Is Your Brain a Time Bomb?

DSC_0968mc
In 1989, when I was a junior in high school, I was struck in the head by an eight pound ball of iron. I suffered a Grade III concussion, a brain contusion, and brain swelling. I survived the incident but to this day suffer symptoms. This post is intended to raise awareness of the long-term effects of brain trauma and Post-Concussion Syndrome for the millions of people who endure living with a wounded brain.

Sensitivity to Light

If you’ve ever had a migraine, you understand how sensitive you are to bright lights. Imagine that times forever, and you’ll get an idea of what photophobia is like. Prolonged exposure to bright light gives me a skull-splitting headache, and it’s a relatively common symptom of severe concussions.  I can’t spend more than five minutes outside without sunglasses, and sometimes, even indoor lighting can be an issue, especially fluorescents. You know, the kind used in virtually every public building ever. So sometimes, I have to wear my sunglasses indoors, as well. No, I’m not trying to emulate the Blues Brothers. I just want to pick up some chips and salsa without feeling like a marching band is practicing inside my skull.

Years ago, some friends took me to an outdoor art exhibit. Naturally, I wore my prescription sunglasses so I could enjoy the day and not end up curled in a corner whimpering. We got invited to an after-party, and because my regular glasses were at home, I was stuck in shades long after dark. Some hipster quipped about the Terminator terrorizing the party, and it drew quite a laugh from the crowd. There’s no explaining photophobia in that moment. There’s only skulking away alienated and humiliated, having just been owned by a hipster.

Headaches Become a Fact of Life

You know those people who refer to every little headache as a migraine? Not the people who suffer from real migraines; a real one will put the strongest person in bed. I’m referring to the people who call the slightest tension headache a migraine. Yeah, I dislike those people. For a full year after the accident, I lived with a constant headache. Some days, it was a dull ache, others a sharp, piercing ice- pick. On bad days, it pounded my skull so violently I questioned benevolence in the universe. After that first year, the headaches became less and less frequent, but I came to know them the way an aficionado knows cigars. To this day, I also get occasional sharp, blinding pains near my scar.

After that first year, once the constant one faded, I learned to ignore most headaches and accept them as my reality. Today, I still rarely acknowledge anything less than a skull-pounder and even those barely slow me down, so whenever a co-worker rubs their temples and whines, “I have such a migraine” I have to squelch the desire to laugh at them. A real headache debilitates you. A real headache puts you in bed and makes every sound and light a test of your will. People who have suffered brain trauma know that any headache that doesn’t land you in bed is merely a nuisance, hardly worth announcing to the world.

Swiss Cheese Memory

Amnesia is a common Hollywood trope for head injuries, but what they never show is the inconsistency of cognitive dysfunction. Since the accident, some days, my memory works flawlessly and I’ll remember the stat line of the punter for the 85 Bucs. Other days, I’ll forget your name as I’m telling you mine. Others, I lose my car keys twelve times. On really bad days, I stare at my keys trying to remember which one goes to what.

Once, I met John Rhys-Davies at a Sci-Fi convention and got to have a real conversation with him. We talked LOTR and Sliders and the back injury he suffered on the set of La Femme Musketeer. The encounter was nearly perfect until, as we were about say farewell, he quoted a line of Shakespeare. As an English major, I scoured the splotchy patches of my memory for the play’s title and noticed the flicker of disappointment on his face. I wanted to explain about my injury, wanted him to know I wasn’t just a dumb bumpkin, but once more the moment was lost.

Sleep Disruption

Insomnia is a frequent condition after a brain injury. Some nights, I merely have difficulty falling asleep, but once I do, I rest through the night. Some nights I sleep for twelve hours. Some nights, nothing works. On those nights, especially when a few string together, I crave rest so badly, I contemplate hitting myself in the head to see if that will allow me to sleep. Of all the side effects I endure, I feel this one has the most stigma. Go-getters are early risers, but my internal clock has shifted so obtusely noon is now the crack of dawn. None of my friends or family understand why I don’t just sleep like a normal person, and no matter how many times I try to explain that I can’t because of the injury, I still feel like they’re judging me. I look fine. That injury happened years ago. Surely I’m over it by now.

