Mind-brain-body-stress connections

I’ve been reading Robert Scaer’s book The Body Bears the Burden, about how the brain and the body interact in times of stress and trauma. It is absolutely fascinating reading, and I’m surprised it’s not a best-seller. It really clears up a lot of confusion for me and gives great insight into how the body’s experiences can shape the brain’s activity. He talks about the fight/flight response and the body’s instinctive freeze response, too. I’ll have to write more about it, when I go through it again. My head’s kind of whirling right now.

One thing that I immediately got… After reading just a bit of his book, I can now let myself off the hook for freezing “like a deer in headlights” when I’ve been in situations of high-threat. I am usually pretty hard on myself for being a ‘wuss’ when I freeze up in times of intensity. It doesn’t happen all the time, but now and then it does, and then I tear myself a new ___ (well, you know) for days after, beating myself up for not speaking up, not stepping up, not being as capable as I would have liked to have been. Turns out, I don’t necessarily have any control over freezing up. It’s instinct. Instinct that’s designed to keep me alive.

Yeah, I’ll have to write more about this later. It also ties into my paper about A Perilous Relief, which I’m in the process of researching. (See the link on the left for a current table of contents that will take you to what I’ve written so far.) There’s only one problem — I have to keep going back over it to re-read sections, because my attention span leaves a little to be desired… but I don’t realize I stopped understanding what I just read, until a few pages past the point where my brain stopped parsing the information.

Apparently, according to my neuropsych, this is not uncommon with TBI. So, I’ll just have to factor it into my research and leave myself plenty of time to digest everything I’m taking in. Lucky for me, it’s fascinating stuff, so I don’t mind taking my time with it. I don’t mind at all.

Head injuries make a big difference

I’ve been looking around a lot, lately, at all sorts of different materials — in books as well as online — about how the brain and the body interact with each other. The gray mass inside our heads is getting more and more press, as people pay closer attention to the after-effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and hear about how so many vets are affected by TBI.

I can’t believe we had to have two wars to figure out that TBI — whether it’s open head or closed head wound, whether it’s mild or severe — can have a substantial impact on people’s lives after the fact.

I can’t believe we don’t know more about this. People have been getting hit on the head since time immemorial. Why is it we’re only starting to take it seriously now? People have been recovering from blasts for generations. Why is it that we’re only starting to study it now? What is up with us, anyway?

I am also more than a little incredulous that the human race — which is defined by its brain — doesn’t know more about this thing that everybody has. I mean, come on people. What’s taken us so long to start paying attention to this common organ of ours? And why does it take war and injury and extreme circumstances to perk up our attention sufficiently to realize we don’t know nearly enough about this thing called the human brain?

What is up with that?

I mean, so many different societal ills can be traced back to head injury — domestic violence, violence in general, social dysfunction, emotional problems, even mental illness, financial woes, crime, illness… there are just so many ways head injuries can totally screw us up, and an awful lot of people experience them — check the stats on the left side of this blog, if you’re not convinced.

Head injuries do have an impact. A big one. And as our tens of thousands of troops return from Iraq over the coming 18 months, we’re probably going to be seeing even more impact — not to mention a whole lot of PTSD fallout throughout this country. I’m trying to be hopeful, but I must say I’m worried.

I just hope we can figure out that head injuries matter, and that PTSD is something worth treating, before we have to learn too many lessons the really hard way.

The best cure for self-pity

Just when I’m starting to really succumb to the poor-me’s, I get an excellent reminder of what I really have going for me. It’s true, being a multiple MTBI survivor hasn’t made my life any easier, and I do have a lot of issues I need to overcome. But I’m also highly functional, I have full use of my body, I’m not laid up in a hospital or rehab, and I’m able to fend for myself.

My life isn’t perfect, by any stretch, but it’s a far sight better than it might have turned out, had my falls and injuries been worse. I really believe that I was divinely spared a lot of disaster over the course of my life — for what reason, I’m not sure. I’ve come close — so close — to being badly hurt, attacked, arrested, institutionalized, even abducted (when I was a kid and wasn’t very prudent about whom to talk to and how to interact with people)… not to mention sued and fired and a lot of other things people could do to me that would really mess up my life. Time after time, when I think back, I’ve narrowly escaped serious damage, literally through no effort of my own.

And I wonder, why was I spared? Why am I walking around in okay shape, after those car accidents, those falls, those attacks? Why am I able to walk through life on my own steam, when so many others are unable to do so? Why have I been given so much and allowed to keep so much of what I could (and perhaps should) have lost along the way?

What makes me any better than, say, the thousands of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have really severe injuries — some of which cannot be detected from outside their heads?

What gives me the right to live as fully as I do, when others who experience the kinds of car accidents I was in are watching their lives fall to pieces before them, unable to think, remember, function, or even walk around a grocery store without sunglasses on?

What can possibly justify the fact that I’ve managed to keep my house, my family, my car, my job(s), even in the face of a debilitating head injury? What makes me so deserving, so special, so… worthy of all this?

