As a soccer player, there is no hiding from heading a ball. You can fake missing a header as much as you want (sun was in my eyes, half jumping for it, or purposely dodging your head at the last minute) but eventually, you’ll have to grit your teeth and head the ball in or away. I’ve headed plenty of balls of all speeds and heights throughout my 15-years as a soccer player. I’ve seen women wear head gear for heading situations and my thoughts toward those were, “What a priss, buck up and head the ball without that goober gear…probably doesn’t work anyway.”
Starting my college career playing soccer at the University of Idaho was a thrill of nervousness, excitement, and readiness to make a reputation of excellence for the University and myself. My mental game was strong and I was confident in my physical fitness and skills on the pitch. I wanted to be the hardest working player and the one who would sacrifice the most in my freshman season. That’s just what I did – I got uncomfortable. I listened to criticism and transformed it to enhance my natural abilities and personal style of play. I learned how to dive into tackles like a UFC fighter. I learned how to run up, down, and around the field like an Olympic track athlete. I learned how to be smart and efficient on and off the ball. I learned how to communicate. Most of all, I learned how to obey; following rules and standards. In my 2014-2015 season (because soccer, like many sports, never really end when the season is over) I heard of football players getting concussions but not many soccer players.
I personally knew people, in high school and on my club soccer team, who received concussions but I never thought much of them. To be honest, I though they were faking it half the time to skip out of the hard work. When I thought of concussions I thought, “YEAH RIGHT. You barely got hit.” This was my viewpoint of concussions. However, it wasn’t until I myself received a concussion during the beginning of my sophomore year season at, U of I, until I truly understood the effects of concussions on a person.
It was a normal day at soccer practice. We were working on transition from defense to offense from corner kicks. Our assistant coach was pinging soccer balls into the box where a rotation of six girls were expected to head-out the ball and hop on their pony to the offensive end and finish to goal. I had headed the ball out a couple times during this drill; yes, some of those didn’t feel great but I’d cringe, rub my head, and sprint like I was supposed to do. Although, this next rotation, I was waiting in the defensive box, bouncing on my toes, when the coach played a beeline ball coming straight for my head. Oh boy… this ball was coming in hot but there was no way I could hike up my inflexible leg to clear the ball in avoidance of heading it. Immediately after heading the ball away, something was wrong. Something was very wrong; no rubbing my head and springing to offense after this one.
A common corner kick is what got me, something that I’ve done a million times since I was a wee sprout playing micro soccer. I wish it‘d been a more badass way of getting a concussion injury like a double backflip donkey kick then landing on my head or something of the extraordinary. But a corner is where my cards began to drop. I fell to my knees with a ringing in my ears and tears running down my big cheeks. My head was throbbing a sharp and steady pulse with a concentrated pain in the back of my skull. Something was very wrong and I knew it. My eyes were glossy; before the header I had 20/20 cat eyed carrot vision. Although after, I was seeing patches of blur with black polka dots and tiny sprinkles of 20/20. If I were to compare what I felt with another symptom, I would compare it to a migraine times ten. Physically I felt hurt, beat up, and nauseous. Mentally, I was devastated that my pre-season and part of the season would be missed after all the hard work I put in during the summer and pre-season grind. All I could think of was my head pain and my parents. After the initial shock had dissipated, I felt alright... a little off but nothing that I felt I couldn’t push through, I mean I’m a division one athlete for corn sakes, I was athlete of the week, honorable mention for the Big Sky Conference as a freshman, voted female freshman athlete of the year by my team… I GOT THIS. I failed the concussion test, all three of them - Chloe Bell was officially concussed. By test scores and doctors standards, I would be out for four to six weeks (pre-season gone, and part of season gone).
The rules for post concussion recovery are simple: stay in a dark room, no TV, no magazines, no loud music. Basically become a loafing hermit, something that I was not used to with the hubbub of my soccer, school, and social schedule. At the time it didn’t sound too bad: sit back and relax for a couple weeks, this could be a good change... until after day three. I was now feeling ancy. I wanted to be back with my friends, back earning my spot on the team, and be back in the swing of school. I had a case of F.O.M.O. (Fear Of Missing Out). That’s when the mental effect of my concussion kicked in. Physically, I had a pounding headache that would appear and disappear throughout the day for the next week. Mentally, my mind was begging to unravel into a twisted mess that persisted for around nine months to almost a year. The next bit I’m about to explain may sound crazy or melodramatic to you, as a reader, but now that I’m in a better place and practically recovered, I can genuinely and honestly communicate my concussion nightmare. This is all honest and truths, if you think I’m a bit exaggerating… you’re wrong. Those of you who have experienced a concussion or know someone close whom has/had one, I hope this helps and you can relate and understand what is/could be going on.
