Finding my way through the country I used to recognize

Sometimes it all just goes away

Yesterday was a good day. I was riding high on the boost I got from work, and the day turned out pretty cool.

The more I think about the compliment I got at work on Friday, the more it means to me. It’s really sinking in, and I’m “letting it in” (as my spouse urges me to do). I don’t like to get into patting myself on the back too much – no sooner do I get really comfortable, than the rug gets pulled out from under me, and I have to work my way back to a place that’s good again.

Over the past two days, I’ve been looking back at the way my life has developed — how it was in the days and weeks and months and several years after my TBI in 2004… and how I’ve re-ordered it in the meantime. I have made huge progress — thanks to getting regular support from folks who don’t treat me like there’s something wrong with me (it’s important to have some of them in my life, because so many people seem to think I’m not quite “right”), as well as constant WORK.

It’s been a long, long road back, through the disaster area that was my life for so many years. Like the tsunami in Japan that devastated so many lives in cities and villages, TBI tore through my life and trashed a lot that used to be reliable.

It sounds weird to me, thinking about how devastating the damage was, relative to my injury. I had a “mild” TBI — a concussion. I wasn’t knocked out more than a second or so. I didn’t end up in the hospital, hooked up to tubes and machines. I wasn’t in a coma. I didn’t have to relearn to walk and talk. But within a few years after my fall, my life looked like the picture of Japan above.

And at the time I realized just how bad things were getting, I thought the good stuff was gone for good. I thought I was gone for good. I couldn’t imagine ever coming back.

But apparently I have.

It’s been a balancing act — making concessions here and there, and pushing forward with things that meant a lot to me. There are certain things I had to let go, and other things that have come back to me.

Three things that I’ve had to change are:

  • How quickly I do things
  • My sleep frequency and patterns
  • How I live my everyday life

One thing I can’t do anymore is the “rush” thing. It’s confusing and exhausting, and I hate it with every fiber of my being. I used to get a charge out of it — a real rush. But not anymore. Now it just screws everything up. I’ve had to slow down a lot — for me, that is. Compared to others, I’m not going that much more slowly, but for me, it feels like I’m moving at a glacially slow pace, and it makes me nuts. But I have to do it, so I do.

Another thing that I’ve had to let go of, is staying up till all hours of the night/morning and then being able to get up the next day and go to work and be fine with it. That’s gone-baby-gone. If I don’t get at least 7 hours the night before, I struggle all day. I might not feel tired, but I can definitely tell I’m impaired. It’s just not worth it to me, to get all ragged around the edges and have to push through. Adrenaline is all very well and good, but it’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep.

I also need to actively manage my life with notes and reminders. If I don’t set reminders and keep notes for myself, I lose track of a whole lot of things I need to not lose track of. It’s pretty bad — especially when I’m tired. Sometimes I “rebel” and try to wing it – and then I learn again what a bad idea that really is. Keeping notes and reminders lets me focus on what’s in front of me, without needing to keep the reminders and to-do items in the back of my mind all the time.

I have to do a lot more preparation, too, than I used to. I need to preview my days and figure out what I’m going to be doing, and how. I need to actively manage my entire day, making sure I’m doing things at the right times and in the right sequence. If I don’t, it spells trouble.

Making accommodations for how I’ve become isn’t much fun. It’s a little depressing, to tell the truth. I want things to be like they used to be. I want my brain to be like it used to be.

But that’s not going to happen. Not like I think it’s going to be, anyway.

Actually, though, the accommodations I’m making for my brain are helping me in many unexpected ways.

It’s actually good practice to take things more slowly than I did before. This is not only because of my brain, but because of the greater complexity of my life, compared to how it used to be. Ten years ago, I wasn’t juggling my own logistical issues with the intense health issues my spouse has, along with being the only wage-earner in the house. Both of us were working and earning okay money, and we were both self-sufficient. Then the sh*t hit the fan, and I now have to manage a lot more for both of us, because my spouse just isn’t as capable as they used to be.

On top of that, my job is now more managerial than before. I’m managing projects and leading teams, so I have to factor in a lot more in the course of each day — and this spans not only this country, with coworkers in multiple time zones, but also overseas with colleagues in Asia and Europe to accommodate. Work has gotten way more complicated than it was, just a decade ago, and the nature of my work has changed as well. So, going fast and rushing to completion is not an option anymore. I need to consider a lot of things, including time zones and cultural differences — and also not rush myself and others in the process.

In all of this, sleep is critical.  And my relationship to it has changed a lot. I don’t have a lot of downtime, each day, and I’m exhausted by the end of it all. It’s been that way for a long time, actually — and it got that much more acute after my last TBI. I had a lot of trouble with insomnia and sleep disturbances. Just getting myself to bed has been a challenge, over the years. But where I used to really fight it, now sleep feels like a little vacation to me, when I can just let it all go — disappear into a different world. It is the ONE escape I have, so I value it like never before. I don’t drink or smoke or eat a lot of junk food, and my vices are necessarily few and far between (they can really derail me). Sleep is the one luxury I have, I’ve realized, and since coming to that conclusion, it’s become easier for me to let it all go and get some rest.

As for my lists and reminders, they keep me organized. I’m so friggin’ organized (out of necessity) at work, that my calendar is a model for others. I spend a lot of time at work, moving dates around and trying to fit things together in a big-ass choreographed production. In fact, that’s probably the best way I can think about it — as an exercise in choreography.