When I got my assistantship teaching assignment in grad school, the department had assigned classes alphabetically, so guess who got two 8:00 AM classes?  Guess how many of my “friends” jumped at the opportunity to trade with me?  For my final year of grad school, I ran on three hours sleep a night, at most. If there can be any positive spin, at least I had time to grade all those papers.

 Nobody Can See the Mark

One of the most difficult aspects of head trauma is that no one can “see” what’s wrong. Even standard imaging techniques like MRIs and CT scans can only detect the subtle changes to the brain while it’s in a resting state. If neurologists can’t detect it, how can the average person? If I come to work on an hour’s sleep because my insomnia kicked in, I sometimes hear whispers through the grapevine that I stayed out all night drinking. If only. When I wear my shades in my office with the lights off, those whispers escalate. If I turn down 8:00 AM assignments, I’m simply lazy. After explaining the accident for the zillionth time, I watch their eyes travel up and down my body, searching for some physical sign of impairment, and even after I show them my scar or let them touch the dent in my skull, the doubts still linger in their eyes.

A few years ago, a colleague slipped and fell on a patch of ice in the parking lot. She had no visible injuries but suffered a concussion from the whiplash of the abrupt fall. Because she “looked” fine, our superiors couldn’t grasp why she couldn’t handle her usual workload. But I understood. All those tiny blood vessels and axons and synapses, as fragile as snowflakes, were violently shaken in a way nature never intended. I reassured her that in time she would find herself again and adjust to her new reality because I had managed to do so, and I spoke up for her with our superiors. Still, because we show few if any external signs of damage, they have a hard time grasping that our impairments are just as real as someone who has lopped off a finger. 

It Forces You to Change Your Life

When you’re in a crowd, your brain is able to process almost all the information subconsciously while you consciously focus on whatever you’re doing. For me, however, crowds are a nightmare. When too many people are moving in too many directions and having too many conversations, my brain becomes overloaded and within a few minutes, I can become completely disoriented. You can try to avoid crowds, but just like light, you’ll soon realize crowds are everywhere. So I take back roads with less traffic, shop during off hours, and work jobs that offer solitude. I don’t often go to live sporting events or concerts or even restaurants because the cacophony of noise and motion still completely overwhelms my brain a quarter of a century removed from the accident.

The worst example of this sensory overload occurred at another convention where I was attending as a guest author. I arrived a night early to get my badge, find my panel rooms, and have a plan, hoping to avoid the crowds as much as possible. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same plan because as the escalator deposited me into the lobby, I found myself in the middle of at least two thousand people, elbow to elbow. Within seconds, my senses were overwhelmed, and I struggled through the throng to find an exit sign.  The disorientation was so bad I had to withdraw from the convention and spent three days at home to recover. Isn’t there a line somewhere about the best laid plans?

It Also Changes Your Personality

Many people know about Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who underwent a major personality change after suffering a brain injury. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t take a tamping iron fired through the skull to make a difference. After the injury, I became much more introverted and quiet. Like many who’ve suffer severe concussions, I’ve battled depression. Mood swings are common as well.

Not long after the accident (I think I still had my stitches – all 36 of them) my pickup truck stalled and wouldn’t refire. I tried and tried and tried to start it, and with each unsuccessful attempt, my frustration escalated. In a fit of rage, I hopped out of the truck, grabbed a shovel from the bed, and proceeded to beat on the hood until I couldn’t lift the shovel again. Before the accident, I rarely lost my cool, but in that first year after, I was a walking rage machine. Today, it takes quite a bit to push me to that point because I’ve learned to check the cauldron of emotions as they course through me, but if I do reach it, something will probably get broken.

