The force of habit

Never cross a Jedi nun compliments of http://dudewheresmydeathstar.blogspot.com/

I had an interesting revelation this morning when I woke up. I got to bed late last night, getting caught up in watching Friday night t.v. instead of going to bed like I should have. I felt like I needed a break, but I got caught in that boob-tube vortex that eventually had me watching UFC fighters discussing the challenges of their lives and telling the camera about how they were just going to power through the pain of their torn ligaments like true warriors and never give in to defeat.

I’m tempted to riff on the hazards of ignoring your injuries and “powering through” (I know a lot about that nonsense), but what I really want to talk about is what occurred to me this morning.

See, it’s been a very tough week. I started having trouble around Tuesday, when my normally scheduled neuropsych appointment didn’t happen. My neuropsych is out of town for a few weeks, and I won’t see them until the 2nd week in April. I’ve gone this long without a consult in the past, but I had a really hard time with it, and I went back to weekly appointments as soon as I could.

During this past week, my emotional lability has been pretty intense – up and down precipitously…. all over the map. And pretty intensely, too. I truly felt like quitting my job for most of the week. I’m usually slow to anger, but this week has been extraordinarily bothersome. Normally under typical work conditions, I am pretty solid and able to focus in on my work and I can get a lot done. This past week, however, there’s been the combination of my neuropsych being away and a pretty massive project being dumped on me that is about ready to drive me nuts. I’ll spare you my snarky bitching (for now) — the bottom line is, I got caught off-guard by a lot of details that didn’t even occur to me beforehand (but I am pretty sure I should have thought of). Basically, I am learning as I go with this project, and it’s extremely high profile and can’t be done wrong, so I’m on the hook.

At the same time that my neuropsych is out of town. And my spouse is working weird hours, so we see each other about every other day or so.

Talk about feeling left out on a limb. It really feels like I’m being fed to the lions, here. Just hung out to dry with no backup or support. At least that’s how it feels.

Anyway, I’ve been behaving really badly at work — not exactly a paragon of professional competence. Oh, sure, I’m capable, and I can totally do this thing. But I’ve been very vocal about how f’ed up this whole situation is, and I’ve been so pissed off by what seems like unbelievable incompetence and sloppiness by others who have been dicking around on this project for the past 8 months — la-la-la-la-la I think I’ll fly to Germany for a few days… hmmm… I think I’ll fly to France… la-la-la-la-la fiddle-dee-dee  — that it’s seriously clouded my judgment. And I am really irritating everyone around me. Seriously. They all want me to suck it up, because everybody has to deal with this stupid shit and they manage to keep it together, but my point is that we’re all a whole lot better than this, and lack of leadership and foresight and basic intelligence and discipline by the people “in charge” has created this stupid situation that is pretty amateur and needlessly stressful and is just so indicative of how out of touch management is with what it takes to actually get work done. Geez, it’s like they’re off in la-la land. Permanent vacation. Yeah, our leaders…

It’s just stupid, and I’m not handling it well.

So, all that aside, I have been wondering why the hell I haven’t been handling this well at all. I’ve been in similar situations a number of times over the past two years, and it’s never affected me as much as this project has. The timeline is obscenely tight, yes. The people I’m working with are behaving like buffoons who are more interested in covering their asses than actually getting anything done. But that’s a given. So, what’s different this time?

Well, a number of things, actually. First, my neuropsych is out of town, and that’s throwing me off. Also, I have been getting up really early and going in hours ahead of when I normally do. I’ve also been staying late. And I haven’t been exercising as regularly as I used to. I’m off my cadence, and it’s throwing me off, big-time.

Many of the most important things I do to take care of myself and keep myself balanced are not in place. And I’m not doing well with it. When I was thinking about it this morning, I was thinking that it’s because I depend on those things to keep me balanced and sane — that the exercise and sleep and schedule I usually have are essential to my well-being. And that my visits with my neuropsych are required for me to get along in the world.

But then I thought about it some more, and it occurred to me that it’s actually the disruption of my habits that have sent me over the edge. It’s not the lack of input from my neuropsych that’s throwing me off; it’s the lack of that regular appointment in my week that’s throwing off my cadence. I’ve gotten attached to — and dependent on — a certain cadence to my days and weeks, and when that’s disrupted, I go over the edge.

Which is a bit lame, if I say so myself. Just because things are different for me for a few weeks, I can’t keep my sh*t together? That’s a little sad.

On the other hand, when I step back from the situation and don’t make up some judgmental definition of what a loser I am, I can see another side to this — the power of habits, and the need for me to create better habits for myself that will help me live my life better, instead of convenient habits that are like mind-numbing drugs — where, if they’re taken away, I start to piss and moan like a cranky teenager.

See, here’s the thing — habit is a hugely powerful force. Our habits train our brains and our lives to do certain things in certain ways — when we do things often enough and long enough, we can reach a point of “unconscious competence” where we don’t even have to think about what we’re doing. We just know how to do it, like brushing our teeth or starting our car. When we start out, it can take us some time to figure out how to do what we need to do — remember when you were a kid, learning to brush your teeth, and you couldn’t seem to master that movement of up-and-down with the toothbrush? And how many times, when you were learning to drive, did you crank the motor too long, so that the starter screeched — or you stepped on the gas so long that you flooded the engine?

It happens, those things at first, and getting past them is all part of learning. But eventually if we do these things long enough and often enough, and if they are important enough to us in our lives, we do reach a place where we don’t have to constantly think about them when we do them. They become part our lives, our overall competencies. They become habitual. And the neural connections in our brains that enable us to do them without having to consciously think about them… well, those become a regular part of our lives, sometimes as though they were never NOT there.

That’s the power of habit — important things in our lives become so much a part of who and what we are, that we can’t imagine them not being part of us. And since my habits — like my Tuesday neuropsych appointments and my regular daily schedule — tend to become so central to my life that when they’re interrupted or changed, I start to seriously freak out, I can see now that I need to start creating some new habits. I need some larger, even more powerful habits that will help me carry on, even when things around me are not optimally scheduled or managed.

