Women Writing After Concussion

By Doreen Vanderstoop

Edited by E.D. Morin and Jane Cawthorne
University of Alberta Press
2021/$26.99/248 pp.

Imagine you’re having the kind of day where you have a nagging headache. Or perhaps you feel rage over a slight misadventure. Or a noise grates on your last nerve. Or you’re exhausted by 10 a.m. Or you really don’t feel yourself. Or you just can’t get the words right—either out of your mouth or onto the page. Now imagine you experience most if not all of those blows every day, and you’ll have some idea what life has been like for the women whose stories are captured in Impact.

The 21 contributors here are strong, capable, accomplished. Skilled writers. They flourish as university professors, social advocates, poets, Ph.D. students, athletes, the list goes on. They had the world by the tail. Yet their ongoing success was jeopardized by a concussion, a.k.a. TBI (traumatic brain injury). Through this anthology, we step into the realm of the contributors’ confusion and turmoil. The journey is at once astonishing, fascinating, troubling and inspiring.

While each account is unique and deeply personal, all are woven together by common threads of dysfunction—barbed, twisted and tangled. Kinnie Starr writes: “I get confused some days just trying to make toast.” “I would buy the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers,” Judy Rebick explains. “I could imagine the salad but I couldn’t figure out how to turn these vegetables into a salad.”

The accounts of how the writers overcame these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, or what it’s like to be locked in the throes of that effort, are likewise compelling. Anna Swanson writes, “Even if I was feeling good and in a flow of words, I learned to stop and leave it. I was trying to teach my body that poetry didn’t have to be something that hurt me.”

Not only did these women have to recover from TBI, but they also had to fight their way back to themselves with the help of often uninformed medical practitioners. Women’s TBI symptoms are often doubted, their challenges underestimated, or they are given cursory remedies and sent on their way. Elaine Morin was diagnosed with “emotional lability” and prescribed estrogen. Reading up on it told her this condition was a common post-concussion symptom, not the result of erratic hormones.

Alexis Kienlen writes: “Other than my symptoms, there is no evidence that my brain suffered an injury. An MRI is inconclusive.” Jane Harris: “Thousands of women live with no acknowledgement from the medical profession that they could have long-term health risks after experiencing TBIs through intimate partner violence.”

Impact is one of the best anthologies I’ve ever read. It is not a quick read. Much pain and beauty are in its pages. I found myself needing—wanting—time and space for my mind to absorb it all. The narrative fractured by conversational footnotes in Jane Cawthorne’s piece suggests, in form and function, the kind of roller-coaster ride TBI brings: “Little by little, I can read again. You look at me with disbelief. ‘What do you mean you couldn’t read?’ I don’t know how to explain it. I could read. Kind of… The words jumped all over the page.”

Kyla Jamieson’s poetry took my breath away: “I walk in circles, forget/ My wallet, remember/ Nothing, put my hoodie/ On backwards and moan.”

The stories in Impact present brave portrayals of the writers. They provide solace and inspiration to those who are struggling with concussion. (As the mom of a once-concussed son, that’s what I found.) But these stories also benefit those of us who consciously value being and getting well and want to bolster our ability to empathize with those who aren’t.

Doreen Vanderstoop is a writer, storyteller and musician in Calgary. She is the author of Watershed (Freehand, 2020).


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