:: Depression, too, can be a symptom of a concussion, but I don’t think that’s what this is, this wily creature slipping in through the cracks that have opened in me, cracks created by loneliness and boredom, by pain and inertia.
Right now, in this moment, I’m realizing that I’m drifting towards depression.
My kids play in the other room, their homeschooling finished for the week. I’m doing my best to keep them off of screens, but part of me just wants to give in so that I can get some quiet for myself. I’m making little bargains. If they watch Nova on the television, then that’s okay, isn’t it? If they play a coding game on the computer, then that’s all right, isn’t it? I’ve made these bargains before (as have countless parents who work, or don’t, especially during this pandemic. But right now I’m making them because it’s too hard to think about getting out of my desk chair. The distance too the family room—too immense.
Thus: if they only play Minecraft or Hopscotch on their iPads, then it’s okay to give them to them early, isn’t it?
Isn’t it? The point of that question is to make myself feel better for doing a bad job parenting by some measure or another. (Even if I’m not doing a bad job of parenting at all.)
And I’m asking it because the handmaiden of this particular round depression is guilt.
A couple of weeks ago, I was riding my horse and she tripped and fell. Horses don’t fall down very often, and often when they do it’s not that serious for the rider, despite how dramatic “my horse fell down” sounds. You get tossed from the saddle and roll in the dirt a little bit. But then you get up with a bruised elbow and a skinned knee and you get back on. (I’ve done this before, obviously.)
When my horse fell on August 6th, though, it was very serious for the rider. I will skip the details because this isn’t a story about how I was taken by ambulance to the trauma center and how I spent some days there. What is important is that, for the past few weeks, my body has been in pain, sometimes excruciating pain. Instead of a narrative, here is a list, instead.
✤ Severely sprained AC joint, sometimes called a “separated shoulder.” It hurts all the time, even though it is healing properly. On Monday, I will start PT, which will cause more pain, which will linger, even though PT is important and I will do it.
✤ Rib injuries, many. Now, one rib in particular hurts as bad today as it did the day it the injury first happened. The rib makes it hard to breathe. I’m not sure how long it will hurt.
✤ Lacerated kidney, caused simply by how hard my body hit the ground. It has healed, now. It was awful for a while.
✤ Concussion. I was knocked unconscious when I fell despite my helmet. They did a scan to make sure that I did not have any bleeding. The main concussion symptoms ended after the first week. But now I worry about long-term effects. I need to make an appointment with the neurologist, but I worry about more medical bills. I seem fine now, but am I? (Let’s add some extra anxiety for spice.)
✤ Broken finger. This one seems silly to even mention, except that there are currently 2 metal pins holding it together, so perhaps it isn’t so silly at all. I had surgery to reassemble my finger just this past Monday. (Sidenote: I finally have a valid excuse for typos. Please excuse them.)
So it is accurate to say that I have spent the last two weeks in an immense amount of pain. What I had forgotten since the last time I had been in so much pain was the toll pain takes physically and mentally.
Another toll is the energy I spent hiding my pain from my family. I don’t want my children to see how much I hurt. I don’t want them to worry about me on top of everything else they have to worry about right now. I know that I’m an anchor in their life. They need me to be immovable.
Hurting, quite literally, is exhausting.
So is guilt.
When I was still in the trauma bay, still a little delirious, my father called me and expressed his anger at me for getting hurt. He said that riding a horse was as dangerous as riding a motorcycle (note: it is not as dangerous, at least not what I do), and he generally made me feel terrible for being injured. Dad, if you’re reading this, that really sucked. Don’t do it again.
I didn’t need my father’s phone call, though, to make me feel guilty. I was making myself feel guilty all by myself. My husband was sitting next to me (the hospital allowed one visitor, despite Covid), and as he sat there, all I could think was, I’ve done this horrible thing to myself, to my family, to my husband.
I thought about the immense medical bills I’m going to rack up. I thought about how I’m going to be helpless: unable to care for myself and unable to care for my children. How I will be unable to do my job.
I will be dead weight.
That night in the hospital after my husband was sent home, as I drifted between sleep and wakefulness, all I could think about was everything that I had done wrong, and how I could never make it right.
Guilt does funny things.
As I sit here writing this, I’m hurting terribly, physically. Right at this moment, my rib hurts. I have to hold it with my arm in order to breathe in anything but the shallowest of breaths.
I have pain medicine. Even in this era of fear of narcotics, I was given plenty—because I was hurt plenty. (And with a lacerated kidney, NSAIDs like Advil were forbidden.) But I haven’t taken any to stop this pain I’m in. When I had a follow up with my orthopedist, she fussed at me that I haven’t taken enough. You can’t heal if you’re in so much pain, she said. I believe her.
But if I take medicine during the day, while I’m home with the kids and my husband is at work, how can I do my job? How can I take care of my children and make sure that they’re safe? And how can I write and edit and teach? How can I drive if someone needs me to, if a kid gets hurt or sick?
I can’t take the pain medicine. If I take it, then I am helpless, worse than helpless. I am dead weight.
