The TBI/Concussion Energy Crisis – Part 2 of 2

This is Part 2 of a long post that I’ve split into two parts. The first part is here:

Running on empty?

Long-term outcomes after mild traumatic brain injury — and persistent post-concussion syndrome that doesn’t resolve in the usual couple of weeks — have baffled researchers and practitioners for a long time, but to me it makes perfect sense. There is a cumulative effect of stress and strain that comes over time. There’s plenty of research about the long-term effects of chronic stress. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of research about the levels of stress among mild TBI and concussion survivors.

Everybody seems to think things just resolve. And they don’t seem to think it matters much, that we are no longer the people we once were. They don’t seem to realize what a profound and serious threat this is to our sense of who we are, and our understanding of our place in the world. At most, it’s treated like an inconvenience that we’ll just see our way through with time.

But it’s bigger than that. Losing your long-held sense of self when you’re a full-grown adult, with a full docket of responsibilities and a whole lot invested (both by yourself and by others) in your identity being stable, is a dire threat to your very existence. It is as threatening to your survival, as surviving an explosion, a flood, an earthquake, or some other catastrophe that nearly does you in.

It’s traumatic. But because it’s not over the top and in your face and dramatic — and it doesn’t register on most imaging or diagnostic equipment — people think it just doesn’t matter.

Or that it doesn’t exist.

Frankly, the professional community should know better — especially those who work with trauma. They, of all people, should know what trauma does to a person — in the short and long term. I suppose they do know. They just underestimate the level of stress that comes from losing your sense of self and having to rebuild — sometimes from scratch. I’m not even sure they realize it exists.

But they do exist. Dealing with the daily barrage of surprises about things not working the way they used to… it gets tiring. Trying to keep up, takes it out of you. I know in the course of my day, I have to readjust and re-approach many, many situations, because my first impulse is flat-out wrong. I have to be always on my toes, always paying close attention, always focused on what’s important. Always reminding myself what’s important. I have to perpetually check in with myself to see how I’m doing, where I’m at, what’s next, what I just did, how it fits with everything else I’m doing… Lord almighty, it takes a lot of energy.

What’s more, those stresses and strains are made even worse by being surrounded by people who don’t get how hard I’m working. I swear, they just have no clue — my spouse and my neuropsych included. They seem to think that this all comes easily to me, because I do a damned good job of smoothing things over and covering up the turmoil that’s going on inside of me. I have trained myself — through a combination of techniques — to at least appear to be calm in the midst of crisis. Even when things are falling apart around me and inside me, even when I am at my wits’ end and am about to lose it, I can (usually) maintain a calm demeanor and chill out everyone around me.

Heaven knows, I’ve had plenty of practice over the years. If I hadn’t learned to do this, I would probably be in prison right now.

No, not probably. I would be in prison. I like being free and un-incarcerated, so I’ve learned to hold my sh*t.

Which is where sleep and proper nutrition and exercise come in. Because after years of thinking that sharing my experience with the ones closest to me would enlist their help, I’ve realized that doing that will never ever achieve that goal. People just don’t get it. Even my neuropsych doesn’t get it. Everyone has this image of me as I present to them, which is totally different from what’s going on inside of me.They seem to make assumptions about how I am and what I am and what life is like for me, that have nothing to do with how things really are.

Inside, I have a ton of issues I have to manage each and every day. Today, it’s

  • confusion & disorganization
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • neck, back and joint pain
  • noise sensitivity
  • dizziness
  • ringing in my ears that’s not only the high-pitched whine that never goes away, but is now accompanied by intermittent sounds like a tractor-trailer back-up alert beep. Nice, right?

And that’s just for starters. Who knows what will happen later today.

But I’ll stow the violins — the point is, I really can’t rely on others to figure things out for me — even the trained professionals. I can’t rely on them to understand or appreciate what my life is like from day to day. I need to rely on myself, to understand my own “state” and to manage that state on my own through nutrition, adequate exercise, rest… and to advocate for myself to get what I need.

I have to keep those needs simple — rest, nutrition, exercise — and not complicate matters. Getting more elaborate than that just works against me. It’s hard to explain to people, it gets all jumbled up in my head, and the other people try to solve problems they don’t understand, in the first place.

On the one hand, it can get pretty lonely. On the other hand, it’s incredibly freeing. Because I know best what’s going on with me, and I know I can figure out how to get that in place.

The bottom line is — after this very long post — TBI and concussion take a ton of energy to address. It’s not a simple matter of resting up till the extra potassium and glucose clear out of your brain. There are pathways to be rewired, and they don’t rewire themselves. Depending on the nature of your injury — and a diffuse axonal injury that frays a ton of different connections, even just slightly, can introduce a wide, wide array of frustrations and hurdles — you can end up spending a ton of time just retraining yourself to do the most basic things. Like getting ready for work and making yourself breakfast without missing any important steps (e.g., taking a shower or turning off the stove).

And when you’re trying to rewire your brain and retrain yourself to get back on track, at the same time you’re trying to maintain your life as it once was… well, that’s a recipe for a whole lot of hurt, if you don’t give yourself the energy stockpiles you need to move forward, and if you don’t take steps to regularly clear out the gunk that accumulates in your physical system, as a result of the stresses and strains of the rewiring process.

That being said, I wish that someone would do a study on the stress levels of concussion and other mild traumatic brain injury survivors. We need to collect this data, in order for professionals to better understand us and our situations, and to better know how to treat us.

