Finding the good

Chillin' on the mud cake

Today started out very strange for me. I woke up when I thought it was about 6 a.m., and I got up and did my morning sitting/breathing. Then I went downstairs and looked at the clock, and it was 4 a.m. So that meant I had been up since about 3:30.

And here I thought it was later.

I did go to bed earlier than usual last night. I have a bad head cold, and I was feeling really poorly last night, so after watching Coast Guard Alaska I took myself to bed, thinking I would be able to sleep in and get some good rest. But it didn’t turn out that way.

When I realized how early it was, and I realized how awake I was, I decided I was going to stay up, rather than going back to bed. I was congested and not feeling that great, so I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to read some online stuff. My intention was to write a bit, in hopes of quieting my mind by getting some of my ideas out of my head, but I wasn’t feeling it, so I ended up reading and also doing some web site development work that I’d discussed with an acquaintance over the holiday trip.

It’s disappointing, really, to not have slept in. I haven’t been feeling well, and I really need to rest after my long trip over the holidays. I feel like I’m “behind” and I can’t catch up. I feel like there is something not quite right, here, and it worries me. I also feel heavy and slow — my work clothing fits me tighter after an over-indulgent holiday season, and even though I am getting up and doing exercise again, I know it’s going to be a while till I am in the “zone” where I would like to be.

In a way, though, it’s helpful for me to be a bit on the fat side. It makes me more aware of my weight, to begin with, which gets me thinking more actively about how I’m eating, how I’m exercising, and how I’m living in general. The problem isn’t that I went overboard with the cookies and snacks and double-helpings and desserts at all those lunches and dinners. The problem is that I had this intense need to escape all my woes with snacks a series of great meals — nothing wrong with a few Christmas cookies and a great meal or two, but when I use it to not think about anything else, then it becomes less great than it might otherwise be.

And being heavier and slower than is comfortable has lit a fire under me, to get going again, get moving, get out and about, and get on with my life, even in the face of being really unhappy with how things are. Frankly, I tend to be on the relentless side, when it comes to improvement — I always want to streamline and optimize and enhance what’s in front of me, to see just how far I can take it. This goes for my work, my play, my relationships, and just about every different aspect of my life that can possible be tweaked for maximum performance. Being literally unable to move as fast as I’d like has a humbling effect on me, and it forces me to admit that I’m human, that I have my limitations, and that maybe — just maybe — my life will be fine if I don’t streamline or optimize or enhance what’s in front of me, right now.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay if I lie down with a book and read my way through the gray rainy day that’s been put in front of me today. Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay if I take the day off. Heck, I’ve been going and going and going for over a week. I could really use a break. And I’m not doing myself any favors by pushing myself to go out in the cold and rain, even if the errands do need to be done.

Heck, it’s New Year’s Eve. I’m supposed to lay low and think about my life over the past year, and look forward to the next year and all it has to bring. Herewith, I am officially taking the day off, to recuperate and get some sleep. A long hot shower, followed by the rest of the day in bed, is about my speed.

Which I sort of hate to say. Because it’s Saturday, and that usually means I need to be running errands or doing something useful with myself. But I’m tired. And sick. And I’ve been pushing myself for weeks on end. One day off is not going to break the bank — but if I don’t take the day off, it may break me.

So, I look for the good in this day. I look for the positives in the rain and gray skies. I look for the good in my aching muscles and my foggy head. I try to find the positive in everything that surrounds me on this apparently average day.  I need to find some redeeming qualities to my present work. I need to find some sustenance in my present challenges. I need to identify the ways that I am strengthened by my circumstances, not torn down by them. I need to pull myself up by my proverbial boot-straps, and even if I don’t put my boots on and walk out into the day, today, I need to revitalize my mood and regain the resolve that I once had in abundance.

There is much good to be found in the world, if I simply look for it. So, it is on me to look for it. The good won’t find itself. It’s not going to pick itself up and walk over to me, shake my hand and say, “Hey, I’m good! Nice to meet you!” I’m the one who has to walk up to it, shake its hand, and introduce myself to it. Otherwise, it will stay forever hidden behind the barriers that I think are between me and it. The world around me is chock-full of all sorts of experiences, all sorts of opportunities to learn and grow and expand my appreciation for what life sends my way. Some of those things are profoundly troubling and I find myself going down a path of discontent and despair. Some of those things are apparently wonderful on the surface, then they morph into something different over time — sometimes that thing is “better” and sometimes it is “worse”, but it always changes.

No doubt about that.

Anyway, I am starting to fade. I’ve been up for about seven hours, by now, and I’m feeling it more and more. Time for that long, hot shower to loosen up the gunk in my sinuses and chest, then it’s off to bed to rest — and rest — and rest. New Year’s Eve will come, soon enough. Maybe I’ll stay up late, maybe I won’t. Either way is fine. Maybe I’ll watch the ball drop, maybe I won’t. Either way is okay. Maybe I’ll ponder the profundities of my life. Or maybe I’ll play a board game in front of the fire and just take it easy. Either way.

It’s all good.

Back to the action

Let's get it started

I’m off to a good start, today. I woke up early and tried to get back to sleep, then realized after a while that I was pretty much *up* so it would make more sense for me to just get moving and get ahead of my day. I caught a nasty head cold over the holiday trip, and I wasn’t going to get much more sleep, thanks to my running nose and watering eyes.

So, I got up and did some mindful sitting, first thing. I started out with the intention of just going to 10 breaths. Then I went past that and went to 13… and beyond. I wasn’t feeling very settled at the start. My heart started racing, and my breathing was very tight. But after about 15 breaths, things started to settle in, and by the time I had counted to 25, I was feeling more settled, more stabilized. So, I breathed and counted to 47, a prime number that has more associated with it than most people would guess. I felt really good, by the time I got to 47, and I was tempted to keep going, but I had more plans that I wanted to follow up with, and I didn’t want to ruin a good thing by overdoing it.

So I got up, came downstairs, and got on my exercise bike for a15-minute ride. I listened to music as I rode, trying to keep my mind on the actual bicycling and not chafe too much at it. In past months, I have gotten away from riding the bike, first thing, because it started feeling forced and boring and same-old-same-old. This morning, however, I had motivation to ride, because I am sick with this cold, and I need to move the lymph through my system to help clear out this infection. The sludge won’t move itself out of my system, so I need to give it a little boost, which is what riding the bike will do for me. Plus, it warmed me up — it’s cold — winter, after all — and I hate feeling cold, first thing in the morning. So, having a brisk bike ride not only got me moving in a healthier direction, but it also got me warmed up. And that was great.

