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A hockey rink is a loud place for your world to become eerily still.
I climbed off my knees and onto my skates, staggering slightly. The building was spinning, but slowly, as if time had stopped. Bright lights danced across my field of vision like fireworks, the risers coming in and out of focus. Through the dense fog that filled the cold arena air, I tried to find my dad in the crowd.
I had an intense feeling of clarity. “I’m in trouble,” I muttered to no one in particular. Saying this out loud seemed like the best way to confirm I wasn’t dreaming.
Perhaps some part of me knew this moment would change me — although it’s difficult to give much credibility to my thoughts moments after my head flew violently into the boards.
Inside the players’ bench, my coach sat me down. As was standard practice when someone had their “bell rung,” Coach began asking me skill-testing questions to assess whether I could continue playing.
“What’s the score?” he asked.
“Second period,” I responded.
It was the third period.
Somehow, I convinced my coach to let me finish the game.
Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury that result in loss of brain functioning and can cause a variety of symptoms ranging in severity from unnoticeable to debilitating.
A concussion occurs when the brain moves rapidly inside the skull, usually resulting from a blow either directly to the head or one that causes whiplash, like a car accident. Concussions can’t be measured by scanning the brain — they can only be diagnosed based on the presence of symptoms.
Most concussion symptoms resolve within two-three weeks. In some cases, this recovery time can take longer, lasting months or years. This is known as persistent post-concussion syndrome. These prolonged symptoms can be divided into four main categories: physical, cognitive, sleep-related, and emotional.
The day after my concussion, I felt surprisingly normal. My head didn’t throb, and I had enough energy to carry me through my grade 10 geography exam.
When I had fallen asleep the night before, I was full of dread. I’d already played with several players who’d had bad concussions and I worried I would wake up in a different body — the body of a person with a brain injury.
The next morning, I was relieved. As an athlete and someone who cared deeply about my schoolwork, the thought of anything that could stall progress in my life was terrifying. I needed to get bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter. I didn’t have time for a brain injury.
This relief was short-lived. Three days later, my symptoms became impossible to ignore. My world was spinning. What had started as a subtle and general feeling of malaise became an alarming awareness I had likely suffered a brain injury.
Despite this, I willed myself to go to hockey practice. I had a strong drive for achievement — and a fear that a single day off from school, hockey, or exercise would set me back.
My head began to pound during the warmup drill. It felt as though all the blood in my body had rushed to my head, and the arena vibrated with motion. I didn’t make it to the dressing room — instead, I rushed to the players’ bench, arriving just in time to throw up in the garbage bin. I knew then that I wouldn’t be able to will this thing away.
I was injured in 2012 — over 11 years ago — and a popular opinion at the time was that rest was imperative to the recovery process. “Rest” implied spending as much time as possible in a dark room doing nothing. The doctor I saw, a concussion expert, more-or-less confirmed this. “No screen time, no hard thinking, and no exercise,” he told me over the phone. I was to follow this regimen until the doctor could fit me into his schedule.
He booked the appointment for three weeks later.
“You’ll almost certainly feel fine by then, but we’ll schedule it in case.”
In 2014, drawing on a study of 335 patients with an average age of 15 years, the director of the Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention in Waltham, Massachusetts, said, “doctors recommend complete brain rest for three to five days after a concussion,” stating that moderate physical and cognitive activity is associated with delayed recovery.
However, more recent research suggests that complete brain rest could be detrimental to recovery, especially when extended over long periods and especially for children.
Earlier this year, a Canadian study found that an early return to school for eight to 18 year olds was associated with reduced symptoms 14 days after the concussion. These findings align with current Canadian Paediatric Society recommendations that children return to school as soon as possible after a concussion rather than waiting until their symptoms have entirely cleared.
During the next three weeks, I followed my doctor’s instructions diligently while I waited for my appointment. I did go to school — an endeavour made exhausting by the bright lights, loud voices, and hard thinking. Attending classes wasn’t negotiable for my parents or me.
I tried to balance the energy I expended keeping up at school by spending evenings and weekends in my bedroom, staring at the walls, wondering if I could speed up my recovery by resting harder.
It wasn’t until years later I realized those first weeks were traumatic.
What I was experiencing was not only a brain injury but the loss of identity that occurs when you can’t do any of the things you care about. Surely, I could no longer grow and move forward.
Perhaps this experience would have been easier to manage if I had seen results, but it was clear my symptoms were getting worse during those weeks, not better. Bright lights appeared brighter, and my headaches became more unbearable.
It occurred to me that the time I was spending shut away in my room might be decreasing my tolerance to the stimuli outside my bedroom walls. But I stuck to the plan, latching onto that upcoming appointment with the concussion expert. Surely, a doctor would have the answers.
But he didn’t.
He informed me that I probably had a concussion, but I should feel better by now. He drew up a plan, which listed activities I was to attempt. The activities started off simple — things like walking around the block — and incrementally became more difficult. I wasn’t to move from one activity to the next until I could do the first without experiencing symptoms.
