In April 2017, a rogue tree branch fell on my head, giving me a concussion.
Yes, it is hilarious. Don’t feel bad for thinking it’s hilarious. It’s hilarious!
But in addition to being hilarious, it was also bad .
My recovery protocol entailed spending all day in a completely silent, dark room. At first, I tried to cheat the system with little stimuli fixes like checking my phone and listening to music, but even these kinds of mild sensory input proved painfully overstimulating. In this way, my brain policed strict obedience to dark-room protocol. Having been abruptly pulled out of the sensory whirlwind of senior year of high school and baseball playoffs, into what was effectively a vacuum of silent darkness, I was obviously anxious to get over my concussion and return to the life I was used to.
During the first month, I went to basically any doctor in my area with the words “concussion,” “brain,” or “neurology” in their title. But, I quickly learned that just as there’s no single cure for the abstract problems of life, there’s no leg-surgery-type cure for a concussion.
Sure, I was taking outrageous amounts of fish oil, Gingko, Magnesium, and Belladonna (a famous poison also known as “Deadly Nightshade,” “Death Cherries,” or “Naughty Man’s Cherries,” rarely used in treatment because, as WebMD puts it, Belladonna “is generally considered unsafe.” My WebMD-savvy alternative doctor must have interpreted this highly ambiguous choice of words, like “generally” and “considered,” as adequate reason to recommend that I take double the suggested dose) in hopes of accelerating my recovery. But, even in my delirium, I didn’t expect a witches’ brew of homeopathic oils and vitamin-enriched pixie dust to be a panacea for brain trauma.
Concussions take place in a sort of no man’s land between synapses and abstract consciousness. They might as well take place in outer space, or in another dimension. Accordingly, my concussion doctor’s prognostications usually sounded like hair-brained science experiments or bold NASA projects endeavoring to send probes to some distant, exotic planet with such a low probability of success that they hardly justify the time and money needed to bring them to fruition.
In my desperate search for a “cure” for my concussion, I experimented with the outermost fringes of the medical world: the truly punk-rock subculture of medical science. I spent the bulk of my days wearing dark sunglasses in dimly-lit 90s-style psychiatrist-office-type rooms decorated with plastic skeletons and disembodied rubber brains, peering through the dense fog of my thoroughly-concussed semi-hallucinogenic daze (a common symptom which my concussion doctor referred to, with a tone of Steve Jobs-ian awe, as “The Cloud”) and talking with the bold adventurers who live precariously on the space-age frontiers of human medical knowledge: the brave (and hopelessly misinformed) men and women on the frontlines of the grunge revolution against “heartless academia” and “actual facts and things that are true;” those who choose to ground their concussion research and treatments in gut feelings and wild speculation.
What I mean to say is: it didn’t work. I played Patient while they played Doctor through endless sessions of “brain stem stimulation” (i.e., they had this big machine that generated electric current with a long tube sticking out of it that they would stick on the back of my tongue and shock me until the lower half of my face went numb, thereby “stimulating my brain stem”; after a while, the throbbing, buzzing sensation that would shoot up through the roof of my mouth and down into my jaw started to feel really good in the same way the percussive vibration of bass through your body at a concert feels good. So I said to the nurse operating the machine: “I actually kind of like the feeling haha”–to which she replied with a perplexed, hollow look of deep concern along with a stilted half-laugh that clearly communicated: “he’s in way too deep–I should up the voltage”), sessions with the “tilt table” (i.e., this metal table that tilted slowly from horizontal to vertical–which was fine in theory, and an admirable effort to cure a problematic cerebral-circulation-thing I got alongside the concussion, like one of those free add-ons with Amazon purchases, called postural tachycardia syndrome; however, the tilt table was most definitely not fine because, as it tilted, it would make this excruciating screeching sound that changed in pitch as it went up and down, waxing and waning in frequency like a chorus of human voices on a sailboat caught in a tidal wave, all screaming in unison: this gave me the distinct feeling that I was attached to repurposed torture memorabilia, which, in retrospect, I wouldn’t put past my pseudo-doctor–also, the nurse noted, “every time it makes the sound your heart rate doubles: that’s why your headaches get worse while you’re here. You poor dear!” then promptly contradicted herself by cranking it all the way back up and down like eight more times, clearly trying to use up enough time so that it would almost seem like a “real” doctor’s appointment), and sessions of “percussion” (where they would attach me to the good ol’ electricity machine and put adhesive pads all over my neck that made all the muscles tighten and seize up for a few seconds, then relax, then seize up, then relax, for like fifteen minutes, which, while failing to make my headaches go away, succeeded in making me feel fully insane).
Now, in October 2018, having officially crossed the diagnostic gap from “concussed” to “not really all that concussed but still post-concussive,” I feel like I can draw some broader conclusions from my own treatments/lack thereof, bearing in mind that my sample size (1) is pretty disqualifyingly small (so you shouldn’t take anything I say all that seriously). But anyway, for me, there was no cure. I think a concussion is just something you have to go through: the only way out is through.
That said, I found that meditation, of all things, helped me go through the many vicious stages of concussed-ness in at least a more intentional way without losing as much of a grip on my sanity. I think the reason meditation succeeds where the other equally mystical and pseudo-scientific and fake-sounding treatments fail lies in the fact that it doesn’t rely on external inputs. Rather, it ambushes the concussion from within, where the concussion thinks itself invulnerable, in a maneuver tactically analogous to reconnaissance. Meditation basically meets the concussion on the concussion’s terms in the concussion’s own environment: i.e., in the gray area between neural function and abstract consciousness/thought. The concussion doesn’t live in a physical location that’s accessible to medicinal or therapeutic penetration. It lives where thoughts live: in the shapeless, spaceless glow that science doesn’t have access to yet.
Out of all the outlandish treatments my well-intentioned doctors tried on me, like shocking my tongue and trying to realign the plates of my skull with their fingernails, not a single one had palpable effects on my symptoms. And, to be honest, the results of meditation have hardly been much better. But the difference is, meditating at least gives you a weapon. It might be a losing battle, but it’s not a massacre, and battles end. Beyond arming you for the war to come, meditation puts you on the right battlefield, in the only place where the concussion is actually willing to fight: the land of thoughts. I don’t mean to suggest that you can think your way out of a concussion, but it’s at least worth trying to meditate your way through it. And when you’re in a silent, dark room, breathing is pretty much the only thing happening. For you, it might as well be the only thing happening in the entire universe. Why not pay close attention? Maybe it will just help to pass the time, or maybe it’s your way out.