How I got my life back on track after a brain injury

It’s four years since Baltimore woman Linda Collins fell from her bike and suffered a life-changing brain injury. She tells CHRIS DUNNE about how she fought back, found love and is looking to a bright future
How I got my life back on track after a brain injury
Linda Collins and her boyfriend Noel.

THE morning of the 31st of July, 2014, was like any other for Baltimore woman, Linda Collins, who was on her daily commute to work on her bike.

“I was coming along Camden Street in Dublin, when I heard a rattle,” recalls Linda.

“My tyres jammed and I went head-long over the handle-bars of the bike. I landed on the ground directly on my helmet.”

She picked herself up and dusted herself down.

“While there was a dent on the helmet there wasn’t even a scratch on me,” says Linda.

“I looked at my hands; they had no cuts or bruises. Bystanders inquired if I was OK. I brushed them off. I thought I was OK. There were no outward signs that anything was wrong.”

Nothing seemed amiss. Linda wasn’t to know then that she had sustained a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), also known as post-concussion syndrome (PCS).

It caused constant pounding in her head, making it a struggle to work, to socialise, to shop — to function as a normal 24-year-old.

“I became very emotional,” says Linda. “If I didn’t cry at least once a day, it wasn’t normal. I became extremely anxious with the efforts to cope with something I did not understand.

“I struggled to leave the house. The ‘outside world’ made my symptoms worse. The noise, the light, everything left my brain exhausted. I had to stop working. It was an invisible illness.”

The day of the accident, Linda went into work.

“I remember I was outside a bike shop. I handed in the bike and I walked the last 10 minutes to work. People looked at me funny and asked me if I was all right,” says Linda.

“There was nothing obvious wrong with me. I worked away for an hour or two. I struggled to concentrate. My manager spoke to me. I saw him mouthing the words; I had no idea what he was saying.”

Linda knew she should get checked out in case she had concussion after the fall from the bike.

“I was severely concussed,” she says. “I was told to rest up and take Friday off, do nothing strenuous and just sleep.”

Her mother was concerned.

“‘I fell off my bike, mum’,” I told her. “I was laughing. ‘I’m fine’.”

But she wasn’t fine.

“I felt wrecked and emotional,” says Linda. “Noise irritated me.”

She was advised to take two weeks off work to recuperate. But things were serious.

“When I went to A&E at St Vincent’s Hospital, I saw Professor John Ryan, who put me through a really detailed concussion test that came from the US.

“Everything from my memory to my balance, to my cognitive abilities, was tested.

Linda Collins from Baltimore
Linda Collins from Baltimore

“My brain found it difficult to process the severity of the symptoms.

“I became more and more frustrated with the endless questions and answers about what I didn’t understand.

“I couldn’t find the answers, I felt nauseous. It was all too much effort for my brain.”

Linda made a big effort to get better.

“We worked on my cognitive skills, like multiple-tasking, my concentration, and things like dealing with background noise.”

Other things suffered.

“I was struggling emotionally,” says Linda. “I was in a new job in marketing, which I loved. Now I couldn’t do my job. This added to my guilt. What will they think I’m like?”

The weeks turned into months. Linda was attending Dun Laoghaire Rehabilitation Centre as an out-patient.

“I was seeing an Occupational therapist and a counsellor,” she says.

“The vocational therapist helped me to look at my expectations and my abilities. By degrees, I was able to go back to work in stages, first for four hours, two days a week, but not two days in a row, then increasing my work days to three days and so on.”

Commuting was difficult for Linda.

“At 9am in the mornings, the traffic and crowds heading to work was manic. I couldn’t handle it so I aimed to go to work at 10am to avoid the traffic and noise.”

From the outside, looking in, Linda was good to go.

“I looked fine, therefore I must be fine,” says Linda. “But what was happening to me was really hard to articulate.”

What was happening?

“I had constant pain in my head,” says Linda.

“It was always there. I began to keep a headaches diary broken into two hour blocks and I began to notice that the pain got more severe at certain times for two hour blocks throughout the day.

“The pain could be at level 7 in the morning, and then reach level 9 during the commute to work, reaching level 10 while I worked for the next three hours. Fatigue was a huge issue.”

So was noise and crowds.

“I used head-phones to muffle the noise when I was travelling to work,” says Linda.

“If I had to speak to someone on the phone at work, I went into a different room.

“I stopped going to meetings nitially, then I attended work meetings on a one-to-one basis for items that were most relevant only for me. It was important that my brain did not get overwhelmed.”

Was Linda overwhelmed by the limitations that her brain injury dictated?

“I found socialising extremely difficult,” she says. “I had to stop. Shopping for groceries was hard. I had to struggle to make the small decisions. Choosing a meal from a menu was a massive ordeal. When there were other intrusions; the pain in my head got worse, and I felt extremely nauseous.”

She didn’t feel like herself anymore.

“I sometimes felt like I was having an out-of body experience,” says Linda. “Like I was looking down on myself. I tried to explain, but no words would come out. It was a panic attack. I had the words to explain; but they wouldn’t come.

“When people spoke to me I had no idea what they were saying. I worried that people worried about me and I’d panic then and worry myself about that.”

Linda knew she had to dig deep to get some semblance of her old life back. She had to help herself.

“I was falling to pieces,” she says. “I had to stay positive. The consultants said I could learn to do more myself. I wanted to do everything in my power to find what worked for my brain. Everyone’s brain is different.

“I looked into mindfulness, being in the ‘now’, blocking out everything else. I started walking in the fresh air for five or ten minutes at a time.”

She needed energy to get herself back on the road to recovery. And she needed answers.

“I helped myself a lot,” says Linda. “And I found answers. I wasn’t eating enough. Often, I was just too tired to cook. I looked at the nutrition side of things, and made my diet more structured,” says Linda.

“In order for my brain to keep functioning, it had to sit in a healthy body. I needed to eat more healthily and I needed to eat a lot more to fuel my brain.”

She needed an ally in her brave bid to restore her mind and body.

“Exercise was a huge part of my recovery,” says Linda. “So was sleep. I looked into getting a personal trainer.”

She found love as well as an ally in boyfriend Noel..

“Noel and I gelled straight away,” says Linda. “He listens to me. He is like my therapist as well. After three or four months as friends, he became my boyfriend.”

Linda was getting her life back. She was motivated to help others who had sustained an injury like her own.

“I decided to set up a website to tell my story and to offer tips and advice I had found beneficial to other people who had experienced TBI.”

She found other allies.

“I got so much feedback; it was amazing. People who had mental health problems, people who were in chronic pain, they all found my experience useful.”

Linda’s recovery is nothing short of amazing.

“I’m in a good place now. I’m back driving. I live a very regimented life. Everything is planned. I know what I am doing every day. Yes, a bad day can still occur,” adds Linda. But she doesn’t panic anymore.

“I try and avoid noise and if I have to go to a social function, I go prepared.

“I avoid the things that can set me off. Before, I didn’t know what to expect. I used to be so down on myself. I haven’t got it all figured out, but I do know I’ve got to the point where I can live a normal life most of the time.”

Now the 28-year-old has a bright, happy future ahead of her.

Does she feel she missed out on four years of her life?

“I found a career that I’m passionate about and that I love. I don’t wake up dreading going to work,” says Linda.

“I love my life and being fit and healthy, despite my brain injury. My lifestyle makes me feel good about me.”

Linda has come a long way from that fateful day she fell of her bike.

“Noel is with me every step of the way. I’m thrilled to say I love my life.”

And best of all?

“I’m back to myself again.”

For Linda’s website, see patiencelivingwithabraininjury.com

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