I just don’t know. I look around me at the other folks who have sustained head injuries – from mild to severe – and I marvel at their resilience. I’m not sure I could hang in there the way they have. I look at the pictures and read the accounts and try to put myself in the shoes of folks who have to overcome not only the loss of their memory and their life savings, but also their most basic bodily functions.

And I am both humbled and chastised. The problems that I have — the slowed processing speed, the lousy short-term memory, the inability to concentrate on things longer than half an hour at a time, the chronic pain, the sensory sensitivities, the temper flares, etc. — as challenging as they may be, still allow me to move about the world on my own steam. They may keep me from being fully functional, but they don’t prevent me from looking and acting fully functional (which in our superficial world, is 3/4 of the battle). And as rough as looking for more work may be, the fact that I actually can look for more work, is a gift I mustn’t take for granted.

Who can say why I was spared a worse fate?

Who can say why I was knocked out for only a few minutes, rather than a few hours?

Who can say why my fall out of that tree in 1980 didn’t break my back?

Who can say why the hits I took in high school sports weren’t more serious?

Who can say why my car accidents derailed me for a shorter time than others’ do?

Who can say why I was able to hop up after my fall in 2004 and say, “I’m okay… I’m good,” and get on with my life — even if the getting was a lot less good than it was prior to my fall?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. And there’s this little voice in my head that’s warning me away from comparing myself — favorably or unfavorably — with others and their situations. We all have our challenges, and we all have our limits, and it’s not really for us to judge which is better or worse, which is easier or harder, or even if we deserve what we got.

All I know is, things haven’t been easy for me. But they haven’t been as hard as they could have been. I’ve been spared, and while I do wonder why I rate that, the bottom line is that my difficulties have made it possible for me to understand what it’s like to struggle terribly with things that others cannot see. I know, first-hand, what it’s like to be lost and alone and afraid and totally invisible to the rest of the world. I know what it’s like to live, day after day, wondering if I’m going to lose everything because of some mysterious difficulty I can’t put my finger on. I know what it’s like to be abandoned by people who were supposed to help me, and treated like shit by mean-spirited people. I know what it’s like to be preyed upon because someone senses I am at a disadvantage in life.

And since I know first-hand what all this is like… AND I am still pretty high functioning, I’m in a really great position to help. My brain is broken, sure. But my brilliant mind won’t quit. And since I can write and use this blog and I know how to get the word out online about this TBI stuff, it puts me in a really great position to educate and inspire and hopefully assist others.

God, but this world can be a lonely, confusing, depressing place. But in the worst of times, it’s so very important to identify our strengths and our gifts and pitch in to help others who are in need. I haven’t the faintest idea why I have been spared the fate of so many others like me, who had the same types of experiences but have it much worse. But it’s not for me to know.

All I can know is, I’m a survivor (dammit!), and I have abilities and talents and resolve that I can put to good use for others. I have an extra hour or two in my day that I can spend blogging before I go to work. I have a job that lets me grab a few minutes, here and there, througout the course of my day to examine my life and figure out what works — and what doesn’t — with regard to my broken brain. I have been given  wonderful gifts of resiliency, determination, stubborn faith, insatiable curiosity, and the ability to overlook my own personal pain — physical and emotional — in the service of a cause greater than myself.

I know how to function in this life, in spite of a long history of brain injuries and the personal/physical/social/emotional/financial complications that arise from them. I’ve devised coping strategies (usually from sink-or-swim situations) that have really worked for me. I’ve figured out how to find jobs and stay employed, how to make money and pay for big-ticket items, how to appear functional in the world, how to interact with people well enough to get by, how to support my memory and work with my uncooperative body, and more. I’ve had to face down a lot of real challenges, but somehow I’ve managed to overcome them. And I love to write… so what better position could I be in, than to blog about it all and hopefully toss someone a little help from my own personal experience?

So, rather than sitting around and feeling unworthy and useless and undeserving because I’m able to function well, while other flounder and founder, I think I’ll just get on with my life, get on with my day, and use what I learn for the benefit of others.

God knows, we can all use a little help. And what a shame it would be, if I were the only one who benefitted from the lessons I’ve learned!

Add Your Name to the Open Letter to the President

I just found this over at the Sgt. Sam Nichols TBI recovery blog:

Over the past year and a half, my daughter Erin has spent 8 to 14 hours a day in various military hospitals at the bedside of her husband Sam, a US Marine severely injured in Iraq by a roadside bomb.  It has become Erin’s dream to go back to school to become a speech therapist so that she can help Sam and other wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars learn to speak again.  She hopes to one day work in a veterans hospital.  One of the provisions of the new GI Bill is the option to allow servicemembers to transfer their GI Bill education funding to a spouse or dependent.  But—the military has been dragging its feet on getting the regulations in place, so servicemembers are still waiting for that benefit.  The Obama Administration can and must get the bureaucracy moving and make this benefit a reality.

In the coming months, President Obama has a unique opportunity to make a series of critical decisions impacting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Sign the open letter urging him to enact these four critical policies in his first 100 days:

    · Ensure that veterans don’t have to fight for funding for hospitals and clinics.

    · Prioritize veterans in the economic stimulus package. (Note: It may be a little late for this, but it’s still a good idea.)

