by an anonymous combat veteran
Concussions suck. There’s no getting around that.
Way back in the 20th century, in my young adulthood, I worked as a land surveyor. I enjoyed being outside and still doing “sciency” things. I learned that I had a knack for adding or subtracting long strings of numbers in my head. Those who’ve done construction staking and grade-setting know what I mean. It became very efficient to just run numbers between my ears without a pen, paper, or calculator while standing in the mud with construction equipment roaring all around me. It also made for fun parlor tricks after work with beers at stake!
Those parlor tricks ended about 20 years ago with my last concussion in Afghanistan. The migraines eventually subsided while the random vertigo spells just became part of life. Most of my other scars healed, but those quirks are permanent.
I still cannot do “small math” anymore even if my life depended on it. I found a mental workaround by inserting a zero or two to make “bigger” math in my head. For some inexplicable reason, adding 500, 2300, 200, 5400, and 3100 is entirely easier for me than 5, 23, 2, 54, and 31. The brain is both fascinating and frustrating, especially when it’s your own.
For better or worse, I still built my civilian career as an engineer. Like, a professional engineer licensed in many states who not only designs things himself but is now in charge of teaching other engineers and checking everyone’s work. Needless to say, I don’t waive around my self-taught number games. In this job, I’d likely be judged more competent if I was in a wheelchair than if my peers knew the mental gymnastics I flex in order to accomplish elementary math. I’m supposed to be the smart guy, yet here I am using the equivalent of flash cards to get through the day.
Along the way, I found another coping therapy… poker. Stay with me here. Poker has small-scale math, statistics, speed, consequences, and a social angle, what’s not to love? For years now, Dad has goes off to his monthly “math club,” and my family rolls their eyes. I never told more than a few close friends how it actually helps rehab a broken brain. But I am absolutely convinced that it does just that.
Blackjack, or 21, is an easy correlation. I have extra zeroes floating around all over as I run odds on building my hand of cards adding up to 2100. Texas Hold ‘Em and other games aren’t quite the same synaptic exercise, but I feel the five-card cognitive load hitting the same bruised brain bits as small math. As I run rough odds in my head for an inside straight or full house on the flop, turn, or river, I feel my brain slipping like tires in the mud. But I lean into it instead of backing off. It feels a bit like leaning into physical therapy exercises that hurt but you know they will help. Sometimes I fall down and fold too soon or too late. I work to keep a lid on my irritation with myself. But I stay with it. My friends give me no quarter, by design. We all have little patience for anyone taking too long on a decision, even when it’s me.
In 2004, concussion research and treatment were nothing like today. The Army patched me up, whisked me home, and wished me the best in my new life as a medically discharged veteran. Maybe all this stuff is old news these days. Maye TBI rehab protocols are now filled with card and board games. I hope so. It might have been my own denial, pride, or limited resources in my community, but I played this hand largely on my own. I count my blessings that my injuries were not worse. Still, many days, it really sucked.
I am no card shark. One buddy who watches TV poker all day usually schools our little group. But I hold my own and it’s still great fun. The more I play, the more I feel like my gray matter slips in the mud a little less plus I know my friends a little better. Hopefully, the day I get “rivered” out of my day job, or outed as the engineer who can’t add, is still well into the future.
If not, there’s always math club.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.