Liz Mullarney's Community Story - "Tough"

When people ask me how my recovery has been going, I usually give them the usual, “I’m doing better every day – making progress slowly but steadily!” But sometimes I get sick of giving the overly positive, truth-omitting answer. Sometimes I just wish someone would call me on my B.S. and ask me how I really am. It’s rare that people ask me what it really feels like to be concussed each day - but if they did, this is what I would tell them.

When I close my eyes, an orchestra of unnerving symptoms awaits. I tell my doctor, I can HEAR my symptoms – blood pounding in my ears, a pulsating sensation that feels like my brain is shaking, the world rocking from side to side, making it hard to focus and see straight. I dream about the day when I close my eyes, and all that’s there is…me. And peace. And quiet. This is just the beginning of my recovery bucket list. I want to go ice skating. I want to go to the movies with my boyfriend like normal couples do. I want to go for a 5-mile run and feel great about it. I want to feel productive. I want to not have to think about every activity I sign up for, and how much it might hurt in a few hours. I want to listen to a song, watch one TV show, hang out with my friends at a bar, be a normal 24-year-old.

Now that I’ve written those thoughts down here, however, I have to let them go. I can’t dwell on them because that is not the way I am going to get better. Positivity and believing in my recovery is the way I will get better. Following my doctor’s strict return-to-activities plan is the way I will get better. Spending quality time with my family and friends, sans technology, is the way I will get better. I’ve never been more appreciative of how amazing the people in my life really are – they continue to make me laugh, keep me company, help me see the bright side of things, even when I can’t see it myself. My mom loves to say, “are you done sitting on the pity pot yet? Because we have things to do.” She reminds me of how much worse it could be, how lucky I am, really, to have realized so young that technology and work and all these other things are important but NOT the key to happiness. Spending time with the people around me, playing board games, audiobooks, drawing, listening to the world around me…these things are so underrated in today’s world. It’s how I’ve managed to stay both happy and sane during this process.

One of the biggest hurdles of this injury that I struggle with is the lack of validation from the outside world of just how real it is. This injury is invisible. I don’t have a cast on my leg that people could look at and know that my injury is both real and ongoing. When some people look at me and think, “why can’t she just push through some headaches throughout the day,” or when people joke that I must be faking it, it hurts me more than you can imagine. At a time in my life when I feel like I’m fighting the hardest battle I’ve ever faced, and using all of my energy to stay positive and appear normal, people make my fight nothing.

I want to raise awareness for this injury so that people do not make the same mistakes that I did when taking care of their concussion. After my first one that I got from college sailing, I was not about to let some ‘little headache’ keep me from competing in our championships the next weekend. I consistently lied to the trainers saying I felt fine, thinking my symptoms would go away in a few days anyway. The joke was on me, however, as I never stepped in a sailboat again for the rest of my college career. I had no idea at the time just how severe and difficult a journey I was facing to recovery - only wanting to prove to my teammates (and myself) how “tough” I could be. I always wonder if I could’ve saved myself from this long process if only I had reported my symptoms and taken it seriously. As Headway says, their New Tough “is the strength to report concussion symptoms, and it is the patience to complete recovery before returning to the game you love.” In my case, it’s no longer sailing I am fighting to get back to – it’s my life and my career.

I also want to raise awareness for this injury to change the perception of concussions that some hold onto – and make people understand how debilitating, depressing, and emotionally draining recovery can be, even though we look fine on the outside. “Well…you look great!” is a common response I get when people ask me how I am. I want to tell them that I am really struggling, and when I smile at you and laugh and act normal, I’m in a world of pain. But I don’t. And maybe I should. Maybe that’s step two to fighting this and raising awareness. But step one is being a part of Headway, and pledging to be New Tough. Take care of my brain and take my recovery seriously. And finally sharing my story, after years of silence and misunderstanding.

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Headway Foundation