Ah, Groundhog Day…

I have a feeling I’ve been here before…

I’m not talking about the recent event when the behavior of a groundhog (or groundhogs, depending on your regional preference) determines our future. I’m talking about the movie,”Groundhog Day”  where Bill Murray’s character goes through the same day over and over and over again.

This is my life in a nutshell. I cycle through the same experiences / crap / joys / sorrows on a regular basis, each time without much active recollection of how it was before and what my experience was then. It applies to the good things, as well as the bad things, and my neuropsych is repeatedly surprised that I’m wrangling with the same issues that I was wrangling with, several weeks, months, or even years ago. Sometimes I have “new” experiences that are repeats of what I experienced only the day before, and I have to go through the whole learning process all over again.

One example I can think of was back in December, when I had that business trip overseas. Each day, I got up with this terrible, terrible dread — almost crippling anxiety over what was going to happen that day. It was awful, and I literally did not want to leave my room. I just wanted to stay behind closed doors, where I had no interaction with anyone, where I couldn’t possibly screw things up, and where I could move at my own pace and not adapt to anything new or different around me.

And each day, I literally forced myself to get dressed and go out into the world. Each day, I rediscovered that I was able to communicate, that I was capable of understanding what others were saying, even if I didn’t get every single word, and that the world outside was something to be explored and discovered, not dreaded and avoided.

Then the next day when I got up again, it was back to battling the crippling dread, the fear, the anxiety… the monumental effort of getting myself OUT the door… and the happy discovery that I could indeed handle myself well in the world beyond the hotel room. And at the end of each day, I was able to kick back and really enjoy myself in that space, just reveling — all over again — in the “discovery” that I was really going to be okay.

Now I have another business trip coming up that will take me overseas. This time I am going to a country where I do not speak the language. I have been studying a bit, which has been kind of funny — I found some audio files to learn from, but when I started to listen to them, it turned out to be all “Stop or I’ll shoot!” and “Put down your weapon!” and “How many armed men are there?” — apparently a law enforcement or military training course. At least I know how to say “Don’t shoot!” if I get into any trouble while I’m on my trip. You never know… there are some pretty rough neighborhoods where I’m going.

Anyway, the point I’m making is that for some reason, I seem to have just a terrible, terrible memory for things that have happened to me before. This is true of good things… and bad things. I seem to get myself into situations, over and over again, doing the same thing and expecting different results, and then I suffer and chafe when things don’t turn out like I think they’re going to.

Like trying to get out of the house to get to work… Time and time again, I get up thinking that I can just take a little time to check my email and/or do some little things around the house, and then I’ll be able to get to work on time. And time and time again, I get sidetracked on one thing or another… and I end up rushing and being later than I wanted to be. I make up the difference at the back end, of course, staying late — even later than I would have to, actually, because I start to warm up around 6 p.m., and it’s hard for me to take a break when I’m finally making good progress. Even so, even if I do make up the difference in the hours, the simple fact is that I do this over and over again, thinking that this time it will be different.

Insane? Well, according to some, it is. Whatever you call it, it gets frustrating, and I feel like a complete idiot.

I guess part of the equation of this apparent failure to learn, is the fact that I have to stay very present in the current moment, or I can really lose my bearings. I think this 100% here-and-now mindset has developed over years of having to navigate so many issues — light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, exhaustion, vertigo, nausea, pain of all kinds, headache, distractability, and more — but still needing to be functional. I think I just developed the habit of focusing so completely on the present so that I could function in that moment, that everything else — before and after — just disappears. Or it never has a chance to get set in my mind.

I think also the stress of daily living over the years has impaired my ability to learn. Just having to deal with all the sh*t of my issues and symptoms and the screw-ups and the adjustments and the confusions and distractions… it can get pretty stressful, and I’m sure it’s had some impact on my ability to learn.

Then again, in other areas I learn extremely well — like this language thing. I’m actually picking up a lot of good stuff, and I think I’ll be able to at least ask people for help and understand basic numbers and directions, and be able to thank people for their help, without too much struggle. Languages seem to come pretty naturally to me, and it surprises me how much sense they make to me after a relatively short period of time.

So, it’s not like I’m completely disabled with my learning. But experiential learning? There, again and again, I end up going through the same things, as though it were the first time ever.

Well, I can’t worry about it. If I approach it like it’s a grand adventure of constant discovery, and I treat each situation like a fun opportunity to have a “new” experience, it’s fine. It keeps me fresh, actually. It keeps me interested in my life. It’s never boring — that’s for sure. The worst thing I can do, is treat myself this means there’s something wrong with me, that it means I’m somehow damaged. If I don’t judge myself and I just accept that about myself — and come up with ways to work with/around my very limited memory… and I don’t get it in my head that this means I have early-onset dementia and I’m losing my mind…. I can work with this.

Hell, I’ve been working with it for as long as I can remember. I just “get lost” sometimes and I have to find my way out of the shadows and dead-ends… which I can do pretty well. I’ve had plenty of practice, you see.

Anyway, life goes on. I have a number of very interesting projects I am working on, and that’s keeping me interested and engaged in my life. I’m learning new things pretty well, and I feel good. I also got a lot of sleep yesterday afternoon, after I was done with my work. I worked from home, so I was able to just crawl into bed when I was done for the day. That was nice. I got about 7 hours of sleep last night, so that’s good, too. And I have all day today and all day tomorrow to kick back and take care of myself. Because I’m flying out in another week, and I need to be healthy and whole to make this trip.

So it goes. Part of me would like to have a better recollection of the things that I have experienced in the past, so that I don’t keep making the same mistakes, and I don’t keep pushing myself and wearing myself out. And I’m thinking about ways I could do that — maybe keep a log of what works for me in different situations, so I can draw on what has worked for me in the past… I had that kind of a log going, about 3 years ago, and it was working well for me. I think maybe I need to resurrect it, so I can continue to draw on my experiences and get my sh*t together better than I currently am. It’s an idea….

Anyway, the day is waiting, and I’ve got to get a move on. It’s always interesting and never boring… and I need to remind myself of how things have been in the past, as I work through my present and into my future.

I’ve been here before, I’m sure… now I need to figure out how to make the best of it.

