Excerpted from SEX WITH A BRAIN INJURY by Annie Liontas | Copyright © 2024 by Annie Liontas | Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, LLC.
the life cycle of a concussion
It starts with a big bang. It comes from the sky: a meteor, a falling object, a box. It comes out of nowhere, a car, a baseball, an opponent’s fist, a partner’s fist, an officer’s baton, a player’s helmet, the banned Kane-basami throw during the girls’ judo tournament, a skateboard crash, a roller coaster, the blast of an IED, a low-sitting shelf, a low-hanging branch, a rogue wave, a 2×4. Or you fall off your bike on a quiet road.
You do not pass out. You aren’t likely to, less than 10 percent of concussions result in loss of consciousness (this happens only if the rotational forces at the junction of the midbrain and thalamus result in a disruption of the system that regulates your sleep-waking—that is, you get hit at just the right spot). Later, you will wish you had passed out for just a minute or two, as proof to you and everybody else that something happened. You will secretly wish that there was blood, not too much blood, not like a whole brain bleed. Just, like, a touch of Halloween-style makeup.
Your brain, which is the texture of butter, ricochets around in its own liquids. It slams against the wall of the skull. The axons that connect the white matter of the brain—each a tiny filament less than 1⁄100th of a human hair in diameter—fray and tear. The headaches, the dizziness, these will come soon enough. Right now, you are freaked because something is up with your eyes. You were told by the cartoons that you’d see stars, but actually the world is retreating, as if the air is taffy being pulled and stretched, the world in present tense and you several seconds behind.
Your friend answers the phone call you don’t remember making, scrapes you off the pavement, stealing glances at you in the passenger seat because he’s nervous you’ll fall asleep, or worse. You try to be the same person you were before you fell off your bike, crack a joke about how hard your head must be, only you’re not sure if you actually spoke out loud or if you said the joke twice or if your friend was actually the one who made the joke. This is called, you are told, confusion. At the hospital, if you’re lucky, you’re put through a CT scan. The CT scan does not show a thing, because technology cannot yet detect the microscopic axonal injury of concussion. The scans come back normal. The formal diagnosis is “traumatically induced transient disturbance of brain function,” but the people who treat you now and in the coming months interchangeably use the words “concussion,” “mild head trauma,” and “traumatic brain injury” so that when you leave with the paper that says what you have and what you should do—which you cannot read, why can’t you read? You were in the Acorn group in second grade, which means you have been praised for your reading abilities since age seven and are pretty sure you’ve only gotten better since then—you are lost. You realize you have no idea what a concussion is, really.
Your knowledge about TBI—traumatic brain injury—from the movies or the news. The one about the skiing accident, the horrific car pileup, the boxer’s career-ending match, the brilliant lawyer-doctor-professor-soldier-architect who can no longer feed himself and must learn how to walk again with the help of the doting wife. To you, “traumatic” suggests debilitating, disability. The images scrolling through your mind are categorized as “severe TBI,” an injury that ranks 3 to 8 on the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) and likely results in amnesia, slurred speech paralysis, or days of unconsciousness. Think of Tracy Morgan, comatose for two weeks after a speeding Walmart truck crushed his limousine, followed by five months in a wheelchair. Conversely, if you had a moderate TBI, you would have likely passed out for twenty minutes to six hours, and upon waking might face permanent cognitive limitation or emotional lability—9 to 13 on the Glasgow Coma Scale. Think of Roseanne Barr who talks about how her family took in Holocaust refugees; how, after she was hit by a car at age sixteen and impaled by a hood ornament, she was never the same. “It’s still you,” Barr says, “but it’s an artificial intelligence you.”
You are not Tracy Morgan or Roseanne Barr. Apparently, what you have is far less tragic, is in fact minor, which is why they put a little “m” in front of it and call it “mild TBI.” Tiny baby teeny-weeny mTBI, a.k.a. concussion, a.k.a. not something that the Glasgow Coma Scale is very much help with since it only evaluates loss of consciousness. You think of these three categories of brain injury as three separate boxes—severe, moderate, mild—when in reality they are more like steps down to the same dark, haunted basement.
The doctor who treats you likens what you’ve got to “a bad hang- over,” prescribes Tylenol.
