British Columbia·Point of View

Concussion had made my life a mess. So I gave my brain injury a name

By turning "Stella" into a punchline, laughter became my medicine and sharing my concussion story became my therapy, writes Kirsten Short.

By turning 'Stella' into a punchline, laughter became my medicine and sharing my story became my therapy

'I was a mess. We named that mess Stella,' writes Kirsten Short, pictured at her home in Langley, B.C., on March 5. (Ben Nelms & Duk Han Lee/CBC)

This column is an opinion piece by Kirsten Short, who lives with post-concussion syndrome, in Langley, B.C. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

My life changed on Feb. 19, 2017. While I was living in Yellowknife, I fainted at a friend's house. I hit my chin, lost consciousness and suffered a concussion.

As the weeks passed, what had started as nausea, vomiting, dizziness and a bad headache slowly morphed into a calamity of symptoms. I couldn't sleep or walk properly, had difficulty concentrating and remembering, and was emotional, confused and nervous. My vision was blurred and I was extremely sensitive to light and sound. 

I was giving a friend a status update on my injury when she came up with the idea to name my concussion.

"Your brain injury is upsetting every aspect of your life. Something that significant deserves a name," she said. 

At that moment, I caught a glimpse of myself in a nearby mirror and was instantly taken aback. It wasn't that I didn't recognize my reflection; it was quite the opposite, in fact. Other than the dark bags under my eyes from the lack of sleep and my dishevelled appearance from being in bed for weeks, there were no visible signs that I had sustained a brain injury the month before.

Yet, my friend was right. My concussion was changing everything about me and everything about my life. I could barely walk, talk, think, see or sleep. I was a mess. 

We named that mess Stella. It was the first name that came to mind.

I quickly realized that by naming my concussion, I had inadvertently added humour to my situation. Rather than bursting into tears when I got lost in my own neighbourhood or when I used the freezer as a microwave, I'd giggle and mumble, "Oh Stella, not again." 

While shopping online for a lawn chair, I accidentally purchased a journal with a lawn chair on its cover. Once I got over the initial disappointment — I really wanted that lawn chair — I shared Stella's misstep with my friends and family.

By turning Stella into a punchline, laughter became my medicine and sharing my story became my therapy. It helped. A lot. 

'Oh Stella, not again': While shopping online for a lawn chair, Kirsten Short accidentally purchased a journal with a lawn chair on its cover. (Submitted by Kirsten Short)

I used humour to show that concussions are more than headaches, dizziness and nausea, and that confusion and memory loss are other common side-effects of a brain injury. 

Having a name for my concussion made the difficult parts easier, too. When it felt like anything and everything brought on a migraine — such as too much or too little sleep, certain foods or smells, loud noises and bright lights — cursing at Stella was the only thing that bettered the situation.

I have no legitimate reason as to why this worked for me, but it did and it still does. My doctors aren't sure either, but they are still supportive: "If it helps, do it!"

Stella was there when I could no longer live on my own and, at the advice of my doctor, left Yellowknife, where I worked as a chartered accountant, and moved in with my parents in Langley, B.C.

Post concussion, Kirsten Short left Yellowknife at the advice of her doctor and moved back to B.C. to live with her parents. (Submitted by Kirsten Short)

This was a particularly difficult time for me emotionally because at 31 years old I was losing my health and independence. I was depressed and anxious.

However, instead of getting down on myself, Stella gave me someone else to beat up and take my frustrations out on. This was critical to my mental health. Over time, yelling at Stella evolved into positive self-talk and encouragement as I began showing Stella (and indirectly, myself) the same kindness, love and understanding that I show my real friends. 

Although Stella is still with me today, three years post injury, I am no longer the mess I was in early 2017.

Can I attribute this growth and improvement to naming my concussion? Probably not. Did naming my concussion help me along the way? I think so.

Stella taught me how therapeutic it is to laugh, share my story and be vulnerable. She showed me how to ease my anxiety, depression and pain with self-care and compassion. And during it all, I learned to love me more. 

Oh, and Stella taught me that when all else fails, curse. (This is an important takeaway. Try it. It really does help.) 

Brain Trust is a CBC Vancouver series that investigates the world of concussions, CTE and the medical research that informs their treatment.

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