 

Bringing light

Light is where you find it – find more art like this at http://www.atagar.com/bobsGallery/

I’ve been thinking a lot about this holiday season – and all the ways that it’s associated with light. Most of the “big” traditions I know about feature light of some kind, and no wonder — this time of year is when the days become longer, and we literally can celebrate the return of the light. It’s a physiological thing, as well as a psychological and spiritual thing. And it’s well worth celebrating.

I celebrated yesterday by walking deeper in the woods than I have in a long time. Once upon a time, when I first moved to this place, I was out in the woods for most of my waking hours every weekend, rain or shine, good weather or bad. I guess I’ve always been drawn to the forest — it was the one place I felt at home when I was a kid, and there’s something really calming about being in the woods. When I was younger, I wanted to be a forest ranger, until my guidance counselor talked me out of it because it wasn’t “practical”.

Hm.

Anyway, now I get to be my own forest ranger, and I don’t have to worry about government funding cutting me off from my livelihood, so it’s not all bad, the way it turned out. And yesterday I got a good reminder of the things that matter most to me in my life — clean air, fresh water, room to roam, and friendly, like-minded people also sharing the paths.

And I couldn’t help but think about how — for years after my concussion/TBI in 2004 — I couldn’t go into the woods. I just couldn’t. There was too much stimuli there for me. It was either too bright or too dark, or it was too quiet or it was too loud. I got tired so quickly, and when I did, I got confused and anxious. And the idea of interacting with anyone I came across on the paths, was out of the question. I panicked anytime I had to interact with someone who was out for a nice quiet hike like myself. I also got turned around and lost very easily, and since I have never had the best sense of direction to begin with, I would spend hours just trying to find my way back to where I wanted to go. I told myself I was “exploring” but the fact was, I was getting lost and had to keep walking to find my way back.

And half the time, I couldn’t remember where I’d come from. Even reading maps was impossible for me. Especially reading maps.

So, I quit going into the woods. I gave up my forest. And things were very dark and dreary for a number of years. The crazy part was, I told myself it was by choice, not something I was stuck doing, because I was so trapped in anxiety and sensory overwhelm.

What changed it? I think just living my life. Working with my neuropsychologist to just talk through my daily experience. Also, doing my breathing exercises — and exercising, period. And practicing, practicing, practicing some more at the things I wanted to do, until I could do them pretty close to how I wanted to. And learning to not be so hard on myself for being different now than I was before.

I also really paid attention to the times when I saw signs of more functionality — like when I started going on hikes again, after years away from them. Like when I was able to read an entire book, after years of only being able to read short papers — and not understand much of them at all. Like when I gave things my best shot, and found them turning out pretty darned close to how I intended — sometimes even better.

Taking the edge off my anxiety, giving myself a break, focusing on things that were bigger and more significant than my own petty concerns… those helped. Those brought light to my life.

And it continues to get better.

When I think back on how I was, just five years ago, it amazes me. I was so trapped in a dark place, confused and not knowing what was wrong with me. I didn’t understand what was holding me back, I didn’t understand what was stopping me from just living my life. I didn’t understand how confused I was or what I was confused about. I couldn’t discern the different issues I had, because it was all just a dark blob of problems that pulsed like a nebula of hurt and pain and confusion. When I think about how things are now — with so much light and so much more possibility… it amazes me.

There are answers out there, if we look… if we know to ask. There are solutions out there, if we take the time to be clear about what the issues truly are. There is hope out there, when we are willing to take a chance, have some courage, and move on — move on.

As the days lengthen and we roll towards the spring (I know, winter is just now beginning, officially)… as we take this holiday season to step away from the everyday grind and do something different with ourselves… as we try to imagine what else is out there for us… let’s all remember that as dark as it gets sometimes, the night does pass. There is always dawn and a new day, just around the corner.

Yes, let there be light.

When things don’t go as planned

Sometimes there’s high seas ahead – oil painting by Joyce Ortner – click to see her gallery

I had my doctor’s appointment the other morning, and it went pretty well. I got some antibiotics for the infection that has been bothering my ears and making it hard for me to keep my balance, and I gave my doctor the holiday card my spouse told me I needed to give to them. It was a good call – and I picked out a good card, because it really touched my doctor a lot. They didn’t want to let on, but I could see it meant something. I mean, if you think about it, doctors spend their lives trying to help others. They have their limitations, like all of us, but in the end, their whole reason for doing what they do is to help people.

I have been taking my meds for the past few days, but I’m still having balance issues. I’m going to keep on doing it, and hope for the best. I really don’t want to go back, though. It’s just more opportunity to get put on more meds — which my doctor tried to do, when I told them about the balance issues. They tried to put me on meclozine / antivert, thinking that would fix what was wrong with me, but I told them no, because that stuff just makes me feel rotten and weird and dense, and it doesn’t do a thing for my vertigo. It’s supposed to fix the nausea thing and supposedly make me feel less dizzy, but it’s an antihistamine and the side effects whack me out.

Drowsiness and tiredness and that weird spacey feeling that antihistamines give me, is just not worth it. So, I told them not to prescribe it. Even if they had, I wouldn’t take that stuff. Like I need more crap in my system…Anyway, I can always take Dramamine if it comes to that. I’ve taken it for seasickness and it seemed to help me. At the same time, it still make me feel weird and “off” and the fishing trip I was on was a lot less fun because of it.

Anyway, I had been planning on “having the talk” with my doctor about not being a risk-taker, just having a hard time sorting through the myriad little “issues” I have on a daily basis. For any doctor who is reading this, please take note: TBI can introduce a whole host of physical issues, from noise sensitivity to light sensitivity to touch sensitivity to pain to ringing in the ears… a whole host of physical issues that can cloud the overall picture of one’s health. And that’s not even the mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, which can make everything seem 1000x worse than it really is… or it can make everything seem like it’s nothing at all. This obviously has implications for patients with TBI being able to accurately self-assess their level of well-being. And it’s helpful to address that aspect of our experience.

The only problem is — and I realized this when I was driving to my dr. appointment and was thinking about the best way to broach the subject. I thought about how I would approach it, how I would introduce the topic of my not being a risk-taker, but just a person who struggles with sorting through all the stimuli of each day… and I considered (based on past experience) what my doctor’s response would be.

