The Winter Months Warm-Me-Up


It goes without saying, winter is here and so are the long nights that come with it.

As a post concussion syndrome (PCS) survivor, these long nights have special significance.

Back in the early months of my PCS, the sun setting earlier in the day was something I initially welcomed. I thought, ‘Great, now everyone else will enjoy very dim lighting as much as I do!’ But as the days dragged on, I realized this wasn’t necessarily the case.

Julia in her concussion glasses
The blog post author, Julia, rocks her concussion sun glasses.

People without brain injuries tend to turn on artificial lights sooner and brighter when the darkness comes, which is not great for anyone struggling with light sensitivity. In addition to extra artificial lighting, snow can be intensely bright during the daylight and the frozen ground only amplifies the already brain-shatteringly loud sounds of city life.

All of this left my head pounding, eyeballs bulging, morale crumbling and general hopes of feeling ‘normal’ again, fleeting.

Winter is beautiful, don’t get me wrong. I love embracing the quietness of the streets of Toronto during a powdery snowfall.

But my morale got pretty darn low that winter I was dealing with strong PCS symptoms. Through it all, I learned coping mechanisms which I hope may help others with their  brain injury winter woes.

Hopefully, this post will also put a smile on your face, and give you some extra courage to lace up your boots and settle in for Canada’s often-dreaded winter!

For this post, since I think these points should be read by everyone dealing with a brain injury, I’ve taken to point form for your quicker, less symptom-inducing reading pleasure!

Dog looking up while walking in the snow
Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

Laugh all you want, my concussion glasses helped me out a lot! People would tell me that I was making a fashion statement, and while they never mentioned whether it was a good or bad statement, the glasses helped my head so I decided to take it as a compliment. Win-Win!


If you were to take a general poll of what people want for their lives, the most common answer would most likely be, ‘happiness’. Happiness is something that can be easily taken for granted and, in its absence, can be extraordinarily missed. In addition to the physical symptoms that come with a brain injury, it’s important to remember there are also emotional symptoms that can accompany feeling as crummy as an over-baked batch of cookies. Here is a list of some tricky emotions I’ve experienced and ideas for how to combat them:

Loneliness and Isolation 

  1. The OBIA Peer Support Program connects a person living with brain injury (or a caregiver) with a trained peer support mentor. You then receive about an hour of peer support over the phone or email for a year. (Please expect about a two week response time when initially contacting the program.) Find your local contact for the program, HERE and if you’re in Toronto contact BIST at: 647-990-1484 or

2. Monthly Brain Injury Support Groups at BIST:

3. Online Support Groups & Resources Outside Toronto

4. Other Options

  • Reach out to friends and family for support – whether it’s by telephone, email, video chat or visits – whatever you can handle.
  • Go for a walk, and have nice conversations with others who are out and about. Ask if you can pet a passerby’s dog.
  • Talk to animals – squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, cats, whatever tickles your fancy, it’s generally not seen as strange unless the animals talk back! (I love to compliment very robust squirrels on how amazingly prepared they look for winter.)
  • Make your home cozy and retreat-like (I have a string of warm yellow LED holiday lights that I lovingly refer to as my ‘snow lights’. They light up the corners of my apartment without providing too much light. Usually these are the only lights I have on in the evening and, who are we kidding, late afternoons too!)
Powder day! This snowboarder walks from the slopes to the bus stop
Photo by Jonny McNee on Unsplash


  • Meditate (It can be tough at first but give it a go!)
  • Try out some yoga, chair yoga is always an option and BIST’s February Social Learning is about Chair Yoga!
  • Listen to a podcast or stand-up comedy.
  • Read or listen to a good book. The one that really got me through my toughest winter was, ‘Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home’ by Jessica Fechtor.
  • Want to read about someone else’s experience? Here are two brain injury book lists with plenty of reading options:
  • Author Shireen Jeejeebhoy has written ‘Concussion Is Brain Injury’ and also has a blog.
  • Prefer a book with pictures? ‘A Caged Mind’ by May Mutter is a coffee table book that beautifully combines photography, body painting, and writing to tell the stories of the PCS survivors within its pages.
  • Make crafts or artwork (watercolours, drawing, colouring, DIY projects, card making, etc.)
  • Make an indoor garden or add some potted plants to your space.
  • Start a gratitude journal, this is an amazing way to focus on the best parts of your day, even if your gratitude is as simple as having eaten a tasty bowl of cereal, embrace the good wherever you can!
  • Take a bath and do your best to relax.
  • Listen to music (something that makes you happy.)
Julia's drawing of a house plant
In my search for less adrenaline-producing hobbies, I took up drawing this year and I’m proud to say I’m improving! This is one of my house plants.


