Bringing light

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

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

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

Hm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it continues to get better.

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

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

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

Yes, let there be light.

Bonus – More exercise, more energy, more time

View from the top – my load was lighter

Yesterday was a good day. Went out to the beach and spent a lot of time running in the sand. I was a little concerned that I might overdo it, as I have in the past. But I didn’t run myself into the ground – just enjoyed myself and had a great time running to/from waves. By the end of the day, I was bushed, so my spouse drove home while I rested. I didn’t get much sleep last night, but I figured I’d make it up today.

I knew I was going to have a long nap this afternoon, and I also knew that I wasn’t going to get much exercise tomorrow, so today I figured I’d push the envelope a little bit. I had a good workout this morning, then around noon I put 20 lbs of books and an (unopened) bag of birdseed in my backpack and headed out into the woods for a hike. I’ve been wanting to do that for some time — either get a weighted vest or find a way to walk/hike/exercise with some extra weight. Feeling the heft of my backpack yesterday inspired me, so I decided to go for it today — add 20 pounds and march up to the top of a nearby hill, and back down again. I figured it wouldn’t be so much that it would bog me down, but it would be enough that I’d feel it after a little while… and when I finally got the pack off at the end, I’d have more of a spring in my step.

I was right. It was a good thing to do. The added weight not only kept the hike challenging, but it also forced me to pay closer attention to my feet and my posture, so I wouldn’t pull something. I thought it might weigh me down too much, but I honestly didn’t feel too terrible throughout the hike. It definitely got heavy towards the end, but it wasn’t and impossible load. I’ve backpacked before, years ago, and it felt familiar. 20 pounds wasn’t too much, but it was definitely noticeable by the end of the hike.

And when I got back and took off the pack, sure enough, I did feel a lot lighter on my feet. Good stuff.

So, after my hike, I took care of some chores, took a hot shower, and lay down for my nap. I did some of my body scanning before going to sleep… where I relax and “check in” with my body to see how it’s feeling, and I fell to sleep pretty promptly. I slept a little over an hour, and I woke up feeling really good. Still a little tired, but clear. Very clear.

I had a lot of good energy, too. Really good energy. A relaxed state that feels both mellow and alert. And all the stuff that’s ahead of me this week, starting at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning, feels a lot less burdensome than it did just 24 hours ago. It actually feels manageable. I feel manageable. Which is pretty amazing, considering the funk that I’ve been in, for the past month or so.

So yeah, exercise. Serious exercise. None of this namby-pamby stuff where I take it easy and coast through. In order to get something out of it, I really have to put a lot into it. Or it makes no difference at all. I started really pushing myself a few days back, and I feel 100% better already. I’m going to keep it up, too — including giving myself plenty of time to rest and recover afterwards, as well as eating more protein and less empty carbs to keep up my strength. It’s just too good to let go.

The wild thing about a lot of this is that the more I pushed myself and the more I wore myself out, the more of “me” I actually had to work with. I feel like “more of me” is back in action, and as a result, I’ve got more energy — and I feel like I have more time. I am less stressed out about little things, and I am better at planning things out — like looking at my calendar and realizing that I’m probably not going to get much exercise tomorrow, so I’d better do something extra today.

I’m also less stressed about the idea of resting and recovering. I get so locked into the idea of going-going-going, that the idea of stopping freaks me out. Not today, though. I put in my extra work, and I’m looking ahead to tomorrow. And beyond.

Funny how that works — you put more in, and you get more out. But maybe that’s how it always works.

Time to get strong. And be smart. And enjoy life — really enjoy it. I haven’t been doing much of that lately. Time to change that around.

And what a beautiful walk it was

Back from my walk out in the woods. Getting towards sundown… birds settling in for the night, tiny creatures singing out of sight, and the breeze on my face, cooling me after my brisk hike into the woods.

I am struck by the amazing beauty of it all, the simple power of something as basic as new life emerging from the earth, once again. Green, new, hopeful life without a reason to be cynical or self-destructive.

And I am struck by the impact that conscious breathing has had with me. Spending just a few moments breathing steadily, slowly, focusing my attention on a single point — a pine cone, a fallen branch, water in a little stream flowing over glistening rocks…

In all my years of hiking these woods — although I’ve been away from them for the past 3-4 years, as my last fall made it very difficult for me to be outside and in wide open, uncontrolled spaces — I have rarely (if ever) had the kind of presence in that place I had this evening. I usually returned to my home somewhat tense and shut-down. I would start out wide open and ready for a good walk. But when I got home, I would be a far sight less relaxed than I expected/wanted to be.

For years, I knew something was amiss with me, when I would go out on my walks. I would walk for about 15-20 minutes and everything would be fine. Then I would start to shut down, would start to ruminate about this, that, or another thing. I’d get stuck in my head and wouldn’t actually see very much on my walks, even though I’d cover miles of ground in beautiful, healthy woods.

I always knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Now, I think it’s because I would get tense, being out in the woods, I would start to feel uptight about something, and I wouldn’t breathe properly. The lack of deep, measured breath would give rise to more tension and add to my agitation, and then I’d ruminate even more… A self-fulfilling cycle that I could never seem to break.

Somehow, I’d always get trapped in my head. And my walks would turn into traveling psychodramas.

