Diving into Safety Head-First

We have helmet laws here in British Columbia. Even if we didn’t, I’d be wearing mine.
One saved my life. And still I’m different than I used to be.
When I saw this article come up on Twitter, I got pretty choked about it. I started thinking of the friends I’ve seen riding without a helmet — whether for a block or in the thick of city traffic with bad weather — and I found myself clenching my teeth in frustration.
Head injuries are horrible.
They change you forever.
They affect you emotionally, spiritually, physically.
And I’ve had far too much personal experience with head injuries to let the topic of helmets disappear easily into the cybernight without some commentary.
My personal experience, with just people my age?
Well, personally, I almost died. Had I not been wearing a helmet, I would have died when I somersaulted off my scooter and hit the pavement at Columbia and 2nd back on August 29th, 2004.
I spent the next year trying to get back to who I was while I laboured without a diagnosis on my head (because judgment is the first thing to go; you can’t be objective about yourself and you don’t think about the reasoning behind why you’re such a “fuck up” now; it becomes a self-esteem and time/skill-management thing when it should really be a head-injury thing).
I changed as an employee — it cost me my job security and made me first on chopping block when needed lay-offs came rolling around. (We didn’t know then that it was my brain-bouncing that was the cause of my production getting slower and less sharp.)
That started two years of job insecurity as I hopped around the employment world, learning that I couldn’t handle stress like I used to anymore, and realizing I couldn’t learn new skills or organize as well as I once could.
Experience 2 with head injuries is my brother. Hit by a Chevy Suburban, he spent 5 days in a coma in late 2005 and has never been the same person since. He takes longer to understand things, has a hard time processing his emotions, is more inclined to depression, and it’s all a result of the severe head injury he took — since he had another one within 6 months of the first.
Experience 3 with head injuries was a beloved old friend, in 2008, just 34 years old, who was out adventuring with friends just 9 days after the birth of his little baby girl. His ATV tipped, crushing his head on rocks, and leaving him washing down the fast river, where he drowned and died — orphaning that beautiful baby girl in her first two weeks of life.
Yes, head injuries are bad.
So, when I see brilliant, fantastic friends hopping on their bikes in their almost-hipsterness, cruising around town without their helmets, it fucking kills me.
Know what a head injury feels like?
Take equal parts of STUPID, ANGRY, and CONFUSED, throw them into a martini shaker and mix liberally with IMPULSE CONTROL ISSUES and BAD JUDGMENT and you’ll have the start of what you’re after.
Now, take that horrible mood cocktail and spread it over your days — 24/7, 365.
I spent a year at a loss about what I felt, what I needed, where I wanted to go, how to get there. I’m lucky, I’m a writer, and somehow through the act of writing EVERY SINGLE DAY for a year, I managed to get my brain to finally start firing again.
I don’t even remember ANY of the first 6 months except a Pocky Incident and being unhappy about a hamburger while watching World Cup Hockey.
I’ve never been as good at learning things as I used to be, I need more guidance and have more questions, but I’m smarter than the average person so I get it together sooner or later on new tasks, but only after a lot of frustration.
I’m still smart as hell, no doubt, but I forget large chunks of my life.
Large chunks.
And my mother’s dead.
And some of the chunks are of her. When death rolls around with your loved ones, memories are all you’ve got left, and your head is all you got to protect that with.
It kills me, you know. Just kills me.
When you’re a writer, your memory is your most valuable tool. I’ve lost a lot of mine. My years are a hazy blur when they used to have crystal clarity to them.
I have to live the rest of my life with the very real knowledge that head injuries are like a good savings plan — they compound infinitely.
Every time I hit my head, I run the risk of making myself less of who I was.
Every time my noggin bumps a doorframe or something, a shock of fear runs through me.
You parents failing to put helmets on your kids, I’d be all right with calling that child abuse, given what I know has changed in my life from my head injury.
Protect your children. It’s your job. It’s the law.
I can’t tell you how much I wish I could have that day I almost died back. How much I could undo the stupidity that led me to thinking I should be on my scooter that morning.
I just can’t tell you.
Most people who know  me would never think I’d had a head injury. I’ve got razor-sharp wit, keen conversational abilities, and I’m sly as the day is long.
But they’d be wrong. I’m different. Just in little ways I can work around.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t anger me still that I’m different now.
I used to test at Mensa levels on IQ tests, you know. Between 145 and 170, depending on the day, over the years. “Smart” is a commodity one can’t afford to trade on, not via head injuries or anything else.
Really, it’s not that the head injury takes you out of the game — because it doesn’t. That’s kinda part of the problem — you become the “walking wounded” afterwards.
You go through life okay enough — you look fine, everyone thinks you can do your job, they think you’re as normal as can be. But because you’re rendered some lesser part of yourself as a result of the changes, you’re not even aware of how much you’ve changed — you’re in a fog, a daze, so you can’t say “Hey, something’s off here.”
And because you’re not defending or explaining yourself, those around you think you’re just in some depressive funk and that you need to “shake it off.”
But you can’t.
You hit your brain and you have a boo-boo that can’t be bandaged, doesn’t get air, never sees the sun, and can’t be displayed to others. You’ve seen how long a bruise on your leg takes to heal? What about if it’s under a skull, and all the bruised areas affect how synapses and thoughts and neuro-body-controls occur?
It was two years after my head injury that I finally realized how much I had changed, and only because I was seeing the same stuff happening to my brother with his head damage. A strangely consistent downward spiral in his life mirrored the one that had been happening to me.
Finally, I went to see a shrink I’d been to in the past, who’d had muchos experience in head injuries, and I learned what was going on inside was all part of the healing journey a head injury victim usually takes.
I had a helmet on and I’ve luckily lived to tell my story, even though I’m changed and will probably always have to live with the legacy of that day in small ways.
In fact, everyone I’ve written about here today was wearing a helmet, and yet, look at our stories.
Put your fucking helmet on.
Get over your haircut. Get over yourself.
If not for your own life and the hell it will likely be if you survive a head injury and have to live with it for the remainder of your life, then at least wear it so my fucking tax dollars can go somewhere more intelligent than dealing with your dumb-ass negligence.


