Day to day in my post-concussion adventure, my life looks pretty normal. I can drive a car, make meals, exercise… if I had a half-decent golf swing I’d be ready for retirement. But I’m not there yet, I want to work again. The problem is that work is like a treadmill that is always on. I’ve stepped off that treadmill, and it’s going to take some careful timing to get back and stay there. Picture Lucille Ball attempting this and you’ll have some idea of what I might look like in this challenge! Honestly, I’ve tried it a couple of times and fallen off, but I’m not giving up yet. If you have taken time off work due to a head injury and you feel ready to go back, keep in mind these two things:
Assessment & Preparation.
- Assessment: A cognitive assessment is a good reality check. The physical symptoms you feel post-concussion are hard to miss, but the impairments to the brain are so elusive that they can even be missed by the person attached to that brain. It’s hard to know what you don’t know. So, if you are feeling like you’re coming out of the concussion fog, that’s awesome. This is a good time to see where you are in terms of processing strength. (Another analogy, but your brain is similar to a computer, so before you put your own personal computer into full time work, make sure you know your capacity so it doesn’t crash.) The cognitive assessment I had involved memory, attention, concentration, multi-tasking, listening and following directions. I failed miserably on a number of the tests but that’s ok, at least I know what I need to work on now. The next time I write, I’ll share some specific strategies for memory, attention etc, but for now, make arrangements to get an assessment. It should involve standardized tests so you can identify areas of strength and weaknesses. If your employer has a wellness program, this would be a good place to enquire about an assessment. Your doctor may have to make a referral for you. Keep in mind, the purpose of this test is not the same as CT or MRI imaging tests, which look for physical injuries. A cognitive test is more of a functioning test, to isolate specific processing tasks that your brain needs to do to work efficiently. If you push those weak areas, you’ll get a headache, so it will help to know what you need to work on. I’m sure there are private clinics available for cognitive testing, but see what you can find through your employer (or union if you have one) first.
BTW, I said I hate analogies, but sometimes an analogy is less overwhelming than reality, so for today, substitute treadmill for your job and personal computer for your brain... and Everest, well, you know what that is.
2. Preparation: The results of your assessment are going to give you target areas to focus on for your brain. The agency that does the testing should be able to provide guidance for you in the types of exercises you should do. These are going to be very individual, so I can’t really address them here, but this is typically the role of an Occupational Therapist. Private clinics offer technology to address brain impairments, but I don’t think these exercises have to be fancy or expensive, just appropriate for your individual needs.
Once you start to progress with your brain’s capabilities, you can think about your transition back to work. The very nature of work is changing so rapidly today that any job you did pre-accident is likely to have changed in some way while you were away. Little things like updating passwords, new software, even changes to personnel will all be adjustments to face once you return to work. Beyond adjusting to these changes, work is, well, work. Your full-time job recently has been to take care of yourself while your brain heals, and you are now preparing to add a second job to your workload, so don’t dismiss it as back to normal because you used to do that job. Your world is about to get bigger again so you had better be prepared.
Slow exposure to the work environment is going to be the key to fitting back in. You can’t slow the treadmill down, but you can step on in small doses. Prepare yourself for work by rehearsing it. Try to think of a typical task in your job that requires you to focus for some length of time, and practice it at home. Work for 5 to 10 minutes-if your head hurts, you’ve worked too long, stop before pain takes over, and take an activity break. Get up, move around, breathe (meditate if that works for you) but shut off the task you were asking your personal computer to do for a few minutes by doing something completely different. You can gradually prepare to do the types of tasks you will need to do when you actually step back onto that treadmill if you rehearse with similar mental challenges, allow yourself rest breaks, and gradually build up your stamina.
I mentioned the level of difficulty you’re going to face as you get near the top of Everest in my last post. This really is the most difficult stage of healing from a head injury. (Sorry if you hate me now, but I’m there too!) You can stay where you are right now, that’s ok. But if you are like me, with some ridiculous drive to push yourself to continue to learn throughout your life, well, these are the first steps.
I’ll end today with a picture of some kiteboarders I saw on a California holiday a few years ago. Watching these supreme athletes flying back and forth with such skill was truly impressive. But when they came to shore, we realized that most of the boarders were over age 50. I asked one man how he got into this extreme sport and he said it was easier on his knees than the sports he did when he was younger, so this was his new thing. I’m not likely to try anything so adventurous soon, but this image continues to inspire me to learn new things. Good luck with your own healing and I’ll be back soon.