When someone asks me what a concussion’s after effects feel like, I ask them if they’ve ever seen a cartoon character get stuck inside a bell that another character hits with a hammer. If yes, that’s life with concussion symptoms.
Take that, mix in uncertainty and depression, and welcome to the last months of my life. It’s OK, though. I’ve been down this road so many times that I know all the curves.
I wish I’d have just gotten hit in the face.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve had two shots to the head that could be considered concussions. The first wasn’t even that hard; a mid-tier U14 player – at a level where most of the players will be lucky to get a regular shift in a decent high school league before they go play men’s league – a kid carried his stick high and clunked me in the head. It shouldn’t have hurt me because I didn’t get hit that hard – though my friend figures that might just come from my adrenaline kicking in, “crazy motherfucker that (I) am”1 – but it did, and I spent most of the following week groggy and dizzy, the telltale signs of a concussion. I ended up dropping all of my games that weekend, which I despise doing, pissing off one of my assignors in the process.
The next weekend, I had a 1PM game at one rink close to my home, then a 9PM in New Jersey, over two hours from that first game. The first game was smooth and easy, and yet I still didn’t feel right afterwards; my head hurt, I was having trouble focusing, and I wasn’t confident. I still made the two hour plus drive to New Jersey to work a college game with my assignor. During the game, on a face-off, one player – a shit head on a team loaded with shit heads – got spun around, and swung his stick, hitting me in the visor hard. “Why did he do this”, I’ve been asked since, and the best answer I can give is “why not?”. This isn’t the type of player who respects anyone enough to not swing his stick violently in an attempt to keep his balance, so if someone mentioned that he hit me in the face, he’d probably say I got hit because I was fat or something equally noxious.
It should be noted that just about everywhere now, referees and linesmen are required to wear visors. USA Hockey made the practice mandatory last season, and before that, I worked for college assignors who mandated it, mainly out of a desire to not be sued, but the first one to force it that I know of, Paul Stewart, has a supervisor on his staff, Pat Dapuzzo, who was cut by a skate blade, which ended his career. Dapuzzo swears he’d have been alright had he been wearing a visor.
I, on the other hand, swear I would have been better had I not. The stick went into my visor, and rocked my head hard. Unfortunately, that meant that the vibration of the helmet hurt me even worse; my ears rang for the rest of the game, and for days afterwards. Had I not been wearing the visor, I probably would have – at a minimum – had my nose broken, but I wouldn’t have had the rocking or shaking that the visor caused. Picture boxing with gloves; there’s a mistaken belief that the gloves protect the fighter from the blunt trauma of a fist, but in reality, that large pillow makes brain injuries worse, with the side effect being that the glove’s protection of the hand – which would likely be broken in an old bare-knuckle scrap as a wayward punch would hit bone instead of a nose – makes punching to the head more palatable. When people argue that the advancements in equipment actually hurt players because it makes them feel invincible, it’s the reality of my getting hit that they fear.
I finished the game, which ended in a tie with overtime. Of course I did. After that, I pulled my assignor aside and told him I was turning everything back. I was done for the year. I knew what was coming.
It’s strange that I can remember the last game I worked – before and after getting hit in the face with a wild stick – but don’t remember much after that. I don’t remember much about the drive home from New Jersey to my office in Norwalk, which I had decided to sleep in before the game because I figured it would be easier to just get into the office and relax before work the next day at 8 than to go home, go to sleep for three hours, and then get up at 6 to fight traffic. I don’t remember much about that work day except the fact that I was really, really hyper. Beyond that, everything from that week is a blur. I know I went home Wednesday because – as I would find out later – I was wholly useless, and actively snapping at coworkers. Overall, I missed three and a half work days due to my concussion, and beyond this week, I don’t remember much of any of it.
There are other things, some overt and some blindingly obvious. My short term memory is completely shot. I can’t remember conversations I had a few hours ago in some cases, and other times, the day prior or the day prior to that. I remember getting actually hit in the head with a hockey stick, but I couldn’t tell my boss what I was asked to do earlier in the day. Also, my night vision has been bad, once getting to the point where I drove over a curb. There are other issues – I get odd sensations of vertigo that come and go – but those are the big ones.
Of course, those are also just the physical issues. Vertigo and other ways of adjusting are not altogether difficult so long as one isn’t incapacitated. The mental issues are even worse. Being unable to do what I want to do is depressing enough, but then one adds in having depression as it is, and the cocktail becomes a real issue. I’ve been going through a roller coaster of emotions, most of which are that I’m broken, and useless, and not tough enough, which extrapolates to being a bad human being. It’s taken a lot of support from the people close to me to get through this one, and I hate leaning on support.
Since I ran my car off the road, I’ve been to the Veterans’ Affairs hospital and am being seen by the Traumatic Brain Injury guys. This is actually the worst part of everything: the waiting period to determine how jacked up I really am. Years of baseball, hockey, boxing, rugby, falling off of aircraft carriers – oh yeah, I fell 30ft. off of a fucking aircraft carrier and landed on another boat2 – and just living a dangerous lifestyle have finally caught up with me. I’m thirty-four years old and have had more than ten concussions at a bare minimum. If every concussion makes subsequent ones that much easier, at this point, I’m going to get knocked silly by a firm kiss.
I’m now forced to go through a battery of tests, pictures and who knows what just to see where I’m at. That wait is going to be awful. College is a wash, but will I be ready to go in time for the playoffs? Will I be ready to go for next season? Am I done, unless I decide to risk my future well being? Who knows! If I could have an answer on this, I’d be able to begin the process of moving on without hockey. That’s a luxury I don’t have for months.
Until then, I celebrate the small achievements. I celebrate that a few days ago, I got through a very minor workout – fifteen minutes on the bike, fifteen minutes on the weights – without falling over from being dizzy. I celebrate being able to drive at night again. I celebrate the vertigo, the dizzy spells, and the headaches not being quite as bad as they were weeks ago. Division 1 hockey? Right now, I’ll settle for running a mile and a half.
Hopefully, I’ll never have to celebrate these pitiful, minor victories again. Until then, I’ll settle for celebrating twenty-four hours without needing Excedrin.
1 – My first fear in writing about this is that I’ll be perceived as soft, particularly among peers in the hockey community. But this is a good time to mention that the man calling me a “crazy motherfucker” has seen me literally skate a shift with a nosebleed with a towel held to my nose, saw me finish a game despite literally not knowing where I was on multiple occasions, and remembers the years of my youth when I dove into fights – both as a peacekeeper and a participant – head first. When he calls me a “crazy motherfucker”, it’s because I’ve demonstrated proof of that throughout twenty years of his knowing me.
2 – If you’re saying “you obviously weren’t stupid enough to go back to work the very next day against doctor’s orders, were you?”, you didn’t know me when I was twenty.