A Letter To My Friends and Coworkers

I left without saying goodbye, and I’m sorry.

I had known some of you for over 16 years. In May of 2002, I started contracting for the company and my longest journey of my career began. When I was hired in 2003, my younger self was excited to realize the opportunities in front of me. The thought of building relationships while sharing my passion for technology (and getting paid for it!) seemed too good to be true.

Over the years, like any other set of experiences, there were highs and lows. Some of you shed tears of laughter with me, while others tears of sadness or frustration. I quickly recognized the strength of our culture. Teams grew, and teams shrank. The ebb and flow was, at times, uncomfortable. The strain took its toll on some relationships. Most people adapted, some even blossomed. Some of our teammates remained in a pit of discontent, where no amount of light or direction could lead them out. Seeing that saddened me.

Fast forward over a decade, when many of us developed gray hair or lost hair. We had ridden out the course of reorgs, relocations, financial gains and losses, and we were still there, surviving — heads down and getting the work done. It felt great. We felt like a valuable core group of the business, getting it done, improving processes, growing our tools, taking care of our people. Leadership was encouraging ownership. I miss that feeling of alignment, momentum, and accomplishment. I miss that high from working and achieving successes from a demanding goals.

In hindsight, there are moments I wish had gone differently. There were times when I should have said more or less, accepted or challenged, invested or detached, gone faster or slower, owned or delegated. Despite my improvement over time, I acknowledge I plateaued and disconnected toward the end.

2018 was a tough year for me. I wish I had shared more with some of you. Some of that omission was deliberate. Some of it was because at the end of the day, it is a business environment and we’re there to work.

The biggest reason I didn’t explain my changes and what was making me spiral in an unwanted direction, was the fact that I didn’t know at the time what was going on inside me. All I knew was that I had “head fog.”

After my February 2018 car accident, I knew immediately that I had head fog and physical pain. Despite the months it took, the physical pain was easier and faster to treat compared to the cognitive and emotional symptoms that surfaced.

It has taken over a year to recognize, identify, learn, accept, treat, cope, retrain, strengthen and reset milestones and expectations for myself. In March of 2019, I had passed the date on which “I should be concerned that the brain injury sustained in the accident may be permanent.” The fog hadn’t gone away.

I was maintaining and had accrued a list of both specific and general deficits I was experiencing. For example, it included the number of times per week I was bumping into walls or door jams due to my central vestibulopathy. It included triggers relating to lights and sound. It had specific observations, such as not being able to work while listening to music. (My norm, prior to February 9, 2018, was when I wanted to focus, I would throw on the headphones and jam out to the 80’s, classic rock, dubstep, soft pop, etc. Music that had some beat increased focus, drowned out distractions, and my productivity output benefited.) The same thing was happening while driving. Historically, I’d listen to anything from classical music and film scores to Eminem and Skrillex. Now, I wasn’t able to listen to anything in the car. It was ‘too much.’ It was like driving in the pouring rain, how we often lower the radio volume to focus more on the road. Except, now I had to shut off the music despite any driving condition. The overstimulation was so taxing on me. I felt like an unsafe driver, even while driving under speed limits. Reversing felt like an accident waiting to happen. I wasn’t processing the environment around me the same way.

Throughout 2018, the list grew. It took a lot of reflection, but more so, it took poor or embarrassing experiences. Almost always, it was a behavior of mine that was not in line with my history. Frequently, it was me reacting poorly conversationally, often getting annoyed, defensive or confused. With luck, I got quiet and didn’t embarrass myself. Unfortunately, it was uncharacteristic behaviors recognized after the fact. It was embarrassing, frustrating and uncontrollable. I hurt, bothered, annoyed, and let down people, even if just for a moment. I caused unwarranted stress onto others. I distanced myself from many at work. Only, it wasn’t just at work. It was happening in my private life, as well. I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve had to apologize to my wife, my mother, my father. I was hurting the closest people in my life and it sucked. This was not the norm for me.

At the time, the doctors and nurses offered reassurance, saying it’ll pass. Over time, I was told:

So, I kept a Google document for a year. I recorded specific behaviors or interactions and deficits I was experiencing. The list grew and grew.

