In 2017, Canadian-born singer and performing artist Kiesza was in a car accident in Toronto that left her with a traumatic brain injury.For two years she has worked on her recovery and is now releasing new music through her own record label, Zebra Spirit Tribe. But the recovery journey is far from over. Kiesza spoke with Brain Injury Canada about her injury, her struggles, and how she moves forward each day.
After the accident
Kiesza acquired a brain injury the day she was in the car accident– but she didn’t know it.
“I knew nothing about brain injury. I knew a little about concussions, but what I knew wasn’t accurate,” she says. “After the accident, I couldn’t tell what was going on, and no one around me knew anything. I got out of the car, and I was stunned. There was a ringing in my ears, and my balance was off. People asked me if I needed to go to the hospital. I said I didn’t know.”
“I walked home that night, and I don’t know how but I got on my flight to New York the next day. It was when we started to land the pressure changed that I started to feel like something was wrong,” says Kiesza. “It was about 5 days of worsening symptoms before I went to the emergency room in New York. They told me I had a concussion and to take one day off work.”
“It’s crazy, because you feel things days and months after the injury. It escalates, and your brain is running into turbulence,” Kiesza explains. “I flew to Denmark and did a show. I almost cancelled but it was an important show. I completely collapsed after. I knew something was definitely wrong.”
“After that, I cancelled everything: it was the end of my career at the time.”
The early stages of recovery
For the next 6 months, Kiesza spent much of her time alone, limiting her activities due to nausea, balance issues, and many other symptoms that made activities of daily living difficult She ended up moving to Los Angeles to be close to her cousin, who has a background in neurology and was able to offer support.
“Everyday my life was recovery. I was experimenting with therapies. It was painful; I was nauseous and dizzy all the time,” Kiesza says.
Kiesza didn’t just have physical symptoms. “I had trouble controlling my emotions. I had to work through a lot of fear. I was scared of lots of things. I was scared of washing the dishes!” Today, Kiesza still struggles with nausea, balance, and even reading. “I can only do one to two chapters a day, and I really have to track the page,” Kiesza says. “I’m still trying. I get tired – my brain crashes, which is terrible. You have to work a lot to repair your brain. But I never lost my will.”
She always had the will, but sometimes it was difficult to find the way.
“Every brain injury is different, and you don’t know how things are going to go. And no one does. Everything was a mystery going forward,” explains Kiesza. Many of her doctors and therapists were open about the fact that they couldn’t predict what would happen next with her recovery.
While Kiesza did have some assistance from family and friends, for the most part she was on her own. “It was a longer journey on my own,” she says, adding that it makes a difference having people behind you. But it’s also difficult explaining to people what’s happening to you.
“People ask me why I didn’t do something or tell people what was going on [at the time]. My response was that my brain was injured. I didn’t have the capacity to think about it, to realize what was going on,” she says. “I couldn’t think my way through it.”
“What was really helpful was I had a neuroscientist explain what was happening to my brain – I got it on a scientific level and it helped me figure out what was real and what wasn’t,” Kiesza said. For her, understanding that she was feeling a certain way or reacting to a certain thing because of her brain injury helped her focus on her recovery.
What life looks like after a brain injury
Early on, Kiesza knew that things were never going to be the same for her. “There’s no way I was coming back the same. I grew a lot,” she says. “You know when you look back at things that at the time were terrible, and you go ‘oh that wasn’t so bad?’ Looking back at this scares me. I wonder, ‘how did I make it through that?’”
Today Kiesza still undergoes various therapies and uses tools and activities to further her recovery. “I currently use brain plasticity practices. Consistency is really important,” Kiesza says. This involves doing an activity a little bit everyday, consistently using your brain. One example is reading.
“I try to read every day. I get a feeling when I can’t stay connected to the page, but I try to do a little more. It’s like neurological tightrope walking,” she explains, adding that she listens to her body when it’s time to stop.
“I do it with arm exercising too because I have trouble with my arms and I want to get back to performing,” she adds.
