It’s three months since the accident and because I’ve slowed down and feel a bit better I’m now speeding up again. I fill my life back with stuff. I’m using nature to get better but I still don’t know anything about the science and theories behind it. I just know it’s working. My diary’s full with busy mum stuff. Kids’ activities, playdates. I start socialising again, go out for dinners, friends come for lunch, cups of tea. Cooking’s getting easier but I stick to my own recipes that I know well. Using cookbooks is still hard.
I’m racing towards the finish line. I’m almost better! The Headaches are continuing and it’s still hard to concentrate. But my GP wants me to start using email again. I’m nervous. How many thousands of emails will be waiting? Anyway she wants me to start small, spend 30 minutes a day on email. Don’t multitask. I mustn’t be on my phone checking my email while I’m wrangling the kids. I need to sit down at a computer. Build it up slowly.
My GP also wants me to keep up my walking. She tells me to take half hour relaxing walks each day, not busy mum walks. But she says I must let go of expectations about returning to work. What? Why? Aren’t I getting better?
I tell my doctors how when I get in a day of bushwalking or a walk around Sydney’s coasts it’s really noticeable how much better I am at functioning. It’s not only while I’m in nature. For days after my focus and concentration improves and I get way less headaches. I don’t know how I’d cope if I couldn’t do all this walking in the natural world.
My friend JMac joins me on midweek hikes.
Jmac: I know we started gravitating towards being outside and going for walks and I know that that was important to you. So I think you know from that point of view I definitely had a sense that like that was that was achieving something. It was easy to compare that to a previous time.
You would kind of say to me like this feels really good right now or like I haven’t I haven’t gotten this far before. Not in terms of distance we’ve walked. But in terms of how much we were able to talk about things.
I remember a couple of times you saying and maybe you were just trying to make me feel better but you would say after hanging out you would be like hey you seem so much better than last time I saw you. I don’t know if that was just a strategy to like boost my confidence or you genuinely were like ah she seems different from last time I saw her.
No I think that was definitely true. Like and maybe it’s it says something about my my like lack of tact that I would just say that but you know for the most part I think you kind of wanted that too. That was always my sense of like you. I got a bit of of you being like can you tell me how I am. I think that was important to you.
And so and so yeah I didn’t feel like I needed to be hugely like self editing when I replied. So usually I mean you know the curve overall was like always improvement. But there were some blips where you you had setbacks. The first couple of times I saw you you were very frustrated. I think you know it was surprising the degree of limitation that you had to had to adapt to that had to accept you for sure but also to me you know because my sense was like you’d had like a fender bender but like it super messed you up
Sarah: Talking to JMAC reminded me of a time three months after the accident. He invited me to a documentary and burrito night in his share house. I think he was trying to push me along a bit.
I’m nervous but also excited to get out, catch up with some colleagues. I’m anxious about how to interact with them.
I walk from the train station with my big bowl of guacamole. We squash into the kitchen and make massive burritos. We go back for seconds. Then we settle in to watch the doco JMac organised. I’m sitting next to his friend Ruth. She’s a doco maker I’ve met before, we’ve had some good conversations in the past. But this time it’s awkward. Ruth asks how I am, about my life and my kids and my partner but I just can’t tell her. I can’t tell her what’s been happening in my life since we last met up and danced to #1 Dads at the Oxford. I don’t wanna be judged. I worry that people who don’t know me really well, when they hear that I’ve had a brain injury they’ll treat me differently. Then I’ll never be able to move on. I’ll always be seen as that chick who had the brain injury. So I avoid talking about myself or my life.
Film: The Amina Profile
The film starts. It’s the first film I’ve watched since the accident. Subtitles! Bloody hell! Of course…I don’t know how I’m going to do this. The combination of trying to read the subtitles but also watch the film and listen to the sounds is too much for my head. I can feel the pressure building, a strong headache kicks in. I get through the film by closing my eyes when the subtitles come on.. I worry what Ruth must think – that I’ve fallen asleep or I’m bored. How embarrassing!
But hey, I made it out at night, got through the whole film, and the headache didn’t last. I’m winning!
My headache diary’s also showing the improvements. I manage to read some short stories. I watch more TV. Still light shows but it’s something. I even listen to a podcast while I’m doing the dishes!