  • Try cooking or baking something new (There are also tons of no-bake recipes out there and BIST’s Mind Yourself With Alison has some ideas of her own, HERE.)
  • Do a puzzle.
  • Learn something new – Guitar? Chess? Knitting? Sewing? Creative writing?
  • Play a board or video game (or part of one if necessary.)
  • Go outside and make snow angels.
  • Listen to Ted Talks.
  • Venture to your local library – the Toronto Public Library has tons of free programs which may peak your interest.
  • BIST’s Mind Yourself with Alison has more ideas how to relieve post-ABI boredom, HERE.

Afraid of slipping and falling outside?

  • Get some boots with a deep-treaded sole or use grip attachments to the soles of your existing shoes / boots. Shopping for something new or curious how well your current boots hold up? The University Health Network rates boots by slip resistance, HERE.
  • Use walking poles.
  • Check the weather and plan your outings accordingly.
  • Layer with hats, hood or a helmet. You can also try out a helmet hat – a special helmet that looks like a hat. You can find them by searching online for ‘helmet hat for brain injury’.
  • Walk with a buddy to help keep you on your feet (preferably someone without a brain injury.)

Worried about saying what you mean, and meaning what you say?

  • Try pausing to check in with how you feel before engaging in a new conversation.
  • If you’re feeling exhausted, it may unintentionally come across as anger or frustration in your voice. Take a deep breath, acknowledge how you’re feeling, and get yourself in a good frame of mind before answering someone.
  • Already said something you didn’t mean? It’s okay. Apologize and try again to say what you wanted, even if it takes a few attempts.
  • Can’t find the word you’re looking for? Try using a synonym or describe the word and ask if the person can help you pinpoint the word you’re looking for. If you can’t think of it, move on and try to carry on with the conversation anyway, odds are the word will pop into your head once you’re no longer putting pressure on yourself to find it.
The author Julia holding her chocolate mousse cake
Excited to taste my Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake! Since it’s made in three steps, you can do one step each day and make it in three days. Also, notice my snow lights in the background.  


Having a brain injury can be exhausting! Before my injury, I never truly appreciated the amount of energy the brain uses to process information and consequently react. During conversations, watching people gesture, processing their words, and attempting to come up with an appropriate and timely response (ha, yeah right!), seemed to drain all of my energy. Active listening became inactive listening even though I was trying my very best! Talking on the phone was a slight improvement but still very difficult. I felt isolated and alone.

When I could, I would get my partner to take me to the countryside where there was less city commotion going on and I could get some fresh air. Being a passenger in the car while the sun was low in the sky and the sunlight flickered through the trees was awful and triggered some seriously cruel headaches, dizziness and, worse, nausea. Even upon arrival to the middle of nowhere, the snow was mind numbingly bright, and I was afraid of slipping and falling (but at least this was less likely in the snow than on the water-covered ice that coats the city). The energy that it took to lift my feet just a few inches higher were monumentally exhausting. I was losing hope of ever feeling ‘normal’ again.

Accept that you might not be perfect and that’s ok

Because all of these tasks required extra processing and therefore a whole heck of a lot more energy, my personal hygiene suffered. The amount of energy it took to take a ‘simple’ shower required an hour long recovery. Shaving? I had poor balance and shaky hands, so forget that. Scrubbing my body? Not possible, no energy for that either. Closing my eyes? Sure, if I wanted to risk a tumble out of the shower (I can’t tell you how many times the shower curtain saved me from crashing onto the floor). Washing my hair into a lather? Only possible if all of the stars aligned.  Did I feel gross? Yes, but I felt gross all of the time from my symptoms so it didn’t make much of a difference to me.

Blinding snow?

  • Get a pair of sunglasses that make you feel wonderful. Quick tip: when buying sunglasses, try out different colours of lenses and styles of glasses, your brain may be more pleased with some than others. If you’re still having trouble finding a pair that both you and your brain like, see an optometrist, ideally one well versed with head injury.
  • Time when you go outside.
  • Utilize the natural light/darkness while you can.

Flying snow yet another thing to process?

