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Kiss your brain: What I learned when I lost my mind

Maddy King, a 2015 Westpac Women of Influence Awards finalist and co-founder of The Drawing Board Challenge, chronicles how a head injury changed her life - and what she learned in overcoming it.

My body is travelling at around 20kph when the wall of stones slams my knees and my skull. Blackness...

I am floating, face down in the water. Buoyancy is wrong, thank heavens for wetsuits. I come up, breathe/cough, dodge waves. My eyes are wrong. There are stones all through my hair, my everything hurts. I'm being tug, tug, tugged, thank heavens for leg ropes. I gather my surfboard and roll into shore.

No one is looking, rushing towards me, trying to help. The mum calling for her kids, the thing that distracted me in the first place, she hasn't noticed. The young couple holding hands on the beach, they aren't paying my any attention. I'm thankful. On the surface I'm embarrassed, it was a dumb move to mess up. Unfortunately, inside, my spine has been replaced with a jackhammer, sending jolts out so strong that my shaking looks like spasms. I find a spot on the beach to collect myself.

***

This is the story of the concussion that changed my life. In the past year I had held three jobs simultaneously, been learning Te Reo Māori through immersion, launched my own business, earned, learned and was nominated as one of the influential women in New Zealand. But with one blow, I went from highly functioning to not being able to read or drive or finish sentences for several months.

Sometimes it takes a jolt for things to line up properly. While my dizzy brain rested and slowly lumbered back to health, I began to notice many of the processes and patterns I’d fallen into that I’d been too busy to recognise before. I started thinking about how I could restructure my thinking to look after my brain, and drop the stresses and anxieties that I had thought went hand-in-hand with trying to do well. What follows are the things I learned on this journey, as the sunrise of my mind’s recovery opened me up to the possibilities of a happier, healthier life.

This didn’t occur for a while though. In fact, because the impact immediately reduced my brain’s capacity by about 75 percent, I didn't actually realise I was concussed for two weeks.

June: Cabin in Ohakune

1. Plans are for fools

Once the giddiness of the crash has subsided somewhat I get in my car, drive home, shower to stop the shaking (which I think is from the cold), and get into bed. It is 2 in the afternoon. I am alone at home, my flatmates coming and going don't notice. Luckily, I wake up several hours later. I feel awful.

The day before my accident I had finally left a job that wasn't working for me. I was planning to take some time out, rent a hut, go hiking, start a novel, move cities, find a new job, save some money and travel the world the following year. Ironically it is the forward planning part of my brain that is most damaged by the accident.

My pattern had always been to overplan in situations that I couldn’t control. I was a relatively flexible person who adapted well to change, but in situations such as changing jobs, I had trained myself to turn a crisis into an opportunity and focus on all the good things that could come out of it. Of course a major contributor is the fact that when you do anything atypical, like change cities or decide you want a job you enjoy, the whole world starts to ask you what your plan is. But rather than dealing with my emotions, such as the disappointment over the job and the uncertainty I had about the future, I just started making hundreds and hundreds of plans, like a child trying desperately to dig a hole in sand that keeps filling it up.

So over the next few days I am groggy, tired and sore. But this doesn't stop my relentless plan from rolling forward. Though my brain and spine hurt, I find someone to fill my room in my flat, give all my furniture away, walk up and down my incredibly steep, 10 minute long driveway 18 times to single-handedly pack my life into my car, and drive to Palmerston North and back in order to finalise my exit from Wellington. I see a chiropractor, thinking my it's my neck that's causing the headaches, and sleep for 16 hours that night.

Then I start heading up the country. I am shattered by the time I reach Ohakune, so I rent a one-room cabin on the mountain and spend three days there. I am still falling asleep around 3 or 4pm and still haven't realised that it’s my brain that is the problem. So I spend the time hiking on the mountain in mid-winter, in the rain, alone with no reception, enjoying the “me time” that I had promised myself. I don’t pass out or get lost or die, which is great.

