A Fish Called Dory: A Concussion Story

“I could not comprehend that I had been awake, had had previous conversations about this with my mother and husband and had lost several days worth of time and memories.” In honor of Brain Injury Awareness Month, Ashley shares her account of how a major concussion affected her life.  

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, so I wanted to give an account of a concussion that I sustained several years ago, a concussion that changed my life and my perception of the world forever. This will be my most personal story so far. It involves me and my family more centrally than my horses. So, without further ado, this is the story of my concussion and the memory loss and amnesia that accompanied it. 

On February 28th, 2016, I went to the barn on a Sunday morning to enjoy some saddle time with my horses. I rode my (then) green OTTB mare Make Mom Proud, aka Prudence, and she had her first under saddle canter, and then I went to the field to get my husband’s horse. The last thing I remember is my then pony, who was for sale at the time (and sold right after that to his current owner), coming up to the gate to greet me and my deciding to take him for a ride in the arena instead of my husband’s horse, Stanley. 

Riding Prudence the spring after my accident. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

I have no idea what happened after that. The next thing I remember is waking up in my darkened bedroom with sharp pains in my neck and shoulder. I reached up to my neck and felt a neck brace and immediately started crying, filled with dread. I went downstairs, tears streaming down my face, asked why I was in pain, and my mother and husband told me that I had fallen from the pony while dismounting or been knocked over by him (this point is still unclear, though the latter seems more probable to me), and that I had been to the hospital and had sustained a concussion, as well as a tear in my shoulder and a mild neck injury. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I kept saying, “I couldn’t have fallen from the pony, he’s too short.” 

The day after the accident. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

It was at that point that my husband and my mother looked at each other, then at me, and my mother smiled patiently and said, “Honey, we’ve been over all this about 100 times.” To which I sobbed, “What?”  I was totally and utterly flummoxed by what she was saying, and she said, “You don’t seem to have any short term memory. We’ve told you all of this over and over again.” I could not comprehend that I had been awake, had had previous conversations about this with my mother and husband and had lost several days worth of time and memories. 

While in the hospital. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

My stepsons appeared wearing t-shirts with pumpkins on them, and I was instantly confused, because I thought that it must be Halloween. But then somewhere in my mind I thought it was too cold to be Halloween. So, panicked and confused, I asked, “Wait? So we’re not married yet?” And the look of shock and horror on my husband and stepsons’ faces is one I will never forget. They stared at me for several beats, incredulous, “Surely you remember the wedding?” they asked. And I searched my very foggy brain, “Isn’t it October? Aren’t we getting married on Halloween?” I had forgotten my own wedding. I cried and cried, knowing that my inability to remember was causing my loved ones pain. 

A photo from our wedding. I have no memory of this. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

My short term memory was shot. I could remember my name from one moment to another, but basically nothing else. I would fall asleep and wake up in severe pain because I had forgotten that my shoulder and neck had been injured and I would move them due to my lack of memory. The secretary at the school where I was a teacher gave me a piece of advice that saved me until my memory came back. She said that she’d seen the movie Fifty First Dates, in which a woman wrote post-it notes that explained her reality, so that she would not be surprised everyday. The post-its were a life saver. When I would get confused, I would go to the mirror in my room, where I had posted dozens of post-its and the post-its would tell me what was true and real. 

In addition to the pain, memory loss and amnesia that I was experiencing I also could not read English, and even in speech certain words would get jumbled. In my mind I  would see the first letter of the word I wanted, and I would sometimes substitute another word that started with the same letter. For example, if I wanted to say computer, I might actually say calculator. Oddly, my Latin was better than ever.

While in the hospital, apparently I was protesting that I didn’t need to go to the hospital, since I could still conjugate, so my patient husband kept me busy by asking me to decline and conjugate verbs, and I was going at such breakneck speed that he could not keep up with me. I could translate whole English songs into Latin in meter without even trying to do so. I have heard of people getting super powers when they have a major concussion. People being able to do art who had never had an artistic bone in their bodies. People turning into mathematical geniuses overnight.

Me, I was already good at Latin, and I got better at Latin. Lamest super power ever!

In those early days, I discovered that the doctors in the ER had given me Valium to keep me calm, since I was panicked about not being able to remember things. They had sent me home with Valium and my husband and mother were administering it to me whenever I got confused and agitated, which was basically every five minutes, since I kept discovering things I could not remember. My emotions were jumbled due to the concussion and I cried at the drop of a hat, which is not typical for me. I was also terrified about not being able to remember things and that made me agitated. During this period, I was feeling frightened, sad and also very angry. I wanted to stab anything that was within my grasp. I tried to explain these feelings to my husband and mother, but my thoughts were too jumbled and I was incapable of being eloquent enough to make myself understood.

How I spent my recovery. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

I almost garrotted my mother with a phone charger because she bumped into me in the hallway one afternoon. And another day, I kept eyeing a pair of scissors that had been left near me and then staring at my beloved dog’s eyes. I could not make people understand that I had these homicidal rages, and when I tried to make people understand, they would give me Valium to calm me down, and the rages would just get worse.