Getting people dancing… moving together… and making a beautiful production out of it. It’s funny — watching dance irritates the crap out of me. Maybe it moves too fast for my brain, or it takes me too long to catch up with it. But I absolutely love still pictures of dancers in motion. The pictures of mastery in motion really inspire me — if they can do that (and how do they do that?!) then what isn’t possible for people to do?

Still pictures of dancers — especially black and white photos of modern dancers in motion — really inspire me. And my job as a project manager is to inspire people do to the equivalent in their own work, so that our projects come together in a unified performance.

And you know what’s interesting? In the process of accommodating my limitations, I’ve actually been able to extend what’s possible for me, above and beyond what I’ve done in the past. In some ways, losing my basic functionality at one level, forced me to learn to live at a completely different one.

If I hadn’t gotten hurt and gone downhill as badly as I had, would I have been forced to “bump it up” the way I have? I’m not sure. Other keys have definitely been getting the right information and also getting some support, but ultimately, it was the total unworkability of my past ways of doing things in my emerging life, that forced me to dig deeper and see what else was there.

Anyway, this post is going on way too long. The bottom line is, TBI trashed my life, but I have gotten to a point where it’s no longer a total wasteland without any hope for the future. I have a ton of hope now, and that’s for a good reason — because things are turning around in tangible, daily ways. I have something to show for all my work, and it’s good.

It’s really, really good.

Onward.

The Ultimate Compliment

I had a really great day, yesterday. I got a big boost on Friday, after a hell week of missed deadlines, scrambling to catch up, and feeling like everything was falling apart. There were some critical missed opportunities and requirements that I completely lost track of, so I had to redeem myself — to myself, and my teams, both here and overseas.

But at the end of the week, one of my coworkers, whom I respect so much — they are level-headed and kind and have a memory like a steel trap, and they do a fantastic job of managing and supporting people — paid me the ultimate compliment. After I had sent out a status report on Friday afternoon about a project launching, they wrote back to me privately and said they were really glad I was “leading the charge” on that project, because I am such a rational and level-headed project manager.

That really made my day. First, because it came from someone who is an accomplished professional who does not dispense praise lightly.  Second, because they sent it to me privately, which meant there wasn’t another agenda behind it. And perhaps most of all, because it signalled that in some truly significant ways, I have figured out how to overcome the damage of my TBI in 2004 — and indeed, the bulk of my life before that.

See, there are many thing that TBI has screwed up in my life — I get crazy tired over little things, I have intermittent troubles with things that seem easy for others (like following conversations, keeping up with things moving fast, sizing up situations in an instant, and being able to deal with bright lights, loud noises, and crowds of people). Many of the things that everybody else seems to love — going to football and basketball games, sharing meals with large groups of people, and running around like chickens with their heads cut off all weekend — those wreck me for days afterwards. As much as I’d like to do them ALL, none of them is practical for me.

But the thing that really destroyed my self-confidence, was the way TBI screwed up my ability to deal with stresses. Being rational and level-headed was not an option for me, for so many years, because I just couldn’t sort everything out and I would become a raving lunatic over it all. I’d either withdraw into my shell or start to yell and sound off. I’d throw things, slam things around, bite people’s heads off… generally act out, without being able to stop it.

And then I’d have to not only clean up my relationships with others, but I’d have to live with myself afterwards, as well.

Not easy to do. And it seemed like nothing I did could actually prevent me from flying off the handle again in the future. I would just snap — lose it — go off the deep end, sometimes over little things that I knew were not worth the emotional outburst, but could not seem to stop.

Once upon a time, I was know for my calm in the midst of the storm. I was THE person who management assigned to impossible projects that were stalled, because I could pull them out of their tailspin and get them on the right track again. In a very minor way, I was like a first responder, who could rush to the scene of an emergency — run towards the chaos, not away from it — and rescue folks who were stuck there.

After my TBI in 2004… no more. At least, that’s what I thought.

That loss was the most debilitating injury of all — that mortal wound to one of the most key and critical parts of my identity, my “interface” with the world — my level-headed rationality, my ability to stay calm and collected, no matter what sh*t was hitting the fan around me. Losing that for years and years not only cost me my job, and nearly cost me my marriage, my home, my entire life, but also my sense of who I was, the sense of being “at home in my own skin”.

I didn’t actually feel like a real person for many years. I felt like an impostor — and I didn’t have any idea who I was really. Or even who I was supposed to be impersonating.

But then last week happened. And I didn’t lose my sh*t. I kept my act together, I ate my big slice o’ humble pie, I came up with an alternate plan, and I put the wheels in motion on getting things moving in the right direction. I talked to the right people, I connected the right dots. And by the end of the week, we had made progress and were back on track.

And the person I respect most in our group at work complimented me and said they couldn’t imagine a better person to lead the charge.

Wow. Just wow. I’m still just floored by it. I get a little misty over it, too. It’s just that huge for me.

After all those years of being unable to stop the downward slide into chaos and the destruction of my self and self-confidence… getting so many little messages from my brain and biochemistry, that I was not the same person anymore, and the old “me” was nowhere to be found, no matter how hard I tried…  attempting and failing, over and over, to hold myself together and be the person I had come to know myself to be…

At last. At long, long last. I was able to make it through an impossible week, staying intact both in my mind and spirit, and in my outward appearance. Some say appearances shouldn’t matter, but in my work situation, they matter very much. It’s a trust issue. A credibility issue. Yeah, it matters.

