Split screen: me wearing a mask outside college on my first day (left), me six weeks earlier in hospital with a head injury (right)

A head injury, a college dropout and the physical manifestation of depression

If I’m not mistaken, today is already shaping up to be a better day than yesterday; the pain in my head has basically disappeared and I am cautiously optimistic. But it seems like a good time to give some backstory on what it is that I’m physically feeling.

Cut back to August 2020

It was a month after I had just launched my own video production company, NerdyBird Media, alongside my business partner who also happened to be a talented friend from college. We were really going for it, sending daily cold emails, strategising the best way to represent ourselves on social media and generally hustling. It was a lot of work, but we loved it.

This was also happening right as my job as a lecturer was finishing up (a one-year contract that went rogue with the arrival of Covid in the second semester) and right before I was due to begin my Masters in Journalism. After having finally recovered from my two-time dropout experience, I wasn’t exactly eager to get back into third-level education, but I wanted to forge a career for myself as a lecturer and the only way to do that on a more permanent basis was to level up my degree. So a lot was going on.

A casual Friday

Then, one Friday, I was at the in-laws’ place with my then-fiancée-now-wife. It was a very casual evening with a few drinks and a film but the next day I woke up feeling incredibly hungover. My head was pounding and I was extremely nauseous. I managed to make my way to my Mom’s place for a visit but I ended up taking a nap because I was so out of it. Pardon the imagery, but I woke up projectile vomiting all over my childhood bedroom and I was too sick to get up and clean it or even let anyone know.

When I finally managed to pull myself out of bed I went and sat, pale-faced, at the kitchen table trying to chat to my Mom and brother. I told them I was hungover, even though that didn’t make sense to me, as I wasn’t even drunk the previous night. My brother made me a hangover cure, saltwater I believe, and after one sip I ran to the bathroom to vomit.

That's when things took a turn

I can’t remember vomiting or blacking out but what I do remember is a pounding pain in my head as I lay on the bathroom floor, unconscious. It wasn’t one consistent pain; it was one pain after another after another after another. Pound, pound, pound, pound. Then I was vaguely aware of my Mom calling my name.

She came in and I came to, now realising that while I was unconscious, I was banging my own head against the wall. She looked at me with wide eyes and I knew it must be bad because my Mom is not a woman of drama.

Having been diagnosed as epileptic at age fourteen, I assumed I was having some kind of seizure and I burst into tears.

You see, I was also in the process of learning to drive so that Cat and I could move outside of Dublin, as we had no hope of getting a mortgage anywhere near our family homes. I thought, for a few drinks, I had ruined everything; having a seizure would mean surrendering my driver’s permit and our chances at escaping rented accommodation.

We went to Tallaght hospital fairly sharpish, where I had to quite enthusiastically insist that I had done this to myself. They clearly thought the bruised crying girl escorted to the hospital by her mother was a victim of domestic abuse rather than a bizarre neurological event. But when they were convinced, I was admitted and given a bed for a few days so they could run tests and have me see various doctors and nurses.

I can still feeling my head banging against the wall

Even though I was unconscious, the feeling of my head repeatedly knocking into the wall is one that won’t leave me anytime soon. Whenever I hit my head or get a headache I think of that blast of pain, that inexplicable injury at my own hand. And it was just that: inexplicable.

They let me out of the hospital after two or three nights when scans showed nothing sinister and they had ruled it non-epileptic in nature. But they referred me to a neurologist so I hoped that an explanation was still forthcoming.

It wasn’t. After months of waiting for an appointment, the neurologist explained it away as an episode of extreme stress and a physical manifestation of my anxiety and depression. Frankly, it always seems to come back to anxiety and depression.

College comes into it

Before I had that unsatisfactory appointment with the neurologist, I returned to college. Virtually, of course, due to Covid. At first, it was going well. I felt really capable and well-equipped for this particular course. My future as a lecturer (with some writing on the side) was drawing near.

But then, as the semester became more intense with CAs, I became more and more sick. At first I was missing a few classes a week at the hand of headaches and nausea, a less intense version of that hungover feeling I got the morning of the ‘event’. Then it became a few days a week. And then it became late CAs and barely able to look at a computer screen without the fear of vomiting.

I had no choice but to defer, and then that deferral turned into my third time dropping out of college. It was taking too much out of me to keep going.

Luckily, the college was incredibly supportive and facilitated me with endless meetings and consultations. But then I was just done. No college, no income, nothing on the horizon for me.

I started to get better but I certainly wasn’t cured. One visit to the doctor declared my illness to be Post-Concussion Syndrome (even though I had never been told I had a concussion in the hospital) and I was given meds to treat it. The meds also, conveniently, treat anxiety and depression.

And what do you know? My health gradually returned to me, for the most part. I still had days when I needed to stay in bed, feeling entirely hungover despite having quit drinking the day after I collapsed.

And that, my friends, is what I'm going through now

I’m still on the same meds that worked once upon a time, but it seems like every time my meds level up, so does my ailment. The vomiting has returned, although not quite so violently as that first event. And honestly, every time I feel this way, nauseous and headachy, I get so scared that history might repeat itself and I might end up back in hospital with another injury.

For a while after I got out of hospital I was afraid to be left alone. I showered with the bathroom door open in case I collapsed again and my partner only left the house for absolutely urgent tasks until I felt better. Leaving the house on my own for the first time was scary, but it was made easier by a medical bracelet that read ‘epileptic’. Cat got it for me for Christmas – not the merriest of gifts, but one I felt I really needed even though my attack was deemed non-epileptic.

I still have no explanation as to why I unconsciously banged my own head against a wall, other than that my mental illnesses are affecting my physical health. I guess that’s explanation enough but it’s a tough pill to swallow. And speaking of pills, there are many.

I’m in the middle of writing an article about medication and the role it’s played in my battle with mental illness, but it seems like there aren’t enough pills in the world to make me completely better. Mental illness is work. It’s an ongoing daily effort to function.

And that, friends, is where I’m at right now.

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