"Enjoying The Crowds?"
Typically, those of us with brain injuries do not enjoy crowds. The noise, the confusion, and the press of people can be overwhelming. Most of us who suffer from PTSD, anxiety, paranoia, or have social anxiety issues just do not like crowds, small or large.
I am a sci-fi fan and one of my favorite past times was to participate in an annual pilgrimage to Atlanta over Labor Day weekend for one of the largest Sci-Fi and Comic Book Conventions called DragonCon. I was a regular attendee.
My TBI occurred in late March of 2012, a mere five months before my beloved DragonCon. I endured five months of physical therapy so that I might stumble amongst the crowds without falling flat on my face. To say I was physically ready would be incorrect. Therapy had me walking like a Zombie at that time. But walking, nonetheless. In fact, I had tee shirts made up to wear when I attended that had “I am not a Zombie. I survived a brain injury” printed on the front and back.
Five months to prepare my brain. Would I be able to handle the crowds? The previous year the attendance was reported to be 46,000 plus. In 2012, they were expecting over 50,000 people.
The convention is held in downtown Atlanta and is hosted in five hotels. Some of the venues are small, others large. But there are crowds. Massive crowd that began on Thursday evening and continue to grow through the weekend.
I remembered how difficult it was to navigate through the sky-bridge that connected two of the hotels. I remembered how the lobbies were packed with people. How the elevators and stairs were a constant stream of bodies.
I had to stop thinking about the crowds. Think about the fun. Think about the sessions. Think about all the costumes. Think about the friends you will see. Think about anything but the crowds.
Brain injury be damned. I was not going to miss one of the highlights of my year. I would find a way. I prepared myself physically, taking longer and longer walks to build up my stamina. I steeled my mind to the fact that I would be in crowds.
In retrospect, I suppose it would have been helpful to prepare myself by going to crowded malls and shopping locations. Unfortunately, I did not think to do that.
I went to DragonCon cold turkey.
Meditation and mindfulness helped somewhat. I prepared by telling myself everything would be OK.
I arrived on the Thursday evening before Labor Day. That night is the start of the convention. Checked into my hotel and got ready to head to the festivities. Downtown hotels are at a premium and expensive. I had been staying in one of the airport hotels for years.
I would take the MARTA into town from the hotel. The MARTA ride downtown would be my first test of my stability both mentally and physically.
I must compliment the MARTA riders. Seeing my struggle to maintain my balance I was offered a seat almost immediately. This would be my experience every time I boarded.
Luckily, the car was not crowded on that first trip downtown.
Getting off downtown was my next challenge. The MARTA platform was crowded. People pushing to get to the stairs and escalators. I took the elevator which, thankfully, was not terribly busy.
Outside the station the sidewalks were already crowded. People milling about, rubber necking at the buildings and the costumes. Dragon Con is all about cosplay and costuming.
I was pleasantly surprised to find I did not have to stand in line to get my badge. Disability Services at the Con is wonderful. A young man brought my badge to me and after asking a few questions added a few Special Needs stickers. I was entitled to a seat while waiting, to enter venues early, and did not have to stand in line for any of the events.
Friday, I took the MARTA back downtown for the start of the actual convention and attend sessions that I was interested in.
I did not lose my fear of crowds. They still bothered me. I repeated a mantra in my head—This is fun. Look at the costumes. I know that person. Oh, there is another friend. I am so looking forward to the Doctor Who session. Crowds do not bother me.
All of that of course was true. Making myself believe, was the challenge.
Once I started wandering around the conference, I became so engrossed in what was going on around me—sensory overload. Memories came back, not flashbacks. But rather pleasant memories of past conferences.
Of course, there were times I did not think I was going to make it. I hugged the walls often. Rarely walking through the middle of the crowds.
I took lots of breaks. I did not attend session after session non-stop as I had often done in the past. I missed some sessions simply because I needed to get away. To find a relatively quiet place to sit, unwind and recharge.
I would never have thought a TBI would make you wiser. In some ways it did. I knew when I needed those breaks. Not just mental breaks, but physical breaks as well.
I took full advantage of the perks that came from being a Special Needs patron—sitting when I could. Not having to stand in line and really enjoying not having to fight the crowd or rush to find a good seat. Entering first helped tremendously.
I had to stop multiple times and remind myself I was having fun. That crowds did not bother me. That it was Ok to miss an event. That it was also Ok to admit I was overwhelmed and needed to recharge.
That first Con after my brain injury taught me so many valuable lessons. My fears were never fully realized. I did not freak out. I was nervous. I was anxious. I turned my face to the wall many times, trying to block out the image of the crowds behind me. At the same time, I was having fun. I was enjoying myself. At times I almost forgot about my TBI—I almost thought I was normal.
I keep attending the Con. In 2019 the crowd was estimated at over 85,000. Luckily, they were never all in the same place at the same time.
Howard Moon is a writer and poet. His writing and poetry have appeared in multiple collections and anthologies, Small Change, Montana Mouthful, Das Literarisch Journal, Of Poets and Poetry, and Native Skin.
He is of Native heritage and identifies as BIPOC. In 2012 he suffered a brain injury and has been diagnosed with a mental illness — Pseudobulbar Affect. He has also been diagnosed as a hemipelagic.
He is retired and lives in central Florida with his wife and service dog.