In 1998, competitive ice skater Jessie Riley was coming out of a return, bent on improving her speed in hopes of qualifying for the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Maybe her focus was too strong; maybe her goal had given her tunnel vision. Whatever the reason, the skater’s next move—one she had made hundreds of times before during training—went awry. Moving at a speed of 30 mph, Jessie Riley skidded and slammed head-first into the wall of the rink.
Everything after that was blackness.
“Everything Sort of Went Flat”
It’s certain that coaches and onlookers rushed to her aid. But at that time, the general public was even less informed about concussions than they are now. So when Jessie went right back to training, no one stood in her way.
But a year later, the effects of her injury became too great to ignore. She began to experience unexplained visual symptoms, dizziness, and brain fog. In her words, “everything sort of went flat.” As the symptoms increased, Jessie found herself disoriented whenever she would encounter bright lights or loud noises, even when they were in places familiar to her. Her disorientation grew so great that she quit going grocery shopping, preferring to stay at home and order food online so that she wouldn’t have to go out into a world that was increasingly overstimulating to her.
She did, of course, visit the doctor to see if her symptoms had a cause. But all the tests, scans and MRI’s performed by her doctor came back negative. Instead, he diagnosed Jessie with anxiety—an assessment that made little sense in the face of her outgoing, entrepreneurial nature. In the years since her skating career had ended, Jessie had worked with a couture handbag company, written scripts for six feature films and one children’s television series, flown all over the world to participate in various film festivals such as Sundance and TriBeCa, and served as managing editor to over 70 local magazines for communities in New York and Vermont.
In other words,
The only thing that could, in fact, was a second concussion.
The Invisible Illness
In the spring of 2015, in the midst of moving from one apartment to another, Jessie’s head collided with a ceiling basement wall.
In some ways, it was the best thing that could have happened to her. Rather than return to her previous neurologists, Jessie was referred to a specialist—a vision expert who was able to track the problems she had been having for the past 20 years to concussion.
Doctors frequently refer to concussion, as well as post-concussion syndrome, as “invisible illnesses.” The reason for this name is that it describes brain injuries that are not only difficult to detect, but difficult to rehabilitate. Post-concussion syndrome offers no obvious external signs of anything being wrong with the brain or the body. When there are no concrete symptoms to treat, many doctors are stumped.
Fortunately, Jessie’s vision specialist knew enough to give her the first steps toward real recovery.
“The doctor told me to take it easy and give my brain a rest. He said I wasn’t allowed to watch TV, go on the computer, text, or be around loud noises or bright lights. But the one thing I was allowed to do was to color!”
A Brain Rest Activity
Coloring helps to rehabilitate the brain’s broken pathways by making the individual concentrate specifically on visual information, without the added pressures of noise or intensity. Doctors often refer to it as a “brain rest” activity, but in recent years they have found that it does more than offer an antidote to overstimulation. It actually helps to rebuild the skill of “figure ground processing,” or the brain’s ability to process complex information, by asking the brain to make sense of visual information on a page.
For Jessie, coloring allowed her brain to regain strength in coordinating eye movement and visual tracking, without causing further energy imbalance in her brain. Over eleven weeks of therapy, she consistently worked on her coloring, choosing hues like blue and green, which offered a calming influence that gave her brain the perfect medium for healing.
The effect was so powerful that it triggered Jessie’s entrepreneurial radar. If she, as an adult, could experience these amazing effects from a simple coloring book, what could it do for children?
“Keep Your Head U[”
Jessie launched Kitanie Coloring Books, a company created to offer imaginative, inspiring illustrations to anyone suffering from an invisible illness, in 2009. Within months of her second concussion, she published One Big Gigantic Herd of Invisible Cosmic Zebras. Created especially to appeal to tweens, teenagers and young adults, the book features illustrations that combine folk art with psychedelic designs. The endearing cosmic creatures pictured in the book offer comforting words such as “Keep your head up, this too shall pass and if it doesn’t I’ll still love you.”
Despite being created with concussion patients in mind, Cosmic Zebras and the many other Kitanie books that followed it have garnered an enormous fan base of all ages. The books have received glowing reviews from parenting magazines and blogs, both for their imaginative illustrations and their inspiring messages.
The books’ release also coincides with the recent trend of adult coloring books. As the Atlantic recently reported,
“Several trend pieces about adult coloring books lump them in with other ‘childish’ activities that grown-ups are apparently engaging in to regress back to their simpler youth, like adult preschool and adult summer camp. But I think they fit better into the trend of meditation and mindfulness that’s been going for some time now, one response among many to the high levels of stress many adults are living with.”
In other words, even those far removed from childhood can benefit from the stress-reducing, creativity-boosting power of a Kitanie coloring book. With their organic, fluid imagery and their intentional messages of comfort and hope, these books ignite the imagination for anyone, at any age or level of health.
A Life-changing Discovery
These days, Jessie is treated regularly by Dr. Robert Nielson, a leading specialist in concussion therapy. As part of her ongoing vision therapy, she still makes coloring part of her daily routine.
“Spending the last couple of months coloring…has helped me to get my brain, and my life, back,” says Riley. “I knew that discovering this would be life-changing for me and now I wish for everyone who has ever had a concussion, or whoever gets a concussion in the future, to know there are solutions to heal their symptoms and there is hope.”