For the time being, however, I’m not holding my breath. I know what works for me, with regard to my recovery — having someone non-judgmental to talk to about my daily experience, keeping records of my daily life so I can self-manage it, regular exercise, pacing myself, good nutrition, intermittent fasting, keeping away from junk food, adding more high-quality fats and oils to my diet, and getting ample sleep with naps thrown in for good measure.

Those are really the cornerstones of my recovery. When I do all of them on a regular basis, I get better. If I overlook any one of them, I slide back in my progress. It’s an ongoing process, for sure.

The TBI/Concussion Energy Crisis – Part 1 of 2

This is Part 1 of a long post that (out of consideration for your time) I’ve split into two parts. The second part is here:

Running on empty?

I’m having my butter-fat coffee this morning, thinking about how I’m going to plan my day. I have some back taxes work I have to do — I need to refile from prior years, because I messed up a couple of times and I need to make it right. Fortunately, I erred to my own disadvantage before, so fixing those errors and refiling will bring in a little extra money, which I can really use.

I had a pretty restful sleep last night. However, I woke up at 5 again, which I did not want to do, and I was pretty stiff and sore from all my activity yesterday. That’s the thing about getting a sudden burst of energy — I want to use it, I want to experience it, I want to feel what it’s like to really move again. So, my body ends up moving more than it has in a long time, and then I get sore.

Fortunately, it’s a “good sore” which is a sign that I’m getting stronger and more active. This is one of those rare cases where “pain is weakness leaving the body”.

I considered getting up, because I would love to have an extra useful hour or two in my day. But I was still pretty tired, so I stretched a little bit, then relaxed with my guided imagery recording, and went back to sleep with earplugs and eye mask. I have light-blocking curtains in my bedroom, but sometimes the light gets in, so I use an eye mask. In the winter when it is cold, I wear a winter cap in bed to keep warm, and I pull it down over my eyes to block the light. But now that it’s warmer, I can’t use the cap. So, the eye mask it is.

Something about the eye mask helps me sleep — it’s a Pavlovian response, I think. I usually use it when I am trying to fall asleep during the day, and it works.  So, I have an ingrained response to relax when I put on my eye mask. And it worked. I got another hour of sleep, and I woke up feeling much more human.

Yesterday I had written about how it’s energy shortages that make me so tired, rather than lack of sleep. Well, let me just say that it’s really both that get me. If I’m over-tired, no matter how many high-quality fats I put in my body, I’m going to run out of steam. And if I don’t have enough high-quality fats in my system to convert into energy, all the sleep in the world isn’t going to fix me up.

One of the things that I think really bites mild TBI and concussion survivors in the ass, is also probably one of the most overlooked — The Energy Crisis. I think that people (especially health care providers) really don’t get how hard we have to work to reorient ourselves and retrain our brains after a mild TBI or concussion. There are so many subtle ways that our regular routines and regular thinking patterns are disrupted, and we can totally miss those subtle disruptions until they balloon in to bigger problems.

One thing after another goes wrong. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we catch it in time, sometimes we don’t. But so many little tiny things can be so different from before — even just feeling different — that it’s overwhelming. And the end results can be devastating — failing work performance, failing relationships, failing finances… failing everything.

For no apparent reason.

So, we end up either being hyper-vigilant and always on guard. Or we just give up and go with the flow, because who the hell can keep up with everything that’s getting screwed up? We go into either crisis prevention mode or crisis response mode. In either case, our lives are marked by crisis. One. After. Another.

And that is tiring. It is SO tiring.

So, we run out of steam. It can happen from just being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of adjustments — large and small. It can happen from feeling like we’re under constant attack from within and without — which we often are, as our internal systems are disrupted and the “ecosystem” we have been operating in starts to rag on us because we’re not keeping up. It can happen from being on a constant adrenaline rush, just trying to keep up and respond. It can come from crashes from all the junk food we eat to make ourselves feel less pain… to have more energy… or just take our minds off our troubles.  Usually, it’s all of the above.

On all levels, we’re getting hit — our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual existence is in turmoil. And it takes a huge amount of energy to keep up.

If we don’t get enough of the right kind of sleep, and we also don’t have the right physical support to keep going, our systems short out. I believe this is why mild TBI folks can actually see worse outcomes over the long term, with problems showing up years on down the line. All the little “hits” we take in the course of each day all contribute to our biochemical overload. There’s more and more “sludge” in our system, in the form of waste from stress hormones processing, to buildup from the junk foods we eat to keep going, and that sludge adds to our overall stress levels, causing us physical stress and strain — which then contributes to our mental and emotional instability.

And years on down the line, when we “should be fine”, things really unravel, and we end up in terrible shape, without any clue how or why — and nobody there to support us, because they don’t know why either, and they probably wouldn’t believe us if we told them.

Keep reading here >>

TBI Energy Hack – A different kind of coffee

I tried it – I loved it

Yesterday, while I was fasting, I was pondering how much it sucks to be tired all the time and how I want to change my life but tend to run out of steam.

A lot of different things come to mind when I’m fasting (I’ll go without food for 18-20 hours, once a month or so, to “reboot” my system, give my metabolism a break from processing food, and help me increase my self-control. I was feeling pretty good all morning, then around noon I started to fade big-time (probably also because I was overtired), and I needed a little boost.

