Deb Brandon: Living in Radiant Color


Eight long months after the brain surgeries, when the new dragon boat season started, I got back in the boat. Due to the brain bleeds and subsequent surgeries, I missed an entire season of dragon boating. After the surgeries, eager to to rejoin my team , the Steel City Dragons, I worked out regularly, in preparation for the next season.
I started paddling for the Steel City Dragons long before the brain bleeds. I’d always loved dragon boating, and until the brain bleeds I considered myself an avid paddler. After the surgeries, however, I learnt what it really meant to be passionate about dragon boating. My previous passion for the sport paled in comparison.
I reveled in my prowess. I felt strong as I pulled my paddle through the water. I felt fast as I whipped the paddle through the air. I felt tireless paddling through a long practice. The racing, the adrenaline rush, the challenge filled me with fierce joy, a level of joy that was new to me.
I took every opportunity to paddle, with the competitive team, the recreational team, and Pink Steel, the breast cancer survivor team. I often helped out with the youth team after my team’s practice, sometimes with the coaching, more often with the paddling. On weekends when we introduced the public to the sport, I jumped out of the youth boat as soon as it pulled into the dock, and into the demo boat.
I participated in every race possible. I even traveled to Israel to take part in Dragon Boat Israel, the annual dragon boat festival on the Sea of Galilee.
While other members of the competitive team surrendered to the cold, I continued paddling with a handful of Pink Steel members, who were also eager to push the boundaries. We paddled well into November, finally yielding to the risky water conditions.
Unfortunately after four seasons of paddling, my body betrayed me. During winter training, I injured my shoulder, and the following season, I injured the other. I tried Cortisone shots, physical therapy, and weekly visits to a chiropractor.
After paddling through pain for a couple of seasons, I finally had to surrender. Not only was the pain affecting my paddling, but it was also causing difficulties teaching—writing on the boards and erasing them grew harder and harder. I had trouble pushing doors open, washing my hair, and drying my back after a shower required clever strategies. And I completely gave up on reaching high up for items at the grocery store.
When I quit the sport, I felt frustrated, defeated. Dragon boating had become an integral part of my identity and it had served as a constant reminder that I was much more than a brain injury survivor, that I was strong and tenacious.
But to my surprise, I also felt tremendous relief. I had been pushing myself far beyond the boundaries the brain injury set for me. Participating in races took a huge toll on me, causing incapacitating headaches, debilitating fatigue, bringing on severe sensory overload, and subsequent spectacular meltdowns.
After I stopped attending practices, I noticed a dramatic change in my level of exhaustion and a significant drop in the frequency of bouts of sensory overload. I also experienced fewer horrendous headaches. And of course, finally, my shoulders started to heal.
As I write, I look back at the number of practices I attended and the conditions under which I paddled, both that and cold. I think back to the frustration I felt at having to miss a practice. I now realize that at some point dragon boating became more than a passion, it became an obsession. I have to wonder why I felt compelled to push myself as hard as I did.
Perhaps the power I felt as I paddled intoxicated me. Certainly my teammates provided much needed support through my recovery. Could it be that paddling helped me feel that I hadn’t lost all control to the bloody brain? Perhaps my prowess as a paddler gave me the strength I needed to keep working towards a recovery.
Whatever the reason, I believe that at the time, dragon boating gave something I needed, badly, desperately, something that I am not longer so desperate for.