After my ride, I put the coffee water on to boil and did some stretching and moving. Then I poured my coffee and put the water on for my soft-boiled egg. While that was heating up, I did my old familiar free weights routine, where I go through a whole circuit of lifting for my legs and upper body. It actually felt really good to do it again, and I had to wonder why I haven’t done much of that at all, in the past several months. I guess I just got bored with it. Lost my motivation, for some reason. Just lost it… Probably due to all the anxiety over the changes at work and my fight-flight instincts getting tweaked all over the spectrum.

By the time the water had boiled and my egg was ready, I got in my quick free weights workout, as well as my balance work. The balance stuff is really important, because my ears are quite stopped up, and I’m off-kilter, these days. But doing the leg lifts without anything to stabilize me, got my balance “tuned up” a bit, and by the time my breakfast was ready, I’d gotten a full morning workout in.

Now, I’ve been pretty hard on myself, lately, about having slacked off on my exercise routine. I guess I just got sick and tired of it, doing the same thing every morning. I also lost sight of how important it is to do it regularly. I guess I started taking it for granted, and I started taking my physical well-being for granted. I did need a change of pace, actually, but thinking back, I think it was really a motivation void that sucker-punched me. The changes at work, which have all happened on a pretty extreme scale, got me thinking that I’m a helpless victim and I can’t do anything to help myself. The home office is overseas, and the people making the rules are far from any of us who are doing the everyday work. So, it’s a very different and much less invested sort of arrangement than before. And with all this going on, I guess I just felt, “What’s the use?” I succumbed to the feeling of being a victim, of being helpless, of being the subject/target of someone else’s ambitions, and unable to change any of it. And when I went out looking for other jobs, that helplessness came through, I’m not proud to say.

Now I’m back, though, and I’ve got a different perspective on things. I know what I need to do, to move on to the next level, and I’m setting about doing that — on my own terms and in my own way. My employer can do what they like, I’ve got my own agenda, and I fully intend to stick with it.

I also fully intend to stick with my exercise routine. Because I got a good look at what happens to people in my family when they don’t take care of themselves, and they just give in to the “inevitable” march of time. I got a close-up look at what happens when you don’t exercise, or when you don’t eat properly, or when you are in total denial about your state of mind and body. I got a good look, too, at what can happen when you take care of yourself — one of my relatives just turned 100 years old, this past year, and the contrast of their quality of life with the rest of my family is truly remarkable. That’s what I want — the 100+ years of decent self-maintenance and care — NOT the however-many-years of “inevitable” decline that has everyone wondering about how you’re going to take care of yourself when you get so badly off that you can’t even move or think or function.

Yeah, I’ll take a pass on the latter. The former — whole health for a long, long time — is what I want for my life.

And because of that, I did manage to get up this morning and do my sitting/breathing exercises. Because doing that balances out my nervous system, it calms my mind and it restores my ability to not only discern what is going on inside my head and heart, but it also restores my ability make independent choices about what to do with those things. When I sit and breathe and watch my thoughts and emotions come up without reacting to them, I become better at seeing what the hell is going on with me, as well as not letting it get the betrer of me.

I had actually started doing my sitting/breathing while I was on my trip. I started it again the day after Christmas, I think, and it really helped me keep calm and cool in the face of some pretty drastic upheavals and revelations. There were a couple of times that tempers got hot, and it could have boiled up and spilled over and gotten messy — and my meltdowns can get messy. But it didn’t. Things didn’t boil over. I was able to see and identify what was going on, and I was able to call attention to what was really going on, so we could have a bit of a laugh about it, and dispel the drama before it even got started.

And that’s a good thing.

It’s a really, really good thing.

And I’ve been thinking… a lot… about how much this breathing/sitting practice helps me with post-concussion issues… helps me with mTBI issues… helps me with life issues. It’s a bit uncanny, but at the same time, it makes perfect sense. And now that I understand the mechanics of it, it’s more valuable and sensible to me than ever before.

Sitting and breathing balances out my autonomic nervous system — the part of me that runs the fight-flight scene, and can send me downhill into a raging meltdown… or chase me into a fog of flight that has me avoiding any and all human contact or activities… ultimately wearing me out physically and making me feel like crap about myself. Just sitting still and counting my breaths gets my body back in balance, with my heart rate regulating and my attention focused on relaxing, which is key for me.

Sitting and breathing also strengthens my attention and focus. I’m far from perfect, of course, but just practicing regularly makes me better at sustained focus and resisting distraction. That’s so very important to my daily functioning – my levels of distractability can go way off the charts, so strengthening this ability has a direct and significant impact on my ability to be effective and capable in my daily life. And the fact that the sitting and breathing takes place in the privacy of my own home, makes it that much more comfortable for me. Sure, I can try to practice sitting quietly and breathing at work — either stepping away from my desk, or taking a moment at my desk. But there’s nothing like doing it in my own home, where the focus is on me and my well-being, rather in what needs to get done next.

And it occurs to me that I’m not the only person in my situation who could benefit from this. It occurs to me that plenty of other people who are struggling with TBI/concussion issues could do this, as well… Particularly in the days after a concussion or TBI. After a brain injury, they tell you you’re supposed to rest and do nothing. Well, how about doing the kind of “nothing” that actually helps your nervous system balance itself out, and also helps you regulate your moods, heart rate, and racing mind?

It’s an idea. And who knows? It might just be a missing piece in the puzzle that is concussion management and TBI recovery that helps people get back to their everyday lives — in whatever form — with greater presence of mind as well as a well-toned autonomic nervous system.

But speaking of management and recovery and action, it’s time I got myself in gear and started getting ready for work. I’m back from my week away, and I have one day left in 2011 to gather up some of the loose pieces of the past months and set the stage for next year.

I’ve already managed to get up at a pro-active time of day, get my much-needed exercise in, and figure some stuff out.

Not a bad way to start the day. Not a bad way to close out the year.