Kiesza had a lot of issues with sleep after her injury, with many of those issues persisting today. “Waking up isn’t pleasant. I don’t wake up happy for the day. I wake up and go, ‘okay, I have to do it,” she says. “I was having a lot of trouble sleeping. I would sleep for 18 hours and wake up exhausted. They did brain scans and that part of my brain wasn’t calming down. Neurofeedback helped with that.” Neurofeedback is when brainwaves are monitored to determine brain activity. This information is then used to inform treatment methods.
While she still undergoes therapies and treatments, there are lots of things Kiesza does on her own that have helped her cope with the effects of her brain injury.
“I learned how to say no,” she said, adding that admitting to her limitations has kept her out of situations she knew would be too much. “I became aware of negative people around me. That negativity brings stress, and I cut out a lot of that,” she said. Through that process, she has developed a network of people who bring a lot of support. “I’ve learned a lot about self-protection while still being open to people,” she says.
Kiesza now spends much more time checking in on how she is feeling. As a singer and performer with high-energy songs and choreography, Kiesza often had to push her mind and her body during her grueling schedule. “When I was performing before the injury, I was putting it all out there. It was hardcore, and I never gave myself the time to think,” Kiesza said.
Since her injury, Kiesza engages in a form of mediation to help center herself and her emotions. “I don’t mediate by sitting in a room. It’s kind of always going on inside me,” she explains. I find a place of calm, because mood swings and stress crash my head. It’s hard, and it’s something I constantly work at.”
As a public figure, a performer, and now a business owner, this constant attention to self helps Kiesza with daily stresses, which can cause her symptoms to worsen. “Stress is like a lion coming at you. Big or small stress, it’s all the same to me. I have to remind myself what is actually happening,” she explains. “It’s a lot of conversation with myself.”
Kiesza has also embraced a new diet to help manage her feelings of nausea and contribute to her overall health. “Diet changes helped. No alcohol, no caffeine and no grains,” Kiesza says. She admits that making those changes were challenging. “I thought I was going to go crazy, but it really made a lot of difference for me.”
Please note: dietary changes should only be made in consultation with your healthcare provider.
When asked what helped the most in her recovery that could help others, Kiesza had 3 answers: consistency, help from others, and patience. “You have to consistently work at it [getting better],” Kiesza says. “Have someone there to help you – someone who is going to be honest, no sugar-coating”
Understanding patience also helped Kiesza move forward. “I wanted to control my healing. When I surrendered to patience, the process changed. I [realized I] can help my healing, but I can’t control it.”
Today, Kiesza is jumping back into her music career. It’s not the same as it was before, but she’s grateful for that.
“I’ve reconnected to the storyteller in me. My lyrics have opened up honestly,” she explains. Writing the songs is still a challenge. “I wasn’t able to write for very long periods of time, but now I’m good at writing quickly before I get tired.”
Kiesza has also started her new record label, Zebra Spirit Tribe. “I was worried,” she says about starting the label. “It’s a lot more work and an uphill battle, but in a good way.”
“It takes bravery, and I take bravery with me throughout. I had a second chance at life, and I’m not going to take the path of least resistance,” she says.
The name for her record label came through an experience early in her recovery. “My friend recommended an animal spirit healer,” Kiesza shares. “I was open-minded, and I was trying everything [to help with the injury]. The healer did a lot of body work, so at least I’d get a good massage,” she said. “She was working down my back and stopped at my lower back and said the zebra spirit was speaking to her. There was a void there, something to do with my brain injury.”
For Kiesza, addressing the problem in her back helped her feel better and aided in her recovery. When the time came to name her label, the choice seemed appropriate.
Kiesza has plans for a hybrid album to release later in 2020, and will continue working on her recovery, her music and her business. “I’m now in a place where I can put out a lot more, and I’m dissecting my journey,” Kiesza says. “It’s not something I always like to go back to,” she says, but acknowledges that, “my story has a lot of hope in it.”
That hope is what Kiesza wants others to take away with them. “The injury changed the way I viewed my life,” she says. “It’s the hardest thing to do. It’s the hardest thing I ever did,” she says of recovery and embracing her new life. “Even though it feels like the worst, it could be an opportunity for growth,” she says. For Kiesza, those silver linings made all the difference.