My first day back at work

iPhone voice memo, Monday, September 25:

I’m walking north. A monarch flits by. It’s 29 degrees.
I did it! I showed up at work. I did some email. I got lots of hugs. I had conversations and questions and observations.
I’m exhausted.
I’m taking my brain home.

I’ve often thought about this recovery like a journey. I’m away. When will I be back?

Many weeks ago, the physiotherapist treating my neck suggested that I’d be back to normal when I got back to work. “Life is about routine,” he said.

The day before my return, I called around for some final advice.

“Don’t go deep,” advised one of my concussion sisters. “Protect yourself. Wouldn’t it be easier to do the heavy brain stuff at home?”

Come on, brain!

Sept 14. I’ve mentioned before that selfies with filters seem OK, whereas straight-on self-portraits don’t.

I took it all in. But, to be honest, I found her wisdom exceeded my capacity to understand.

Dizzio, my concussion therapist, had recommended that I email colleagues to minimize the chance of being overwhelmed. “Tell them to wait until you approach them,” he said. “Remind them that you’re still ‘under construction.’”

I considered it, but I was disconnected from the office network. And wasn’t this approach a bit presumptuous? (In hindsight, I think silence might have been spooky. Everything felt a little surreal, and acknowledgement of my return provided an unexpected sense of comfort.)

My new manager sent out a note to the department announcing my return.

I wasn’t sure if anyone had read my blog.

I prepared to jump in.

On Monday morning, I got dressed in my most vibrant, orange, summer dress. (This was, after all, my first summer day at work.)

Memories of the previous Friday’s final day of work conditioning were still fresh in my mind. I did it! I had graduated from work conditioning! I was ready for real work!

“Just think of this as another day at another library,” a friend recommended, referring to the fact that I had spent so many of my work-conditioning days at libraries. Yes, I thought. Just do it. It’s fall and you’re headed back to school.

En route to the subway, I repeated the day’s mantra: “Show up, go through email, go home.” There was also “Pick up pants!” I hadn’t spent a dime on clothing after the accident. (Who needs new clothes when you’re not going anywhere? And who with a brain injury wants to go shopping?) My final pre-accident purchase was somewhere at the office among my commuting wardrobe. That’s what you do when you cycle in to work every day.

Heading to workExiting St. Andrew station, I noticed the unseasonably warm air and the sun slanting in that peculiar autumnal way. The square across from the Royal Alexandra Theatre could have been in another country. Brazil? Spain?

I fired off a text: “I’m in a foreign country and starting a new job!”

My concussion sister’s response was immediate: “I have a head injury.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and wiped away a tear. Of course. I was returning to work at the end of September because I had a head injury.

I still felt infallible as I entered the elevator.

Ding, fourth. The wall wasn’t red anymore. Was this the right floor?

I tapped my pass-card on the magnetic sensor and pulled open the glass doors as if 123 days hadn’t gone by.

“Hello!”

“How are you?”

“So good to see you!”

I was back with my colleagues, back in the place where I spend eight hours a day, five days a week.

Magazines and envelopes were neatly stacked on my desk. My plant was craving water.

The wall calendar was stuck on May 2017. But my tear-off calendar was on May 25. Why? The accident happened on Saturday, May 27. What happened to May 26?Tear-off calendar COPY

One colleague (bless him!) had taken care of my colouring calendar. This was my second annual attempt to encourage colleagues to take mini breaks and colour, and it gave me great joy when they did. The calendar was up to date, though I so clearly remembered the unique flowers of May.

But that missing Friday. Where did it go? Then it came back to me. On Friday, May 26, I worked from home. In the afternoon, I attended Liva’s pre-prom party.

With two glass walls, I sometimes jokingly refer to my office as a fish tank.

I started to orient myself. Colleagues dropped by. So many heartfelt “We missed yous.” So many hugs.

I placed my yogurts in the fridge. It took me just as many steps to get around the corner to the women’s washroom as it used to.

At 11:00, I went outside for air. I passed what used to be The Globe and Mail building, which was now just a large, levelled plot of land, ripe for development. Historic Draper Street, my favourite, was for the first-time zig-zagged full of cars. So much change! So much going on.