  • Time your outings according to the weather.
  • Wear an eye mask or anything cover your eyes while being a passenger in the car.
  • Slow down so you can take time to process what you need to.

Taking more energy to walk around?

  • Take lots of breaks! (Ever wonder what the view is like from every bench on the block? Wonder no more! Sit down, relax, and enjoy the moment.)
  • Take public transit.
  • In Toronto, the underground PATH can be great for avoiding slippery winter conditions but comes with its own challenges such as fluorescent lighting, lots of people and the possibility of getting lost. For your information, here’s a map.
Picture of a small knitted snowperson

At least winter also brings some cheer and cuteness! If you’re feeling crafty, you could try making something like Frosty!

Notice how it’s louder outside once the ground is frozen?

  • Layer your ears like an onion (hair, hat, hood, another hood, and another hood – whatever helps.)
  • Wear earphones or earbuds with a visible cord. I wore ear buds with no sound coming through to block out some of the noise of the city. I did this instead of ear plugs so others could tell that I wasn’t purposely ignoring them.

Is shovelling snow stealing all of your energy?

  • The City of Toronto has a snow clearing service for people with disabilities and / or people who are older than 65. Find out more about the program, HERE. If you need help with the application, contact BIST at: 416-830-1485 or
  • Ask for help from friends, families or neighbours.
  • Hire a laneway clearing service.
  • Shovel a little bit at a time.

Weather patterns getting you down?

When I was in the thick of my head injury, the weather often dictated how my head felt. Any big pressure swings and it would be a tough week with migraines and fatigue. I know I’m not the only one out there who has felt this, so if you do too, here are my simple tips but sorry, unfortunately I can’t control the weather.

  • Check the weather days in advance.
  • Plan your schedule according to the weather.
  • Pace yourself extra diligently to get back to your baseline.
  • Be kind to yourself!

Thanks for Reading

I hope that you smiled at least once while reading this, even if it was just to laugh at how silly my concussion glasses look on me! I rocked that fashion statement for about a year and a half, so trust me when I say that it doesn’t bother me.

I look back at that picture now, a few years later and, I like to think a few years wiser, while I’m still learning from my PCS , I’m proud of myself and grateful for how far I’ve come and for how much I’ve learned along the way. I hope some of my experiences resonate with you and that some suggestions may help, even just the slightest bit.

Winter is just a season that comes every year. Sure it can be cold, darker and brighter, magical and miserable, but it’s really not so bad. It always helps me to remember, that it’s not what happens to you, but how you handle, learn, and grow from it that really counts.

Julia Renaud is a very talkative ABI survivor with a passion for learning new things, trying new activities, and meeting new people – all of which have led her to writing this column. When not chatting someone’s ear off, Julia can be found outside walking her dog while occasionally talking to him, of course!   






Safety and winter recreation

By Richard HaskellSkating, Toronto, February, 2014

Winter doesn’t have to be all cold hands and aggravation. It can be an enjoyable time of year if you choose to get out and engage in any number of outdoor activities. But never forget the basic rules of common sense. Wear helmets when skiing and snowmobiling and consider them when skating or tobogganing as well. You can be sure the athletes taking part in the winter Olympics at Sochi will all be sporting them – and those being worn by two Canadian skiers will have a particularly special meaning. Brad Spence’s helmet was designed by Gillian O’Blenes, a 17-year-old cancer patient, while Roz Groenewoud hopes to embroider a sticker with the name “Sarah” insider her helmet, honouring her friend Sarah Burke, a freestyle skier and four-time X Games champion who died in a skiing accident in January 2012.

As recently as 30 years ago, it was uncommon to see someone skiing, snowboarding or skating wearing a helmet. “Overly cautious’ might have been the reaction. But with the ever- growing awareness of concussions and the potential for brain injuries, helmets have almost become the norm – and rightly so.

Skiing and snowboarding

On Dec. 29, 2013, racing car driver extraordinaire Michael Schumacher made headlines when he sustained a head injury while skiing in the French Alps. A month later, he remains in an induced coma, and there are definite concerns he may never make a full recovery. Yes, he was wearing a helmet, but if hadn’t been, it’s very likely he wouldn’t have survived at all.

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What is the law about clearing ice and snow from your property?

person shovelling snow

If you could sum up winter in Toronto so far, the words cold and icy would be top of mind.  Walking on city sidewalks can treacherous, but did you know there are by-laws and fines for not keeping your sidewalk clear and safe for others.