I am not a weak person. I do not break down easily or get anxious when faced with a challenge and I do not throw pity parties for myself. I tackle these types of things and make them my bitch. After my concussion, though, I was exhausted after doing little to nothing during a day but could never catch a wink of sleep. I’d be up until three or four in the morning catching maybe two or three hours of sleep until I would wake up again only to repeat the struggle of the previous day. I didn’t know what was going on with me. I looked like myself but I did not act like myself. I had so many thoughts and emotions going through my head like a bunched up amusement park of zooming rollercoasters that I had no control over. People would talk to me and I could not wrap my head around what they were saying. Sometimes I understood what they were talking about but I would easily get tired of listening to them or annoyed over the noise to which a whisper sounded like a scream. I also could not respond or communicate my general opinions, feelings, or even a general statement such as “how are you doing?” It was a hassle and a huge effort to try and get words to flow from my brain to my mouth. A critical connection had been severed. I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t express it at the slightest…another rollercoaster trapped in my head playing tricks on me. It was like my thoughts were mocking me and turning normal day-to-day things into a destructive battle. I remember calling my Mama at one point during my concussion and as soon as I heard her voice, I cried. I would always tell myself “your okay, everything is going to be fine, you’ll be back to yourself and soccer in no time, only a handful of weeks is what the doctor said”. I did my best to stay positive and keep my hopes high. However, I broke down for no reason or from no trigger. I didn’t know why I would cry; I just did for no apparent reason. I told my parents that it was like I was in third person…like I was floating above myself watching me from an above angle trying to help myself but I couldn’t reach down and make the link. I felt anxious and on edge a lot. I’ve almost never felt anxiety in my life; this was new and scary for me. Even giving speeches in school didn’t seem to harass me like my concussion did; my muscles would tighten up and my breathing would rapidly increase. I couldn’t handle it so I did my best to escape it. I would convince myself, “Don’t worry, your okay” but this invisible pressure and stress would make me panic. I would disappear when in a group or even a couple of people because of this rise in panic; as a result of this, the people I was with thought I was shady, uninterested in them, and bailing. I wrestled with comprehending what the heck was going on with an exchange of words between friends and I couldn’t handle it and I couldn’t compose myself. I would fake like I was following the conversation as long as my brain and body could take it until the stress would envelope my whole self. How did I get here? Why can’t I recall what my friends were talking about? Am I losing it? I would be with family or in my friends’ presence in a room but I wasn’t there, I wasn’t checked in with reality. I was a space cadet on a now foreign planet, in a foreign body, with a foreign mind, with people speaking in a foreign language. Overall, I was scared. I was not only loosing grasp on myself but I was losing grasp on the people who were closest around me. That’s what struck me the most. Now as I’m typing this, my eyes are swelling up. I saw, through blurred vision, the strong and healthy relationships, that had been formed with friends since elementary school and family since birth, dwindle and I couldn’t do anything to help. I wanted to, I wanted to be the fun, wild, funny, willful, strong, supportive, oddball character that I saw myself as and how others saw and expected Chloe Bell to be. That person, however, was lost in the dark trying to find any glimpse of light to cling to. Maybe she wasn’t even there anymore. I could no longer be the friend who would listen and laugh, the daughter who loved and brought a fire to life, or the girlfriend who was relaxed and spontaneous. Little by little, friends who were my right hand began to question my new character and current actions, some even telling me to leave. That hurt. It hurt to see people go away from me and it hurt that it was partially my fault and I was incapable of fixing it or fighting for the relationship. I see how this, too, could hurt them just as much as it was eating at me. I could tell my family was desperately trying to help and eagerly trying to fix whatever was changing me by looking up different doctors, counselors, therapist, and psychologist, but I wouldn’t have it. I came off harsh and mean to those efforts. I never did go to a counselor, psychologist, or therapist because in my mind (though discombobulated) if I can hardly think and talk to my parents, whom I’m closest with, or even to myself, what am I supposed to talk and act like around a stranger? Adding another thing to be anxious over. I saw the disappointment and pain that I was taking the people around me through.