    · Implement GI Bill transferability.

    · Aggressively address troops’ mental health injuries.

Add your name to the open letter here.

I just did

I may need to find another job…

This is really bumming me out. It just sucks. In another few weeks, I may be looking for another job, uprooting myself from the place I’ve been at for the past eight months, and transitioning into another company, position, and whole new group of people to figure out.

It doesn’t make me happy. And I hate being in this situation, but I have to do what I have to do.

Basically, the place where I’m working now wants me to go to full-time permanent, and my boss say’s they’re under pressure to convert people from contractors to perm. Either that, or get rid of the contractors (which would include me). Now, I have to take that with a grain of salt, because my boss has been known to “shade” the truth to push forward their own agenda(s), so who knows exactly what they’re being told. Bottom line is, they’re pushing to get me to convert to permanent, and it’s really uncomfortable for me. It’s terrible on a number of different levels.

First off, they’re trying to low-ball me. They converted other folks in my group to perm, and those folks are actually very weak and easy to push around, so they agreed to take less money than they could reasonably demand. Part of the problem with these folks is that they’re not the most dedicated workers, they spend a fair amount of time hanging out and doing things other than working, and they are also easily bullied — perhaps in part because they know they’re slacking and they don’t want to rock the boat.

I, on the other hand, am a workaholic, and it is rare that I’m ever not working. I was working on my stuff till 10:00 last night — in part because I love what I do, in part because I need to pace myself over the course of my day and break up my work into smaller, more manageable pieces.

But my boss doesn’t see it that way. All they see are dollar signs, so when my two slacker co-workers took less money, they set a precedent that I’m stuck with — and the bitch of it is, one of the slackers is higher up than me, organizationally, so my boss has to offer me less, which is just awful.

Second of all, no matter how well prepared and how skilled I am, the fact remains that change freaks me out. Completely. I can’t even begin to say, just how stressful it is for me. When I was younger, and before I had sustained all these head injuries (I’ve had at least three over the course of my working life, on top of the 4+ I had when I was a kid, and my ability to handle change has decreased with each one), I could shift between different tasks and different jobs and not worry about it. But now I’m having a really hard time with even the idea of change. It’s making me very, very nervous, very, very uncomfortable… it’s keeping me up at night, and waking me up early… it’s agitating me and putting me into a cycle of fatigue-driven poor decision-making patterns that are worrying me. I want to believe I can handle this, and part of me believes that I can. But the rest of me is extremely uncomfortable with uprooting myself from my routine and hauling myself off to another gig with another bunch of people, another whole opportunity to make an ass of myself, and yet more chances to alienate and irritate people who don’t really know me without meaning to.

Third, my resume has some spotty stuff on it that makes me suspect, so it undermines my confidence and ‘smooth’ presentation at interviews. Over the past 2-3 years, since I was ejected from my Good Job with that Big Company, I’ve had a bunch of different jobs, some of which went south because I couldn’t keep it together. The stress of the jobs, my poor decision-making (which was largely a result of my stress-induced analgesia/soothing-seeking cycle, where I would semi-intentionally put myself  into a highly stressed state, day after day and week after week and month after month, just to feel normal and functional), and the cumulative effects of stress on my system took their toll, and I crashed and burned and didn’t handle my exits very well. I can still smell the bridges burning, in fact, and it’s tough to think about how badly I screwed up those  jobs, not only in terms of leaving, but in terms of having taken them in the first place. They weren’t good fits for me from the start, but did I listen to myself? Oh, no! I was much too hungry for the stress and strain of bad decisions. So, now I have to explain myself to folks, if I go back out into the world. And God forbid, if they contact those people…

Fourth, if I go, then my insurance is probably going to have to change. That means I have to wrap up all my testing pronto and I have to make sure my insurance company is properly billed and all that, before I go.  It puts tremendous pressure on me to finish up something that I don’t want to rush. And it also screws up my partner’s health situation, because they have ongoing health insurance needs that are covered by insurance I have through my present agency, which is telling me there are no jobs out there — which I know for certain is not the case, because the job boards are full to bursting with work I can do. This whole insurance thing is a real problem. It’s not something that the federal government may be able to fix — a whole lot of money would go a long way towards solving it for me, but who knows if/how/when that’s going to happen?

And last but not least, I just don’t want to go looking for another job! After eight months, I’m just now getting settled into my current job, and now they have to go and churn things up by trying to convert me — for less money than I deserve, or can reasonably expect to earn, even in today’s market. I want to settle in and take care of myself, do my TBI rehabilitation, let down my guard for just one minute, and focus on restoring the parts of me that are broken. I need a serious break. And I mean a serious break. I’ve been going and pushing and striving for so long, I’ve forgotten there is anything else in the world, and I was just starting to realize there’s more to life than constantly pushing, constantly going, constantly trying to make up for lost time, lost chances, lost hopes. I want to just have my daily routine, get up and go to work, come home and contemplate my life, be with my beloved, have a nice dinner, spend my weekends hiking in the woods and reading good books and getting together with friends. I don’t want to be — yet again — plunged into the chaos of adjusting to a new place, new people, new routines, new rules. It’s so confusing and stressful for me, and then it sets me off in a downward spiral of problems, problems, and more problems. It’s just so hard, and I don’t want to have to do it!