And I delivered. I found my team had made some critical errors, and we fell short of the goal. But in the end, I got us back on track, and the next week is about keeping folks there. this can be done. I can do this. If nothing else, the leader of my team believes in me unconditionally, and that’s more than I ever dared to hope for.

From Victim to Survivor… to Human

… or maybe we become something MORE.

I’m reading a paper written in 2010 by a sociology student called How Memory Affects Sense of Self: Stories of Traumatic Brain Injury. I haven’t gotten far, yet, but it’s pretty good. It’s a different sort of “read” than the published scientific papers I’ve been reading, and it’s interesting to see how someone well outside the field of neuropsychology or psychology or neurology, who’s just encountering TBI for the first time, experiences TBI survivors.

One of the things the author mentions is the use of the word “survivor” instead of “victim”. She talks about the folks in her study as “survivors”, because it “is more empowering and positive than ‘victim’ which sounds like something to be pitied.”

Aside from empowerment, I believe there’s an important difference between the ideas of “victim” and “survivor”. And I’ve been thinking that there’s even something beyond that, which is worth considering. I’m not sure if there’s one word for the “beyond-survivor” idea, but I still need to consider it.

These three concepts – victim, survivor, beyond-survivor – all have to do with experiencing a debilitating event. And the first two are all about the event itself. In my case, I’ll talk about TBI, although there have been a number of other debilitating events that knocked me for a loop. Job loss, relationship loss, financial catastrophes, losses of loved ones, a variety of injuries, and so on. They all set me back, and all of them victimized me in some way. And yet I went on living my life.

To me, being a Victim, is about saying, “Something really terrible has happened to me, and it’s so terrible, I have to stop living parts of my life, because the injury took it from me, or I’m way too gun-shy to put myself out there again. I’m safer inside, where my world is smaller, but I feel safer. And f*ck anyone who tries to pull me out of my shell. This injury is permanent, and I have to manage its danger for the rest of my life.

Lord knows, I’ve been there. Right after I got hurt in 2004, I didn’t know why things were so screwed up, but I knew they were. And I was living unconsciously as a Victim, building my life around all the problems I was having, without a really clear view of what those problems were. I had no idea how to fix them. I didn’t even realize the nature of them, or understand that a lot of them could be fixed.  I was living as a Victim. Just half a life — if that.

Being a Victim is about putting the injury at the center of your life, and living your life around it. We can easily make ourselves into Victims, by holding ourselves back from living to the fullest, because of how we think about the injury, how we think about ourselves, or what we believe is possible after the injury has passed. Being a Victim, to me, is about letting an injury define you and limit you, so that you are living less of a life than you otherwise could.

In some cases, the injury is so severe, it’s impossible to NOT be victimized by it.

And yet, that’s where being a Survivor comes in. A Survivor, in my mind, is someone who says, “Yes, that injury happened, and yes, it truly sucked more than words can say. It beat the stuffing out of me and almost took me out… but it didn’t win. I’m going to live my life, no matter what.

After I got a clue about my TBI (and all the others I’d had before), and I realized that I could change things, I started living as a Survivor. I was someone who knew that something terrible had happened to me, and I had really taken a hit from it. But even if I wasn’t living as large as I wanted to, I was still moving towards positive changes, still enlarging my life, still building my capabilities, still working each day to be better than before.

TBI still factored into my life, yet it wasn’t at the center. It was a major player in my experience, and I couldn’t afford to forget it. I still can’t afford to forget certain things and factor them in — like getting enough sleep, managing fatigue, keeping lists to keep myself on track, and remembering that the “crazy” going on in my head isn’t necessarily going to be there tomorrow, if I just get enough sleep tonight and come back to my problems with a fresh view.

Over the past year or so, something new has come up – something beyond “Survivor”, which is actually about just being Human. The thing about TBI, especially, is that it doesn’t always necessarily have to be debilitating. Its effects may be permanent in some ways, and there may be continuous challenges (and yes, problems) you continue to have as a result of it, but over time we can build up skills and abilities and find a new resilience that adds TBI to the overall “mix” of our humanity.

When you get to the place of being able to live your life more or less smoothly, with some bumps in the road that are more speed bumps than cliffs leading down to the abyss, and developing the ability to recover from those speed bumps in a matter of weeks, even days or hours, then I believe you’re past the point of being a Survivor, and on to the business of being Human.

Looking around, it’s impossible to know what challenges everyone is dealing with. Hidden disabilities (or well-concealed challenges) are a part of everyone’s life. TBI is no exception. Yes, it’s different. Yes, it’s not like other challenges. Yes, it has a host of problems that come along with it. But ultimately, it can become part of the fabric of our lives, part of who we are and how we are that doesn’t have to just stop us, but also make us different, unique, and cause us to develop strengths we otherwise wouldn’t have bothered to develop.

That’s pretty much where I am now. I quit thinking about myself as a Victim, years ago. And I don’t really think about myself as a Survivor anymore, either. I’m something else. Yes, I know TBI is an issue with me. How could I forget? But that’s not all I am. There’s more to the story. And in a strange way, TBI helps me find out what that “more” is.

