Parenting after a concussion has been one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. It's been such an emotional issue for me that it's only now, five years post-concussion, that I can actually write about it.
At the time of my concussion, which happened in a collision in November 2016, I had three young children. I had an eight-year-old son, a five-year-old daughter and a daughter who had just turned three. My youngest was in the car with me at the time of the collision. She also sustained a concussion and, to this day, like me, still has some symptoms.
Immediately after the collision, I tried to carry on as normal as I had lots to sort out with the car insurance company and getting my car fixed. I think it was all the adrenaline and endorphins coursing around my body that meant that, although I was gradually becoming aware of the physical pain in my head, neck, shoulder and back, it wasn't until a few days later that I really began to notice the symptoms of the concussion. I started to notice that I felt off balance when I walked, that I was banging into things and that I was struggling to focus properly with my eyes. Other strange things started happening, like finding it hard to find words, forgetting where I'd put things and feeling exhausted.
I went to see my GP at the time, and he told me that I had a concussion and he gave me a card with the contact details of the NHS physiotherapy service and told me to go and get my eyes tested as he thought I probably needed a new prescription. I also asked him for some painkillers as the physical pain was excruciating. That was it, and I was sent on my way. At the time, I just assumed that I'd be better within a few weeks with some physiotherapy and rest. I had no idea that I was about to embark on a very long healing journey and that I'd still be suffering from some of the symptoms today.
I'd been home educating my children for two-and-a-half years (yes, I'm one of those crazy people who were homeschooling pre-Covid!). For those first few weeks post-accident, I decided that, as the children were still young, we would just slow down, pull back from external activities and most of the academic work we were doing and focus on Christmassy things and gentle activities so that I could rest and get better.
Initially, I wasn't too concerned as we'd already experienced other upheavals on our home ed journey, such as life with a new baby and moving house. One of the great things about home educating is that you can adapt to situations as they arise, so at the time of the accident, that's what we did. I don't have to follow a strict curriculum or timetable, and there's a lot of flexibility. I just have to make sure I'm educating my children for a certain number of hours per week, but that doesn't have to mean all sit-down academic work.
On the one hand, continuing home education while I was unwell was incredibly difficult and presented numerous challenges. On the other hand, I can look back and see that it also came with some blessings. To help me get through it all, I chose to focus on those. In the early days, I remember thinking it was actually quite nice to slow down, and I really appreciated just spending time with my children. Before that, we were often in the car, rushing around from pillar to post, and I didn't always have longer stretches of time to intentionally spend just being with them. After the accident, I remember having lots of snuggles on the sofa, letting the children watch films and watching them play, joining in with them when I could. Sometimes, when I was having physio at home, they would come in and chat to my physio, a friend of mine, and ask her questions. Other times, if I was doing some exercises or following a Pilates video, they'd join in with me. So, I was still able to give them attention, which they appreciated, and we were able just to hang out together a lot.
I did find it more challenging to plan their academic work as my cognitive and organisational abilities took a nose-dive as a result of my concussion. Prior to having children, I'd been an executive PA and then a self-employed copy-editor and proofreader. I'd been highly organised. Before the accident, we did a mixture of academic work and activities at home and externally, with lots of playdates and get-togethers with friends, and we were always busy and on the go. I'd sometimes organise relatively large home ed group meetups and activities.
That all went out the window overnight, and I was surprised to find how difficult it was - when I felt ready - to start bringing more order and planning into our days again. I hadn't realised until then the extent of the changes to my brain. It was hard to plan work because I felt so chaotic and disorganised and I was also much slower, both physically and cognitively. Particularly in those earlier months, any kind of intellectual work was especially challenging, and even today, to a certain extent, this is an issue for me. It also took a while for us to be able to return to activities, particularly to the level that we had done before, not least because I couldn't drive for six months and also because of my depleted energy reserves and the difficulty I had trying to endure noisy and bright environments.
