THE HARD HEAD KNOCK SERIES - PART 2: A Personal Account of Brain Injury and Mental Health

By: Taylor Blixt.

Taylor is completing his studies at The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine to become a Naturopathic Doctor.

Intro by Dr. Nicole Roberts, ND: When Taylor approached me after a speech I had given to his incoming class at the Naturopathic College, eyes shinning with excitement about the opportunity to get to talk about concussions and the sequelae of mental health concerns that can follow them, I knew this guy was going to do some impressive things. Within a week I had an email in my inbox from Taylor wanting to know how he could get involved in this area of medicine, despite a schedule being full of first year classes within the rigorous ND program here in Toronto. Together we devised THE HARD HEAD KNOCK SERIES, a compilation of articles that seek to discuss how brain trauma can affect brain function, particularly around mental illness vs. mental wellness. I am excited to share a piece of Taylor’s story in his own words, and cannot wait for the incredible work we are already planning for the future. Take it away Taylor….

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I grew up envisioning myself as a football player. With a father that was born and raised in the US, I heard stories of his ‘glory days’; he was captain of the football and wrestling team in his senior year of high school. Like any normal child, I looked up to my father and dreamt of the day I would be able to follow in his footsteps. When I was 14 years old I got the chance to play my first season of tackle football. It started off great; I was named as a captain and played a crucial role on both the offensive and defensive side of the game. Unfortunately, early in the season I experienced a bit of a hiccup. I tackled the running back on the opposing team and when we fell to the ground, his entire body weight landed on top of me. My head whipped back and I hit hard against the field, nevertheless, I managed to go into autopilot and continued playing. When the coach assessed me at half time, he knew there was a problem, as I could not recall what had happened in the previous plays. The next day, my family doctor diagnosed me with a concussion, which meant I wasn’t allowed to play the rest of the season. Concussions occur in sports and in everyday life. Many athletes experience multiple concussions in their career, as the risk of concussion is significantly higher after successive head injuries. As for myself, I was fortunate not to experience another concussion following my first occurrence.

Two months after my football concussion, I bumped my head innocently against the water slide at a local community centre pool. This triggered an acute brain bleed that sparked an onslaught of symptoms. It was a scary experience for both my family and me. Luckily, one of the best neurosurgeons in Canada was in the Toronto area and was able to perform a successful surgery on my subdural haematoma at The Hospital for Sick Children (aka, SickKids). My neurosurgeons speculated that my football concussion might have predisposed me to an acute, severe brain bleed. After my surgery, as you can imagine, I was not allowed to participate in any kind of contact sport for the remainder of my life.

At 14 years old, hearing that you cannot follow your dreams or do something you love for the rest of your life can be a daunting sentence. Even though I ‘passed’ all the psychological evaluations following my surgery (meaning there were no physical brain defects), no one warned my family or me that my psyche may not be back to normal. Even though a concussion or traumatic brain injury may not necessitate brain surgery, each survivor may experience less obvious or expected mental/emotional symptoms.

After this ordeal, my parents noticed I had an increased difficulty with emotional regulation, such as an increase in procrastinating (i.e., starting or completing activities), became easily frustrated, was increasingly hard on myself (with self-loathing), and that I angered easier, quicker and for no obvious reasons. Thankfully, my parents did not consider these wildly emotional swings as typical teenage ‘angst’, but attributed them to my traumatic brain injury/subsequent surgery.

Even though I do not recollect feeling depressed immediately following my brain trauma, I did have severe emotional lability as well as an increase in substance abuse; I started smoking marijuana daily. I believe that by ‘self-medicating’, my depression was held at bay until I could no longer control it and my life began to unravel. It was during my second undergraduate year, at the age of 19, that I first truly felt depressed. The interesting significance about this period in time was that I had stopped smoking marijuana for a couple months so that I could focus on school (I was doing an undergrad in medical sciences and was considering medical school). Along with this abrupt stop in substance use that I had (unknowingly) relied on, I also experienced an emotional break-up with a long-time girlfriend as well as the death of our family dog of 15 years. It was the perfect storm. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) as I displayed all the classical symptoms of depression. Of course, my family doctor put me on anti-depressants, which never seemed to work. I had endless amounts of energy in the summer and major bouts of depression during the winter; I would always feel better in the summer months; working 12-hours a day landscaping and still have the energy to play hours of basketball in the evening. In the fall and winter months (especially around mid-term exams), I would become depressed. I would later attribute these discrepancies to a type of Seasonal-Affective Disorder (SAD), which is very common.

During the next 5 years, I went off and on certain anti-depressants, trying many different kinds. The reasons I would stop taking them was because either they made me feel worse (loss of libido from one) or they just seemed to do nothing. Summer would come around and I would feel better once more. I was also a heavy user of marijuana during this period, and believed that it made me feel better to a certain extent. Having a strong scientific background, I willingly knew the risks of drug abuse and accepted them; I did not care because it made me feel better for the short-term. I knew, however, that I was going deeper down the proverbial rabbit hole because I did not have a long-term plan of how to regulate my emotions without being stoned 24/7.

I was hospitalized for mania three years after my initial diagnosis of MDD. During this hospitalization I discussed my extensive marijuana drug-use since I was 14 years old and the doctors attributed my mania as ‘drug-induced’. I was diagnosed with drug-induced bipolar disorder; this labelling stuck with me and made me feel uncomfortable. Even though I know marijuana can cause significant cognitive disabilities, affecting memory and cognition, as well as cause people to have psychotic breakdowns (especially those with psychosis in their family) the mania I was experiencing extended over 2 months. Although I did increase my drug use during that period, my psychosis was not due to my drug use. Two years after my hospitalization, I saw a clinical psychiatrist that explained this to me and due to the extreme manic episode I had experienced, correctly diagnosed me with type 1 bipolar disorder. This diagnosis did not blame a substance I had relied on; it merely shed light on my situation and provide me with the truth of how I need to live my life moving forward.

The reason why the anti-depressants never worked for me was because, simply, I have bipolar disorder. It is common for anti-depressants to have no effect or even worsen the symptoms of bipolar disorder, which is what occurred for me. The roller-coaster ride of moods I experienced over the last 5 years was probably attributed to a combination of misdiagnosis, not proper medical management (not the correct medication) and also the original concussion/brain trauma I experienced 10 years ago. My emotional sequestering from the drug use in high school was partly due to the fact that I was upset and angry that I could not play football ever again. The emotional fluctuations and lability were directly correlated to the head trauma I experienced – I had surgery on the right, frontal part of my brain. This part of the brain is known as our emotional control centre and home to our personality.

I was not aware of the correlation between post-concussion syndrome and mental illness like I am today. It is not obvious but the connection is a lot greater than many people believe.

Looking back at my story, hindsight truly is 20/20. Moving forward there are still obstacles in the way, and no one’s life will ever be perfect. However, having knowledge and understanding of why certain things occur in your life can be invaluable and an important tool to begin the healing process.