You return to work, because the pamphlet says you should be good in two or three days. Here come the headaches, the sensation that your head is full of gauze, distortions in your periphery. You catch the start of peoples’ sentences but by the time they get to the question you’re supposed to answer, or the thing you’re supposed to remember the next time you see your colleague or boss, you forget what’s been said. You still can’t read—the words on the page refuse each other like oil and water. So you fake it. When you do finally get reading back, you can’t recall what the paragraph is about when you get to the bottom. You can’t draw a clock. The numbers get all bunched up, 7 to 12 are crammed together like the condiments on a fridge shelf—and that is definitely not where 6 goes. Even your little nephew knows the 6. You walk outside on your lunch break, and the sun brings new hurt. The whooshing cars, screaming birds, the trash truck, snippets of chatter, lawnmower—it’s all a grind in your head. You have to cross the street because the guy in front of you is wearing a neon-patterned shirt. Your mother calls, you can’t listen to her for two minutes before nausea sets in.
You always thought migraines were an exaggeration, maybe even a romantic notion, and now you know that you were simply stupid and condescending in your illusion of your perfect, contiguous health. You give your supervisor a letter from your doctor indicating that the fluorescent bulbs are an impediment to doing your job; she looks at you askance. If you were a Black woman, that look would be outright suspicious, and maybe you couldn’t even get the doctor to give you a note. You don’t know how to tell your bosses that scrolling causes glitches in your brain, that the overhead lights make you wilt, that a gif brings on a wave of motion sickness. You are tempted to tell the leadership about the woman with migraines from Vineland, New Jersey, who is suing the Cumberland County Board of Social Services for not moving her desk to a window and then firing her when she couldn’t work. But you can’t afford to lose this paycheck. So you take secret breaks in the supply closet, lying on the floor with damp office-kitchen paper towels draped over your eyes, then go home and wrap a blue scarf around your head. The tinnitus is always there in the background, a remix of buzz saw and elevator music. You’re sure this noise in your head is what is responsible for the invention of the car alarm, the fire alarm, the alarm clock. You’ve never had triggers before, but these will stick with you: light, noise, movement, plus new vulnerabilities that evolve.
Maybe you are one of the lucky ones, met with unconditional love and people who continue to come around (even if they think you’re exaggerating a little bit, which you let slide because you also think they’re exaggerating when they call out sick). Or maybe you understand Virginia Woolf, who, writing from her own sickbed, tells you friends change during illness, “some putting on a strange beauty, others deformed to the squatness of toads.” You miss all the jokes, all the fun, and suddenly you realize that your friends have moved on, made new friends who can go out at night or sit in the sun and drink tequila. The last time you went to the beach, the sun made swallowing a problem, and you had to play it down in front of others, even as you were panicking and thinking to yourself, Lord please don’t let me die choking on a ham sandwich like Mama Cass. You are as guilty as your friends: you don’t want to be around you, either. Case in point, the last six months you’ve had “Mambo Number Five” stuck in your head for days at a time. You have the constant feeling of needing to go away—to be gone.
By now, you realize the pamphlet left out that a concussion means mood swings, disequilibrium, disorientation, disinhibition, distance between you and others, vacant staring. No brain is the same, thus no brain injury is the same. You will understand that a TBI, even a tiny baby mild one, a concussion, is true to its Latin derivation and “shakes violently.” Your dreams are full of blood. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night, not remembering your name. You sit up, heart pounding, sheets smelling of rotting apples, and wonder who this per- son is in your place.
The concussion might have started off as particles finer than human hair, but now it is a giant donut-shaped disk of gas and dust. When gravity and other forces cause material within to collide, it becomes a full planet. You are your own planet, and that concussed person over there is their own planet, and that one over there is their own planet.
You are all part of the same ever-expanding universe, yet you are always apart.
Improbably, you get hurt again. You are in a store, in the infant section. A car seat falls off a high shelf and because your back is turned, you don’t see it coming. Splayed on the tile floor, you ask the blinding track lights, How stupid can I be? Two teeny-tiny-baby mild traumatic brain injuries in one year? More improbably—might we say incredibly—just a few months after the second injury, you get a third mTBI: a heavy potted plant falls off its shelf. Are shelves the problem here? No, the trouble with head injuries and potato chips: the odds aren’t great that you’ll stop at just one. The pamphlet failed to warn you, and you do not know to explain to others, about this new vulnerability, how after one concussion you are one-to-two times more likely to get a second one, how after a second concussion, you are two-to-four times more likely to have a third, and how if you’ve had a third . . . well, just don’t.