Well, enough talk. The day is waiting.

Onward.

Funny again

It’s good to be back

I haven’t been funny in a long time. It’s been nearly ten years, in fact.

I used to be funny – cracking jokes and keeping the mood light, when things got too heavy. I brought that to every social situation, helping people see the humor in impossible situations, and helping everyone keep things in perspective.

Every since high school, when I started connecting with people around me, I could make people laugh. And they loved that. I was welcome in so many circles, precisely because I could make them laugh. And in many ways, how much I could get people laughing was a measure of how well I was connecting with the people around me. If I was on the “outs”, I couldn’t convey my unique sense of humor to others. But if I was connected with the people I was with, I could make them laugh.

It’s how I coped, it’s how I got through tough times. And I shared it with everyone. It was good.

After my fall in 2004, however, nothing was funny anymore. It was the strangest thing. All of a sudden, I couldn’t see the humor in anything, and I certainly had no interest in making anyone around me laugh. If someone tried to make me laugh, it was a toss-up if they’d succeed. A lot of times, they just infuriated me.

Over the past few years, I’ve been getting funnier again. At my last job, people laughed when I was around, but a lot of the time, they were laughing AT me, because we weren’t on the same wavelength, and they really truly thought I was weird. That was a result of differences in experience and orientation, I’m convinced. We had such different outlooks and life experiences, they just couldn’t relate to me, or believe half the things I said and did. So they laughed at me.

Fortunately, I didn’t take it all that seriously. After the first few months, I got used to it and was just glad that at least they weren’t total assholes to me.

But in this job, I’m actually making other people laugh. On my terms. Over things we all see and experience in common. That tells me that not only am I in synch with folks there, but I’m really, truly getting better — in my life and my brain. I’m actually funny. I’m cracking jokes that people “get”. I’m making sour-faced individuals laugh out loud — both in person and via email and IM. And over the phone.

It’s good to be able to do this again. It’s such a relief — it makes everything easier. And it’s not only something I do. It’s also something I AM. My sense of self has long been associated with my sense of humor. If I could make people laugh, I knew I was going to be okay. I knew the situations I was in were going to be okay. And like being able to read as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted, it was a marker about how “okay” I was — if I was the person I really, truly meant to be… if I was the person I wanted to be.

It’s been pretty grueling, going without so much of what used to make my life worth living. But gradually, it’s been coming back. Holy crap. It’s coming back. I’ve been testing it out over the past months, and yeah. It’s back.

One of the really good results of all this win-loss-win process, is that now that “gone” things are coming back, I appreciate them all the more. And I have a better understanding of their place in my life. Not being able to read before, makes me extra appreciative of being able to do it now. And being able to create and enjoy humor again, makes me realize just how valuable it was to me before — and it also makes me appreciate just how connected I actually had been to my peers, when I was younger. I always thought of myself as an outsider who wasn’t welcome, but in fact, I was someone who literally fit in with every crowd, in one way or another, and humor made that possible.

For decades, I thought of myself as an outsider who never fit in anywhere, but that was actually in accurate. I did fit in. I just didn’t realize it. And I missed out on the chance to have that experience for so many, many years. Why and how that happened, is another story — and it’s a mix of both the way I was brought up and the injuries that messed up my thinking and experience for so much of my life. But whatever the source, I really did miss out on so much…

Oh… I’m starting to get a little teary-eyed. I’m tired, and when I’m as worn out as I am, I’m more emotional. That will never do. I’ve got a long day ahead of me, and I don’t want to start out by getting emotionally overwrought. Or start out crying. That gives me a splitting headache and throws me off. I’m just not 100% after I cry, for some reason. So, I’m going to stop thinking about this right now and get my mind off it.

Bottom line is, things that I thought were gone for good… aren’t. It’s taken a long time for some of them to get back, and I still have a ways to go to restore some of the others. Maybe those things will come back, maybe they won’t.

But whatever does come back, I can appreciate it all the more.

That’s for sure.

Onward.

Crushing. Just crushing. And yet…

The week ahead of me is one of those one-foot-in-front-of-the-other types of weeks. I can’t think too much about things, because inside my head, it’s a swirling mass of panic, rage, fear, anxiety, frustration, and a whole lot of other stuff that has no business coming to the surface.

I’m working my ass off, keeping positive and moving forward. It is a herculean effort, and when I think about how f*cking hard I have to work, to keep myself on track, I’m actually really proud of myself.

Because how things are on the outside is nothing like how they are on the inside.

And to all appearances, I’m succeeding, I’m doing well, I’m holding my act together.

While inside, I’m absolutely dying — or bordering on aggressive rage.

One thing that TBI has taught me, is how to not get sucked into the turmoil that seethes beneath the surface. There is *always* turmoil beneath the surface with me. I walk around looking quite calm and collected, while inside I’m anything but that. I know the chaos is there. It’s like having a Tasmanian devil creature living in a sound-proofed back room of my house. From the street, you can’t see it, you can’t hear it, and you’d never know it’s there. But inside my house, I know it’s there. And even though I can’t hear it tearing around shrieking and howling and slamming into the walls, I can still feel the thud-thud-thud of the creature throwing itself around.

