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.

It’s cold, I am in pain. Oh, well…

ice winter

Brrrrr... Ouch

My walk in the wood yesterday has reminded my body that it is out of practice going on hikes. I am really sore – in pain – and I feel cold today.

Oh, well.

Time to get moving. I was up early this morning, feeling energized and like I had a mission in life. It was good. The forgiveness I offered myself yesterday seems to have lightened my load. And now I’m rarin’ to go. I just need to make sure I don’t over-extend myself, as I often do, when I have a burst of energy. I need to be intelligent about this. Smart. Practice my zazen, and chill out my autonomic nervous system.

I spent a little time sitting this morning. Sitting and breathing. Getting my heart rate down. It was racing since I first got up. I’m better now, having done some reading and research online, after doing my morning exercises. I really do feel good, mentally and emotionally. So good, I didn’t notice the soreness or the cold till now.

There’s only one thing to do — a couple of things, actually. Get moving. When I am stationary for a long time, I get stiff and sore and cold. If I am up and about, I loosen up, and I warm up. I realize that I’m being stationary here while I’m writing this, but I did just get up to make myself a cup of hot tea and get some fruit to eat. So, I’m not completely ignoring my physical needs. I’m just postponing them..

First, I have to have a little more to eat and drink. Then I can go out for another walk. Not a really long hike, like before, but a walk down the road and back, just enough to stir the blood and get me out of my head.

And then I can take another nap later.

I have to make sure I don’t get side-tracked, though. I have things I need to do to get ready for this coming week, and the better job I do today, the easier it will be on me tomorrow. I have been having a lot of trouble with Mondays, getting swamped because I’m tired and I haven’t planned properly for my week. Then I get caught up in all sorts of drama on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and by Thursdays I’m wiped out. That’s no good. I need to be fully functional on Mondays, and not get burned out before Wendesday is even finished.

God, my hands are cold. The feeling doesn’t bother me, but not being able to move my fingers well enough to type, does bother me. About ten years ago, I suddenly stopped being sensitive to the cold. Before that, I was a total wuss when it came to the cold — if I wasn’t warm, I didn’t feel like I could ever get warm. Then, all of a sudden, one day I was shoveling my driveway, and I realized — Hey, I’m not cold anymore. Took off my hat and gloves, and felt fine. Felt great, actually.

Ever since then, cold weather has not really freaked me out like it once did. But now I get into the situation where I can get too cold and my body can stop cooperating with me, because it’s … cold.

Funny — I thought people were supposed to get MORE sensitive to cold, as they age. I seem to be going in the opposite direction. I’ll give it time. Who knows what will happen in another 20 years?

Oh, well. At least I’m aware of it. I’m not running around all paranoid about being defective — I’m just different than I used to be. And it’s not like I’m damaged or anything. I just have a different sensitivity to cold than I used to. And I need to check in, every now and then, to make sure my hands and feet are still moving well. So I don’t stand up and find myself on my face. Or I can keep typing.

Or better yet, stop typing (for now). I’ve said all I need to say for now, and it’s time to DO something about it.

More to come (as always).

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…

Another sort of amnesia

A really interesting thing has been happening with me, lately. It’s actually been unfolding over the past six months or so, when I think about it. More and more, I’m piecing scattered parts of myself back together. Most importantly, I’m becoming increasingly aware that there are pieces of myself I need to piece back together. I’m starting to remember things I used to love to do, things that used to be part of my everyday life, that I couldn’t do without… but suddenly became “pointless” after my last fall.

In particular, mindfulness and meditation are back. And I’m really focusing again on the re-development of the abilities and the interests that keep me focused, centered, and going strong. This return is big. It’s huge for me.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal. After all, everybody loses motivation, now and then. Everybody goes through ups and downs, shifting in and out of specific interests. Why get so worked up?

You have to understand — my shifting away from mindfulness and meditation wasn’t just a flight of fancy. It wasn’t just me getting distracted by other things and taking a break. When I got away from it, I not only got away from it, but I pretty much removed it wholesale from my life.

To understand the full impact of this, you have to comprehend what a significant part of my life mindfulness and meditation were, for many, many years. I had always been a thoughtful kid, growing up. Philosophical, even. I spent a great deal of time contemplating life and its deeper meanings, and I didn’t let the fact that I was young stop me from pondering age-old things. I would meditate on mountain vistas and campfires, commune with nature on solitary walks… be one with the universe while sitting and watching dust particles dance in a sunbeam.

In retrospect, I believe this tendency to contemplate and meditate arose naturally from my difficulties with everyday activities that other kids engaged in. I had trouble with my coordination — real balance problems, at times — and my senses were pretty sensitive when I was tired, which was a lot of the time. I never really fit in, like a lot of kids. But unlike other kids, who went out of their way to remold themselves to they could fit in better, I withdrew to a solitary, almost monk-like life of minding the smallest details of life and extracting meaning from them.

Into my adult life, too, I spent a tremendous amount of time contemplating and meditating, communing with the cosmos whenever I could. I found tremendous comfort in that, a sense of connection that eluded me in everyday life with other people. External situations that others found easy tended to baffle me, so I focused my energies on cultivating an inner life, an inner view of the world that was consistent with my heart and mind. I spent my free time reading and journaling and meditating and exploring spiritual matters. I wasn’t heavily invested in “the things of this world” because I had other interests in mind —  namely, my connection with that still small voice within.

It served me well, too. On the surface, spending a lot of time contemplating and meditating might seem like an interesting hobby, but what good would it really do a person in the real world?

Actually, it helped me tremendously, as I developed a practice I called “modified za-zen” where you maintain your mindful composure and presence of mind in the midst of chaos. It was a real “warrior stance” I took – being impassive and composed even in the face of full-on attack or a schedule packed full of highly stressful tasks. That practice enabled me to play a significant part in many heavy-duty projects at work, and it molded me into a truly competent team player who was a rock and a cornerstone of the groups I was with. It cultivated in me a presence of mind, a peace of mind, that was the envy of my spouse, my friends, my co-workers. Very little could ruffle my feathers, when I was in the zone. I wasn’t always in the zone, to be sure — I had various issues that would come up, no doubt related to my neurology, but that practice of mindful awareness and intentional composure made all the difference in some very tough situations.