So naturally I started surfing around the web for ideas about how other people handle intermittent fasting. I came across information on “Bulletproof® Coffee” which is a special blend of high-quality coffee with a couple of unexpected ingredients that are supposed to enhance your brain function, give you more energy, and support your system – especially if you’re doing intermittent fasting.

I read up on it a bit over at Bulletproof Exec, and it made sense to me. Add a few unlikely ingredients to your morning coffee, and you can give yourself a much-needed boost that won’t fry your system like straight coffee does.

Those ingredients:

  • Butter from grass-fed cows. A big hunk of it.
  • MCT Oil (some folks use coconut oil, but you have to be careful you don’t get kinds that may have mold in them from the coconut pressing process).

You take the butter and the oil and you blend it together with two cups of coffee. You can use an electric blender or you can use a hand blender.

Reading up on how the fat in the butter and MCT oil supports your brain function, I was pretty intrigued. Plus, grass-fed butter and oil aren’t pharmaceuticals. They’re naturally occurring (well, the MCT oil is synthesized from coconut oil, but it’s not a concoction that originates only in a lab), and they work with your system, instead of overriding it. Plus, they’re freely available without a prescription.

I happened to be going food shopping last night, and I have some coconut oil in the cupboard, so I picked up some unsalted Kerrygold butter (grass-fed — it’s in tiny print on the label, so I had to look for it). And I prepared myself for a slightly different coffee experience this morning.

I sorta kinda followed the instructions — I don’t have “high quality” coffee in the house yet — I ordered some off the guy’s site, and I’m looking forward to getting it soon. I used only about a tablespoon of butter and coconut oil, not the globs of stuff the Bulletproof guy suggests. I also couldn’t use the electric blender, because that would have woken up my spouse, which is never a good idea — it’s best not to poke a sleeping bear. But I made do with what I had.

I tossed a little blob of butter and some coconut oil in a small metal mixing bowl, sat it in a larger pan of hot water to let it melt, then I made my coffee (which I always brew with a drip filter using brown paper filters anyway). Then I poured my first cup of coffee in with the butter and oil in the mixing bowl and got out my trusty hand blender. I mixed up the butter and oil with the coffee until it was well blended and there was a little froth on top. Then I filled my one coffee mug as far as it could go, and poured the leftover mixture into the second cup of coffee I had waiting. I wanted to try it in different strengths, just in case I hated one. I didn’t want to waste two perfectly good cups of coffee.

I usually make two cups of coffee in the morning anyway, so it wasn’t a change in the volume for me. I wasn’t in danger of getting wired. I must admit I was skeptical about this actually working for me. I wasn’t sure it was worth the extra effort, but I coordinated the Bulletproof coffee prep with frying up my morning egg, and by the time the egg was done, the coffee was ready, too.

Now, I’ve been a hardcore black-and-bitter coffee drinker for years. I cut out milk and sugar about 6 years ago, and I haven’t looked back since. So, I wasn’t sure I was going to like this new concoction. Putting butter and oil in coffee? Who does such a thing?! I was also concerned about the drink getting cold and turning into a fatty glob that I couldn’t get down. Sometimes I get caught up in my work before I finish my coffee, and both the butter and the coconut oil are not cheap, so I didn’t want to waste them.

However, I was really pleasantly surprised by the effect. It didn’t taste bad, actually. It was pretty good. In fact, my body really seemed to crave it. I had a hard time waiting for it to cool, actually. I kept wanting to drink it. I got a pretty good kick from it. Maybe it was the reading I’d done that suggested I’d feel sharper from this stuff, that made me feel… well, sharper. But whatever – I did. I got this real boost of energy that was nothing like I’d known in quite some time. It was this steady flow of energy — not like rocket fuel Red Bull.

And you know what? 2-1/2 hours later, I still feel really great. All through. Not just my head, but my whole body.

Verdict after Day One with Bulletproof® Coffee?  Holy smokes. This is really good. I haven’t felt this with-it in the morning for a really long time, and mornings are the sharpest time of the day for me (which says a lot about how pitiful my afternoons and evenings are). They’re also the time when I need to be the most “on”. So, this new approach to coffee, with grass-fed butter and coconut/MCT oil is a keeper.

This one is a “go”, for sure. I’m doing it again tomorrow.  And I’ll keep doing it, till it stops doing what it does.

Onward.

TBI Anger Hack – from cracked.com

Cracked.com has a great piece on 5 Brain Hacks That Give You Mind-Blowing Powers. The title is a bit overblown, but it hooked me, so I picked up some tricks… and found this useful piece of info. I’m going to add it to my collection of lifehacks to deal better with all the crap that gets sent my way. The principle is the same as with intermittent fasting — which helps me with my self-discipline and helps me learn to better manage my internal state when I’m just a little stressed. Here’s what they have:

#2. Control Anger by Using Your Less-Dominant Hand

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com

Everyone knows at least one guy who hulks out over the stupidest things — a messed up coffee order, a red light, global warming. Usually these people are just harmless joke fodder until they road rage on an elderly person over a politically charged bumper sticker. If you don’t know one of these people, consider that it might be you.

Of course, there are all these tricks that your mom taught you that are supposed to calm you down (“Stop and count to 10!”), which of course don’t work because in the moment you’re enraged, you can’t think logically anyway. What you need is to beef up your anger defenses before it gets to that point.

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com
“Somebody stop me before I rob a sperm bank and make this town disgusting.”