I’m glad I did think it through, too, because it gradually dawned on me that if I talked about my issues the way I was, my doctor would try to prescribe me something. Or prescribe tests. Or try to DO something, instead of just understanding and thinking things through and letting that inform their approach with me. They tend to jump right into action! as though that will solve anything right off the bat. Sometimes it does. But in some cases, you don’t need a procedure, you need comprehension and understanding and a slightly different way of approaching things.

Knowing what I know about my doctor, after seeing them for a number of years, I really think that if I’d “had the talk” about my issues, I might have ended up fending off a slew of prescriptions and tests — they’ve already tried to get me CT-scanned and/or X-rayed over sinus issues. I mean, I’m sure they mean well, but I am not exposing myself to a bunch of radiation over a sinus infection. Seriously… It’s just not going to happen. Not unless I am in serious danger.

Likewise, I’m not going to raise a red flag that my doctor is going to treat like an invitation to charge. They’ve got a bit of a fight-flight predisposition, and the last thing I want is to have to try to explain and fend off their headlong charges and attacks against what might be vexing me, when all I really want is for them to temper their responses with a little more knowledge. I can easily see them ordering a bunch of tests and prescribing a bunch of meds, in the interest of helping me… and all the while, I just get sucked into the medical system with more crap on my chart to fuel the standard-issue medical responses that pathologize and (over)medicate my condition… when all I really need is some understanding and consideration. All I really need is for people to slow down… but knowing my doctor, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. At least not with them.

So, I didn’t have “the talk” with my doctor, and I’m a little disappointed in myself. At the same time, though, I’m glad I thought it through carefully ahead of time. In a way, I feel like I may have dodged a bullet from a weapon that I had trained at myself. I unloaded the weapon and put it down, and now I’m feeling a bit better. What I really need to do is speak up, in the course of conversations, when I feel that things are going too fast or my doctor says something that doesn’t sit right with me. Sometimes I can speak up and defend myself quickly, other times I can’t. I’m working on that. The times when I don’t speak up, I feel terrible afterwards, so that’s more impetus for me to practice speaking up.

That was something I did do on Friday — I spoke up about the meds and the tests and the assumptions my doc was making. They seemed a little peeved that I was questioning their judgment, but you know what? It’s my body, it’s my life, and I need to do what I need to do. Provided, of course, I’m not putting myself in danger.

Anyway, that’s one example of things not working out as planned, and it being okay.

Another example is last night, when I decided to go to bed early, then I got caught up in going on Facebook “one last time”. I swear, that thing is a massive time-sink, and I have to be careful. By the time I got to bed, it was over an hour later, which just sucks. Oh, well. I’ll just have to nap today. I had planned on doing some last-minute Christmas shopping, but the other thing that’s happening is that we have company from the party last night. Rather than driving home, we had someone stay over, which is fine. But now I need to be social and hang out, instead of running out to the mall. That’s annoying to me. But come to think of it, I actually knew that we might have company staying over, so I’m not sure why I was thinking that I was going to run out, first thing this morning, and take care of that. More annoyance — this time with myself.

Oh well — tomorrow is another day, and I can probably get all my shopping done early in the morning before the crowds hit the mall. I pretty much know what I want, and there’s not much of it, so it will keep things simple. Plus, having less time to spend on it really focuses me. Even if that doesn’t happen, and I get stuck in the crowds, and the lines are long, and I get trapped in the holiday crush, I can always check Facebook while I’m standing on line.

So, yeah – plans. I have them. We all have them. And when they don’t go the way we expect them to, then it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to handle them. I can get worked up and bent out of shape. Or I can roll with it and come up with another course of action. I can get annoyed at this, that, and the other thing, or I can just let it all go and see what happens. When I’m tired (like I am today), I am less able to just let it all go. When I am stressed (like I am over my job, even though I am off on vacation for a week and a half – the residual stress is ridiculous), it’s harder for me to just BE.

I’ve noticed an increasing level of intensity with me – I’m starting to lose my temper again (though inside my head, not out in the world around me so much). I’m starting to react really strongly to little things… like I used to, before I started exercising regularly and doing my breathing exercises. I’m noticing a change, and I’m not liking it much — especially the parts where I’m not rolling with changes as well as I would like to. Things are starting to sneak up on me again.

So, it’s back to using the tools I was working with  before. Despite my good progress, I had gotten away from the exercise and the breathing for a while, in part because I just got so uptight over doing it each and every day like clockwork, and also because I just needed to let it all sink in for a while. I was working really hard on my technique and also my regular practice, and it got to be just another chore that didn’t have much sense to it.  I just hit an impasse with it — maybe I had too many ideas and my head was spinning, maybe I had too much experience that I needed to just get used to… in any case, I needed a break.

So, I took a break. And I must admit it was a pretty big relief to not “have” to do the sitting and breathing every morning. All of a sudden, I had extra time, and ironically, I felt like I could breathe. I was still doing intermittent breathing throughout the day, when I felt my stress level increasing, but I didn’t have a daily practice.

Still, I do feel like I need to get back to a bit of that again. I’ve had my break. Now I need to try it again to see how it helps me… pick up where I need to — maybe where I left off, or maybe somewhere else… Just do what I need to do to get myself back on track and take the edge off this intensity, which has been building and is starting to drag me down.

Things change. Plans change. What we think we can do is often very different from what we can do, which is also different from what we DO do. Life has a way of changing directions on us when we least expect it, and the only constant is change. So, I need to work on my flexibility and chill-ness, so I don’t end up ship-wrecked over every little thing. Yeah… I need to work on that. And so I shall.

Now, to go for my morning walk in the woods.

Overcoming overstimulation

Lots going on...

I’ve got a big trip coming up next weekend — I’m taking nearly a week to go see family in several states… kind of a follow-up trip to make up for not having been there for the holidays (I was sick and couldn’t travel). There will be lots of driving, lots of activity, lots of interacting with relatives I haven’t seen in many years. There will be a family reunion with relatives, some of whom care about me, others of whom couldn’t care less about me. There will be time with siblings as well as aunts and uncles and cousins. All together in one big melting pot for the weekend.

This is coming on top of some very busy times at work. I’m a bit apprehensive, because I’ve been tired and I’ve had trouble sleeping, and I am concerned that it might affect my ability to deal with my family. I also worry that it will affect my ability to deal with my spouse, who is not a big fan of most of my family. We come from very different backgrounds, and my spouse is not always the most open-minded individual when it comes to differences.