Not only was my social life a crumbling disaster but also my grades in school began to plummet. I went from being a girl with A’s and B’s to a majority of C and D averages. Sitting in a room for fifty minutes, listening to a teacher talking about X and Y was painfully difficult. I was so distracted by the florescent lights igniting the room, the projector slides with melting words, and the continuous blabber of irrelevant noise. It was like being an ant on a sunny day under a microscope being scorched from the concentrated heat exposure. Taking notes was terrible; I would look at the screen, focus my eyes on the words and phrases, think I have the words mesmerized enough to write it down, look at my paper, put my pencil down, and my mind would go blank. I would repeat this process again and again but the slide would vanish and a new slide would appear. By the end of class, I had no notes, a headache of frustration, and a lack of confidence. Adding to the tussle, most of my teachers had no idea that I had a concussion or a clue of my symptoms. I told some of my teachers of my injury to the best I could at the time but all continued their routine style and offered no assistance, sympathy, or help.
My four to six week period of being a hermit were up. I took, and retook, the concussion tests finally passing them all. I followed up with the doctor; they looked at my test scores, asked me a few questions, looked at my MRI (no evidence of damage) and said, “You should be good to go!” However, I felt uneasy with what my trainer, coaches, and doctor was telling me. According to paper result and general questions of confirmation from a doctor, I was classified as “able to get going again” but I still didn’t feel fine, like I was 100 percent ready…I would say I was about sixty percent, maybe, of myself mentally and physically. But, I went with it. I thought I must be fine if an experienced doctor and trainer are telling me I’m fine, what do I know compared to them? On the other hand, I felt pressure to get back to playing soccer again; pressure from the team, coaches, and self-inflicting pressure – my athletic scholarship is paying for my education so I need to get back to soccer, it’s my job. So, I went back (looking on my injury now, I probably went back to soon). I was starting at the bottom of the totem pole like freshman year all over again. I was working hard to reestablish myself, wanting to fully earn my spot in the line up with my teams’ respect, not have it given to me because of previous efforts and accolades.
I was back for about three weeks feeling good and performing good (played in two home games). Symptoms of the concussion appeared randomly throughout my day, once again out of my control, but I was pushing through it, ignoring the lingering shadow that had its grasp on me. I walked into the locker room and saw I had a suitcase waiting for me; I made the travel team and would be going to Colorado to play in my first game of the season. The next morning, before the flight, we did a walk-through of materials to loosen up the body and freshen the mind for strategy. We were going through our corner kick set plays and I was defending. The corner was kicked, coming straight for me. The coaches’ instructions have been clear since day one: practice how you play and sacrifice for the team. This includes headers. If you miss a header, you are grilled for it. I respect their instructions and did what they asked because 1) they are my coaches, 2) they have more experience than I do, and 3) I admire their authority and trust they have our best interest in mind. So, I headed the ball and just like that, I was once again in tears with shooting pain by the back of my head. I received another concussion the EXACT same way as the first: by a corner kick, on the same side of the field, in the same defensive position as before. EXACTLY the same. I would not be traveling to Colorado or playing in any part of the 2015 Idaho fall soccer season for that matter.
Over the course of the next seven to ten months, I would see the doctor many more times and take many more concussion tests. What a lot of people don’t understand about concussion is that because you can’t see the injury like an obvious broken leg, sprained ankle, or bruise…the person is fine. I thought that way about people I knew with concussions before. So when the doctor would check up on me (because I was trying to recover as fast as possible to get back to soccer, school, my other commitments, and trying to be normally healthy) he would always say give it a week and if your feeling better give soccer a try but be cautious, don’t head the ball yet, ease into it. I’d give it a try like he said and every time I did, I didn’t feel right. I had to perform half of my capabilities to ease into it and protect myself from tweaking something. I do not think that was fair to me or to my teammates; they would sacrifice all of themselves during a practice while I was order to half-ass it. I wasn’t back to my prime. At the doctor’s check-ups, he looked at me with a blank stare like I was crazy, stupid, and like I didn’t know how I was feeling. I seemed as if he was trying to convince me that I was okay because of the normal test scores. I had a hard time explaining why I didn’t feel right but I knew something was up even if the result didn’t mirror it. After what felt like the hundredth doctors visit, my confidence felt shot. The doctor would never listen to me or take the time to try and get to know my issue. I got the impression that he was getting annoyed with my injury and me. I became self-conscious and seriously thinking, “Am I crazy? Am I actually okay like the doctor is saying?” I was intimidated talking with a highly educated doctor being just a college girl. I started giving up on my situation. Something just wasn’t right; this so-called “invisible” injury is still affecting me even though my concussion tests and doctor visits presumed to be “normal”. It was all about the result and data, not the personal connection and understanding of my battle. This took a toll on me and tore my spirit apart.