Seriously. I need more resilience. I’m way too brittle to be 100% healthy. That much is clear to me, after this past week. I’ve got to come up with better ways to handle my stress and strains, than relying on a set schedule for getting by.

So, what to do?

Well, first off, I need to evolve my morning habits. Because of my work, there is no guarantee that every morning I’ll have the time to do a full cycle of weight-lifting. Sometimes I have to shower, grab a cup of coffee and a quick bowl of cereal, and bolt. On other days, I can exercise – I have the time. So, what I can do is actually slightly increase the weights I’m lifting on my “on” days, so that the days when I’m not exercising first thing, my body is recovering and I’m not feeling like I’m missing an important part of my day by not lifting.

Another thing I need to do is stop checking Facebook, first thing in the morning. That’s a losing proposition, because so many of my “friends” use FB as a soapbox or a bitch session — it’s where they air their grievances or “share” some slice of ridiculousness. One of my friends has a bug up their ass about politics, and practically everything they write is a crusade of some kind or another. I agree with much of what they say, but they’re so rammy about everything, it’s pretty wearing, even for me. That is no way to start my day. So, that bad habit has got to stop.

Another thing I need to do is actually feed myself — do some uplifting reading while I’m riding the exercise bike. Feed my spirit, feed my head with good things, useful things. Get myself in a positive and pro-active frame of mind, first thing in the morning. I need to do things that will strengthen my hope and resolve and attitude, not drag it down.

There are so many really positive sources of information and ideas out there, I really can’t see why I should waste a lot of time listening to people haggle of stupid crap that’s going to change eventually anyway. All the complaining about things that cannot be changed… How about changing the things that can be changed?

So, that’s what I need to do with myself. Create new habits, each day. Start small — just little things, like reading something uplifting first thing while I’m exercising, instead of scanning the bitchfest that Facebook has become. Strengthening my mind, as well as my body, first thing. Making that a priority.

And making it a habit. Making a deliberate habit of doing something good. Making a deliberate habit of taking care of myself and my dreams and my goals, first thing in the morning, before I do anything else.

Now, I have been an intermittent reader and a big fan of the site www.zenhabits.com (which has since become succcess.org), and maybe that’s where I picked up the focus on habits. Actually, I think I’ve always been serious about habits — it’s just been such a part of my life and my outlook that it’s taken up residence in the back of my mind and become one of those “unconscious competencies” that I don’t quite notice — and value — so much, on my own, unless someone else is drawing my attention to it. When someone else talks about it, I remember it in a new light, and that brings it to life. The thing is, with sites like succcess.org, I have something to read while I’m riding my exercise bike, first thing in the morning. There are plenty of other folks online, too, who are running blogs or podcasts about personal improvement and successful habits, so there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t start out my days like this.

Of course, when I’m tired or out of sorts, it can make keeping that focus a bit more difficult. But I often find that so long as I just start… keep it simple and just do it… I do get the energy I need to move forward.

That’s the force of habit — doing something so frequently and regularly, that NOT doing it becomes more uncomfortable than doing it — creating those neuropathways, those synaptic connections, that thrive on and feed the regular cadence of good that I bring to my day.

So, enough bitching about my job. I’ve got to get my act together and just buckle down to get this project done. Quit wasting time being hard on myself. Quit wasting time worrying about all those things I cannot control, and invest the time in myself, my attitude, my hope and promise. That’s a far better use of my time — an investment, rather than an expense.

Speaking of better uses of time, I’ve got to get ready to go have coffee with an old friend I haven’t seen in quite some time. It will be interesting to compare notes…

Onward.

Rough week

This has been an incredibly difficult week. Not made easier by the absence of my neuropsych, who is the only sounding board I actually have to just bounce ideas off. They’re also the only person in my life who doesn’t actually laugh at me or make light of me or misunderstand me when I get turned around. This is not easy, and it has a couple of different effects on me:

1) I appreciate all the more the help I get from someone who is actually able to help me

2) It sharpens my sensitivity for those who are without this kind of help, who struggle through alone, day in and day out.

I once heard a meditation/prayer of some kind about “Let this suffering awaken in me compassion for others” … or something like that.

Okay, I’m awake now.

It’s time for bed. Good night.

It’s awful, but I can handle it

Someone needs to point the way

This week has been really awful. The past few weeks have been awful, in fact. I have so much to do at work, and my natural tendency to want to get it right has been taking a beating. There’s a huge project that was dropped in my lap on Monday that has to be done by tomorrow, and in the meantime, I have other commitments that won’t wait… and I need to eat and sleep…

Probably the worst part of it is that, while I do believe that if I focus in and block everything else out, I can actually get it done, others on my team have doubts… including my bosses. They’re trying to “help” me by interceding on my behalf, but frankly what I really need everyone to do is just go away and leave me alone till this is done. And quit playing stupid friggin’ games, trying to cover their asses, when they’re the ones who created this mess in the first place with dicking around for 8 months till the 11th hour… and then shaving three weeks off the end of the project, ’cause they didn’t didn’t think things through and were asleep at the wheel.

Poor friggin’ planning. What is wrong with people?

Actually, I know what’s wrong — they’re too godawful busy in all the wrong ways. I should know. I get that way too. But I have the “advantage” of knowing that my brain is inclined to get me into trouble, so I take extra pains to plan things out, schedule my life ahead of time, and have a pretty good idea about where I’m going each day, and why.

Before I knew that my brain was re-wired by all those mild TBIs, and I developed some time and energy management skills with my neuropsych, I was a lot like the folks I’m working with — running around like a chicken with its head cut off, bouncing from one exciting project to the next, and generally getting nothing at all done on time.

So, I know what that’s like. I know how it is.

Still, it’s frustrating, and it feels like the folks I’m working with have hung me out to dry by just being careless and not paying attention to things that matter — like making key deadlines along the way. It just feels like disrespect and manipulation… but I’m sure at the root it’s just poor planning.

