Category Archives: Articles

These are various articles/essays I’ve written over the years. Most of them have never seen the light of day.

Is Your Brain a Time Bomb?

In 1989, when I was a junior in high school, I was struck in the head by an eight pound ball of iron. I suffered a Grade III concussion, a brain contusion, and brain swelling. I survived the incident but to this day suffer symptoms. This post is intended to raise awareness of the long-term effects of brain trauma and Post-Concussion Syndrome for the millions of people who endure living with a wounded brain.

Sensitivity to Light

If you’ve ever had a migraine, you understand how sensitive you are to bright lights. Imagine that times forever, and you’ll get an idea of what photophobia is like. Prolonged exposure to bright light gives me a skull-splitting headache, and it’s a relatively common symptom of severe concussions.  I can’t spend more than five minutes outside without sunglasses, and sometimes, even indoor lighting can be an issue, especially fluorescents. You know, the kind used in virtually every public building ever. So sometimes, I have to wear my sunglasses indoors, as well. No, I’m not trying to emulate the Blues Brothers. I just want to pick up some chips and salsa without feeling like a marching band is practicing inside my skull.

Years ago, some friends took me to an outdoor art exhibit. Naturally, I wore my prescription sunglasses so I could enjoy the day and not end up curled in a corner whimpering. We got invited to an after-party, and because my regular glasses were at home, I was stuck in shades long after dark. Some hipster quipped about the Terminator terrorizing the party, and it drew quite a laugh from the crowd. There’s no explaining photophobia in that moment. There’s only skulking away alienated and humiliated, having just been owned by a hipster.

Headaches Become a Fact of Life

You know those people who refer to every little headache as a migraine? Not the people who suffer from real migraines; a real one will put the strongest person in bed. I’m referring to the people who call the slightest tension headache a migraine. Yeah, I dislike those people. For a full year after the accident, I lived with a constant headache. Some days, it was a dull ache, others a sharp, piercing ice- pick. On bad days, it pounded my skull so violently I questioned benevolence in the universe. After that first year, the headaches became less and less frequent, but I came to know them the way an aficionado knows cigars. To this day, I also get occasional sharp, blinding pains near my scar.

After that first year, once the constant one faded, I learned to ignore most headaches and accept them as my reality. Today, I still rarely acknowledge anything less than a skull-pounder and even those barely slow me down, so whenever a co-worker rubs their temples and whines, “I have such a migraine” I have to squelch the desire to laugh at them. A real headache debilitates you. A real headache puts you in bed and makes every sound and light a test of your will. People who have suffered brain trauma know that any headache that doesn’t land you in bed is merely a nuisance, hardly worth announcing to the world.

Swiss Cheese Memory

Amnesia is a common Hollywood trope for head injuries, but what they never show is the inconsistency of cognitive dysfunction. Since the accident, some days, my memory works flawlessly and I’ll remember the stat line of the punter for the 85 Bucs. Other days, I’ll forget your name as I’m telling you mine. Others, I lose my car keys twelve times. On really bad days, I stare at my keys trying to remember which one goes to what.

Once, I met John Rhys-Davies at a Sci-Fi convention and got to have a real conversation with him. We talked LOTR and Sliders and the back injury he suffered on the set of La Femme Musketeer. The encounter was nearly perfect until, as we were about say farewell, he quoted a line of Shakespeare. As an English major, I scoured the splotchy patches of my memory for the play’s title and noticed the flicker of disappointment on his face. I wanted to explain about my injury, wanted him to know I wasn’t just a dumb bumpkin, but once more the moment was lost.

Sleep Disruption

Insomnia is a frequent condition after a brain injury. Some nights, I merely have difficulty falling asleep, but once I do, I rest through the night. Some nights I sleep for twelve hours. Some nights, nothing works. On those nights, especially when a few string together, I crave rest so badly, I contemplate hitting myself in the head to see if that will allow me to sleep. Of all the side effects I endure, I feel this one has the most stigma. Go-getters are early risers, but my internal clock has shifted so obtusely noon is now the crack of dawn. None of my friends or family understand why I don’t just sleep like a normal person, and no matter how many times I try to explain that I can’t because of the injury, I still feel like they’re judging me. I look fine. That injury happened years ago. Surely I’m over it by now.

