Even the luggage pass-through at Masset Airport got decked out for Christmas this year. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)

Tlellagraph: A Christmas of hard knocks and helping hands

By Janet Rigg

Happy solstice, Merry Christmas, and happy Festivus for the Rest of Us! We’ve made it. I hope the celebrations were fine for all, that some quiet relaxation was had, and Santa was good to all the nice and not-that-naughty folks. I’m writing this pre-Christmas, so I don’t know how good Santa is going to be to me, though I’m pretty sure I’m at least closer to the nice column this year. I’ll never give up being a little bit naughty. Life just wouldn’t be that much fun if I did.

The days are now officially getting longer again. It’s all brighter from here. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it always seems to take longer to brigthen than it did to darken. But maybe that’s perspective.

Perspective is amazing — you really can’t understand too much about another’s experience until you stand in their shoes. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been the not-so-happy recipient of a humbling life lesson over the past month, that of having an invisible illness. I gave myself a concussion on Grey Cup weekend, and recovery has been long and slow.

When I say I gave myself a concussion, I mean it was all me. I was having a self-sufficient pioneer woman moment, taking care of things — namely refilling the water-softener machine in our basement (it doesn’t get any more pioneer than that). As I turned to retrieve the next 50 lbs bag of softener salts, I straightened ever so slightly, and the side of my head met the edge of a low beam.

Naturally a string of expletives escaped my lips, along with an unnaturally high-pitched sound. And then I thought nothing of it.

That is, until three days later, when I finally realized I wasn’t fending off flu. I was slipping into a glorious hot bath, and absently mused that I hadn’t had a bath… since I refilled the water softener. A flashback of the painful incident suddenly clued me in. My head instantly began to throb. I believe I’d been slightly dissociated for few days, my awareness and energy not actually in my body. When I realized I’d likely given myself a concussion, and relaxed ever so slightly sinking into the bath, I suddenly became aware of the injury I’d been hiding from myself.

Going to the ER the next morning, I was diagnosed by a very kind young doctor. He asked if I had supports when my eyes brimmed with tears at the news that I should be off work for at least a week. I couldn’t keep the tears back when I explained that I did have supports, but they were all out of town. With Cathy and James galavanting about Europe, my mum still in Vancouver, and Roeland also in Vancouver for school trustee academy, I was on my own in dealing with my two young children.

Adorably, this young doctor advised that probably taking care of my children would be enough for me, and that after a few days of rest I could maybe try going for a walk or reading a book. It was clear he didn’t have children.

Of course, though my family was out of town, my Tlellian family was here, and I did have plenty of support. Friends stepped up and took my children for sleepovers so I could rest in dark and quiet. And try not to think (that didn’t go so well).

As this was my first concussion, I thought I’d be better quickly. I slept/dozed/stared at the ceiling for 48 hours straight, kid-free and alone in my head. By then… I still wasn’t better. I missed the Edge of the World music festival AGM. I had to cancel all my counselling appointments the next week. That was hard, but I knew I was no good to any of my clients in the state I was in. A constant dull headache, exhaustion, and difficulty thinking and concentrating would certainly interfere with counselling. Despite what some people think, counselling is a lot more than just saying “mmhmm, uh huh, tell me more about that…” I needed my brain, and my energy, to work.

I’ll be better by Saturday, I thought, so I could enjoy my staff Christmas dinner. I wasn’t. I’ll be fine to shop with Kirsten as Santa’s elves for the Tlell Christmas dinner on Sunday. I wasn’t. I’m going to be fine to return to work next Wednesday. I didn’t return.

It looked dicey for even going to the Tlell Christmas party the following Sunday, but by Thursday my symptoms began to improve. There was more good than bad, though the downswings were still really debilitating, and I felt teary and overwhelmed in those moments.

Turns out, a concussion has a timeline of its own, and symptoms can crop up quickly. I’ve been trying to pace myself. I’ve been trying to plan good activities and time to rest. And I’ve been trying to not go mad of boredom in the meantime.

The interesting part, for me anyway, as a mental health counsellor, has been the thinking and the emotions. My thoughts are scattered, words suddenly disappear as I’m speaking, and sometimes I say things before I’ve thought about whether or not I should say it at all.

I’ve been sad, I’ve been angry, I’ve been happy too. I’ve felt panic and snapped when stimuli around me became too overwhelming. And as I started to return to some semblance of my life, like attending my children’s karate belt test, I felt insecure. What if the people who saw me there began to think that I wasn’t really down with a concussion? I’m not back at work, so should I be out at all?

The answer is yes. We can’t hold back on everything in our life and expect that one day we will just suddenly be at full capacity. Having a concussion is like having a bad cellphone battery, one that doesn’t hold its charge for long. But you need to keep working it, just to the point of tolerance, to strengthen our human battery — the brain and the nervous system. We have to move to loosen our muscles, and essentially train ourselves up to return to our often over-full lives.

The other answer to that question is that it did take me some time to recover from numerous “kiai!” screams in honour of that martial art at my kids’ belt test. But through that and other experiences, I have a deeper empathy for those off work due to anxiety and depression. Saying you have a concussion is easy. Saying you’re anxious or depressed should be as easy to talk about, but sadly isn’t. And the same “training” to return to life is necessary, but people are generally less understanding about those hidden illnesses.

And so it was with some trepidation that I prepared for the Tlell Christmas dinner. Would some people think I wasn’t really unwell if I showed up and stayed the whole time? Worse, what if I can’t stay the whole time and have to leave before Santa arrives to visit with my children? The mind plays strange games.

As you know, my faithful readers, I did go to the Tlell Christmas dinner during a 34-hour power outage. I stayed the whole time. I even came back the next day and cleaned up for a bit. I worked a few half days, and had some shorter counselling sessions. Slowly, I’m getting me back.

I couldn’t have done it without all the support I received. Mum came up from Vancouver, Roeland returned, and I was able to rest even more and worry even less. I want to thank my family for their support, and particularly my friends. Those that took my kids, filled in and stepped up when I couldn’t do the things I’d committed to, those that gave me rides and those who offered a quiet place to rest my head, I am forever grateful to you all.

May you all feel such gratitude. And may you all support those suffering from invisible illness. Here’s wishing everyone a happy new year.

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