I know I shouldn’t stress over this, but I am a little bit. I have to get a bunch of things done for work before I go — it’s really BAD timing, but there it is. My workload is just crazy, these days, and it will be until mid-September. Then it will probably pick up again through the end of the year. It’s hard to believe July is almost over. August is so packed, it might as well not even exist. Just busy, busy, busy all around.

But it’s a good thing. It beats the alternative. I’ve become a key contributor on some important initiatives, so that keeps me going and it gives me a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself. And I have to keep that in mind. It’s another way of looking at it — it’s a good thing, that going away for a few days is a problem. Because if it weren’t I’d be in trouble.

Likewise, if I think about the upcoming trip with my relatives, one of the reasons it promises to be so full, is that so many people want to see me. They want to talk to me, to find out how I’m doing, to tell me about their lives. They want to share a lot with me, and they don’t realize how overwhelming it can be for me. Over-stimulation has resulted in me going temporarily deaf and blind — I was with extended family members who were very high-strung, and there was so much going on, my system just shut down, and for a short time (maybe 10-15 seconds), I couldn’t see or hear anything. Everything just went silent and black. I came back (of course) and felt dazed and confused. I suspected it might have been some sort of seizure, but then I got checked out, and everything seemed to be fine, actually. So, it was probably just the overwhelm.

Thinking back on that day, which was about six months before I figured out the TBI connections to the difficulties I’ve had in my life, I can think of a number of things that made it more difficult, overstimulating and overwhelming:

  1. I was extremely anxious about a lot of things — if I was wearing the right sorts of clothing (people around me were much better dressed than I, and I felt self-conscious in my jeans and t-shirt).
  2. I was pretty brittle and inflexible in my expectations for the day — I wasn’t going with the flow, and when the group kept changing plans, I got increasingly uptight.
  3. I wasn’t eating properly — I wasn’t eating the same sorts of foods I normally did.
  4. I wasn’t resting enough — I had been pushing myself to go-go-go, the whole time, and I was very fatigued.
  5. I wasn’t exercising enough — I wasn’t exercising at all, actually. I hadn’t been taking the walks I needed, and I hadn’t been working out regularly the way I have been over the past couple of years.
  6. I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses — Big problem on that very sunny day. The brightness only exacerbated everything else, adding to my anxiety and stress.
  7. I wasn’t in command of my thoughts and my reactions — I was being pushed and pulled in a million different directions, and I wasn’t driving the car of my own mind. I was letting everyone else decide for me how to think, how to talk, how to behave. I was trying to fit in and do the right thing so I wouldn’t be as conspicuous (and embarrassing) to my extended family/in-laws. The result was that I stood out even more, I was less able to participate, and I lost it (literally) for a short while that day.

Looking back, I can see how I’ve really come a long way in the past 4 years. I’m nowhere near where I used to be, and I have to remember this as I prepare for this next trip. My anxiety levels have decreased dramatically since I started exercising on a daily basis. And my whole world view has changed as a result. My neuropsych has been a huge help, keeping me honest and realistic — in a good way. They don’t let me get away with the old “stories” about how debilitated I am by my TBIs. They don’t let me easily jump to conclusions about being incapable and incompetent, just because I happen to be human. And they don’t let me make excuses about poor choices I’ve made and things I’ve done. They don’t beat me up over it, but they also don’t let me write myself off with some easy excuse about being impaired.

And that’s quite a feat to accomplish. Because I have a lifetime of experience of reaching the “logical” conclusion that there is something wrong with me, and I am less capable than I actually am. I’ve had plenty of people telling me there was something wrong with me. I’ve had plenty of people “protecting” me from myself. I’ve had plenty of people ditching me or taking me off tasks when I didn’t perform as expected.

It was all a crock, but when you hear it often enough and everyone seems to agree, it starts to sound like the truth.

But it’s not. It’s the farthest thing from the truth.

The real truth is that I have the tools and the experience and the proper mindset to approach this coming weekend in a stable, productive frame of mind. I’ve managed equally — if not more — challenging situations quite well, and I’ve come away a better person as a result.

I know from experience that I don’t have to bury myself in work in advance, trying to keep my mind off things. I don’t have to run away from it, drive myself with all sorts of stress that takes my attention off my anxiety. I can rest and relax and also get good exercise in advance. Eat well and take care of myself, and remember that I’m going to meet and greet people who actually love and care for me, even if they don’t always agree with how I live my life and vote.

That might actually be the hardest thing to handle — that anyone could actually love and care for me. That all my injuries and my issues and my supposed shortcomings might not matter nearly as much as I think they do. It could just be that I have a great time when I go on this trip. It could just be that the only over-stimulation is actually in my mind. And that if I can tame that, all the rest will come naturally to me.

It could be…

I finished reading a book

Here’s a blast from the past. About a year ago, I wrote this post (but forgot to publish it), absolutely giddy about having finished reading a book. Looking at where I’m at now, it’s pretty amazing the changes I’ve been through. After not having been able to get through an entire book in years (although one of my favorite pastimes was always reading), last November, I actually finished reading a book.

Here’s the post:

November, 2009

Yesterday afternoon at about 3:30 p.m., I finished reading Aging with Grace, the book about the Nun Study of those long-lived School Sisters of Notre Dame, which explores how and why some people live long and never succumb to Alzheimer’s or dementia, and why others may be more vulnerable. This book has a lot of meaning to me, because as a multiple TBI survivor, I’m statistically more vulnerable to dementia, and about the last thing I want, is to be incapacitated and demented later in life. No thanks…

I found a number of tips and clues about what you can do to avoid dementia — even if you do have some brain degeneration — and I read reports of nuns who had all the signs of advanced Alzheimer’s, but no symptoms whatsoever before they died. Sounds good to me.

I’m invigorated by this new information. I highly recommend it to anyone. And I’m even more invigorated by the fact that I actually finished the book! It took me a month to read all 219 pages, but I did it!!!

This would not be big news for most people I know. Most people I know read books as a matter of course, and when they start a book, they generally finish it (unless it’s truly awful and/or they run out of time). I, on the other hand, have not finished reading a book I started in a number of years. It’s hard for me to remember the last time I actually reached the last page of a book I started.

Let me walk around my study, looking for a book I know I’ve read cover to cover… Let’s see… I am reasonably certain I’ve read about 56 of the books in my study, which constitute maybe 10% of the total on my bookshelves. And the  most recent one I finished prior to Aging with Grace was consumed in a hurry back in 2006. I may have read something from cover to cover in 2007, but I cannot recall.