After I fell in 2004, that changed.


Broken Bokeh by WatchinDworldGoBy

Suddenly, I couldn’t be bothered with that meditation stuff. And contemplation? Well, that just seemed like a huge waste of time. As for my composure at work and at home, well, who the hell cared about that anymore? I “decided” I was sick and tired of putting forth the effort to hold myself together. I “decided” it was high time that I had a break and stopped holding myself in check. There was a part of me that suddenly felt like making the effort to sustain my calm was stupid and weak. It just didn’t want to be bothered. It told me I was “choosing” to stop controlling my behavior and stop monitoring my moods and state of mind and actively managing them, but the truth be told, I just couldn’t. The part of me that had used to do that wasn’t working the way it used to. It couldn’t.

It was like the responsible, mature part of me that had good sense about keeping myself centered and sane had been shattered. And in its place I found a selfish, self-centered, self-pitying creature who had a hair-trigger temper and frankly didn’t give a damn what anybody had to say. If that part wanted to act out, it acted out, and it had the best of excuses for doing so. The part of me that had long been conscious of how vital it is to keep centered and calm and have mastery over my behavior, didn’t fully recover from that fall. It was like it got knocked out for a lot longer than my lights went dim, and while it was out, it got pushed out of the way by the other part of me that felt like any attempt at composure was cramping its style.

Whereas I had already spent many, many hours… indeed, many months of my life, if you add up all the hours together… cultivating an equanimity that was the envy of many friends and co-workers, starting at the very end of 2004 (I fell at Thanksgiving), I moved pretty rapidly away from that old practice of mine. And within a year’s time, I was in trouble. Deep doo-doo.

Of course, all this was pretty much invisible to me and my broken brain. I told myself, I had other things to do. I told myself, I had to focus on “real” things. I just let the meditation drop and walked away. And whenever some anger or frustration came up, instead of checking in with myself to see if there was any valid reason for me to act on it (there usually wasn’t), I indulged every one of my whims with a self-righteous self-justification that seemed perfectly logical to my broken brain, but logistically made no sense whatsoever.

The result? A lot of headaches at work, a lot of trouble at home, increasing money issues, relationship issues, and health issues. It just wasn’t good.

But all the while, as my struggles compounded, there was still that raging voice in me that was convinced it had every reason and right to accommodate every single negative impulse I had.  Seeing the connection between my feelings and my behavior and the consequences was next to impossible, in my diminished state. I had literally forgotten that it mattered, for me to get a grip.

Okay, enough background. The good news is, I’m coming back. Those old monitoring parts of me that I had worked so hard to cultivate, are coming back online. It’s more than just feeling better and more alert — I AM better and more alert. I’m able to wake up in the morning, I’m able to engage more fully throughout my days, I’m able to step back and take a look at my moods and my behavior and choose the sorts of responses that will work in my favor, not against me. I’m not just on this mad auto-pilot drive; I’m actually able to slow down and contemplate my life and find real meaning in it again.  I’m also able to relax — really relax. It’s pretty amazing.

And as the time passes, with each new success which I fully realize and appreciate, I build up my stores of lost self-regard, self-esteem, self-respect. I also build up my stores of self-control, and I can actually live without being right about everything, no matter what the costs to my relationships. I am better and better able to choose my responses, and even when people around me are acting up and seemingly going out of their way to provoke me, I’m able to pull back from the engagement, figure out what I want to do and say… and do it.

Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. What amazes me even more, is that I went for years without having this as a regular part of my life. It amazes me, I thought I could do without it.

So, I’m enjoying this. Thoroughly. I’m watching my life with a whole new interest, and I’m learning a lot. In a way, I feel as though I’m re-learning skills, like someone re-learns to read and write after a head injury. Like someone re-learns to walk and talk after a stroke. Like someone with amnesia who starts to remember their name, their family, their home, their work… Like someone who wasn’t even fully aware of having amnesia, who suddenly sees a world they once knew, and isn’t sure whether to be elated or dismayed. In truth, it’s a little bit of both. I’m elated that bits and pieces are coming back to me. But I’m also dismayed that I lost sight of them for so long.

It feels very odd to be writing this, and to be realizing it, but I guess I was a lot more impacted in some ways than I really realized. But now that I’ve “got” it, I can move forward. Progress is good.

What really piques my interest is thinking about what got me back on track. I think one of the big things that set it in motion, was taking care of my body — starting to exercise regularly, and waking myself up with exercise and stretching, rather than two strong cups of coffee. That, and stretching and consciously relaxing before I go to sleep at night.

I actually think that I developed a hefty dose of PTSD, in the aftermath. Not right away, not from the fall itself, but rather from the progression of small disasters — bite-size catastrophes — that have dogged me for years. The collapse of jobs, the dramas at home, the startling surprises that I didn’t see coming, the encounters that went poorly or that carried some sort of hurt with them… My sympathetic nervous system has been on high alert for quite some time, now, and it’s taken a toll.

But since I started making a point of caring for my parasympathetic nervous system — bit by bit, exercise by exercise, breath by breath — I have been able to feel a difference in my whole system. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s dramatic. But it’s there. Conscious breathing has played a significant role, of late.

It’s good to be getting back. I’ve been toughing it out just about all my life, but this past 5 years has kicked my butt, to the point where toughing it out is no longer the best solution I can think of. Now I have other ways of dealing with the crises and dramas — ways which involve really basic care of myself, basic care of my system, and attending to the details of my life with a much greater depth than I’ve been able to manage for a number of years.

But now I am remembering who and what I am. I am remembering what matters most to me. I am re-learning the wonder and magic of paying attention to little things, and seeking deeper meaning from my life than what the television has to offer. I am re-learning the discipline of just sitting and observing what’s going on around me, rather than diving in with the intention of “fixing” what isn’t mine to fix. I am re-learning the fine art of calm in the midst of storms, as well as making my way in the world in my own individual way.

