Monday, September 30, 2019

"When You're Going Through Hell, Keep Going." - My Concussion and Post-Concussion Syndrome


One year ago, September 30, 2018, I was punched in the head by a stranger on Eighth Avenue in New York City. I had gone to meet a friend for a drink, one drink, and to catch up. Depending on who you ask, the bar was located in Midtown, Times Square, the Theater District, or Hell's Kitchen. As Saturday night turned to Sunday morning, I left the bar to go home. I was not inebriated. I walked to the curb to hail a taxi, and a white car pulled up directly in front of me. A group of young people (late teens and early twenties) got out of the car, and two young women started to talk to me. They may have asked me about whether a club was nearby. Then a young man came over to my right side and, when I turned to him, he punched me directly in the forehead. 

The man punched me so hard that I fell backward and hit the street. Fortunately, I fell sideways, on my right side, so the back of my head didn't bounce off the asphalt and concrete.  I lost consciousness for  ten to thirty seconds. I regained consciousness. My phone was in my hand, and I managed to take a picture of the white car as the young people drove away. Then I was out again. When I came to the second time, my head hurt badly and my vision was blurry. I was dizzy and nauseated.  There was a police officer from the NYPD standing over me. There were three other police officers and two patrol cars. I was trying to communicate with the officer, but I was confused and unable to explain what had happened. The first officer had my identification (he must have taken it from my wallet). The police officers didn't call for "a bus," an ambulance. The police officers treated me as "a drunk." They put me in a taxi, gave the driver my address, and he drove me to my apartment building. From the building's lobby, I called 9-1-1, and officers from my local precinct arrived, as well as an ambulance. 

A few days later I learned that a hotel doorman witnessed my assault from his post across the street. He phoned 9-1-1 to get help for me and to report the crime. Despite the fact that I followed up with a detective at the Midtown North Precinct, my assailant was not caught. He was not caught because an investigation into the crime was not pursued. One neighbor of mine who "used to be on the job" explained that the cops wouldn't make an arrest. "No arrest, no press," he said. A media report that a middle-aged white woman was physically assaulted punched in the head by a young black man directly across the street from a hotel frequented by tourists would be bad publicity.  "Overall,tourists spent about $44 billion in the city last year..." (in 2018).  My friend George, who is eighty-seven and a former boxer, told me months later that he believed I had been a victim of "the knock-out game." "The sick game involves someone walking up to a person, sucker punching them without reason, and walking away from the victim."

In addition to the horrible headache, confusion, dizziness, nausea and blurred vision, I experienced sensitivity to light and noise. I had this odd sensation of pressure inside my head. I had  great fatigue.  During the first few days after the assault, I sometimes lost track of time. I was diagnosed with a concussion by an emergency room physician .My primary care physician sent me to the Concussion Center at NYU Langone. The neurologist there did a thorough evaluation, and concurred that I had a concussion. I asked him what I needed to do to recover. The neurologist told me that I would need to rest my brain. Specifically, I was going to have to lay down in a dark, quiet room. I should not have any screen time (and so no e-reader),  television, and, above all else, stress. 

A concussion is an oxymoron; it's a "mild traumatic brain injury." Despite adhering to the doctor's orders, my symptoms did not "resolve" within a few weeks. I developed "Post Concussion Syndrome," or "PCS," according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Approximately 10% of people who sustain a concussion develop PCS, and I have all the risk factors:
  • I am a Cisgender female.
  • I have had two previous concussions.
  • I have a history of migraines.
  • I have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ergo I suffer from attendant mood and anxiety disorders.
The worst symptoms for me were impairments to my ability to read and to write. My brain transposes letters (and numbers). My coordination is off, and I drop a lot of items. Washing dishes can be a perilous activity, and I have had to replace a lot of glassware. My vision was affected. I experience eye strain and terrible headaches if I am on the computer or the phone for longer than an hour. 

I have spent most of the past year in my apartment. I isolated myself because I was too afraid to go out. The only outings I made from October 2018 to March 2019 were for my health appointments for my dog or for me. I clung to the habits of my daily routine while fighting my shame over having trouble remembering whether I had put four scoops or five scoops of coffee grounds in the French press. To counter my memory deficits, I employed a series of checks to make sure I did what I needed to do each day. I used alarms with different ringtones to remind myself when to perform certain tasks. Gradually I realized I was problem-solving my PCS. This gave me the confidence to continue to fight to regain my abilities. I had faith that what was would again be possible.

To find my way back to being myself, I turned to books. While I wanted to read novels, I was too afraid of escaping into fiction. I read a few crime fiction and thriller books in the late autumn, and in the winter of 2019, but I couldn't organize my thoughts to write reviews. (I also was having problems typing.) My deficits included a fear of social interactions, and as any book lover will tell you, the reader establishes relationships with characters. I trusted what I could control, and what was factual. My primary reading sustenance was nonfiction.

By March 2019  I was able to read Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. It is a masterpiece of political writing, and Say Nothing is a true crime story, and a detective story. Reading Keefe's book helped me transition back to fiction. That same month I read Don Winslow's novel The Border. It was, as I expected, brilliant, and easy for me to read--but then I had "known" protagonist Art Keller since 2005 when I read the first thriller in his Cartel trilogy, The Power of the Dog. Both authors enabled me to examine injustice and corruption, and work out my anger about my assault.

I read Mary Laura Philpott's essay collection I Miss You When I Blink in April 2019, and began to forgive myself for my many imperfections. I saw that this adversity offered me unexpected opportunities. In May 2019 I read Pam Houston's Deep Creek and this opened me up to mourn my losses, heal my trauma and rediscover the beauty in the world, especially the natural world. 

While I still am having difficulties, my progress in the past two months has been (to quote my doctors) "remarkable." All of the stress to my brain has compromised my immune system. I caught a virus on August 31st which was diagnosed as viral pneumonia last week. I need to rest in order to continue to regain my health. I intend to spend October 2019 doing that, and I am going to read.