I realized I hadn’t walked around the area for four months. I had missed 18 Tuesdays with the walking group.

At 12:00, I felt like I was going to hit a wall.

“Try the quiet room,” a colleague suggested.

Excel award COPYFor the two or so years since our organization has had one, I’ve never been inside. For the next half-hour, I sat in the corner, my feet up on the white corner table. This is my new backyard, I thought. This is where I’ll come when I’ve had too much.

I could hear voices in the adjacent lounge. When it was time to exit, I tried to avoid eye contact—so unlike me. I usually like to wander around the building to catch up and hopefully stumble upon stories for the newsletter or magazine. This time all I wanted was to be invisible.

Back in my office, I turned my attention to 5,202 emails.

My new manager had wisely suggested I do a mass delete. My super-organized youngest sister advocated the same. But while I knew most of what was in there was junk, I couldn’t do it. I felt like I needed to scroll back through time. I somehow needed to bridge the gap since May.

Is there such as thing as archeological memory? Or was this a case of professional amnesia? I needed to do some digging. I needed to understand who I was.Look up

Colleagues dropped by. She who had taken over the writing of my monthly feature story was more than ready to hand it back. Another accepted that it was better to hold off updating me until I was ready. I discovered a concussion colleague. (“You’re here. You’re talking. You’re fine” were the amazingly inept words of the first doctor who treated her.)

There was so much to catch up on! The colleague I hadn’t seen since she took leave before giving birth to twins. (Talk about a life change!) The colleague who had just returned from Iceland. The colleague with the new apartment. These were things I knew. Then there was all I didn’t.

The manager who had moved on during my absence had left me flowers and a card. A silver Excel Award, bestowed on the newsletter I edit, was there by my phone. I had decided not to travel to Washington in June for the ceremony because there was so much going on. Who could have predicted that I would be home doing nothing?

At 2:05, I left the office, exhausted.

Colourful hot-air balloon looking up

For some reason, balloons seem like the perfect image for this post. Cover photo by Anita Windisman.

For the rest of the day, I lay on the zero-gravity chair in my backyard.

On Tuesday I woke up crying.

I felt much as I did earlier in my recovery, except that now I felt almost comatose. Eyes open, I stared up at the trees. I didn’t want to do anything. I could barely think.

I want the wind to blow through my brain, I wrote in my new, bright-red notebook. I want to be done with this.

13 thoughts on “My first day back at work

  1. I want my brain back, bridge the gap and damn it to hell I still have short term memory loss and remembering three, even related details is difficult for me. I felt like I was by your side, I understand and I encourage you to continue to share, be kind to yourself and celebrate the small accomplishments! Label them and write them down. Warmest of thoughts for you!
    Once concussed…

    • Mara I enjoy reading your articles.
      Your words put order in my brain as I, too, walk through life in a post concussion state. I can relate to your symptoms of memory loss and many more symptoms I am struggling with. My only solution for my memory is to jot notes I need to remember, even simple things, on my phone and set alarms to remind me to remember.
      I’m taking it as my new way of life in keeping my memory files in order.
      Wish you all the best and continue with your articles.

      • Thanks, Helene! I just added a book to my Related Reading page that has really helped explain a lot. Check out My Stroke of Insight! Absolutely wonderful read.

  2. Mara, thank you for this insightful post. I think you have a series of articles and possibly a book inside of you about your experience with concussion. I have learned so much from reading your blog….there is nowhere else I would get this info apart from a first hand experience.
    xo

  3. Mara, your posts are so touching and inspiring. Thank you for sharing your experiences with your brain injury – it reminds us all to appreciate the powerful organ sitting on the top of our spine. I’m thinking of you way out here in the prairies – and wishing you continued healing. I will echo what others have said in their comments – your posts are stunning/poignant and will make for a powerful book. Thinking of you….

    • Indeed, there are certain times when I imagine stretching my arms up to the sky, holding my brain in my hands like a precious, magical crystal. Really, there’s nothing like it, is there.
      Thanks, Andrea!

  4. Pingback: My puppy brain | Postcards from my brain

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