The problem was that everything I did provoked my symptoms. As far as I understood the doctor’s instructions, I had been ordered to stay in bed until my headaches were 100 per cent cleared.
In the weeks after that appointment, I waited to feel better. It never happened. I tried exercising. I got a headache. I stopped. I tried watching a movie. I became dizzy. I stopped.
I was having trouble thinking at school, and it was becoming hard to ignore. Math, a subject I had excelled in and enjoyed, had become a language that no longer made sense.
I remember working through an algebra problem and realizing with horror I had been using my fingers to mentally divide nine by three, which became frustrating when I decided I needed a third hand.
It only took me two more seconds to figure out the answer — but in that moment, I realized the systems of logic I used to orient my world weren’t working anymore. I was locked out of my brain, desperately reaching for functions no longer accessible to me.
I struggled to articulate my thoughts. In class, I’d put my hand up, only to completely forget what I was going to say when the teacher called my name. I struggled to verbalize what I wanted to say without jotting down a keyword.
I had issues with short-term memory. I would misplace important things multiple times a day. I would lose my keys — and in the process of searching for them — I would lose my phone. I just didn’t seem capable of maintaining an inventory of the environment around me.
Eventually, I stopped trying so hard. I did the minimum and taught myself to run away from things that caused me even the smallest bit of discomfort. I was no longer the person who put all of himself into everything he did, nor was I the person who stood out for their hard work and extra effort. Instead, I was someone who shut down in the face of stress. After all, that’s what my doctor had ordered.
The more time I spent in the dark, the worse the bright lights hurt my eyes. The more time I lay in bed, the harder it was to stand up without getting lightheaded. But what was I to do? I held on to the idea that rest would cure me.
Weeks living this way became months. This wasn’t the typical concussion recovery trajectory.
The symptoms of persistent post-concussion syndrome are unique for each person who experiences them. According to Concussion Legacy Foundation, many patients’ symptoms only arise in response to physical or cognitive activity, while others also experience symptoms while resting.
The physical symptoms I experienced, which are common in people with persistent-post concussion syndrome, included feelings of pressure in my head, sensitivity to light, fatigue, and fuzzy vision. All these symptoms I experienced at rest. Exerting myself only made them worse.
While the physical symptoms can be debilitating, the common cognitive symptoms are scarier. These symptoms can include, but are not limited to, difficulty remembering new information, difficulty paying attention and concentrating, fatigue, and confusion.
I felt a pit growing in my stomach when I listened to a 2020 episode of Ask Concussion Doc/Complete Concussion Management, a podcast hosted by concussion expert Dr. Cameron Marshall. In the episode, he explains why the concept of “rest,” as it pertains to concussions, has been historically misunderstood by doctors. Dr. Marshall says rest must be weaned down as quickly as possible to encourage recovery.
The findings of a 2018 study support this. The study, which focused on concussion patients aged 15-20, revealed that after suffering a concussion, each successive day gone without aerobic exercise was correlated with a less favourable recovery trajectory. When compared to completing aerobic exercise within one day of the injury, there was a 73.2 per cent reduced probability of a faster full return to sport, a number that became even larger in relation to the probability of a faster return to school or work.
Over the past decade, most doctors have fully embraced the idea that resting until one is symptom-free is not the best course of action following a concussion. The doctor I saw in 2011 was a concussion specialist, and he was likely following the best medical knowledge available to him at the time.
While it is encouraging to see swift advancements in the understanding of concussions in the 11 years since my injury, it’s also a reminder of how much easier my experience might have been.
As Canadians, we are privileged to be reliant on doctors and experts to guide us to recovery. This is necessary, but it’s harder to trust this process when you’re suffering from a chronic ailment not fully understood by medical professionals. In my case, it was compounded by the fact that I wasn’t making progress. The longer I waited to feel better, the smaller the light at the end of the tunnel appeared. I felt I was moving backward.
In retrospect, I can see how my trust in the medical system began to erode. As time wore on, I increasingly turned to unconventional methods for relief, such as homeopathy and acupuncture, but I saw no results.
Dr. Marshall explains that maximizing your recovery requires you to provoke your symptoms. This means trying to extend the time you can persist in doing tasks in the face of uncomfortable symptoms — a strategy entirely different from my “rest at the first sign of trouble” approach.
Dr. Marshall posits if people who’ve suffered a concussion stop doing things in the face of discomfort, they may be increasing the length and severity of their symptoms. Every time we give in to discomfort by stopping, our body tells our brain we can’t or won’t do something. This strengthens a connection between our brain and body, which confirms to us we are, in fact, incapable of doing things.
There is still some disagreement among concussion experts on how uncomfortable those symptoms should be. In other words, how hard should concussion patients push themselves before scaling back the intensity of their activity?
There is a wealth of research supporting light physical activity to improve concussion recovery. But there are also doctors who believe patients should push themselves hard, going past the threshold of light activity, especially when their symptoms have persisted for years.
In “Run Towards the Danger,” Sarah Polley’s final essay from her memoir, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, Polley goes to Pittsburgh to visit concussion specialist, Dr. Michael Collins, in hopes of finding relief from years of concussion symptoms after a fire extinguisher fell on her head.
