“It’s the hardest thing,” the recently retired NASCAR superstar tells PEOPLE at his 300-acre home in Mooresville, North Carolina, where he lives with his interior designer wife, Amy, and their 6-month-old daughter, Isla Rose.
“It’s so frustrating trying to explain the symptoms,” he continues, “because I can’t think of anything that I’ve ever experienced to compare it to.”
It’s like cobwebs, the 44-year-old says — a “foggy feeling,” and nausea and dizziness — that comes after his brain has been violently jostled, smacked or spun around while he raced.
Earnhardt Jr.’s history of concussions goes back nearly as long as his career in racing, a sport he was raised in alongside his father, champion Dale Earnhardt Sr.
The athlete believes his first concussion in a wreck was in 1998 and he estimates he’s suffered 20 to 25 in the decades since. But he kept nearly all of them secret at the time, thinking that “getting your bell rung” was a manageable risk of racing.
No more: Earlier this month he released the memoir Racing to the Finish, opening up about his years of injury, keeping them hidden and the success of the medical care he finally sought.
• For more on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussions, recovery and life away from the track with his growing family, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.
“I think that any time you share a secret, you’re a little nervous about people’s reaction to it,” he says. “But my wife, she lived it, she saw it, and so I had people in my corner if it got a bad reaction. I had the people that mattered. The people that mattered knew the story.”
Most importantly Earnhardt Jr. hopes his candor about his health journey inspires other concussion patients to do for so long what he did not: get treatment — because it works.
Already, he’s heard from people who were motivated to do just that, after learning what he went through.
“It makes me feel so good, because they might not otherwise had that initiative to go or felt that there was help,” he says.
His low moments — and how he recovered
Earnhardt Jr. says that, for too long, he believed concussions didn’t pose a permanent problem: “You never were worried about it. It was a bruise that would heal.”
A terrible crash during a tire test in Kansas in 2012 revealed to him the truth of such trauma: that the effects of concussions can be lasting, debilitating. After a particularly violent (and fiery) wreck on a Texas track in 2014, he began keeping a secret iPhone diary of his symptoms.
But 2016 was the truest test. After the hits had grown too many — the effects on his body and mind too great — Earnhardt Jr. was forced to sit out half of a season in rehab under the care of Dr. Michael Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
With a regimen of physical therapy-like exercises designed to push his brain to its limits, Collins had helped Earnhardt Jr. quickly recover from his 2012 concussions, when he only missed two races. But the next four years of collisions (as well as Earnhardt Jr.’s secrecy and gnawing anxiety about what he was really doing to himself) made his condition much more complicated.
Plagued by unstable moods, bouts of queasiness and severe balance problems — barely able to walk straight and unable to cross a parking lot or climb stairs without difficulty — Earnhardt Jr. says his judgment about his own health had become compromised.
Then, at last, he came clean to Dr. Collins and his family about what was going on inside his head. And Collins told him they would fix it. Only Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t so sure.
“I didn’t believe that I would get healthy,” he recalls. “I didn’t believe, I mean I love Micky, my doctor, but he’s like positive, positive, positive ‘This is gonna work. … You’re gonna be fine.’ “
“In my mind I’m thinking, ‘I love how positive he is, but I’m not as confident,’ ” Earnhardt Jr. continues. “And I never was, I never thought I could get to where I am today physically. I’m really amazed that the treatment is as effective as it is.”
With Amy by his side, pushing him not to settle for an incomplete recovery during his months-long rehab, Earnhardt Jr. returned for a final NASCAR season last year.
He says he’s back to feeling 100 percent. And though he’s no longer racing full-time (occasionally he’ll get behind the wheel, to “scratch the itch”), he’s probably busier than he’s ever been, including working as an NBC Sports analyst.
His focus is his family, not his health — and not what might happen to him in the future.
“Micky told me that if I ever did have any issues that he could fix it,” Earnhardt Jr. says, “and I believe in that.”