Now, back to the action…

I started out as a really happy kid

Happy, happy, happy

Spending time with my family this holiday season, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to recall my past and think about my life experience in my first social network of origin — my family. I’ve had time to think about my experiences within the context of my own family, and I’ve had a chance to think about them in comparison to how my in-laws relate to each other.

One thing that really strikes me, when I think back on my childhood, was what a happy kid I was, when I was little. Pictures of me playing — with my favorite toys, with the huge cardboard boxes my dad would bring home, with the neighbor kids — always showed me happy and smiling… up to a point. At some point, I stopped being the happy kid I always was, and by the time I was 12 or so, my parents were openly worrying to their friends, about how angry I was.

The more I think about it, the more it strikes me how extreme the change was. And I have to wonder if the TBIs I experienced when I was a kid had something to do with it.

Now, I know that there are a million different reasons this could have happened. Things were not always easy at home, and my parents fought a lot. Things were also not easy at school, and I spent a lot of time in child care, away from my family, when I was little, because my mom had to work while my dad went to college. I was the oldest in the family, so I was their “canary in a coal mine”  — they tried a whole lot of things with me that didn’t work… and my younger siblings never had to deal with them to the extent I did.

I’m sure that didn’t help, either. But I suspect that TBI did in fact play a part in my problems. And the change from being a happy-go-lucky, flexible free spirit, to being a rigid, temperamental, aggressive brooder, was pretty extreme.

I really do believe that the TBIs played a role in my experience, even if they weren’t the only thing. I believe I had one when I was in child care and was playing with kids who were bigger than me. I remember something about falling and having everyone gathered around me when I was on the ground, then there being a lot of yelling and other kids getting in trouble. I also remember — after the fall — trying to go back upstairs where the “big kids” were playing, because (like some post-football concussion that impels concussed athletes to return to play, even if they are worse for wear), I had to get back in the game. Then there was the fall down the stairs when I was seven, which found me standing in the middle of the dining room afterwards, unable to speak, barely able to acknowledge my mother’s presence. Then there was the assault when I was 8 and got knocked out by that rock.

After that, all hell broke loose.

Now, I don’t for a moment think that getting hit on the head is the sole reason I morphed from a happy kid who was reportedly good to go with any adventure, into an angry, agressive punk who swung from one mood extreme to the other, and had the attention span of a hummingbird. But I have no doubt that the TBIs played a part in that side of me developing into the dominant side. And I have no doubt that the way my concussions were handled — or weren’t dealt with — also played a role.

In the absence of any information at all about how kids can and will respond to a concussive head injury, my parents relied on the old-faithful approach of discipline, criticism, threats, and chastising me for being bad all the time. It was a different time from today, and I’m sure that parenting approaches have changed since then, but 35-40 years ago, in the world where I grew up, if you stepped out of line, you got smacked back into place — literally or figuratively. And my parents didn’t have a lot of time and personal resources to deal with me and my changes — they just didn’t have the energy or the motivation or the knowledge to take different, innovative approaches with me, when I was having trouble with fatigue and confusion and distractions. They just pushed on through and assumed that brute force would sort everything out.

Not even. It just made things worse.

And I ended up believing that there was really something wrong with me, that I was constantly screwing up — even the things that should have been so easy for me, the things that I should have been able to do, the things I learned to do so well before but suddenly couldn’t manage. And I became convinced that no matter what I did, I would screw something up, somehow. No matter how hard I tried.

Because that’s what always happened.

Of course it did. I needed a little extra help, just to get going and re-learn some things, but instead of help, I got more stress and less support, and conditions were actually created that prevented my recovery from my injuries.

Small wonder I was so angry, when I was younger. I needed to heal up and learn to do things differently, but nobody — and I mean nobody — got that.

And as I write this, sitting in a bedroom of one of my childhood homes, I think about all the kids out there who have gotten concussed, or sustained some sort of mild traumatic brain injury that didn’t show up on any test results, and is a total mystery to everyone around them. I think about the kids who are suddenly confused about things they shouldn’t be confused about, who are having physical issues all of a sudden, who used to count membership in a sports team as the single-most important part of their life, who are now unable to participate… or are trying to participate, and are finding they’re having troubles they never thought possible. I think of the kids who — like me — know something is different and are scared to death by it, but who don’t have the information they need to make better choices.

And even if they did have the information, they’re sufficiently impaired that their foggy thinking is keeping them from making good choices.

I think about the kids whose parents and teachers are treating them like they are bad seeds, or they’re lazy, or they’re good-for-nothing, because they are saying and doing things that are out of character or are just not appropriate. I think about the kids who confabulate without realizing it, who get called liars and get ridiculed, without knowing why.

I think about myself as that kid — and I think about the truckloads of messages I got over the course of growing up, about what waste of space I was… I think about how hard I’ve worked my entire adult life to overcome that… only to find myself unable to reach the goals I set, time and again.

I also think about myself as the adult I am — finally aware of those messages and aware of the impact that TBI has had on my life, my heart, my mind. I think about the help I’m getting from my neuropsych and the steps I’m taking to get my life back on track and keep it there. I think about the progress I’ve made over the past several years, and all the damage I’ve been able to repair. It’s been phenomenal, actually, and I have a lot to be both thankful for and very proud of.

Once upon a time, I started out as a really happy kid. There are no guarantees I’ll ever get that side of me back, 100 percent. That was me as a kid — pre-concussions. The person I was then, isn’t coming back. That’s as it should be. But at least now I have a chance to be a happy adult. And keep going that way.

Just a little farther to go

Heading down that roadIn another 24 hours, I’ll very likely be back in my own home. That’s assuming that all goes well and according to plan, and I don’t run up against any more roadblocks.

It’s been a good trip, but I’ll be glad to have it behind me. I’ve had some good times visiting with family and friends, and I’ve had some harrowing times getting news that nobody wants to hear — who’s got cancer, who’s getting divorced, who’s been secretly getting drunk off their ass every night for the past seven years, who’s showing signs of dementia, who’s been repeatedly asking, “Who will take care of me when I cannot care for myself?”

I’ve been seeing some troubling behaviors in people who are close to me, and it makes it all the more imperative that I maintain some sort of stability over the coming months and years. Once the cognitive decline sets in, there’s really no turning back, and who’s to say how long it will last, and how quickly it will progress?

