PAYING THE PRICE
Last year, I hit a pretty hard depression. Part of it was physical, not being able to train jiu jitsu or practice yoga due to neck, back, and shoulder issues. The other part was mental, the research for my book on traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and Chronic Traumatic Encephalapothy (CTE) weighing me down.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Junior Seau and Andre Waters killing themselves. Aaron Hernandez and his ravaged brain, convicted of the murder of a friend. I worried about Gary Goodridge and my numerous MMA friends dealing with varying degrees of brain damage. My thoughts would often turn to a former boxing opponent and sparring partner whose speech had become difficult to understand, his emotions a mess. I was burdened with the knowledge that a Brown University teammate, who’d spent the last six years dealing with CTE symptoms, only had a short time to live thanks to the combination of the neurodegenerative disease and Acute Myeloid Leukemia. This man, who’d been told he had the frontal lobe of a 75-year-old, rattled off stories about myself that I can’t even recollect, my time at Brown, and much of my life, a messy blur.
I told myself to get over it; I was making this into something bigger than it needed to be. I hadn’t had nearly the amount of head trauma many NFL players had. Except for excessive caffeine and cannabis use, I’ve led a healthy lifestyle over the last decade, and if my brain was deteriorating further, surely, I’d be aware of it.
But I couldn’t deny that feeling was back. The one I’d kept at bay through yoga, jiu jitsu, cognitive therapy, meditation, cold therapy, alcohol, and psychedelics. That dark, scary feeling I’d had since I was ten, if not younger.
The mixture of rage and depression didn’t compute. It used to for the explosive child, the troubled teenager, the failed fighter, the loser who never did a damn thing with his degree, but that was another life. My life was beautiful now, with a wonderful wife and two incredible children. We were set financially and everyone was healthy. I had close friends, a good support system, was publishing books at a proficient rate, and had found a balance between family and writing.
The story I’d been telling myself was that I had lucked out and was blessed with a resilient brain, all of the concussions and knockouts free of any lasting effects. Anyone that’s read my fiction knows I’m a doom-and-gloom kind of guy, so maybe I’m just hardwired to focus on the negative. And even if all those brain injuries did cause problems, surely I’d gotten past them by now, especially with the treatment protocol I was on.
But still, I had to consider the symptoms. I opened my laptop and started a new document, realizing that if I didn’t write it down, I’d forget all about it or rationalize it away.
Impulsive behavior: Guilty. Whether gambling, video games, or drugs, I can be an addict.
Memory loss: I can’t tell you the number of times friends have shown me photos of events to prove that I was there. At a recent party, three different people laughed somewhat uncomfortably when I introduced myself to them, even though we’d been acquaintances for years.
Difficulty planning and carrying out tasks: It can take me days to respond to emails. The littlest things are written down in hopes I’ll one day do them.
Substance abuse: Thirty-two years of cannabis and counting, along with plenty of experimentation.
Emotional instability: It’s not all the time. Usually I’m a fairly happy, even sweet guy, but it doesn’t take a whole lot to rock the ship. One crappy night of sleep and my emotions are all over the place. I don’t respond well to confrontation.
Depression or apathy: I never would’ve considered myself depressed until a year ago, but that’s just due to the stigma behind the word. There’s no denying that’s what I’m experiencing.
Suicidal thoughts or behavior: I struggled with this most my life, spending too many of my college nights with a gun in my mouth. It’s not something I’d ever do now that I have kids, and the urge has been dormant for the past decade, but even a trace of that self-destructiveness is something I must be aware of.
So regardless of the source of damage, there’s something wrong with me. Whether it was from a TBI, CTE, substance abuse, childhood scars, or good ole genetics, my brain is not in a good place.
That thought was depressing, but I’d written it down, given a voice to my fear. I felt a little better about it the following day, but couldn’t read it without breaking into tears. Then after an honest and loving talk with my wife, something shifted and I wrote three more lines that changed everything for me.
But it’s all good.
I’m going to fix it.
I have to.
Fixing it is what I’d been attempting to do since 2013 when a close friend urged me to research brain damage. He’d been photographing segments of my journey to 100 MMA gyms across the country, and was having a hard time watching me get my ass kicked by athletes half my age and with three times my talent.