I can’t believe how frustrating this is. I have so many years of experience working on really huge projects that were so closely managed and monitored, and which managed to get from beginning to end in one piece — and pretty much on time. This project pales in comparison, but it’s 1000 times worse, and it feels completely chaotic, even though it’s pretty straightforward, when you think about it. The difference was that those projects in the past were actively managed. And the difference was that the people involved were dedicated and gave a damn about doing a good job. The folks who are running this show seem to care more about making a good impression with their bosses and looking good to everyone, instead of actually doing the work.

When it comes time to do the work, then that falls to me and a handful of other people who bother to care. What a setup. What a lazy bunch of …

Well, anyway, I suppose I should look on the bright side and focus on the positives — like knowing in my heart that I’ve got it in me to get this done. Like knowing that I’ve been in far worse circumstances, and I’ve prevailed. Like being pretty sure that after the fits I’ve been pitching lately, that this slipshod bogus BS isn’t going to fly the next time. Everyone is pretty clear that I’m pissed off, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve got their attention, and they’re going to take steps to do better next time. That’s what has happened on previous projects where people were doing this kind of crap — I made it clear that this wasn’t going to fly without me taking issue with it. And things changed. It was pretty uncomfortable, but oh well. If people aren’t going to bother to do their jobs, I’m certainly not going to pretend to be fine with it.

I do not suffer alone ;)

Of course, this all gives me pause — I know I could handle myself more diplomatically, and I may do that today. But the whole thing about needing to suck it up and not let on that something is amiss… my coworkers who do that are stooped and wrinkled and have thinning hair… while I’m sailing along looking 10-15 years younger than I am. Sure, I could do the whole stoic thing where I’m “too tough to be troubled” by all this crap. But what would be the point? Seriously. It would just perpetuate these bullsh*t scenarios, and everyone would continue to sail along, not paying attention, not bothering to do better, not thinking things through ahead of time… and nothing would ever change.

I believe in change. Hell, I live change. It’s about the only thing I 100% believe in, apart from the tides and the course of the earth around the sun. And as sure as I feel the stabbing pain in my left hip and the spasms in my lower back and the tightness in my shoulders and the cramping in the joints of my hands and fingers, I do know that all things change… especially if we make the effort to change them.

So, now that I’ve got everyone’s attention at work, I’m going to set us on a course that will take us where we need to go. I will tell people exactly what I need to get this project done by tomorrow, and I will provide the leadership and direction that others have failed refused to provide. There is a massive, gaping leadership gap at work — everyone is horse-trading, trying to be the most popular kid on the block, and it’s infantile. So, that leaves the door open for me to step in and sort things out.

This is really friggin’ awful. I hate it with every fiber of my being. But like just about everything else that falls under the “sucks bilgewater” category in my life right now, I can handle it.

I’ve got to. Or it will handle me.

 

 

Hey, wait – maybe PCS isn’t a *real* problem?

Don't worry... be happy... right?

Just kidding — that’s my attempt at being facetious and draw attention to some of the absolute absurdity that the DSM-IV once again brings our way.

I’ve heard people talk about how DSM diagnostics are decided — apparently there’s a committee of powerful, politically connected psychiatry insiders who all get together in a room behind closed doors (literally) and bargain to see who gets to define which syndrome or disorder. Hmmmm… Sounds dicey to me.

And yet, their pronouncements rule the day. And they hold the keys to the castle with the insurance companies, as well as how we define and understand ourselves, based on “professional opinion”. Their little jockeying-for-position games behind closed doors can — and do — ruin lives. Not least by way of coming up with bogus definitions that clueless therapists and counselors and healthcare providers rely upon to conceptualize conditions and treatments.

My reading of the ONF guidelines for persistent mTBI symptoms has hit a speed bump. My initial enthusiasm has been quickly cooled — as it often is. I guess I had a bit of an impulse control problem, when I started reading their guidelines. I was so excited that someone had put together something comprehensive for healthcare providers, which actually focused on long-term issues of mild traumatic brain injury. Fortunately or not, my double-take happened pretty early on — around page 7, when they started to go on about DSM-IV diagnoses for PCS and PCD.

Apparently, PCS is a syndrome where you just *think* you’ve got a problem. There’s been no neuropsychological testing to prove it (though actually getting access to that testing can be all but impossible, and even when you do get tested, whether or not you get someone good is all too often a coin-toss).

Now PCD, that’s a real problem, being verified by neuropsychological testing and evidence of “significant impairment in social or occupational functioning”. My next question is, who gets to decide what constitutes “significant impairment”? If my post-TBI symptoms persist in making me utterly miserable for years after the fact, but I can still hold down a job and carry on a semblance of a conversation, does that mean I’m not really that bad off? (This really brings to the fore the need for real, solid, in-person education, like the “You Look Great” videos and book by John C Byler. Check them out, if you can — the YouTube videos, especially.)

What’s more, the DSM-IV PCD/PCS definitions talk about loss of consciousness being a requirement for concussion. Please take note, doctors and patients alike:

You Do Not Have To Lose Consciousness To Sustain A Concussion

A temporary disruption of consciousness will do just fine, thank you. Fogginess, dizziness, feeling out of it… that can indicate concussion, also.

Anyway, considering these guidelines from the ONF are intended for doctors who are diagnosing and treating concussion/mildTBI folks, this inclusion of DSM information really worries me. It’s so obviously slanted towards psychology, when traumatic brain injury’s nature is so physiological in nature. The separation between brain and body that the psych mainstream insists on maintaining is a little bit creepy, actually. Here are all these people walking around in bodies, living physical lives, dealing with people who have genuine physiological bases for their state of mind, and yet magically the body doesn’t matter. It’s like the psychiatric diagnosis-definers of the world have problems with their own physical realities, so they expect everyone else to be as divided and dismissive as they are.

How is it possible that a whole scientific field (though Sheldon from Big Bang Theory would probably dispute the scientific-ness of psychology/psychiatry) can discount half (or even more) of the human experience? It’s sad. And pretty awful that so many impaired people have so much power.