Dr. Collins was horrified by Polley’s recovery plan to date — how could she expect to get better by staying in bed and hiding from the world, as she had been?
Polley’s doctor sent her home with new orders to do everything that provoked her symptoms. The harder something was, the more important it would be that she tried to do it. If loud rooms made her nauseous, she should seek out loud rooms. Within weeks of her first appointment, Polley’s symptoms had improved drastically.
Despite the advancements in knowledge since my injury occurred, it is clear we are still far from fully understanding concussions. These examples show there is still disagreement over the degree to which symptoms should be provoked during recovery.
Learning to run away from discomfort caught up to me fast. When I think about the impact my concussion had on me, I think more about the changes I experienced in my cognitive abilities and behaviour than I do about the ear-splitting headaches. And more than a year after my injury, I was in a vicious cycle of stopping and resting every time my symptoms were provoked. This behaviour was my body confirming to my brain it was incapable of doing things.
I went into a deep depression. The experience was debilitating. My concussion symptoms paled in comparison to what I was feeling then. At that time, I would’ve given anything to go back to my concussed but non-depressed brain.
And because of that, I abandoned my rule of resting in the face of discomfort. Combatting depression requires doing things and being active. I was told to exercise, socialize, and take up new hobbies. I had a recovery plan for depression that conflicted directly with my concussion recovery plan. And I followed it.
I credit this decision for the biggest shift in the trajectory of my recovery. My depression had begun to lift, and I felt like I had the green light to pursue any and everything.
I was 17 when I started working out and reading books again. I got my driver’s licence. I landed my first job at a golf course and started playing guitar. I was learning and living back in a state of growth. I even returned to hockey, playing for my high school team in Grade 12.
As fast as colours were returning to my life, my concussion symptoms were becoming more bearable. It became obvious to me that the more I did certain things, the better I felt doing them. This realization was both freeing and exhilarating — as if every one of my senses had been awakened after a long period of sleep.
I am sure my concussion and the loss of self I experienced contributed to my depression. But I am just as sure my need to escape the emotional distress of depression unstuck me from a trap I had been in since my head went crashing into those boards.
Looking back to 2011, I don’t doubt my doctor gave me the best advice he could. But Dr. Marshall says even today, some doctors continue to prescribe rest until symptoms clear.
As recently as 2023, Dr. Mark D. Allen, who holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from John Hopkins University, warns, “if you visit a doctor for a concussion, you might be told to lie down in a dark room until all your symptoms go away.” He goes on to say this is not what you should do — instead, you should engage in “reasonable quantities” of daily exercise and cognitive stimulation to increase your chances of healing properly.
Evidently, many misconceptions about concussion recovery still exist. But with the knowledge available today, it should no longer be acceptable for a doctor to tell a patient to recover by shutting themselves in a dark room.
Since graduating high school in 2014, I obtained an honours degree in sociology and worked for several years in insect management. Currently, I’m finishing the last of a two-year communications program, and I’m excited to enter the advertising and marketing industry.
Still, my concussion affects me. I continue to write things down before I put my hand up to speak, and I still misplace things more often than I’d like. Mathematical problems continue to challenge me, and I still get pressure headaches, especially during times of stress.
But I’ve learned to succeed despite these limitations. I’ve built strategies — like extensive note-taking — that fill in the gaps and have taught me skills in their own right. I’ve discovered the power of checklists to make sure I have everything I need. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that finding time to relax is essential to my success and ability to be “on” when I need to be.
Of course, I wish my concussion had never happened. But what held me back most was the idea that I couldn’t move forward.
While my concussion did confirm to me that growth often requires doing hard things and pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, the lessons I’ve learned and the ways I’ve changed are more complex than this.
In the past year, I’ve developed a love for photography. On a mild January day this year, I made it my day’s goal to take a great picture of a pileated woodpecker. I grabbed my longest lens and headed to Assiniboine Forest, where I waited hours for one to appear. I heard its unmistakable call echoing in the treetops, but it never appeared.
When I arrived home and uploaded my memory card to my computer, I had no pictures of a pileated woodpecker. But I did have some cool shots of a black-capped chickadee and a coyote.
Despite not getting what I came for, I had enjoyed listening to the noises of the birds and feeling the rhythms of the environment around me. The woodpecker didn’t care about my needs or my timeline. It would either show, or it wouldn’t.
Accepting things beyond my control is something I’ve gotten better at. I’ve come a long way from the 15-year-old who insisted on finishing that game, despite the certainty something was seriously wrong.
I’ve realized growth doesn’t have to mean forging ahead at 100 kilometres per hour. Growth is also learning about limitations. The woodpecker reminded me of this. When I couldn’t get the picture I wanted, I had to slow down and experience the moment as it was instead of trying to force a different moment.
Photography is full of limitations. I’m forced to rely on factors like available light, the capabilities of my equipment, and the cooperation of my subject matter. By learning to accept and work with those limitations — even using them to my advantage — I can create something special.