I still remember the conversation like it was yesterday.
“Mom, I don’t think I can do this. It just isn’t working.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone. My feet crunched the fallen leaves between Bell Tower and Southgate.
I kept talking, outlining the details of a problem generally familiar to my entire family. We had been bouncing between neurologists for almost two years by that day in the fall of 2008, and not one had been willing to diagnose my frequent headaches, dizziness and short-term memory loss as anything but adult-onset migraines. They prescribed a veritable arsenal of medication that should have made it all better, and I came to Duke under the impression that it would all work itself out. But it hadn’t.
During Fall Break I was officially diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, the lasting effect of too many years of water polo. The doctor told me I wouldn’t get better until I spent time away from school, likening the brain’s recovery process to that of a torn ACL. At first, I would need to not use it at all, and after a few months I might be able to slowly start flexing it again.
I went home on medical leave the next week with strict instructions to avoid reading, writing, exercising or watching television for a month. So I stared at the wall and waited to get better.
Gradually my condition improved, and by the middle of the next spring I was working two part-time jobs. The challenges of scooping ice cream are relatively minor compared to a full course load, though, and the deadline to submit my Duke return paperwork came too soon. I filled out the forms halfheartedly, not really believing I was ready, but certain I needed to leave the house.
I came back determined to be involved on campus, though I only went to a Chronicle information session because it was in Carr and I lived next-door in Giles. I had no real love for journalism and no experience to speak of, but two months later I was sitting in Coach K’s preseason press conference inside Cameron. I stared at his moving lips while he spoke, a technique that under normal circumstances would prevent even my rehabilitating brain from wandering too far away. But soon I found myself staring over his right shoulder, only realizing my mistake when I realized he was looking directly at me.
Thankfully, K didn’t publicly acknowledge my lack of attention, and I learned better ways to keep my mind sharp while on the job (the best being to always bring a tape recorder). I never managed to develop the love for reporting and writing that many of my colleagues had, though. Over the next two years I moved from beat writer to columnist, staying involved because of the people I met—people who could debate the National League High-A affiliates without batting an eye and argue for hours over the point spread in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Those same people made this year better than I ever imagined, though my reason for taking on this responsibility was far more selfish. This was the final test, the last stage in my recovery process. Overseeing the production of a daily sports section would require a nightly commitment that I hadn’t let myself make since the diagnosis, and moving forward with my planned semester in Buenos Aires had begun to feel like running away.
But journalism is not a job built for self-evaluation, nor is it as solitary an enterprise as I expected it to be. This is a job that drives even the sanest people through a perpetual spin cycle of the seven stages of grief, and there were days readers would have seen an incomplete section were it not for the help I received from the rest of the staff. Even with a tightly woven safety net, though, I have redeveloped confidence in the functionality of my own mind to a degree I never thought I would reach again.
I owe more than I can express to the sportswriters and editors who put up with my self-indulgent, year-long quest for a new mind—especially the five that cornered me in a conference room as I hedged over taking the job last March and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Their belief in me was inspiring, and that conversation is another I will remember forever—though this time because it changed my life for the better.
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