But if I have to, I will. It won’t be the first time I’ve had to really drive myself to do the right thing, when the right thing was the last thing I wanted to do.

Growing up with TBI – The Confabulation Kid

Looking back on my life and comparing notes with others, I realize more and more how much my experience has been impacted by the TBI’s I experienced. I was a pretty wild child — hard to handle and harder to discipline. I tried to be a good kid, for the most part, but I got turned around a lot, and it didn’t work in my favor.

I had real difficulties with keeping facts straight — I thought I had things right, but I was turned around and/or missing vital pieces of information. And in the process, I often looked like I was making things up to get attention or just plain lying.

Head injuries sometimes result in a phenomenon called Confabulationthe formation of false memories, perceptions, or beliefs about the self or the environment as a result of neurological or psychological dysfunction. When it is a matter of memory, confabulation is the confusion of imagination with memory, or the confused application of true memories.

I couldn’t tell jokes to save my life. I would usually forget the punchline, or I’d get the joke all turned around. I would get mixed up in the middle of telling long stories, but I wouldn’t realize it, and my brain would fill in the blanks, itself, so that each time I told the story it was a little different — but I didn’t realize it. In some cases, I actually believed that the inaccurate details I was providing were very true.

I have very clear memories of my parents questioning me over and over about the details of a story I just told them, but I would get confused, the more they questioned me, and they would end up — gently or brusquely — telling me that I wasn’t supposed to fib or lie. I wasn’t intentionally lying. In fact, I had no awareness that the tale I was telling was anything other than the truth. But I came across as an intentional “fabulist” instead of a confabulating kid.

I also had a perception of myself as being really good at sports, when I was little. But I was actually very uncoordinated and klutzy, and I was often picked last — or almost last — at schoolyard games. For some reason, this didn’t sink in, and I was able to convince myself that I was very, very good at the sports my other siblings found easy to play. I wanted so much to be good at sports, to be part of things. Both my parents were athletic and active, and I wanted to be, too. All the other kids could kick the ball in kickball… why couldn’t I make contact? It didn’t make sense to me. As far as I was concerned, I was perfectly athletic and able to perform.

Now, on the up-side of this “athletic confabulation”, this skewed perception of my physical skills, my oblivion to how uncoordinated and klutzy I was made it possible for me to keep at all the practicing, until I acquired some skill. One thing I will say for my parents is that they never discouraged me from playing sports, even when I looked like a dork and made a fool of myself. They just told me to get back in there and keep trying. Eventually, I would get it. And when I moved on to high school and started running cross country, I was the team captain two years in a row and led my team to the districts and state championship competitions. We didn’t win states, and we didn’t win districts, but we placed high enough to be serious contenders. And this at a time when running was not all the rage, and we were just a rag-tag bunch of kids in shorts and sneakers out on the open road…

When I was little, I also got roughed up a bit by kids who were bigger (and meaner) than me, but I told myself they had done it by accident. I wasn’t very good at deciphering what other people were thinking/saying about me — I was a lot slower in many ways than I admitted. But looking back now, I realize that a whole lot of social information went right over my head because I had such a skewed view of myself — I didn’t realize that I wasn’t following, so I never stopped to ask people what they meant when they were talking to me. If I hadn’t been head-injured, I might have been considered delusional. But I’d fallen and gotten hit in the head, and that definitely had an impact.

It had an impact on my perception of myself. It had an impact on my ability to track information and keep it straight in my head. It had an impact on my socialization, as I was often seen by my peers as a bragger or an exaggerator and ostracized over the years… simply because my brain was giving me false information.

I remember one time, in particular, when I was in fifth grade. My family had recently moved from a small city to the country, and I was acclimating to a rural environment from an urban one. I was desperately homesick for “the city” and I was angry a lot with kids around me for not having the same mannerisms as I. One day in class, I was telling everyone about my favorite thing to do — drive across a bridge that spanned a wide river. My dad had told me that it was very long — I think he said it was something like a mile wide? But my brain translated “very long” to “seven miles long” and I was convinced that the river was seven miles across and the bridge was too.

When I told the class that, my teacher tried to correct me, but I refused to be corrected. My brain told me the river is very wide — very wide means seven miles across, and that’s how it is. Nothing that anyone said could convince me otherwise. Not logic. Not reasoning. Not authority. I was convinced that I was right, and there were no two ways about it. The rest of the class thought this was hilarious, and didn’t hesitate to laugh at me. I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong — only that everyone was mocking me, and once again, I was an outsider without a clue.

Looking back, I think that this confabulation business made my childhood a lot more difficult for me than I ever realized. My whole family is full of story-tellers, and they love to share their experiences. I’m the same way. I love to tell a good story, and I have lots of unusual experiences under my belt. I always have.

But time after time, when I would tell stories about my day in school or something that happened to me, I would get turned around, miss details, turn facts around, get mixed up, and generally make a mess of things. On good days, people realized I was just confused. On bad days, they clearly thought I was lying. And I could happily go the rest of my life without my parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, (and nieces and nephews) looking at me like I’m making stuff up “again”.