I had to be careful to remain true and accurate with my symptoms. There was no point in artificially adding that I used to run marathons or sing or dance or ‘enjoy’ the sound of a crying baby or the hot sun shining on my sensitive super-white skin. I kept everything realistic and as accurate as possible. I wanted my old self back.

At a high level, my list of lingering issues include:

As the list grew, I became more and more concerned. This isn’t me. One thing was for sure — I was fucked.

I recall clearly, that for the last decade, I gave thought to what would happen if I experienced an accident. Ironically, it was always physical injury that I planned for. If I lost my arms, how would I type? What would replace my fast two-finger pecking? I figured I’d just get voice recognition software back then. Dragon Naturally Speaking was the software of choice. That odd periodic thought always put me at ease. Technology would help compensate. I don’t have any recollection of thinking about ever losing my noggin’. My brain was the source of my troubleshooting. My brain was the source of patience I would show others. It was what let me empathize with so many people at work and at home. It drove my solid troubleshooting and relentless passion for completing tasks. It facilitated my creativity for solutions. It allowed me to perceive what often went unnoticed by others, such as sensing people’s feelings, filling in blanks, tracking problems, not losing cool under pressure. Now, it was filled up with a fog of the items above, chronic pain with a side course of guilt, embarrassment, weakness, failure and confusion. This isn’t me.

Nothing pissed me off more than someone saying that I was “just getting old” or “welcome to the club.” I know some didn’t mean to dismiss what I was going through. At the time, I didn’t even know what was going on. I just had this overall fog of disruption. The only advice I had been given was “Get back to work and get your brain engaged. It’ll get better.” Little did I know that I would be in a group of 15%-35% of concussion victims where the symptoms don’t subside within the days, weeks, months after injury. Lucky me. Short straw indeed.

Once the year had gone by and I went back to the neurologist to ask, “Now what?” we transitioned to a new medical team to do more tests and treat the symptoms that were known. No magic pill. No all-in-one exercise. No single solution for any particular brain injury. Dandy.

So, here I am, 20 months in. New testing. New therapy. Treating the symptoms one by one.

First up was physical therapy for the central vestibulopathy. The therapist stated I don’t seem to have a balance problem, as much as I have a motion sensitivity. Sweet, let’s fix it. So I go to therapy once a week and do exercises daily. It’s helped. It helped after the first session. I was able to track traffic better while driving. So, that was cool. Complex intersections aren’t as bad as before. I still have room for improvement, hopefully, but it’s noticeably better, so I’ll take it!

Instead of bumping into door jams multiple times per day, I go through the doorway like a normal person. Woot! Easy win. Keep in mind, these are doorways in my own house. A house I’ve lived in for 12’ish years. You can imagine how it is outside the home, other people’s homes, navigating tables in restaurants, cubicles at work. “Look out, here comes drunk Mark.”

As expected, my MRI scan was apparently clear of bleeds, etc. It’s more of a formality to get one unless you went unconscious, from what I understand.

I failed the memory portion of a quick cognitive test at the neurologist office. I passed the other sections. It could be side effects from meds. I’m sure I’ll find out more once they do a big juicy neuropsych eval in October. That should hone in on what deficits exist, from what I’ve heard about it. I suspect, after that, we’ll have targeted symptoms/deficits to then do therapy on.

While the original chronic pain continued, new pain developed in my legs. I was given an additional diagnosis of bilateral neuropathy. That’s a new one for the list. I was prescribed muscle relaxers and nerve pain killers. These add a side course of dizziness and dry mouth. Fantastic.

Well, that’s about it for the things I couldn’t share before because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was just trying to get back to work. I’ve learned a lot since then. I found online support groups that I read the archives on, focusing on folks that have had post-concussion syndrome for over a year. They have shared their experiences, their successes and failures at different therapies, drugs, etc. I absorbed the info like a sponge. There’s no one pill or one exercise. Lifestyle changes were the most common steps taken that aided healing. After that, it’s treating symptoms and retraining the brain, redeveloping the resistance to triggers such as light, sounds, stimuli while driving, shopping and social events, memory, problem solving / troubleshooting and other cognitive deficits.