Content warning: Descriptions of an anxiety disorder
By March of my first year at Tufts, I was convinced I had sustained a total of 12 concussions and at least a little bit of irreversible brain damage.
I had gotten the first concussion in early November when I sat up in the middle of the night and banged my head against my sloped dorm room ceiling. After that, each concussion that followed was a bit different. There was the one I got when my roommate hugged me and accidentally knocked her head against mine, the one from hitting my head while getting out of an Uber, and even a very mild one from some really intense water pressure.
If it sounds a little ridiculous to assert that I sustained concussions from all of these situations, it’s because it was. But if you had talked to me during the five month period between November 2016 and March 2017, I would’ve convinced you that it was possible.
The initial concussion threw a wrench into my first year at Tufts, which hadn’t been going that well, anyway. I had just gone through my first real, big heartbreak and additionally, I was panicking that my incredibly high expectations for who I would become in college were falling flat. Of course, a lot of college first-years deal with these same worries. It was my reaction to this stress that was unusual.
I don’t remember much from those first few months. What I do remember is feeling a constant state of detachment. I went through all of the motions of freshman year—awkward round table lunches in the dining hall, pizza in my dorm common room, beer pong in a Lewis double—but I didn’t feel as if I was actively doing any of these things. I had a hard time maintaining conversations and felt uncomfortable around everyone I met. I felt like I was searching for connections with people and emerging empty-handed, which was a new problem for my usually extroverted self.
I threw myself into my school work, terrified that I was studying incorrectly or not enough. In social situations, my mind would always cycle back to a reading I hadn’t quite grasped or IDs for an exam I wanted to recite aloud to myself for the tenth time. I had been a neurotic high school student who followed instructions to a T, but that semester, I took my study habits to an extreme.
My first concussion took hold of this anxiety and raised it to the utmost degree. I was shocked when the doctor at Health Services explained to me that my complaints of light sensitivity, headaches, and difficulty focusing were due to a mild brain injury. He told me to rest, to avoid screens, and most importantly, to not get another concussion. I was more likely to sustain a second concussion now that I had already had one. He said that one wasn’t a big deal, but that problems could begin to surface after two. My anxiety-ridden brain reached out, latched onto that sentence, and buried it away for later.
It took a week to heal from the concussion, and the weekend after, I went to a party in a crowded house. As I was moving through the kitchen with my friends, a tall guy brushed past me and I felt pressure against my head. I really hope I didn’t just get another concussion, I immediately thought to myself. I tried to assess my own symptoms—was I light sensitive? Was there ringing in my ears? Was I dizzy? Someone turned to speak to me, and I felt as if the conversation was happening within a fog. I told my friends I was going to leave because I was tired, insisted they didn’t need to come with me, and fled back to the safety of my dorm.
The next morning, I woke up and felt light sensitive and fuzzy. I went back to Health Services, got diagnosed with another concussion, and crawled back into bed. “Just don’t get another one,” they warned.
This cycle continued on for five months. I would go somewhere—anywhere—and my head would get bumped. You don’t realize how much your head gets banged around on a typical day until you develop a paralyzing fear of exactly that. After the initial contact, I would have that thought: I really hope I didn’t just get another concussion. And soon, the symptoms would materialize.
I would prescribe myself bedrest and staring at the ceiling—at some point, I became too embarrassed to go to Health Services. A few days later, I would wake up and feel that my thinking was clear again, that I could walk into the dining hall without a throbbing head. The joy I felt on those days was unparalleled. I would revel in the simple things, such as sitting under Tisch fluorescent lights and reading an article for class at a normal pace. But a few days later, someone or something would inevitably bump my head, and I would end up back in the darkness of my room.
I didn’t want to be in bed. I would hear conversations in the hallway, scroll through Snapchat stories, see my roommate coming back from parties, and feel stabs of jealousy. But every time I felt those pangs, I reminded myself that it wasn’t safe for me to leave my dorm room.
This belief arose from constant Google searches. I read papers about how individuals who suffer initial concussions are far more likely to sustain multiple concussions—something about how just one alters the chemistry of your brain. Some extreme concussions may cause brain damage. On average, one concussion needs seven to ten days to heal. But a second or third concussion may take longer than that.
I did arithmetic obsessively. When I got a concussion on December 8, I thought to myself, you just need to make it to December 18. Months later, as I lay in bed, healing from concussion number ten, I thought to myself, in six months, I’ll be able to have a normal life again. As long as this is the last concussion. This has to be the last concussion.
And I did everything I could to make sure that it was. I stopped going to parties because tipsy college students and crowded spaces seemed to be the most dangerous setting of all. Then I stopped hanging out in dorm rooms, which posed the risk of a friend playfully thumping my skull. Even class wasn’t safe—someone’s backpack might accidentally hit my head, so I made sure to sit far away from everyone else.
In March, my situation reached yet another impasse, which brings us to my self-diagnosis of 12 concussions and some irreversible brain damage. My parents booked me an appointment to see a neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, and insisted that I go.
The doctor asked me to describe what had been going on, and I immediately began sobbing. She typed furiously as I spoke through sniffles. Once I was done, she read back to me what she had written down, which ended with, “Lena feels as if concussions control her life and have fundamentally changed who she is.”
She then shut her laptop and explained to me that the symptoms I had described were in fact not because I had suffered my estimated count of 12 concussions. It was not possible to sustain concussions from all of the scenarios I had described; you can’t get a concussion from intense shower water pressure or from your dad playfully tapping you on the head. The first concussion had probably been real, but none of the others were.
I asked her, “But what about the symptoms?” I had experienced every concussion symptom that WebMD listed. She explained that an anxiety disorder had been creating these. My mind was playing tricks on me. “The brain is very powerful,” she explained. Because I believed so deeply that I had concussions, my body created the appropriate response.
She said that I needed cognitive behavioral therapy and to start living my normal life. She instructed me to go to parties, to take lots of showers with lots of water pressure, to encourage people to tap me on the head. She promised me that none of these things would lead to a concussion. I was in shock and cried ugly tears of disbelief.
As I walked out of the hospital doors that day, I felt a lightness that I hadn’t experienced since August. So I didn’t have brain damage. So I was free to hug, party-hop, study under bright lights. In fact, I was compelled to. And that’s exactly what I did.
About a week after that appointment at the hospital, I went to a bar with my roommate. I remember feeling triumphant in that crowded space, surrounded by dancing people, many of whom came into light contact with my head. I couldn’t believe it had been this simple the whole time.
Still, my recovery was more complicated than I originally realized. It did take lots of time to heal. I did cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, every type of therapy—and I’m incredibly privileged that I had the resources to do so. Even after months of therapy, I still had the occasional false alarm. During the summer after freshman year and sophomore year, there were a few instances when I convinced myself that I had somehow sustained another concussion. I had to go back to therapy and reteach my brain to not jump to the concussion conclusion.
It’s not that my anxiety dissipated—it still hasn’t—but it no longer forces me to leave parties or avoid hugs from my roommate. It’s easier for me to recognize when a physical response to my anxiety is simply a physical response, and not an indicator that I need to get myself to a hospital. My anxiety doesn’t have the hold on me that it once did.
And if you bump my head today, I won’t wake up with light sensitivity tomorrow.