Also before the accident, I was highly analytical and serious-minded with a nearly photographic memory. Afterwards, while much of my analytical ability remained intact, in addition to the memory issues, I became much more creative and free-spirited. While neuroscience still can’t fully explain why this happens, one plausible theory is that it’s akin to Frontotemporal Dementia. Because of the rewiring that occurs, the interactivity within different regions of the brain changes, resulting in a fundamental shift in cognition. More than likely some mechanism that inhibited creativity was damaged by the accident, which “turned on” my latent creative skills. In extreme situations, this can lead to Acquired Savant Syndrome, such as the case of Alonzo Clemons, who suffered a brain injury at three and developed a profound mastery of sculpting despite not being able to tie his own shoes.

Your Brain Becomes a Time Bomb

The weird thing about concussions is once you’ve had one, you’re more likely to get one again; after your first concussion, your chances of getting a second go up 400 freaking percent. And subsequent concussions can be catastrophically bad, even if you don’t have apparent permanent damage from the first. This is because if you only damage a small number of neurons, your brain figures out a way to work around it. The damage is still there, but you don’t notice it, which may falsely lead you to believe that your brain is as healthy as it ever was. Since those connections never heal, another concussion can destroy enough of them your brain can’t work around it any more, leading to more serious problems. Another complication that can arise is called Second Impact Syndrome, where after a concussion, even the slightest bump on the head before the brain has sufficiently healed causes it to rapidly swell inside the skull. Though rare, the mortality rate for SIS is about 50%, and the permanent disability rate from it is nearly 100%.

I cannot stress this point enough. People who have suffered severe brain trauma have to accept that their brain should not be exposed to additional risks. I struggled with this fact for years because I had been a competitive athlete, and after the accident, I felt compelled to continue to prove my toughness. Today, a quarter of a century removed, I recognize the folly of that thinking. Just surviving the incident is tough enough. Your body may still be strong and virile. Your muscles and bones may not have suffered permanent damage from the head trauma, so you sometimes may believe yourself still capable of competing in the sports you love. But your brain is permanently injured. You have to accept that fact and not expose yourself to further damage.

In college, I drove a delivery truck on the weekends. It was a refurbished moving truck with one of the rear doors that slides up like a garage door. One night, the door didn’t open fully, and in the darkness I couldn’t see it as I stepped up into the cargo bay. My forehead slammed into the aluminum guard full force. As I crumpled to the wooden bed (luckily falling into the truck and not three feet down to the concrete parking lot) my final thought before I lost consciousness was that I had just killed myself. Later that night, when I finally made it home, I couldn’t figure out how to make a tub hold water. Fortunately, I recovered with no further permanent damage, but from that moment forward I became much more protective of my head.

Your Health Becomes an Uncertainty Forever

Since brain damage can manifest symptoms in countless ways (or not at all), I constantly find myself wondering every time my eyelid twitches if it’s just normal body behavior, or if it’s my nervous system starting to break down. Having a concussion puts you at much higher risk for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The Mayo Clinic found that even a mild concussion made you four times more likely to develop Parkinson’s, and another study found that three or more concussions made you five times more likely to suffer early-onset Alzheimer’s. Additionally, multiple concussions can cause Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is the degenerative brain disorder that has prompted the NFL to address the concussion issue. And until neuroscience progresses further, there’s no real way to predict if you’ll get it until you start exhibiting symptoms.

Ever since the accident, if I hold my arm a certain way, my left index finger pulses involuntarily. For twenty-two years, I thought little of it, other than slight embarrassment when it occurred while I taught. Three years ago, my left hand began trembling more frequently and would occasionally cramp in a way that drew my fingers together in a twisted knot. I began experiencing other symptoms that mirrored MS and Parkinson’s. For six or seven months, while doctors ran test after test with no answers, I lived in absolute terror that the accident had slowly degenerated my brain to a lethal point. It turned out to be an unrelated issue concerning gluten sensitivity, and today, I won’t say I’m back to normal, but as long as I completely avoid gluten, I do fairly well with it. But the lingering effects of that scare are that I can no longer tell if I’m aging normally or degenerating more rapidly than my peers. I now fear every sharp pain near my scar, pains I ignored for twenty-two years because they were simply my reality. And where I once shrugged off the memory lapses, I now question if my recall is worsening or if I’m just imagining it. Those fears are real, as real as any of the other side effects, and living with those constant concerns for my brain’s health can become rather tedious.