In shutting out the physical, they draw much of what they purport into question. Their guidelines and diagnoses patently discount a massive chunk of contributory information. How can you take them seriously, when they make claims that post-concussive issues are “subjective”? As though it’s all in our heads and we’re just looking for attention. And yet, they’re the ones making the rules and deciding whether or not we get care — and what kind we get. So, we have to take them seriously. As a heart attack.

It's all in your head

The DSM definition of PCS — which includes “Subjective concentration, memory, or intellectual difficulties without neuropsychological evidence of marked impairment” and “Preoccupation with above symptoms and fear of brain damage with hypochondriacal concern and adoption of sick role” has Münchausen syndrome written all over it, and seems to me to breed dismissal, neglect, and opens the door to a whole course of “treatment” for a psychological condition that doesn’t even exist.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time the psychiatric industry were playing fast and loose with other people’s lives, in hopes of getting people “back to normal”. Talk to historians (or check Google) about marginalized populations , like Native Americans, African-Americans, non-compliant women, gay people, and just about anybody who has been considered “abnormal” by mainstream society, and you’ll find generations of evidence of psychiatry being used to further the dominant paradigm, and decide who’s fit to belong and who’s not.

In the past couple of generations, with the rise of pharmaceutical “solutions” to mental health issues, psychiatry has been used tons of times to further the profits of big pharma, and their influence reaches into every aspect of our lives. It would seem at times as though psychiatry and psychology were just the vetting mechanisms to identify which drug should be prescribed — not if any drugs are really necessary at all.

And this is what gets me the most. Because if you’re saying that Post-Concussive Syndrome is a “subjective”, “hypochondriacal” psychological condition, and you reach for the prescription pad, you may very well be headed down the wrong path entirely. TBI makes a lot of people react completely opposite to drugs than the rest of the population, and it can make you intensely sensitive to even minor doses, which not a lot of people realize.

Another thing that worries me about including DSM stuff early in the ONF guidelines is that if docs read that up front, they could be led to think that, “Well, it’s not a REAL problem that I can address — it’s actually something that’s in their head and they’re better off seeing a counselor. Furthermore, if I allow this patient to entertain fantasies about their being sick, I’m just encouraging their malingering and rewarding their Münchausen syndrome. And I don’t want to do that.” And they may ship ‘em off to psychiatrists who whip out that prescription pad and send their new charges straight to the fires of aggravated TBI symptoms – probably without even realizing it.

And off we go down the road to hell… With clueless doctors staying that way, and TBI survivors continuing to struggle and fall deeper and deeper into the hole of no-answers, no-options, no-hope.

Good God.

So, there’s my speed bump meditation for the day on the ONF guidelines. As always, with mild TBI, it’s caveat emptor, when it comes to getting good information. Buyer Beware — someone with either an agenda… or misplaced loyalties/trust… or a need to take shortcuts… or a sense of extreme urgency (or a combination of all of the above) might be playing fast and loose with the facts of the case, for their own gain and profit — not yours.

Which is why we survvrors and those who care about TBI survivors need to keep vigilant and guard ourselves against unmitigated nonesense. Fortunately (for me, anyway), my constant restlessness and TBI-enhanced anxiety and vigilance keeps me on my toes.

I just hope the same can be said for others.

Hey, wait – maybe TBI isn’t a *real* problem?

D’oh – sorry – I meant to say “PCS” not “TBI” — I’ve posted this under the proper title.

Hey, wait – maybe PCS isn’t a *real* problem?

Click here to go there now >>

PCS vs. PCD

Click the image to download the guidelines (156 pages - PDF)

I came across something interesting the other day when I was looking at the PDF Guidelines for Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) and Persistent Symptoms from the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation, namely, the difference between Post-Concussion Syndrome and Post-Concussive Disorder.

Apparently, they’re not the same. I had thought they were interchangeable, but I guess they’re not.

Diagnostic Criteria for Post-Concussion Syndrome (ICD-10)
A. History of head trauma with loss of consciousness preceding symptom onset by a maximum of 4 weeks.
B. Symptoms in 3 or more of the following symptom categories:

  • Headache, dizziness, malaise, fatigue, noise tolerance
  • Irritability, depression, anxiety, emotional lability
  • Subjective concentration, memory, or intellectual difficulties without neuropsychological evidence of marked impairment
  • Insomnia
  • Reduced alcohol tolerance
  • Preoccupation with above symptoms and fear of brain damage with hypochondriacal concern and adoption of sick role

Diagnostic Criteria for Postconcussional Disorder (DSM-IV)
A. A history of head trauma that has caused significant cerebral concussion.
Note: The manifestations of concussion include loss of consciousness, posttraumatic amnesia, and less commonly, posttraumatic onset of seizures. The specific method of defining this criterion needs to be established by further research.
B. Evidence from neuropsychological testing or quantified cognitive assessment of difficulty in attention (concentrating, shifting focus of attention, performing simultaneous cognitive tasks) or memory (learning or recall of information).
C. Three (or more) of the following occur shortly after the trauma and last at least 3 months:

  1. Becoming fatigued easily
  2. Disordered sleep
  3. Headache
  4. Vertigo or dizziness
  5. Irritability or aggression on little or no provocation
  6. Anxiety, depression, or affective instability
  7. Changes in personality (e.g., social or sexual inappropriateness)
  8. Apathy or lack of spontaneity

D. The symptoms in criteria B and C have their onset following head trauma or else represent a substantial worsening of preexisting symptoms.
E. The disturbance causes significant impairment in social or occupational functioning and represents a significant decline from a previous level of functioning. In school-age children, the impairment may be manifested by a significant worsening in school or academic performance dating from the trauma.
F. The symptoms do not meet criteria for Dementia Due to Head Trauma and are not better accounted for by another mental disorder (e.g., Amnestic Disorder Due to Head Trauma, Personality Change Due to Head Trauma).

