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I was in the passenger seat of a car accident on December 2017. We t-boned a van in an inter-section. My body shook back and forth but the seat belt held fast and prevented a more serious injury. On that day, I attended a work meeting afterwards. I was shocked. I felt confused, but I was able to move and just thought I dodged a bullet. I thought that was it.
As the days progressed everything got more serious. I was diagnosed with whiplash and developed nausea, unbearable headaches, and dizziness. I found great support in a physiotherapist that took on my recovery for the first six months of my injury. During months of confusion, sadness, terrifying migraines, self-growth, patience, and hope, I had a soft place to fall with an amazing supportive husband, family, friends, coworkers, and my superstar physiotherapist that coached me to focus on all the positive things no matter how small they were. I remember feeling so much support at work when I met with my manager after my injury, the first thing he told me before I even tried to speak was that just because I do not have a visible cast, it did not mean that my injury was not real. I did not fall into a dark place because of the love and support I received from “my village”.
SIX MONTHS LATER – PLATEAU However, six months after my accident I felt that I had plateaued and I was no longer who I was before. My beautiful, fragile, creative brain was no longer the same. I was no longer myself. My energy levels were the same as a very old crappy cellphone: they take a long time to charge and the battery does not last long. My ability to think, to bake, to read, to socialize, to walk, to be myself was significantly compromised. Trying to be the positive, sociable me was unbearable and exhausting. Deep in my core, I knew there were precious memories of my life that were no longer there but how could I explain that to others when I did not know which ones were gone. I had grown to hate the question “how are you”.

I did my undergrad degree in biology in Colombia, a Master’s degree in Spain, a PhD degree and a post-doctoral fellowship in Canada. I had recently reached my dream of becoming Canadian, and I was working in my dream job as scientist with the federal government. All of that work, studying, scholarships, resources, sacrifices, felt useless.

I wanted to recover so badly. I fell in deep love with my brain. I stuck to my light and slow stretching routine, I quit caffeine and alcohol, and I even took up meditation with Headspace. At that point I started faking it. I knew things were seriously wrong but I needed to start faking everything and see if the power of positive thinking could bring my brain back… could bring me back. I started smiling a bit more the few times I could leave the house, and I started replying “good” to the question “how are you”, even when I knew that was not true. I could trick most people but not my family and my close friends. They knew there was something off. I was with them physically but it felt like I was in a different dimension, not being able to escape, and for as much as I wanted to come home, I just could not. If you have watched Stranger Things you may know what I mean. The hardest part of all of this was my inability to be with my husband and my twin step-sons. I remember once when my seven year old step-son gave a note under the dining table to my husband that said: “Make sure CS is ok”. He knew I was not. My other step-son made me a hand-drawn computer because he knew I missed work but with his computer I was not going to end up vomiting. I remember one night my husband told me “I miss my best friend”. My family missed me and I missed them. My ability to think was so difficult, slow and draining that I felt that my career as a scientist was seriously compromised. I thought maybe I could find happiness in something else. That devastated me. But I had hope that I could reinvent myself and I knew I could find happiness in my new state of mind.

Family doctors did not know what to do, and no one really knew how long it was going to take… they just advised me to move on with my life. I remember one family doctor told me I had “to get back on the horse”, that people develop migraines, and that was it. His advice came from a good place, he just did not know what else to do with my mild traumatic brain injury. I remember joking with my husband that next time I see him I was going to clearly explain that it was a car accident, not a fall from a horse.
THE NEXT STEP Around this time I happened to have an appointment with my eye doctor, who found something unusual in my eyes. He sent me to a neuro-optometrist that has recently opened a clinic in Nova Scotia and was the only one in the province doing this type of assessment. Dr. Angela Dobson did a thorough evaluation and found that the car accident caused my eyes to stop working properly. That is quite serious. Recent research has discovered that 85% of all brain processes involve the visual process in some way. I vividly remember the end of a very difficult 3+ hour assessment she said that the brain has enough neuro-plasticity to re-arrange everything back to normal using vision therapy, that this transformative process would take about six months, and that I was going to have my family, my life, and my job as a scientist back. I burst into tears because up to that point no one had being able to explain to me exactly what was wrong. She even put words and technical explanations to many of the feelings I was experiencing for so long. Dr. Dobson also advised me to see an integrative physiotherapist to help with this restorative process that involved my mind, body and soul. Together, they gave me my life back.

The first weeks of my rehabilitation were mesmerizing as memories were rebooting, just like rebooting a computer, and vivid dreams of when I was very young started surfacing in vibrant colors. I still remember how exciting it was when I started walking at a normal speed, and the world was no longer spinning in front of me, and it was no longer the inhospitable place it had become. I remember when I started feeling that my body was responding to commands from my brain, everything getting in synch, it was no longer stuck. The scariest part was that I did not know that I was “not in synch” and that I needed not be “unstuck”. I then understood that even when nothing is terribly wrong physically, we cannot properly move if our eyes are not working accurately together. My ability to visualize/project activities or upcoming events in an imaginary calendar in my head also came back.

We truly do not know what we have until is gone, and in my case, until it comes back again. My ability to visualize how to ride a bike, how to get to the library, or how to schedule events, was simply gone for a while. Now I know that is why I felt I could simply not do things. I could not “see them”. This was so opposite to the risk-taking person that I have been up to a day before the accident. As I started visualizing and projecting memories or routes of where I was going, I started being brave again. For example, I remember the first time I decided to ride my bike for three minutes and how that became the moment I realized how wrong I was thinking I was never going to be able to have my life back. I celebrated when we went on a canoe for the first time without triggering any symptoms. My speed of thinking also kept improving throughout the months. This injury awoke a scary and powerful anxiety that I have never felt before. Dr. Dobson explained to me that feeling was protecting me because my eyes were not working properly and my brain was therefore confused and in high alert. Dr. Dobson and my rehabilitation team gave me tools to help my nervous system calm down to its own pace.

Six months have passed since I first went to see Dr. Dobson and everything came back. My brain came back. My personality, my dreams, my hopes are all back. I have recovered my amazing family, my friends and my job. My anxiety is gone, my migraines a thing of the past. I just needed the proper rehabilitation. We are now working on consistency and endurance, and that will take time too. This experience has made me see the world with different lenses and although it was incredibly hard and scary, it has been the most fascinating and humbling experience of my life. It is so hard to explain that, unless you experience it, you do not understand how cool and magical it is.   I am writing this because I want to reach out to those who have had a car accident, a whiplash, a concussion, or after a simple bang in the head and have not felt the same: know that it is all in your head, it is all very real, and there is hope. All the things we feel, we do, we dream, we hope, require our brain. We are our brains. It takes a llot of work to bring it all back, but it can be done.

Special thanks to my support health care team: Dr. Dobson, my rehabilitation team and Explain Pain.