The Fog Of Concussions, Or Two Inches To The Right

Remembering Junior Seau. - Sandy Huffaker

bfd's personal experience with concussions, brain injuries, and his thoughts about the NFL and how it handles them.

Impact

One of my favorite aspects about living in Austin is I can ride my bicycle just about anywhere. My range is limited to a certain degree, and nobody wants a hot, stinky, sweaty bfd arriving at their place of business or house in the summer, but it's a fairly decent city to bicycle. Plus, it's aided me in losing almost 30 pounds, and I never have to worry about parking downtown, so there's that. I'd recently had a couple close calls with drivers running red lights and stop signs, and I'd started always using my lights and wearing a reflective vest as a result.

In August 2013, I was riding down a well-marked bike lane when I was hit from behind by a pick-up truck. Oddly, what I most remember is the air being forced out of my lungs on impact. The blows to my head, neck, and shoulder were all painful, but it was not being able to breathe that sticks out. Luckily, I did a decent job sticking the landing somewhat gracefully (paranoia equals preparedness, I guess), and I was able to see the vehicle, the driver, and the first three characters off the license plate.

I took a quick self-inventory as I followed the vehicle, and it conveniently turned into a parking lot about 150 yards ahead. I'll be damned, I thought, he's actually going to come back.

Nope. He was just parking at the next bar. I flagged down somebody to call the cops. The guy who hit me was drunk. Arrest made.

I went to the ER. I clearly had physical ailments from the impact, but I also had a hard time staying awake and alert. I thought it was because I hadn't eaten for a significant amount of time. Because I was wearing a helmet, the blow to my head was somewhat glancing, but he was also going about 45 MPH to my 22 MPH. A couple days later, poor Mrs. bfd was rushing me back to the doctor. I was diagnosed with my fourth clinical concussion and was tumbling downhill rapidly. The first three concussions were all of the complete blackout variety. This one is much worse.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

On May 2, 2012, Junior Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, following the leads of Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and Andre Waters, among others. Each of the four were diagnosed postmortem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

The definition from Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy:

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.

Symptoms:

The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.

My Days After

My third concussion was pretty vicious. I blacked out for a while, I drove home, and then I completely passed out for a longer while. I was much younger, though, and the symptoms were first supremely acute, then disappeared completely within about two weeks.

With Concussion #4, it's a completely different story. It's well known that concussions lead to more concussions and deeper symptoms. My daily symptoms include dizziness, nausea, headaches, tremors, difficulty speaking, short-and long-term memory problems, and a complete inability to focus. And we're talking months later. I was wearing a helmet, so it could've been much worse. Always wear your helmet, kids. Always.

Control

Mary Ann Easterling:

"He had been feeling more and more pain. He felt like his brain was falling off. He was losing control. He couldn't remember things from five minutes ago. It was frightening, especially somebody who had all the plays memorized as a player when he stepped on the field."

Alicia Duerson:

"He talked to me a lot about blurred vision, and he had to go somewhere in the city and he couldn't remember how to get there. It was frustrating for him that he couldn't remember how to get there."

Alicia Duerson said there were "multiple times" she had to drive her husband home after games because he was dizzy, nauseous, or just not feeling quite right.

Duerson earned an economics degree from Notre Dame and later graduated from a Havard Business School program.

Jay Michael Auwae:

Auwae and others say that they noticed his (Junior Seau's) memory beginning to fade, unable to remember simple things, like his daughter Sydney's volleyball game, or plans for lunch, to even the most mundane things like the day of the week.

NFL Concussion Lawsuit Settled

In August 2013, the NFL and a large contingent of retired players settled a lawsuit centered around concussions and brain-related injuries. As noted by the wonderful Will Carroll, the settlement is a step forward, along with a tacit admission of guilt, under the malevolent dictatorship of Roger Goodell. The NFL has known for years concussions have consequences, and now the science behind it actually exists in the public domain.

One of Goodell's more noticeable changes has been the introduction of Gameday Evaluations in the process. As detailed by Dr. Jene Bramel, there are problems, but it's a huge improvement from the gladiator days of yore.

However, in January, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody rejected the settlement as being inadequate. While 4,500 former players signed on to the lawsuit, "as many as 20,000 former players may one day be eligible for payment under the terms of the deal." Not surprisingly, the wives of several litigants agreed with Brody's decision. Knowing what my poor wife has dealt with over the past few months, and that these women were on the front line in the battle with their husband's brain injuries, their response is expected. I can't speak for my wife, but I imagine caring for me, at times, was like dealing with an infant. A cranky infant, too.