PCS is apparently a situation where you have head trauma with loss of consciousness (I think the DSM-IV needs to be updated, since concussion does NOT require loss of consciousness, and that fact has confused a lot of people and caused them to take concussion less seriously, when there was not LOC). And PCS is about “subjective” difficulties that haven’t been demonstrated with neuropsychological evidence.

Now, a couple of red flags go up for me — and it has more to do with the DSM, which I have some problems with anyway, than it does with the Guidelines. First, that loss of consciousness requirement. That can lead a lot of people down a flawed path. The other thing is the “subjective” part, which makes it sound a little bit like it’s all in your head? Well, technically, it is, but there seems to be a certain psychological aspect to it — then again, it is the DSM, so there you go.

Now, on to Post-Concussional Disorder… It requires a history of head trauma that has caused “significant cerebral concussion”. So, who decides what constitutes “significant”? Loss of consciousness, post-traumatic amnesia, seizures… What if you get totally messed up, but none of those things happened to you?

I think this is one of the first flaws in this set of guidelines — it relies on the DSM off the bat to psychologically define what are actually complex conditions that have very physiological roots and causes and issues. Plus, that thing about loss of consciousness… That’s troubling, as this may lead doctors astray — yet again — in to the weeds of gauging “how serious was your concussion” based on the injury itself, rather than the complex cascade of events and conditions after the actual injury.

But later on page 7, they go on to say

There has been debate as to whether persistent symptoms are best attributed to biological or psychological factors. It now appears that a variety of interacting neuropathological and psychological contributors both underlie and maintain postconcussive symptoms. One source of controversy has been the observation that the symptoms found to persist following mTBI are not specific to this condition. They may also occur in other diagnostic groups, including those with chronic pain, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and are observed to varying extent among healthy individuals.

So, it’s good that they’re acknowledging that there are complex contributors. And it’s good that they’re pointing out that symptoms we’ve got can also be found in other groups — though I have to wonder why it’s to be expected that a condition would have “only” certain symptoms that were all its own… I can think of a whole handful of conditions which “share” symptoms with each other, yet are not dismissed as made-up and are treated with care. Anyway, that’s another patch of weeds for another time.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — traumatic brain injury is a continuously re-traumatizing condition that just doesn’t quit. It can linger and morph and transform both itself and you over the course of days, months, years… sometimes to the point where you don’t even recognize yourself and your life anymore.

Which is where we get into the drawbacks of a set of guidelines like this document. I’ve seen some comments by people about its limitations, and yes, I’m starting to see them now that I’m getting deeper into it. I’m only 7 pages in, after all. Initially, I was really excited that there were these kinds of guidelines, and I still do think they offer a great service, in that they attempt to speak directly to doctors and healthcare providers. In that respect, I don’t think that relying so heavily on research and clinical studies is such a bad thing. That’s what doctors pay attention to. “Anecdotal evidence” is viewed with a mix of skepticism and scorn in most medical circles I’ve encountered, and it’s only in the past ten years or so that “evidence-based medicine” has gotten much of a foothold in the mainstream. Now it seems to be quite popular, but still the clinical studies seem to be considered the gold standard against which other sources of information are measured.

So, for what it’s worse, for better or for worse, we’re stuck with clinical studies and limited research, to make our case with the medical establishment.

It’s a little bothersome.

[pause to regain composure]

But hey, at least someone is making the effort here.

And that’s a plus.

Anyway, on a personal note, my neuropsych is out of town for the next two weeks, so I’ll  have till mid-April to go it alone without someone to bounce ideas off of, and basically practice my everyday socialization chops. It’s funny, how those weekly visits serve to balance me out and keep me grounded. The times when I’ve gone it alone for a few weeks, I’ve shown up at their office a little loopy and straying back into the old territory I used to inhabit that was filled with chimeras and borderline delusions (in the loose sense — not real delusions — not yet, anyway). Somehow my neuropsych knows how to talk to me in a way that gets me to rethink my fundamental thought processes and come up with better ideas than I had when I first stopped in to see them.

I’ve always been independent to a fault, and now I find myself feeling dependent on a clinician. Ironic, that.

Anyway, it’s late and even though it’s Saturday night and I can sleep in tomorrow, I am absolutely bushed and I know it’s time to go to bed. I had a good day today. Did a lot of reading and writing and figured a few things out.

Onward.

The emphasis is on persistent symptoms

It’s been a quiet week, blog-wise. It’s been a very busy week, work-wise. I am glad of that, because it indicates that I am quite functional, which a good place to be at. I haven’t had much time for anything other than working, getting a little exercise, and then coming home to make supper, watch television, and go to bed. But that’s okay.

For now.

Ideally, I’d like to have my work and the rest of my life be more balanced out. I’ve got some other things I’d like to do with myself besides complete tasks for my employer. A 40-hour work week might be nice… but I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. So, I am looking for other ways to think about my job, other than it being just a job.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking on and off about the Guidelines for Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and Persistent Symptoms, with the emphasis on *persistent*. On Page 6 of the document, they talk about

Common Symptoms of mTBI

Physical

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Seeing stars or lights
  • Balance problems
  • Dizziness
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Tinnitus

Behavioural/Emotional

  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue/lethargy
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Difficulty falling asleep

Cognitive

  • Feeling “slowed down”
  • Feeling “in a fog” or “dazed”
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty remembering

It’s a short list, compared to the “batch” of 84 ways TBI can make your life really interesting I catalogued several years ago and have used as a guideline in my own recovery. But it’s a list, nonetheless. And they can cause a whole truckload of hurt. mTBI can really mess with your head in all sorts of ways, even if medical imaging can’t pick it up. Indeed, the ONF Guidelines say:

Computed Axial Tomography (CAT) and conventional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) usually fail to detect evidence of structural brain abnormalities in mTBI. However, reviews of recent advances in the biomechanical modeling of mTBI in humans and animals conclude that mTBI leads to functional neuronal disruption, and at times structural damage

Yeah – what they said: “functional neuronal disruption, and at times structural damage”.