I wish I could say it’s coming naturally to me. I used to be able to say that. I used to know it and feel it. I seem to recall that I used to not have to really work at it. But I’m not adverse to work, and if extra effort is required to get me back to a place where I can piece back my life into a state of quiet dignity and genuine happiness. then so be it.

The force of habit

I didn’t want to exercise, when I got up this morning.

But I did it anyway.

I was feeling “gunked up” and sluggish and I have a lot to do. I didn’t want to spend the first half hour of my day riding the bike and lifting my 5 lb weights.

But I did it anyway.

And I’m glad I did.

I would like to say that I was able to follow through with my morning routine because I realize it is good for me, and I look forward to doing it every single day. But that would be untrue. Fact of the matter is, I’ve built this routine into my daily schedule so completely, that to veer from it or deviate in any way causes me intense anxiety. Its not so much high-minded intentions and enlightenment that gets me on the bike and stretching and lifting weights, first thing. Its the sheer force of  a strictly enforced habit.

A friend of mine tells me it takes six weeks for a habit to form. Well, I’ve been at this morning routine for nearly six months, and its so ingrained in me that doing something different is not a prospect I relish. I have a tendency to intense anxiety and nervousness — and I use that to my benefit, by creating positive, constructive structures which cause me intense anxiety if I deviate from them.

If you can’t get rid of your neuroses, you might as well put them to work for you. That’s what I did this morning. And I’m glad I did.

‘Cause now I feel a whole lot better. My sinuses have cleared, my body feels more awake, and I’m mentally much clearer.

Clear is good. I have a lot to get done today. It’s Sunday, and part of me feels like I should be taking it easy, as I had such a rough and long week, last week. But if I work this right and play my cards right, I can actually settle into what I’m doing and take it easy while I’m doing it.

Easy does it, say friends of mine. After hearing them say this for 20 years, it’s starting to sink in.

About time ;)

Anyway, this morning I realized I’ve run out of my pre-printed daily tracking forms, and I had to go back to writing things out by hand on scrap paper on my clipboard. In a way, I like this better. I’ve recently realized that the more stressed I am, the worse my handwriting is, so I can use that as a measure of how tweaked I am over things. Since being tweaked over things sets in motion a whole bunch of complications that set me off-track — I start to load up all sorts of extra activities on myself that do not need to be done — I’ve realized that I can gauge how well or how poorly I am doing, in general — and how well or how poorly I am likely to do through the course of the coming day  – by my handwriting.

Having a pre-printed form with lines on it that keeps me neat and tidy is actually a short-cut that keeps me from having to really focus in on my handwriting. It’s also a little bit of a crutch for me, as it structures my day for me and tells me what I’m supposed to do — and when. I’ve been very much in need of that kind of structure, for the past decades, and I’ve suffered with out it. Stuff just didn’t get done. It just didn’t. Important stuff. Stuff that I’m now paying the consequences of not finishing. And a lot of stuff got started and commitments got made that had no business ending up on my plate. Not having that structure, not having a consistent way to go about things, was — well — in some cases small-scale catastrophic.

But in the past couple of years, since I realized what havoc mTBI has played in my life, I have done a really focused and intensive job of ordering my life in a much more constructive way. I’ve created routines for myself specifically to strengthen and support the parts of me that need help. I’ve taken myself to task for lots of things that I messed up for no good reason, and I’ve taken steps to remedy them. I’ve really stepped up in many, many aspects of my life that used to either languish or fall by the wayside. And I’ve made tremendous strides in the past 18 months — largely because I suddenly realized that I had problems, and those problems needed to be solved.

Now I find myself not only able to follow through with the required activities I set for myself each day, but I’m also better able to manage the optional ones.  I’m also better at distinguishing which ones matter and which ones are wishful. I am better and not packing my plate full of things that “must” be done, and I’m better at deciding which ones are energy drains and not contributing to my overall progress.

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally starting to come together. And a key part of all of this has been the force of habit. Identifying what I’m going to do, and doing it religiously, each and every day without fail. The things that are important to me — like exercising — I do every single day. Without fail. At the same time, each and every day. Without fail. And it’s the daily aspect of it that I think really makes a difference.

Now, a lot of people say that you don’t have to exercise every single day, in order to get benefits. Well, I tried that, and in my case, if I don’t do my exercises each and every day, I end up forgetting about them, doing other things, and not doing them even once a week. Trust me – I’ve tried to do the “half-way” fitness routine, and it doesn’t work. So, I broke the cardinal rule of fitness and I do my workout every single morning.

No, I do not give myself time to “rest” between daily workouts. I do not give my body time to “catch up”. But I also don’t push myself really hard every single day that I exercise. Some days, I’ll put a little more into bike ride, pushing myself to work up a sweat. Or I’ll focus on more weights with my lifting, so I feel a little sore the next day. But I don’t give myself time off, because by this time exercise has become like any other daily activity — like eating a meal or sleeping. It’s just part of my daily routine. It’s just part of my life.

Force of habit to the rescue.

And now that I’ve got the exercise thing down — which still takes discipline and determination, some days, like today — I can extend that into other areas of my life. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what I want my life to be like, on down the line, and I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what parts of my life now are contributing to making that a reality later. I’ve come to the realization that my neurological and physiological issues may never go away and I’m going to have to factor them in at every turn, but I’ve also proven to myself that I am capable of positive change, and if I follow certain steps and do so consistently, I can — and will — make the kinds of changes I need in my life.

I may not be able to get back the years and the money and the relationships which fell prey to my injury, but I can work towards building something new for myself which is a reflection of what capabilities I have, and what my character truly is.

Ultimately, for me, the real power of the force of habit is about it relieving me of the need to think through every single action I take. Developing good habits frees up valuable time and energy I would otherwise be spending considering the pros and cons of what I’m doing, getting my head around the reasons why I’m doing them, and convincing myself they’re worthwhile. Developing rock-solid habits around good activities and behaviors enables me to focus on the important stuff — the actual doing of the activities, not the constant thinking about them. Developing positive habits frees me from analysis paralysis, and it acts as a kind of artificial executive function that keeps things running smoothly, even as the thinking parts of me are noodling about how to go about things.