How Does the NFL Reduce Concussions?

I don't know.

That's not a flippant answer. De facto, football is a violent sport. Some argue the answer is better helmets. Some, like Hines Ward, believe no helmets is the answer. Hines' statement, of course, is as legitimate as his claiming he wasn't one of the dirtiest players of his time. Teddy Roosevelt almost outlawed football at the turn of the last century because of its incredible death toll in part due to the lack of protection.

The NFL has made attempts at curbing concussion-causing collisions. The QB and "defenseless players," among others, are more protected from helmet to helmet collisions. Some have used this as an excuse to go after the knees, but it is entirely possible to hit a "defenseless player" in a clean way.

Some have also claimed that the NFL's newer rules protecting players adds to the "sissyfication" of the sport. I won't give these morons the dignity of a link. Offensive and defensive linemen collide violently up to about 90 times per game. It's roughly the equivalent of driving into a brick wall at 35 MPH, according to Dr. Robert Stern. I'm just talking about the violence in the trenches, not tackling. Tell an NFL offensive lineman he's a sissy.

While the NFL talks about cutting down on these major concussions, the aforementioned violence in the trenches, among other collisions, creates sub-concussions. These, like concussions themselves, have a cumulative effect on the brain. The second highest demographic experiencing concussions? Female soccer players, and these are in large part due to headers, which are mostly sub-concussive (along with other biophysical reasons for a pre-disposition toward concussions and sub-concussions).

What can the NFL do? I don't know. I don't. And no amount of research gives me any logical conclusion. Football is, inherently, a game of extreme violence that impacts the brain. These men are literally shaving time off their lives with every play. What else can be done to protect their brains? I'm all earballs.

Depression

Recent techniques have been developed to detect probable CTE in the living. Among those who have been found as candidates, there seems to be an especially common thread.

(Tony) Dorsett said doctors have told him he is clinically depressed.

"I've thought about crazy stuff, sort of like, 'Why do I need to continue going through this?'" he said. "I'm too smart of a person, I like to think, to take my life, but it's crossed my mind."

"When I sit still for any length of time, I get depressed for no reason," (Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe) DeLamielleure said. "I have CTE. Let's see what the heck we can do about it."

The depression is not just found in older, retired pro athletes, either. There's Owen Thomas and Cullen Finnerty, among recent examples. Both were college football players diagnosed with CTE postmortem. And is there any question as to what drove Seau and Duerson and the others to end their own lives?

Suicide is the cumulative effect of the weakness, frustration, and depression. These aren't weak men offing themselves for sport. They were hurting deeply in ways I didn't know exist. Until now.

Two Inches to the Right

Since the accident, I've often wondered what would've happened if Drunky McDrunkerton had been two inches closer to me to the right; he only "clipped" me with the side of his truck's cab. Considering his speed and where he actually hit me, two inches to the right would've likely ended me. I have a decent-sized life insurance policy on myself, so Mrs. bfd and the kids would've been financially OK.

For three months plus after the accident, I was spending large chunks of almost every day laying uselessly on the couch as opposed to when I was uselessly anywhere else. As somebody who's always thought sleep is a thief, the mere thought of sloth is repulsive to me. Yet lying on the couch was probably the better alternative to falling down during a particularly vicious dizzy spell. There were times I simply couldn't function like a productive member of the family, and it hurt.

And then it hit me: I understand. I understand Junior Seau and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling. I understand losing control, the inability to remember simple words and memories and thoughts, the slurred speech and stuttering. The depression. Great Durga, the depression. I wasn't an elite athlete, but I understand. It's a bleak, horrible place to be, and I understand.

Every athlete above is struggling not just with the concussion, but with brain injuries. Concussions are a much deeper problem than being temporarily injured: it's a long-term injury, in large part not well understood by the private sector medical community. My neurosurgeon kept saying, "The veils will lift." That's a load of crap. Sure, you get better to some degree, it's true. However, if you have knee surgery, do you not also do rehabilitation post-op? Brains don't magically heal, and there's not a single shred of medical evidence they do. Brains, just like the rest of our body, need to be rehabbed to return to something close to normal.