I’m talking about others having troubles — people I will very likely be asked to make decisions for, at some point. Calls need to be made to my siblings, so we can sort things out about our parents, before the sh*t hits the fan. And I need to make provisions for myself in the case that my spouse starts to decline and demand more of me.

I’ve got a lot on my head, a lot on my shoulders. And the fun hasn’t even started in earnest yet.

I’m doing my best to keep cool — it’s really a matter of me keeping my act together, so that I can be of use on down the line. That means I need to get back in the practice of the regular daily exercise regimen. It means I need to build a LOT more physical strength and endurance than I have right now. It means I need to really hunker down in my work and quit dicking around like I can afford to lose the job. It means I need to really clear things up in my head and in my life, strip away even more of the unnecessary stuff, laser in, and keep my act together.

But that’s really all off in the distance — many of my most pressing concerns aren’t front and center yet. There will be time for that later. For now, I need to focus on what’s in front of me — getting back home in one piece, safely… finishing out the year at work on Friday… then spending the long weekend honing my sense of direction and hunkering down to make it all happen as best I can.

I’ve got a long haul in front of me. But for now, I’ll just keep focusing on the little way I have to go.

Remembering to level out

Just chill...

The week I’m spending away from the usual grind is turning out to be very well spent. Just not being able to work at all, not being able to get online, “not being able” to do anything other than drive in the car or sit down to a meal or hang out with family or sleep for an hour or so, has given me a much-needed break from the constant push.

The last weeks of the year have been so intensely focused on finishing up and finalizing the year and getting everything squared away and DONE, that I haven’t had — or taken — the time to settle in and chill myself out. I get so consumed with the year-end busy-ness, that I lose sight of the importance of sitting and breathing… exercising and stretching.

I have been doing some more stretching and sitting and breathing, taking regular breaks from the flurry of activity around me to let my system settle down again. It’s when I haven’t taken the time to settle down my fight-flight-fun side, and I’ve gotten pretty wired, that I’ve snapped and had to regroup, so I could get on with my day.

It would be nice to think that handling PCS symptoms were a simple matter of understanding what is going on with me and then actively managing it, so nothing ever goes wrong and I never “slip up” again. I certainly have enough information to do so. But information alone isn’t going to solve the whole situation. There’s also the issue of motivation, as well as strength and endurance.

Now, when I say strength and endurance, I’m actually talking about physical strength and endurance, as much as psychological strength and endurance. Because when I am physically weak and easily tired, my mood suffers, and my issues management suffers. When I’m weak and weary, I tend to slide down into a dark hole and let myself slide even more. It’s depressing for me, to feel heavy and slow. I was too much of an athlete when I was younger, to feel comfortable being in poor shape now.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the better I take care of my body, the better I can manage my mind. I’ve gotten away from that in the past weeks, focusing more on work and Christmas cookies and running errands, than keeping steady and keeping myself leveled out.

But this break is getting me back to some disciplines I was following before. I’m still not exercising as soon as I get up, but I have been spending time sitting and breathing, which helps — even when I only do it for a few minutes. It’s probably one of the most dramatically effective techniques I know to get myself chilled, to restore balance to my fluctuating moods, and to get myself back to a place where I have more of a say over how I react to the world around me.

And that is key. Because the single-most disruptive aspect of my life — which affects my work and my home life and all the relationships I have — is the hold that emotional volatility (some call it “lability”) gets on me, when I least expect it to. I’ve been increasingly volatile at work and at home, and that’s been a huge problem. It’s affecting me, and as much as I can say, “Oh, it’s just the holidays and year-end stress,” that doesn’t change the effects it has on my relationships.

So, leveling out that volatility and chilling myself out has huge benefits for me. And remembering to do that is the first step. Forgetting that I need to do this has been an increasing problem — I just forget to do it. Or I get so busy and so caught up in what I think I HAVE to do as soon as I wake up, that I just don’t do it.

So, I need to get back to just doing it regularly, as I had been each morning, until about a month back. I need to restore that regular practice and just do something. Part of my problem is that I get so focused on doing it a certain way — exactly x-number of breaths in exactly the same way each day — that when I can’t do it exactly like that, I decide I’ve failed, and I don’t bother.

But I can do something, even if I can’t do things exactly perfectly the way I think they should be done. I don’t have to do this rigid thinking thing — especially first thing in the morning. I can cut myself a break and at least do something that I know will help me. Even in small amounts… plus I sometimes find that when I start small, I find the means to continue on and go the distance on what I originally wanted to do.

Speaking of going the distance, I need to get the car packed and head on up the road again to more relatives. For more visiting. More eating. More relaxing. And not a bit of work in sight.

There were 10 minutes left on Christmas Day…

Settling in

I’d watched the movies and the football games, eaten the food, and spent time with family. All the workaday folks were winding down and heading to bed, while the night-owls stayed up, surfing the channels, talking into the wee hours, and making up for time lost between visits.

It had been a good day, a morning melt-down notwithstanding.

And the next day promised to be a good one, as well. And it was.

Now the visit is winding down, we’re getting ready to pack up… last-minute cups of coffee and time to chat and just spend time in the same room with each other… It’s been a good visit, with far less drama and upheaval than other holidays. Part of it is that I’m managing better. Part of it is that we’re all a lot more willing to just let things go. We’ve all got a much clearer view of what’s important, and we’re sticking with that.

Here’s what I wrote on Christmas night…

These visits are never easy, to be completely honest. Seeing my family, seeing the next generation of nieces and nephews who have their whole lives ahead of them, I am taken back, time and time again, to a place in my prior experience where I was as convinced as any of them that I was bound to do something big and important… that I didn’t belong in that place with those people… that I was made for bigger things… that I had what it took to make my dreams come true, and all I really needed was time and freedom to move and build what I had in my head and heart.

I think all of us have that, when we’re young. And it’s a good and wonderful thing. Imagine how the world would be, if we didn’t. I’m not sure it’s a place I would want to be part of. And I’d have to take it upon myself to change it.

What I never imagined would be the case, was that the “passing” issues I had would not pass. That they would become bigger issues. That they would stick around and snowball and lead to other issues. And the relatively minor deals with my abbreviated attention span, my susceptibility to distraction, my spotty working memory, would ultimately morph into much bigger problems, simply because I didn’t understand the nature of them… and I would never take steps to substantively address them till many decades later, after much harm had been done – to myself and to those around me.