Yeah, it was kind of rough, living with that undetected weakness. And being treated like I had done something wrong (intentionally) when I honestly didn’t realize that something was wrong, has probably stymied me more than just about anything in my life. In fact, one of the dominant themes in my life has been feeling like I was being punished for no reason that I could understand — and being disciplined for “lying” and having others laugh at me, roll their eyes at me, and generally treat me like I was a pathological fabulist who couldn’t be trusted with the truth was a regular part of my childhood experience. I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted to tell a good story. I wanted so badly to do the right thing and get it right, just once… But I failed. Time after time, my broken brain failed me.

And the times when I did get it right, well, that didn’t really count, because that’s what I was supposed to do. What did I want — a medal for just doing things the same way everyone else could?

Now, I’m not looking for pity or sympathy — please just understand what that experience was like. Especially if you know a kid who has had a head injury … or who just looks like a pathological liar/fabulist, but doesn’t appear aware that they’re doing anything wrong. Chances are, they are not trying to lie. They might be, but then again, they might just be confabulating. Like I was.

Again, they might have no clue that they’re doing anything wrong. They may just need some extra help understanding that they’re turned around and they need extra help figuring out the way things really are…  the way things should really be said/told/expressed. If they’ve had a head injury of some kind, it could be that their broken brain is hiding from them the fact things are amiss… and they can’t figure out why everyone is always laughing at them.

Or what they’ve done wrong. Again.

One Potato, Two Potato… A Tale of a Temper Flare

It was such a small thing. It was no big deal. So, I dropped the potato on the floor. So it slipped out of my hand and got away from me. I didn’t really need to flip out and slam the potato peelings into the trash can and curse a blue streak. I didn’t need to startle my partner and frighten them with the intensity of my reaction.

But from the way I lashed out after I dropped the potato, you’d think it was a huge deal. My temper flare was totally out of proportion to what happened, and I was totally unable to stop it. And that’s what drives me crazy.

Once again, I have overreacted extremely to a seemingly minor annoyance, turning a proverbial molehill into a mountain — no, a volcano. My partner is steering clear of me for a while, till I simmer down. My blood is pounding in my ears, I’m sweating like I’ve just run a hundred yard dash, and my head is spinning with the sudden crash of waves of unexpected emotion on my once-staid interior. Dinner might turn out okay, but the evening is pretty much ruined.

And I am humiliated.

It started out so simply. I had a long day at work, and I was looking forward to just chilling out, making my signature dish for supper — meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green peas. I don’t have the biggest cooking repertoire, and my partner usually does the cooking, but for some reason I make a killer meatloaf. After the long day I’ve had — no, a long week — tonight I need some serious comfort food.

I had intended to take off early and get home at a decent hour, but I got tied up at work with some last-minute things I needed to take care of. Running later than expected, I called my partner to say I was running behind, then did some shopping on my way. I picked up the 93% lean ground beef, egs and milk, and some extra celery, then waded through late-rush-hour traffic, and finally got home. Not bothering to change out of my work clothes, I rolled up my sleeves, chopped and mixed and patted together a pink loaf of beefy joy that would soon enough brown to perfection. I was running behind where I had hoped I’d be, but in another hour and a half, all would be well.

While the meatloaf was cooking, I turned my attention to the potatoes, and I suddenly remembered I’d intended to pick up some fresh spuds at the grocery store. A sudden flare of irritation rose in me, but as I picked through the potatoes we did have on hand, I found enough that were still in good enough shape to eat. As I rinsed them under cold water and shaved off their skins, I was having trouble hanging onto them. I could tell I was pretty tired from the day. The oblong shapes were slippery in my hands and I had to really concentrate at keeping hold of them, when I didn’t have rough potato skin to grip for traction. The peeling knife was slippery in my hands, too, and I struggled a bit with carving out the eyes and removing skin from tight crevices and wrinkles in the flesh.

As I turned away from the sink with one of the skinless tubers in my hand, suddenly it jumped from my grip. I tried to catch it as I felt it slide from between my fingers, but it escaped and landed with a thud on the linoleum and skittered away from me, as though it had a will of its own.

In an instant, my whole system was flooded with a sudden cascade of intense emotion. I could feel the blood rise in me, an adrenaline cocktail of volatile biochemicals boiling up at a moment’s notice, and I saw red for a split second. I felt something vicious in me coil and uncork like a thunderclap, and all I wanted to do was stab that fucking potato with the peeler I was wielding. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself stab it viciously, without hesitation or remorse, till it lay in shredded fragments before me.

“FUCK!” I fumed. “GODDAMN IT TO FUCKING HELL. MOTHERFUCKING PIECE OF SHIT! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!” I cursed the tuber. The unnamed thing that had coiled and unsprung inside me started to thrash, like a wild animal caged and prodded with an electrical probe. My gut churned with fierce lust for vengeance, and my head suddenly cleared of everything but a cold, cold drive to annihilate. Reaching for the nearest thing, I snatched up a handful of potato peelings from the sink and slammed them into the nearby trash can. Some of the peels slipped from between my fingers, and I pounced on them like a ravenous predator. I dropped to my knees — work clothes and all — and with tightly closed fist, I pounded them on the floor, as the inside of my head roared with rage. “STAY THERE, YOU GODDAMNED COCKSUCKING PIECE OF SHIT,” I hissed at the inert piece of vegetable peel. “DON’T FUCKING MOVE.

