Concussion in the Gold Coast

a day before having my head knocked into my current life

a day before having my head knocked into my current life

by emily dickinson

I started to wake up as light streamed onto my top bunk through the east-facing window.  With my eyes closed I imagined a breezy villa. The fantasy of soft sheets and cool air lasted about three seconds before reality hit.  That breeze was, in fact, a dust-laden industrial fan blowing hot air into my face. My allergy to dust and mould ensured that my face was so congested I could only breathe through my mouth. The mattress was plastic and made a squeaking noise when I flipped my body over to get the sun out of my eyes. The minimal clothing items I was wearing were drenched in sweat.

My travel companion, a Danish man named Anders, popped his head up to make sure I was not ignoring his alarm.  I sat up and looked out the window. The sun was shining, as always, but the view was somewhat obstructed by metal bars protecting us from the dangers of the Gold Coast. The cheap hostel we decided to stay in felt more like a jail than a place one goes to have “fun.” It had been four nights in a dirty suburb of Surfers Paradise, on the east coast of Australia. I spent the entire time in a state of panic. 

Anders was entirely sick of my "this place is disgusting" antics by this point, so his wake-up call wasn’t exactly beaming with love and affection. We were going home to Melbourne (much to my excitement) and we had to get our belongings together and check out. I shoved my things into my suitcase and stood in front of the fan to relieve some of the overnight sweat. We were going home!

Not that there was much happening there for me. I graduated university in journalism and political science in Ottawa, with zero desire to work in the industry. I knew where my heart was, although it was buried deep beneath societal constructs of what I thought life should be. Melbourne was the place I escaped to when I could no longer face the post-university realities of life. 

My life in Melbourne was okay. I lived with two lovely boys: Damien (an old friend) and Kieran (a new friend). They had real jobs, and I slept in their sun porch, freezing in winter and boiling in summer.  I somehow created a bit of a routine for myself. I worked at an outlet store for a high-end silk company way outside of the city in a suburb called Nunawading, and in the evenings I would work at a steakhouse near our house. Some mornings I would work at the café next door to the steakhouse. One time I served a man dinner at The Bush Inn, and coffee the next morning at Two Dudes Café. He asked me if I was employed by Malvern Road.

On the surface, things weren’t terrible. Inside, I was losing it. Without knowing it, I was dealing with post-traumatic-stress-disorder that presented itself as severe anxiety. I was going through the motions and trying to convince myself that things were grite down unda…mate. They weren’t. I wasn’t.

The last four days in the Gold Coast had tested me. I didn’t have the money to be at the AirBnb with Damien and Kieran, so Anders and I opted for a hostel. I was drained of funds and energy, and felt purpose-less and incredibly anxious. I took an anti-anxiety pill here and there, but they often did the reverse effect and made me feel worse.  On those days I'd drink a bunch of cheap alcohol which, to no one's surprise, also made me feel worse. I felt disconnected and alone. I felt that way a lot in Australia, but this trip was the worst. I just wanted to be home. I attached that feeling of "home" to my little sun porch nook in Melbourne, but I really yearned for being back home in Ontario. I just didn’t want to admit it.

We finally got our things together and headed out the door. We decided to get breakfast and coffee when we got into the city, so I was exhausted and a tad delusional. We ordered a van-cab, and after throwing my suitcase into the back, I stepped—with great force—into a middle bucket seat after Anders.  I pranced into the seat with such momentum, that my head popped up too far and hit the frame of the van. I lost my balance, tumbled into the seat, and immediately lost my vision. 

With the world entirely black, I could hear Anders ask me what was wrong. I started feeling severe pain in my heart and was certain I was going to throw up.  I kept my eyes closed and took deep breaths. I existed in that world where you’re about to faint for the short drive into Surfer’s Paradise (A disgusting city not to be confused with a place that has any paradise-like vibes). I felt scared, but the magic that encompassed my body was something I’ll never  forget.  With no ability to see, a blistering headache, nausea and heart pains, I had a very scary thought: I think I’m going to die.  That thought lasted only for a second, and I began my bartering with the Universe.

If you let me live, I’ll go home and become an actor.

Here I was, at the possible end of my life, and I was begging God (or whatever is out there) to let me be an actor. My heart had spoken. Of course, it wasn't the time to think about future career plans. I had seen the Second City sign in this magical moment of whatever-you-call-it, but my current situation required my full attention. Our vehicle arrived at the bus terminal, where I got horizontal on the pavement, and started thinking about my next steps.

By this point, the others had been informed that I was probably suffering some kind of concussion, and they all gathered around me to help me get to a doctor before we caught our plane home. My vision was coming in and out and I was too dizzy to stand. The boys tried to comfort me and make me laugh, but we all agreed I needed a medical professional before I considered blasting into the sky at great speed.