How could I have know how far from myself I would stray, and how many flawed perceptions of myself I would ultimately indulge and evolve over time, creating an essentially altered state for myself that kept me from doing and being all those things I dreamed of doing and being as a young kid.

Yes, it’s the end of the year. And now that we’re winding down, I think back to when I was much, much younger, when I was really struggling with memory issues in school, struggling with a spotty attention span, struggling with remembering to do things… thinking all the while that I was intentionally not doing things… thinking that my inability to keep things in my mind for long was a sign of individuality and rebellion, rather than the after-effects of concussion. I’m not sure I had a thorough enough understanding of my situation to get scared by it. All I knew was, something else was always turning out to be more interesting than what I was working on for extended periods of time. I had no way of knowing that it wasn’t my individuality asserting itself – it was an impaired working memory, constant restlessness from the concussions I’d had, and big problems with impulse control and thinking through my decisions.

And my teachers thought I was a loser. Lazy. Immature. Way too impulsive for my own good. They did not know or fully realize how I’d been concussed – not once, not twice, but at least five times by my senior year in high school. Heck, maybe many more times than that, because as a younger kid, I’d had balance problems and had been a real rough-houser – hitting my head and getting dizzy and groggy, and getting up and keeping on playing, was always just part of the game. It wasn’t a reason to stop playing, it was a reason to keep playing.

It sounds bizarre to think about it now, but all those times when I got dinged and felt like I was about to wobble off my axis, there was something about the experience that actually energized me and got me all jazzed up. I didn’t want to back off at all, when it happened. Oh, sure, I’d slow down for a little bit, but I was back in the thick of things soon enough, regardless of that sick feeling in my stomach, the woozy feeling in my head, and the feeling that I couldn’t find my feet. It was just part of the game for me, getting knocked around and such.

And you know, if someone had come to me and said, “Dude, you have to sit this one out, ’cause you’re dizzy and are sensitive to light,” I would have laughed them off. The times when I actually did get taken out of games were when I was so obviously punch-drunk that there was no sense in me being on the field anymore. Those were also games that had adult supervision, and I’m fortunate that I grew up in an area and a time where adults had a sense of serious responsibility for protecting kids – because they were kids – not pushing them on and on like we were miniature soldiers who just had to be goaded hard enough to act like grown-up soldiers. We were kids, and that was that, and nobody screwed around with making sure we didn’t feel badly about ourselves if we crossed a line. When a line was crossed, there were consequences, and tough luck if you didn’t like it. You were a kid. They were the adults. Everyone was clear about the chain of command.

But when the adults weren’t watching, there was all kinds of hell to pay. I dished it out. And I took it, too. I was a scrapper and a jock. I was one of those kids who was always out on the leading edge, pushing the envelope and pushing my body to win, win, win. Because it felt good. Not only because people cheered for me, though they did, but because that’s who I was and that’s what I did. The times when I got yanked out of games because of injuries were some of the worst times for me. Because the minute I left the field, “incapacitated” by my coach’es decision, I stopped being the “me” I understood and valued the most. The minute I was off the field, away from the team, not part of the action, was the minute I started being less of a person… and more of a loser.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t be part of the team. It was that the part of me that I recognized the most, the part of me that gave me the greatest satisfaction, the part of me that had rules and guidelines to follow and was rewarded for something in my life – for once – instead of being constantly punished for crap I didn’t fully understand… that part was gone. And it wasn’t coming back till I could get back on the field.

I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t played youth sports can understand the loss that comes from being yanked off the field because of a “bump on the head”. It can be devastating. Because it literally – to your reeling brain – makes no sense. You can’t understand on your own what is happening to you, and you can’t detect the things that may be obvious to the trainer or the coach or your other teammates. It just doesn’t make any sense.

In my own case, when I got that concussion during that chance pick-up tackle football game, even when I was down on the ground, dazed and wondering WTF… and then I got up and was unable to run in a straight line, hold the ball, or follow basic calls… it still hadn’t registered fully to me that something was wrong. I was ready and willing to keep playing, no matter what. Nothing could stop me, aside from my obedience to a coach who saw something was wrong with me and stopped the game completely, when I refused to sit out.

And thinking back to how it was, how it felt, how I experienced it, I think perhaps one of the most important things a person can do with a concussed kid, is to help them understand what the hell is going on with them. Even if every brain injury is different, even if we can’t always tell what’s going on with a particular individual, even if the symptoms can shift and change and evolve over time, still, it’s vitally important to get young athletes to comprehend what is going on with them. We may not have all the answers right off the bat, but it is certainly possible to at least work with the athlete and help them cultivate some measure of self-awareness about their condition and their capabilities, that lets them not only better assess their own symptoms and experience as they (hopefully) clear, but which may also help them avoid future situations that can put them in more danger.

It’s a tough one – a very, very tough one – this work with concussions among young athletes. It’s tough with athletes of any age, but especially with youth who have so much ahead of them, who stand to lose so much, and whose brains are more susceptible to long-term injury… there’s so much at stake, and so much less room for error.

God, when I think back… and I think about how things might have been, had I not been hurt so many times when I was a kid… But who can say, really, how things would have turned out? I might have become a good, dutiful citizen who makes all the “right” choices and has all the “right” answers in life, all the while racking up the social points and the kudos and the degrees and what-not.

But then again, I might have become the perfect tool for the perfect system, and just turned into another cog in the machine that turns the world ’round and ’round. And I’m not sure I would have wanted that. I might have gotten it all right, only to discover one day that getting it right wasn’t what I wanted at all.

Still, though, having those concussions made it a hell of a lot more difficult to decide what I wanted for myself – and to stick with it. I may have known briefly what I wanted, but I just didn’t have the resources to stick with it. Just didn’t. Those resources sorta kind evaporated over time… and I was left with a handful of strategies that I pieced together bit by bit, that worked now and then, but rarely consistently, and certainly not over the long term.

And here I sit, pushing 50, sitting in my in-laws’ spare bedroom, wishing to god that I didn’t have to get up and face my hyper-achieving relatives in the morning. But I do. So I guess I’ll call it a night and get some sleep. These things are easier to do, when I’m rested.

So, I’ll rest.

Good night.