It’s there. I’m not sure it’s every going to go away. And yet, I don’t have to let it out of its room. I don’t have to let it into the rest of the house. I can live my life, sliding food under the door now and then to keep it satiated and a little calmed down. I can go about my business, taking care of that side of me, to make sure it doesn’t get too wild, too out of control. I know it’s there. I’m not sure it’s ever going to go away. The confusion, frustration, fear, anxiety, panic, anger…

Whatever. I have a life to live, and I have tools in place to keep me balanced and steady, no matter what.

In a way, learning to manage my own internal state is helping me manage my external state. It’s pretty depressing, sometimes, thinking that this crap may never go away. But when does it ever — for anyone? We all have to deal with it. We all have to handle it.

It’s crushing. It’s demanding. It sometimes feels like too much.

Then I realize there’s more to the picture. There’s the amazingly beautiful weather today. There’s the wonderful day I spent with my spouse, yesterday. There’s the camaraderie of my coworkers waiting for me. There’s the calm I feel as I settle in for a good night’s sleep on the weekend, when I don’t need to set my alarm. There’s all the amazing beauty and inspiration I find from so much of life.

Yes, it can be crushing. And yet… there is more.

The book is going well

Working… working…

So, I’m finally sitting down to write one of the books I’ve been planning for some time. It’s an extended version of my series of posts I wrote about Recovering a Sense of Self after TBI. I had already written a good bit, for starters, so it’s filling out nicely.

Which is good, because I need to make some headway on it, and this coming week promises to be really crazy. I’ve got three big deadlines looming at work, and I’m going to be flat-out pretty much the whole time.

This book is letting me focus in on one thing that I can do, rather than a million different little details that I need to make sure everyone else is doing. It’s a lot of work, but it’s good. And it’s a welcome change.

It’s also reminding me about a lot of things I’ve conveniently blocked out of my mind, for some time now. All the issues that come up after TBI, all the confusion, the frustrations, the dead-ends, and back-tracking that’s a regular part of TBI recovery… it can get to be so overwhelming. And when you’re just beginning your recovery, finding a pattern to your life, a structure and meaning… well, that’s the main challenge. It’s critical to put positive, constructive structures in place, so the brain can acclimate to a routine again. Our systems are lovers of routine, and we need to have a sense of ourselves in a context that makes sense.

Beyond TBI, this book is teaching me lots about the world in general. The things that apply to TBI recovery, can also apply to other neurodiverse challenges, as well as life for the general populace. With TBI, they’re all made that much more extreme. Human relationships, how we live our lives, how we find meaning in the world, how we build a sense of who we are and how we will / would / can / should be to ourselves and others around us… all that becomes so much more confusing and frustrating. And with TBI they also all come into much clearer focus as important — essential — parts of human life and experience.

It’s like, with TBI we are pushed to the outer limits of what it means to be human. And with TBI recovery, we are forced to reach deeper inside ourselves and farther out around us, to develop the resources we need. People without TBI could probably learn a lot from TBI survivors about what it means to be fully human. The thing is, everyone is so afraid and under-informed. So who wants to listen to us?

Well, whatever. I’ve got a couple of hours to do some more writing, then I’m spending the day with my spouse. The weather is beautiful, and we have an all-day outing planned. So long as I get back at a decent hour. Because my day starts early tomorrow.

Onward.

Swimming through the downwelling — Got my STP going on

Good stuff for a tired-ass rainy day

When in doubt, Stone Temple Pilots are good company to keep. I’m listening to No. 4, and it’s as good as ever. I went through a period, over the past few years, when I didn’t listen to much rock music. It was a lot of electronic stuff — trace and whatnot. Always good for getting me flying down the road, to and from work.

Lately, though, I’ve been getting back to my good old rock ‘n’ roll. Lots of hard rock, as I drive to and from work. And it feels normal again. Like I’m picking up where I left off, a few years back.

It’s like I went on a detour for a few years. Thinking I was going to be or do something different. I blame that last job I had, where I was so out of place, and I just didn’t fit in at all, and I needed to take the edge off things.

The whole last ten years feels like a big-ass detour for me. It was that damn’ mild TBI in 2004 that screwed me up. I’m still pissed off about it, and how it derailed me. I’ve been swimming upstream, trying like crazy to get where I’m going, fighting a current I couldn’t see — a downwelling, as they call it in the ocean – watch a video about surviving downwelling here.

In a downwelling, when you’re scuba diving, an invisible current hits you and carries you down-down-down into the depths — potentially past your approved depth. It can take you down very quickly — fast enough to increase the nitrogen in your blood enough to make you feel — and act — drunk. And also pressurizing you very quickly. It’s crazy. If you get caught in a downwelling and can’t get out, you’re done for.

That’s kind of like what chronic mild TBI / concussion is like. Most people see their issues resolve in weeks or months, but some of us are stuck with them, and they can catch us unawares and plunge us into the depths — towards the abyss — before we even know what’s happening. It can be deadly. And if you choose wrong, you can get totally screwed up.

I didn’t realize until late 2007, that there was really a problem — three years past my injury. Everything went downhill, and I didn’t even realize it. Money was disappearing so fast, I might as well have set piles of it on fire. I jumped from job to job, not realizing how it would affect my future job prospects. I could not read, I could not learn, and I felt like I was literally disappearing from my life. I could not go outside very much, because of my light and noise sensitivities, and I had cataclysmic panic attacks that felt like seizures.