Now, I don’t want to go all worst-case-scenario on you and start going on about brain damage and whatnot. My point is that even if mild traumatic brain injury can’t always be recorded in medical imaging, over the long term, it can lead to problems, even structural damage.

Researchers are still learning a lot about mTBI/concussion, and they have a ways to go before they fully understand all the mechanics and impacts of it. But at least they’re starting to “get” that this is a real problem for real people, and it’s to be taken seriously. They’re making the important distinction that

In most cases, patients who experience mTBI will recover fully, typically within days to months. The concern is that, as the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) notes, “up to 15% of patients diagnosed with mTBI may have experienced persistent disabling problems” (CDC, p.3). The consequences for these individuals may include reduced functional ability, heightened emotional distress, and delayed return to work or school (MAA NSW, 2008). When symptoms persist beyond the typical recovery period of three months the term post-concussion syndrome or disorder may be applied.

So, while the majority of people do recover on their own from concussion/mild TBI within days or weeks or months, the fact remains that there are a whole lot of people who don’t. And those people who don’t can be disabled by their symptoms and the issues that surround them.

And here we come to the domain of post-concussive disorder/syndrome — that twilight zone where things get all jumbled up for no apparent reason, and a whole lot of stuff stops making sense, and you start to hear things like…

“It’s been months, even years, since your TBI — why aren’t you better yet?”

“You look fine — why are you pretending to be sick?”

“This should be easy for you — why are you having such a hard time with it?”

Everybody seems to think that recovery from concussion is a given, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the symptoms last for years and years, and even the people closest to you, the people who you’d expect to understand that you’re not exactly the same as you used to be, can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that you need more sleep, or you need to think things through more slowly, or you need to have more routine, than the “average” person. And they judge you for it. Sometimes they give up on you. Which is — sorry — total bullshit.

Can I tell you, the last one — “This should be easy for you — why are you having such a hard time with it?” — is probably the toughest for me — and it’s especially hard hearing it from inside my own head. I swear, there are a whole lot of things that I am certain should make a whole lot more sense to me, than they do — there are things I hear that I feel I should understand, directions I receive that I feel I should get, and there are things I’m tasked with that I should be able to complete with no problem.

But for some reason I can’t. It’s like my brain isn’t working. I usually end up soldiering on and just having a go at it — giving it my best shot and keeping on trying till I get it right. But I swear to GOD, it is maddening. You would think that after all this time, I would be able to get my act together.

In a way, I think I’ve kind of given up trying to get everything back in place the way I want it to be, the way it’s comfortable for me. I guess I’ve made peace with the fact that I am probably not going to get a lot of things right the first time, but I need to just keep trying. There are so, so many things that I have thought I was doing right, then I found out I was doing them all wrong… then I’d look back, six months later, and wonder why the hell it was so hard for me. It just makes no sense. But learning new things — even refining old things — takes what feels like an eternity for me, sometimes.

Still, I can’t let it get me down. If I keep my energy up and keep myself reasonably healthy and engaged in my life, I can just keep going… just keep going… till I figure things out. I just need to keep moving, keep rethinking things, keep my spirits up and keep trying. And if I treat this as an adventure and a chance to explore and learn new things about myself, it puts my experience in a very different light.

And that’s a challenge, because over the years, my anxiety has gotten to the point where a part of me HAS TO HAVE EVERYTHING COMPLETELY UNDER CONTROL, or it freaks out. A part of me craves order and predictability, it relies on routine, and being able to plan and anticipate and properly respond to my life situations. It’s that part that helps me get my routines in order, helps me keep going, helps me keep fit for work and life. But that part of me is constantly frustrated, constantly thwarted by the other parts of me that have gotten rewired and turned around over the years. So, it’s a constant source of tension for me.

A creative tension, really.

And when I think about it, it’s not all bad… there are some good parts to that tension. It spurs me on to do better, to make positive changes in my life and in the lives of others. It moves me to improve. And it moves me to explore.

The most important thing is keeping an open mind — that’s what transforms my situation from a terrible, awful burden, to an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s when I don’t cut myself slack, when I forget that the issues I’m having are because of what happened to my brain, not what my own inherent self-worth is, not what others think my problem is, and NOT because there is anything wrong with me… that’s when things start to get dicey.

In a way, acknowledging that my issues are neurological is both a blessing and a curse. A two-edged sword. But for now, for today, I’m going to focus on the blessing part.

Because I can.

 

Good day today

I’d intended to do some more reading and writing on the mTBI guidelines, but life happened.

I spent 3+ hours making what I thought was a simple repair to some clothing — I had no idea it took so long to sew on a patch… Then I hung out with friends and spent a bunch of time catching up on some things I haven’t been able to get to, because of work.

It was a good day, but this is the first I’m able to sit down at my computer.

And now I’m tuckered out. It’s time for bed.

More later.

mTBI Guidelines and Persistent Symptoms – the scope of the work

Click the image to download the guidelines (156 pages - PDF)

I’m back to reading the PDF Guidelines for Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) and Persistent Symptoms from the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation, and I’m taking my time, because I want to really understand what they’re saying.

What’s jumped out at me right off the bat is that:

  1. They take mild traumatic brain injury seriously. This is really important, because in the world of brain injury, attaching the word “mild” to the injury can make it seem like it’s minor. I’ve been told that using “mild” in describing brain injury is falling out of use, however, in the medical establishment, I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon — the degree of injury at the time of the accident/assault/event determines what sort of immediate care you receive, so that gets on your chart and your medical record for all time, and in a way that’s kind of “who you become” in the eyes of the healthcare workers who deal with you from that point on. Even so, the ultimate complications may turn out to be way more than “mild”. Hence, it’s important to start out saying “We’re talking about ‘mild’ injuries, people, and yes they are serious and can have some pretty impactful long-term effects” — at one time, they are acknowledging the relative “mildness” of the initial injury and also setting the context for future discussion. In fact, using that apparent contradiction/paradox as a basis, might actually help to get their message across even more.
  2. They emphasize the long-term effects and actually talk about them in terms of being immediately responsive and pro-active in how healthcare professionals address mild TBI. They acknowledge that there is literally no “best practice” clearly defined for treating folks who do not experience spontaneous recovery from mild TBI. And then they go on to use the sense that God gave them — they set about looking for an approach to “screen for and identify patients that are at high-risk of persistent symptoms” and also develop a management plan for the symptoms that are commonly associated with these symptoms. Pretty amazing… they actually intend to develop “clinical guidelines is to improve patient care by creating a framework that can be implemented by health professionals to effectively identify and treat individuals who manifest persistent symptoms following mTBI”.