Set-in-stone habits take care of the What and Why, so I can focus on the How.

And that’s a good thing.

So, that being said, it’s time to come up with some more habits. It’s time to create some more structure around what I absolutely positively need to do, in order to get where I’m going. This morning I created my daily planning list without the benefit of a pre-printed form. And my day is progressing really well anyway.

Good, good, good… and more good.

The difference between concussion and mild traumatic brain injury

I’ve been reading up on University at Buffalo’s work with concussion rehabilitation, using regulated exercise to deal with post-concussive syndrome (or post-concussion syndrome).

I have to say, it’s probably the most exciting news I’ve come across in a while. With all the talk about the NFL’s new post-concussion guidelines (which may or may not make a difference), and the increasing awareness about head injuries, expecially mild traumatic brain injuries (MTBI), it gets a little depressing, thinking about all the people who are getting hit in the head and suffering for years as a result.

A lot of folks are talking about it being an epidemic, that concussions are no joking matter, and lots of people are getting on the helmet bandwagon (especially since Natasha Richardson died from a brain injury while skiing). Prevention is great. But concussion is all but unavoidable in sports — especially student athletics. It happens. All the time. Yet nobody seems to have come up with a reliable way of addressing it when it does happen. Aside from bed rest and taking it easy, suggests for howto deal with concussions/brain injury are few and far between.

We know concussions happen. We know head injuries are common. We know they can have serious long-term consequences. You can try to prevent them, but you can’t be successful 100% of the time. And if you do have a head injury, you have to be sidelined from your life/sport, with no guarantee that the “treatment” will actually work.

I was starting to get seriously depressed.

Then, suddenly, I was looking around the other day and I found that the University at Buffalo has been working with regulated exercise to treat — even heal — the after-effects of concussion. Post-concussive syndrome is, according to the definitions of Willer and Leddy (at UB),  “persistent symptoms of concussion past the period when the individual should have recovered (3 weeks)”. According to them, post-concussive syndrome “qualifies as mTBI.”

This is interesting. I have heard a lot of people say that concussion is an mTBI, and the two are interchangeable. I am not a doctor, and I don’t have medical training, so I can’t throw my hat in the ring on that debate. But it is interesting to me, that people distinguish between the two.

At the UB web page on concussion research, there are some interesting papers, and they do talk about the difference between concussion and mild TBI.

Here’s what they have to say in the paper Retest Reliability in Adolescents of a Computerized Neuropsychological Battery used to Assess Recovery from Concussion (bold is mine)

A recent review … of concussion and post concussion  syndrome provided a model for distinguishing concussion from mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) and post concussion syndrome (PCS). The model uses the most commonly accepted definition of mTBI and the one proposed by the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control: loss of consciousness for no more than 30 minutes or amnesia as a result of a mechanical force to the head, and a Glasgow Coma Score (GCS) of 13 to 15 …. The model also uses the most commonly accepted definition of concussion as established by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN): a trauma induced alteration of mental status that may or may not involve loss of consciousness …. Although not explicitly stated in the AAN definition, concussion is generally viewed as a transient state from which the individual will recover fully in a relatively short period of time …. In contrast, mTBI is viewed as a permanent alteration of brain function even though the individual with mTBI may appear asymptomatic. Post concussion syndrome was defined in the Willer and Leddy … model as persistent symptoms of concussion past the period when the individual should have recovered (3 weeks) and therefore qualifies as mTBI. Neuropsychological testing is often used to describe the impairment associated with mTBI and PCS and have done so with relative success ….

So, basically,

  • mTBI = a loss of consciousness for no more than 30 minutes or amnesia as a result of a mechanical force to the head, and a Glasgow Coma Score (GCS) of 13 to 15
  • Concussion = a trauma induced alteration of mental status that may or may not involve loss of consciousness; it’s a transient state from which the individual will recover fully in a relatively short period of time
  • Post concussion syndrome (PCS) = persistent symptoms of concussion past the period when the individual should have recovered (3 weeks)
  • PCS, due to its enduring nature, qualifies as mTBI

(Note: I think someone needs to fill in the gap about how PCS satisfies the criteria for mTBI,  if they require that there be some loss of consciousness or amnesia involved. How lasting effects qualifies based on these criteria puzzles me. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll let this slide.)

I find this really compelling information, and it helps me make more sense of the whole “concussion thing”. I know I’ve sustained a bunch of concussions in the course of my life, and I also know that I have been diagnosed with “Late effect of intracranial injury.” But I could never really distinguish between the mTBI vs. concussion. I actually thought — and had been told — that they’re the same thing.

But that never made much sense to me, because when I look around at me, and I read that “An estimated ten percent of all athletes participating in contact sports suffer a concussion each season” And that’s just athletes. Plenty of people fall down, too, or are in car accidents. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of people sustain concussions each year, yet the general population doesn’t appear to be completely crippled by TBI (though some people I know would debate that ;) ) How is it possible, that so many people are sustaining concussions, especially in their youth and/or in sports, yet we’re not all running around impaired?

Making the distinction between a concussion that is transient, and a concussion that turns into an mTBI makes all the sense in the world to me. It makes it possible distinguish between someone who’s experiencing short-term issues, and someone who needs to deal with a broader-spectrum and deeper set of challenges. And in doing so, it de-stigmatizes concussion (at least in my mind), by steering clear of the “concussion = brain injury = brain damage” concept, which could be quite debilitating to a youth who has hit their head while playing a sport they love.

There are tons of potential ramifications and implications from being able to state that concussion is not necessarily an enduring brain injury. I may write more about this later, but it requires more thought.

