Convalescence is the body asserting its own tempo.
Text & photos—Catherine Bernier
Last spring, I rode a wave that would change the chemistry of my brain for months — maybe even the rest of my life.
That morning, a final winter storm was announced on the radar. My boyfriend and I decided to go out with friends in search of the best waves, a few hours from our Nova Scotia home. When we stepped onto the rocky beach, I was already gripped by that mix of excitement and nervousness that I feel before all my surf sessions. Once I was in the water, I caught a few good waves; then, seeing other surfers ride more impressive ones, I decided to try them out myself.
I started paddling hard to catch a wave that was far taller than me.
And though I managed to land on the board, I never quite got in sync with the speed of the wave: it broke over my neck. In a fraction of a second I was projected face first into its trough. I heard a crack in my vertebrae before I was rolled several times.
When I surfaced — extremely dizzy — I started giggling uncontrollably (probably nervous laughter). I’m used to getting shaken up when I surf, so I didn’t hesitate to head for another wave, the best one of my session that day, before returning to dry land.
Around noon I was hit by a sudden wave of exhaustion and lay down for 15 minutes. Then, despite a neck ache that was getting worse, I swallowed two anti-inflammatories and a coffee and went back out to the water. I hate missing out on activities that make me feel alive. Inertia is not for me.
That night, spasms of pain prevented me from falling asleep, and the pressure in my brain became unbearable. In spite of all this, I spent the next day remote working well into the evening. I’m a creative director and writer-photographer; I don’t keep count of the hours I spend in front of a screen.
At that point, I had no idea I was suffering from cerebral lesions caused by the movement of my brain inside my skull — commonly known as a concussion — and that total rest was essential.
Caught up in the urgency of productivity, I forced myself to keep working in spite of the dizziness, inflammation, pressure in my head, nausea, waves of emotion, and sensitivity to sound and light.
No one but me could force me to work. And it still took the opinion of several specialists before I was convinced to take the necessary healing time. The length of this period, neuropsychology tells us, depends on a number of variables: fatigue accumulated before the accident, past physical and emotional wounds — including all the times we’ve fallen since we were born — one’s sex, the support of peers, rehabilitation efforts, and, I would add, the kindness we grant ourselves. Because the brain does not operate according to a timetable in a calendar app.
After a few attempts at returning to work and to surfing, I had to face the facts: the pace that defined me before didn’t suit me at all now. I gave up and stopped everything for a month (or almost).
“Wishes for a speedy recovery!” said the messages from my friends and colleagues: a paradoxical wish, because convalescence is rarely speedy. Against Nova Scotia’s foggy backdrop, which matched what was going on inside my head, I moved through this period of rest with feelings of guilt: especially the guilt of having initially ignored the physical and mental signs of my injuries. When injury is not right in front of your face (a broken leg, for example), or when ailments are invisible from the outside (such as burnout or depression), it’s often more difficult to recognize them, in oneself and in others. Concussions are injuries that we don’t fully understand, surrounded by a number of myths and taboos. When people around me expressed surprise, I often felt I had to justify the fact that I was still feeling symptoms. Each concussion is different, and the effects can be felt for months, even years.
Even if I was resting in a peaceful environment, my thoughts were racing full speed ahead: a rolling fire of neurons on autopilot. After a few minutes sitting in my Adirondack chair “relaxing,” I would catch myself thinking about my creative projects, new ideas, new business models. My thoughts, even though they were positive, kept turning toward the future. I had to keep myself busy, and I had to feel useful. The truth is that I had trained my brain to manage a significant amount of information at once; to make your way in the working world, you have to learn to go beyond yourself. But the concussion forced me to prioritize one thing at a time.
I was a Formula 1 driver who, after an accident, tries to complete their race with a damaged car that won’t go over 20 km/h. It was time for me to simply pull over.
As a professional working at a creative job, I identify strongly with what I produce. Slowing down meant I would have to extract myself from this environment that never rests. Would people forget me if I stopped posting on social media? Could I complete all my projects on just half my salary? Would I regret it for the rest of my life if I turned down that tempting contract? How could I pay for the myriad specialists I needed to see for my treatments? All these questions placed further pressure on my already-overwrought brain: light, sounds, movements, conversations . . .
I had to find another mode of existence. And yet, feeling pain is part of existence. These days, mine takes the form of anxiety, dizziness, migraines, and neck aches that start up as soon as I feel the least bit worried or if I exceed my metabolic capacity for the day. And I can’t numb them with a frenetic mode of life — not anymore.
It took me a good long while to understand that the concussion was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was in a state of professional exhaustion exacerbated by the pandemic. Healing requires us to dive into our vulnerabilities: in my case, the fear of missing out, the need to please — or, at least, not to displease — and a perfectionism bordering on obsession. I gave a lot at work, and now people have come to expect a lot. The concussion has forced me to step outside the vicious circle: to redefine expectations, both mine and others’.
I now avoid inflammatory foods and alcohol. My evenings with friends finish early, and my days are punctuated by exercises that are much less exciting than a surf session, to bring my vestibular system back into balance. I work about three days a week, depending on my condition. I quietly mourn my spontaneity, at least for the moment: before accepting a contract, a dinner invitation, or an outing, I scan my energy reservoir. I feel a little like the boring friend, collaborator, or girlfriend who says “no” too often, but I’m slowly learning to see things differently.
What I’m also learning is that the body has its own timeline. We may try to impose our own desires onto it, but the body will always be in charge. It’s challenging, but it’s the way of convalescence.
I realize how lucky I am to be able to stop. Others don’t have this option, for family or financial reasons. I also know how privileged I am to be working with open-minded people who are ready to find other ways to work with me — something that is not always possible in more traditional working environments.
A few months have passed now since my concussion, but my convalescence is far from over. Faced with residual symptoms caused by the physical and mental wear I’ve inflicted on myself over the years, I am no longer the high-performing girl I once was. And that’s okay. This driver is quietly enjoying taking the car along some peaceful country roads. When we go slower, it’s startling how much better we can see.
Catherine Bernier is a creative director, freelance writer, and photographer who also holds a degree in counselling psychology. Whether in Sainte-Flavie, Gaspésie (her hometown in Québec), or Nova Scotia (her adopted province), she cultivates a special relationship with the ocean and wild spaces.
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