According to Municipal Code Chapter 719:

Every owner or occupant of any building must, within 12 hours after any fall of snow, rain or hail has ceased, clear away and completely remove snow and ice from any sidewalk on any highway in front of, alongside or at the rear of the building.

After the removal of snow and ice, if any portion of the sidewalk becomes slippery from   apply to the sidewalk ashes, sand, salt or some other suitable material so as to completely cover the slippery surface.

Failure to do so could result in a fine of $125.00.

If you are over the age of 65 or have a disability or health condition that restricts your ability to remove your snow, you may be eligible for snow removal service.  Visit for more information.


A great adventure: A BIST member’s story

Sarah Briggs was a nationally-ranked skier competing at an elite level when a crash on a hill in Quebec altered the course of her life.  In the second of two winter-activity themed stories by BIST members living with the affects of acquired brain injury, Sarah shares her inspirational story about her road to recovery.

Photo by rchughtai/Flickr

I can say things will get better, but the truth is that they only get better up to a certain point, after which you learn to live with the “new” you.  Do your best, try not to compare yourself to others, your journey is your own to follow and a great adventure

– Sarah Briggs.

I sustained my injury at the age of 19, on January 13, 1994 in a downhill ski race at Mont. Saint Anne Resort in Quebec.  Travelling at the approximate speed of 100-120km an hour with almost flawless technique, I was poised to win the race or at least finish in the top 3. Then, one of my ski bindings released in a rough section of the course.

The next part happened so fast that I only have vague recollections, and rely mostly on what was told to me by others who were watching the fall. The hill drops dramatically immediately following where I had lost my first ski, a section of the course called “the gun barrel”.  My other ski popped off and shot approximately thirty feet in the air, or so I’m told, and I basically did a face plant in the snow, sliding down the entire steep pitch on my face, finally coming to a complete stop at the bottom when the incline flattens out.  I was wearing a helmet but no face guard.

According to a coach who was watching in that section, I stood up, so they all thought I was fine. But then I sat back down again.

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Adapting to ski again: A BIST member’s story

Think skiing requires you to have both feet on the ground? Think again. In the first of two winter-activity themed stories by BIST members living with the affects of acquired brain injury, Leslie Bolt shares how she stays active with sit-skiing. A paralympic event, adaptive or sit-skiing allows people with acquired brain injury and others with disabilities to enjoy the slopes.

Leslie Bolt sit-skiing in Breckenridge, Colorado, 2003. Photo courtesy Leslie Bolt.
Leslie Bolt sit-skiing in Maine, March, 2011. Photo courtesy Leslie Bolt.


I admit it, though I had practiced in rehab, when I was fitted in my sit-ski “Mountainman,” loaded on the chairlift and sandwiched between my husband and an adaptive instructor, I was very, very nervous, but excited too.

I had spent weeks and months in hospital and even more time in rehab and while I had been making gains in finding my balance and stability, I had to wonder what in the world was I doing creeping up the Colorado Mountain Range strapped to a chair mounted on two skis? Had I lost my mind? I had been pretty much living indoors and practising taking steps; slow and focused steps. Now, here I was, about to ski.

At the top, we unload and make a turn down the off-load ramp and with my instructors behind me, down we go.

‘Lean into the slope, turn the ski, look downhill, feel the grade switch, weight shift, find your centre, look downhill, repeat, breathe. Don’t forget to breathe.’

I look around at the beautiful Colorado Mountain Range and see Paul, Rob and Charlotte down at the crest of the next overpass. I ski down the next pass, rejoicing in the cold mountain air biting my cheeks, the snow spray stinging my neck.

At the bottom, I smile at my friends and as I catch my breath I happily receive their compliments: “Good for you Les! You were really ripping it up.”

See Leslie carving up the slopes in 2010 at Copper Mountain, Colorado.

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Winter driving Q&A with Scott Marshall — The Safe Driver

Winter driving on the Danforth, Toronto.
Vehicles and a pedestrian navigate downtown Toronto's roads during a snowstorm on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. Photo by Kara Dillon.

In wet, heavy spurts, accompanied by chilling cold, winter is making its presence known in the GTA.

Yet Scott Marshall, Director of Training for Young Drivers of Canada,  says every year drivers seem to be caught unprepared for navigating on snowy roads.

