Introductions are funny things. They certainly vary depending on the audience and occasion, but from what I’ve seen there is a general pattern. The standard format seems to always read something like this: Hello, my name is insert name, and I am a insert occupation/hobby/purpose. I never had much trouble with the first half (my name is Logan, by the way), but there was a time not long ago that I was at a complete loss for what to put in that second, less well-defined blank space.
The identity question is tricky because of our tendency to define ourselves by our actions. I was the captain of a varsity sports team, so I saw myself as an athlete. I was near the top of my class at school, so I considered myself to be an academic. I was in the midst of launching a business, so I thought of myself as an entrepreneur. Even describing those qualities that are less tangible, such as calling myself a genuine, caring person, were always tied back to actions such as supporting people through difficult times in their lives. So what happens when all of these actions stop? Do I add a disclaimer to my introduction like “My name is Logan and I am used to be an athlete/academic/entrepreneur”? Do I finish it with the statement that I am “genuine and caring… but currently on hiatus”?
These became real questions that I had to navigate after I sustained a serious concussion in 2012. Almost every one of the thousands of actions that made me who I am suddenly screeched to a halt. When it happened I assumed that I would spend a few days resting and then slowly work my way back into all of my activities. This was the case when I had dealt with concussions in the past, and I felt as though I was doing everything right. I approached the concussion return to play protocol like any other injury rehabilitation program, and although it was disappointing to cancel on friends’ events and stay home instead, I felt a sense of satisfaction, as though my discipline in adhering to my recovery program was earning me something. The prospect that there would be any long term consequences was the farthest thing from my mind. Time continued to pass, however, and I was not getting any better.
Physically, I was in a great deal of pain, around the clock. This was coupled with nausea and dizziness, which I could escape only when I slept. Although this could be debilitating, it was the cognitive effects that I dreaded the most. Where I used to be witty and easy to joke with, I suddenly found myself confused and at a loss for words. My processing speed had dropped to a level where I couldn’t tell how quickly cars were driving, which made crossing the road a nightmare. My memory had become so shoddy that everything looked familiar and foreign all at once, and I found myself lost- sometimes for hours- in environments that I had grown up in. The extreme sensitivities I developed meant that there was a real risk of getting acutely ill if I was overstimulated by so much as a barking dog, a television set, or small amounts of exercise. For the first time in my life the world had become a very scary place. My response was to shut myself out of it, wearing earplugs and sunglasses everywhere I went, and doing little other than going to and from medical appointments. I kept reminding myself that this would soon pass, surely it must.
I did my best to stay positive, even when faced with difficult realities. I took it in stride when I had to drop my last semester and delay my graduation. I nodded along in what I hoped was a stoic manner when I was told that, because of the risk of re-injury, I would never again play the sport that had been the center of my world for over a decade. Strangely, what brought me to my breaking point was something much more mundane. More than a year after my injury, I was making lunch and the effort of trying open a jar that was stuck brought my symptoms rushing forward. Once I steadied myself from the dizziness, I sunk to the floor and wept – not from the pain, but from the incredible feeling of weakness, fragility, and helplessness. I remember thinking that for the first time I truly understood the feeling of despair. It was clear to me in that moment that my life was no longer something I had control over, but instead it was just a series of things that happened to me. The way I saw myself began to shift. “My name is Logan and I am a leader, role model, and optimist.”
My concussion symptoms quickly became my least favourite topic of conversation. I had seen myself as someone that people looked up to and hated the idea of being pitied, so I started lying about my health. I told people I was doing okay, often making excuses for not wanting to go out or socialize. I was convinced that I was doing them a favour by not going, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about controlling volume levels or constantly checking in with me to see if I was coping. By now more than 15 months had gone by, most of my friends had graduated without me, and I was still sick. I kept telling myself that someday soon I would be able to jump back into my old life, but as time went by this seemed to be slipping farther and farther away. Without school, sports, or social events, and with the overwhelming sense that I had little to contribute, I began to isolate myself and became depressed. There is a very fine line to walk between boundless optimism that someday soon you will wake up healthy, and passive acceptance of a situation that seems totally out of your hands. As months turn into years, at what point do you stop seeing yourself as sick, but instead come to terms with your limitations as simply the way you are now? How many concessions in your expectations can you make without feeling like you’ve totally given up?