Offline for about a week

Well, it looks like I’m going to be pretty limited for the next week or so. I’m traveling for the break between Christmas and New Years and I don’t have a lot of internet connectivity. I do ahve this smart phone to send messages with, but the keyboard is pretty small and hard to use. We’ll see how this goes.

I’m at my in-laws for the next few days, followed by lots of interstate driving. So far the trip has been good, my naqgging sense of professional limitations notwithstanding.

One of the things that always makes this time with relatives more challenging is the fact that my in-laws are pretty much at the top of the food chain – doctors and high-power execs and high society types.

And then there’s me, the chronic under-achiever who is barely scraping by. I try not to let it get to me, but it’s so obviois how wide the class and income divide is, I have to step away periodically to bolster my self-esteem.

Somehow, reminding myself that I can now get through the morning without eviscerating muself over being a clumsy lout doesn’t move me quite like being a world-class oncologist might. And glorying in the fact that I Have A Job and I am payong my bills seems so lame, compared with being on call at some big-ass medical facility that’s the gold standard for cutting-edge treatment.

I know it should not bother me and I should count my blessings, but as I watch my nieces and nephews get on with lives thay are full of achievement, I cannot help but think of my own screwed-up childhood – thanks you Traumatic Brain Injury… thank you, general public ignorance about tbi and concussion. And I cannot help but cringe inside when I hear my relatives talking about how I could do this or that, too.

I can practically hear them wondering why I haven’t.

But I’m hunkering down on that pity-pot again. And looking forward to the next year, I am thinking more and more about how I might use my own experience to assist others. I also think a lot about my childhood concussions and how they affected me.

When I think about how much they cost me, it’s enough to make me ill. And when the nausea fades, I cannot help but think how many others there are out there like me, who lose so much at such a young age, when their whole lives are ahead of them.

I’ve written before about wanting to talk about my early tbi problems, but I have not done as much as I would like. So, now I can.

Provided I have a real computer to work on, that is…

But enough about my angst. Have a Happy, anyway.

Taking the long view

The Concussion Blog continues to deliver – with insightful writing as well as links out to other sources and resources that add meaning and texture to my own understanding and management of post-concussion issues. Just when I’m starting to sink into a bona fide holiday funk, anticipating all the activity of the coming days — in the context of how little rest I’ve been getting lately — I get this wakeup call that snaps me off the pity pot:

A lot of things are going through my head, these days, as I wrangle with my day-to-day activities, and I get caught up in the minutiae of getting things done. One issue that has really taken on increasing proportions for me has been the tendency to get stuck in all sorts of details — and not be able to tell which of the details matter more than others. It’s like I’m drinking from a firehose of stimuli, and it gets overwhelming. Fatigue doesn’t help matters, of course, and when I’m going full-speed most of the time to keep up with all the things that pop up around me, it just gets worse.

And then even more details pop up to catch my attention. Before you know it, I’m swamped. And I’m getting parnoid about people noticing that I’m swamped… and wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

It’s probably all in my head, of course. When I think about it, other people are way too consumed with their own lives and their own struggles, to pay as much attention to me as I think they do. And there’s a pretty good chance a lot of them are feeling the same way I am — self-conscious and concerned that others might notice they’re struggling.

We’re all struggling, in a way. I don’t think you can land on this earth and go through life without some measure of difficulty and challenge. Especially if you’re motivated to improve yourself and take things to the next level, you’re going to come across your share of roadblocks, and it’s going to take a toll. The thing is, you can’t let it take too much of a toll on you, or you end up undermining yourself and letting things get the better of you. It’s difficult to bounce back from adversity, when you’re mired in the muck of self-doubt and second-guessing everything that crosses your path.

Which is why I need to step back regularly and take a longer view. I haven’t been doing that as well as I might, these past weeks. There are plenty of reasons for it, all across the spectrum. But causes aside, there is something I can do to move on and get on with it — focus on my future, focus on where I want to be in my life, and put my energy into getting there… rather than spending a lot of energy trying to figure out why I’m not there already.

There’s a lot of life to be lived, and I can’t get there by staying mired in my past. What’s done is done. Time to move on. Maybe it meant what I thought it meant. Maybe it didn’t. No sense in getting hung up on it. Just move on.

And yet, I think it’s important to have a balance between long view and short-term management of issues. In my case, telling myself that I was fine, that I was perfectly capable of handling everything that came my way, and sticking with the story that it was other people who had the problems, not me, almost cost me everything. I had invented this story about myself that all I needed was some more time and a lucky break, and I’d be home free. I was living out a narrative that painted me as a bold maverick who lived by their own rules and didn’t compromise with the status quo. That story proved to be not only incomplete but also fairly inaccurate. Turns out, all those years of telling myself I was “making my own rules” were more about me working around logistical problems I had, thanks to long-standing TBI issues. And I paid a very steep price because of it.

Having that story turned upside-down, along with countless other assumptions that I’ve entertained over the years, pretty much knocked the legs out from under me, and it’s been rough going getting back to a place where I have at least some measure of self-confidence. I try to focus on the positives, but the repeated experience of trying so hard to get it right or understand things or figure things out, only to discover I’m missing critical pieces of information or I just plain don’t get it (no matter how convinced I am that I’m right), has been one of the most difficult things to come to terms with. It’s a constant negotiation of “fact and fiction” that keeps me guessing, keeps me on my toes, and keeps me pretty humble, especially when I am tempted to be the most arrogant.

Easy, this is not. And when I don’t keep myself going, I can get pretty down and depressed. And angry, too. I can get stuck in my head and lose sight of what truly matters, and then end up taking it out on everyone around me. That’s no good. It’s pretty human and it’s pretty typical for this time of year, but it’s also not the way I want to spend my life.

How DO I want to spend my life? That’s an excellent question. For me, it’s less about doing specific things and accomplishing specific goals, and it’s more about having a certain kind of experience — a high quality of life, no matter what my external circumstances. I do have goals, and I do have things I want to do, and they are important. But there’s more to life than making numbers, and there’s more to my work than just ticking things off my to-do list. Regardless of the immediate circumstances that are grabbing my attention, I can choose to focus on a longer view, a more full view of my life, and see myself within a more full continuum of experience — and humanity. And work from there.