“For the most part people aren’t putting on winter tires, don’t have washer fluid,” says Marshall, who has been a judge on 3 seasons of Canada’s Worst Driver on Discovery Network and gives driving advice through his blog, The Safe Driver. “I would hesitate to guess right now how many drivers have a snow brush in their car.

“A lot of people belong to what I refer to as ‘the won’t happen to me club’” Marshall adds. “They watch other people slide out of control, watch them slide into the ditch and say ‘wow, look at that driver’ and meanwhile they are doing the exact same things the other driver was doing and eventually it is going to happen to them if they don’t change their driving habits.”

To help make sure it doesn’t happen to you, we spoke to Marshall about how to stay out of trouble on the roads during the winter months and what to do if you find yourself in a tricky spot.

Seven burning questions for icy, cold winter driving

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Winter activities: Having fun, keeping your head safe

With Sidney Crosby’s troubles with concussions playing out in the national media, Canadians have been made more aware of the importance of protecting their heads from injuries.

As the temperatures drop and people start participating in winter sports, most wouldn’t hesitate to put on a helmet before playing a game of hockey. But perhaps not every parent or child thinks to protect their head before sledding down a hill, an activity that also has its risk, experts point out.

“Head and brain injury can be the most devastating types of injuries,” said Paula Tymchyshyn, national program coordinator for ThinkFirst Canada. “We’re really focused on trying to make sure that we’re preventing those [type of] injuries so that kids can stay healthy and active for their entire life.”

Thankfully, there are plenty of safety helmets available for all variety of sports. To help with selecting the right one and wearing it properly this winter, BIST spoke to experts at ThinkFirst and the Canadian Standards Association.

Choosing the right helmet for the right activity

Helmets are engineered differently for different sports.  Some helmets are only made for one activity like skateboarding or baseball helmets, while many winter sports helmets are multi-use and can be used for skiing, snowboarding and tobogganing.  Hockey helmets can be used for hockey, skating or tobogganing. Helmets can also be classified for either single or multiple impacts.  Ski and snowboard helmets are only meant to sustain one impact, then should be replaced before returning to the hill.  Hockey helmets can protect against multiple impacts before they need to be replaced.

Making the grade

The Canadian Standards Association gives safety certifications in order to tell  consumers that the product/helmet meets Canadian quality standards. Anthony Toderian, manager of corporate affairs at CSA, said that Canadian standards are specific to Canadian winters and are designed to protect consumers from impact on snowy or icy terrain rather than from rocks and trees.  He also said that American or European standard-helmets are safe and that “most major brands, such as CCM or Bauer, because of liability, will stand behind their products.”

The graphic below, courtesy of ThinkFirst Canada, shows the type of helmet you’ll want for different activities along with the CSA standard.


Nicely fitted

Buying the right helmet is only the first step. ThinkFirst works to educate people to ensure that they fit their helmets correctly.  It touts the “2V1 rule” to fit helmets, which dictates that there must be room for two fingers between your eyebrows and the helmet on your forehead.  The straps of your helmet should form a “V” shape under your ears, then join to clip at the chin. You should also be able to fit one finger in between your helmet strap and your chin.

“2V1.” Graphic courtesy ThinkFirst Canada.


Can’t protect you if you’re not wearing it

Furthermore, having the proper helmet that fits perfectly won’t protect you unless you’re wearing it. Hockey Canada mandates that all players wear CSA certified helmets.  The Canadian Ski Council also has a policy that recommends helmet use for both alpine skiers and snowboarders. But skiing, snowboarding, and hockey are not the only winter sports that require helmet use.

“When you think about sliding down a hill at high speed on a GT racer,” said Tymchyshyn, “that’s a really dangerous thing.”

Both she and Toderian advocate wearing a helmet while sledding and tobogganing as well.

They also agreed that people need to get the necessary training to participate in winter sports safely. The dangers of injuring those around you can become a greater risk than injuring yourself if the proper precautions are not taken.

“It is very important that people take measures to protect themselves,” said Toderian.

If you suffer a concussion

Although helmets do protect against brain injuries, people can still sustain concussions while wearing a helmet.  Signs of a concussion can arise after experiencing a collision or fall.

Signs that someone may have sustained a concussion include dizziness, nausea, headache, confusion, increased irritability, amnesia and blurred vision.

If any of these signs are present it is best to stop play immediately and to speak with a doctor.  There are strict guidelines to follow after sustaining a concussion before returning to play and medical supervision is necessary.

Melissa Myers, BIST member