Concussion, Death, and Rebirth

by | Feb 6, 2020 | Uncategorized

When life brings you to your knees, let your tears water the earth.

My life felt full before it happened. I had three jobs that I loved – teaching Pilates, working for a meditation organization, and a shamanic healing practice in my sweet home office that looked out at the rocky mountains. I lived in Boulder, the land of physical and spiritual triathletes.

I knew something was coming. There were hints from my guides that a change was necessary for me to further align with my life. I could feel my ancestors like an ancient orchestra of love calling and pressing their sound and bones to me as I worked and moved through the world. And yet, I never could have seen this coming.

The fall was one of those bizarre moments, impossible yet divinely choreographed. I was in a meeting at work adjusting a light. I believed that the chair I was standing on was sturdy. It wasn’t.

What happened after was a blur of darkness and confusion. I went from feeling a little dazed, but fine, to sliding into a black ocean of pain. Within hours, I was told by one of my deities that I was going to die. This was it. I wasn’t happy about it, but after some struggle, I eventually agreed to go. I surrendered and prepared to transition out of my body. A series of visions washed through and around me for a timeless time and then abruptly stopped. I pinched myself and to my surprise, I was still here. And nothing was the same.

Concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that is expected to heal within weeks or months but can cause long term functional deficits. I believe that even if you don’t have a beloved deity telling you that it is your time to die, a concussion itself can be a death experience and should be treated with the respect of a death.

The night of my injury I told my husband that I knew I was never going to be the same. Dr. Glen Johnson, clinical neuropsychologist, reports this type of permanent change in his patients, “I’ve never really met anybody who’s claimed to have recovered 100 %. I’ve had people who’ve had significant head injuries, yet returned to work, regained a normal family life, and seemed to be doing great. They appeared to be doing well socially, got promotions, and made money. Yet they still say, I just feel different.”

The day after my injury, I awoke in some kind of bardo. The bardo is a Buddhist term for the ‘inbetween’, the state between death and rebirth. I stayed there for over a year, suspended in a slow space unlike any world I had known before. At times, the peace was astounding. In the 15 years that I spent on a meditation cushion, I didn’t experience sustained peace like this. Most of my worries were gone, because I could not remember or hold on to them. At other times, life was shaky and scary. I couldn’t look at screens, manage emotions, or clearly sense who I was. Did I even exist? I felt like millions of particles spread across space.

Neuropsychologist, Dr. Colette Smart, explains the inbetween state as part of the concussion journey. She sees her role with post-concussive patients as “helping them walk through the bardo until they get where they need to go.” With my helpers of Excedrin and CBD oil, I kept trying to live a normal life from this inbetween place. I tried in a futile attempt to work, swim, do Pilates and meditate, limping through the motions of my old life. Then my brain caught up with me. The symptoms skyrocketed with longer and longer migraines, constant head and neck pain, memory loss, visual impairment, and problems integrating my sensory experience.

Ten months after the injury the losses surrounded me like puddles that grew into rivers during one long season of rain. I lost the ability to read, problem solve, understand music, dance, function in restaurants, have group conversations, and understand what was happening to me. I spent up to 8 hours a day in dark rooms. Even Pilates, the movement modality I had practiced and taught for a decade felt horrible. My body did not want linear, muscular movement. After the initial hope from the well meaning practitioners with their cheery prognosis’ had worn off (you will be better in 4 weeks, 8 weeks, 12 weeks, you don’t need to see a concussion specialist because “it just takes time” and so on) the treatments came in waves of gentle blessings through the bardo and my loss soaked world. I tried everything. A concussion specialist (If you have a concussion, get one), acupuncture, osteopathy, cranio-sacral, neurofeedback, migraine drugs, shamanic healing, energy work, chiropractors, physical therapy, vision therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, herbalism, naturopathy, and occupational therapy all helped in their own ways. My ancestors and guides were there the whole time. Watching, waiting, teaching, and listening, but there was no easy way out of this. I surrendered to the waves.

Between the crashes in my eyes and head, when I started to ask myself, What is here now? And started to really listen, my new life emerged from behind the clouds. Deep listening became the submarine that could take me down between the waves of pain and grief to explore what else was happening. I hung out in cellular cosmic spaces that felt like the intersections of life and death. I rolled into the most vulnerable places I could imagine. I relaxed into my increased intuition and otherworldly sight. I turned my face to divine grace. I felt the most alone in my life and the most interconnected to all things. I slowly leaned into the post-concussive experience, discovering that my new, less linear way of perceiving the world had more to it than just a miserable constant headache and seemingly broken eyes. I let myself savor the gifts of stillness, silence, slowness, and darkness. I started to appreciate that I was still alive in a very different looking life.

In this life, I do not meditate two hours a day, hit the pool, work multiple jobs and burn through a to-do list with the ferocity of small beaver. I move slowly, with breaks throughout the day. I listen to my soul, my guides, and the purr of my cat. I still do not leave the house without four pairs of glasses, in case my vision takes a turn and heads for a migraine. And yet, this disruption of my physical sight helped me accept my age-old calling as someone who sees in the spirit world.

Concussion is the long tunnel between the life you had and the person you were and a new life. It is the stripping away, slowly or quickly, of what you held on to, what you knew, what mattered to you and how you saw and experienced the world. On the other side of this passage is the opportunity to see the world differently, to have radically different priorities and values, and to emerge re-wired, embracing what matters to you now.

If someone close to you has a concussion or a traumatic brain injury, my suggestion is to be ever so gentle. Whatever is dying for them may be going fast and furiously or slowly, silently melting away. They are vulnerable. If you find yourself in this situation (with the other 2.8 million Americans a year who get a traumatic brain injury), my humble advice is to let the dark abyss do it’s work. Welcome the endings with love and courage, let yourself grieve, and know that even when you know nothing, your life has its own song. Know that when you have no faith in anything at all and it feels like nothing is left, faith will find you again if you open the door. Sometimes it is easier to truly listen in the dark.