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Concussion Lessons: Suffering with Meaning

Last night, I dreamed I was about to walk another Camino. In my dream, I was giddy with excitement as I arrived at the town from which I would commence my pilgrimage—even though I had packed poorly, forgetting even a guidebook.

The scallop shell and yellow arrow are the symbols for the Camino. I wear a shell, strung on a cord, around my neck to remind myself that every day is a pilgrimage. I found this shell at a beach in Spain, near Santiago de Compostela (the terminus for Camino pilgrimages), the year before I walked the Camino Frances. It was then, finding the shell, that I began to plan for the following summer’s 800-kilometer (500-mile) walk. What I had forgotten—and the dream reminded me of—was the ecstasy of being a pilgrim. Yes, walking 20 to 25 kilometers day after day was toil. But, also it was extremely joyful—often the joy and pain were intertwined.

That’s the pilgrim I aspire to be: the one who doesn’t shirk from the pain, and doesn’t let the pain obscure the joy.

I chose to walk the Camino, and am blessed that I have the resources that I could make that choice. In contrast, I didn’t choose to get a concussion and the subsequent ongoing struggles. I wouldn’t wish a concussion on myself or anyone else. Similarly, I didn’t choose, nor do I think it necessary for my or others’ development, to be raped, to have a second-trimester miscarriage, etc. These events from my life are not “gifts.” Nor are we responsible for “becoming a better person” through these difficulties. The US is rife with toxic positivity. And, I’m not immune to it—I catch myself falling into its trap, and sometimes receive it from well-meaning but misguided beloveds. At it’s worse, the sufferer is blamed for the ailment: “obviously, they aren’t thinking enough positive thoughts or trying hard enough—otherwise, they wouldn’t still have this problem.” A milder version is the silver lining: “Look at this as an opportunity” or “Well, it could be a lot worse.” YUCK!

Over 60 years ago, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote about finding meaning in suffering. Suffering is inevitable—and hard. Although not equally distributed, we all will suffer in life. Whatever is causing our suffering (in his case, being imprisoned in a concentration camp) is a complex interaction of factors—and, it may not be within our power to alleviate the suffering. Thinking “happy thoughts” will not resolve the suffering. However, we have agency in how we relate to our suffering. Some days, we will have more ability to find meaning in our suffering than others. Some days, suffering through will be its own accomplishment.

In my 2+ years of post-concussive syndrome (PCS), I have gain three main insights for relating to my suffering. These insights don’t make the pain and loss go away—but they do help me to find meaning in my suffering.

1. My response to the suffering involves my entire self. As my concussion was a discrete event (the September evening that I landed on my head), at first, I conceptualized my recovery as insular. I have come to realize that my entire self, built from my predispositions and all prior experiences, play into how I experience and integrate my concussion impacts. Glennon Doyle, in her family’s podcast, We Can do Hard Things, has spoken eloquently about her recovery from an eating disorder. Doyle has talked about the need to do deep work to recover—for her, recovery from an eating disorder has to do with a lot more than food. Similarly, I see how my unconscious utilization of dissociation—a strong propensity developed early in my life—has been a barrier to reintegrating my vestibular system. Whenever a yoga pose got the least bit uncomfortable, I would close my eyes and disappear into my thoughts. I did the same thing off the mat. Dissociation is a powerful tool that can be extremely adaptive. I want to utilize it consciously and when it serves me—and also, stay present, eyes wide open, when I choose. In order to address my dizziness (a PCS symptom), I need to unearth when, how, and why I “check out” so frequently.

2. Accepting what I can do (at that moment). My PCS is defined by migraines and fatigue. Because of this, what I am capable of doing is highly variable—and, I can’t predict what my capacity will be later today, tomorrow, or on any future date. I have learned the hard way that if I attempt to push myself, I accomplish little and pay for days. Instead, I now calibrate the difficulty of tasks that I aspire to accomplish. Then, I find the task that I can accomplish at that moment, rather than attempting or beat myself up for not attempting a task that is currently not possible. Often, this means doing something valuable but not urgent—not the item I most want to accomplish that day. For example, this blog is being posted a day late—I couldn’t get it done earlier this week. But, I could read. The wise and elucidating ideas that I absorbed will help me to create valuable posts in the future. Sometimes, you do just have to push through and accomplish something. As a professor, I must teach when my class is scheduled. Knowing this imperative, the day before I teach, I do everything I can to set myself up for full cognitive capacity. Similarly, I expect nothing else from myself after I am done teaching—or early the next morning. It is easy to perseverate on what we cannot do—I find a lot more meaning, and ultimately can contribute more, by acknowledging what is currently unobtainable and then focusing on what I can do at this time.

3. New Normal. The hardest lesson for me to learn has been to accept that this may be my “New Normal.” Yes, I aspire to discover the cure for the root causes of my symptoms—and, I am working to do so. But, even with all my hard work, things might not change. One aspect of non-attachment is being invested in the process, and letting go of expectations for a desired outcome. Much easier said than done! As Buddhist nun Pema Chodron quotes, “Abandon any hope of fruition.” She explains that it is what we do right now that matters. Certainly, today I have the abilities that I have. Today, my reality is this New Normal. And, there’s no guarantee that tomorrow’s New Normal won’t have even more limitations. If I believe that I—or others—need to be different in order to be________(fill in the blank: happy, fulfilled, contributing, etc.), I will miss the unique possibilities for joy that exist today. Accepting my New Normal, I can appreciate the toil and ecstasy of walking today’s path.

I wish that there were less suffering in the world—and try to do my little part towards that goal. I might wish that you would never suffer. However, to be human is to experience the impermanence of life, which inevitably is to experience loss and grief—to suffer. So, instead, I wish that your suffering comes with the resources to find meaning in your suffering—that each day you experience the ecstasy and pain of being alive. As stated in the Spirit of the Camino,

Live in the moment

Welcome each day – its pleasures and its challenges

Make others feel welcome


Feel the spirit of those who have gone before you

Imagine those who will follow you

Appreciate those who walk with you today

My fellow pilgrims, may your toil and ecstasy be intertwined today—and for all your tomorrows.

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