We went to Doctors @ Surfer’s Paradise, which sounded more like a made-up medical centre in a soap opera than a place where someone sees a legitimate doctor. The "doctor" was sure that I had a concussion, but I would be fine to fly that day. Some of my symptoms lifted as I was told that I wasn’t dying and I wouldn’t have brain damage. We went to a Danish restaurant and I had two poached eggs on rugbrød. I loved that meal so much. I remember how good my coffee tasted. We made our way to the bus and although I felt exhausted and shook up, I could see the ocean clearly and I felt positive that things would be okay again.

That day, there were severe thunder storm warnings in the Gold Coast and a very glum, black sky was starting to roll in. We got on the bus to head to the airport. It didn’t look like a nice day to fly, and even in my absolute desperation to be cozy in my sunroom at home, I didn’t like the idea of pushing through lightning-laced clouds to reach 35,000 feet. I didn’t have much time to worry about it, though, because it all started happening again. Nausea. Loss of vision. Chest pains. By the time I got to the airport, I couldn’t stand and was put into a wheelchair. Despite my state, I assumed that I would get on the plane and be home within a couple of hours.

We went to the e-ticket booths to get our boarding passes.  I can’t remember the exact number, but based on the aircraft, I knew it was the last row. (I really am a freak when it comes to flying.)  I rolled my way to the front of the line to ask to be in a different seat. I simply explained that I had a concussion, and based on the hard day I’d had, the anxiety of being in the bumpy back of the aircraft would put me right over the edge. Not surprisingly, this request was met with a call to the management.  Tiger Air wouldn’t take the risk of having “someone with brain injury” on their aircraft.

“The weather is really bad and once we get up, we won’t have anywhere to land until Melbourne if there is an emergency,” explained the flight attendant at the desk.

This meant only one thing to me: if there’s a mechanical issue on this plane, it’s going down. I don’t willingly get in the air on the best of days.  I kissed and hugged Damien and Anders like it was the last time I would ever see them. Kieran stayed back with me and we hit the hospital.

It was confusing and truly terrifying because I was exhibiting warning signs of brain damage.  The testing showed that there was nothing wrong except a concussion. I remember (so fondly) the doctor saying to me: think of all those blokes playing footy who get kicked in the head! And they live to tell the tale. I had just stepped into a cab too fast. It seemed crazy that I would be seriously hurt from such a silly situation. I spent some time in the hospital bed, and two doctors came in to chat with me.

I had a mild concussion. I got a phone number in case I fell asleep and didn’t wake up, and Kieran could call them and they would come. The bigger (and yet, smaller) issue was this: I had experienced my first real panic attack. Until this point, I lived my entire life feeling anxious and thinking that I had had panic attacks, but had never experienced the fake, panic-attack feeling that I was going to die.

The next morning, I clutched Kieran’s hand all the way to Melbourne.  His mum picked us up from the airport and took us for lunch. I felt incredibly grateful for this family, and remembered that even though I was over 16,000 km from my own mom, I wasn’t alone. I had a piece of quiche.

It was obvious I had some decisions to make. It was summer in Melbourne, and frankly, too hot to function. I didn’t have to think too hard to know that it was time to go back to Canada. The fact that I had experienced such terrifying panic on holiday didn’t really surprise me. What scared me were the feelings I had when I thought I was in real danger. Although in actuality I was safe, I had bartered for my life, and that was real. In my moment of truth with myself—in the darkness of the back of a van-cab on a short drive to Surfer’s Paradise-- the promise of following my true dream was what kept me unafraid. How could the most terrifying thought I had ever had—trying to become and actor and potentially failing—been my source of comfort?

I don't know many things, but I do know one thing: as it turns out, the magic of the universe exists all the way on the other side of the world, too. In fact, the magic will follow you and encompass you no matter how much you try to avoid it. In May 2013 I wrote a post on my blog about going to Melbourne to start a new life: I got on a plane without a plan. That didn’t matter. What I always knew in my heart continued to come up until I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

I’m incredibly grateful that my epiphany happened when I was young. I was 23 at the time. I didn’t know what it meant to really be an artist. My mother called me an artist in my earliest memories of being a child. I wrote in my diary in 1996 that when I was older I would 1. Travel the world and 2. Be in a movie. I saw Titanic twice: once with my mom, and again that week with my dad. My dream of being an actor set fire to my heart and soul my entire life. And nothing could bury me in a cloud of darkness than the idea of trying, and failing.

Here I am, today. I’m nearly 27.  I live in Toronto and I am an actor. I'd by lying if I said I wasn't constantly at odds with myself: am I a delusional dreamer, or really capable? Some days, though, I feel this little threat of magic and a feeling saying: you can do it.

I never went back to the doctor about my concussion.  Some days, when I’m feeling extra-anxious, I worry that I damaged my head and there’s something really wrong with me. But mostly, I know that day knocked the life into me.

Melbourne: This city will always have a huge place in my heart.

Jessica Salgueiro