When I got my assistantship teaching assignment in grad school, the department had assigned classes alphabetically, so guess who got two 8:00 AM classes?  Guess how many of my “friends” jumped at the opportunity to trade with me?  For my final year of grad school, I ran on three hours sleep a night, at most. If there can be any positive spin, at least I had time to grade all those papers.

 Nobody Can See the Mark

One of the most difficult aspects of head trauma is that no one can “see” what’s wrong. Even standard imaging techniques like MRIs and CT scans can only detect the subtle changes to the brain while it’s in a resting state. If neurologists can’t detect it, how can the average person? If I come to work on an hour’s sleep because my insomnia kicked in, I sometimes hear whispers through the grapevine that I stayed out all night drinking. If only. When I wear my shades in my office with the lights off, those whispers escalate. If I turn down 8:00 AM assignments, I’m simply lazy. After explaining the accident for the zillionth time, I watch their eyes travel up and down my body, searching for some physical sign of impairment, and even after I show them my scar or let them touch the dent in my skull, the doubts still linger in their eyes.

A few years ago, a colleague slipped and fell on a patch of ice in the parking lot. She had no visible injuries but suffered a concussion from the whiplash of the abrupt fall. Because she “looked” fine, our superiors couldn’t grasp why she couldn’t handle her usual workload. But I understood. All those tiny blood vessels and axons and synapses, as fragile as snowflakes, were violently shaken in a way nature never intended. I reassured her that in time she would find herself again and adjust to her new reality because I had managed to do so, and I spoke up for her with our superiors. Still, because we show few if any external signs of damage, they have a hard time grasping that our impairments are just as real as someone who has lopped off a finger. 

It Forces You to Change Your Life

When you’re in a crowd, your brain is able to process almost all the information subconsciously while you consciously focus on whatever you’re doing. For me, however, crowds are a nightmare. When too many people are moving in too many directions and having too many conversations, my brain becomes overloaded and within a few minutes, I can become completely disoriented. You can try to avoid crowds, but just like light, you’ll soon realize crowds are everywhere. So I take back roads with less traffic, shop during off hours, and work jobs that offer solitude. I don’t often go to live sporting events or concerts or even restaurants because the cacophony of noise and motion still completely overwhelms my brain a quarter of a century removed from the accident.

The worst example of this sensory overload occurred at another convention where I was attending as a guest author. I arrived a night early to get my badge, find my panel rooms, and have a plan, hoping to avoid the crowds as much as possible. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same plan because as the escalator deposited me into the lobby, I found myself in the middle of at least two thousand people, elbow to elbow. Within seconds, my senses were overwhelmed, and I struggled through the throng to find an exit sign.  The disorientation was so bad I had to withdraw from the convention and spent three days at home to recover. Isn’t there a line somewhere about the best laid plans?

It Also Changes Your Personality

Many people know about Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who underwent a major personality change after suffering a brain injury. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t take a tamping iron fired through the skull to make a difference. After the injury, I became much more introverted and quiet. Like many who’ve suffer severe concussions, I’ve battled depression. Mood swings are common as well.

Not long after the accident (I think I still had my stitches – all 36 of them) my pickup truck stalled and wouldn’t refire. I tried and tried and tried to start it, and with each unsuccessful attempt, my frustration escalated. In a fit of rage, I hopped out of the truck, grabbed a shovel from the bed, and proceeded to beat on the hood until I couldn’t lift the shovel again. Before the accident, I rarely lost my cool, but in that first year after, I was a walking rage machine. Today, it takes quite a bit to push me to that point because I’ve learned to check the cauldron of emotions as they course through me, but if I do reach it, something will probably get broken.

Also before the accident, I was highly analytical and serious-minded with a nearly photographic memory. Afterwards, while much of my analytical ability remained intact, in addition to the memory issues, I became much more creative and free-spirited. While neuroscience still can’t fully explain why this happens, one plausible theory is that it’s akin to Frontotemporal Dementia. Because of the rewiring that occurs, the interactivity within different regions of the brain changes, resulting in a fundamental shift in cognition. More than likely some mechanism that inhibited creativity was damaged by the accident, which “turned on” my latent creative skills. In extreme situations, this can lead to Acquired Savant Syndrome, such as the case of Alonzo Clemons, who suffered a brain injury at three and developed a profound mastery of sculpting despite not being able to tie his own shoes.

Your Brain Becomes a Time Bomb

The weird thing about concussions is once you’ve had one, you’re more likely to get one again; after your first concussion, your chances of getting a second go up 400 freaking percent. And subsequent concussions can be catastrophically bad, even if you don’t have apparent permanent damage from the first. This is because if you only damage a small number of neurons, your brain figures out a way to work around it. The damage is still there, but you don’t notice it, which may falsely lead you to believe that your brain is as healthy as it ever was. Since those connections never heal, another concussion can destroy enough of them your brain can’t work around it any more, leading to more serious problems. Another complication that can arise is called Second Impact Syndrome, where after a concussion, even the slightest bump on the head before the brain has sufficiently healed causes it to rapidly swell inside the skull. Though rare, the mortality rate for SIS is about 50%, and the permanent disability rate from it is nearly 100%.

I cannot stress this point enough. People who have suffered severe brain trauma have to accept that their brain should not be exposed to additional risks. I struggled with this fact for years because I had been a competitive athlete, and after the accident, I felt compelled to continue to prove my toughness. Today, a quarter of a century removed, I recognize the folly of that thinking. Just surviving the incident is tough enough. Your body may still be strong and virile. Your muscles and bones may not have suffered permanent damage from the head trauma, so you sometimes may believe yourself still capable of competing in the sports you love. But your brain is permanently injured. You have to accept that fact and not expose yourself to further damage.

In college, I drove a delivery truck on the weekends. It was a refurbished moving truck with one of the rear doors that slides up like a garage door. One night, the door didn’t open fully, and in the darkness I couldn’t see it as I stepped up into the cargo bay. My forehead slammed into the aluminum guard full force. As I crumpled to the wooden bed (luckily falling into the truck and not three feet down to the concrete parking lot) my final thought before I lost consciousness was that I had just killed myself. Later that night, when I finally made it home, I couldn’t figure out how to make a tub hold water. Fortunately, I recovered with no further permanent damage, but from that moment forward I became much more protective of my head.

Your Health Becomes an Uncertainty Forever

Since brain damage can manifest symptoms in countless ways (or not at all), I constantly find myself wondering every time my eyelid twitches if it’s just normal body behavior, or if it’s my nervous system starting to break down. Having a concussion puts you at much higher risk for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The Mayo Clinic found that even a mild concussion made you four times more likely to develop Parkinson’s, and another study found that three or more concussions made you five times more likely to suffer early-onset Alzheimer’s. Additionally, multiple concussions can cause Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is the degenerative brain disorder that has prompted the NFL to address the concussion issue. And until neuroscience progresses further, there’s no real way to predict if you’ll get it until you start exhibiting symptoms.

Ever since the accident, if I hold my arm a certain way, my left index finger pulses involuntarily. For twenty-two years, I thought little of it, other than slight embarrassment when it occurred while I taught. Three years ago, my left hand began trembling more frequently and would occasionally cramp in a way that drew my fingers together in a twisted knot. I began experiencing other symptoms that mirrored MS and Parkinson’s. For six or seven months, while doctors ran test after test with no answers, I lived in absolute terror that the accident had slowly degenerated my brain to a lethal point. It turned out to be an unrelated issue concerning gluten sensitivity, and today, I won’t say I’m back to normal, but as long as I completely avoid gluten, I do fairly well with it. But the lingering effects of that scare are that I can no longer tell if I’m aging normally or degenerating more rapidly than my peers. I now fear every sharp pain near my scar, pains I ignored for twenty-two years because they were simply my reality. And where I once shrugged off the memory lapses, I now question if my recall is worsening or if I’m just imagining it. Those fears are real, as real as any of the other side effects, and living with those constant concerns for my brain’s health can become rather tedious.

You Slowly Gain Acceptance and Adapt

Despite all these limitations and discomforts, over time, I’ve learned to accept my reality. The process wasn’t easy, and for the first five or six years after the accident, I wallowed in self-pity over everything it had taken from me. Then, one day, the epiphany struck me that I was lucky just to be alive. I’ve since learned, through years of trial and error, to find pleasure in the things I can still do and let go of the things I can’t. I’ve learned to appreciate the little things because I know firsthand the fragility of life.

I’ve learned to stop trying to conform to society’s expectations of who it thinks I should be and embrace the reality of who I am.  I’m one who has survived a trauma that should have killed me, and that fact alone is pretty special. I’ve carved out my niche based on the skills the accident unlocked, and I’ve learned to be grateful for each and every day regardless of how many times I lose my keys or misplace my sunglasses because I’m simply still here.

If you’re living with the effects of Post-Concussion Syndrome, please know you’re not alone. Please know that you can carve out a fulfilling life if you learn to work within and around your limitations. You’ll never again be the person you were before your trauma, but in time, you can find the new you, one who is a survivor, one who discovers new talents you never knew you had, and one who finds pleasure in the little things. In time, you too can learn to operate within the boundaries of your wounded brain.

D.A. Adams is bestselling author of The Brotherhood of Dwarves series and a survivor of severe brain trauma. You can follow him on Twitter @authordaadams

A special thank you to Chris Radomile, who assisted with the development of this article. You can follow him on Twitter @raddystuition

To Governor Haslam on Education

Dear Governor Haslam:

I’m quite certain you personally will never read this letter, but since you have taken over the helm of this great state, I feel compelled to write you anyway.  Please, allow me to be clear–this is not a partisan attack on your principles or values, and this is not meant to be a politically charged diatribe, either.  Instead, this letter is merely meant to illustrate the state of the state, so to speak, in terms of our educational system.

Please, also allow me to be clear that I love this state, especially East Tennessee.  This is my home, and when I finished graduate school, I chose to move back to this area to be a part of this community.  There were other opportunities in other regions open to me, but I chose to utilize my skills for the people of East Tennessee.  I am a professional educator, having taught for 13 years at the collegiate level, and I wanted to teach here because I felt it was my duty.  However, at this point in my career and in my life, I cannot see a rational argument for continuing in this profession in this area much longer.  My reasons for feeling like this profession is a dead-end emanate from the absurdly low monetary compensation we receive and the deplorable working conditions under which we are required to function.

On the monetary level, for 13 years my salary has remained basically stagnant and is lower than the salaries of most fast-food managers.  During this same time, my rent, electric bill, groceries, and fuel costs have all risen by at least 30%.  Real-world, real-life inflation has consumed every penny and then some of disposable income I once had.  Additionally, I’m saddled with $60,000 worth of student loan debt that I feel will never get paid off because I simply don’t earn enough money to afford the monthly payments.  In order to hold this position, I must have at least as much education as an accountant, an engineer, or an architect, and in obtaining that education I accrued as much debt, but the opportunity to pay off that debt is not equitable.  To me, this is an unsustainable system, and at times, I feel like a liar and a hypocrite for telling students that education matters.  I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees, yet my education has done little to improve my economic conditions.

In terms of our working conditions, I am deeply frustrated by the quality of students we receive at the college.  Since the inception of the Hope Scholarship, we have been overwhelmed by a throng of kids who are not prepared for college.  These students have swelled our class sizes to nearly double the optimal student-teacher ratio.  There is substantial data to support the claim that this ratio is one of the biggest factors in educational quality.  When classes are overcrowded, the ones who suffer the most are the serious, sincere students who truly want an education to better their lives.  We get so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of students that we become incapable of providing them with the time and attention they deserve.

Those of us who are serious, committed professionals are frustrated by all the hindrances to serving our students.  There have been times in my career when I have gotten to teach courses with an optimal ratio for writing classes of 15:1, and in those courses, I was able to provide my students with detailed one-on-one instruction to work specifically on their personal writing issues.  This mode of instruction is much more effective and much more fulfilling.  Once the ratio gets above 20:1 for a writing course, most instruction becomes generic and abstract, and the instructor is limited in how much he or she can learn about each individual student.  In my experience, most of us truly care about delivering a positive experience to our students, and most of us want to contribute to society by improving the lives of those students, both traditional and non-traditional.  However, when our classes are overrun with people who neither want to be there nor are prepared academically, our jobs become impossibly frustrating.

Also, the sheer volume of hours we put in is part of the difficult working conditions.  During each semester, I have no time for anything other than my job.  On good weeks, I put in 60 hours and work 6 days.  On bad weeks, those numbers can reach 80 hours and 7 days.  Rarely, extremely rarely, do I work less than 60 hours.  As a divorced man who lives 500 miles from his children, I cannot make trips to spend time with my children throughout the semester because I cannot spare the weekend from grading.   I cannot be the father my children deserve because of the demands of this job.  Among ourselves, many of us grumble about not having time for anything or anyone other than our jobs.  If the monetary compensation mirrored the workload, we might see the sacrifices as worthwhile, but since our salaries hover just above the poverty line, it’s difficult to find justification for losing months on end from our families.

This human toll of teaching is by far the worst aspect.  I didn’t enter the profession with delusions of becoming wealthy.  I knew my salary would be lower than many other professions.  I chose to teach because I wanted to give something back to my community.  Now, 13 years later, that feels like a terrible mistake.  If I had known that I would have to make so many sacrifices for this job, I would’ve done something else for a living, and my fear is that over time, fewer and fewer serious-minded, dedicated professionals will gravitate to this career because of the overwhelming demands placed on us with too little in return.  As I speculate on the future, I imagine an educational landscape dominated by semi-skilled, quasi-professional people who work the job much like most fast-food employees work theirs, with no sense of quality or duty.

There was a time when I loved my profession.  I woke up every day excited to go to work, and I felt as if my contribution to society was meaningful, important, and crucial.  Now, I feel as if I have wasted my life.  Education has become so devalued that most of my students view it as an obstacle to their careers, instead of a bridge.  Perhaps education is not important.  Perhaps our state can move into the economy of the future without a literate workforce.  Perhaps it was merely naive and idealistic of me to believe that giving back to the community was a sincere contribution.  All I know for certain is that under the current circumstances, I do not have many more semesters in me.  I am completely and utterly exhausted.

If the state is serious about improving the educational system in Tennessee, it needs to find a way to bring salaries up to levels that are equitable to other skilled professions.  Money from the Hope Scholarship program needs to be redirected into K-12 to prepare students better academically.  Until that foundation is fixed, the money is mostly being wasted.  And the demands placed on those of us in the classroom need to be lessened.   As the system stands, dedicated teachers are being used up way too early in their careers, and if this continues, the quality of instructor in the classroom will only continue to erode.

Thank you for your time and contemplation on this matter.  My hope is that the system will be improved, not by adding more layers of bureaucratic oversight and more hours of unproductive paperwork but by fixing the core issues of inequitable pay and substandard working conditions.


D. A. Adams

Cultural Rebellion

My extreme disdain for Beat culture goes far beyond the obvious lack of talent in most of the work.  No, I truly detest the rebellious course proposed by most Beat artists.  Don’t misunderstand; I’m all for cultural rebellion.  I’ve spent the better part of my life refusing to assimilate into the cultural norms before me, but Beat culture has turned rebellion for many aspiring young artists into a process of self-destruction that simply leads to addictions, poverty, homelessness, and sometimes even death.

Beat writers such as Kerouac, Bukowski, and Ginsberg glorified and glamorized lifestyles at the lowest end of the economic scale.  In their writings, you can easily find passages in which these writers lambaste the middle-class; denounce money, ridicule employment within the establishment; uphold living as a hobo; and acclaim the wondrous benefits of narcotics.  I understand well enough that these writers came out of the Fifties, a paranoid and stuffy period, and that their version of rebellion arose from the need to break free from repression, but that fact does not excuse these people, who mostly came from affluent middle-class backgrounds, for a distorted message.  Granted, their intentions may have been good, but in this case, the road to ruin is indeed paved with those intentions.

There are problems within America’s middle-class, problems which have existed for the better part of a century.  Money and the pursuit of obtaining it can blind many people to the important things in life: love, family, and morality.  Suburban life has evolved into a bland, cookie-cutter landscape in which glitz and flash have replaced quality.  This insular existence began as an escape from ethnic diversity within urban areas and has become a form of rigid social stratification, a way of isolating the well-to-do and their tax-base from the undesirables of the inner-city.  As a result of taxes being taken out of the metropolitan areas, serious cultural erosion has gripped many urban environments.  For example, in Memphis where I went to college and had the opportunity to teach, the most affluent suburb is Germantown, and its high school is a model for academic and athletic success.  However, within the city limits of Memphis, it was not uncommon to find schools without air conditioning, never mind something as elaborate as a computer.  While the inner-city suffers, the suburbs thrive in pseudo-isolation.  I say pseudo because the suburbs couldn’t exist without the industrial and commercial centers of the city itself.

These problems with middle-class ideals are very real and deserve attention, but the problems of being poor in a capitalist society are, I believe, much more pronounced and dangerous.  When a person is poor, mere survival becomes a challenge because everything requires currency.  Even the homeless must pay money for food and clothing, unless they happen to find or steal these necessities.  As most people know, the real paradox of capitalism is that it takes money to make money.  As money for clothing and grooming decreases, opportunities to find gainful employment also decrease.  As employment opportunities decrease, frustration and depression increase, which lead to more and more problems.  Thus, the simple, often taken for granted act of survival becomes a challenge.

Among the lower classes, drugs, alcohol, violence, sex, and unwanted pregnancies are epidemics.  Literacy, mathematical ability, and other basic educational necessities are not considered as important as toughness, strength, and bravado.  Growing up in an impoverished, rural community in the Appalachian Mountains, I often heard people say that book learning and school were wastes of time.  In Memphis, those sentiments were echoed by many of the poor I met.  As an educator and a writer, I can’t describe my frustration at seeing friends, family, and neighbors reject education and literacy.  The result of this rejection is an embracing of lowbrow culture such as professional wrestling and talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show.  These forms of entertainment glamorize violence, sexual perversion, and ignorance.  It could be argued that lowbrow culture is merely a mirror of society, but as the “art” forms continue to glamorize the problems, people within the lower classes gain a sense of vindication at having these problems.  If people on TV are like this, it must be okay for me to be like this too.  The problems compound because they are no longer viewed as problems at all.

In their rawest forms, the Beats would have you believe that this lifestyle should be an aspiration.

Cultural rebellion is a natural part of the human psyche.  Without it, we have no progress.  Without it, we are still scavengers at the water-hole picking flesh from the kills of predators.  Without it, we do not land a probe on Mars.  We as a species are driven by a desire to change things, to make things better than they were, and that desire is the crux of cultural rebellion.  Rebellion of any kind should come from a need to improve conditions, but the rebellion proposed by the Beats does not lead to a better way of living or a better way of viewing the world.  In this way, it cannot truly be called a rebellion at all.  It should be viewed as a disenfranchising and debilitating pestilence on society.

In our society, this culture of money and greed and affluence and immoral behavior, a true rebel should strive for something truly rebellious.  Anyone who claims to be rebellious should not strive to descend the socioeconomic ladder.  No, a rebel should simply strive to be a decent person, someone who is nice and kind and considerate to everyone he or she meets.  This attitude would shock the hell out of people.  This behavior would indeed be viewed as bizarre.

In my youth, I watched friends who thought themselves to be rebels willingly place the modern-day shackles of lower-class life on themselves.  We were born poor, and they in their rebellions quit school, partied, worked menial jobs, and lived in slums, permanently arresting themselves in the lifestyle they thought they were rebelling against.  I say that a true rebel in the lower classes is the person who does not use alcohol or drugs, refuses to be left out of education, abstains from sex until after having a career.  Those people are the ones who are truly not doing what they are supposed to be doing.

In the middle-class, I say that a cultural rebel is not the person who rejects the establishment and aspires to be poor.  Rather, these true rebels are the people who embrace substance over image.  These people reject the insular suburbs and reach out to the inner-city, trying to improve the lives around them instead of making their lawns the greenest in the cul-de-sac.

The Beats argue that the way to improve the middle-class is to reject it and become poor, but there is nothing virtuous and compelling in becoming disenfranchised.  Poverty breeds problems that are powerful and crippling to the soul.  Depression hangs on the lower classes like smog to an airport.  Addictions destroy families in any class, but in the lower classes, the addictions I have witnessed become amplified by depression, a lack of money to support the addictions, and the basic need to survive.  Cultural rebels should not embrace this lifestyle as something grandiose and beautiful.  Cultural rebels should be truly rebellious.  They should spend their lives trying to do what very few people in this country strive for anymore and that is to improve other people’s lives, not their own, because rebellion has never been anything except an attempt to make the world and the human existence better.