The second stage of my recovery was very different than the first. I was no longer as concerned with sleeping as much as possible and tried to find gentle, mindless activities to occupy my time. Mostly, this included taking short, slow walks to the park, listening to a book on tape, and the inevitable staring at walls. My mother suggested I start meditating, so she sent me an audiobook to get me started. Before my accident, I never thought I’d be a person to meditate—who has time for that? My daily schedule used to be packed—work, gym, blog, cook, photograph, blog, repeat—and now, I was desperate for ways to occupy the seconds in my day. The mediation practice was fairly simple and concentrated on three main practices:
- Focusing on each breath
- Breathing into/mentally caressing and accepting the areas of pain and discomfort
- Labeling thoughts and emotions that arose objectively, trying to negate emotion
After listening to the meditation practice on my iPad, I began to incorporate the meditation into my daily walks to the park. I’d sit under the shade of a large tree, take my shoes off, and just stare at the leaves while practicing the above meditation techniques. I’m pretty sure all of the mothers at the park either though I was crazy or a creeper, but the setting was perfect for what my body and mind needed.
I began to notice that when I did the third meditation series—labeling thoughts—the emotion that surfaced over and over again was fear. Despite the doctors promise that I would heal and only five percent of people with PCS have symptoms a year later, I was afraid: afraid of what I felt like, that I wouldn’t heal, that my life as I knew it was over. Sure there were moments of hope and peace as I sat there, but it wasn’t until many weeks later, after I’d tried and failed at returning to work, that acceptance and restlessness took over as my dominant daily emotions.
Originally, I had only planned to be gone from work for a week and a half, but as my symptoms showed no sign of relenting, that absence stretched over three and a half weeks. During this time, I’d been seeing my primary doctor every week or so, but couldn’t get in to see a neurologist until the end of October, an appointment we all hoped I wouldn’t have to keep. With back to school night approaching, I decided that I wanted to try and return to see if I could handle teaching through the rest of my recovery. I also started taking a 25mg does of amitriptilyne each night and though I was skeptical to start a new medication after my reaction to the gabapentin, it actually seemed to help my concentration and reduce my sensitivity to stimuli once I got used to it. Still, I could barely handle being in a place like a grocery store with all of the movement and its lights and colors with much success. And if I’d listened to my body, I’d have known I was still in no condition to work. But my personality is to conquer, to push through and ultimately, not let other people down or be disappointed in me.
So with all of that in mind, Jeff drove me to back to school night with the intent of going to work full time the next day. As soon as I got into the building, I knew I wasn’t ready but put on a brave face and set about convincing everyone that I was “so” much better. On the way to work the next morning, I kept repeating the mantra “I can do this and I will heal,” two ideas I wanted so desperately to be true. I somehow survived the first two days, but went home each day in tremendous pain and with extreme vertigo and head pressure. I tried sleeping 10-12 hours each night (I was going to bed between 6-8pm) but on Friday, I had to leave at lunch, my symptoms had increased that much. I was pretty hysterical at that point, dwelling on how I’d let everyone down—I mean how could such a small thing cause this many issues for so long? I still, and probably always will, grapple with that question.
At my next doctor’s appointment, my doctor was able to push and get my neurologist appointment moved up to that same week. I was so excited because, finally, I’d be seeing someone who specialized in the brain and might really be able to help. Boy, was I naïve. At the appointment, after meticulously going through the entire of my condition (with took awhile at this point), I started to get the feeling through the neurologist’s responses and body language that he wasn’t really listening to me or taking me very seriously. He eventually told me that my medication—the amitriptilyne—was causing issues for me and to stop taking it. I should also mentioned that he seemed pretty distracted during the appointment, looking at/texting on his phone and listening to his voicemail without once apologizing. I realize that he may be busy, but it felt rather absurd to be that ignored. By the end of the appointment, I got the feeling that he didn’t really believe I even had PCS and thought the medication was the root of all of my problems—a conclusion that made no sense based on the timeline I’d given, but one my doctor confirmed the next day—he didn’t even think I’d hit my head hard enough to get post concussive symptoms.
At this point, I needed a doctor’s note to give to my school to prove I really was seriously ill, but my primary doctor was at a loss as to what to write because she didn’t want to go against a specialist’s opinion. In the end, she ended up writing that I had “debilitating headaches and vertigo,” which was fine by me—at this point, I didn’t really care what the label was, I just knew I couldn’t work. Still, I sent my doctor an email requesting an appointment with a different neurologist for a second opinion, which she was able to secure for me in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
During this time, I also explored physical therapy, visiting an ENT for my vertigo, acupuncture, and a chiropractor all with little success. All of the professionals were optimistic that they could help, but really couldn’t produce any results in the end.
In mid-October, Jeff and I took the trip down to North Carolina to see the second neurologist. I was cautiously hopeful given my last experience, but the appointment was completely different—she listened, was understanding and compassionate, and basically overall disagreed with the neurologist I’d seen in Blacksburg. She put me back on a version of my medication—nortriptilyne—and recommended yoga, meditation, and basically being as active as possible without exacerbating my symptoms. Like my primary doctor, she didn’t think I needed to make a complete recovery before returning to work, so I came back home hopeful and ready to finish the healing process.