Maybe I could do my job if I took a small dose. I don’t know. Maybe. But the pain—I can deal with it. I can. (Perhaps I should have to, as punishment.)
Later tonight, my shoulder will hurt a lot—after a day spent using it normally and not wearing my brace. If I do wear my brace, then I can’t do things like drive or make my own coffee or take a shower or feed myself or my kids. If I wear my brace, then I’m both helpless and unable to help others. So I don’t wear it, even though I know I will suffer for it later.
Around 7 o’clock tonight, the pain in my shoulder joint will be intense, so intense it will be impossible for me to remain standing. That’s okay, though, because my work will be done and my husband will be home. I can deal with the pain. (Perhaps I should have to.)
No pain medicine. No brace. These are not-great decisions; I know that, rationally. Like I said, guilt does funny things.
I’ve just recently realized what I have lost.
Every day—every day before my accident—I get up at 6:30 a.m. or even earlier. And before anyone else in my household is awake, I’m already at the barn saddling a horse. And then I’m in the ring, exercising and communing with my animal, with the trees and the big, big sky. By the time I’m done, others have arrived at the barn as well. And in this era of severe isolation, I can have relationships with others. We are outside and we are distant, but we are together. Then, I arrive home just as my family is getting going, able to help with breakfast and getting started with school.
I have lost so much more than “horseback riding.”
I have lost exercise.
I have lost my relationships with my animals, and my time in the quiet outside world.
I have lost my relationships with my friends at the barn.
In one irretrievable moment, they were gone. And today, I realized, depression snuck in and took their place.
When you get a concussion, you might cry for no reason. Crying, spontaneous, no-reason, crying, is a symptom of concussion. I did that for a few days, after my injury, and then it stopped.
Depression, too, can be a symptom of a concussion, but I don’t think that’s what this is, this wily creature slipping in through the cracks that have opened in me, cracks created by loneliness and boredom, by pain and inertia.
Today, for the first time in a while, I have felt that unsettling feeling of no. Of not-wanting-to.
Of not wanting to do anything but lie back into my bed and let the pain suck me into some sort of stasis.
Doing so was not an option, of course, because of children, work, and everything required of me. But today, as I made my coffee, I felt the familiar heaviness in my limbs. I felt the hole where my motivation used to be. I felt the emptiness where my energy used to reside.
I’m writing this essay because doing anything else seems too hard. I realize that that is self-indulgent. I can’t edit this person’s book so let me talk about myself. But honestly, the fact that I am pushing words across a page at all seems like a fucking miracle.
I keep getting up to go stand outside in the sun, hoping that being outside will make a difference. It hasn’t yet.
My kids have their riding lessons this afternoon. I wasn’t planning on going—I’m sending my husband instead. After all, even though he doesn’t know anything about horses, at least he can lift a saddle when my kids give him instructions. No dad, you have to pull it forward towards his withers.
But, as I write this, I think I should go after all, for all the reasons I listed above. I will not get to exercise, but I might be able to reclaim at least a small part of everything else.
Right now, though, even getting in the car for the short drive to the barn seems incredibly hard, between the pain I feel and the depression that is waiting in the wings.
And the guilt—depression, now, too?—I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do with more guilt.
How do I even tell my husband? Hello honey, I realize I completely wrecked myself doing my silly hobby but, for added fun, I’m getting depressed from being stuck at home, in terrible pain, and unable to exercise and do the only thing that gets me out of the house.
Who would want to come home to that? To me? To dead weight.
I decide to go. I’m glad I do. My sons inspire me, and seeing Leroy, our first horse, whom I love so much, inspires me too. I find myself avoiding R., and I wonder what that means.
I apologize that there is no happy ending to this story, not yet.
Except perhaps there is—up there, in the photo. That’s me, one week post-accident, a few days before my surgery, arm in a massive brace, when my dear friend J. dragged me out into the pasture to visit R., my horse that fell.
When I touched her, I cried (I’m crying now, thinking about it), and I put my nose to her neck and breathed her in (horses smell very good).
I firmly believed, in that moment not so long ago, despite how much I hurt, that things would be okay somehow. I don’t know what okay looks like yet, and I might have some hard choices ahead of me, but if I can set aside the guilt, and be honest with my husband, and care for myself—not only those around me, because isn’t that the same thing?—I will figure it out.
Some Important Notes:
 I am safe, and I am not contemplating self-harm.
 I do not need medical advice. I have excellent doctors caring for me, including a psychiatrist.
 I know that horseback riding is a sport that only a privileged few get to do (although, perhaps, more few than you think). It’s what my family does, however, for a variety of reasons, including the therapeutic aspect of horses. Please lay off slagging me about my fancy hobby.
If you enjoyed this piece, you will enjoy my book, LIFE OF THE MIND INTERRUPTED: ESSAYS ON MENTAL HEALTH AND DISABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION, available at lifeofthemindinterrupted.com. Buying my books is a great way to support the online writing that I do for free.