by Mike O’Brien
Last month I took a trip that had a profound impact on me. Departing from a small staircase, my short flight had stopovers on the edge of a sofa and a magazine rack, before finally reaching my final destination on the floor. Being the overly intellectual sort that I am, I proceeded though most of the itinerary head-first. As soon as it was over, I questioned how best to process the experience, and how it might change me as a person, going forward. (Lord, how I despise that expression. As if freezing or going backwards were options, plutonium-powered Deloreans notwithstanding.) I didn’t seek medical attention, given that I was half-vaxed at the time and not disposed to sitting in hospital waiting rooms with the Delta variant coming into bloom.
I had taken a similar voyage to the floor years ago, and knew the protocols for returning. The last time, I adhered as closely as possible to a 10-14 day regimen of silence, darkness, sleep and dietary fat, with an absolute prohibition on screens, reading, physical activity and alcohol. This is a much more stringent regimen than those prescribed by most Canadian health guidelines regarding concussions, for the same reason that dairy-producing countries prescribe more cheese in a balanced diet. To whit, if Canadian health authorities took the long-term effects of concussions seriously, we would have to cancel North-American-style hockey and football (and boxing and MMA and Judo and racing and that competition where Russians slap each other really hard), and any professional league with money in its pockets would be sued into oblivion.
I do take the long-term effects of concussions seriously, having taken a heap of psychology classes at the very neurologically-inclined McGill University (Go Martlets!), and having done a fair bit of rather rough martial arts (safely). Concussions scare the living daylights out of me, and I’m struck by the tone of much public health information on the subject, which seem to be structured around the question of when Timmy can lace up his skates again.
It’s not that I had debilitating symptoms, like loss of consciousness or vomiting or vertigo. That’s almost beside the point. This parallels my concerns about Covid. Statistically, I am very unlikely to die from Covid, just as I am very unlikely to suffer obvious lasting harm from an initially mild concussion. But it’s the non-obvious stuff that worries me. I know that most concussions are below the threshold at which people are forced to seek immediate treatment, and as such are not recorded events in medical literature. What is the typical prognosis of such an injury? We don’t know. What is the typical prognosis for an initially mild Covid infection, 20 years out? We don’t know, even more so.
If we (the official, collective We) did know, though, would we behave more aptly? See my comments on “lag” above. To quote a certain oracle floating in a novelty 8-ball, signs point to no. Here are two data points in support of this pessimism- first, the Quebec government’s Covid testing web page still states that frequent hand-washing is the best way to prevent infections, over a year after airborne transmission was unequivocally shown to be the main vector of spread. And the self-assessment guidelines still list the main symptoms of Covid Classic, paying no heed to the quite different presentation of the Delta variant, which is the dominant strain here. Correcting this kind of dawdling would require one minute of website editing, and a regime change. Unfortunately, I think the hard part would have to come before the easy part.
Back to my brain scrambling. Not knowing if or to what degree my money-maker (this is just an expression, I am rarely paid to think) had been damaged, I erred (or… what’s the opposite of “to err”?) on the side of abundant caution, forsaking all stimulation and distraction for the sake a less dumb, more functional future me. You can learn a lot about yourself when you try to sleep 24 hours a day for two weeks. First, you learn about your natural sleep habits. I, for one, like to sleep very much but can only do about 14 hours a day, spending the rest of the time trying to get back to sleep or drifting deeply into daydreams. I recommend such a schedule to anyone wanting to know what thoughts, anxieties and feelings are lurking under the frenzy of their regular lives. Book four days off, and try to sleep the whole time. If you have children or other nuisances, get a sturdy lock for your bedroom door and really good earplugs. I think this experience might accomplish in days what would take a therapist months.
The second lesson I learned (well, relearned; this was my second stay at the Hotel Cranio-Trauma. I was just a prisoner there, of my own device… ) was that distraction and stimulation are essential to my mental health, at least in a shallow maintenance-of-function sense. Video games were a strict no-no, being extremely demanding on visual-spatial tracking and quick reactions. Too stimulating, in the vascular and chemical sense, if not in any soul-enlivening way. At least, the games that I prefer to play are, which are driving simulators and military shooters of the Battlefield franchise (think “capture the flag” or “king of the castle”, but with 64 human players and attack helicopters). I know that such games are terrible for brain rest because they are one of the few activities in which I experience a “flow state”, removed from real time. They can also be controller-rendingly frustrating when the match is going poorly, and bathing my brain in stress hormones is not a recipe for full recovery. My sojourn from gaming, a favourite pass-time since the 80’s, left me more relaxed and less amused, and also freed up hours of time that I could spend trying to get back to sleep. I have yet to turn my console back on, both because it remains one of the worst things I could do to a mending brain and because I’m not sure of the space I want gaming to occupy in my life, going forward.
At the other end of the processor-demand spectrum, audio-books and podcasts were a Godsend for easing myself out of the void, particularly when I restricted myself to less substantive material. Just furloughed comedians talking to each other, mostly. I have almost finished listening to War and Peace (started in May 2020), which, despite its daunting reputation, is just a very, very long breezy comedy. I recommend it to anyone looking to be mildly amused for 60 hours.