I’m going to deliberately overlook the fact that the medical establishment has, up to this point, not felt it was important enough to actually do this before. Let’s not dwell on that maddening fact.

Let’s focus instead on the fact that someone is doing it now, and they are off to a good start, from what I can tell from the first 10 pages of the PDF. And they are coming from a medical standpoint, so the general practitioners of the world who are seeing all these folks who had a car accident or sports concussion six months ago and still aren’t getting any better, won’t be left out in the cold wondering WTF?!, when it comes to these types of patients.

That said, now it’s on to the next paragraph — on page 5, the Scope of the work. (I’m adding my own emphasis below)

The present guidelines are appropriate for use with adults (≥ 18 years) who have experienced mTBI. The present guideline is not appropriate for use with patients who have incurred penetrating brain injuries, birth injuries, brain damage from stroke or other cerebrovascular accidents, shaken baby syndrome, or moderate to severe closed head injuries. The guideline addresses early management to only a limited extent because the purpose of this document is to provide guidance on the assessment and treatment of persistent symptoms. Nonetheless, because early management can influence the development and maintenance of persistent symptoms, the most critical issues regarding early management have been incorporated. For more comprehensive guidance on prehospital and acute care, readers are directed to the Motor Accidents Authority of NSW ‘Guidelines for Mild Traumatic Brain Injury following a Closed Head Injury’ (MAA NSW, 2008,
http://www.maa.nsw.gov.au/default.aspx?MenuID=148). The present document targets healthcare professionals providing service to individuals who have experienced mTBI, including health care providers, neurologists, physiatrists, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and nurses. (p5 “Scope”)

More good stuff. They’re clear about who this is for. It’s for adults who are least 18 years of age or older, who have experienced mild traumatic brain injury. This is an important distinction because the more we find out about mTBI and concussion, the more we realize that kids are affected differently than adults — small children are affected differently from teens and adults, and teens are affected differently from small children and full developed adults. I wonder if the 18-year cutoff might be a little controversial, since I’ve read/heard that the brains of males are not fully mature until age 24 or so. I’ve heard that all young adults have still-developing brains. So, I wonder if there might be a gray area around the ≥ 18 years qualifier. And I wonder if this isn’t going to spur more research and similar guidelines for teens and small children.

Anyway, the main point is that it’s a start at differentiating between adults and non-adults, and yes, that piece of information is important, too, because too many people — doctors and other healthcare folks included — aren’t fully up to speed on the differences. It’s also significant to me because in the world of mild traumatic brain injury/concussion, when adults are impacted and cannot get adequate care, everyone is affected — their spouses/partners, their kids, their own parents, their employers, their co-workers, everyone they interact with in the adult world. Their difficulties affect our whole system — our economics, our politics, the social fabric of our culture — in ways that kids’ issues simply can’t. So, coming up with guidelines for treating adults can have far-reaching benefits and consequences throughout the whole of society.

The next important distinction is that this “guideline is not appropriate for use with patients who have incurred penetrating brain injuries, birth injuries, brain damage from stroke or other cerebrovascular accidents, shaken baby syndrome, or moderate to severe closed head injuries.” This is an important distinction because mild TBI has its own set of “exciting” complications that don’t necessarily translate to other sorts of acquired or traumatic brain injuries. mTBI is in a class of its own — and yet, it can have confusing and frustrating overlaps and similarities with other brain conditions, such as stroke or birth injuries or penetrating brain injuries like gunshots or Phineas Gage’s much-studied case.

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury is in a class of its own, as so many of us can attest. And its initial complications can mutate into a whole host of other problems on down the road. Not taking it seriously, or trying to apply treatment/coping mechanisms to it that are really developed for other kinds of brain injury can be terribly frustrating and counter-productive. It’s important to acknowledge that this is a condition that stands on its own and needs to be considered and treated as a distinct condition.

And now we come to the proposed management strategy — They say they’re going to talk about early management only a bit, because they’re really talking about long-term issues that don’t resolve. It’s a good place to come from — being clear like that. At the same time, they do say they’re going to talk about early management, because it “can influence the development and maintenance of persistent symptoms, the most critical issues regarding early management have been incorporated.” So, I could see this document serving two uses:

  1. To teach healthcare folks how to understand, treat, and manage long-term mTBI issues, to teach them to take it seriously — and also give them tools and information they can use to improve their medical practice.
  2. To heighten awareness about all the crap that can go wrong, if you don’t manage the injury properly at the start — a kind of wake-up call for the healthcare folks who dismiss concussion and mild TBI as something that “takes care of itself”. 10-15% of mild traumatic brain injury survivors don’t spontaneously recover — and I wonder how much that might change, if the injury were properly managed from the get-go.

And then they give us a link to more comprehensive guidance on prehospital and acute care which is great – I checked it out and there is a lot of information there. Too much for me to get through right now. Since I’m working on my focus and not getting distracted, I’ll focus on the ONF pdf before I go wandering off to other things ;)

So, whom do they intend to educate with this document?

