I feel like there’s very little discussion of concussions in cycling, especially on the XC mountain bike side. It’s almost alarming how many people talk about “Oh, I whacked my head” so casually. So I thought I needed to share my thoughts and experience.
I’m now over 7 months out from the fateful day of June 18, 2016. The day of the Dad Dog Road Race, a race I really really really wanted to win in my hometown, and had an excellent chance of winning until an inexperienced male racer swerved for a flat, dead crow in the middle of the road while the peloton was traveling 30mph. I talked about my immediate post-crash assessment in this blog post.
What my blog posts reflect through the summer is a determined cyclist riding and racing on, climbing on a road bike less than 24 hours later while STILL ON CRUTCHES, and racing her mountain bike three days later. What I was going through was a different story.
I worked as an RN in orthopedics and neurology/neurosurgery for over 3 years. I have just enough knowledge and experience to be dangerous. I should’ve known to be smarter in my recovery, but in all honesty we don’t get too many concussion only injuries on the unit. After all, I just had a concussion. Just a concussion.
First began the sleep difficulties. I was working night shift at the time, but years of doing it left my body accustomed to sleeping at weird times, and I had been off of all sleep aids (melatonin and prescription Ambien) for months. The night after the crash I could not sleep. I closed my eyes and I could feel my head smashing into the ground. It’s actually a sensation I still feel time to time. Aside from reliving the unpleasant memory, I just flat out couldn’t sleep. I was exhausted, yawning, so tired, but sleep would not come to me. This grew into a problem that plagued me for months, and I had to resort back to sleep medications on most days/nights to get a good amount of sleep. I am just starting to be able to sleep naturally, and luckily a change to a normal job schedule should help this further.
The crash was on Saturday, and I was scheduled to return to work on Thursday night. All that week I was in a fog, and there’s a lot of events and conversations and going-ons that I have no recollection of. Though I have full memory of the crash and most of the immediate post crash activities (highway patrol tending to me, ambulance ride), I don’t remember big parts of the next few weeks afterwards. I arrived to work on Thursday night, sat in the break room, and had no idea how I got to work and why I was there. It was frightening. I received report on my patients, and a day shift nurse confided in my friend and charge nurse, “Is Heidi mad at me? She didn’t seem to be paying attention during report.” Nichole informed her I had hit my head and had a concussion. By 9pm I told Nichole I needed to go home. The fog was so thick I was in tears trying to figure out how many hours I had been at work to record in our payroll book. I could not figure out that 7pm to 10pm was 3 hours. I was counting on my fingers and coming up with all sorts of crazy things. I would end up missing another night of work.
No one warned me about the cognition changes. Difficulty thinking, figuring out things like simple math, and making coherent sentences. But it was alright, because I was back to winning mountain bike races… My emotions and moods were labile. I was all over the place. Irritable. Grumpy. Giddy. Unpredictable. I ended long relationships. I bought a new race mountain bike. Apathy. Apathy was the scariest. I didn’t care if I rode bikes again, I didn’t care about washing dishes. I just didn’t care.
I’ve never been the type to get headaches, and the headaches were excruciating in the period after the concussion, and I still have them occasionally to this day. It’s not the type that tylenol helps with, it’s more the type that a dark room and bed can only solve. And time. Lots of time.
Bright lights. Loud noises. Just can’t do them. I’m starting an office job and I’m terrified of the fluorescent lighting. I hope they don’t mind me moving in lamps. Smells that never use to bother me (which dealing with smells is important as a hospital RN), motion… now churn my stomach. I just got back from my first airplane trip since the crash, and I have never been so sick on a plane in my life during the descent into Orlando, and there was no reason for me to be (no turbulence).
The physical aspects are getting better. What isn’t is the fear. I become paralyzed with fear of crashing on a bike. During Cross of the North’s nighttime open race a young racer went over her bars in front of me and I stopped and starting choking up with tears. I panicked. I could once again feel the sensation of my head hitting the ground. Luckily she recovered okay, and I finished not last in the race. Later in cyclocross season a few of us were hanging out watching a men’s upper category and there was a crash during the start. I froze up. I felt tears in my eyes. I became incredibly freaked out. And this is the most awful thing. I don’t know how to get over it. I don’t know how to get that head smashing sensation out of my brain. I finally went on my first group ride a few weekends ago with three guys I fully trust. You know where I rode? Off the back and off the pace line so I could see the road in front of me. I tried riding in a nice pace line, but I couldn’t mentally handle not being able to see the road in front of me, even though I knew these guys would point out any obstacles. People might say I just need to jump in and do it more, but I don’t know how I’m suppose to accomplish that if I can’t do it with people I trust, let alone with people I don’t.
People don’t talk about these things. I’ve only found one blog written by Kate Ginsbach, that describes dealing with the aftermath of a concussion. It was actually a great read for me, knowing that others out there kinda struggled with similar issues. Looking back I know I should’ve let my brain rest. I’ve attended a neuro-trauma conference this past fall that taught me all about concussions, and I pretty much did everything wrong. I shouldn’t have been pushing to race so soon afterwards (but even my parents admit they knew I wouldn’t take being told no, and since the mountain bike racing is unsanctioned there’s no USAC officials to ban me from racing).
What I am thankful for is a really good helmet. If there’s anything I’ve taken a crash course in, it’s helmet technology!
These are just a summary of my thoughts and experiences since my concussion. Luckily most of the physical effects are gone, and I just have to work through the mental problems of the fear of crashing again and learning to trust in a road racing situation.
(A follow up to the other injuries: my left shoulder bicep tendon was split like string cheese. I finished over 2 months of physical therapy, and regained a decent amount of my range of motion, until I crashed at the state cyclocross fat bike race and reinjured it. My left calf muscle strain is all good, and the road rash gave me scars that impress no one.)