Connect Summit County concussion discussion talks mental illness and injury treatment
May 19, 2018
Accomplished slopestyle skier Alex Schlopy sat facing the crowd at Jim Santy auditorium and told a grim, intimate story. He calmly explained to the crowd of all ages how he got started down a dark path that could have easily ended with his death. One night in 2008, Schlopy said, he and his buddies were out partying, got into a car with a drunk friend, and proceeded to cut doughnuts in the Canyons Resort parking lot. He watched as the car looped closer and closer to a boulder, eventually striking it flipping the car. The crash gave him his first concussion, and, combined with substance abuse, was the first tug at a thread that started to slowly unravel his life.
Partying can go badly, and partying and doing doughnuts can almost always go worse, but Schlopy wasn't at Jim Santy to tell the audience explicitly to kick their habits — he was addressing traumatic brain injury as part of the Connect Summit County seminar on concussions and traumatic brain injury.
Alongside him sat transitional doctor of physical therapy and certified athletic trainer Lauren Ziaks from Wasatch Physical Therapy, neuropsychologist Jon Pertab from Intermountain Medical Group and Lynn Ware Peek of KPCW, the panel's moderator. The three helped break down Schlopy's account, examining what he was going through and discussing what the best protocol is for those in a similar situation.
So the discussion started with the crash.
"I called my mom and told her probably five times that I had been in a car accident," Schlopy said.
He didn't lose consciousness (90 percent of people don't in a concussion, Dr. Pertab said), but he did lose two weeks of memory following the crash.
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Pertab and Ziaks said if someone experiences a head injury, and their condition doesn't improve rapidly – if they get increasingly intense headaches, have difficulty talking (called aphasia), or experience vomiting, they need to get to the hospital or a doctor. The patient also needs to be honest about their condition – something Pertab said athletes are notoriously bad at if there's a game, a scholarship, or a high paying job on the line.
But Schlopy's mental health took a nosedive. Among other things, he was depressed, anxious, agoraphobic, and fatigued.
Ziaks said this is because after a concussion or TBI, the brain releases certain chemicals, which later have to be removed. To remove those chemicals takes a lot of resources and energy, leaving the patient feeling depleted.
But one of the most frustrating aspects about a concussion is that diagnosis can be tricky. A concussion might damage the threadlike nerve endings that run throughout the brain without leaving a detectable mark.
"Concussed people will often be disappointed because they have all these symptoms and no explanation to why, and the reason is (physical damage caused by concussions are) too small," she said. "Right now, you just can't see it."
When Schlopy did get back out onto the slopes, he was still reeling from his trauma.
"It probably was too soon," he said. "It was really difficult (to train) — I would have to hold on to trees to feel like I was anchored to the mountain because of the vertigo. Which, when you're doing tricks isn't the best mindset, but I was so motivated.
"I didn't want this to hinder my life."
Ziaks said the advice she gives to athletes recovering from a concussion is to treat it like a physical injury – start with a little bit of exercise and build back up.
Then, after just six months, he suffered a second concussion (he didn't say how).
"The first one was scary, and when the second one hit, it was lights out," he said. "I spent about a year in the basement with the lights off; the light really bothered me. I had these panic attacks where I would flip the switch and it seemed the world would turn into cartoons. The doctor described Xanax, which took away all the anxiety, but it's also very addictive."
At this point, Pertab and Ziaks said there were a lot of things coming together, adversely affecting Schlopy. First, Pertab said, research suggests that having a second concussion within a year of the first extends the recovery time to beyond six months, while a concussion more than a year after the first would recover as quickly as the first one.
The time that Schlopy was spending in the dark was making matters worse, even though perceiving light was extremely painful for him. The panel said research now suggests that sleeping in excess of about 10 hours a day is counterproductive, and prolongs symptoms in a similar way to returning to activity too early, and spending that time in the dark, away from the things that Schlopy loved (like skiing), could contribute to depression.
The panel said depression and other mood disorders have similar symptoms as concussions, sometimes resulting in a loop of over-treatment.
Currently, Pertab said the average American athlete returns to play only nine days after a concussion.
When he did come back, his return was outstanding. That season, Schlopy went on to win the International Ski Federation Slopestyle World Championship, the X Games in big air, and won the final stage of the Dew Tour. Looking back, even though it was too soon, Schlopy said there was part of him that was proud of what he achieved.
But his success turned to ash when he didn't make the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In fact, he was 4/10th of a point behind Joss Christensen in FIS points after the final World Cup of the season. Christensen went on to win gold.
Without a training regimen and a clear goal, he started to succumb to his untreated mental illnesses.
One night, Schlopy found himself literally at the edge of a cliff in California. He had been drinking. He jumped off the 100-foot face onto a beach.
He awoke alone, stumbled along a half-mile stretch of beach and called an ambulance.
"All I can say is that I'm really, really happy that (the suicide attempt) didn't work," he told the room.
As soon as he regained consciousness he was glad to be alive, despite a punctured lung and bleeding in his brain.
Later, during the question and answer segment, an audience member asked Schlopy if his attempted suicide was the start to his recovery, and how he moved on after that.
He said it was barely the beginning. Schlopy's depression persisted and he went through heroin addiction and encounters with the police before he started turning the corner. Through the Summit County Drug Court, a program Schlopy said he was extremely grateful for, he started recovery. He recently founded a nonprofit clothing company called REMATCH, focused on helping dissipate the stigma of mental illness and substance addiction. Eventually, Schlopy hopes to open a treatment center that focuses on rehabilitating patients through athletic programs.
The panel said after a traumatic brain injury, as with any serious emotional stress, the brain is never truly the same. For those who suffer injuries, returning to functional is possible, but they will be more susceptible to stresses. To deal with that, the panel recommends therapy, in addition to good diet and exercise. Pertab said mind and body aren't separate entities, and health should be looked at as a whole.
The panel recommended those that have suffered brain trauma tell their friends, family and coworkers what they are going through, so they understand their limitations and don't interpret good moments to mean a patient is cured and capable of larger tasks.
The panel added that educating people about mental illness and injury and erasing the stigma associated with it would probably take time, and commitment from people like Schlopy, who have a platform from which to share their message.
Someone in the crowd asked how Schlopy's peers in the skiing world have reacted to his story, and to his candid sharing of his experience.
"It's just been all positive so far," he said. "It's something that's long overdue. I just think making the effort and getting the ball rolling will make for a better future for everybody."
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