Four years ago I thought I had my life all figured out. I had moved into an “Artists Loft” building where I could both live and work. I had been a professional photographer for almost twenty years, and was ready to downsize from a full time portrait studio, and thought this was the most perfect (and trendy) option.
Little did I know that just two months after moving into my dream loft, I would slip on a patch of black ice on the building’s driveway, landing full-force on the back of my skull.
Because of the incline of the driveway, my skull took the brunt of the fall. It happened so incredibly fast that I had zero reaction time. I not only suffered a severe concussion (later to be called a traumatic brain injury or TBI for short), I also had major whiplash, torn muscles in my neck, chest, throat, and abdomen, and a disclosed sternum.
It’s beyond amazing that I 1) survived, and 2) didn’t actually fracture my skull or neck. Later, looking at X-rays, the doctors determined that I had jammed cervical spine C4 into C5.
And I certainly wasn’t expecting the two-and-a-half year recovery period it took before I began to feel like myself again.
The early days and months are sorta fuzzy. I wouldn’t say I completely lost any memories, but it sometimes takes a lot of effort to remember an event. For example, my friend just shared with me some photos I took of her daughters at a potluck in my building, and I pretty much have no recollection of that event. If my logo weren’t on the photos, I wouldn’t be sure I was there. Yet, I do remember attending monthly potlucks.
Also, I kept asking one of my neighbors how we first met (which was a few weeks after my fall). The first time he looked at me quizzically and explained it was at the Art Crawl meeting we had both attended, which I remembered attending, but the details were super fuzzy. I asked him at least two or three more times over the course of the next few years how we met—I just couldn’t seem to keep it in my head.
The most frightening aspect of my memory was not remembering how to use the settings on my camera. I have been a photographer since about the age of five when my parents let me take photos on a family vacation, and I was hooked! I was a photojournalism major in college before embarking on a self-employed journey.
I used to be able to change the settings without even looking at my camera. Now I was faced with a dizzying dilemma of “how do I correct this?” If I had over-exposed an image, it would take me a few minutes of working through the entire process of exposure in my head. Then I would fumble around with the buttons on
my camera before finally getting to the correct one. It was so frustrating. Most important: I had to do all of this under the radar so that my clients didn’t know I was struggling.
How embarrassing it would have been to have to admit to a client that I had no idea how to use my camera??
It wasn’t only my camera that challenged me. I had no idea how to use my microwave or my oven. I had to leave a gas station because I couldn’t figure out how to pay at the pump. I literally had no idea how to use the ATM at the bank, and I sat in my car and cried for 20 minutes. I felt like I was totally losing my mind — plus I didn’t know how to control my emotions.
My short-term memory was pretty much non-existent. I had to set alerts on my phone for 30 minutes before a session, as well as 15, 10, and 5 minutes. My 30-minute alert would go off and I would think, “Oh that’s right, I have a session today.” Then the 15-minute alert would remind me to actually get dressed. At 10 minutes I would remember to get my equipment set up, and the final alert would remind me that someone would be knocking at my door shortly.
I would double check the client’s name before he or she arrived, only to forget it by the time I opened the door. I gave up trying to call clients by their name while they were in my studio, and would simply give directions with hand signals.
I would occasionally forget to add a completed photo session to my work-flow log, and then be confused three weeks later when the client was asking if their photos were ready — talk about frustrating for both me and the client.
I would forget to reply to emails, because basically if I read it, it would be long gone out of my head two minutes later. I eventually came up with coping techniques, such as stars and putting them into folders, but even then some would get lost in the shuffle.
At the time of my fall, I was in full-on busy session mode. If it weren’t for several of my helpers, I don’t know how I would have ever made it through those first several months. I had enough energy to photograph about three to four sessions per week— and that was it. Nichelle and Heide helped with the editing and design work, and Jen kept all my orders and paperwork organized. Without them, I would have drowned.
While I was able to keep up a happy facade on Facebook and my blog, I was living in a hell that no one could understand. I heard things like “it’s just a concussion” or “it’s been six weeks, get over it” or “she’s just seeking attention,” so I quit talking about it publicly.
I withdrew into a lonely, dark place that I never want to visit again.
After months and months of struggling, it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be able to make it as a photographer. Yet, at the same time I wasn’t able to work a job either. I was stuck in this strange abyss of having no choice but to power through my sessions, even though much of it was falling through the cracks. If I didn’t push myself, I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills.
To be very honest, I have no recollection of how I actually survived those first eighteen or so months. I somehow managed to make enough money to keep myself afloat, and not be evicted or have my car repossessed.
I know I lost quite a few clients. I can’t even imagine what they thought of this irresponsible businesswoman who wasn’t returning their emails, and forgot to send them their orders. I was honest with many of my clients, sharing that I had suffered a pretty bad concussion. They usually cut me some slack, but at the same time I know it was hard for them to truly understand what was going on behind the scenes.
On the other side of the coin, I had several clients come in who had also recently suffered a concussion. We bonded over the mutual experience, and are still friends to this day.
You can truly understand the depths of hell that is a concussion ONLY if you have been there yourself.
Four years later, I have started putting my photography business to rest. It has been bittersweet, and I know that photography will always be a part of me. In fact, I have an awareness project that I am in the beginning stages of creating through photographs.
I have turned my full-time passion towards advocacy work, and it is some of the most fulfilling work I have ever done in my life. I am fortunate to have sponsors who believe in me, and I am surrounded by some amazing fellow TBI friends who support and encourage me every step of the way.
My life may not be what I expected it to be at this point, but the fact is that I wouldn’t change any bit of it. Brain injury has taught me so much compassion, and it has opened my eyes to entirely new world.
Sure, I still have moments where I miss the old me and the things I used to be able to do, but I know that I can’t move forward if I am stuck in the past. I had to go through my own grieving process to lay to rest the person (and career) I once was. But I am now so blessed to be living in a state of gratitude — grateful to be alive and grateful for the concussion that changed my life!!
This article was reprinted with the permission of the author Amy Zellmer. For more information about Amy’s positive work in this field you can visit her at : www.facesoftbi.com
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