Finally, one day my mother and I were driving home from the barn, where she had taken me to visit the horses, and there was a glass Coke bottle in the center console of her car, and crying I explained to her that with every fiber of my being I wanted to break that bottle on the dashboard and stab her with it. I cried and cried, telling her that I had been having all of these terrible thoughts. And my mother listened and took me directly to the doctor’s office.

It turns out that I am allergic to Valium and had a psychotic reaction to it. Instead of calming me down, the Valium was causing me to become more anxious and giving me homicidal psychotic visions. The doctor took me off Valium, wrote a huge note at the top of my chart that I have an allergy to Valium, and warned me that it would take a few days for the amount of Valium that I had received to leave my system. Once the Valium was out of my system, the homicidal visions disappeared entirely, my anxiety lessened and I started to be able to recover.

Despite the stress I was feeling over my inability to remember things, there were some moments when my impairment was amusing to my family and friends. It was basically like living with Dory from Finding Nemo, and my husband and stepsons found ways to entertain themselves while I barraged them with myriad questions.

One night, upon coming downstairs, I could not understand why the stove was black (we had replaced our prior stove in the weeks before my accident), so they would calmly tell me that we’d bought a new stove, and because my emotions were still jumbled, I would fall on the floor, crying over my sadness and shame at not being able to remember.

So they’d say, “You know what would make you feel better? If you went out to the porch to see the new hot tub?” And I would jump up off the floor, grinning like an idiot, and skip out to the porch to see the hot tub (full disclosure: I don’t even like hot tubs, so what was I so excited about???),  and then I would get to the porch, look around confused, stomp my foot, run back inside crying, and fall on the floor, shouting, “There’s no hot tub!” And they’d wait a beat, then say, “You know what would make you feel better? If you went out to the porch to see the new hot tub!” And I would bound up off the floor, and skip outside again. And I would hear them in the kitchen cackling, but I would invariably fall for it every time, since I had no short term memory. At least my broken brain brought some joy to my family, who were suffering through my incessant questions and variable moods. 

Our dating anniversary before the accident, I took Chris to my home Red Bank, Asbury Park and Sandy Hook. I have no memory of this. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

Another amusing anecdote from this period is that one morning I woke up, and my husband was not in bed next to me. The room was dark, and instead of assuming that my husband was downstairs making coffee the way I ordinarily would in my normal life, I became extremely anxious that he had left me (this was still during the Valium period when my anxiety was sky high).

So…I did what any self-respecting woman would do if she worried her husband had left her; I dialed 911. And told them, through tears, my voice shaking with fear, that I was, and I quote, “naked and alone” and that I didn’t know where my husband was or when he would be back. They started asking me all these questions that my brain could not process, and then I heard my husband on the stairs, and I said brightly, “Oh there he is. I’d better go. He’ll be mad if he knows I called the cops.” And I hastily hung up the phone.

My husband walked in with a big smile on his face, bringing me breakfast in bed and a cup of coffee. And then he said, “Were you talking to someone?” So, I sheepishly relayed the story about dialing 911, and he called the operator back and told them about my concussion and the confusion and anxiety I was experiencing. He and I now laugh about how they probably had to call off the swat team that they’d sent to rescue this poor, frightened woman locked in the attic from her abusive husband. But after that incident I wasn’t allowed to have my phone and took to listening to audio books. 

The Halloween before the accident. I have no memory of this. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

In the end the verdict from the doctors was that I had done serious damage to my occipital lobe. I could not handle light. I could not read. And I had also done serious damage to my cerebellum. My balance, which has always been excellent, I am a horseback rider and a dancer, was now total trash. I could not stand on one foot at all. I would just collapse into a heap on the floor. And in addition to these things, and my short-term memory loss, I had also injured the frontal lobe of my brain, and therefore had both anterograde and retrograde amnesia. This is why I did not remember my wedding. Luckily I had been wearing a helmet, when my fall or knock over happened. And the doctors credit my helmet as being the reason that the damage to my occipital lobe was not permanent. 

Our honeymoon in NYC. I have no memory of this. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

The damage to my long term memory, however, was permanent. My short-term memory eventually recovered, so I no longer resemble the titular character from Finding Dory, but my memories from before and directly after the accident have never returned. My wedding photographer gave me our wedding photos, hoping that the pictures would jog my memory, but to no avail. Every once in a while I will catch a glimpse of something from what I refer to as the “black time” just out of reach in my memory. But most things from that time period are still totally dark. 

Party after our wedding reception with friends at a diner. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

In time, however, my vision, speech, short term memory and balance recovered. And just a few months after my injury, I was back on a horse. It irks me that I can’t remember how the concussion happened, but due to the injuries I sustained, I think it’s likely that I was knocked over by the pony in question rather than falling while dismounting. He was agitated due to being out in a herd of mares, which we now know is a no no for him, and with him being small and stout and me being tall, him knocking into me and sending me flying backward makes the most sense to me. But how the injury happened is almost immaterial because whether I was riding or on the ground, I know that I owe my recovery to my helmet. That is why I am an advocate for helmet safety, because I could easily have lost my ability to see, or speak, or stand permanently. And I did lose my memories, and I want other people to avoid losing what I have lost. Because you can’t put a price on your memories.

Recovering with a game of chess. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.

First Birthday afterward. Still recovering. Photo courtesy of Ashley Francese.