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Nicola McDowell’s Blog (9)

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.

Fighting an Unwinnable Battle

After tackling the crowds and surviving the perilous journey through busy pathways and corridors, by the time I actually entered the classroom, I was generally not in the most optimum headspace for learning. The majority of the time, I was exhausted, shaken and extremely anxious. My primitive fight or flight response that would normally be a helpful resource, was working against me, by ensuring that I was constantly on guard and ready to run away from the lion (or whatever perceived danger my brain was experiencing). And the simple fact is, when your brain is in fight or flight mode and on constant high alert, it is impossible to learn anything.

Unfortunately, unbeknown to me, the battle had hardly even begun. I'm not sure if this is everyone's experience of high school, but the image that springs to mind when I think of a classroom environment at the start of class, is of unruly teenagers racing to get the best seats (although if you were too cool for that, it was more of a saunter towards whatever seat that was left over), occasional pushing and shoving, desks and chairs being moved and scraped across the floor, a constant noisy banter going on between friends, teachers trying to take control by talking louder and louder until they are heard (although the clever teachers knew that this was not always effective and would use other sly means of getting everyone's attention, such as writing names of students that were misbehaving on the board) and text books and pencil cases being dropped onto the desks to add to the overall explosion of noise. This constant movement, overload of visual information and noise all conspired to cause my brain to shut down even further. It was simply too much for me to process.

Think of it like the older computer systems. The more windows or applications you had open, the slower and slower the overall system became. Until finally it would get to the stage where you had too much open and it could not cope anymore, so the computer would freeze. At this point, the only thing you could do was reboot the computer and give it some time to start up all over again. When I was trying to visually map the classroom environment so that I could walk safely to a desk, avoiding other students, desks, chairs and school bags, at the same time as trying to concentrate on what the person beside me was saying, listening to the teacher's instructions, all while blocking out everyone else's conversations and trying to think logically about where I should sit taking into account my right-side hemianopia - I had too many applications open. Especially when you remember that my cognitive abilities were already fatiguing because I was constantly on the lookout for that lion.

The process of recovery from the system shut down and required reboot was not always straight forward. Generally, it could only happen if there was quiet and calm within the classroom environment, which as everyone knows, does not always happen. In situations where the classroom wasn't quiet, for instance at PE or music, I had no hope of rebooting until class was over. But when the conditions were favourable for me to reboot, I would simply block out all sensory information except for one and just focus on that. For instance, if the teacher was talking I would somehow shut off my visual system and steer blankly out the window or at a wall, or if we were meant to be reading something, I would become oblivious to any auditory information.

This process of being aware of only one sensation at a time was not something I could control and in most cases, I was not even aware it was happening. It was also very frustrating for those around me, who would get fed up with being ignored, especially if we were meant to be working in a group situation, as I would be of no help whatsoever. Some teachers also found my apparent lack of attention, which was what they assumed from the blank look on my face and the sight of me staring into space indicated, as a personal attack on their teaching approach. Although of course it was never a personal issue against a particular teacher or teaching method, I didn't have the understanding to try and explain this to them and so I would get more and more upset every time a teacher told me off for not concentrating. Although I had never been one to be a teacher's pet, I certainly was not used to being the cause of constant frustration and anger either.

My reboot was also not a fast process and it generally took almost half the class period for me to get to the point that I was able to function relatively normally again. This meant that I was only ready to learn after half the lesson had already been taught and this forced me into a stressful process of playing catch up. This process of catch up would cause system overload and shut down again and so the cycle would continue all day, every day. An impossible battle that I had no chance of ever winning, especially since I didn't really know what I was fighting against.

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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