  • healthcare professionals providing service to individuals who have experienced mTBI, including health care providers
  • neurologists
  • physiatrists
  • psychiatrists
  • psychologists
  • counselors
  • physiotherapists
  • occupational therapists
  • and nurses

That’s a pretty comprehensive list, and I have my own individual hopes for how this document can shape the perceptions and approach of each. Here’s my wish list:

  • For healthcare professionals providing service to individuals who have experienced mTBI, including health care providers — I hope that they gain a heightened awareness of the issues that mTBI survivors can deal with on a daily basis, and that they stop writing us off as malingerers and fakers, and start taking our issues seriously.
  • For neurologists — I hope that they can find a common nomenclature, a common conceptual framework within which to place mild TBI. I also hope that they will stop dismissing us because our injuries were “mild” and that they’ll gain a greater long-term view of the consequences of their actions at the start of the injury management. Mild TBI is not an injury that always “just clears up” — when it doesn’t, the choices made and actions taken at the start, can have dire long-term consequences, which result in untold, needless, and often avoidable suffering.
  • For physiatrists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists– I hope that, like neurologists, they gain a greater appreciation of the impacts that mTBI can have on a person, and connect the dots between the different aspects of the injury – physical, mental, emotional, and yes, spiritual. Being in rehab, it’s also so important for them to not fall into cookie-cutter responses to mTBI survivors, because our symptoms and issues can shift and change over time. Plus, at times, our issues can seem to be improving, when they’re really not — we may be able to better manage the pain and confusion and sensitivities, but they are still very much there and very much a part of our experience. So, please don’t dismiss them because we seem to be doing so much better.
  • For psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors — I hope that they come to see that there can — and will — be physiological reasons for and connections with mental health issues that some of their clients have. I truly hope that they can somehow learn to see the physical aspects of mental health, and to acknowledge the neurological basis for many issues. Rather than trying to address certain problems at a psycho/spiritual level, it can be a whole lot more effective to address them at their physiological roots and foster better mental health by encouraging things like getting good sleep, exercising, and eating right. Acknowledging the neurological and physiological basis for some mental health issues is not caving in to the competition or losing ground to the “hard sciences” — it’s identifying concrete things that can be addressed through behavior modifications and support and focused intention — and in solving issues at the root level, you can get out of the business of constantly talking people back from the ledge, and helping them to live truly full and amazing lives. I honestly can’t imagine why a counselor wouldn’t want to get out of the “mental health maintenance” business and take on more of the work of true life transformation. Seriously — wouldn’t it be amazing if you went to work everyday and saw your clients doing amazing things with their lives, instead of just trying to stop them from screwing up, time and time again?
  • And for nurses — I hope that this document helps raise awareness — just as it could for doctors and neurologists — only on a much more thorough-going basis. I had a relative, years ago, who was in a terrible car accident and sustained a brain injury in the process. But the nurses on staff treated her like she was being uncooperative on purpose. She literally could not speak properly anymore or lift/move her hands and body, but the nursing staff treated her like she was a cranky old lady who was coming off long-time Valium use — they treated her like a junkie going through withdrawal, when she had really been brain injured and was not receiving proper rehabilitative care. It wasn’t until a trauma doctor happened up on her and told everyone that she was in fact brain injured, that she started to get proper help. I don’t fault the nurses — they had every reason to believe it was antidepressant withdrawal that was causing the problems. But it wasn’t — it was a brain injury. And I spent every Tuesday and Thursday nights (after work) and most of the day Saturday for the next six months or so, sitting and working with and helping her to restore her ability to interact and relax and think and express herself, watching her improve each week. I really believe in the work that nurses do, and I really believe that if they were given the right information and properly trained about mild TBI, they could play a hugely important role in diagnosing and treating brain injury. I also believe they might be able to mitigate some of the conditions that exacerbate the effects of TBI. Just a higher awareness and also a genuine caring about what mild TBI can do to a person’s body, mind, heart, and sense of self, might make a real difference in the world.

So, those are my hopes for the audience of this document.

Now, how to get it into the hands of those who are best served by it?

That, my friends, is the question.

But I digress. I’ve written a whole lot about this matter, and it’s time for me to get on with my day. I’ll be reading more and writing more — rest assured, as this is really great stuff to “chew on”.

Happy reading…

Perfect for Brain Injury Awareness Month

Happy, happy, happy... so far

I just started reading the PDF from the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation about Guidelines for Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and Persistent Symptoms. And I’m off to a great start.

These are

“guidelines that can be used by healthcare professionals to implement evidence-based, best practice care of individuals who incur a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) and experience persistent symptoms. Persistent symptoms are not an uncommon complication of mTBI; 10 to 15% of individuals who incur mTBI will continue to experience significant symptoms beyond the normal recovery period of three months (Iverson, 2005), which can include post-traumatic headache, sleep disturbance, disorders of balance, cognitive impairments, fatigue, and mood or affective disorders. With the high incidence of mTBI this potentially translates to a significant number of individuals who may experience associated disability.”

Currently, the best practice for treatment of those who do not experience spontaneous recovery is not clearly defined. Therefore, the following clinical questions needed to be addressed — Can an approach be devised to screen for and identify patients that are at  high-risk of persistent symptoms and, once identified, can a management plan be developed to treat the symptoms commonly associated with the disorder? Hence the purpose of developing the clinical guidelines is to improve patient care by creating a framework that can be implemented by health professionals to effectively identify and treat individuals who manifest persistent symptoms following mTBI. (p.5 of the PDF – emphasis mine)

Reading this feels completely %(*&*#$(*^ awesome. Can I just say, to hear a recognized foundation acknowledge the importance of this, and to acknowledge that 10-15% of mild TBI survivors experience serious issues which can literally disable us (for long or short term)… it’s pretty amazing. What a feeling.

I’m going to quell the impulse to rue my lost past, when so much was unknown, and the only explanation people could come up with was that I “wasn’t trying hard enough” or I was “lazy” or a “problem”. I’m going to be deliberately happy for everyone who can and will benefit from this — and I’m going to urge everyone in the strongest terms possible to please make sure your doctor has a copy of this, when you see them about your issues. After all, this information is only as good as the people it informs — the people with the power to make a difference.

Granted, I’ve just started reading, and there may be information in there that doesn’t square with my own views and experience.

But so far, we’re off to a good start.

You can download the full PDF from the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation here.