The other very hopeful piece of this is that, by saying concussion is not always followed by brain injury, you’re opening a window to addressing concussions promptly so they do not turn into mild traumatic brain injuries. This, to me, is key. It not only makes sense of the two different kinds of injuries, but it also establishes that it may in fact be possible to treat the concussion to prevent it from becoming a more serious, long-term injury — the “gift” that keeps on giving. And by understanding concussion and brain injury this way, you also up the ante and really infuse the topic of prompt treatment with urgency. If acting promptly to address concussion makes it possible to avoid a lasting brain injury, then it’s in everyone’s best interest to become familiar with and properly trained in the recognition and treatment of concussion.

In this case, if mTBI is only present if concussion symptoms persist, and there’s no guarantee that concussion will result in a lasting brain injury, then prompt recognition and action may save the day.

Now, I’m still noodling over the idea that subconcussive impacts can seriously affect the brain over the long term, which Malcom Gladwell talked about in his article “Offensive Play“. But I am still hopeful. Because while subconcussive impacts may affect the brain, it could be that the damage takes place when no action is taken to address the injuries when they happen. Again, I’m not a doctor or a qualified medical professional, but it seems to me that if actively treating concussion helps with the really obvious issues — as the University at Buffalo has shown it does (albeit on a fairly limited scale) — then it might just help repair lesser damage done.

It might. I only wish I had the medical and scientific background and credentials to be able to speak as an expert on this. But apparently expertise is no guarantee of being able to help out, when it comes to TBI. The vast majority of experts haven’t had the wherewithall to state definitively what can actually be done about brain injuries, let alone recommend specific action that works, and there are thousands upon thousands, if not millions, of people suffering, day in and day out (along with their loved ones and co-workers) with the after-effects of concussion and mild traumatic brain injury.

So, somebody’s got to take the lead in finding a solution… Or at the very least think about finding one. The folks in Buffalo are up to wonderful work, and I can only hope that more folks have the gumption to take their lead and do something about this wretched hidden epidemic of ours.

Now, I’m off to address my own issues of the day.

Specialized exercise regimen relieves post-concussion symptoms

This just in from the University of Buffalo:

UB researchers are the first to show that a controlled individualized exercise training program can bring athletes and others suffering with post-concussion syndrome (PCS) back to the playing field or to their daily activities.

In a paper published in the January issue of the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, the researchers report that a program of progressive exercise developed individually for each participant and performed at levels just below the onset of symptoms is safe and can relieve nearly all PCS symptoms.

Read more…

Anger Notes: From mountain to molehill

I had a little difficulty this morning, getting into the day. I go through the same routine every day — wake up slowly… give myself time to wake up enough to get out of the bed without tripping or falling… get up and brush my teeth… go downstairs to put water on for coffee… do my morning workout while I am waiting for my coffee water to boil… think about what I need to accomplish today while I am working out… finish my workout and make my coffee and cereal… and then get into my morning.

Most days, if I have had enough rest, the routine goes like clockwork. But I recently started lifting heavier weights, and I also had a chiro adjustment yesterday, so I’m a little sore and stiff, and I need to get more sleep. Under normal conditions, getting the 7 hours that I had last night would make me very, very happy. I actually slept through till the sun was coming up! And I would feel like enough. But I am still recovering from staying out all night on New Year’s Eve last week, and I need to get even more rest than usual, so I can get back to my regular sleep schedule and get over being stiff and sore from the increased weight and also the adjustment I got yesterday.

Now, for most people, being behind on their sleep and having a little stiffness and soreness in the morning is no big deal. For a lot of people, it’s actually a way of life. They don’t get totally thrown off by lack of sleep. They just muddle through the day somehow. They don’t get all tweaked and freaked out over every little thing, with hair-trigger temper outbursts over every little thing. They just go through their day, like it’s no big deal. And they live their lives like everything is relatively normal, popping Advil or Aleve or having a few drinks at the end of the day to chill out and sleeping in, in the morning.

The people who don’t have issues with sleep deprivation and pain clearly are neurologically intact. They probably have not sustained traumatic brain injuries. They probably don’t have post-concussive syndrome, and they probably haven’t sustained brain trauma/head injury.

I, on the other hand, am not in that “space.” When I am behind on my sleep, it introduces a whole host of issues that make the most basic activities into challenges. When I am in physical discomfort, I tend to push myself even more, perhaps because doing that relieves the discomfort for me. But pushing myself tires me out even more. And when I get over-tired, I have a hard time relaxing and going to sleep… which makes me even more tired in the morning. And then I have all sorts of cognitive-behavioral problems. It’s a vicious cycle that’s very difficult to break.

That’s that cycle that started with me last night. I should have gone to bed around 9:30, but then I had some stuff to do, and I needed to talk to my spouse, who was out at a late meeting till 9:30. By the time they got home, I was ready to go to bed, but the sleepy part of me didn’t want to go to bed, so I stayed up and talked with them about this-and-that.

Finally, they packed me off to bed, seeing that I was pretty much wedged into the couch, and I was making myself comfortable for a long stay-up. It was 10:30, by then, and it took a focused, concentrated, concerted effort on both our parts to get me up off the couch and upstairs to bed. Then — being as tired and as contrary as I was — I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and inspected myself, studying my double chin and looking for gray hairs and trying to make my hair stand up straight by tousseling it and trying to spike it straight out from my scalp. I know, it’s strange. But this is the kind of stuff I do when I’m really, really tired and I don’t want to go to bed.

After about 15-20 minutes of this… and deciding that yes, I am still a handsome individual with good bone structure and not to much saggy skin in the wrong places… I finally got my ass in bed. Then I remembered I needed to stretch and take Advil (my bedtime routine), so I can better relax. I did that, and I then did my progressive relaxation exercises to get myself to sleep, which went really well — even better than I expected. I got to sleep around 11 p.m.

Happily, I slept through till 6 a.m., which is a wonder, because I’ve been waking up around 4-4:30 or so — which sucks — and that felt pretty good. I gave myself some time to wake up, before I got out of the bed. If I roll out of bed right away, I tend to stagger around a lot, which is loud and also a little dangerous. There are plenty of hard surfaces and sharp corners I can hit my head on. Plus, my spouse doesn’t like to be woken up by my clunking around, bumping into stuff — which happens, when I get up too quickly.