The potato peel obliged me and lay still on the floor in front of me. The inside of my head howled with frustration and rage, and I snatched up the offending object and threw it violently in the trash atop the rest of the peelings. My breath was heavy and ragged, and my torso was tracked with rivulets of sweat that descended from my chest and armpits to my belt. The whole kitchen seemed to shift and sway before me, and the overhead light became unbearably bright.

Behind me, I heard a sound, and my partner appeared in the doorway.

“Are you alright?” they asked, as I picked myself up off the floor and crossed the room to pick up the potato that had slipped from my grasp.

“I’m fine,” I muttered, as I snatched up the maverick spud and turned back to the sink to rinse it off. The rage that had torn through me just moments before suddenly receded with the presence of another person in the room. The part of me that knew that losing my grip on this slippery vegetable didn’t warrant the firestorm I’d unleashed perked up and pulled me back from the brimstone brink of my outrage.

I felt my partner’s eyes on me, but I couldn’t make eye contact. Their gaze followed me back to the sink, with an all-too-familiar sense of apprehension and defensiveness. This was not the first time I’d blown up after a long day at work, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be the last. I could feel the recrimination in their eyes — What are you getting so upset about? Why did you freak out over just dropping the potato? What’s wrong with you? Why are you so … violent? I knew all the questions, but I didn’t know the answer. All I knew was, I had been overcome by a wave of emotional overreaction that — once again — had blindsided me and reduced me to a big baby — pitching a fit over some stupid little thing and making me look like a raving maniac. For nothing.

As I ran water over the potato and I nearly lost my grip again, another smaller wave of anger welled up in me, but I held it back. I could feel my partner’s eyes still on me, watching to make sure I wasn’t going to get out of hand and break something. I’ve broken things in the past, slammed things, thrown things – the cracked dustpan that we keep in plain view in the kitchen is a constant reminder of how intensely my temper can flare, and how violently I can become as a result.They needed to make sure I wasn’t going to wreck anything in the kitchen.

Again.

I willed myself to act as though I were once more calm, and as I systematically went through the motions of cutting the last remaining potato into quarters, my partner’s wary curiosity was satisfied, and they disappeared again into the living room. Quiet… they were quiet in that way they get when they’re afraid of me and unsure about how the rest of the evening is going to go. I was quiet, too, willing my system to chill and not radiate the white heat of unprovoked rage that my partner can instinctively sense.

But though I seemed fine on the outside, inside part of me was still writhing. Still smarting. The crash of the rage felt like it had cracked something in me… as though a heavy anvil had fallen onto my foot, cracking and breaking bones… bones I needed so I could walk the rest of the way through my day. Something in me felt bruised and battered, but the hurt had come from inside my system, not outside me. And I had been defenseless against it. If the attack had come from someone or something beyond my own skin, I might have been able to defend myself. But this attack came from the inside, and it hurt as much as if I’d been jumped in an alley and beaten by thugs.

Yes, this attack had come from inside. From the depths of my being, the core of my character. At least that’s how it felt. I felt damaged and inept. Useless and beyond help. My insides felt sick and worried. All this drama over a little potato… All this rage over some stupid couple of minutes of me losing my grip… in more ways than one. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered “Why can’t I deal with something that simple? My partner doesn’t seem to have this problem. Why do I?

Keeping quiet, keeping to myself, I adjusted the setting of the burner beneath the boiling potatoes and headed upstairs to change my clothes. The best I could hope for, was that my meatloaf would redeem me, and that the food I was preparing would be more comfort for the one I loved, than my own self was, that night.

Snap! Anatomy of a TBI temper flare

If you’re a TBI survivor, you may be very familiar with the flares of temper that can sneak up on us unawares. It is very disconcerting, if you’re a pretty even-keel sort of person, or if you really don’t want to pitch a fit, but find yourself flying off the handle against your own will.

This has happened to me as long as I can remember — temper flares that come out of nowhere and decimate not only my relationships with people around me, but my self-esteem and self-confidence, as well.

I recently wrote a post called One Potato, Two Potato… that talks in greater detail about my experience of an intense temper flare that builds up over time.

I actually have identified a number of different kinds of flares I experience:

  1. Flares that originate inside me – and come up suddenly without any warning
  2. Flares that originate inside me, but percolate and develop over time, till I boil over. (That’s what One Potato, Two Potato… is about)
  3. Flares whose source originates very suddenly outside me – they’re knee-jerk reactions to external conditions that actively provoke me.
  4. Flares whose source comes from outside me that percolate slowly until I boil over.

There are other ones, as well, and I’m devoting a fair amount of my time, these days, to thinking about them. Of all the cognitive-behavioral issues I have, my temper flares are some of the most challenging. And since so many people reach this blog by searching for info on TBI and temper, I know I’m not the only one.