Depression was not at all what I had thought it would be. I had always pictured it as a torrential sadness, but the reality of it for me was more akin to a total absence of emotion. It was as though I had walled off that whole area of my mind. This was understandably very hard on those around me, and it made me want to retreat even further. One night my girlfriend was up crying, and I felt nothing. No empathy, no sadness, nothing. I knew what I should have felt, and did my best to fake it, but I could not force myself to feel anything. Ironically it was my inability to feel sadness that I hated the most about being depressed. The identity took another hit, as I remember realising that I was unable to be the caring person that I thought I was or wanted to be.
I still ask myself why I resisted treating my depression for so long. Every time my physician would ask me about it I would try and downplay any emotional issues I was having. I despised how weak I felt, and could not bear the thought of any further pity or sympathy being sent my way. I saw my depression as a downstream effect of my inability to exercise, rather than something that was actively inhibiting me from getting better. I thought that if I could just be physically active without getting violently ill, I would have my life back and there would be no reason for me to shut myself away or feel depressed. I didn’t want to feel better, I wanted to bebetter, in the sense that I saw taking antidepressants or going to therapy as a way of masking one of my symptoms rather than addressing the root cause. It also felt as though it was the last bastion of control that I still held. At a time in my life where every decision I made was ruled by the level of symptoms I was experiencing or the fear of anticipated symptoms, the ability to decide what treatments I would take was a small victory that my ego desperately needed. Looking back, this decision is the only regret I have regarding the incredible care I received from the Sports Medicine and Athletic Therapy teams. Had I accepted more of the help that I was offered to address my mental health needs, I believe that not only would I have recovered more quickly, but I may have made life a lot easier in the process, for all of the people around me.
In October of 2013, 22 months since my injury, I attended a conference where one of my rehabilitation physicians was speaking about concussions. I remember sitting in the back, with my earplugs and sunglasses, as he closed with the statement that “What we know about concussions, is that by and large, they get better.” He was right. As the year went on I began to see small improvements. Slowly I began to notice slight increases in my exercise capacity, short windows in the day when my headache would fade to a level where it was basically background noise, and longer periods where I could be awake and energized. Taking advantage of this I was able to reconnect with my old team as an assistant coach, and I began mentoring other athletes that had been dealing with long term concussion symptoms. My recovery gained momentum, and while I still struggled with symptoms any time my heart rate rose above a resting level, I could be out in the world again. I felt as though I once again had something to contribute.
It was only in hindsight that I began to realise how connected my mental and physical health had been. I’ve heard it said countless times that attitude is everything when recovering from illness or injury, and my experience only reinforced this statement, or at least that attitude is half of it. I began to see changes in my mindset translate directly into improvements in my symptoms, which would in turn further help my mood. Eventually, I stopped seeing myself as being sick at all, and my identity began to rebuild itself. Maybe I didn’t have to be the guy with a concussion, but instead just a guy that tends to get headaches. Even though I can’t be an elite athlete anymore I am able to define myself at least as an active person. I went back to school and although I am no longer at the top of my class, I am more than happy to be keeping up and working towards something.
After four long years I am not the person that I was before the injury, but that’s okay. My experience has taught me a great deal, and while I can’t say that I am glad to have gone through it, I know that will make use of it in the years to come. When thinking about how to introduce myself, I no longer struggle to fill that second blank space. I could fill it with the activities that fill my day, so I could tell you that I am a coach, a medical student, and an educator. I could instead tell you about my personality, how I am once again empathetic, kind, and reliable. What I think I’ll settle on, however, are the things that I am truly grateful for. “My name is Logan Seaman, and I am happy, healthy, and above all, hopeful for the future.”
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