After the last round of tests, I learned my brain structure is largely intact. However, I've clearly sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and it's something I'll be fighting literally the rest of my life. Much like concussions, TBIs have a cumulative effect, and they contribute to CTE. I've started to rehabilitate my brain as best as I can with the resources I have, but I'm still at only maybe 65% of normal functioning. I just can't remember words, memories, names, or anything well. I've had a difficult time controlling my anger, and the underlying depression doesn't help. Whereas my brain used to never shut off with thoughts, it now never turns on. Each day is a struggle, but I'm not dead yet.

I'm fortunate to have a wife with a psychology degree who understands me, lots of support, and a willingness to accept I'm hurting this time and need to be honest with myself. This isn't a time to shake it off or be macho or fight through the pain. I need to heal, and I need help.

But, two inches to the right...

Epilogue

So far, this post has taken me eight months to write. Originally, my inability to write and think were to blame for the delay, but, because of the extent of my injuries and peripheral damage, the litigation process was extended.

Doing Battle Red Radio has been an incredible aid in my recovery process. When you have a tough time speaking because of stuttering or pulling out memories, you have a tendency to simply not speak. While my speech is better, I just don't talk as much as I used to. It's a little scary, to be honest. BRR has forced me to directly work on my speech issues. If you listen to some of the episodes, you can hear me cussing at myself when I reach down and can neither find words nor enunciate them. I won't advertise the apologetic texts I sent to Chris and Matt after shows; both of them knew and were incredibly supportive.

I didn't plateau until three months after the accident (around Thanksgiving), and I didn't start to improve until about New Year's Day. Through Thanksgiving, I still had days that were absolutely crippling. I couldn't drive more than a couple miles at a time, and I couldn't even be a passenger for longer drives without some recovery time at the destination. Too much noise or movement caused me to melt down, so I still had a difficult time in public situations.

When I say "meltdown," a term I stole from an old Slobberbone song by the same name, it's hard to explain. It's a feeling of being overwhelmed by sound, sight, movement, or often a combination of everything. The feeling washes over me like a giant wave of hate, overwhelming my senses so destructively to the point I just mentally (and sometimes physically) curl up into a ball. The feeling is one of too much too much, and because my brain can't keep up with the stimuli around me, it opts to shut down in defense. There's nothing like balling up from over-stimulation in public places. There was a time in the middle of the grocery store. I collapsed. Talk about embarrassing.

Even today, I still have a hard time with the Doppler effect of sound, especially with sirens. When I'm out, the sound waves wash over me like never before, replaying the memory of impact. For some reason, I just knew Drunky was going to hit me because I could hear and sense it, the sound waves coming at me instead of to the side like they should. I can't drive long distances, and I absolutely despise being in a car longer than 10 minutes. I hate driving; it's like being on a nauseating roller coaster, swirling and noisy and movement everywhere. I have started to bicycle again, and as long as I block out the passing noise and motion of cars, I'm doing OK. When I can't, it's Meltdown City.

The dude who hit me didn't have insurance (because of course not), so I have not been able to pursue getting the body parts fixed I need fixed. I can deal with the physical ailments to some degree, but my brain still needs serious work. I've been rolling my own treatments, so to speak, which are helping. My own insurance is also helping, but the costs associated with my injuries along with the opportunity cost of not being able to work is less than a wash.

Since the accident, I've been without a job, something I'm struggling to find because of my brain. I was fired from my previous position because I couldn't work. I hold absolutely no grudge. Even today when I interview, I'm having a hard time speaking and being the normally quick-witted ham I can be (though I recently scored a new position!).

Worst of all, I grapple with memory, concentration, and focus. It's the most difficult aspect to describe to people. Let me put it this way: I used to be able to type about 60 WPM. Now, it's more like 20 WPM. My brain wants to function, but it can't send the signals down the way it should. Apply that to trying to grasp for words or memories. That's my life eight months after the accident.

I think about the Jermichael Finleys and Kevin Kolbs and David Ashes, those who take blow after blow to their bodies and heads. In a lot of ways, football has become a little tougher to stomach football knowing what I know today about concussions, TBIs, and CTE. It's one thing to kinda sorta realize football is debilitating, but it's something else entirely to know and understand (to some degree) what these guys are fighting through, both from the science and experience standpoints. My mind was in some damn scary places most of the fall, but I'm not a special little snowflake in that regard. I know this now.

This experience has simultaneously been a horrific nightmare and one of the best things to ever happen to me. I'm far more aware how my brain works, and I have learned tools and methods to be in a better place.

I am somewhat slowly and kinda surely starting to get better, and my brain might one day be stronger than it was before. I'm still not dead yet.

"How the f--- do you explain your own self destruction and still remain trusted?" NSFW:

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