For the uninitiated, here’s a general description what happens in one of my TBI temper flares, how I deal with it, and how I pull out of it:

  1. I have a goal in mind — it can be as simple as picking up a pencil, or as complicated as making a three-course dinner.
  2. I turn my attention to the thing I want to do… think about doing it… think about not doing it… and then I decide to do it.
  3. I shift into gear — I reach for the pencil… or I start peeling vegetables for cooking.
  4. Suddenly, something stops me — I drop the pencil, or a potato slips out of my hand and skitters across the floor.
  5. A sudden wave of violent emotion sweeps through me, like a wildfire through dry California underbrush. My eyesight dims briefly, as my heart pounds and adrenaline floods through my veins. I want to strike out, lash out, hurt whatever is getting in my way. I curse the pencil… or I feel a sharp stab of rage directed at the potato. If I were able to kinesthetically direct energy at will — and if my temper had its way — the pencil or the potato would be a smoking little pile of ashes.
  6. In the back of my head, the calm, collected voice reminds me that it’s just a pencil or a potato, and that no one was harmed by this thing slipping out of my hand. I don’t need to strike out and harm anyone, just because I lost my grip.
  7. The part of me that doesn’t care for these temper flares is mortified at my intense reaction. It’s deeply ashamed that I would get so worked up over such a little thing. So what, if the pencil or the potato got away from me? What’s the big deal? The wild animal part of me that flared intensely is cowed and tries to defend its reaction, but when the logical, sensible, even-keeled part of me prevails in its reason, that little animal part of me slinks away to a corner to lick its wounds and chastise itself for being bad… again.
  8. In an attempt to de-escalate my just-add-water instantaneous rage, I pause and take a measured breath. I turn my focus back to the basics — the simple act of picking up the pencil… retrieving the potato from the other side of the kitchen. I focus on the most basic aspects of the moment, waiting till the rage subsides and I can get back to doing what I started out doing.
  9. If all goes well, I can continue with my task and not suffer too much at the hands of my self-recrimination. If things aren’t going well, like if I’m stressed or fatigued or scattered, I may throw something or curse or hit something or lash out… with the consequence of not achieving what I intended to achieve, and descending into a downward spiral of shame and blame and guilt and embarrassment. If I’m lucky, no one is around to see this. If I’m out of luck, someone I love and care for is nearby and is strongly impacted — and quite negatively so — by my sudden rage.

Now, I’ve noticed that if I have built up a lot of momentum around Step 2, my rage response is much more intense, than if I proceed with measured pace, taking things one at a time. I also need to be careful not to indulge every reaction that comes to mind.

It’s helpful if I can sit back and just observe myself, not participate 100% in the whole unfolding drama. But observation doesn’t always work. Especially if I’m tired.

Over the coming weeks (early 2009), I’ll be writing more on this. It may be helpful to others who are dealing with the challenges of TBI temper flares… with greater or lesser success. In fact, some folks have said that what I’ve written so far, is very helpful to them, so it’s my hope that I can help more.

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Thoughts on the importance of a gender-free TBI blog

I’ve had different people who read this blog take guesses at whether I’m male or female. Some folks deduce that I’m male, perhaps because of the types of injuries I talk about — sports concussions sustained during soccer and football — or perhaps because… I’m not sure why else they think that. Others assume that I’m female because of the words and punctuation I choose to use.

To be honest, I had agonized over whether to blog “less anonymously” from the viewpoint of a specific gender. It seems to me that some men can better hear about certain kinds of information from other men, while some women are more comfortable hearing about experiences from a woman’s point of view. (Sorry if I’m being sexist with my generalization…) And certainly, each end of the gender spectrum has its specific challenges with respect to getting along in the world, so identifying my gender when I blog might help one side, while it might put the other off a bit — or at least shade their perception of me.

But the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that gender can really get in the way when talking about TBI — and considering that there does seem to be such a discrepancy between the numbers of men/boys who sustain head injuries and the numbers of women/girls, I didn’t want to serve one side, and possibly detract from the other. Both sides have needs as TBI survivors which are largely misunderstood and unmet in today’s American society.

Traumatic brain injury is an equal-opportunity destroyer… and at times the way it changes the brain can kind of cancel out the societal/cultural training we have as men and women, when it comes to social interaction and personal habits. Slowed processing speed is slowed processing speed, whether it happens to a girl or a boy. Increased distractability is still a problem, whether you’re male or female. And a damaged short-term memory will impact you no matter what your biology is.

Certainly, each gender with its relative socio-cultural imprinting will respond to TBI differently. Men are trained to behave in ways that can really help you function in spite of mild TBI — the habit of just keeping going, no matter what, which is pounded into men’s minds from an early age, certainly makes it possible to keep soldiering on through after a head injury. And women are taught to interact with others in ways which can offset the impact of brain injury — being taught that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to reach out for help, and “tend and befriend” can really go a long way towards lightening the burden of a cognitive deficit.

