I don't remember the first concussion I sustained. I don't remember the third, the sixth or the tenth. But I do remember the last.
A seemingly innocuous tap to the back of my head during an adult league hockey game left me fumbling for words through a blinding headache. Ignoring the signs of concussion, I opted to go to work the next day and found myself incapable of completing even simple tasks. Later that day I struggled to navigate backing my truck out of a friend’s steep driveway and nearly rolled the vehicle into the ditch. When the tow truck came to pull my truck out of its precarious situation, the driver was dumbfounded as to how I had managed to mess up backing out of the driveway in the first place.
It was then that I knew something was very wrong.
My equilibrium had been compromised by the hit the night before and it was impossible for me to complete even simple balance tests. I cried in the doctor's office as she asked me to walk heel-to-toe and I tripped over myself after one step. I couldn’t touch my finger to my nose without extreme concentration. I could barely communicate without becoming hyper emotional and it was one of the scariest injuries I’d ever sustained because for the first time, I felt truly out of control of my own body and emotions.
As a former professional ice hockey goaltender, I have pushed through a lot of injuries – torn MCL, herniated discs, torn muscles, you name it – but nothing prepared me for life with post-concussion syndrome.
I played back before the new concussion protocols, so brain trauma just wasn’t something that coaches took seriously or knew how to deal with. The prevailing attitude growing up was if you could count the number of fingers someone was waving in front of your face, you didn’t have a concussion and were fit to play. As a result, I can recall two instances where I lost consciousness after being struck in the head and was still expected to play after only two days rest. I can recall even more times I had a massive headache and felt nauseas after being hit in the head with a slapshot or being knocked in the face by a player crashing the net to score a goal.
With the “rub some dirt on it and get back out there mentality” that I grew up with, I was understandably skeptical when I was put on a full month of rest with zero electronics or reading, after the last concussion. When I was finally cleared to go back to work and resume normal life, I noticed that things just weren’t the same.
Riddled with anxiety, debilitating headaches, mood swings, memory loss and fatigue, I struggled to get through my workdays. Small things like losing my pen would trigger panic attacks and stress only exacerbated these symptoms.
After seeking professional psychiatric help, I was put on depression medications and mood stabilizers which helped a little bit with daily life but couldn’t fully protect me from my symptoms. When I told my psychiatrist about my continuing difficulties she asked me what made me happy. For me, that was an easy answer – photography. As it turns out, photography wasn’t just something that made me happy, it ended up being something miraculously therapeutic.
In time, I realized that the only activity that could help ground me in the middle of a post-concussive attack was focused, goal-oriented photography. By looking for symmetrical compositions within my immediate environment, I was able to rewire the synaptic transmissions in my brain and effectively interrupt negative thought processes.
To be honest, I can’t tell you exactly how this process works but what I do know is that by actively seeking visual symmetry, I force my brain to focus on a specific task thereby leaving no room for other thoughts.
What started as therapy eventually developed into a larger body of artistic work I call “Kaleidoscope”. The images, while symmetrical, are abstract and often hard to decipher but to me, they are the physical representations of my struggle to find equilibrium. The subject matter ranges from junkyard pipes to aquarium filters and skate parks to tiger cages because they were created wherever I was when an attack was triggered. As such, each image was created using only an iPhone, an app called Layout and Instagram.
While I am still creating new compositions, my symptoms have lessened, and my output has begun to diminish, a fact that has become somewhat bittersweet for me.
If you would like to see more of the work, visit https://www.shipeshotsphotography.com/kaleidoscope or find O’Hara on Instagram @ShipeShots.