I keep pushing myself. I force myself to sit in my local cafe and read a newspaper. I can’t say I’m enjoying it. I wonder how I used to to do this for fun! I want to close my eyes and ears to block out the stimulation. It feels like I need to turn something down or turn it off. But I stick it out and leave with a mild headache that doesn’t last long.
I catch the train down to Heathcote National Park. I take my friend JMac to that spot at Kingfisher Pool where I had my lightbulb nature moment.
I love the textures of the bark. The scribbly gums and the knobbly banksia trunks. JMac points out intricate patterns on some tiny plants we brush past. Wildflowers are out …it’s spring. Birds feed off their nectar and sing us a few songs. The earthy smells of the forest are invigorating. I notice the tree patterns, the layers of life in the forest. The water falling into Kingfisher Pool. We never know what we might stumble across – an echidna, wallaby, blue tongue lizard, black cockatoos. Hopefully not eels in the swimming hole.
These natural effects we think are multi-modal so it’s not just visual it’s not just auditory. It’s not just tactile. It’s a combination of all these things when you’re actually out in the environment you you’re getting the multi-modal experience.
That’s Associate Professor Mark Berman. He runs the environmental neuroscience lab at the University of Chicago.
When you just have the view you’re only getting the visual experience so we think part of it is that the richness of the environment or it’s more immersive when you’re actually in and versus kind of more distant from it.
I’m finally starting to feel better. I reckon I’ll be back at work before xmas. My shoulder might still be a bit dodgy but my head’s nearly there.
I’ve been feeling so good I start to get complacent. I slip back on the bush walks, I’m not keeping up my regular doses of nature.
And then things feel like they might be starting to unravel. I get a bunch more headaches. My threshold is lowered again. I try to return to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels I was reading when I had the accident. I can’t even process the text. A headache builds.
Surely this isn’t happening. I’m nearly better, remember?
Cait Ward: I was playing college lacrosse in my sophomore year and got hit with a lacrosse ball in the face
I was really excited to find Cait Ward while I was researching the podcast and have a chat to share our similar experiences. I spoke to her on Skype eight years after her brain injury:
Cait Ward: And so it was only after a couple days of being in pretty severe pain and then having the like classic symptoms of waking up in the middle of the night throwing up that someone was like oh you probably have a concussion you got hit in the face with a lacrosse ball and.
Sarah: Can you tell me what what happened next
Cait Ward: I wound up it essentially put me in a dark room for
Sarah: So a dark room?! You mean you had to stay in a dark room like literally stay in a dark room?!.
Cait Ward: Yeah yeah my childhood home my room was in the basement. And so I I just I lived in this dark room.
Sarah: How did you cope what did you do?
Cait Ward: It’s an excellent question and people ask me all the time and I don’t really have much memory of of how I dealt with that During that time. I think I know obviously that first month is really hard and very depressing.
Sarah: And so if you weren’t in a dark room what happened.
Cait Ward: If I was in sunlight for a couple of minutes it would trigger a pretty intensive migraine. So and the pain from which would put me a into dark room which I’m laughing as I say it but.
Sarah A: Could you… because I couldn’t listen to music or anything like that could you listen to music
Cait Ward: I didn’t have as much issue with the audio piece as the visual. Mine was all stemmed from visual stimulation.
Cait initially took six months off college and then returned for a semester. She mainly took environmental science classes so she was outside a lot. Then over the summer Cait got an internship to do field research.
Cait Ward: I was doing grassland field research where I’d spend my whole day kind of combing through grasslands essentially looking for birds nests, which is I think a lot of people would hear that and consider it fairly boring work.
But for me it was the first time that I I felt like I had longer periods of clarity in my in my day. And so I started to make this connection which in hindsight it’s crazy I didn’t make this connection earlier. but that it was that screens and artificial lights were were a huge trigger for my migraines.
And so I went to my college adviser after this internship and said you know you know I don’t think I’m going to make it through school and I’m ready to drop out and do something else. This just isn’t going to work for me and she. Thank goodness for this woman. But she said alright hold Hold on a minute and let me talk to some people and
And it turns out that there was this spot open on something called the Adirondack semester which it was hosted in a yurt village in the Adirondacks
And so in order to get to this village you’d have to hike in a mile and then paddle a canoe across the lake. And there was no technology and we had two solar panels so we had light sometimes and no running water but we took four college courses and all of them were were screen free. There were all books and by hand and so so my professor my mentor was like there is a spot open on this program I think that you should consider doing it if screens are your problem. This could be a really good avenue for you. So two weeks later I paddled across the lake.