You Slowly Gain Acceptance and Adapt

Despite all these limitations and discomforts, over time, I’ve learned to accept my reality. The process wasn’t easy, and for the first five or six years after the accident, I wallowed in self-pity over everything it had taken from me. Then, one day, the epiphany struck me that I was lucky just to be alive. I’ve since learned, through years of trial and error, to find pleasure in the things I can still do and let go of the things I can’t. I’ve learned to appreciate the little things because I know firsthand the fragility of life.

I’ve learned to stop trying to conform to society’s expectations of who it thinks I should be and embrace the reality of who I am.  I’m one who has survived a trauma that should have killed me, and that fact alone is pretty special. I’ve carved out my niche based on the skills the accident unlocked, and I’ve learned to be grateful for each and every day regardless of how many times I lose my keys or misplace my sunglasses because I’m simply still here.

If you’re living with the effects of Post-Concussion Syndrome, please know you’re not alone. Please know that you can carve out a fulfilling life if you learn to work within and around your limitations. You’ll never again be the person you were before your trauma, but in time, you can find the new you, one who is a survivor, one who discovers new talents you never knew you had, and one who finds pleasure in the little things. In time, you too can learn to operate within the boundaries of your wounded brain.

D.A. Adams is bestselling author of The Brotherhood of Dwarves series and a survivor of severe brain trauma. You can follow him on Twitter @authordaadams

A special thank you to Chris Radomile, who assisted with the development of this article. You can follow him on Twitter @raddystuition

The Steep Climb

DSC_0968mc
In late 2003, I had a manuscript for the first book of a fantasy series, my first child on the way, a dead-end job at a crappy private college, and zero interest from a major publishing house. In my gut, I knew the series had promise, so I made the decision to self-publish. Back then, self-publishing was much more involved than today. E-readers were still in their infancy (when I submitted book one to Kindle, there were only 40,000 titles available, if memory serves), and self-publishing then meant launching an entire publishing company from scratch. As an educator, I didn’t have much money, so I secured funding through my aunt and uncle, who both read the book and agreed it deserved to be on the market.

There wasn’t enough money to do a color cover in an offset print run, so I decided to go a different route. I wanted to make the cover look old, like a relic from a bygone era. Looking back, that was my biggest mistake. Few people got it; most just thought it was ugly. But I still love the simplicity of that original cover. On February 21, 2005, my son’s first birthday coincidentally, book one returned from the binder, and The Brotherhood of Dwarves series was on the market.

For the first few months, I traveled to every bookstore, comic shop, gaming store, and library in a hundred mile radius, trying to get on their shelves. Some were receptive and encouraging, helping me gain a foothold; others were complete jerks. I organized book signings at local venues, and beat the pavement every free moment I had. I quickly learned that book signings by an unknown author are a complete waste of time. But in June or July 2005, I attended my first fandom convention in Knoxville and sold a bunch of books and T-shirts, so I began focusing my attention on conventions and festivals with solid incoming crowds. By late fall, I had sold about 75% of that first print run and decided to do a second. I made some tweaks to the cover, trying to get the right feel of an aged relic and added a blurb from my friend Cameron Judd, the bestselling Western writer.

At first, the second printing sold really well. I had tremendous momentum, and everything felt like it was moving in the right direction. Then, it was like I hit a wall. Nothing worked. By summer 2006, I couldn’t give the books away, quite literally. During this time frame, my relationship with that crappy private college was deteriorating rapidly, and my marriage was strained. I was working two jobs, plus running the publishing side of things and writing book two. I ran on three to four hours of sleep for almost a year. On September 5, 2006, my second child was born, and despite the joy of that event, everything in my life was crumbling beneath me.

The period from 2006-07 was one of the bleakest of my life. My books weren’t selling at all, my marriage evaporated, my career tanked, and on December 25, 2007, my wife interrupted me playing with my sons to tell me she wanted a divorce. I knew our marriage was over, but the cruelty with which she and the man she left me for handled it will never be forgiven. My memories of early 2008 are a fog. Being a father was the most important aspect of my life, the one thing that kept me going, and losing that full-time role was a blow I almost didn’t get up from. Unless you’ve been through it, I cannot explain the emptiness I felt.