Of course, this is all very easy for me to say, sitting in my dining room surrounded by holiday gift-wrapping supplies, typing away on my second-hand laptop before I finish wrapping the presents I promised to wrap before my spouse gets up and we kick off the holidays with a drive to see relatives. It’s easy for me to say, with a stomach full of breakfast and a week’s vacation ahead of me. It’s a lot harder to say, when I’m stuck in a rut at work, I’m behind on my tasks, and people are getting pissed off at me for not delivering as quickly as they want me to.

But there’s the opportunity for growth and increasing strength — to keep steady in myself, not get waylaid by the opinions and (often unrealistic) expectations of others who simply have no clue what all I do each day just to keep going. The short view, with all its minute details and all its very popular DON’T THINK – JUST DO IT NOW AND DO IT QUICKLY immediacy, beckons with a seductive pulse of biochemical love that blocks out bigger picture concerns. And that’s the approach I seriously need to be cognizant of, to be wary of. To see it for what it is — a drug that so many folks in my immediate environment rely on just to stay sane — that is the penultimate challenge.

The ultimate challenge is then to not fall into it, to not get sucked into the major drama that’s driven by the former football players and semi-pro athletes I work with. Every day, I find more of them in my midst, and every time I read about sports-related concussions and how pervasive they are, I can’t help but think about my co-workers who are absolutely driven by the need to be part of a team that’s loved out loud by the crowd. And as the true nature of my immediate environment becomes clearer and clearer to me, I realize just how much I myself am invested in that same drive, that same love, that same pulse of GO-GO-GO that lures so many down a path of injury and long-standing problems because of those injuries.

And I think about my path, my life, where I want to end up in another year… or two… or five… or ten. As much as I need to make a living, I do still have dreams, and I do still have parts of myself I want to develop — on my own terms and in my own way, not just according to others’ standards. 2011 is winding down, and I’m thinking about the next year. Heck, my work is already scheduled into next June. What is there, outside my 9-5 job? What is there, outside the daily struggle to just get by? For the next 8 months or so, due to financial and work obligations, not a whole lot, to be honest.

But in another 8 months, a ton of obligations will have been fulfilled, and this will free me up to make other choices. I’m on track to pay off some crippling debts — and as hard as it is right now to do that regularly, there is still light at the end of the tunnel that’s not an oncoming train. There will be an end to this. And I need to keep that in mind. I also need to keep in mind my ongoing well-being and health. Reading about the trials and tribulations of post-concussion-afflicted athletes, puts things in perspective for me. And as much as I can relate to their difficulties, I can also be thankful (and relieved) that I’ve actually managed to figure out ways to navigate those uncertain waters.

Navigate, I must… lest I end up like Mr. Hall in the video above. Talk about a sobering view… God god.

So, for what it’s worth, considering all I’ve been through, things are actually looking up. As hard and unpredictable and confounding as life can be at times, I still have it pretty well together — as far as others can see, which is what counts for 85+% of my success at work and in life. They say “Perception is reality” and even if I disagree, the fact that others believe that makes it more true — or at least more applicable in my situation. It serves no use to pretend all is hunky-dory when it’s not, but that conversation about what issues I have to address needs to happen behind closed doors, not out in public where people spook so easliy.

Balance, balance… trade off. Negotiate. Short-term details and long-term views. What seems to be vs. what is. Needless to say, this keeps me on my toes. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the disconnect between what I believe (with all my heart) to be true, and what actually IS true (or what others say is true). But ultimately everyone suffers from some level of disconnect. It’s just that not everyone is aware of it.

At least I have that awareness going for me. That, and the fact that I not only have a keen eye for detail, but also a real appreciation for the long view. And a genuine desire to keep improving… to learn from my mistakes, and do it better the next time.

But the day is waiting. Time to pack for the trip.

 

What the REAL problem is

What's really going on?

I had an interesting/annoying conversation with my neuropsych last night. Overall, it was a good session, and it’s given me good food for thought.

In a nutshell, we talked about my flagging self-esteem, how I seem to be sabotaging myself in my present job, and how I have this perception of myself of being a “ticking time bomb” of a loser. After so many years of having troubles that nobody could understand or detect, and after having had so many things just go south for no reason that I could tell, I seem to have this perception of myself as this loser who’s basically able to fool the rest of the world into believing that I’m competent and capable… until eventually they find out that I’m not really that great, after all.

That seems to be where I am right now… I’ve been having issues at work, which I’ve been trying to gloss over and deal with, and I’ve been somewhat successful at keeping my act together. But there’s still this creeping sense that it’s only a matter of time until things fall apart.

And that’s what we were talking about yesterday. I guess I feel like I can keep going for x-amount of time, until I gradually run out of steam/good ideas/patience. And then it all falls to shit pieces. I feel like my success has an expiration date, and there’s only so long I can expect things to go well, before they start to unravel.

My neuropsych seems to think that this is stuff I’ve made up in my head about myself, and I am unconsciously undermining myself. And that may be true, to some extent. I can definitely see where that fits. At the same time, I think that’s part of a larger pattern I need to deal with — patterns of loss and neglect and poor treatment that I’ve experienced over the years, because of a combination of life events, and my differences from other “normal” people.

I think that a big part of it is due to my early school years. I spent a lot of time “bouncing around” from one daycare situation to another, when I was little. Then, when I started school, I got moved from school to school, and each year the classes had completely different kids in them, and I had to hassle through learning to deal with a new “crop” of peers each year. It was like, each new school year brought a whole new set of problems to deal with — and my family lived in an inner-city situation during the early busing years, so there was a lot of upheaval, danger, crisis… all that and more. So, I just got habituated to the revolving door of annual cycles of extreme, dramatic change. And if things didn’t change, then something felt wrong.

When I was in college, too, there was the annual shift and change. Nothing stayed the same. Each of my for college years was different, with a different set of problems and challenges. I did way too much drinking, my freshman year, and that led to some pretty intense problems my sophomore year (involving police and restraining orders — one of them against me), and then I took off and studied overseas for a few years, in part to get away from the mess I’d gotten into.

And after I got out of school (didn’t graduate, just stopped going), I had a series of jobs at one company or another, switching back and forth between permanent spots and temporary/ contract positions. All the while, I was making a living and doing okay for myself, but everything was cyclical. And if positions didn’t end within a year or two after I started, it made me intensely nervous.