Think you might’ve had a head injury and wonder what the indicators are? Check here. The New York Times has a good cheat-sheet HERE on what to do or look for after a head injury has first been suffered — please read it NOW, not when you need it. Remember how quickly Natasha Richardson died from a ski fall? Yeah. Know your shit.

12 thoughts on “Diving into Safety Head-First

  1. Kat

    Well put. Heck, even physiologically, wearing a helmet just makes sense. Yes, your heart is what keeps your blood flowing, but your brain is the main center that organizes all of those important body functions.
    In a materialistic metaphor, riding without a helmet is like walking around with your laptop hanging off your back using flimsy straps. Its just stupid. Once your brain goes…everything else can follow depending on which area of the brain recieved the brunt of the trauma.
    I know people that go after the legislature here in Cali regarding the fines you must pay if you are caught riding without a helmet or driving without a seatbelt. Personally….I think the cost of your brain hitting that pavement at 60+ miles an hour is alot more to worry about.

  2. Raul

    This a really, really good post Steff. I am delighted to see you giving a personal account of the role of bike helmets and how they saved your head. The first thing I am doing when I get my bike (which is going to happen soon) is – get my helmet!!!! Thanks for sparking a great conversation.
    .-= Raul´s last blog ..An Affair to Remember Fundraiser =-.

  3. butterfly

    This blog couldn’t be more dead on, sister. Before I write this comment, let me just say I have a helmet and I wear it–regardless that I live in a small town. That helmet is on my noggin’ the second I remove my back from the garage and head out.
    About a year ago a very close friend of mine had an incident involving ear phones, a train and his head. Needless to say, he suffered terribly and still does. He has irregular mood swings, is quick to rage and depression, and is easily overwhelmed.
    He’s getting through it by writing everyday too. He happens to be one of the most intriguing people I’ve ever met (having met many) and I’m helping him write an autobiography, which we’re dubbing more so as “fictional telling of true events”, because just like you said his head injury has completely fucked with his memory.
    I’m linking this posting to him because I really think it’ll help.
    Thanks for this,

  4. Rebecca

    Great post, Steff. My mom suffered a brain injury in our car accident 2 years ago and it was like a light went out in her, for awhile. It’s finally coming back on. They never could diagnose an actual problem with her brain, but we all knew. Getting tossed from your seatbelt into the cargo area of the SUV when your 5′ tall and 73 years old is bound to cause some problems.
    Thanks for sharing how difficult and life-changing a head injury can be.
    .-= Rebecca´s last blog ..Why I’m inside on the first nice day in awhile… =-.