Was there at the program and it was the best three months I’ve had the healthiest three months I’ve had to this to this day easily. And I had I had one migraine the entire time and after just a couple of days I felt the fog lift and I felt like for the first time in two years I could think clearly. And and so much of that was embedded in this program right because because we had limited electricity we’d go to sleep when the sun went down, we get up when the sun came up
It just it proved to be this really incredible and healing experience for me
I assumed that that was my healing process that that I was going to be healed at the end of this and then starting with the drive home after my migraine set in and it was like I got hit in the head all over again. I had another I took another six months off from school and like slowly had to piece my myself back together and that was by far the darkest time in this whole process because I mean I thought I was healed. And so for me it almost embedded even more so just like you were saying. But in a larger time chunk or time frame it feels like that oh this is like a healthy place for me and this crazy overstimulated world we live in is not a healthy place for me. How do I reconcile those two things.
Sarah: And so what did you do. Like what happened when you returned to regular life after those three months in the yurt.
Cait Ward: So I actually remember driving home that day my parents came to pick me up and we stopped at a bookstore which is like one of my favorite things to do. I love perusing bookstores and I I very distinctly remember going to to a section and not being able to read all of the titles not being able to process all these books next to each other and just getting the spins and having to sit down and realizing oh my gosh it’s it’s happening again and. I tried to go back to school for about a week and I sat in this college course and just couldn’t, I heard my classmates speaking but couldn’t process fast enough what they were talking about in order to respond and just realized that I was in a bad place and so I went home again and was very depressed and um
Cait was hit by the lacrosse ball in 2010. Around two years later she did the college course in the isolated yurt and found she could function again. But when she went home her symptoms returned.
Cait Ward: So I graduated college I started teaching and just had to. My day revolved around keeping my head healthy. And so I took up until Yeah I guess it was two years ago. I would take two or three naps a day get 11 hours of sleep eat five times a day.
Sarah A: And were you using nature at that point as well?
Cait Ward: To an extent, mostly in the summers. But what I’ve done in the last two years and this is kind of the interesting part is I so I made all these connections I started really putting them together and I went to the school that I work for and I said like this environment isn’t going to work for me.
I don’t feel healthy in it. And I I I don’t know what to do. And they said well come up with some ideas. And so I said all right I want to build a yurt on campus. We live in western Mass. Like we’re wooded, we have 400 acres of woods. It’s beautiful.
Sarah: OMG I want to come and visit that sounds amazing.
Cait Ward: Oh my gosh. Please do. You’re always welcome to. I said want to I want to build a yurt on campus and I want to teach environmental science out of the yurt. And so push comes to shove they were like cool cool idea. The permitting for yurts is crazy but we had this old cabin in the woods. And they they refurbished it and now I’m teaching my environmental science classes out of this cabin and it’s a tech free course.
All the students it’s like written in the course description. So that’s what they buy into. And in order to get there you kind of have to walk through this little path through the woods and then you’re at my environmental science cabin.
Sarah: It was so good to chat to Cait and find out that I wasn’t alone in this experience of using nature to fix my brain.
I’ve been off work for nearly four months. I wake up with lingering headaches that last hours. Paracetamol does nothing. I send one email to my boss while I have a mild headache and it gets so much worse. I feel like it’s all cumulative.
I feel worse than I did soon after the accident…and that’s devastating because I know how long it’s taken me to reach this point. I’m really upset to be going backwards.
Every night I’ve got this sense of pressure building in my skull. By the end of the day I can’t handle any more stimulation. I feel like a prisoner in my own head. I have no escape in the evenings. The days are OK now cos I know what to do. I keep heading out on the train for bush walks and swims in the ocean. I hang out in my garden. But at night I’m home wrangling the kids. They want TV on or music. If only!
I’m back to just reading kids’ books again. I’m desperate to claw my way back to where I was. It’s incredibly frustrating. Just a few minutes checking email on my phone gives me a headache for hours.
Dr Ron Granot:
My name is Ron Granot. I’m a neurologist in Bondi Junction at East Neurology. We first met about three years ago after your head injury from a motor vehicle accident.
Sarah: Is three years a long time to reach this point?