The Hack:

This one comes from the University of New South Wales, who found the perfect anger-management trick, and it wasn’t cool jazz music or playful kittens wearing sunglasses. People who had anger issues were asked to spend two weeks using their non-dominant hand for anything that wouldn’t endanger anyone: opening and slamming doors, writing hate mail, pouring coffee, and other dirty activities that are now crossing your mind. After two weeks, the subjects could control their temper tantrums better, even when other participants deliberately insulted them to get a reaction.

Why would this possibly work? Well, looking at angry people under brain scans shows that outbursts are less about too much anger and more about depleted self-control. That’s both good news and bad news. The bad news is that self-control is a finite thing, and you can run out of it. The good news is that it’s a physical mechanism of how your brain works, and you can strengthen it (or hack it into working better).

Digital Vision/Digital Vision/Getty Images
“Fudge you, mother lover!”

Now, you’d assume that the only way to do that would be some kind of meditation or long classes in anger management. Or maybe to pay somebody to make an annoying noise in your ear for hours at a time and slowly decreasing the frequency with which you punch them in the head. But it turns out it doesn’t take anything like that — just asking these people to use their clumsy hand to do everyday tasks forced them to deal with hundreds of tiny, totally manageable moments of frustration. But that was enough to make them somewhat immune to it.

So, when things got ugly, suddenly they found that the walls around their internal anger demon were stronger. And it’s probably also calming to know that if things get so bad that a gunfight breaks out, you’re now capable of dual-wielding that shit.

BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images
“Oh, hey, you are totally correct. The grass is indeed purple. My mistake.”

TBI Lifehacks – My ticket back to health, wealth, and success

Once you know how things work, you can come up with new solutions

So, life is becoming pretty awesome for me, I have to say. There are a lot of challenges in my life, still, but working so hard to overcome all the craziness from the past ten years is really starting to pay off.

I find out next week if I get a raise. If I do, it will be a big friggin’ deal, because although I did get a slight increase in pay last year, this year is different, because it’s not all going back into paying off debts. This year, it’s an actual raise, because it’s coming to me, instead of creditors.

I have successfully wiped out about a year’s salary worth of outstanding debts, and that’s not a small thing. It’s taken me four years to do it, but I finally made it.

I made it. And now I can truly have take-home pay, instead of being a way station for money that comes from my employer and goes directly to someone else.

So, if I get a raise, then so much the better. Heaven knows, I’ve worked for it.

God, have I worked for it. My life has been pretty much centered around my recovery from multiple TBIs, ever since I realized back in 2007 that this was going on with me. I happened up on information about mild traumatic brain injury almost by chance — I was taking care of a loved-one who’d had several strokes, and I was researching the brain and brain injury. And as I read about brain injury, I looked at my own life, and I realized that it all sounded eerily familiar. And I realized that despite cashing out of a good job a few years before, and getting two years’ worth of salary from stock options, I was nearly broke. And I realized I didn’t know why.

Suddenly so much made sense.

So, I have dedicated my life to learning as much as I can about my own particular situation and finding ways to approach and address it that will lead to greater health and balance. Wealth and success are welcome, too… especially since I was somewhat wealthy and very successful before I fell in 2004.

A lot has changed, and a lot has improved dramatically over the past 7 years, since I first embarked on this quest. And looking back on my life and my activities, I realize now that what I’ve been doing is what you could call “life hacking” — finding”an inelegant but effective solution to a specific problem in [everyday] life.” (See the Wikipedia explanation of life hacking here)

Life hacking refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life; in other words, anything that solves an everyday problem of a person in a clever or non-obvious way.

This is essentially what I’ve been doing for the past 7 years. “Hacking” as most people understand it, is a bad thing that breaks systems and lets criminals do bad things. But hacking is really about understanding a system, how it works, how it’s put together, and then based on that understanding, coming up with an unorthodox solution to problems that arise.

If you look at the Lifehacker web site or instructables.com you’ll find a ton of tips and tricks and approaches to things in everyday life that are not only cool, but also time- and money-saving, which is the whole point. People are figuring out everything from using voice recognition to write software code more efficiently, to putting handles on your grill, so you can add charcoal more easily. It’s all about making life better, by doing things a little differently… because you understand how the system works, and you can bend the rules here and there to take advantage of certain aspects of the system that other people take for granted as set in stone.

Few things are as set in stone as many people believe, and that especially goes for the brain. It’s an amazingly complex system, and it varies from person to person (as does TBI), so there are countless ways to improvise and innovate, once you know the underlying principles behind it.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist (or a brain surgeon) to address TBI from a hacker standpoint. You just need to know some fundamental principles, be willing to experiment and try new things, you have to be willing to pay attention to what you’re doing and what happens as a result, and you have to be brutally honest with yourself about what’s really going on with you.

You’ve got to be both awed by the vastness of the interconnected system inside your head, and also be a bit of a heretic who’s willing to push the envelope with what’s “possible”.

The things that have been the basis for my own recovery have been:

  1. Understanding that the brain is indeed “plastic” — that is, it changes in response to input and experience. Any kind of learning is an example in plasticity, as are the changes that people go through in the course of their lives.
  2. Believing that by trial and error, I can find the best way to live my life — and also change my brain. It’s fine to read books about how others do it, but there’s nothing like real life experience to make it real — and make real progress.
  3. Re-defining “mistakes” as opportunities to learn and change and grow, and not shying away from making as many mistakes as possible.
  4. Believing that nobody can know better than I, what works best for me and my brain. I can listen to what others say and try out what they suggest, but nobody knows better than I, what really works best. Things that look great on paper and have a good success rate in formal circumstances, can turn out to be useless — or even harmful — for me.
  5. Trying… and trying again.

Observing has been a huge part of my recovery. Observing and adjusting. When I came across the Give Back TBI Self-Therapy Guide and started working with the principles, it really made a lot of sense. And best of all, it turned out to really work well for me. Some of the suggestions aren’t so great for me, but the fundamental underlying principles are sound, in my experience, and they’ve been hugely helpful for me.

Also a big part of my recovery has been sharing my experiences with others — here on this blog, and also with a neuropsych, whom I’ve been meeting with on a regular basis since 2008 or so. Just the process of sitting and talking with another human being who doesn’t judge me, who doesn’t make fun of me, who doesn’t roll their eyes and dismiss me… My neuropsych is the only person in my life who lets me just work through what I need to work through, without either jumping in and trying to save me from myself, or judging me and pushing me away.

They also have the same orientation as I — that change is possible, even inevitable, so why not make the most of it and really step up and take charge of the change.

Also writing on this blog and checking in regularly, has been a huge help. It just gets me out of my head, and every now and then a reader provides some support — either encouragement or a much-needed reality check about me feeling sorry for myself or being a whiner or some other valuable critique that gets me to stop and check my head, and adjust my approach in some way.

So yeah — hacking TBI. This is what I’ve been up to. Hacking, in the sense of

  • Identifying problems I need to solve — sleep/fatigue issues, anger issues, mood issues, sensory issues, attention/distraction issues, pain issues, relationship issues
  • Learning about the systems where the problems occur, inside my head — and whole body in fact… central nervous system, enteric nervous system, autonomic nervous system… lymphatic system… senses, impulses, instincts…
  • Letting the knowledge sink in, so it made sense to me and I could work with it.
  • Figuring out how I can tweak the system(s) to fix the problems — how I can do things a little differently, or take advantages of one of my systems to offset problems in another one.

A classic example of a TBI Hack that worked like magic was this:

Problem: Exploding with anger each morning when I would wake up and try to make breakfast, and I would drop things. I would explode with frustration when something simple would happen — like dropping a spoon or losing my grip on my coffee cup handle. My explosions were more internal than external (though I have been known to throw things, before I get my coffee in the morning). But they still tore the crap out of me, first thing in the morning. That’s a hell of a way to start the day.

System Issues: I learned that one of the after-effects of mild TBI is a change in “tonic arousal” — or general level of wakefulness in my brain. When I have low “tonic arousal” — my brain is slower to respond to things around me, because it’s less “awake”. When it’s less awake — especially in the morning before I have my coffee and get going — it’s more irritable and more reactive, and it’s harder for me to manage my moods. So, when I am waking up in the morning, I am naturally more inclined than most people to be grumpy, and to fly off the handle at little things.

Letting It All Sink In: Just knowing that it’s my injured/rewired brain — not some character defect — that’s making me more prone to fly off the handle, has been a huge weight off my shoulders. For the longest time, I thought it was a problem with ME. I thought that Icouldn’t handle sh*t. Icouldn’t figure out how to keep an even keel over such small little things as dropping a spoon or losing my grip on my coffee cup.

Tweaks and Fixes: As it turns out, just knowing that it was my injured brain, not my personal character, that was giving me problems helped me to better manage my state in the mornings. I would still lose my grip on things and still drop things, now and then, but when I did, I wouldn’t fly off the handle and explode, internally and externally. I would take a deep breath, let the the flood of anger and frustration wash out of me like a receding wave, and I would try again.

I found that being aware of my state of wakefulness let me make better choices about what to do. I slowed down, for one. I quit rushing around like a crazy person, first thing in the morning.

I discovered, too, that when I treated the situation like the challenge that it was — getting my breakfast without blowing up — and I applied effort to my morning routine, it made me more alert. The Give Back program says this — you have to realize that TBI recovery takes effort, and you have to apply yourself, not assume everything is going to work like it did before. Fairly recent research (2010) Perceived mental effort correlates with changes in tonic arousal during attentional tasks, says exactly that — when you perceive that you have to work harder at something, it increases your tonic arousal — and that’s exactly what I wanted to achieve.

I also came up with a checklist and a plan for how to do things. I didn’t take anything for granted, because, well, I couldn’t. I would forget things all the time, and it was very dispiriting. My checklist approach, listing each thing I needed to do, in its specific order was admittedly rudimentary and probably looked fairly remedial (well, it was, in the sense that it helped me remedy my situation), but it worked for me.  I stuck with my checklists for quite some time — probably at least a year. Maybe two. Until I didn’t need them anymore.

Bit by bit, I practiced and tweaked my morning routine so that eventually I could get through the morning without a blow-up inside my head.

This would have been impossible without the underlying knowledge about the systems at play. I had to understand the system, in order to tweak it.

And I had to understand there was a problem that needed to be solved.

So, as I approach the 10th anniversary of my latest TBI, this coming Thanksgiving, I think about how much things have changed for me — in difficult and good ways. All in all, the challenges I’ve faced have made me stronger and smarter in new and different ways. There are some things I’ve had to let go of — all the crazy busy-ness, for one, as well as going without sleep and driving myself from one project to the next. I’ve also parted ways with a lot of people. But those sacrifices have given me more rewards than cost, so it’s all been so worth it.

Sure, I would like to have never had to deal with this TBI stuff. But it’s been a fact of life for me, since I was a little kid. Better to deal with it.

And what better way to do it, than hacking into it, taking my life apart, and then putting it back together in all new ways?

The sun is up, and it’s looking like a beautiful day.

Onward.

 

 

A whole new exit strategy

It makes much more sense to me now

So, the reality of my exit is starting to sink in. I’ve been back and forth on this for quite some time, and it’s been weighing on my mind. I’ve been through the whole grieving process around it, and I’m finally at a place where I am feeling comfortable and good about things.

The one thing that has held me back from moving on has been the idea that I have to stay to follow through on a program I’m supposed to be putting in place. It’s a huge project with a ton of visibility, and I have NOT had the time to focus on it, because I’ve been “in the weeds” of day-to-day maintenance, and just keeping things going. I haven’t wanted to leave before my big project launches, because I didn’t want to abandon the project and have it fail.

But I realized yesterday that I actually have an alternative – a break from my dreaded plan of action. I’ve been thinking that I’ll need to stick around until July, when my big project rolls out. But now that I think about it, I may not need to stay even that long. There are some personnel shifts going on with my team, and my “official” manager is coming back from family leave in May, so the person who has been temporarily managing me will be freed up in May.

If I leave before July, they can take over my responsibilities and roll out the project that I’ve been putting together. They’re more suited to rolling it out, anyway. They’re much more social, much more connected, much better at connecting with people and making things happen within the organization.

Professionally, I need to stay on the technical side, and be more localized in my work… not be dragged all over creation in the company, networking with a gazillion different people.

How tiresome that is for me. But it really energizes my temporary boss.

And it would be a huge feather in their cap, to roll this out.

For me, tying myself and my future to this project is actually keeping me from getting on with my life and doing what I need to do. It’s not even the kind of work I want to be doing, long-term, so any more time and energy I invest in it will be wasted. My past experience will be wasted. My future prospects will be wasted. This project presents one problem after another for my career and my ability to earn a good living. Seriously, staying in this “pocket” of experience cuts back the amount of money I can make by tens of thousands of dollars.

And that’s no good.

It’s funny — as I’m re-learning my technical skills, I am realizing that I am actually better at programming than I was before. I realize that in the past, I thought I was really good, and that I understood everything… but I really didn’t. Looking back at the code I’ve written before (as I did last night), I see that my technique left a lot to be desired. But I never really understood it, because I was still working with the unaddressed issues of multiple mild traumatic brain injuries. All those concussions over the years really screwed up my thinking process and blinded me to my limitations.

Now, coming in with a new perspective, basically learning a lot of things from scratch, I realize just how much my thinking technique and my programming has actually improved.

And rather than needing to leave that line of work because of the different ways my brain works, finding the new and better ways of dealing with problem-solving has made me even better qualified to pursue it.

So… onward.

 

 

 

 

 

Re-learning how to learn

So, I’m studying up on new technologies, and I’m very excited about my prospects. It’s going differently than it was, 20 years ago, when I first got into this line of work. A lot has changed, since I first learned to code — the technologies, the complexity, the principles, and especially how my brain works.

Things are so much more complicated than they were before.

It’s nuts.

And I have to find new ways of learning, that are very, very different from how they were before.

Once upon a time, I could sit down with a book, read through the principles, and then put them into practice.

Nowadays that just doesn’t work for me anymore. I think it has a lot to do with my memory — I cannot retain things the same way I used to — they just disappear after a relatively short while. Now I need to practice what I read, make a ton of mistakes, practice doing things about five different ways, hunt around for answers online about why things aren’t working, and then try new things out a bunch of times, until it all makes sense to me.

It’s a lot more winding and convoluted, and it takes a lot more work.

But that’s how it has to be.

I’m actually really relieved to have discovered this new necessity. For years, I really struggled with learning new things, because I was going about them the wrong way. I was going about them the old way. Back in the day, I could take things step by step, and go about them in an orderly fashion, with each logical step following the last. Nowadays, it’s a much more roundabout route. I have to not only read, but also do — and do and do — until I get it.

And it takes me a lot longer to get it.

And even when I do get it, I forget it.

And then I have to start all over again.

Looking back at the code I wrote 5 years ago, I am impressed by how much I was doing, and the ideas I had for projects. But I can also see how my brain was definitely limited in its thinking. I didn’t have the range that I have now.  I would get fixated on specific topics, specific features of my projects, and I could not think in larger terms with a variety of scenarios. I would find one thing to think about, and I would only think about that – for weeks and months. And I would neglect the other areas — and really limit my overall problem-solving skills.

The other thing that amazes me, is how convoluted my coding was – I mean, I had the basic logic in place, but it was not streamlined like my coding is now. Writing different programs, I had a lot of “fluff” in there that I really didn’t need, but I thought it was all so important.

Now that I’m coding again, I can see how to do things differently — more efficiently. And even if my current projects don’t turn into anything much, it will still pay off in a very big way, just training my brain to handle things differently — be more logical, more efficient, and better at learning.

Another missing piece is found — It’s not that I can’t learn.

It’s that I need to learn in completely different ways. I need to not only read and expect to retain. I need to read and then do and then mess up and fix what I’ve broken, and then start again from scratch.

Until I get it.

Because eventually, I will.

So, onward.

There are tools we can use to fix our brains

I’ve been using my Sunday to look back on the tools I’ve used over the past 7 years to address my long-standing TBI issues. I have been noticing a “dip” in my progress, that I’m not really happy about, and I realize that I’ve gotten a bit complacent and lackadaisical, which is hurting me and my quality of life.

Give Back Orlando’s TBI Self-Therapy Guide has been incredibly helpful to me, and although the support group no longer seems to exist, I still have the guides they made available online, and I make the available here on the site. The founder, Larry Schutz, Ph.D., is now working in the Los Angeles area, and I have heard good things about the results.

I have just posted the summary of “How to Fix Your Brain” under my “BI Recovery Tools” section of this site. I need to jump-start my active recovery again, now that the long winter is over, I’ve cleared the decks of some unnecessary projects, and I’m getting some energy back. This is just the opportunity to work on some of the points that have turned “sticky” for me again.

Check it out…

Training my brain to choose

I talked before about how sitting za-zen helps me to physically wake up. I can’t sit for very long before I go to sleep, because it wakes me up too much. So, I sit in the mornings – and I’m going to try to sit in the afternoons, when I have a few minutes. I just set up a reminder on my calendar to do it every day at 3 p.m., and we’ll see how that goes.

Now, waking myself up is fine. But in fact, for me, sitting za-zen is about more than that. It’s actually about training myself to choose what kind of experience I want to have — if I want to give in to fatigue and frustration, or if I want to dig down and find the resources to deal better with my situation. I am actually able to change my frame of mind in different circumstances — that’s what I do when I interact with certain types of people. I suffer from terrible dread in so many situations, but I “buck up” and decide I’m going to have a different experience that being full of dread and anxiety, and when I do that, it actually works. I forget about my fears and dive in… and almost always, the result is a good one

Sitting za-zen has given this to me. That’s what it’s about for me — choosing the experiences that I want to have.

It’s very much about learning to choose my reactions to situations… training myself to wake myself up as needed, or to calm myself down if necessary. Sitting with focus demands that I pay close, sustained attention to some very simple things — my breathing and my posture. It trains me to pay attention to how I’m feeling in my body, so my posture is always good. It also trains my attention on my breathing, as I count my breaths and make sure I am breathing at a constant rate. It trains me to note any ideas and thoughts that are flit-flitting through my head, which are taking my focus away from my breathing and my posture.

And it’s hard. It’s quite demanding. It’s so demanding, that it’s rare that I can count 17 full cycles of breath without some interference from thoughts and distractions. I do my best, but it is incredibly difficult at times, to just keep my attention trained on my posture and breathing. My posture is not typically za-zen — I can’t sit cross-legged, because it is too painful and I have back and knee problems, so I generally sit up in a chair. My breathing is steady and balanced — five slow breaths in, a slight pause, then five slow breaths out, followed by another slight pause. Many’s the time when I get to 7 full breath cycles, and then my mind starts to wander.

But after working with this for many years — on and off — I am doing much better about not losing track of the number of breaths, and I’m not as “absent” as I used to get, when I would sit and breathe.

It turns out that this kind of practice is incredibly good for the brain — it decreases the activity which is associated with falling asleep and actually wakes you up. So, contrary to a lot of beliefs that meditation is all about relaxing and chilling out, according to the Awakening Is Not A Metaphor study:

“… the result (of meditation) is not a calming in the direction of relaxation/sleep, but rather a move in the opposite direction: toward an increased alertness and vigilance that counteracts mental laxity and sleepiness.” (p. 6 of 18 in the pdf of the study)

The study talks in depth about it, listing a number of examples where meditation training of one kind or another improved alertness, reduced fatigue, and had positive after-effects for months after a single training session. From personal experience, I can testify that when I sit za-zen regularly, I feel better, I act better, and I’m able to handle what life throws at me, even in very challenging circumstances. I’m training myself to decide — for myself — what my reactions to life are going to be, and I’m reducing my overall reactivity. I’m teaching my brain to not just run in every different direction, following whatever shiny object it might find, and I’m training my mind to not chase after my brain when it starts acting like a monkey running off into the forest with my car keys.

This is such an important part of my TBI recovery — it really supports and strengthens my ability to choose for myself how I will behave, how I will think, how I will react. That choice can mean the difference between saying and doing things to others I will regret and not be able to take back, and keeping my relationships neutral and healthy. It can mean the difference between getting into hot water with the cops and getting let go with a warning, or getting sent to jail. It can mean the difference between becoming angry and letting it go, or letting the rage take hold of me to the point where I break something or hurt someone.

It literally can make all the difference between a temporary upheaval — a speed bump in the road of my life — and a semi-permanent deep-sh*t situation that I have to then manage and smooth over and fix, taking tons of time out of my regular life to fix what I’ve broken.

So, sitting za-zen is more than just a way to pass the time. It’s an important part of my everyday life, that helps me not only feel better, but also helps me act and overall function better. It wakes me up. Because I’m training my brain to wake up. And I’m teaching my mind to react the way IT wants to, not the way others expect or try to force it to.

Less Facebook, more za-zen

Keeping it simple

So, I’ve had a crazy busy week, and I’ve taken a few steps to make my life simpler and less hectic.

The first thing I did, was unfriend a person who has become a tremendous pain in my ass. I work with them, and our relationship has really altered over the past months, with them climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, and me holding back and not diving into all the politics and drama for a number of reasons. First, I’m not at all impressed with the opportunities available to me at work. Second, I’ve already done the ladder-climbing thing, and while it was exciting for a while, back about 15 years ago, I saw the dark side of it and opted out. Third, I’m not big on games. Fourth, in their heady rise to the top, they compete intensely and step on people to get there, and I’m not interested in being someone they compete against. That sh*t just depresses me.

So, while this onetime friend of mine has been maneuvering and operating all over the place (and trying to pull me into their activities), I’ve really cooled to them. And I unfriended them on FB. Which kind of freaked them out and made them feel rejected (which they were, if you think about it). But it simplifies my life, because now I don’t have to worry about getting miffed over something they post — or some comment they make to one of my posts.

FB has gotten way too intrusive for me.

The other thing I did was remove FB from my mobile phone. It was just getting too enticing for me, and I was spending way too much time on pretty much nothing. I mean — like so many others — I would start looking at posts, pictures, movies… and before I knew it, an hour had passed me by.

Which is never good. Especially when I have so little time for the things I truly want to be doing.

So, I made it harder for myself to go on FB, and I removed it from my phone for a few days. And it did simplify my life. (Turns out, I had to reinstall it last night, because my internet connection died, and my smartphone was the only way I could reschedule a meet-up I arranged for today) Just not having access to FB for a few days gave me additional time to focus on projects that are late-late-late, and just calm the heck down.

The calming down is the important part. Because even when the things I see on FB are good, they are still energizing and invigorating, and they get my blood pumping. There are jokes, there are observations, there are rants. And they always get me thinking and reacting. They jump-start my system as few other things can.

Now, that’s fine, if I actually do need a boost to wake me up. But all that uproar, all the time? It’s not necessary. And even if I am dragging a little bit, the neurocognitive / biochemical jolt of Facebook is usually a lot more than I really need, to get going. Going on FB for me, when I am a little “off” is like drinking a couple cans of Red Bull when I’m feeling a little distracted. It’s way too much for me, and no matter how good it feels to get that Facebook “rush”, it’s still putting a strain on my system that ultimately wears me out.

So, now I’m repairing the damage I’ve done, and I’m doing several things:

  1. I’m rationing my Facebook time and staying OFF it, first thing in the morning, as well as last thing at night.
  2. I’m back to doing za-zen, or sitting silently and focusing on my breath and my posture for set periods of time.

This is accomplishing several things:

  1. It is keeping my system from becoming drugged by biochemical / neurocognitive overload.
  2. It is re-training my system to develop its own ability to wake — or rest — at will.

Za-zen — my own version, which is simpler than thinking about koans, but more focused than Shikantaza (which is just sitting) — is for me about simply sitting, being wakeful and mindful about what is going on in my body and mind, but not “taking the hooks” of thoughts that “want” me to follow them, like monkeys running off into the woods with my car keys.

Some say that meditation is for relaxation, to relieve stress, but I have long believed — and I recently came across a study that echoes my belief. That study, “Awakening is not a metaphor: the effects of Buddhist meditation practices on basic wakefulness” talks about how sitting meditation can actually heighten wakefulness in long-term practitioners. It’s not necessarily about relaxation — it’s actually about waking up.

I have noticed, over the past years of sitting za-zen (which I have done for over 20 years, since I first learned about it), that I have actually learned how to wake myself up, even when I am incredibly tired. Sitting — just sitting — focusing on my breath and keeping myself alert to my posture, the sensations in my body, and whatever thoughts might be rattling ’round in my head, doesn’t relax me. In fact, it does the opposite. So much so, that I cannot sit za-zen right before I go to bed, because it wakes me up too much.

I sit in the mornings, instead. And I’m considering starting to sit in the afternoons when I start to get cravings for sweets. When I’m feeling low and groggy, I tend to reach for the trail mix, which is a far better option than a Snickers bar or some other kind of sugar. But I often end up eating too much sugar in the course of a busy afternoon, so I need another option.

The more I think about it, the more za-zen seems like a good option for me. Sitting with silent focus, even for just a few minutes, does wonders for me. And if I can incorporate it into my daily life — not only stepping away to sit in silence, but also having that attitude of za-zen when I am in meetings at work, or I’m trying to better focus on what’s in front of me… well, so much the better.

I used to actually do that, years ago before my last TBI. And it helped me so much. It “leveled out” the upheavals that had long been with me, because of all my previous TBIs. But when I fell in 2004, that completely threw me, and I became just a shadow of myself. I stopped sitting. I stopped meditating. I stopped thinking about anything except the daily business of just getting from Point A to Point B, and not falling victim to the demons that seemed to rage in me.

Now much has evened out with me, and I’m in a place where I can actually put my focus back on za-zen. I’ve done this before, so it’s not new to me. And the Awakening study confirms that people with past meditation experience can have greater increases in “tonic alertness” which is where you can become more alert in unexpected situations.

That’s what I’m striving for, these days — more alertness, more engagement in my daily life, less reactivity, and more skill at handling sudden and unexpected situations. And it turns out that I have the past experience and the present tools to help make that happen.

When I just sit and breathe and count and focus on my posture, even for just a few minutes, everything gets better. And that’s what I want. Better.

I’ve got another full day ahead of me, so it’s time to get going. On it goes.

Onward.