  5. David

    I completely support your perspective. I too have a brain injury. Although mine was caused by illness and not stupidity, the effects are the same. Your description about impaired judgment resonated very deeply. My explanations about is wrong with me fall far short of describing the frustration and often times, despair I feel about the the situation and the loss of ability.
    Six years later, I have accepted my condition and that it will never improve. But like you, every time I see someone acting irresponsibly by not protecting their head or the head of a loved one, I am both amazed and angered.
    Thank you very much for writing this.

  6. Ryan Cousineau

    Steff, I have one pointed question for you on this particular matter: what do the Dutch know that we don’t?
    The Wikipedia entry on bicycle helmets offers decent-looking references to the key pro/con arguments, and I tend towards the UK-based Cyclist Touring Council’s position that bicycle helmets haven’t yet been demonstrated to help much.
    It’s a dicey issue in which the ill-health effects (and even the well-documented “safety in numbers” effect of more cyclists on the road!) caused by reduced bike-riding may well outweigh any possible benefits from reducing head impacts.
    For bike-racing, club-membership, and ticket-avoidance reasons, I almost always wear a helmet when I ride.
    .-= Ryan Cousineau´s last blog ..The Worst Journey in the World- The Good Parts Version =-.

  7. Kip

    Great Article! I’m Steff’s friend, the guy who got whacked by a freight train. This is after getting into a car accident at 15-a double compounded head injury.
    After the first injury (they had no name for it then either), I dropped out of school (all “A” student), started fighting, got sent to reform school one occurence after the other. I didn’t have enough sense to know that I’d been hurt.
    The freight train brought it all back again. I’m also intelligent, creative, and pretty cool-at least I used to be, now I write music and my story just to stay away from people and their judgements. My friends’ all ran in the opposite direction, and I needed to start from scratch, AGAIN.
    I’m on a solo kayak trip from Toronto to Halifax, raising money for the institution that DID help me-the YMCA. I get to spend my time alone, laughing-yelling-crying but alone, where I need to be at this juncture. I feel trapped inside this new personality, and like they tell you (post-coma); “get used to this. This is your new life”.
    Well, sorry to say but the suggestion of working at Tim Horton’s serving coffee or as Wal-Mart Greeter fell on deaf ear (literally). I’m not a snob, I’m just taking back control of my life.
    The positive side of the brain injury? Once you’re awake, you never go back to the illusion of life: it’s all real.
    Wear the fucking helmet, and look both fucking ways-that’s always good advice.

  8. Jay

    Thanks for this! I also did not appreciate the importance of helmets until I recently got sideswiped on my scooter, and ended up sliding down the road head first. After examining my helmet (included a face shield), I’m sure pieces of my skull and face would have littered Main street had I not been wearing the helmet. Makes me shake my head every time I see these hipsterish bikers and scooter drivers zipping through traffic without their helmets.

  9. single gal

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I worry about my cousins not wearing their helmets as they use their bikes as their primary mode of transportation.
    I remember a program in elementary school where parents could purchase helmets at a discounted price because they were sold in bulk – I wonder if those programs even exist anymore.
    Great point!
    .-= single gal´s last blog ..reminder =-.

  10. Robert Willis

    Great conversation everyone! As the blogger for Preventable.ca wearing bike helmets has been one of my most popular subject matters. It’s nice to see that more British Columbian’s are wearing helmets than the national average, but 60% is still pretty low. With statistics like this from the Canadian Institute for Health Information,
    “Helmet use reduces the risk of serious head injury by 60% to 88%.”
    it’s kinda a no-brainer that wearing a helmet is the thing to do. It’s fantastic to see such constructive conversation like this about why everyone should don a plastic dome. When more people speak out about the positives of bike helmets the sooner attitudes towards wearing them will change.

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