The first accident, people can understand. The second injury within a year, you all called bad luck. The third, though, seems so impossible as to be a lie. You could say, “I wasn’t in my right mind.” You could say, “I am slower at cause and effect now.” You could say, “I was looking right at the heavy object on the shelf but at the same time I couldn’t see it.” Instead, you say nothing.
What it’s like to be you: every single object above eye-level is now a meteor, and you are the dinosaur in its path.
For the first eleven months, you are a mess. The next six months, a different kind of mess. Your polyvagal nerve is all wiry. You recall a line from Jurassic Park (“The point is, you are alive when they start to eat you”). Sometimes you faint or nearly faint, usually you cry—you used to feel superior to people who cried in public—but mostly your response is fight. At the grocery store, in traffic, at a parent-teacher conference, at a barbeque, at brunch. You never understood angry people, but now you are one of them. If you are Henry VIII, your head injuries kick off years of intense rage and murder; in 2021, Yale scientists posit that following jousting accidents the king suffered from the same condition as some NFL players, and that his infamous bloodthirst might in part be explained by injury. You go home and ask your family if they’re afraid of you, and sometimes the answer is yes. You take off your wife’s head again and again.
A meme tells you: A disco ball is hundreds of pieces of broken glass put together to make a magical sphere of light. You aren’t broken. You are a disco ball.
In a year, maybe, you’ll get better. In two years, maybe it’ll be even better. In three years, surely, things will be back to normal. But by years four, five, you know better than to plan for normal. You are terrified to hit your head—even a small bump. You begin to collect stories of people who’ve had ten, twelve teeny-tiny-teeny-weeny mild traumatic brain injuries, urban legends that are all too true. Years in, you can no longer do crowds, spice, alcohol, concerts, intense exercise, hunger, temperature regulation, movie screens, maps, math, recipes, anything which requires holding on to two things in your mind at once. You screw up an important meeting with your editor even though it was the focus of a fifty-minute therapy session the night before—and, surprise, you are now an introvert (that one, you don’t mind so much). You will likely carry your new limitations into your twilight years, cognitive abilities declining at a faster rate than others your age, but maybe that also means you will eat better, try yoga, pick up sudoku or a foreign language, look quietly and intensely at the color of a single flower petal that you once would have walked right over. You might have an ongoing aversion to Ping-Pong, luggage carousels, the roller coasters you used to love, traffic at night, snow, but that’s okay, the world is full of amazing stuff. Come for the shock, stay for the awe.
When something good happens, even if it’s small, you treat it like a feast. When a global pandemic sweeps through, you’re extra cautious, but you are not undone by the isolation. You are no longer afraid to be alone. It is not that you have been brought closer to death, but how raw we must be to live at all. How strange that the thing that nearly broke you creates within you a new place for the light to go.
Maybe you are UFC Joe Rogan, Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Brene Brown, George Clooney, Justin Bieber, Pope Benedict XVI, pro-surfer Shawn Dollar, or Ben Driebergen, winner of the thirty-fifth season of Survivor. Maybe you are one of the 3.8 million athletes or motorists that make up 300,000 concussions each year. Maybe you are one of 415,000 wounded vets—maybe a woman in combat, recovering in silence. A person who is incarcerated and there- fore seven times more likely to get a head injury than those who retain their freedom. A college kid after a night of drinking. Maybe you are one out of every two people experiencing houselessness who also has a brain injury, likely injured before you lost your home. Maybe you jumped out of a plane for your twenty-first birthday, and it was the wind that concussed you. Maybe you are a transgender youth attacked at school. Maybe you are still recovering from COVID-19, and your doctor told you that, though you never hit your head, you’re exhibiting clinical and neurochemical signs synchronous with mild brain injury. You are probably not Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman, but now you know a shadow of their suffering after concussion. And, maybe, when you envisioned your life and all the things you’d ever do, you couldn’t imagine the will that you would have to summon just to get through a day.
Your injury, you would give it back, of course you would. But now you understand something others don’t: something about life, how it requires, in Woolf ’s words, a language that is “more primitive, more sensual, more obscene.” (Brutal, she wrote in an earlier draft instead of primitive, and sometimes, you think, yes, brutal.) You will marvel at all that you still do not know, and all that you do not know you do not know, but you will also see beauty you too often ignored. You will cry, but also you will laugh harder, so hard it hurts your ribs. You have fallen through a trapdoor you never suspected existed—a special door not seen by the untrained eye—and what it shows you is what only the angels can envy—how people suffer, how they go on despite it. This will feel, some days, like the most precious gift.
Whoever you are—you know.
Author photo courtesy of the author