By the time I complete the 5 hour drive from Ohakune to my parents' place in Raglan, my vision is blurring and I'm having rolling waves of nausea. Something is obviously wrong, so I drive straight to the Raglan medical centre when I arrive. It is 15 minutes before closing time on a Friday in a small town, and the centre is not open on the weekends, but luckily I know one of the nurses from childhood and they squeeze me in. The doctor takes one look at me and diagnoses the concussion. He says impact of my surfing injury was on the top of my head, which slammed the jelly of my brain into the front of my skull, so it is my frontal lobe- forward planning and short term memory- which is damaged. Because I've pushed myself so hard, I'm now banned from driving, reading, exercising, watching TV, listening to music, cooking, crafts, working, stressing or thinking. My brain must be totally and completely unplugged so it can recover, and I'm told it might take anywhere between 3 weeks to 6 months, or it could be broken indefinitely.

The fear is deep and cold. I am very frightened.

Luckily my long-term brain is shot so the consequences don't hit me all at once. I go home, have a cry, and sleep for two straight days.

This really showed me that no matter what your plans are, life can and will intervene in its own ways. There is so much social pressure to have a plan, have everything planned, but I can no longer see the advantage of this. The economy, job market and environment are so unstable, not to mention our own personal preferences and relationships, that we can’t accurately map out how our lives will pan out, and any satisfaction we get from pretending we can plan these things is illusory. We know the things we like and the things we don’t like, right now, and that’s it.

I’m the sort of person who likes to be able to adapt to opportunity or ride waves when they appear ( - and fall off them, I guess). So following the direction of doing the things I like doing without having a solid plan frustrates people, but has led me to a far more interesting and open life. After the concussion I held a three month contract as an edtech project manager, helped run an initiative around food waste, travelled the country exploring local history, and climbed mountains on the Routeburn. Plans and stability seem less and less useful, and more like a crutch in order to enjoy the illusion of control.

July: It's the little things, like birdwatching

2. Appreciating the moment

After the diagnosis, the next section of time goes agonisingly slowly, but looking back it's condensed into a white milky blur. Every few weeks I think I am better, and lose my memories of the previous three weeks. The doctors push my recovery timeline from 3 weeks to a month, to two months, to three. I'm having trouble remembering names and details and still can't use a computer for more than 10 minutes a day. I use this ten minutes a day over 12 weeks to self publish a book of poetry that I’m immensely proud of. Finding the number to phone the doctor to make an appointment that fits in my diary when I can’t drive is a huge struggle for me and I definitely can't organise anything.

The specialists tell me that the fibres on the inside of the front of my skull have all been crushed by the impact of the surfing accident, and my neck has an elbow bend in it jamming it to the left. This inhibits the oxygen to my brain and causes blockages for the fluid going up and down my spine, slowing my recovery.

The promises I've made, events I planned to speak at, hui I was supposed to coordinate, work I was supposed to do, people I've planned to see all fall by the wayside. I am incredibly bored but don't have the tools to arrange anything with anyone. I reach out to people but because I'm suddenly terrible at communicating I can't get my plea for company across well. It is incredibly frustrating for me to have the capacity to identify the problem but not the capacity to fix it. There is no one in Raglan in winter and I just don’t have the brain capacity to meet new people. I am so very alone, with nothing to do, and am forced to spend my days, by myself, thinking.

I have to turn this desolate time into a positive time. I know from the outside it looks like I have been gifted with a mini holiday, even if I’m incapacitated, and I decide to make every moment of the journey something I try to enjoy. I take up a meditation practice to remember the things I’m grateful for and the things I want to get out of each day, and I set mini tasks for myself. I hand sew a silk bag and use it to collect shells on the beach on my daily walk. I spend 6 hours attempting to cook a meal. I try to go bike riding to a new spot. Everything hurts my brain and I am confined to bed for hours afterwards. My thoughts turn to the experiences I’ve had, the lessons I’ve taken from them, the ones I want to keep and the ones I want to leave behind.

3. Kill your shoulds

This whole period of concussion, when I went from stressing out about the things I wasn’t doing to being more mindful and present, was a big turning point for me. Instead of sitting around feeling like I should be doing things and making the most of my time, I relaxed, enjoyed the moment, and thought about what I wanted to do, what I needed to do, rather than what I should do.

All of this led me to realise that I’d been making myself miserable and dissatisfied. I would tell myself ‘I should go for a run’, and when I didn’t, I would feel miserable. I adopted a new technique of killing this. Every time a ‘should’ arises in my brain I quash it. I eliminate the 'I should be going for a run' voice from my brain, and save myself from feeling miserable. Then eventually, when I feel like I need to go for a run,  or I want to go for a run, I do it. The result is the same - I run occasionally, eventually - but I cut out all the misery and dissatisfaction with myself.

Every single time a should arises in my head I kill it. I don’t need it. And in a surprisingly short amount of time, they’ve all gone. I still achieve the same amount of things, but I’m much happier about it, because I’m doing what I want to do, not responding to some internalised pressure. This means that I congratulate myself afterwards, instead of just thinking I’ve done something I should have been doing all along. I’ve realised I don’t need misery to motivate myself, I can trust that I’m a productive, motivated person who will get the same amount of awesome shit done, and push myself to the same heights, without carrying all the ‘shoulds’ around on top of me like a cloud.

I think overachievers tend to operate by training ourselves to be constantly dissatisfied with our own performance, so we can keep pushing ourselves to greater heights. If we do well at an assignment we immediately think - and talk - about what we could have done better. If we make a great meal or artwork it’s not great enough. All this does is train the brain to be miserable and I don’t actually think we need it. We can continue to excel and outperform without creating a pattern of thinking that’s demoralising, negative and hard on ourselves. Because these patterns are so powerful, later when we're in crisis it’s that pattern the brain will fall back on. It’s the patterns we set up every day that decide whether we respond to crisis by being disheartened or bouncing back. Thankfully I adopted this at the right time to journey through disheartenment, and end up bouncing back from my injury.

July: Getting lost on solo hikes

4. Down time

As my concussion slowly got better I could start performing tasks, but I could only do one thing at a time for about six months. So I couldn’t read and also listen to music. Or I couldn’t talk and also hold down a conversation, my brain would get too fatigued and I’d become irritable. It felt like there was scratchy hair on my mind that was bugging me.

As I started getting back into normal life I could see there were a thousand ways that we’re socialised into overstressing our brain. Before the concussion I would constantly be occupying my brain with music, Netflix, Facebook, and podcasts so that I could always be learning, absorbing and using my brain usefully. I would never give myself a moment of silence to just sit, I always had to be occupied. But when I could only do one thing at a time, I realised that the brain needs empty space to process emotions and come up with new connections and ideas, and that this applies to healthy brains too. I realised that my handsome brain actually needed boredom and wandering thoughts for me to process the things that were bugging me or the feelings that I hadn’t addressed yet. I was actively distracting my brain with clutter so that I didn’t have to face these thoughts and feelings, and it was cumulatively stressful. My brain also also needed this space to come up with the new bright ideas, inventions and what ifs, and realise the surprising connections that could lead to brilliant business ideas. I was missing out on all this by staying noisey.

I remember when I was deep in the throes of my Masters research I would look forward to going to bed a little bit early at night because the window before I fell asleep was my opportunity to wander and idle over the events of the day, the things and the people in my life, my dreams for the future, silly stories. I had to save it for night because the entire rest of my time was reserved for “useful” thinking, solving academic problems and critically analysing complex issues from new angles. As I started working full time, this window of time disappeared through exhaustion, life admin and shoulds. I’ve realised that we should cultivate boredom every single day, and value downtime as the fertile soil the brain needs to thrive.  

August: Making stamps from pumice for a poetry book

5. Deliberate contentment

Once I was a little healthier and back in the flow of work, I found myself truly grateful for the fact that I didn’t die in the surf. I’m still grateful, for breathing and walking, being able to read and listen to music, and I’m so grateful for my thinking brain.

Overachievers like myself are often scared of contentment, because being discontented, dissatisfied with our own progress, unhappy with the state of the world - that’s the fuel that drives us to push ourselves further and do bigger and better things. Some even go so far as to call constant dissatisfaction an entrepreneurial mentality. But I believe this pattern leads to bitterness and stress, unhappiness and misery - and the self indulgence this creates means we’re in no fit state to come up with ground breaking ideas, we can get absorbed in the tunnel vision of everything that’s wrong with life. It’s not the answer. Cultivating deliberate contentment gives us a peaceful and positive outlook, and leaves us with the fertile mental space to see new connections and solve crucial problems.  

6. Sweet satisfaction

On my walk to work now, I go over the things I’m grateful for, and I reiterate the things I’m pleased with whenever I have a free moment. When I get home, I list off the things in my life that I’m happy for. When I’m falling asleep, I count a few things I like about my life. Every single day. It sounds obvious, but I’ve realised I need to train my brain into noticing positive things, into a pattern of happiness, a habit of contentment. It takes actual work, but I can’t think of anything more worthwhile than learning a habit of joy. And the more I do it, the easier it gets. Now I’ll be driving and the thought will pop into my head unbidden - I’m so lucky to have a car, what a beautiful day, I’m so happy about how I’ve spent this afternoon. The brain starts to look for things to rejoice about, and that’s magical.

August: Learning how to raise plants

7. Train the brain

As I recovered from my head injury I realised what an opportunity it was to effectively wipe my mental slate clean, and then regrow and heal my brain with better habits. For me, the despondency and recuperation of the concussion really showed me that I needed to develop habits of self affirmation and deliberate positivity through positive self talk. The key thing I realised about positive self talk was that I didn’t have to believe it to mean it.

I thought about how many times I’d said something negative to myself. When I was younger it would perhaps start off as a joke, or because I would hear my parents or friends saying that sort of thing - but I didn’t necessarily mean it. But the more I did it, the more natural it became. And then when an accident or incident would suddenly happen, I’d automatically respond to that situation with a negative thought: “That was stupid of me” or “It’s my fault” or “It’s because I'm crap.”

This happens because every time the brain has a thought, that thought travels along a neural pathway. So the more times it has that thought, the more the neural pathway gets carved deeper and deeper, until it’s natural for thoughts to head down that pathway in response to a given situation. The only way to untrain the brain out of this habit is to have more positive thoughts than negative ones, to make the positive pathway deeper than the negative one.

After several decades of negativity this is no mean feat - If I’d said one negative thing to myself every day for 20 years that’s 7,300 times - and it’s definitely been more than once a day. But on the flipside, I realised that if I deliberately adopted the practice of saying 10 positive things to myself a day, it would only take two years to make a stronger neural pathway for positive self talk.

That’s a lot of work. But nothing could be more beneficial to my outlook. And amazingly, the changes were fairly immediate. Getting into the habit of responding to situations positively and saying nice things about myself made every day a little bit better. I started doing this on the upswing from my concussion, which was important as I was still struggling with remembering things and articulating fully formed thoughts. It would have been quite easy to be hard on myself, but whenever the instinct arose I counteracted it with positive things. And in surprise situations when a negative thought leapt out, I’d say ten positive things about myself to offset it.

It was amazing to me that even if I didn’t believe any of the positive things I was saying, I still felt a whole lot better and more positive overall. It made me more positive towards the people around me too, so they noticed the effects, and I started receiving compliments about my attitude and outlook that I’d never had before. It’s not like I was extremely negative before, in any way, it’s just that deliberate, intentional self-positivity was profoundly effective. In a society dominated by messaging that tells us the things we shouldn’t like about ourselves, intentional self love is nothing short of a revolutionary act.   

September: Allowed to drive again

8. Self love

I ingrained this into a practice which has been pretty amazing for me. I write a paragraph of 20 things I like about myself every single day. The only rule is that I’m not allowed to put anything physical, because my physical appearance is largely beyond my control, is contingent on external approval, and will change with age. So “I like that my teeth are even and I like the colour of my hair” is not allowed. “I like that my conversation skills attract intelligent people” is good. “I like my height and the flexibility of my knees” is not allowed. “I like the way I always smile at strangers” is good. To start on a roll I usually open with four quick adjectives in a row, and I end with “I love myself”. For example:

“I am kind and friendly and intelligent and funny. I love that I am a great friend and enjoy meeting new people. I love that I am a hard worker and I value time with my family. I contribute well to my team. I am active and value my physical wellbeing. I love that I am good at knowing when I need a break. I deliberately try and stay in contact with old friends. I am fun to be around. I am a good cook. I have a strong social conscience and put effort into living an ethical life. I love that I value nature and being outside. I am good at crafts. I love myself.”

It’s really hard in the beginning to get to 20 things. But the more I did it, the easier it became, until I could rattle off 20 things at any time when I was feeling low, or faced with adversity from the outside world. So I write a new one every the evening and read it the next morning, and keep it with me for the day so that if things start getting hard I refer back to it. What excellent medicine.

9. The kids are always right

This practice got me thinking about the unhelpful habits we pick up as adults. I’ve always been a high achiever but at some point I was doing it out of love and curiosity, not stress and pressure. I don’t like romanticising childhood, but I spent some time thinking about what I was like when I was a kid. I was incredibly brave, I would perform in plays and do crazy silly jokes all the time. I just wanted to learn and be involved in everything, and I openly craved love, affection and attention. I started wondering whether that kid, child-me, had more wisdom than adult me because child-me knew that throwing myself into life was the most important thing and reaped the highest level of enjoyment.

I started thinking that maybe there’s a part of us that’s every age we’ve ever been, and if that’s the case then it’s important to spend time with that little kid inside and give them the love, affection and attention that they wanted. So when I do something brave, I now have to congratulate myself, be kind to myself, buy myself an ice cream and eat it in bed. Or when I do the right thing, even though it’s hard, I have to celebrate, go on some swings, watch my favourite movie, take the night off. I have to be gentle with myself like I would be with a kid, because there’s no one else to look after my inner little kid anymore, it’s my job, so I have to do it well.

I decided to learn a little bit from my inner child, and listen out for things that she would find funny, or charming, or heartbreaking. Sometimes I would have a major overreaction to something, like a toddler, and realise that I needed to give child-me space to vent those emotions. It made me feel much more loving towards myself and much more okay with my responses to situations, even when they were surprising. By allowing venting room I felt more in touch with how I was feeling, and was more able to be kind to myself.

If a kid had a really hard day, I wouldn’t expect them to drive themselves mad doing the grocery shopping. No, I’d want to run them a bath, put them in a warm, comfortable bed with a hot drink and a favourite book, get them a delicious healthy meal or, screw it, order takeaways, and relax, rest and unwind. When I’m pushing the limits of myself, I go back to taking care of myself like a child. I now give myself a break all the time, because you know what, I’ve been doing really well and I deserve to relax. Everything else can wait.

September: Beach walk, highlight of my day

10. Exactly what you want to do

As I developed my appreciation and kindness for myself and started walking out into a newer, more positive light, I started noticing times when I would end up in situations I didn’t want to be in, that didn’t reflect my internal voice or my positive self image. I found this really surprising.

I had always thought of myself as a pretty cruisey person, and I would ‘go with the flow’ a lot. After a while this was leading me into places I didn’t want to be or patterns that weren’t particularly enjoyable to me, because it made me highly susceptible to the whims of strong personalities. I realised I wasn’t happy with that.

I decided to do what I wanted more. However, I didn’t know where to start. Most of the time I didn’t have a strong preference for a certain option or situation, so there was no way I could do exactly what I wanted because I didn’t care, and I was happy to go along with any option if someone else had a strong preference. If someone asked me what I wanted to eat, well, I was just hungry. Whatever everyone else wanted. But often once the decision was made I’d realise it wasn’t one I was happy with. I saw that decisiveness wasn’t necessarily an instinct, or if it was, it was one I had been trained out of. Women are of course particularly more vulnerable to this because there are subliminal social pressures telling us to be submissive, to be quiet, to not be disruptive, to be cool, to be chill, to let others think for us. I realised I had to actively cultivate preferences through practice.

11. Practicing decisiveness

This is how I went about it. Any time I was confronted with a choice, I deliberately and strongly chose one option instantly, and had to stick to it.

This happened a lot with my friends, when we wanted to do something on the weekend but no one was sure what. Someone would ask, “Do you want to grab a drink or go to the beach?”

Normally I would hesitate and think it over. A drink would be nice but it’s costly and indoors. But do I really want to go to the beach? It means more preparation, and it might be cold once I get down there. On the other hand I’m overheating right now. But maybe a drink would solve that. Argh!

Now instead of thinking it over I just make a snap decision based on instinct and choose between the two. “Beach!” Even if it clouds over by the time we get down there, I’m always pleased that I made a strong decision, and I stick to it by going for a swim anyway.

Even if the decisions I make aren’t actually what I want to do later, it helps me listen to my internal voice, helps me learn what I do want so I'll know for next time. It helps me practice speaking up for myself. I never thought I was particularly bad at any of these things, but particularly as a female it is scarily easy to fall into the pattern of being silent, because you’re silenced or not asked so often in group situations. The more I deliberately made choices and stuck to them, the more “cruisey” people started turning to me for answers and relying on me for decision making.  And it was so much better than wallowing in indecisive thought! The thing is, none of the decisions were ever so important that the wrong one would be ruinous to me. It was usually just a question of, “What do I feel like doing, oh I can’t decide.” Any choice I made would be better than no choice at all.

On top of this, whenever I have down time or quiet moments I am no longer at a loss for what to do - even internally I can just decide on something and stick to it.

November: Noticing, appreciating, taking time to unwind.

12. De-stress your routine

These lessons allowed me to reenter the world with more confidence once I had recovered enough to go back to work. I still wasn’t completely better, and the doctor told me I shouldn’t work full time, but as I was looking for a new job it was impossible to find one that started part-time and gradually increased its hours. So I launched back into a new role in a new environment and had to completely learn the ropes while potentially overstretching my brain.

So in my first few months back at work my brain physically ached whenever it became strained. This was either a dull headache, a sharp stabbing pain, or the scratchy, irritated hairy feeling inside my skull. While unpleasant, this effectively meant I gained a full body alarm system for the first smatterings of stress. I hadn’t realised how sensitive my brain was until I went through this.

Let me go through an average day. The morning needed to be quiet, with minimal social interaction as I switched on. I left for work and began the ten-minute walk to the train station. As soon as I left my house the stress started. Cars driving past, other people, road crossings, all were stressful. The sun was like daggers in my eyes, and if I walked or drove into the sun I would arrive extremely angry and cranky. But the worst thing was noise. The longer I was out in traffic noise the tenser I got. I found this really interesting, because I had never noticed this before but I had noticed relaxing once I arrived at a quiet place, which meant the stress must have been building up subliminally.

I’ve tried a number of things to reduce the stress. The obvious option is music in my headphones, but this actually made things worse. My brain was working on the music, the rhythm and the words while also being aware of the passers-by, the cars, the traffic lights, and I could still hear the traffic noise in the background. The brain would get tired twice as fast with music than without. So the solution I came to was that I would put my headphones in my ears to create a sonic barrier, but not turn anything on. I’d just listen to nothing as I walked.

I’d get to the train station and board my train. The train was generally a reprieve because it was a still, fairly quiet place, but there were still lots of people and body language and implicit social interactions and objects rushing by outside the window that would work the brain. It was only a 20 minute commute but I would be tense by the time I got to work. So I would make sure to arrive 15 minutes early and then go into a quiet park next door and unwind. I would sit in a quiet place in the park with my headphones in, close my eyes, and think of nothing for 15 minutes. I did this every single morning. Call it mindfulness, meditation or just chilling out, it allowed my brain to reset, untangle and defrag, and I would arrive at work in a glowingly good mood, ready to face anything. This amazed me, as I realised that even when I was well, my bad morning moods could be attributable to this subliminal mental stress that I hadn’t noticed. I resolved to pick up the practice of silent headphones and unwinding from my commute even once I’d recovered. I did this unwinding practice on my lunch break as well, and sometimes when I got home from my evening commute too. If I didn’t, I’d notice that I was tired, irritated and grumpy in the evenings. If I did, I would be chatty, happy, full of energy and ready for anything.

November: Whittling a spoon on the Routeburn track

13. Radical honesty

One funny thing about my concussion was that I lost my filter. Because my brain capacity was reduced I was forced to think in a very immediate way, like a reflex: “Do this thing” and then I’d do it. I lost the other layer or two of internal reflection that I’d had before, “Do this thing” “Oh should I?” “Is it a good idea?” “What about this external factor?” “I guess I should” “Ok I’ll do it” and then do it. Losing these extra layers made it impossible to lie or be dishonest, as that requires an extra level of thought that I did not have the capacity for. Because I didn’t have the energy for reflective thinking, if someone asked me a question I would just tell them the answer straight off, in the exact format that it landed in my head. I wouldn’t stop to think about whether I should soften the answer or reframe it or whether I should really be telling them at all.

This led to lots of hilarious mishaps, as you can imagine. On the flipside however it also led me to some profoundly meaningful new relationships that impacted me in ways that I’d never experienced before. Practicing radical honesty frightened people and made them uncomfortable but it made my life a huge amount easier because I didn’t have to worry or stress over other people’s responses or expectations, I just said what I thought and left other people to deal with it. This was all I had the energy to do in my beleaguered state, but it started changing my life in really interesting ways.

The more I spoke honestly, even when it was scary, the easier it got. It turns out people appreciate and react well to open expression, and accommodate it instead of lashing out like I expected. My delivery was kind, rather than abrasive, and the people that loved me accepted the things I said without worrying too much. It was wonderful. It was in fact so transformative that I’ve maintained this practice into my post-recovery life. It’s actually quite hard to stop. It’s enabled me to see that all my thoughts and instincts have value, and there’s no need to hide or be ashamed of any of them. We put so much energy into disguising ourselves out of fear that our deeper thoughts won’t be liked. But it turns out that if you test out this theory by expressing these things, you are proven wrong. People don’t really care, and can sense when you’re hiding something or being evasive. Approaching people with openness and practicing radical honesty is hard but it’s appreciated by those that matter, and I find myself building trust and strong bonds with new people much faster than ever before.

14. Date yourself

In order to take care of myself, I’ve had to learn how to practice treating myself in the exact same way that I'd want someone else to treat me. I’ve realised that my relationship with me is the most important one, and has to come first. It makes a person undefeatable. I treat myself to a just-for-me experience or treat every week because I deserve it. I reiterate that not only am I “enough”, I’m an incredible gift to the universe. I practice thinking “I love that about myself” every day. I try to love myself so bravely that it gives the rest of the world a blueprint of how to do it.

15. Who you be is who you become

The greatest lesson I learned from my concussion and my time of introspection was that who we are in our daily practice - the thoughts we have and the frameworks we use - these things are what shape us into who we become. There’s no point thinking “I’ll work a job I hate and be miserable now but I’ll be happy and relaxed later in life” because life is right now. I read somewhere that your life will inevitably be the culmination of all your most frequent thoughts. So if you’re spending your days being bitter or tired or complaining or uninspired, that’s the sort of person you’ll become, it's the person you are becoming right now. And isn’t that a terrifying thought.

My brain injury has shown me that putting off joy until later in life isn’t smart because life can intervene at any moment, can flip you off your surfboard and whack you on the head, and frankly it’s arrogant to think otherwise. It’s arrogant to think we can control and map and optimise everything by stressing about it and holding on tightly to the reigns. Adopting a daily practice of joy and an outlook of positivity, going easy on myself, congratulating myself and letting my brain rest and thrive has given me an amazing zest for life every single day. I’ve realised it’s not just for holidays or retirement, every single day can be awe-inspiring, eye-opening, creative, flourishing, laughter inducing, and wildly loving, and that's the kind of person I've always wanted to become.

December: Back out in the world

16. Defining your own version of success

Imagine you can do anything and you’re going to die (Spoiler: both these things are true). I do this all the time in order to think about how I want my daily life to be, and I use this to define my own version of success.

For me, a successful life would be to work a few days a week on interesting creative, educational or community projects for other people, and a few days a week on my own projects, such as doing exploration of my whakapapa, or learning how to become a sculpture artist. I’d have three day weekends, every week, and six week holidays every summer. I’d want to be outdoors and with people just as often as I was indoors, focusing. I'd want to work with my hands, creating, learning and sharing. Being by the sea, having adventures and spending time with my friends and family.

I feel certain that there is a lifestyle out there that will cater to all of my dream attributes, if I have the courage to find it, rather than just doing what everyone else is doing.

Most of all I look back at the past year and I think Wow, I didn’t die. I didn’t die. That’s the most amazing thing to me. And let’s be honest - we can all look back on the past year and think that! What if we had? I suspect we would rejoice at the times we were brave and did out own thing, and would regret the times that we succumbed to someone else's unfulfilling version of success.

17. Fearlessness

I used to worry, all the time. I was earning, working a lot, doing a lot, achieving a lot. And at some point, I put my head up, above water, and realised that all the decisions I was making were based on fear. What if I don’t find a life partner, what if I am priced out of the housing market, what if I don’t earn enough to be happy? (Ha!) This fear was trapping me in an unfulfilling lifestyle that was killing my spark. I made a vow to myself that any decision made out of fear was a bad decision, and it has completely liberated me.

This was most evident, of course, when I was contemplating getting back on my surfboard after the concussion. It’s hard to explain, but remembering things from my concussion and recovery is really hard. It’s like I’m looking down a hole in my brain, and I can make out the shapes - I know there's stuff in there, but I just can’t quite see them. So I strain my eyes, to look and look, and the more I strain the more I feel a bit sick and bottomless in my stomach. Like maybe there’s just nothing in there, and it’s not a hole but a vortex with no end.

So when I ran my hands over my beautiful 6”6 fish surfboard, feeling its shape, smelling the wax, and the memory flooded in of going under that wave, hitting the stones, Whack. It was scary. Raglan locals were telling me I should never go out alone, that I should be wearing a helmet to surf, which I was never going to do because helmets are for extreme sportspeople and the waves I surf are less than three feet high. But the danger remained. Every time you get a concussion they accumulate, which means that next time you don’t have to hit your head as hard to be concussed again. My board could bump up into my nose or I could be pushed against the sand by a wave, anything could happen. And what if this time I didn’t come up? What if my brain never returned to normal? What if I fell down that vortex and there was actually no end?

On Christmas morning, 6 months after the accident, I picked up my board again for the first time and went down to the beach alone. It was my personal tradition to take a surf every Christmas, and I was determined to keep it. I sat on the sand, getting into my wetsuit. I had the beach completely to myself, a blessing on usually crowded waves. I was building myself up to walking out into the waves, when the fear stopped me.

No one else on the beach.

What if I hit my head again? Passed out? There was no one around to help. I could back out now. I could just sit here. Not go. No one would know. I could say I’d done it. Or that I changed my mind. What if I couldn’t bring myself to get out there? What if I never went surfing again? I was balancing pragmatism and safety, two things I don’t usually put much stock in, with my personal battle and my need to get out into the water. I paused. Thought about it. Froze.

Four tourists clambered noisily onto the beach, boards and wetsuits in tow. Excellent, I realised, I’m not by myself anymore! Even though my fear was bigger than being alone, was bigger than the waves, was as big as death, I picked myself up, strapped my board to my ankle and walked straight out into the waves. I had a breathtakingly good surf, riding wave upon wave upon wave with elation. The salt filled my hair and the sand covered my toes and I laughed out loud in the salt spray. It the biggest and most relieved feeling I’ve ever experienced. I did it.

Fear is the anathema. It stands between us and what we really want to do. It’s not wise, it’s not smart. It’s restrictive, constricting, it’s allowing your own entrapment. The only fear I give voice to now is, what if I died in a month? A year? What would I wish I had done?

December: Surf beach

18. The courage to dream

Since my concussion I have embarked upon a life I love. I do contract work that changes all the time, I take long summer holidays, spend tonnes of time with the people I that inspire me, create art, go on overseas holidays, come up with brave business ideas, and do research and learn languages and do activities because I need to, not because I should

At the end of the day, the week, the long winter, I take that boredom time, that meditation time, that idle thinking, and every few months I write a list of all my dreams and fantasies. Even the most ridiculous ones. I'm not committing to anything, just writing them down, but even writing them down makes them more real. I never wrote them down in the past, because if I did I might be disappointed in myself later for not achieving them. That fear of failure kept me restricted. Writing them down makes you face them, and in doing so, it makes them more likely to happen. And being brave enough to look at my dreams head on also means I can handle it if I miss a few - failure doesn't matter. What's far more important is having the courage to set them down on paper, just for myself, every now and then, and realising that yes, maybe they are achievable.  A snapshot:

    •       Write a novel

    •       Open a school

    •       A summer camp to grow brave girls

    •       Learn sculpture

    •       Launch a social business

    •       Learn to sail

    •       Grow a garden

    •       Live in Europe or South America

    •       Build a house

I’m pleased to say that in the two months since my full recovery from my concussion, I wrote the prelude to my novel and booked flights to Argentina. ♥♥♥

* * *

Surviving my accident with a pinch of grace would have been impossible if it weren't for the support of my whānau and friends. In the unenviable position of being unemployed with a brain injury, I am particularly grateful to my parents who let me live with them while I wasn't earning; my grandparents and aunties; my friends Ariana, Karl, Jules, Trudi and Sophie, who travelled to see me and entertained me even when I couldn't finish full sentences; my brother Leo who made me herb drinks to stem the vertigo, Ari who let me live with him while I was trying to find work in the city, and Marcus who always brought us all together to remember what's most important. I love you all so much. I'm painfully aware of the privilege it takes to be able to talk about dreams, and so grateful for my support network who keep me aiming for the stars when the ground gets really rough.

Maddy is a writer and digital wizard from Raglan, currently residing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is co-founder of The Drawing Board Challenge, a business that teaches teenage girls to change the world through tech and entrepreneurship, and was a finalist in the 2015 Westpac Women of Influence Awards.