I have great days and not so great days and somehow I push through. Perhaps, then, I have recovered as much as I can.
Another option (according to the medical experts that I am working with) is that I’m still a work in progress. According to my neurologist, it can take almost 6 years to fully recover from a brain injury. This isn’t often the answer that people want to hear. People prefer a quick and complete success story – one where the person goes from being stuck in a dark room to being back in front of the classroom and travelling around the world, as if the accident had never happened. Unfortunately, in many cases of brain injury, this is a far-fetched scenario.
At this point, I’m still not sure how to answer THAT question. All of these are live options. My guess is my answer will change with place and time.