Luckily, I have Scottish genes. Luckily, those genes infused me with an obstinate nature. Luckily, I refused to let her break me. In May 2008, I relaunched book one with a new, color cover and also released book two, Red Sky at Dawn. I slowly started getting back on the convention scene. I worked on book three. I focused more efforts on building an online presence. But sales were sluggish. Too much time had elapsed between books one and two. Most of my earliest readers had forgotten about me, and for a couple of years, I slogged onward, feeling as if I were starting from scratch at every new convention I attended.

My personal life was a wreck. I dated the worst possible women, emotional vampires who spoke sweet lies but beat me down at every opportunity. For several years, I made terrible decisions in my personal life, mistakes that probably set me back professionally, but that’s water under the bridge. No sense dwelling on things I can’t change now. Hopefully, I’ve learned my lessons and won’t repeat those same mistakes ever again. Today, I’m personally in a much better place and with a much, much, much better partner, a woman who accepts me as I am. But again, that’s all a different post for a different day.

By late 2010/early 2011, I realized I had gone as far as I could go as a self-published author, so I began talking to Seventh Star Press about taking over the series. I thought about looking at other publishers, but there was something about Seventh Star, though still a fledgling at the time, that appealed to me, and honestly, I didn’t trust any other publisher to take over my baby. No one else would’ve allowed me to keep the artistic freedom I demanded while offering as much support in terms of platform. On November 28, 2011, SSP released The Fall of Dorkhun. A few months later, they re-released books one and two with new cover art.

From the moment I signed with SSP, momentum began to turn back in my favor. Ever so slowly, I began to inch upward from a completely unknown, self-published author to something more. At conventions, I noticed a shift in how people perceived me. It’s difficult to describe the change, but it was palpable. In December 2012, Between Dark and Light was released, and just recently, book one became a legitimate bestseller during a promotional campaign. It’s been quite the climb, and I’m still not finished.

So here’s my warning to writers chomping at the bit for fame and fortune. Are you willing to wait nine years to see any return? Are you willing to drive 100 miles to sell two books? Are you willing to sit at your booth at a convention for eight hours and speak to every single person who walks by? Are you willing to stay at your booth for sixteen hours because there was a mix-up at the convention and your table is in an unsecured hallway? Are you willing to have doors slammed in your face? Are you willing to feel like you’ve let down everyone who matters to you? Are you willing to endure the slings and arrows from small, petty people? Are you willing to work two jobs AND still write a book? Are you willing to lose everything in your life that matters to you? More than once? Are you willing to press on despite every rational indication insisting that you will never break through? Are you willing to sleep in the back of a broken down SUV for seven weeks because you have nowhere else to go? Are you willing to endure those poisonous late hours all alone, with no promise of brighter days, yet still keep writing?

If you can’t honestly answer yes to every single one of those questions, a career as a fiction writer may not be the right path for you. Every serious writer I have ever met has had to pay their dues, in one form or another, and the great Steve Earle said it best:

Some folks say, if you keep rolling
And you keep it on the yellow line
It’ll take you to the big highway.
But there’s a toll to pay
So if you’re going,
The keeper at the gate is blind
So you better be prepared to pay

There is no secret to success other than never giving up, refusing to lose, refusing to accept no as the final answer. The only formula that works is persistence and faith during the darkest, hardest moments. Everything else is just window dressing. My climb is far from finished, and some days, I feel like there isn’t much gas left in my tank. But failure isn’t an acceptable option for me, so I’ll keep traveling to conventions, talking to readers, engaging people on a personal level, caring about them as human beings not dollar signs, writing these blog posts about my road, asking for reviews, and sincerely thanking people for using their hard-earned money to buy my work and their precious time to read it. That’s how I inch forward; that’s my formula.

I’m D.A. Adams, and I’ve just begun kicking ass!