Now, mind you, I have tons of books, but most of them I’ve only read the first couple of chapters, if that. It’s a lifelong habit that goes way back to when I was a kid, and I never even really realized it was a problem, until this past year or so, when I started to take a long, hard look at my reading habits — or lack thereof — in the context of my TBIs.

It’s a complicated issue — part difficulty with the material, part difficulty with keeping focused on the material. I can be really distractable, so I often end up wandering off on cognitive tangents, when I’m reading. But part of what feeds my distractability, I think, is the fatigue that sets in after I’ve been reading for a while, as well as the discouragement I feel when I realize my eyes have been skimming pages for the last half hour, and I cannot remember what I just read. It’s complicated. And it sucks. And it never occurred to me before that I might have difficulty reading. I’m such an avid infovore – I’m usually reading something. Who would guess that reading is such a challenge for me?

It’s taken some adjusting to get used to this fact. And the adjustment has been as much of a hit to my self-image as anything else. I was always known as a bookworm. Much of my knowledge comes from books. If I’ve been reading at substandard level all these years without knowing it… and also not grasping a lot of what I was reading… what does that say about me, as a person? Does it completely invalidate many of the beliefs and assertions I’ve had about myself, for over 4 decades? It’s troubling to think so.

But now that I know reading is a problem for me, I can take steps to do something about it.  And that’s good. I literally cannot live this way, not being able to read a book from cover to cover. I am NOT going to continue in life this way. Something must be done. I need a plan. Here’s my plan — which so far has worked well, the first time through.

I need to acclimate myself to reading for longer periods of time, by reading for fun and pleasure, getting up to speed with that, and then starting to read for learning and understanding. I need to practice regularly and build up my stamina, and also develop different strategies for how to handle the material I absorb.

First, for the fun reading, I need to identify a topic that interests me which will stimulate me. I need to have some investment in the material, some payoff, some reward that comes with it. Preferably, I need to find something to read that also has “companion” material, like a movie that was made of it. I need to have the information presented in different formats, that different parts of my brain can “hook into”.

I chose The Bourne Identity, because it’s an action adventure novel that’s broken into relatively short chapters. It’s also got a movie made of it that is one of my favorites, and I have visuals of the action to prompt me as I read along

Second, I need to set aside time to read. I have to have time to do it, when I have time to rest either before or afterwards, or both.

I do this on the weekends. I take naps on the weekends to catch up with my rest. And I read during the afternoons.

Third, I need to gradually increase the amount of time I spend reading. I pay attention to how much time I’m spending, how I’m feeling, how my pace is. And I really congratulate myself, when I’ve read more than 10 pages at a sitting and understood what was being said the whole way through.

I can do this, but I also need to make sure I’m not tiring myself out. I need to make special efforts to reward and praise myself for having read as long as I have. I tend to get down on myself and think I’m stupid, when I’m not reading well, and I assume that it should be easy for me. But my reading has never been as strong as I always thought, and since my fall in 2004, it’s got even worse.

Fourth, I will then transfer my stamina and interest and good experiences with action/adventure fiction to my other non-fiction reading. And I must pace myself, gradually working my way up, again, and re-reading the things that I didn’t get the first time around. I need to keep an action/adventure book on hand, to keep my interest bolstered. I don’t worry so much about finishing the fiction in a timely manner. It’s more for the sake of keeping my spirits up and having a good experience while reading, so I can focus my more intent energies on the non-fiction/professional reading.

This is what I’ve been doing, on and off, with Aging With Grace over the past month. And now that I’ve done it and see that it works(!) I am ready to move on to my professional reading.

This is such important work. My survival and success depends on it. I’ve got a bunch of books I bought in the past that I need to read for work, but I haven’t been able to crack them. Now, I’ve got to do it.  Now I have a strategy and a plan, and I’ve proved (at least once) that it works. Reading really is fundamental. And the fact that I have done it with Aging With Grace has really lit a fire under me.

But before I go any further, it’s time for my Sunday afternoon nap.

concussion now i’m stupid

Someone visited this blog yesterday with the search “concussion now i’m stupid” and it seems like it’s in the air.

I had a great day Saturday — I had a very social day, and I was out and about in town, which rarely happens with me. I either don’t have the time, or I don’t make the time, or I find a hundred other things to do that are more interesting than interacting with other people in a city.

But Saturday, I took a bunch of chances, and I had a ton of interactions that were really positive and encouraging.

Sunday, on the other hand, was a huge challenge. I wasn’t able to rest as much as I had wanted/planned, and I was really feeling the effects of all the exertion on Saturday. Even if the exertion was good and positive, it was still exertion, and I didn’t remember to rest.

One of my big problems is, when I get over-tired, I often forget to self-monitor. That happened to my yesterday. So, I ran into trouble.

With a Capital T. Had a huge meltdown yesterday. As in — rage and tears and being stuck in a loop of anger and shame and frustration and resentment. I hate when that happens. I could feel it coming on, and I thought I could stop it, but I couldn’t. It was like a repeat tsunami of unwanted overwrought emotion. Waters pulling out, then washing in and wrecking everything in its path. Emotion pulling out, then rushing back in and leveling everything in its way.  It came and went for about three hours, and it totally screwed me up — and my spouse. Not pretty at all. And I’m still “hungover” from it this morning.

Ugh.

Looking back on things with a less emotional eye, one of the things that complicated my situation yesterday was that insidious little voice in the back of my head that managed to find everything I’d done “wrong” on Saturday, amplified it about a thousand times, and then commenced to tell me You’re So Brain-Damaged and Stupid. Who would ever love or care about you? You’re such an idiot – you had a concussion — no, wait, you had a bunch of concussions – and now you’re stupid. You’re so stupid you don’t even know how stupid you are.

Stupid.

Well, you get the idea. And sure enough, as always happens when that voice gets going, before long, I was at war with the world, at war with myself, at war with my spouse, at war with my job, at war with everything and everyone who came anywhere near me.

concussion now i’m stupid…

My thinking is too slow, I’m not sharp and quick like I used to be, I’m not even funny anymore (and I used to be a laugh and a half all the time), and who would want to bother with me?

Geez.

