The Warm Roar and Bottomless Sadness of Brain Injury


I took a soccer ball to the face in February. After the initial dizziness and the warm roar behind my forehead came a wave of bottomless sadness unlike anything I'd ever felt before. As my teammates kept playing, I sat groggily on the bench and decided that the manner in which I'd been hurt, arriving late to a defensive play in my team's own end, perfectly embodied all the failings of my adult life: I had no discipline, no foresight; my life goals were all pipe dreams that laziness had let slip away; I couldn't ever truly love the people around me. I mentioned a bit of this to the ER docs that night, and they said yes, that's one of the symptoms, it'll pass. 

But I hadn't thrown up, my pupils were normal, and the dizziness was already settling, so they diagnosed me with a mild concussion and told me it would all clear up in "7 to 10 days." That was early February. The waves of gloom lasted almost through the end of the semester, and the headaches still hang at a background level. Along the way there was a bit of the cognitive stuff -- fumbling for words, drawing a blank on a classmate's name, throwing the crosswords down when they started spinning. But these felt blessedly tangible (Look, Ma! I've got a concussion!) alongside the creepy emotional fallout. 

I was exhausted and unable to write. I drove to school because walking made my head feel funny, and because solo walks could suddenly bloom into spells of breathless doubt. I apologized to my very patient girlfriend so often that it became weirdly rote: 'Yes, I still have a headache.' And one spring night, my head thumping, I sat on the couch at a party among friends and told myself that I wanted to die. 

We all have our lost moments, and I've skirmished with your standard neurotic-writer depression over the years. I have, in long-gone dark days, had a version of that couch conversation before. But the concussion was new and terrifying on two fronts: 

1) the basic symptoms alone were, for me at least, a perfect physical manifestation of the cloudiness and doom depression already traffics in, and 

2) a concussion makes you doubt, in a very visceral way, your ability to govern your own head. Your thinker is broken. Am I really depressed, or do I just have an endless headache? What's the difference anymore? Or, like a movie plot, has the bump on the head revealed a purer, darker, lonelier self, the person I always feared I was? 

All this from one errant soccer ball in a game of clumsy, enthusiastic amateurs. The doctors now tell me it could be months before I'm totally clear. Junior Seau's supposed to have had multiple unreported concussions during his two-decade career. Suicide's an icky thing to talk about, or to justify in any way, and it's just a fan's romanticism to assume that anyone who played with Seau's ferocity already had his own peaks and valleys to cross. But my god, if I was living with some giant, 1,526-career-tackles version of this desperate fog in my head, I'm not sure all the love of San Diego could keep the demons at bay.

Here's a guest post from writer Dan Keane on the lingering effects of a concussion he suffered during a soccer match. As a writer, this piece terrifies me.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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