Down the road however, I was not able to fully get back to soccer. With a whole lot of thought, emotions, tears, and relief… it was decided between my family, doctors, trainers, coaches, and myself that the safest way to protect my future was to medically retire from the game I had been playing since I was in Kindergarten. I realized that this is my brain. My BRAIN had been slammed against my skull. I need that organ to function! Playing soccer was not worth the risk of something becoming more severe than it needed to be. The mind is a powerful tool that must be shielded.
Today, exactly a year later, I have never been better, even better than I was before the concussion. I never did see a therapist but if it wasn’t for the calming support back home from my parents and other family members, my relationship with the Lord God, and a willful desire to get myself better, I would still be in a very dark pit and who knows where that would’ve lead me. There is not enough praise and thanks I could give to all of those people who looked out for me. It’s interesting how in the times I felt so lost, alone, and struggling that I was completely helpless and FOUND. It was a unique cleansing of the soul, spirit, mind, body, and the past relationships. I thought I was strong then, now I am stronger. I give so much credit to my parents, Jen and Loren. As I saw people leave my life, they never left, doubted, or questioned me. They have always been in my life and loved me for everything I am and am not. But it wasn’t until the concussion that I realized how important they are to me. I let them enter my life as friends instead of parental figures and our relationship has flowered into something simply wonderful with rare depth. Above all else, the Lord took me down a path of uncertainty that I would have never planned, or would have taken, for myself. I trusted in his power of perfect timing, of his wisdom, and his love. God spoke to me and said, “I know where you are Chloe, I know what you are going through, I know what I am putting you and others through, and I know where I am going to lead you. Everything is alright. Take my hand and let me walk with you.” He never left me even when I thought I was alone, and he never will leave me.
My concluding advice for those who have a concussion is that you are not alone. I was away from my family in Oregon, my friends began doing their thing without me, and my own body and mind internally harassed me. I felt isolated; I felt that no matter what I did or said, nobody understood what I was talking about or feeling. I genuinely thought I was becoming a psychopath. I was not insane and YOU ARE NOT either. You are not alone in that gloomy place; others have gone through, and may currently be battling through, the same things as you are possibly in a different way. No matter what happens or who enters or exits your life, you have God looking over you, under you, around you, and through you.
To you parents out there who have someone you care about dealing with a concussion and is struggling, the best thing that grabbed my attention was a calming character while I was going through a typhoon and a patient support while I struggled to even comprehend the little details that normal people don’t think twice about. There are things in this life that people go through that literally cannot be explained with words no matter how large of a dictionary. However, sometimes one can feel it, or sense that something is off in another person. That is something to understand: to look at the things unsaid such as the outer appearance, responding body language, the reactions. A lot of the time, what is happening on the inside of the body flourishes to the outer shell of the body, giving others hints, red flags, or a gauge to sense that something is peculiar. For me, the most comforting thing during my concussions was the simple presence and company of another without communication.
I still have flair ups now and again but I’m patiently recovering and working at it. I’m starting to discover my voice; being able to speak what I think and feel and back up my statements with details, evidence, and assurance. To be yourself, you have to know yourself better than anyone else does…that’s what I’m learning. I’m rediscovering, and making new discoveries, of myself that if it wasn’t for the concussion, it would have never happened and I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Some days you have to make yourself smile and make yourself think good things! You know…shit happens, but shit happens to everyone in different ways. Shit can be diarrhea, little deer pebbles, or long “S” shaped, but remember: just because your path diverges suddenly from your normal path, from your “expected” path, from other close friends paths that you grew together with, does NOT mean you are wrong, crazy, or weird and different. A new path can seem scary at the time but I promise there are so many breakthroughs to be made.