It’s bad enough that I have to contend with the physical and logistical issues, but when that voice gets going… well, the only thing to do is go to bed.

I managed to do that eventually, but not on my own steam. I had to be guided to bed and put away like a cholicky baby. I friggin’ hate when I’m reduced to that. But when I’m in the midst of that storm/tsunami, I cannot for the life of me pull myself out.

For future reference, I need to keep the image of the tsunami in my mind, when I feel it coming up. So I can get to higher ground. Tell my spouse I need to take a break, and remove myself to my bedroom or study, to simmer down. Just get myself out of the way of the wave. Maybe go out for a walk in the woods. I did that yesterday at the end of the day,  and it helped tremendously. Yes, the walk in the woods — climbing up to the top of the nearest big hill — helps me a whole lot.

I also have to have a talk with my spouse about this TBI business – it’s not okay for them to talk to me like I’m an idiot, which is what they’ve been doing more and more over the past year. Apparently, they seem to think that because my memory is a bit spotty at times, and my processing speed has slowed, I’ve lost my innate intelligence. Either that, or they have always acted this way, and I’ve just recently stopped allowing myself to be intimidated into hiding my issues from them. That’s always a possibility.

So, there are three main issues I am contending with — the wave of emotion that cannot and will not be stopped and can only be avoided until it calms down… the voice in my head that tells me I’m stupid… and the voice I live with that tells me I’m impaired. The first one, I just have to be mindful of and learn to avoid being swept away. The second one, I have to either ignore or actively argue with. The third I have to have a serious talk with — and possibly involve my neuropsych to explain to my spouse that my relative weaknesses are manageable and don’t mean I’m reduced to a simpleminded shadow of my old self. Some days it feels like that — like yesterday — but it’s not the truth of the matter.

But ultimately, the bottom line is, here’s the #1 Lesson I (re)learned over the weekend:

I have to pace myself. If I have a big day, even if it is a really good big day, I need to take the next day OFF and SLEEP. Rest. For real. Nothing else matters. No distracting entertainment is worth the price I’ll pay for exhaustion.

Achieving more by doing less

I am really resisting writing this post, but I have to put it out there for the sake of honesty — and also to get it into my head that this is the way things are now.

It’s not that what I’m thinking about is a bad thing, or even an unpleasant thing. It’s a new thing — a true thing — that I’ve been resisting for as long as I can remember, much to the dismay of my family, my coworkers, and my neuropsych.

I hate having to admit that I have been wrong, and they have been right… but in this case at least, I have to admit it:

I get more accomplished, when I do less.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal, to admit it. What’s the big deal?

Well, people have been “on” me for years, that I do too much. I take on too much. I have too much on my plate. I’m spread too thin. My spouse has been lecturing me for years, that I don’t relax enough and I have too many projects going on. We’ve actually had some pretty bad fights about it. I defended my hyper-busy-ness with every fiber of my being, till the bitter end, and it’s not helped our marriage at all. But I was convinced that I was right, in having twelve balls in the air. I felt so energized. Like I could do anything. And it never seemed like there was a problem. If I didn’t finish things, so what? They were boring, I told myself. And I needed a fresh start.

Well, that outlook has modified somewhat over the past couple of years that I’ve been working with my neuropsych.  Taking a long, hard look at my patterns on a regular basis, I’ve realized that being super-busy is often a direct result of anxiety. It’s not about positive exuberance. It’s not about having a vision of a future I can eagerly step into fully and with all confidence. It’s about existential angst that is welling up and driving me ahead of it, like a wild stagecoach driver whipping the team of horses into a mad gallop… in the meantime not holding the reins or guiding them in any particular direction.

This mad gallop is plain to everyone else’s discernment. It’s obviously a ploy on my part to avoid life, rather than engage with it. But it is disguised from my view by something in my perception that interprets a mad dash towards whatever comes to mind as a positive and life-affirming thing ;}

Over the years, countless people have tried to get me to stop and look at what I was doing, but I resisted — and resented — their “interference” with my grand plans. I wasn’t planning, of course. I was just flying willy-nilly in every and all directions, for the sake of flying willy-nilly. Nothing more. And when I got to a point where I couldn’t continue with what I was doing, I’d drop it… and then wonder, sometimes years later, why I ever quit what I was doing, if I was so devoted to it.

Crazy.

Well, as I mentioned, that’s been changing over the past year or so. Once I started logging all my activities and tracking them — for real, not in some quasi-reflective journal entry that rambled on about this and that for pages on end — I started seeing what was really going on in my life, and I wasn’t pleased. I looked back on all the projects I’d started — each one seeming like the thing that was going to catapult me to greatness and/or solve all my personal problems through professional success. What I saw was not greatness, but whatever-ness. Oh, man… what a wakeup call.

And I started to admit that maybe I was spending an awful lot of time on things for the wrong reasons. Maybe I was spreading myself too thin. No… obviously I was spreading myself  too thin. Judging by what little I was getting done versus what lots I was putting into my efforts, my approach was not effective. It was downright disastrous.

So, I decided to change things up. I swept a whole bunch of projects off my plate. I trimmed the fat off my docket considerably, tabling projects I thought would be cool, but obviously demanded a lot more time and energy and manpower than I could muster. I decided to do without a lot of the lists I made for myself. I also quit imagining I was going to have these multiple career paths, and be able to pick and choose between the cream of the crop, on down the line, whenever I chose to switch my path.

And it was working out pretty well. Suddenly, I had a lot more time to devote to my pet projects — the really pet ones, that is. I could focus more on the details that had slipped by me before. And I had a lot more bandwidth to do the things I enjoyed during my free time. Sleep hasn’t appealed to me much over the past months, because I was still totally into the idea that I could continue to keep up a blistering pace on a select few things — for the fun of it. Literally. I felt really “on” at work — I felt like I was really making headway and was taking the tiger by the tail.  Woo hoo – right?

Um… not so much. Now, months on down the line, I find myself worn out, all turned around by myriad details that once seemed so clear to me, and not delivering at the rate my boss wants me to. My thinking is not clear, my relationships at work are suffering, I feel like I’m slipping into a hole of my own digging, and I’m battling to get myself out. I find myself taxed and tapped, angry and raging and resentful and antagonistic and defensive and increasingly volatile… saying things I wish I hadn’t… and my marriage and work situation are both suffering as a result.