But it’s my experience — and my observation — that for all our external/public/social/cultural training about how to go through life, TBI (even mild TBI) can wreak untold havoc in your internal world, where all the cultural conditioning in the world can’t reach. When your brain is broken and things are not firing as they should, even the most ingrained culturally conditioned processes can break down. What’s even worse is when on the surface you appear to be dealing just fine, ’cause you’re following rote social protocol with other people, but inside you’re a tangled mess of emotion and confusion and nothing makes any friggin’ sense.

In fact, what (I’ve found) makes surviving a TBI the hardest is being completely and totally unable to deal (on the inside) with the things life throws at me on the outside. Here, I’m falling to pieces, trying to just keep up, while everyone around me is crowing about how cool I look, ’cause I’m behaving like a typical person would. It drives me nuts. I’m following the rules of engagement to keep socially viable, and it’s working, yet inside I feel like I’m losing my mind… no, wait… like I’ve already lost it. But nobody notices, ’cause I’m behaving like they would expect someone of my gender to behave… or at least a fully functioning adult with a few slight gender variations.

So, in the spirit of respecting and honoring the mystery of the brain … and recognizing that what goes on inside our injured heads is often quite different from what we present outside our bodies … I’m going to keep this blog gender-free and talk about my experiences not as a man, not as a woman, but as a person. Someone who may seem quite “together” on the outside, but has a heck of a time keeping things in line on the inside. Someone who has a lot in common with millions of other TBI survivors — be they men or women — because my gourd got rattled pretty badly a bunch of times and shifted the direction of my life irrevocably. And someone who has something to offer — tales of survived experience, regardless of the body I was born in.

Thoughts on the importance of a gender-free TBI blog

I’ve had different people who read this blog take guesses at whether I’m male or female. Some folks deduce that I’m male, perhaps because of the types of injuries I talk about — sports concussions sustained during soccer and football — or perhaps because… I’m not sure why else they think that. Others assume that I’m female because of the words and punctuation I choose to use.

To be honest, I had agonized over whether to blog “less anonymously” from the viewpoint of a specific gender. It seems to me that some men can better hear about certain kinds of information from other men, while some women are more comfortable hearing about experiences from a woman’s point of view. (Sorry if I’m being sexist with my generalization…) And certainly, each end of the gender spectrum has its specific challenges with respect to getting along in the world, so identifying my gender when I blog might help one side, while it might put the other off a bit — or at least shade their perception of me.

But the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that gender can really get in the way when talking about TBI — and considering that there does seem to be such a discrepancy between the numbers of men/boys who sustain head injuries and the numbers of women/girls, I didn’t want to serve one side, and possibly detract from the other. Both sides have needs as TBI survivors which are largely misunderstood and unmet in today’s American society.

Traumatic brain injury is an equal-opportunity destroyer… and at times the way it changes the brain can kind of cancel out the societal/cultural training we have as men and women, when it comes to social interaction and personal habits. Slowed processing speed is slowed processing speed, whether it happens to a girl or a boy. Increased distractability is still a problem, whether you’re male or female. And a damaged short-term memory will impact you no matter what your biology is.

Certainly, each gender with its relative socio-cultural imprinting will respond to TBI differently. Men are trained to behave in ways that can really help you function in spite of mild TBI — the habit of just keeping going, no matter what, which is pounded into men’s minds from an early age, certainly makes it possible to keep soldiering on through after a head injury. And women are taught to interact with others in ways which can offset the impact of brain injury — being taught that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to reach out for help, and “tend and befriend” can really go a long way towards lightening the burden of a cognitive deficit.

But it’s my experience — and my observation — that for all our external/public/social/cultural training about how to go through life, TBI (even mild TBI) can wreak untold havoc in your internal world, where all the cultural conditioning in the world can’t reach. When your brain is broken and things are not firing as they should, even the most ingrained culturally conditioned processes can break down. What’s even worse is when on the surface you appear to be dealing just fine, ’cause you’re following rote social protocol with other people, but inside you’re a tangled mess of emotion and confusion and nothing makes any friggin’ sense.

In fact, what (I’ve found) makes surviving a TBI the hardest is being completely and totally unable to deal (on the inside) with the things life throws at me on the outside. Here, I’m falling to pieces, trying to just keep up, while everyone around me is crowing about how cool I look, ’cause I’m behaving like a typical person would. It drives me nuts. I’m following the rules of engagement to keep socially viable, and it’s working, yet inside I feel like I’m losing my mind… no, wait… like I’ve already lost it. But nobody notices, ’cause I’m behaving like they would expect someone of my gender to behave… or at least a fully functioning adult with a few slight gender variations.

So, in the spirit of respecting and honoring the mystery of the brain … and recognizing that what goes on inside our injured heads is often quite different from what we present outside our bodies … I’m going to keep this blog gender-free and talk about my experiences not as a man, not as a woman, but as a person. Someone who may seem quite “together” on the outside, but has a heck of a time keeping things in line on the inside. Someone who has a lot in common with millions of other TBI survivors — be they men or women — because my gourd got rattled pretty badly a bunch of times and shifted the direction of my life irrevocably. And someone who has something to offer — tales of survived experience, regardless of the body I was born in.