I got myself up and started getting into the day. But man, I was clumsy this morning, right from the start. I had trouble holding my toothbrush, had trouble holding onto the water spigot, and it was really really getting to me. I am definitely foggier and more out of it this morning than I’ve been in a while. It’s probably due to the adjustment I had yesterday — the chiro went pretty deep.  And when I’m foggy and clumsy and out of it, I get really, really agitated. Every little thing gets to me, and I have a harder time with those spikes of anger that come up when things go wrong for me. They seem to come out of nowhere, and when they show up, they can be intense — and the intensity makes them even more confusing and frustrating (and damaging) because my mind knows that my reaction to what is happening is wildly out of proportion to what is going on, and I feel like something is terribly wrong with me, that I feel this way. And I start in with calling myself all sorts of names, telling myself I’m a damaged idiot loser who can’t keep their shit together, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

I’ve written about this temper flare stuff before in my posts Flash in the (brain) pan and A constant restlessness (and elsewhere), and it still holds as true as ever.  And this morning, when I was just trying to brush my friggin’ teeth, already,  I could not seem to keep my act together. I had trouble holding the toothbrush, and when I put it down on its rest, something about how it was positioned bothered me intensely. Then I tried to turn off the water, and my hand slipped, and I hit the side of my hand on the edge of the spigot, which hurt.

And that old temper flare jumped out again, like Old Faithful… that geyser that comes up regularly at Yellowstone. Or maybe a better analogy would be, like one of the geysers that erupts periodically without warning. Tori Amos has an album I love called “Little Earthquakes”. Maybe I’ll do an album called “Little Geysers.”

Anyway, for a few minutes, as I stood there nursing my aching hand, I was

absolutely furious!!!!

It was all I could do to keep myself from hitting something or slamming something down. I was angry with the spigot for having hard edges. I was angry with my hand for being so weak that a little bump would hurt so much. I was angry with myself for being so uncoordinated and not being able to simply turn off the water like a normal person would. But most of all, I was angry with myself for getting so bent out of shape over something so simple. “I know better,” I told myself. “Why can’t I act better?

I was really getting whacked-out over this, and it literally threatened to derail my morning. When I get going like this, I descend down into a pit of ugliness, and the whole day can be tainted by my temper outbursts, whether they are internal or external. In fact, sometimes the worst ones are internal, that no one but me sees or hears or knows about, which makes my crabby, short-tempered behavior all the more confusing for people around me. It makes no sense to them — how could it? They don’t know what I’m experiencing, and I’m doing everything in my power to shield them from that.

I could feel that rush of anger, that temper flare, that wild spike of emotion… it tore through me like one of those microbursts I’ve seen on the Weather Channel… and I was starting to get freaked out… and go into one of those wild rages that’s like a forest fire tearing through my head.

Then I checked myself. Something in me — the something that has been observing myself with increasing knowledge of TBI over the past few years — told me to take a break and just give myself time to catch up with myself.

So, I stopped and took a breath and thought about what was happening. And when I took a break from my downward slide, I realized:

  1. I am still tired. I did not get enough sleep, and I am groggy.
  2. When I am groggy, my neuropsych has told me that I am more prone to agitation.
  3. When I am groggy, I also can be uncoordinated. I don’t need a trained expert to tell me this. I have observed it countless times.
  4. When I am uncoordinated, I tend to bump into things.
  5. When I am groggy, I tend to propel myself through events on adrenalin — because I need an extra “pump” of energy — energy I  don’t have from regular sources (like getting enough rest). When I’m fatigued, I have to pump myself up just to do the basic stuff… because otherwise I can’t get going.
  6. When I pump myself up, I move faster.
  7. When I move faster, and I am uncoordinated, I hit things with greater force than I would, if I were rested and had full motor control.
  8. When I’m fatigued, my brain’s constant restlessness and agitation is worse, it makes me snappier and more extreme in my reactions. I am also more physically sensitive, and I feel everything more intensely.
  9. And finally, I remembered — from what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by my neuropsych — this type of reaction from me is actually quite typical of TBI survivors. It’s just what my brain does, when it has to operate on too little sleep/energy.

So, there it was –this drama I was experiencing, standing in front of the bathroom sink, freaking out over hitting my hand on the spigot had everything to do with my brain/body AND it had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.  It wasn’t me being an asshole loser who’s emotionally inept and a worthless use of space. It was just my brain and body doing what they did, when I am tired and out of it and I am moving too fast.

I did NOT need to make a big deal out of it — just recognize what was happening… And I also realized that it was actually my brain sending me warning signals about what was amiss in my day, thus far. I recognized that this little snap of mine was like a gift from the gods — a hint about where I was at, that day, which I could use to inform the rest of my day to make better choices.

I also realized that if I didn’t take steps to stop this flash in my brain-pan, I was going to start the day on a really BAD note. Temper flares with TBI survivors tend to be quick-on, quick-off affairs, instantaneously coming up out of nowhere and disappearing just as instantaneously for no apparent reason. I realized I just needed to occupy my attention long enough for my system to calm down, and then I could get on with my day.

So, I took action. I kicked into gear and did something with all that agitation and energy — I channeled it into a constructive activity. I looked at the spigot that I’d hit my hand on, and I realized that it was slippery with soap on the handle. I studied the handle and felt where the slippery soap was, then I ran the water and rinsed off the handle, until it wasn’t slippery anymore. That made me feel a lot better. Then I dried my hands and went downstairs to make my breakfast.

Again, I had more trouble with uncoordinated blunders downstairs. I was off-balance and I was clumsy, getting my coffee stuff together. But I remembered what I’d noticed upstairs — I’m tired. I’m uncoordinated. This is not about me, it’s about my brain and body. When I am this tired, it’s perfectly normal — for me — to be agitated and restless and make mountains out of molehills. But it has nothing to do with me and my character… Forget about the supposed stupidity and ineptness and all those other words I use to attack myself. It’s about my slightly broken brain which has trouble when it’s tired, and I know what I can do to make it better — take it easy, take things slow, don’t push myself like crazy, and cut myself a friggin’ break, already.