Dr Ron Granot: So traumatic brain injury it is covered under a huge spectrum really. I see patients who get better really quickly and I see patients who take a lot longer to improve and it’s also the degree of improvement and and their preexisting occupations and tasks and so on. But the brain takes a long long long time to get better with a lot of fluctuating course, steps forward and steps backwards in that period of time as well. So it’s not a great time, it’s a fairly long time but it’s not unusual. No.
Sarah: Before the setback in my recovery I’d booked flights to New Zealand to visit my family for Christmas. We decided to go anyway. Once we were there I struggled in my parents’ busy house, full of people celebrating. It was hard for my extended family to understand that I needed quiet. That the music always sounded too loud. That the multiple conversations around the dining table were overwhelming. It was too hard for my brain to keep up. My injury’s invisible. It seemed like I was just complaining and demanding everyone tip-toe around me.
Luckily my parents’ place has great access to the natural world. When a headache arrived I walked to Meola Reef. It’s a volcanic lava flow that juts out into the harbour. In the fifties it was the Auckland rubbish tip. In the eighties my mum helped turn it into a park with loads of trees.
After Christmas Miles and I took the kids camping with my old school friend Alola and her partner and daughter. We camped on a hill between the beach and a valley. It’s in the Waitakere Ranges less than an hour from Auckland. My parents used to bring me here to go tramping on the weekends when I was a kid. (Tramping is NZ for hiking) I spent hours with my brothers skimming stones in this river.
We have the campground to ourselves. I’m so relieved, I need this quiet. Fewer people. The only headache I get while I’m camping is when I have to put our raucous kids to bed.
In the valley below our camp is a lush Kauri and ponga rainforest with an icy clear river. There’s a few swimming holes. But the real paradise is further away up a steep climb through the bush to a spot my parents took me to as a kid.
You slip off the track and clamber down over large boulders. There’s several deep pools if you can brave the cold. Bright green ferns surround them. The big waterfall tumbles from up high. The sound is almost deafening. But what’s interesting is that this noise is soothing. It’s like the sounds of nature don’t demand anything of me. I don’t know what it is. I’m drawn towards this kind of loud noise. It’s different. It’s not like music or talking or TV or radio, traffic, cafe noise. The sounds of the rushing water wash over me.
I manage to slip off up here each day. Sometimes alone or I bring Alola. It’s too much of a mission for Emerald who’s just three. I prefer going alone to be honest…there’s no need to chat. I come back feeling so refreshed. My focus is better. My brain feels clearer. I’m happier. My spirits are lifted.
Alola: What I really remember is having conversations I guess with other people who asked how you were and saying oh yeah it’s you can see that she’s definitely struggling with this recovery from this horrible accident and that that is having a big impact. I mean you’re a very sociable person you usually like to be around a lot of people. And it was really noticeable that you were removing yourself from all of that very deliberately.
Do you want my full name. OK. I’m Alola Robertson. We were friends at high school and have continued to be so ever since.
Sarah: My friendship with Alola’s steady and sturdy. She knows me better than almost anyone. On that visit to New Zealand she just knew how to be around me and put me at ease. Alola also picked up on nuances in my relationship while we were all camping together.
Alola: Things were obviously tense with you and Miles. And it was obviously a really difficult experience that both of you were going through and you were both trying to figure out how to be with each other in that new context. Um And I could see that for Miles, there was a lot of difficulty in understanding you or what you were going through and and and I could I think that there was a sense of because it was a head injury and there’s not so much no real visible wounds and so much of it was about behavior and things that are just not that obvious to people that it’s really really easy thing to be. not considered real. And so I think that that was something that you did need was for it just to be taken seriously and to be like this is real. And so people you needed people around you to believe you.
It’s interesting because a lot of the stuff that you had to be more deliberate about doing after your accident, is stuff that you kind of like doing anyway like being in nature and going for bush walks and stuff. So that’s very lucky like if it was me that would be a real problem [sarah laughing] because you know those are not really things that I like to spend my time doing.
Sarah: The three days camping with Alola in New Zealand really reinforced how much nature was helping me. But the setback in my recovery triggered depression and anxiety.
I’m Back in Sydney and I haven’t felt this low even when I was an angsty teenager. I’m scared to test my headache threshold. I lose confidence. How will I ever survive in the modern world again?!