Memoir: I was the ultimate mom, until a traumatic brain injury threatened to ruin everything

Memoir: I was the ultimate mom, until a traumatic brain injury threatened to ruin everything

(Image: Anastasiya Milova)

It all happened for me at once. I met my husband when I was 34, got my first job writing for TV 12 days later and had three children in three years. Like many parents, I wanted to be around my kids as much as possible and still excel at my hard-won career. So I did both, as much as I could, all the time. I gave script notes while breastfeeding my infant son. I organized the school dance-a-thon while finishing a screenplay. I developed anxiety and tried to cope—naps, yoga, acupuncture—but I didn’t know how to slow down. I thought I should be able to do it all.

A year ago, I was crossing the street in front of my house, texting and walking, when I missed the curb. Suddenly the sidewalk was coming up to meet my face. I scraped my hands and knees, but did not hit my head (or, god forbid, my phone). I sat on the curb, waiting for the dizziness to subside. After 10 minutes, the stars cleared and I ran to see my daughter perform at her camp recital. I felt jangled but okay. Three mornings later, I woke up with intense vertigo. I was tired and found myself crying for no apparent reason. I didn’t entertain the possibility of a concussion—I hadn’t even hit my head. I also had too much to do. I had to finish my script. I had to help my children get ready to go back to school. I got it all done, but the whole time my head ached and I felt off. Sad. I figured it was stress from my work deadlines. Sometimes you just have to muscle through.

Not until a few days later, when I was lying down, finally doing nothing, did I realize that my headache was unusual. It felt like a lightning bolt had shot through the left hemisphere of my brain. I dubbed it my Harry Potter scar. The next day, it started to burn when I was reading on my phone. I googled “concussion” and saw the symptoms: headaches, vertigo, anxiety, sadness. Oh. My doctor confirmed it. Even though I hadn’t hit my head, I had fallen with such force that my gelatinous brain had smashed against the inside of my skull.

If you have a concussion, rest is the only way out—without it, your brain won’t heal properly. I moved in with my parents and spent two weeks alone in a dark room. There I was, with no distractions: just me, my brain and the darkness. I cried. I daydreamed. I drifted. I visualized myself back with my kids. I worried that I would never be well enough for that. I craved company but didn’t have the energy for it. My husband brought my kids to see me, one at a time, over an hour. It took me a day of excruciating pain to recover from their visit. I had to ­surrender: there was no muscling through this.

The worst thing you can do when you have a brain injury is get another brain injury. After two weeks, I moved home. I started to read again, for a minute at a time. I began walking the kids to school. I hoped I would be better by Christmas. Then, in mid-October, on the day I was supposed to return to work part-time, I bonked my head on the monkey bars at my kid’s school. Hard. A concussion specialist confirmed that my brain had moved inside my skull, exacerbating my original injury. Back to solitary.

I decided to stay at home this time. Recovery is a lonely business. I hoped I could endure it if I got to hug my husband and kids at night. I moved into my son’s room to get uninterrupted sleep and stayed there for seven months while he bunked with his dad. The anxiety was even worse than the pain. Any little jolt threw me. I was nervous about getting into bed because I might bonk the headboard. I didn’t want to take baths because I worried I’d slip and get another concussion. Most of all, I was terrified that I’d be out of commission forever. I meditated. I made teary calls to friends. I went to acupuncture. Eventually, my headaches started to subside, and so did my depression—I realized there was an end to this and I would be myself again. I still had thousands of hours to log in dark rooms, but at least I was able to laugh.

A small army of friends helped with errands, drove me to appointments and picked up the kids. I saved my strength so I could do things like help with homework or stay at the table through dinner. I had to learn to pace myself. Now every milestone matters—reading bedtime stories, watching (some of) a family movie, driving the kids to gymnastics. I’m closer with my family than ever, because I pay more attention. Occasionally, I suffer an emotional outburst and lose patience—yet another side effect of the concussion. My brain can only do one thing at a time; try that in a house with three active children. So when I’m doing math with Kid A and Kid B wants to tell me jokes, and then Kid C starts ringing a bell, I lose it. Fast. But I always apologize. I don’t mind my kids knowing I make mistakes. I hope it teaches them to own theirs.

I’m 80 per cent normal now. I can’t drive much; it hurts. I can only work for 15 minutes at a time, since looking at the computer makes my Harry Potter scar burn. But hey, slow is my new fast. Both my injuries happened when I was rushing, when I was doing two things at once. Let me be your cautionary tale. Pay attention to where you are. Take care of yourself. Slow. Down.

Meredith Vuchnich’s TV credits include Remedy and ReGenesis.

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