So, that’s what I did. And by the time I got done with my workout, my day had re-booted nice and fresh. I’m still tired, but I’m not wiped out like I could be, because I made changes to how I was doing things. I had a good solid workout, and I lifted shorter sets with fewer reps, because I realized my body needed to catch up with the heavier weights. I also focused more on my exercise — I had been letting my mind wander more, over the past week or so — and I didn’t lose track of where I was with my workout, like I had been, in the past few days. And as I was planning my day, I made a point of scheduling just a fraction of the number of activities I’m prone to schedule for my day, which takes the pressure off, right off the bat.

AND instead of checking email from friends first thing in the morning, as I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, I am waiting till later in the day to do that, because there is a lot I need to get done, and I cannot be distracted from the work that’s waiting for me to finish it.

All in all, even though the day started out on a rough note, it was for the best.

Because I stopped and thought about what was happening. I learned about the experience as it was happening. And I used my tools. I used the info I got from my neuropsych, and I used the knowledge I had of myself. I used the opportunity to stop and think to really appreciate what was going on with me. I cut my brain and body a break.

I am also planning to lie down for a nap later today. I’m working remotely, plus the weather is not good right now. I can get a lot done, if I focus on what I’m doing. And with the appreciation of how tired I am, I can make the extra effort to take care of myself, take my time at what I’m doing, and manage my energy with intention and discipline.

All because I stopped for a moment and thought about what was really going on with me.

This is progress.

Doing it differently this holiday season

I did something quite unusual last night — I went Christmas shopping by myself at a much slower pace than usual. I didn’t manage to buy everything I set out to, but I got everything I could, and I got through the experience in one coherent piece — and I was able to get my nap after I got back.

Normally, this time of year is marked by team-shopping with my spouse. They contact everyone in the family and find out what people want… or we talk about what we think people want, and then they make up the list. We take the list, hop in the car, and head out to stores that look like good candidates, then we slog through the process of elimination, muddling our way through… with me getting so fried I either completely shut down and become non-communicative, or I melt down and fly off the handle over every little thing.

We usually spend several evenings like this, ’round about this time of year, and we’ve both come to dread it a little. My meltdowns had become more extreme over the past few years, and this year we were both really dreading the whole Christmas shopping business — to the point where we are going to be late(!) with presents for family members in other states. That’s never happened before. We were always good about it. But my meltdowns screwed everything up.

We both recognize that doing a lot of social things, this time of year (when work is actually getting more crazy, what with year-end and all), takes a huge toll on me. Even if it’s with friends (especially with friends), all the activity, all the interaction, all the excitement, really cuts into my available energy reserves. And then I get turned around and anxious… and I either regress to a cranky 9-year-old state, whining and bitching and slamming things around… or I melt down, start yelling, freak out over every little thing, and start picking at my spouse over things they say and do, to the point where neither of us can move without me losing it.

What a pain in the ass it is. Of all things, the uncontrollable weeping bothers me the most. The yelling bothers my spouse. It’s embarrassing for me and frightening for them, and neither of us has a very Merry Christmas, when all is said and done.

So, this year we did things differently.

We split up for the day and took care of our respective activities.

My spouse went to a holiday party that was thrown by a colleague of theirs who’s married to an attorney who deals with financial matters. I was invited, too, but we both realized that it would be pretty dumb for me to try to wade into the midst of 50+ actuaries and tax attorneys and their spouses who were invited to the shindig… and try to hold my own. Certainly, I can keep up with the best of them, but marinating in such a heady soup, especially with everyone hopped up on holiday cheer (eggnog, red wine, punch, etc.) and all animated and such, would have been a recipe for disaster.

So, I didn’t go. Instead, I took our shopping list and headed to the mall to stock up on what our families had requested. We had written down in advance all the names and the specific gifts we were going to get, and we had also written down where we were going to get them. That list was my lifeline. Especially in the rush and press of the mall, which sprawls out in all directions, with satellite stores on either end.

I’m happy to report that I actually did really well. I made a few tactical errors — like not parking in the first lot I came to and walking in. But that turned out okay, because if I had parked in the first lot, it would have been all but impossible to get down to the other end of the mall. I studied the list carefully ahead of time and used a highlighter to mark the stores where I’d be going. I also kept my focus trained on the task at hand — even if it was just sitting in traffic. I also walked a lot more this year than other years. I found one parking space and used it for two different stores. And I didn’t hassle with finding a space that was as close as I could get to the building. I took the first decent spot I could find, and then I walked to the store.

Imagine that — in past years, I was possessed with finding parking as close as possible, and I would move the car between stores, even if they were only 500 yards apart.  This year, I just walked the distance. Even though it was cold, for some reason the cold didn’t bother me, and it actually felt good to be out and moving.

I think that my 5 months  of daily exercise has paid off, in this respect. I think part of the reason I was always consumed with driving everywhere was that I just wasn’t physically hardy. I was kind of a wimpy weakling, in fact — though more in thought than in body, but a wimply weakling, all the same. But having a good physical foundation — even just from doing an hour (total) of cycling, stretching, and light lifting each morning — has made a significant difference in my willingness and ability to walk between stores.

It might not seem like much, but the walking (instead of driving) between stores part of the trip actually made a huge difference in my overall experience. Walking between stores — stopping at the car on the way to stash my presents — helped me break up the activity and clear my head. It got me out of that in-store madness, the crush and the rush, and it got me moving, so I felt less backed-up and agitated. And that let me start fresh at the next store.

That was good, because the first store was a friggin’ nightmare. It was one of those big-box electronics places, that supposedly has “everything” but really didn’t. It was exhausting, combing through the stacks of movies and music, only to find everything except what I needed. The lighting was awful — extremely bright and fluorescent and glaring. People kept bumping into me, or walking so close I thought they would run me down. But the worst thing was the acoustics. Everything surface was hard and echo-y and the place was overwhelmingly loud, and every single sound was at least partially distinguishable, which drove me nuts. I’ve noticed that acoustics have a lot more impact on me than light, when I’m out shopping. The store was one big cauldron of loud, indiscriminate noise, and my brain kept trying to follow every sound to see if it mattered. I couldn’t function there. Not with the place full of people — and very agitated, anxious, aggressive people, at that.

I eventually went with a gift card and got the hell out of there. I doubt I’ll ever go back when it’s that full. When the place is low-key and all but empty, I can handle it much better. But at this time of year? Not so much.

Walking back to my car chilled me out. Sweet relief.

At the second store — a bookstore — I started to feel pretty overwhelmed. They had long lines, and the place was packed — which is good for the retailer, but not so great for me. I spent the longest amount of time there, in part because I could feel I was getting overloaded, and I stopped a number of times to catch up with myself and remind myself what I was there to buy. My list was getting a little ragged, at that point, what with me writing notes in the margins and taking it out/putting it back in my pocket. So, eventually I just pulled it out and held onto it for dear life. I must have looked a little simple-minded, but I don’t care. Everyone else was so caught up in their own stuff, anyway. My main challenge there, was not getting trampled by Women On A Mission — many of them carrying large bags and shopping baskets that doubled as ramrods to get through the crowds.

One cool thing happened, though, when I was taking a break — I had a little exchange I had with two teenage boys who were talking about some book they’d heard about. I was just standing there, pretending to look at a shelf of books, just trying to get my bearings, when I hear this one young guy tell his buddy, “I heard about this book I should get — I think it’s called the ‘Kama Sutra’ and it’s, like, about sex, and it’s got these pictures… and it’s really old… like, from India or something.”

Well, I perked up at that, and suddenly very alert, I looked over at them and said, “Oh, yeah — the Kama Sutra, man… You should definitely check it out.”

They kind of looked at me like deer in headlights, and they got flushed and flustered and stammered something about not knowing how to find it. It was about sex, and they didn’t know how to ask someone to help them. I so felt their pain…

I confidently (and confidentially) pointed them to the book-finder computer kiosk, where they could type in the title and it would tell them where to find it in the store.

“Dude, you should totally look into it. It’s got lots of information — and pictures — and it’s been highly recommended… for hundreds of years.”

They got really excited and headed for the book-finder kiosk. Here’s hoping they — and their girlfriends — have a very Merry Christmas.

That little exchange got me back in the game, so I took another look at my list and managed to find the handful of books and music and calendars I wanted to get. I headed for the line and just chilled/zoned out. I didn’t get all tweaked about how long it was taking; I listened in on a conversation for a while, till I realized it was mostly about death and health problems people were having.

Oh – and another thing that helped me keep my act together, was the 4:15 p.m. alarm that I have set on my mobile phone. 4:15 is usually when I need to start wrapping up my day at work. I need to do a checkpoint on the work I’m doing, start to wind down, and begin keeping an eye on the clock, so I don’t get stuck in town past 6:00, which is what happens to me when I don’t watch my time after 3:30 or so. I have this alarm set to go off each day, and it went off while I was in the store, which was a blessing. I had completely lost track of time and I was starting to drift, the way I do, when I’m fatigued and overloaded and disoriented.

It startled me out of my fog, and I knew I still had a bunch of things on my list to get, so I refocused and started thinking about what I would get at the next store, so I could just march in and do my shopping without too much confusion and disorientation. After I paid for my books and music and calendar, I debated whether to have my presents wrapped for free, which might have saved me time in the long run. But I couldn’t bear the thought of having to interact with the folks who were doing the wrapping. They looked really friendly and gregarious — Danger Will Robinson! Warning! Warning! Even a friendly conversation was beyond me at that point.

I realized I just wasn’t up to that, and I must have looked like an idiot, standing there in the middle of the foyer, staring at the gift-wrappers for about 10 minutes, but who cares? Everyone was so caught up in their own stuff, they probably didn’t notice me. And if the gift-wrappers were uncomfortable with my staring, they didn’t show it… too much ;)

Anyway, after I managed to extricate myself from that store, I headed for my last destination. Again, I didn’t sweat the traffic getting out of the lot, and when I got to the final store, I parked at a distance from the front doors and walked in through the icy cold, which was good — it cleared my head.

Inside, I consulted my list again and headed directly for the section that had what I needed. Halfway there, I remembered that I’d meant to buy a very important present at the first store, but I’d totally blanked on it. I started to freak out and got caught up in trying to figure out how to get back to that first store and not lose my mind in the process.  Then, I slowed down and stopped catastrophizing, and in my calming mind, it occurred to me that — Oh, yeah – they probably carried that item at this store, so I went and checked, and sure enough, there it was – score! I didn’t have to back to big-box hell. At least, not that day.

I found some more of the presents on my list, and although I didn’t get everything I needed, I made a decent dent. My partner can come with me and help me sort out the other items either today or tomorrow. Or possibly when we get to our family — they usually have some last-minute shopping to do, and they can cart us around with them. And I won’t have to drive.

By the time I got home, I was bushed. My spouse wasn’t home yet, so I called them — they were on their way home and were stopping to pickup some supper. I said I was lying down for a nap, and they didn’t have to wake me when they got home. Then I took a hot shower to get the public germs off me, laid down, and listened to Belleruth Naparstek’s Stress Hardiness Optimization CD. I had a bit of trouble relaxing and getting down, but I did manage to get half an hour’s sleep in, before I woke up in time for dinner.

My partner had a pretty good time at the party, but they said it probably would have been a disaster for me — so many people, so much energy, so many strangers, and unfamiliar surroundings. I concurred, and I showed them what I’d bought that afternoon.

We’d both done well. We both missed each other terribly, but we did get through the afternoon without one of those terrible holiday incidents that has dogged us for many, many years. Like Thanksgiving, which went so well, this Christmas shopping trip actually felt normal. It didn’t have that old edginess that I always associate with holiday shopping. It didn’t have the constant adrenaline rush. In some respects, it feels strange and unfamiliar, but you know what? If strange and unfamiliar means level-headed and low-key and plain old sane, and it means I can keep my energy up and pace myself with proper planning… well, I can get used to that.

Yes, I’ve done things differently this year. And it’s good.