Lauren Long has yet to recover from the injury she suffered six years ago on the soccer field.
She will never recover from it.
“I may improve in certain aspects,” she said, “but I'll never be normal again.”
What injury is so severe, so devastating that it has altered the life of the Putnam City West High alum?
Long is among the millions of Americans who suffer sports-related concussions every year. Unlike the lucky ones who recover after being diagnosed and treated, she was concussed nearly a dozen times during her career before she ever heard the word concussion applied to her.
She lives every day with the repercussions.
“A good day is when I just don't have a headache,” she said. “The really, really bad days are when I don't want to get out of bed.
“You just feel awful, and nobody can see it.”
Now, Long is hoping to shed light on this injury that has changed her life and that of many others. She is trying to help those who suffer in silence like she did.
Long never imagined her passion for soccer would lead to this point.
She started playing the sport when she was 7 years old. She'd played tennis before, but “it wasn't that physical, so I really didn't like it.” Soccer fed her love of physical sports. There was slide tackling, there was marking, and there was heading the ball.
How she loved those headers.
“I wasn't the fastest,” Long said. “I wasn't the strongest. But I could win any ball in the air.”
One of the first times she believes she had a concussion was on a header. Sort of. She was 13 years old playing in a tournament in St. Louis when a player deflected a corner kick. The ball came up quickly and smacked Long on the forehead.
It snapped back her head.
“I didn't head the ball,” she said. “It headed me.”
She'd never been in so much pain in her life.
Even though the play left her with a terrible headache, no one ever mentioned anything about holding her out of a game the next day.
No one raised any red flags a few years later either when she cracked heads with another player during a college showcase in Austin, Texas. The play broke her nose, which got plenty of attention, but when Long started acting unlike herself — pulling at players' jerseys and throwing down opponents — no one realized that was a sign of a concussion.
It wasn't until her senior season at Mid-America Nazarene University in suburban Kansas City that anyone ever diagnosed her with a concussion.
She took an elbow to the face, blacked out for a moment, then had her head bounce off the turf when she fell to the ground.
She continued playing.
“I felt like I was floating,” Long said.
In the locker room at halftime, she asked her coach if they could go for ice cream after the game.
The next day, she felt like she had the flu, but she had no virus. She had another concussion.
“And I haven't recovered since,” Long said.
Nearly six years have passed, and Long has felt the effects of her concussions every day since. She struggles with short-term memory. She suffers from concentration impairment because her ability to filter out noises is nonexistent; she hears everything around her at much the same level. She battles migraine headaches.
She takes meds every day just to be able to get out of bed and go to work and function like a normal 26-year-old.
Last fall after a neuropsychological evaluation put a name to what Long was already experiencing — she has mild to severe cognitive impairment in memory and concentration — she decided to start a blog. She figured no one would ever read it.
“It was more for my own therapy,” she said.
But about a month after she started writing, she heard from a gal living in Columbus, Ohio. Samantha Sanderson told Long that she too was a former college soccer player suffering with the aftermath of concussions.
They talked about what they were experiencing. The roller coaster emotions. The concentration problems. The feeling that no one understood their suffering because no one could see their injury. For the first time, Long felt like someone else knew what she was going through.
“I understand,” they said to each other.
Long had never heard sweeter words.
“When I say, ‘I'm having a terrible day,'” Long said, “Samantha knows what that means.”
The longer the young women talked, the more they realized that there had to be others like them. In a country where millions of kids and adults play sports, there had to be thousands silently suffering the effects of concussions. So much attention has been given to preventing and treating concussions. What about those who already have them?
Long and Sanderson decided to do something.
They took the name Long had used on her blog, “Life After the Game,” and launched a website on Jan. 1. It includes details of their experiences as well as an online support group.
They've already heard from numerous athletes, including a 16-year-old who has suffered two ugly concussions. Long and Sanderson have been sounding boards as the teenager tries to figure out what to do next.
Long admits that she has no idea where all of this will lead. She would love if every high school, middle school and competitive team had some sort of support group for those who suffer concussions. She lacked support for many years and knows that it would've helped her recovery.
Now, though, she knows that her recovery will never be complete. Her brain will always be injured, and her life has forever been altered.
“It's very frustrating sometimes,” she said, “but you take it one day at a time.”
But now, she's got help to get through those days. With “Life After the Game”, she's also helping others who are trying to do the same.
“We want to create an environment where athletes during and after a concussion don't feel like they're alone,” Long said.
They may never recover, but they can get better.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.