I was in the grip of a “life downwelling”, and I didn’t know which direction to swim to escape.

A number of things happened to help me along the way

  1. I realized that something was wrong
  2. I realized I needed to do something about it
  3. I hunted high and low to find information and people who could help me understand what was happening
  4. Almost by chance, I connected with an excellent neuropsychologist who was able to help me soldier through
  5. I just kept going, no matter what

I’m now at a place in my life where I’m back on track. My mountains of debt are gone, my job situation is stable, and I’m able to read again.

And yet, I feel like a stranger to myself.

Technically, I supposed no one really knows themself inside and out. We all delude ourselves to some extent. But with TBI, it feels to me like there are a ton of gaps that I just can’t fill. I don’t even know where to start. It’s like my life is a big hunk of swiss cheese with a lot of holes in it, and I don’t even know the holes are there, till it’s too late. I’m in trouble again.

Anyway, STP helps me get my mind off that. They help me just keep going, even when I’m not feeling up to it. Keeps me swimming — out of the downward spiraling current and up towards safety again. A good dose of heavy guitar and rock lyrics gets me back on track in useful ways.

Gradually, I’m coming back to where I want to be. It takes time. And I need company, along the way. STP is good company. Thanks, guys.

Music is the best company I can think to keep. It’s there when I need it, and I can always turn it off, when I’m done for the day.

Speaking of the day, I’ve got to get on with it. I’ve got a handful of things I need to do today, including resting up. It’s been a long, long week, and I need a break, for sure. I’ll get that break later today after my chores are done, and I can comfortably settle into my bed, pull the covers over my head, and just check out.

Looking forward to it.

But in the meantime, there’s always hard and heavy rock music.

One thing they never tell me about TBI – but they should

WTF is going on in there?

I had another irritating session with my neuropsych on Thursday. We’ve changed the day of the week we meet, and now… instead of meeting early enough in the week for me to be my normal self, I show up at their office like a raving maniac, in a fine style they have rarely seen.

These days things are different for me, because I’m pushing up against the envelope of my comfort zone at work… and I am tired. So tired. I’m like a friggin’ lunatic, by the time I get to my session. My neuropsych can say one thing — one thing — to me, and it sets me off. I’ve got this hair-trigger temperament, by Thursday night, and that’s usually about the time when I realize how screwed I am, how little I’ve accomplished that I needed to get done, and I’m starting to panic about the next day.

My neuropsych has never seen me this way, so maybe this is for the best. They seem to think that I have this even-keel, mellow personality that’s all thoughtful ‘n’ shit… Like nothing can get me riled, I’m unflappable, and I’m in command of my inner state at all times. Well, let me tell you, by Thursday night, if I’ve had a crazy week, all bets are off. And I’m ready to rumble.

We’ve “gone ’round” a few times, now. This week and last. This individual jumps into my train of thought, trying to “correct” me, and I’m seriously not feeling it. I’ve got no patience, I’ve got no open-mindedness, I’ve got no extra cycles to put up with B.S. And the other thing is that my neuropsych is tired, too, so they’ve probably got their own issues going on.

Especially when I show up at their office, having trouble with my excellent life, when — seriously dude — I should be fine. But I’m not.

No. I’m not.

Because I’m not myself. I’m someone else. And while I should be fine — with a good job, a house, a long-term marriage, and a couple of cars in the driveway — I’m not. It’s not like I’ve had half my brain removed, or I struggle with constant seizures. It’s not like I was ever in a coma, or I had a spike sticking out of my head. I never had to have part of my skull removed to relieve the pressure from an impact.

I’ve just had a bunch of mild TBIs — concussions — with little or very brief loss of consciousness. I “should” be fine. But I’m not.

And that’s the thing nobody ever tells me about mild TBI — how it’s the gift that keeps on giving. How a simple fall down some stairs can send me down a weird, dark pathway into a forest with patchy moonlight filtering through the trees. How it messes up my head in very unique ways that are pretty much hidden to me, until I bump up against a situation that “should” be easy for me. But isn’t.

To me, years after I started down this path of actively recovering from all my brain injuries (9 “mild” ones, by my count — probably more), what’s clearer to me than ever before, is how TBI just never quits. It sets things in motion that are invisible and disruptive, and if you aren’t vigilant and if you don’t develop strategies for dealing with all of it, your condition becomes chronic and worsens over time. The simplest things that should be so clear, confuse you. You don’t recognize yourself. You’re “not quite right” in the eyes of people who knew you before. And it can be well nigh impossible to figure out what the hell everybody is so upset about — because from your point of view, everything seems fine. It all seems fine.

TBI never quits. That is as true for Mild TBI as it is for any of the others — perhaps even moreso for Mild TBI. The changes that take place in the brain affect the mind, the body, and the way the two work together. And over the long term, these changes keep happening. And with mTBI, the issues can be so irregular and “spotty”, and you can be so busy just living your life, that you don’t see the warning signs — until it’s too late.

And you’re in hot water again.

What nobody ever seems to mention, is that mild TBI can become a chronic condition that progresses over the course of your life. It affects every aspect of your being, and unless you can figure out that that’s actually happening, and learn to manage it, the long-term prognosis can be sketchy. Even, well… bad.

I don’t know why nobody ever talks about this — at least, they don’t talk about it within my earshot. Traumatic brain injury symptoms often clear for people. But for some, they become chronic… they don’t go away…. they morph into something else over time… and something else… and something else…. and they can turn you into a person you hardly recognize and don’t exactly understand — in place of the person you thought you were.

Maybe people do discuss it, but it never trickles down into the general populace.

Or maybe it’s that I’m so busy living my life, and I’m so busy trying to figure things out, that I don’t have time to seek out the inner secrets and latest cutting-edge research about TBI recovery. My neuropsych has certainly not discussed this with me at length — probably because I get really upset and bent out of shape when they start to talk about TBI and how my brain has been affected by it. Strangely, although I can write about it freely here, I have a hell of a time discussing it with my neuropsych. It freaks me out. Way too much. So, we don’t talk about that much — just about how I can build the skills to better live my life.

That’s actually working out. It’s a good strategy. I have this body of skills and approaches built up. At the same time, though, it feels like they’re built around a shell of a person — I’m the outside appearance of myself, but inside, it’s hollow and dark and empty, and I don’t know who’s there anymore.

I try not to worry about it. I’ve got to get on with my life and live it, the best I know how. But when I’m tired… and when I’m tired of being tired and not knowing who the hell I am… this comes up, front and center, and it works on my mind like nothing else.

Of all the things about mild TBI, I’d have to say, the most damaging part is having lost my sense of who I am, what I stand for, and where I fit in the world. It’s a casualty of the injury, and nobody seems willing to address it — as though ignoring it or “working past it” is going to solve things.

Oh hell, I’m just going to write a book about it. For TBI survivors, their loved ones, and for the caregivers who know so much — and yet so little. Losing your identity and having to reconstruct it again, despite being “fine” in the eyes of everyone else, is a problem. It takes too many of us down. It’s an issue. It’s a problem. And I don’t feel like sitting around bitching about it, anymore. It’s time to do something about it.

In fact.

Onward.

Letting it go – for good reason

I missed the original date, but maybe they have an “encore” event this month?

I had a lousy meeting with my neuropsych on Friday evening. First problem was, it was Friday evening after a very long week. I was not in a good space, and neither was my neuropsych, apparently. They kept wanting to talk about diagnostic labs and bloodwork and tests and all that stuff that goes along with figuring out levels of vitamins and what-not.

As it turns out, I have been running a low-level Vitamin D deficiency for about five years. I am sure it has not helped my cognition in the least. But my doctor told me they weren’t worried about it, because they figured it would sort itself out. I was supposed to be supplementing Vitamin D — which I often forgot or just decided not to do. I resolved — about a million times — to spend more time outside and get my Vitamin D through natural sunlight. But then I didn’t do it, and my D levels stayed low — to the point of danger.

The weird thing is, my PCP didn’t seem to think much of it. Despite the fact that Vitamin D levels directly affect cognition, and you can end up feeling foggy and dull as a result. I’ve felt that way for a long, long time — but since I started aggressively loading up on Vitamin D, and my levels have improved, I don’t feel nearly as foggy as I used to. I’m now within the acceptable range (in the lower 33%, which I’d like to raise), and I feel more clear and “with it” than I’ve felt in a long time.

And that pisses me off, that my PCP just kind of blew off my Vitamin D levels and was willing to wait a year, to see if they were better. It’s like my doctor waits for me to report symptoms, but to me, everything is a tangled mass of experiences and feelings, and on any given day I can feel both fantastic and terrible, all at the same time, so making sense of any of it is sorta kinda impossible in my jumbled-up head. So, I take a stab at things, and if I get lucky, it works out. If it doesn’t work out, I try again — and again — and again — till I get where I’m going.

Ultimately, it pays off, but it’s a long time getting there, sometimes.

Anyway, I got pretty angry that my neuropsych kept talking about healthcare and choices and things to do to get proper care. I couldn’t see what it had to do with anything that mattered at the time, and it made me angry that they were going on and on about the best process to follow to get medical help. Now, I realize that they were kind of pissed off that my doctor had done nothing about my Vitamin D levels — that they hadn’t kept an eye on it and raised a flag earlier.

Part of the responsibility is mine. I didn’t think that Vitamin D was that big of a deal, and I figured I could just go outside regularly and get the light I needed to synthesize. Untrue. I don’t go outside nearly enough (as is the case now, as I sit at my desk in my study, looking at the outside, rather than sitting on the back deck, working “in the wild”). I didn’t realize that Vitamin D affected your cognition and mental functioning. If I’d known that before, I’d have done more about it.

But that’s water under the bridge.

Looking back, I realize that I spent a lot of time being really angry with my neuropsych. I didn’t tell them that, but I was upset to the point of wanting to not go to them anymore. That happens, every now and then. I don’t “get” what they’re trying to communicate to me, I feel like they’re talking to me like I’m an idiot, and I get resentful and resistant. And I want to just drop it and just live my life without having to work at it.

But that generally doesn’t go that well, and if I walk away from my neuropsych, I walk away from one of the very few people who understands what’s going on with me — and is equipped to talk some sense into me. Going it alone has a way of backfiring on me. I have few real friends. I’m on friendly terms with a lot of people, and I feel pretty connected with other people, but I have no immediate support group I can turn to — other than my neuropsych. I also have a therapist I see — but that’s more to check in and make sure I’m taking care of myself and to build some self-preservation skills in the face of dealing with my spouse’s various illnesses (both physical and mental). Other than those two, I’m on my own.

Anyway, yesterday I decided not to keep harboring that anger, and I just let it go about my neuropsych being a pain. I realize now that what made me angry, was 1) being really tired after a long week, and 2) not fully understanding what they were talking about, and why. Also, I think my neuropsych was tired after a long week, and they were in rough shape, as well. I’m the “easiest” patient they have to work with, I believe. There are tons of other things going on for them, and I’m just one face in a crowd of many — many of whom need a lot more support and assistance than I.

This is how it often is. When I’m really tweaked and upset, it’s best that I just get some sleep, take a long walk, and let it all settle. Then I can get my balance again, get my bearings, and enjoy the life I have, instead of stewing about the life I’m imagining.

Weather is nice today. I should be able to get that last lawn-mowing of the season done, later this afternoon when the grass is more dry. I may just go out for a long ride, too. I hear the colors are getting nice up north.

Making sense of … nothing

What happens here, affects everywhere

WordPress featured a blog (no longer actively maintained, but still there for posterity), about the experiences of someone who had a stroke at 33. She chronicled her experience at http://jadepark.wordpress.com/category/the-stroke/ and the pages are still up, and I expect them to stay that way, unless she decides to take them down.

I hope not. Because every coherent post that gets written by a brain injury survivor — even the incoherent ones — is one more voice that’s out there for people to read and to understand.

And it’s one more voice for “us” that one person uses that actually serves many. Not everyone has the interest or ability for writing. Not everyone has the ability or wish to discuss the details of their life with others. We bloggers are an interesting group — part voyeur, part exhibitionist… part narcissist, part humanist… part artist, part scientist…

I think there is a part of us that believes — as I always have, from the time I was very young — that “we” do not belong “to ourselves”. The experiences we have in the course of our days are in fact the “property” and domain of every human being on earth. We are none of us separate and apart from each other — the separation is something we invent out of expediency, because we have to be able to categorize and organize and find patterns in our lives. Without recognized patterns, without a larger context for events and experiences that we can see and understand, life becomes meaningless, chaotic, pointless. And we lose ourselves. Fast.

After brain injury, it’s easy to get lost. It’s almost a requirement. A central part of our health and well-being — mental and otherwise — has been disrupted. The roads from Point A to Point B have been torn up by a hurricane… a tsunami… and we don’t find out for some time, how much damage was really done. In fact, the damage can keep happening, as we try to do things a new way, and find that the alternate routes we took didn’t work. We’re doing the mental equivalent of trying to drive heavy equipment across unpaved roads, and we get bogged down.

And we can get hurt again — mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually.

Brain injury is the “gift that keeps on giving”. And because so many people live in fear and anger and judgment and are moving WAAAAYY too fast, they don’t give us a chance to catch up. Everybody’s in such a damn’ hurry — and to where? To where, I ask you?

I get angry at this. The way our world is structured, is terrible for anyone with an injury or a shortcoming of any kind. We’ve latched onto the idea of “survival of the fittest”, not realizing that it’s cooperation, not competition, that ensures the survival of species. It’s community that makes many of us fit — rather than isolation and alienation and exploitation that weakens us all, even as it makes a select few feel more powerful than they truly are.

I don’t doubt for a minute that competition helps to sharpen the wits and abilities of individuals. But that’s not all there is to the story. At some point, you need to be able to see that cooperation is of greater value in certain circumstances. We’re not all one-trick ponies, capable only of a 2-dimensional behavioral repertoire.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that in the great seething sea of brain injured individuals trying to get through to the next day, it helps to have some contact with others who “get” us. Who have had the same sorts of experiences as us. Who are struggling through as best they can — sometimes improving, sometimes sliding back — and who report back to the rest of us, what happened to them that day.

On Jan. 30, I withdrew from my MFA program. I ran into a friend on campus after, and told her the news. I could not read more than a paragraph.

 

“I’m taking a leave of absence,” I said.

 

She replied, “I wish I had a stroke as an excuse for my short-term memory issues!”

 

The old me would have told her that was rude. Or that it hurt my feelings. The new me stood stunned, unable to come up with a quip. And then I got into my car and cried. (from the Buzzfeed post)

There’s the anger we all share, of course.

And then there’s the other stuff — the interesting tidbits, even the hope.

For a month, every moment of the day was like the moment upon wakening before you figure out where you are, what time it is. I was not completely aware of what had happened to me. I was not completely aware of my deficits, in an ignorance-is-bliss sort of way. I was unable to fret about the past, or the uncertainty of the future. (from the Buzzfeed post)

Or just the curiosity.

But this post is getting long. I sat down, intending to write about how I had to “reset” myself yesterday and get out of my hyper-achiever mindset from the previous week. Then I saw the notice on WordPress about the stroke survival blog, and it got me thinking. I’ll write about my mental – and physical – reset sometime soon. Maybe later today. But for now, I’m going to go outside and get some exercise. Go for one of my long walks and just enjoy myself on this beautiful day. The rain has passed. I have gotten past the dreariness about people dying and having terrible things happen to them. I have not really looked at the news for over 24 hours, and I’m going to keep it that way.

I have a whole day to myself ahead of me, and that is good.

Time to make the most of it.

Onward.