The more I read up on TBI’s, the more I feared I had really screwed up. I was a reckless kid, experiencing my first serious concussion when I smacked my head on a schoolyard sprinkler at six or seven. It’s impossible to count how many I’d had since, but there had been plenty. In seven years of high school and college football, I’d lost consciousness six times. On top of that I’d had constant trauma playing defensive line like a ram, always striking helmet to helmet. While attempting an MMA career, I was knocked out twice. On another two occasions, my brain was rattled so badly that I completely lost at least 15 minutes of time, and there were a ridiculous number of occassions where I left the gym with a moderate concussion. While attempting a boxing career, I consistently slurred my words and reversed their order. Between boxing and MMA, I had 14 professional matches and a losing record, a sure sign I’d taken more damage than I had dealt. Add a few motorcycle accidents and a 70-mph car collision, and it is amazing I can write my own name, let alone a novel.
The cumulative brain trauma made me a prime candidate for dementia and was likely responsible for my spotty memory. All the afore mentioned damage had been almost a decade before the latest stretch of unnecessary blows to the head where I acquired at least five more concussions: my head slamming off the mat at Team Quest, nearly being knocked out at Syndicate MMA, a nasty head kick at Alliance MMA, and brutal beatings by Fabricio Werdum and Renato Babalu at King’s MMA.
Although I wasn’t excessively worried about my brain health, I was concerned enough to implement some recommendations I found online. I began playing brain games on Lumosity and a couple other platforms, my scores in the top percentiles assuring me I was fine.
The other big take away was the importance of exercise. Not only can regular exercise relieve stress, help with pain, and improve overall well-being, it’s also good for the vascular system in your brain. Fortunately, I was motivated to continue training jiu jitsu and practicing yoga, feeling fit at the lightest weight I’d been since high school at 208 pounds.
In 2015, I participated in the Professional Fighter study at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, NV. Filling out the paperwork about my past was depressing but I felt better after undergoing a battery of tests, blood work, and an MRI. The head of the program, Dr. Bernick, assured me I was doing what I should to hopefully postpone or prevent a decline. On top of the exercise and better sleep, this included practicing guitar and learning German, activities that stimulate the brain.
In 2018 I added Wim Hof inspired breathing and cold-water therapy to my routine, cleaned up my diet, and improved my sleep. I also began seeing a therapist, aware that cognitive therapy could rewire the brain and perhaps help me figure out why I had always been so dark and full of self-hate. I also wanted an unbiased person who could assess me and my personality and then monitor how I responded to the different types of treatments, but the real motivation for going was because my marriage needed it.
The therapist helped me see the ways I was failing as a spouse and how to address issues that needed resolving. It also shed light on my perfectionism and low self-esteem. Therapy seemed to reduce my overall anger and anxiety, but it was still there.
During this time, I listened to the Joe Rogan Podcast #1056 with Dr. Mark Gordon of the Millennium Neuro-Regenerative Centers. Dr. Gordon described what happens when a traumatic brain injury occurs and dispelled many of the myths surrounding them. Most people assume in order to have a TBI the individual needs to be knocked unconscious or have a very significant blow to the head, but Dr. Gordon explained the process could be started much more easily, even with a minor car accident or ride on a roller coaster. Once the injury occurs, the brain becomes inflamed and this inflammation expands and disrupts the brain’s ability to self-regulate hormones.
Dr. Gordon explained how many symptoms of PTSD and TBI overlap such as depression, anxiety, irritability, cognitive deficits, insomnia, and fatigue. In Gordon’s opinion, PTSD is a manifestation of a TBI. Head injuries are often forgotten but commonly identified during detailed patient histories. His approach is to treat patients with hormone replacement therapy to reduce the injury-provoked inflammation in the brain that has compromised functioning. At the time, he claimed to have turned around the lives of over 1,500 military personnel.
Although I didn’t believe I needed the protocol, I talked it over with my wife and we agreed the cost of the program would be worth trying. Even if it didn’t do anything for me, I could write about it in this book.
It wasn’t long before Dr. Gordon’s daughter, Dr. Alison Gordon went over my blood work results with me, pointing out all the ways it was consistent with someone who had TBI’s. She recommended several supplements and one prescription of a natural testosterone booster to bring my hormones to normal levels. I wasn’t expecting much change because I felt fine, but two weeks after being on the protocol I broke down crying in my backyard, not due to anything being wrong, but because it was the first time I fully realized just how terrible my symptoms had been. Not having the weight of the incredibly high levels of anger, depression, and irritability was overwhelming. Another two weeks on the protocol and I felt as if I was in the best emotional place I’d ever been with a mental clarity I’d been lacking.
I got through the rest of the year and half of 2019 before hitting the proverbial wall of emotion when I realized that despite the improvements in the functional and emotional areas, I had a long way to go. I dusted off my notes for the brain book, hoping someone from my list of experts I wanted to interview would point me in the right direction. I contacted a few people and set up interviews, only for me to cancel them because the depression still had hold of me and I desperately wanted to distance myself from the subject. Fortunately, my sister sent me an email about the amazing results her son was having with neurofeedback and a specialized form of chiropractic that focuses on the upper cervical area. He’d been dealing with post-concussion syndrome for quite some time and seemed to have turned things around at Vital Head and Spine in Pasadena.
Just as I had with Gordon’s protocol, I discussed the treatment plan with my wife, weighing the cost versus rewards. We both somehow still believed I was fine and didn’t really need it, but agreed I should at least see if the testing showed anything critical.
On the NUCCA (National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association) side of the practice, the x-rays revealed small, but significant shift of the two bony rings (vertebrae) at the base of my skull. This was affecting blood flow and cerebrospinal fluid flow in, and out, of my brain. It was also causing my brain to get distorted messages from the sensors, called mechanoreceptors, in my muscles and joints which was affecting my sense of balance and coordination.
On the brain training side of things, led by Dr. Licata, the results were sobering. Despite my ability to test high on brain games and such, the Integrated Visual and Auditory (IVA-2) test had me pegged as ADHD and ADD, my auditory scores nearly half those of a normal man my age. Even scarier was seeing the prevalent dark blue of my frontal lobe qEEG (quantitative electroencephalography) images which illustrated severely under functioning areas of my brain. Not only was this compromising my executive functioning, but was affecting my higher brain centers from regulating my lower emotional centers. In addition, we could also see how my brain was trying to adapt to chronic poor sleep, also probably caused by my past concussions.
After seeing these results, the cost of the program wasn’t a factor. If I could improve my diminished brain function, I was obligated to my family to try.
Although I didn’t feel any significant changes immediately after the NUCCA adjustments, I soon began feeling better overall and my low back problem largely went away thanks to the improved signals from my brain balancing my body.
On the neurofeedback side, I noticed feeling better after just a couple of sessions, both my sleep and overall stress reaction were much improved. By my second week, I was so convinced it was working that I had my wife and daughter begin their own treatment protocols. By ten sessions in, I was telling anyone who would listen just how much this training had already improved my life.
After twenty sessions, I retook the IVA test and remapped my brain. My results were encouraging, no longer triggering for ADHD and revealing noticeable improvement in many areas.
During the review, Dr. Licata also helped ease one of my fears. I told him I was afraid that even though I was feeling better, what if it was just a temporary fix and I would develop CTE or some form of dementia anyway.
He said we know enough about the mechanisms of the disease to feel confident it shouldn’t develop. A big part of this is due to the improvement of deep sleep which is of critical importance as this is where our body removes wastes like Tau and Beta Amyloid that wreak havoc in neurodegenerative diseases like CTE and Alzheimer’s. I was also treating overall inflammation with diet and supplements as to not continually cause new damage.
I just completed my fortieth session and couldn’t be happier with the results of my final retesting. Now my scores are higher than normal and I no longer test for ADHD or ADD.
Although the training does come with a considerable price tag, I’ve already begun another phase that will focus on emotional regulation and strengthening the areas we’ve already improved.
I still have other treatments to explore and experts to interview, but I am feeling much more hopeful now than I was at any other point of this process.
By treating the functional, emotional, and structural areas, I have attained a much healthier, happier, and safer place in my life. I believe I have significantly lowered the odds that I will develop CTE or another form of dementia. It has cost quite a bit of time and money, but it’s a small price to pay when considering my overall health and happiness and the well-being of my family.
For those that are interested in the cost of the programs please contact the businesses. Here is a rough estimate of what I spent:
Millennium - $3,000 for the year - http://www.tbimedlegal.com/
NUCCA – $2,000 - https://www.vitalheadandspine.com/
Neurofeedback - $4,500 for the mapping and 40 sessions
Therapy - $100 a session - $2,500 year
Supplements - $2,500 a year
Thanks for reading the Mark Tullius blog