Devastating News

Cover1

I just received word that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have both halted sales of my series because of a couple of humorous blog posts from a couple of years back. Apparently, I violated both companies’ “Non-Offensive Sanitized Language” policies with my jokes about Cletus McOnetooth, Billy Joe Oilmoney, and Bubba Blacklung. What kind of country do we live in where people are so easily offended that we’ll destroy a person’s career over harmless satire? I’m just devastated. Nine years of my life down the drain over a handful of entries that only my friends and family actually read. I can’t believe this is happening, especially after the recent successes.

On the Death of Will McKamey

Image from Navy Sports.
Image from Navy Sports.

I never met Will McKamey, but the news of his death has struck me personally. Those of you who read my March 7 post about my accident when I was 16 should understand why. Twenty-five years ago, that could’ve easily been my family grieving the loss of a son. To the McKamey family, you have my deepest sympathy and condolences for your loss. I know in this moment those words won’t offer much comfort, but hopefully the outpouring of love for your son across social media will in time help you heal.

I’ve been working on an article for the last couple of months about my experiences with severe brain trauma and post concussion syndrome in an effort to raise awareness. In memory of Will McKamey, I will increase my efforts to land this article with a major outlet so that more people will understand the seriousness of brain trauma. RIP Cadet McKamey. The world has lost a promising young man

Amazon and Nook Books Bestseller

The Brotherhood of Dwarves - Book One
The Brotherhood of Dwarves – Book One

Yesterday, The Brotherhood of Dwarves became a bestselling book, hitting #6 of all Fantasy titles on Amazon and #143 of all books and rising to #51 of all titles on Nook Books. A huge round of applause needs to go out to everyone at Seventh Star Press for their efforts, and a personal thank you is extended to all of my friends and readers who helped keep this series alive over the years. Without all of you, I would have faded away long ago. While this surge of success is wonderful, the hard work is just beginning in order to keep growing and expanding the readership base.

If you are just now discovering this series, I want to express my gratitude for you taking a chance on my work. Even if you end up not liking the first book, I appreciate that you took the time to read it. As I’ve expressed to many people over the years, please offer me your feedback, as I love to hear what readers think. That’s how I can grow and improve as an author. Please know that I make every effort to respond to everyone personally and encourage you to engage with me on here, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

Welcome to The Brotherhood of Dwarves, the adventure you’ve been waiting for! As always, thank you for your support.

St. Patrick’s Day Dwarven Extravaganza!

Seventh Star Press Open House
So for a few weeks now, I’ve been promising big news, and now, I can announce it. Today, The Brotherhood of Dwarves will be featured on Book Bub as a fantasy recommendation (though I’m not entirely certain at what time). For those of you not familiar with the site, it has over two million subscribers, and while obviously not all are fantasy readers, its fantasy subscribers are fairly robust and quite loyal. Today has a chance to be quite a day for the series.

So check back this evening to see what kind of fireworks Seventh Star Press has created, and have a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day!

The Drums Are Rumbling

The Brotherhood of Dwarves - Book One
The Brotherhood of Dwarves – Book One

The dwarven invasion is underway! For a limited time book one, The Brotherhood of Dwarves, is available for $.99 on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo readers.

Here are some review snipets:

“Simply put, Adams delivers a masterful work of fiction. One that you can share with your children. One that you’ll read more than once. One that’ll leave you wanting to read more books like it.” – Amazon Review

“D.A. Adams puts together a story that I found myself reading from start to finish in less than a day”- Watch Play Read

“This story of self discovery is a fine read and I very much appreciate that the character focus is on dwarves. No cookie cutter, young, perfect characters. Real, genuine and unique.” – Jess Resides Here

“If you love intricate world-building, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this book. If you like action and adventure, swords and arrows and more, you’ll love it too. And if you’re eager to see those working-class dwarves take a stand, this has to be the series for you.” – Sheila Deeth Blog

“Adams takes time to craft believable characters, even though they are fantastical beings, with their own histories and cultures. This gives a great context to the characters and their decisions and motivations – often lacking from the fantasy genre. It is also tremendous fun to read.” – Amazon Review

Kindle

Nook

Kobo

The adventure you've been waiting for!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,266 other followers

%d bloggers like this: