After 3 weeks in hospital following my brain haemorrhage and a further 5 weeks recovering at home, I finally headed back to school. My expectation was that school would be exactly the same as it had always been and I was ready to hit the ground running. Unfortunately however, I soon found out the hard way the realities of trying to get back to normal as quickly as possible. I wasn't the same person anymore. I had been through a traumatic experience and I was a lot more weary of the world. And although life had carried on for normal for everyone else, 8 weeks in a teenager's life is a long time and people change. Old friendships are broken, new ones are established and the social order changes with the ups and downs of teenage life.
I expected everyone would be excited to see me. To hear about what I had experienced and how my life had changed. But teenagers are unintentionally a selfish breed and it soon became pretty clear that they wanted to talk about their own worlds more than they wanted to hear about mine. People soon got sick of hearing about the only thing that was on my mind - what had happened to me. And as a result I started to experience something I had never really had to deal with before - anxiety. It hit me like a ton of bricks and made trying to function like a normal person almost impossible. Everything became anxiety inducing. Talking to my friends, walking to class, interacting with teachers and taking part in normal school activities such as assemblies.
On top of dealing with the social fallout of not being at school for so long, was the fatigue I experienced as a result of my visual difficulties. Although I didn't know I had CVI at the time, looking back now, I realise that I completely overloaded my visual system simply by asking it to process the complex visual scene of school after spending so long in my un-complex home environment. My home was uncluttered, nothing changed and with only three people in the house, life was slow paced and predictable. During my recovery, I had spent hours on the couch watching TV. However, back at school, I had to deal with a completely different environment that changed rapidly throughout the day and included the unpredictable movement of 900 other students and teachers.
The fatigue was debilitating. And although we had decided to start back at school slowly and only go for a couple of hours a day to start with, building up to full days over the course of a few weeks, wasn't a well thought out plan. To plan effectively for a transition back to school, you need to know all the variables and make allowances for the unknown variables that will undoubtably happen. The only variable we thought of was that I might find school tiring. We didn't take into account finding my way around an environment that should have been familiar but wasn't. We didn't consider the impact of being apart from my peers for a prolonged period of time and limited interactions with people my own age. We didn't take into account the enormous difference between lying on the couch watching TV for most of the day, compared with constantly moving, talking and functioning. We didn't think about the different brain processing I would need to do at school compared with home and probably most importantly, we didn't consider the impact of trauma on a still developing teenage brain. Of course the unknown variable for me was that I had CVI; knowing that would have made a significant difference.
The other flaw in the plan was that myself, my mum, the doctor and the school principal were the only people aware of the plan (which wasn't really a plan at all). No one else was consulted. My teachers had no understanding or knowledge of supporting a student who had experienced trauma, my peers were also not supported in any way in terms of dealing with their own emotions around almost losing a friend. No one was told what my transition back to school would entail and to everyone else, it just looked like I was coming and going as I pleased. Something that both teachers and other students came to resent me for.
As a result, the transition back to school was a disaster that has had a lasting impact on my life. I don't keep in regular contact with anyone that I went to school with. Just going back to the town where I went to school opens the floodgates of memories I would rather forget. It also triggers my anxiety and negative emotions that I struggle to process. And all this could have been avoided - if only a well thought out, effective transition plan had been put in place. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!
Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.
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