Here, I’d thought I was supporting my family and my coworkers better by driving myself like a crazyperson, taking on all sorts of tasks, when all I was doing was driving myself — and my spouse and my coworkers — crazy.

Which brings me to what I’ve been learning — the hard way — over the past couple of weeks.

I actually perform better, and I accomplish more, when I do less.

… As in, when I work in intervals — planning and thinking things through ahead of time, then mustering my energy and tackling tasks with full attention and focus.

… As in, when I spend less time on busy-work, and I devote the bulk of my attention to strategic and tactical planning and implementation, saving my logistical energy for select tasks — no more than two or three a day.

Indeed, I do better, when I tackle less of the little niggling details work that’s just filler for my time and is more about my brain thinking such-and-such is important, when it’s not really.

And I accomplish more when I don’t insist on taking on this mountain of everything by myself, as I’ve always been prone to do.

Truly, the practice of only doing 2-3 significant things a day, when I used to tackle at least five-to-ten times that amount, is a huge change for me. It’s a difficult change… An unsettling turn of events. It makes me nervous — incredibly anxious. I feel like I should be doing something. But during those stretches when I’m “doing something” to the tune of 20 deliverables a day, and I look back on my notes about what I actually accomplished, well, the results are a lot less impressive, than my fantastical plans.

But if I break it all down and pick and choose from the things I need to get done and don’t worry about the other things, till I get the most immediate couple of things done, it’s friggin’ magic, man.  I get waaaaaay more accomplished if I take things 2 and 3 tasks at a time and do them in an extremely focused and intense fashion, than if I “pace myself” and take on 20-3o items (no joke) at a “reasonable pace”.

They say timing is everything. It’s true. It’s even more true that the right timing in the right way for the person in question is more-than-everything. Some people can go slow and steady through a mountain of small details. I, on the other hand, drown in those details. Just like there are slow-twitch muscles that long-distance runners use, and fast-twitch muscles that sprinters use, I’m more of a fast-twitch kind of person. And if I slow down to go at a “reasonable” pace, I’m toast.

So, there we have it. I’ve had my helping of crow for the day. I have to admit, it feels good to say/write it out loud, but it’s been a long time coming. And I have a lot of work to do, to reverse the damage that’s come from ignoring and denying the truth about how I work best — and worst. But reverse this, I will. I’m the comeback kid. I’m not going to quit till I get where I need to be.

Even though I know it’s good for me and it’s the only way I can really work effectively, the idea of only doing a few things  a day still makes me intensely anxious. I don’t expect to get used to it overnight.

But you know what? Doing a little bit at a time in a very focused, intentional way gets me there. And since actually getting there is what matters to me (and my spouse and my coworkers and my boss) — even more than the “journey” on the way — that’s what I’ve got to focus on. Results. For real. Not plans and methodologies. Results. What works. What works for me.

Onward.

Brain Injury – Can it be overcome?

I could go on for hours (even days) about whether or not TBI can be overcome, fixed, healed, etc.

But I don’t have much time this morning, so I’ll be brief.

36 years ago, I was struck on the head  by a rock thrown by some kids who didn’t like my looks. I was knocked out briefly, and after I came to, I started having tons of problems with anger, aggression, distractability, disruptive behavior, and underperformance in school. I still do have those issues, to this day, and they bring out sides of me that are very out of character for me.

But they don’t stop me from living my life. They’re manageable. And they have not kept me from experiencing a wonderful life and accomplishing things that many people either only dream of, or don’t think is possible. I’ve traveled widely, I’ve lived abroad for years at a time, I’ve played a key role at a multinational professional services firm, I have a healthy and thriving 19-year marriage, and I own my own home and am current on my mortgage payments. I am also a lot happier than most people I know – in no small part because I make being happy a priority.

In the past 30 years, I’ve sustained a number of concussions and head injuries, whiplash from car accidents, etc. Each one had specific consequences — loss of memory (not recognizing people who clearly recognized and knew me), loss of social functionality (being essentially non-communicative for about 3 months till I came back “online”), loss of a really good job at a really good company, and sudden, precipitous drinking binges.

But over time, as I’ve walked through my life and done what needed to be done to the best of my ability, the vast majority of these issues have resolved. Oh, sure, I still have memory problems, and there are times when I am not very communicative at all (much to my spouse’s dismay), and I have my struggles at work. I have a hell of a time sleeping through the night, my body generally hurts like hell, and I have a constant headache. But these things have not stopped me from getting on with my life. Not at all. They’ve made things more complicated, but they haven’t stopped me. And I’m back working for the company that 86’ed me almost 5 years ago, working closely with people who literally used to be afraid to come into my cubicle.

As far as I’m concerned, I have overcome my TBIs. And I continue to, each day. It’s an ongoing process — at times a painstaking and frustrating one, but ultimately very rewarding. I haven’t reversed the damage 100%. I may never accomplish that. I still have my struggles. But who doesn’t? The main thing is, I am aware of my issues and I actively manage them, I take responsibility for my choices and actions, and I do whatever I can to make right the things that go wrong — whether or not I think they are “my fault” or not.

Overcoming TBI… it’s a complicated issue. And people have different definitions of what “overcoming” means. It’s important to stress that, yes, brain injuries cause permanent damage of one kind or another. That’s the kind of information that raises public awareness… and also raises the call for effective legislation and much-needed funding.

But it’s even more important, in my opinion, to stress that over the long term, recovery is possible. And it is possible to overcome. It’s not guaranteed. Nothing in life is. But it is possible. And you can’t help it happen, if you refuse to believe that.

As for me… I choose to believe.

Telling stories

I’ve been coming across a lot of references people are making to telling stories… what stories we tell ourselves, what stories others tell us… what stories we want our lives to embody.

Once upon a time, I was big into stories. I wrote constantly, and much of what I wrote was stories — fiction, non-fiction… just accounts that were meaningful to me. Sometimes others found them meaningful — when I showed them to others. Most of the time, I kept them to myself. They were my stories, and I didn’t want  anyone else meddling in them.

I continue to write, but now I share my stories. I do a whole lot more writing online, than in my onetime journals, and it’s good. It’s a good development. Looking  back at all my past journals, I’m amazed at how circular I was — rehashing the same topics over and over and over and over and… well, you get the point.

I have that problem a lot less, now that I’m putting what I write out in public.