I learned that thanks to neuroplasticity, our brains can change, and so I worked hard to overcome the cognitive and physical challenges I had. I had to learn strategies to compensate for my deficits and work around them. By implementing a daily self-care routine, focusing on eating a brain-healthy diet, taking regular exercise, working on getting enough sleep, using brain-training apps, doing mindfulness and meditation and working on my healing in other ways, I found that over time I improved and gradually I was able to do more and more.
I was also fortunate to have support from two neuro occupational therapists (OTs), one of whom was from my local branch of Headway, the UK brain injury charity. She encouraged me to put a large neon star-shaped sticker up in my kitchen when I was cooking, so that the children could see I was busy and know not to interrupt me. Whereas previously I could cook and hold a conversation simultaneously, it became really hard to do after my concussion. I would make mistakes such as burning the food, leaving the oven on or putting an opened milk bottle in the freezer. Having the sticker up helped the children to know when not to disturb mum, so that I could focus and actually create a meal without too many disasters!
Another thing that helped me was having a big whiteboard up in my dining room so that I could plan my week and see at a glance what needed to be done. For a very long time, I found it much harder writing things down and reading them on paper, so the whiteboard was a godsend.
The second occupational therapist helped me to plan my days and weeks, learn how to manage my fatigue levels, pace myself and implement strategies to make life simpler and smoother. With her help, I started to find it easier to get on top of things like the laundry, weekly shopping, my admin tasks and plan the children's weeks better. I started writing more comprehensive weekly timetables and using weekly meal plans. I basically had to relearn how to do all this again in an efficient way.
I'm so grateful for the help from the OTs because gradually, I was able to build up my energy levels, do more and more things around the house, drive more, organise home ed life more effectively, improve relationships with my family and get better sleep. I learned to focus on what I could do and not be overly concerned with what I couldn't do, knowing that they would usually improve if I kept trying and working on things.
I particularly applied this approach of focusing on what I could do and not what I couldn't to home ed. I found creative activities easier to do with the children, so in time, I let them do a lot of art and crafts and when I was quite a lot better, we enjoyed cooking together. After I'd had treatment for Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) and dizziness, I was able to read a lot better and watch longer things on a screen again, so we all watched quite a lot of films and documentaries and read longer books together. Fortunately, I'd subscribed to a number of online learning courses for the children, in various subjects like English, maths and science, and there are lots of free online educational resources, so we made a lot of use of all those.
Over time, we were able to increasingly focus on the more academic and formal workbook-type work, and I could help them more with that again. Also, as the children were still young, the work was relatively easy and I could help them. As a home educator, my role is more that of a facilitator than a teacher – I largely help find resources for my children that I think they'll be interested in and that are aligned with their interests, and I help them get started and assist them. Thankfully, it's them and not me who actually has to do the work!
I'd been really worried about whether we'd be able to continue to home educate but thankfully, due to the help I received from others and the fact that I was able to heal enough, we were able to carry on (it would have been a very different situation had we been at the GCSE stage.)
Directing so much focus on the children and home education did have a knock-on effect on other aspects of my life. My depleted energy left me with little brain space or time for socialising or much else during the evenings, but it was a matter of survival, and I was prepared to do whatever it took to keep home educating and look after my children as best I could.
Thankfully, my husband's a superstar and he often stepped in and took over life at home as soon as he got home from work and at the weekends. I'd often have to go and rest pretty much the moment he walked in through the door. He'd do the cooking or some tidying up, or he'd just spend time with the children or take them to an after-school activity they needed to go to. He'd supervise bath-time or read bedtime stories and put the children to bed if I wasn't up to it, which was quite a lot in the early days. Thankfully over time, I was able to do more and more of this.
So we muddled along and we managed to get through it all. To a certain degree, I had to rebuild my life and our family's life. I'm so grateful for all the help I've had along the way to help support my family and me and to help me learn to function better so that I could get to where I am today. And I'm so humbled by how amazing my children have been at coping throughout everything we all went through. A brain injury can affect every aspect of a person's life and it doesn't just affect the person; it also affects their family, friends and community.