I think part of it has been the old residue of the “danger years” when I was basically on the lam in college, trying (with varying degrees of success) to keep out of sight and under the radar of the individual who was intent on doing me some serious hurt. And come to think of it, that was like an extension of my grade-school years when I was bullied so intensely in 5th and 7th grade — two different schools, in two different school districts, but each of them equally shitty challenging.

So, I’ve had this ongoing, lifelong pattern of upheaval and problems and cyclical ends to increasingly difficult situations, that is now rearing its ugly head and making my life kind of tough to handle. What’s more, as with so many other job situations, I’m finding myself increasingly un-challenged at work, doing things that come all too easily to me, but which I do better than anyone… so I am practically “frozen” in place in that slot at work, while others around me advance and go on to do bigger things. I also find myself intensely uneasy with the new management — I’ve worked for big organizations before, and I didn’t care for it then… and I don’t care for it now — and that’s cutting into my sense of purpose and resolve.

And once again, I find myself really wanting to do what I’ve always wanted to do — head out on my own, do my own thing, and build a life that is independent and free… according to my specifications, not someone else’s definition of success. I don’t have a stereotypical life with a spouse and 2.4 kids and 2 cars in the garage and a family pet. I also don’t have the need for the kinds of status symbols that others crave. I don’t give a damn about the job title and all that. I do give a damn about doing good work that engages me and gives me a greater sense of self-determination and personal achievement.

So, that’s where I’m finding myself arriving, these days. At a place where I know I need to make different choices, and also develop a greater sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in in my life. And I need to really focus on following my own dreams according to my own standards, rather than getting caught up in what others are saying or thinking or telling me is the way I should be doing things.

The fact that I just don’t feel that way, the fact that I’m not making that my full focus at this time, is the thing that’s dragging me down. I’m not dragged down because I’m feeling like a loser. I’m feeling like a lower because I’m dragged down by my lack of focus and lack of self-determination.

I can see where my neuropsych is coming from, but I think they’re putting the cart before the horse. When I can take action on my own behalf, get clear about what I want to do, and sort things out logistically, I don’t feel like such a loser. It’s remarkable, what change takes place in my head and heart. But when I’m all turned around and can’t think straight, I lose sight of where I’m going, and then I get down on myself.

They’re sorta kinda right. But the cause and effect for them, are the other way around for me.

Which I need to explain to them.

And I need to explain to them that instead of being talked out of feeling like a loser, I need to figure out substantive steps to take to get where I’m going. It’s the lack of concrete steps, the lack of concrete progress, that is dragging me down… not the other way around. Sure, I have these old patterns of cyclical upheaval behind me, but that’s totally manageable, when I have a focus to train my attention on. When I’m busy taking action, I have no time to sit around and feel like crap about myself. Indeed, I don’t. But when I am not taking action — or I am unclear and indecisive — then I start to feel bad, and I start telling myself all sorts of stupid things about myself that just aren’t true.

I just need to get myself back in gear, clear my head, and quit telling myself bad things about myself. As they said last night, I need to stop wasting energy creating some sort of meaning about myself that just isn’t true. At the same time, too, I need to understand the true cause of these issues I’ve got, and do something concrete about them.

In fairness to myself, this recent transition and reorganization has really taken a toll on me, as has the added commuting time and costs. It has cut into my overall quality of life, and I am tired. So, the fact that things have been falling apart more and more over the last few months, shouldn’t surprise me.At the same time, I know that no matter how tired I am, if I have tools around me to help keep me focused and on-target, I can overcome that… and also come up with new and different ways to get more rest.

The main thing is to realize that I’m experiencing feelings — not facts.  I may feel a certain way about myself, but that’s not necessarily a fact. And I need to find ways to keep my spirits up — or at the very least, keep the facts in plain sight in front of me.

So, I guess it’s time for some props. Some new tools. And it’s time to just settle in, stop being distracted by all the things I’m telling myself about what a loser I am… and realize that a lot of what I think about myself comes from a childhood of traumatic brain injury issues that nobody understood and everybody was actually pretty awful about. It wasn’t my fault that I got hurt. It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t understand what people were saying. It wasn’t my fault that I had balance issues and that I had trouble interacting with others. Hell, anyone would have trouble interacting, if they couldn’t understand what others were saying, if their processing speed was slower than expected, and everybody was intent on pushing them to do more-more-more without stopping to ask if the way they were trying to do it was appropriate or not.

The real problem is partly that I get caught up in telling myself I’m a pathetic loser, and partly that circumstances need to change. Which comes first, is anybody’s guess, but one thing is sure — things really need to change, I’m aware of the fact, and I’m not going to let my feelings distract me from that. Hell, I’ve got enough on my plate, without beating myself up in the process.

Shifting my focus

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system… it’s time to pay attention to more productive things than railing against the medical establishment.

I have a relatively full day ahead of me today, and I’m a little short on sleep. I have a few things I must do, this morning, and then I have a holiday party to attend this afternoon. AND I have more holiday things to do tonight, before I get a jump on the week with a conference call at 9 tonight.

I’m pretty tired. I haven’t been getting much sleep, and that tends to cause me to push myself. And get distracted. So, I’ve been distracted this morning. Got all worked up over this-n-that, first thing, and now I’ve spent the last hour or so trying to regain my focus.

I have my list of things I need to do. First and foremost, I need to keep things simple and not pile on things that are NOT on my list. I also need to clear off my dining room table, where I’ve piled a bunch of work stuff high around me, and it’s really distracting me. If I can get that done, and take a bit of a walk to air myself out, then settle in, that will be good.

I had thought about taking a walk first thing, but it was dark when I got up, so I waited. Now I should probably go out. Just to air myself out. Get the blood moving. Quit being so sluggish. And I might even be able to relax enough when I get back to settle in for another quick nap before the afternoon takes off.

The main thing is that I get ahead of the game. To shift my focus ahead of the curve and not constantly be caught off guard, as I tend to be. I need to step things up a bit and really clean up my act — for myself and the benefit of others. I’ve allowed things to “slide” over the past months, in part because I didn’t want to think of myself as having issues. But it’s catching up with me, so there you go.I’m not going to wait for the New Year to make a resolution to change. Change needs to happen now.

Enough talk. Time to get moving. And time to get ahead of the game. Off I go.