Keeps me honest.

It’s good for me.

And I’ve been thinking it might be good for me to do more of this writing — along different lines. I’ve written books before, and it’s strangely easy for me to collect several hundred pages of words that hang together well. I’ve written under pseudonyms, to keep my writing identity safe and sound, and the material I’ve written has gotten good reviews from some. And I think it might be time for me to write about growing up with TBI. I’ve been looking around some, and it doesn’t appear that there’s much literature out there about kids with head injuries — especially from the point of view of the child.

The books that I have come across about kids with TBI have been either non-fiction (I did find a really good one, the other week), or they’re biographical accounts/personal stories from the point of view of parents. Not much — that I’ve found — has been written by people who grew up with TBI.

Could be, people just want to put it all behind them and forget about it. I could see that. I feel that way, myself, sometimes. But then I think about all the parents and the kids out there who have experienced TBI — especially concussions in sports, which is so common — and I think, “Maybe this is something I need to NOT put behind me. Maybe it’s something I need to put out there in front of me.”

I’ve been feeling incredibly emotional, lately. My life is undergoing some significant changes, with my home life shifting and taking on new aspects of independence for both my spouse and me, and my job not being the most wonderful experience in the world. I’ve been waking up regularly at 3 a.m., with this nagging sense that I need to make some changes… just what those changes are, exactly, I’m not sure.

I know what I would like to do — have a lot more freedom to move and breathe and travel and enjoy my life (I haven’t had a real vacation in quite some time). I would really like to devote more of my time to this work of educating folks about TBI, writing about my life, informing people of the important details, helping survivors better understand themselves and manage their issues, and reassuring worried parents and spouses and friends that things don’t have to end badly. There is hope.

Yes, I know what I would like to do. I’m just not certain how to get there.

But writing this book will be a start. Yes, I think I’ll start here.

Thanks, but I think I’ll pass on the knitting

This is a sort of follow-on to my last post about extreme sports, extreme living, extreme dying.  Apparently, the extreme sports athlete in me is feeling antsy. Maybe it’s the melting snow — where did it all come from, anyway? But I’m getting distracted (again ;) )….

Recently, a reader whose opinion I really value offered me the following advice:

… take a deep breath. Go for a walk and pet every dog you meet. Plant flowers. Sew. Get clay and make things. Knit. Bike ride. Join a running club. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Listen to the video of the vets with TBI’s. Get angry and then forgive yourself.

I did part of what they suggested — I checked out the video of the vets with TBI’s, and I got angry. I also forgave myself — just because. I’m not sure what for, but I forgave myself.

Still, I have to say, I won’t be petting every dog I meet along my walk. I’ll likely be walking in the woods, crossing terrain I usually can’t cover in the summertime. Planting flowers, sewing, making things out of clay… knitting… riding bikes… volunteering… While those are things that may appeal to some, for me, they just don’t do it.

I’m built differently than that, and I need more excitement than that for my life experience. I’m much more of an out-there kind of person. Am I an extreme experience junkie? Perhaps. I prefer taking myself past where I’m comfortable, and seeing what all the world has to offer.

I just cannot seem to bring myself to just settle down and do quiet things that feed my spirit on a very simple manner (“simple” in a good way, not like “stupid” or “simple-minded”).

It just isn’t who I am.

And I have to go with who I am. I understand what folks are saying about needing to accept myself and my limitations, but again — I’m back to the idea that we needn’t just abandon the core, vital parts of ourselves because our brains have been injured.

Part of what’s piquing me about this, is the photo presentation I watched the other day on brainline.org that was done by a brain injury support group in Massachusetts. Part of the presentation was about acceptance. Another part was about chaos. And you know what? Although I could hear what they were saying, I also had this overwhelming sense that the things they were accepting and acclimating themselves to were totally avoidable and fixable.

As in, if your apartment is a wreck, and it gets to be a wreck on a regular basis, do something about it. Make notes about where to put things — use labels, like that one person does. Make a commitment to clean up after yourself on a regular basis. And if you can’t do something about it yourself, get help. Don’t just sit there in your own chaos. Get up and do something about it. Clearly, if you can tell that your place is a mess, you can tell that something needs to be done about it. So, do something about it! Don’t just sit there in your mess! My God, man/woman — have some self-respect!

I’m not saying this to be harsh. I’m saying it because it needs to be said. TBI survivors need to be encouraged to be fully human, wherever and whenever possible. Sure, things may change, but how is sitting in your own chaos truly a reflection of who you are and what you deserve from life? We ALL deserve more. Encouraging people to put up with things that are either avoidable or fixable is akin to killing a part of them. And we need to not do this. The truth sometimes hurts — but it can be a good hurt, especially when it lifts us out of our self-pity and self-sabotage, and ennobles us as full human beings.

Okay, I hear you saying I’m being too hard on people, and I need to have more compassion. Well, that’s what I’m doing — having compassion. As in, not giving up on someone because they have a head injury. Trust me, I sat in front of my computer for hours each day, for weeks and months on end, after my latest TBI… doing nothing… staring straight ahead, not remembering people who came into my cubicle (who clearly knew me), attacking everyone who came within earshot, crying for hours at a time, spending all my money, taking no time to advance my skills and keep myself sharp. It took months and years of tough determination and very hard lessons, to get past it. But you know what? I did. And while things aren’t perfect, and I have a long way to go, I’m a far sight better off as I am now, than if I’d just accepted my memory issues and my disorganization as “how it was”. I often wonder what might have happened, if I’d actually had someone around me who could offer me help.

It’s quite exasperating for me, to watch and hear how some folks just give in. Especially when they’re a far sight less impaired than the veterans who are struggling and fighting each and every day to get the use of their limbs back. In some ways, I suppose it’s almost harder to handle the little glitches that come with mTBI — they’re less obvious, and you tend to not get the help you need. But if you can discern your problems, and you can tell it’s a problem, it seems to me you are in a position to ask for help in fixing them.

A lot of it comes down to philosophy, I think. That, and what you think the purpose of human life is, on a very fundamental, soul level. Why are we here?

Why bother having these experiences, if we’re just going to retire to the background? Why give in?

Why?

Me… I choose something different. Today, on the holiday, I choose to put some hours in at work, so I’m more caught up for the rest of the week. Sure, I have to work harder and longer, but it sure beats being constantly taken by surprise ;)