The third lesson was that I don’t miss current events when I stop paying attention to them. I already get a news-cycle detox when I go to my family’s cottage, where no-one delivers a newspaper to your door and there’s no wifi to keep you updated on disaster and misfortune. Deliberate media avoidance (and being too asleep to discuss the news of the day with family members) added another degree of isolation, and it was glorious. Maybe I should care about what goes on in the world, but I suspect that I don’t. It grabs my attention and makes me anxious, the way that abrupt noises do, but they fade from my mind once it’s clear that they don’t threaten me directly, at least not in any new way. The things that I already considered threatening (climate change, Covid mutations, the decline of Western democracies) kept getting worse as expected, without requiring any monitoring on my part. This brings to mind a distinction highlighted in my martial arts studies, between activity and action. Constant tracking of news was an activity, a pattern that continued by momentum and habit, but almost never prompted any action meant to intervene and change the world being reported on. Nothing, besides the consumption of news, went undone because I ignored the news. Maybe I should become the sort of person who makes the news instead of just reading it.
No. I am much better suited to idle commentary.
A topical aside on the activity/action distinction: My favourite illustration of this difference is washing versus cleaning a spoon. Forks are a yet more severe test, but the ovoid simplicity of spoons make them better suited for reductive examples. If you tell me to wash a spoon, I can satisfy this request by going through the motions of running it under water, applying soap, rubbing it with a cloth, and so on. It is a performance-based standard. But if you tell me to clean a spoon, I must satisfy a results-based standard, i.e. the spoon must be clean, not almost clean or as clean as I could get it with a reasonable degree of effort. Virtues versus consequences. When I look at the behaviour of governments and of persons in response to Covid, I see a lot of spoon washing, and a lot of ostention towards the virtues exhibited by those washing efforts, but I still see a lot of dirty spoons. I’m sure my provincial leaders would throw up their hands at this criticism and plead that they are just simple politicians, not spoon scientists, and they can’t be asked to do anything more than try. Not to mention the people who claim that the spoons weren’t dirty in the first place, or that there is nothing wrong with dirty spoons, or that people who wash spoons are just virtue-signaling.
A personal aside from my cabin isolation: Lying alone in a cabin, with the sky full of stars and the night full of a chorus of animal sound, things feel a little more immediate and real. You are attuned to the world, and sense your own vulnerability in it, perhaps due to the slim but real possibility that you could be eaten by otters and raccoons if you were to step outside. I like to listen to the radio, as it is a perfect medium for the setting; old-timey, free-floating, flung out into the world to be picked up by whoever may be “out there”, in contact but not connected. One night, I was searching for a station that was playing non-terrible music, and the only one I found was a local Christian station, in the middle of a classic country music show. I don’t have the allergic reaction to religious culture that seems to afflict too many stridently secular folks, particularly of the Dawkins/Harris set, so this was fine by me. I very much like traditional American folk music, and hymns and gospel are part of its genetic code. A familiar voice came through the speaker, that of the great Willie Nelson. One redheaded stranger singing to another. And the song he sang began thus:
The chimes of time ring out the news,
Another day is through,
Someone slipped and fell,
Was that someone you?
You may have longed for added strength,
Your courage to renew,
Do not be disheartened,
I have news for you…
(“It is no secret”, written by Stuart Hamblen)
The news, of course, was the Good News, which is very on-brand for a Christian station. I don’t go in for religious experiences, but if I did, convalescing there in the dark, feeling uncertain and isolated, and hearing that song caught out of thin air would have been an ideal setting for having one. One of classic country music’s greatest qualities, besides not being modern country music, is that it exists in a cultural frame that can still articulate experiences of transcendence and profundity, and can speak to the vulnerable and the afflicted about their vulnerability and affliction. There aren’t too many pop songs about losing spouses to flooding. Maybe that will change, as the rise in flooding overtakes the decline in marriages.
I ended my sleep-all-day, darkness and silence protocol some weeks ago, but I still avoid alcohol, caffeine (not sure why I thought that was necessary, but having gone through withdrawal I am reluctant to get re-addicted now) and excessive screen time, which are all good things even for people who don’t dive off of staircases. I don’t miss too badly the things I quit, once spells of habit and chemical habituation are lifted. That’s a good lesson, too, that many things are easier to do without than one would imagine before or soon after dispensing with them. Sometimes I think I should pick up some new vices just to avoid becoming boring. Who wants to party with a teetotalling vegan, after all?
That’s enough concussion travelogue. I feel almost completely fine and am reasonably hopeful that I won’t be a demented, volatile wretch in 20 years. When I decided to try writing a column again, after playing my get-out-of-writing-free card last month, I figured I’d compose a few short pieces rather than my usual semi-cohesive 2000-word essay, on the assumption that it would make for an easier re-entry into writing. But I’ve gone and written another semi-cohesive 2000-word essay again, despite my intentions, so the bad news is that I appear to be back to normal.