But today, I took my time, made a point of stopping to breathe, periodically. And I just let it all in. Whereas before, I would start to wall myself off and shut down, today, I let myself stay open to what came across my path. No social anxiety, when I happened across a landscaper loading a backhoe onto his trailer. No drama when cars would pass me closer than I liked. No shutting off and getting stuck in my head the whole time.

Today was different.

Because I breathed. On purpose. Measured, mindful, enjoyable breaths. Good breaths. With awareness and purpose.

Today was good.

Throwing nuts at the cheetah

I had a really troubling dream just before I woke up this morning.

I was walking through the woods with two friends of mine. It was almost like a jungle or rain forest – the air was very humid and the trees were huge and spaced apart, and the forest floor was quite open — not a lot of underbrush, but springy underfoot. We were walking along a wide path that was well-worn, and we were talking about this and that. I believe we were discussing possible dangers from big cats that had been seen in the area.

If I remember correctly, the woods had been cleared of all dangerous wild animals a while back, but some big animals had escaped and had returned to their habitat, so hikers were warned to be very careful and not engage them.

We walked and talked for a while, and I was picking up stones and nuts and old pieces of tropical fruit that had fallen from the trees. I was tossing them around, and my friends were getting irritated with me. They wanted me to stop, but I didn’t feel like talking with them. They were just running at the mouth, and I was getting overwhelmed with all the words.

We were passing by an open clearing that was raised up above the path, when we looked up and saw a cheetah sitting in the sunlight. It was a beautiful animal, so sleek and strong. It also looked very dangerous and wild. My friends said we should walk by it slowly and not bother it. They were both terrified of it.

I was thinking that I knew how to deal with a big cat. I’ve learned (for real, not only in the dream) that with big cats, if you come across them, you have to face them down. Make yourself as big as possible and stare them in the eye. You cannot show any fear, and you cannot turn your back on them, because when they hunt, they go for the back of their prey’s neck. If you do show them fear, or you turn your back to them, they instinctively attack and go for you. This is why joggers and cyclists are often attacked by mountain lions in California — they have their back turned to the animal or their heads are down, exposing the backs of their necks, so the big cats attack.

I wasn’t afraid of the big cat, and I felt like I needed to show it who was boss. I also felt a kind of rush from the imminent danger — Here was a cheetah! A big cat this close! We were in danger for our lives! I felt that familiar rush of adrenaline that sharpens my senses and pumps me up and makes me do things that I would not do under normal circumstances. Something in me surged with daring, and I took a nut I’d been holding and threw it at the cheetah. I felt a thrill of danger course through me, and I cursed myself for having thrown it at the cat. The nut bounced near it, and the animal flinched, and it looked like it was going to back off and leave us alone. My heart was pounding and my mind was calculating what I would do in response to it. I was watching it very, very carefully, to see what it would do, and for a few moments, it looked like the big cat was going to withdraw into the woods and leave us alone.

But then my friends got very frightened that I’d thrown the nut at the cat, and they started to freak out and panic. My one friend started to shake and quiver, and my other friend, who is a bit overweight and doesn’t move very quickly in real life, took off running down the trail. In my dream, I was thinking, “What are you doing?! You’re going to catch its attention! Why are you running from a cheetah? You can’t outrun it! You have to stare it down. You have to stand your ground!

I looked up at the big cat and saw it had suddenly spotted my friend. in an instant, it recovered its composure, sprang into action, and raced after my friend. It looked so beautiful in motion, all its sinews taut, its coat shining in the sunlight that filtered through the canopy above us. But my admiration was short-lived, as it caught up with my friend, grabbed them by the back of the neck, and started to run off with their body dangling from its jaw.

Frozen with horror for a moment, I took off running after the cheetah, yelling at the top of my lungs and willing myself to run faster. I was convinced I could catch it and wrestle my friend from its grip.

The big cat was very fast, though, and it was way ahead of me, with my friend’s body hanging from its jaws. I was horrified and mortified, and my other friend was screaming at me for throwing the nut at the cheetah and making it angry. In my head, I was trying to calculate how far the cheetah could get, carrying my friend’s heavy body, if I could catch up with it because it would be slowed down by the weight, and if I could get to it in time to save my friend. I suspected that my friend had been killed instantly, or that even if I did catch up, the cheetah would be eating them, so there wasn’t much point in my running after them.

Plus, I ran out of steam after a few hundred yards, and I had to stop. I was so upset at what had happened. On the one hand, I was upset with myself for throwing that nut, but I was also upset with my friend for not having better sense, and I was upset with the whole chain of events that was probably killing my friend.

I woke up very disturbed around 5:00, and I haven’t been able to get back to sleep.

I think that this dream has something to say about a lot of aspects of my life, these days. I have a lot of people around me who are very frightened for me, as I talk to them about my TBIs and the issues that go along with them. They’re like the friends in my dream, who just want to walk along quietly along a well-worn path in the woods, chatting about this and that, not really bothered by anything… cognizant that there are things amiss in the world, but not really eager to confront them.

There’s also a part of me that’s like that. I don’t want to be bothered by dangers in the woods. I want to just go along my merry way and not have to expend a lot of energy on things like dealing with large dangers that I come across.

But there’s also a part of me that gets bored with all that safe stuff, and I need to occupy myself. So I do things like picking up rocks and nuts and old pieces of fruit and tossing them around. I get bored pretty quickly, so I start casting about for new things to learn and do.

And sometimes my casting about uncovers big dangers along the way. Like this diagnostic imaging I’m going to have done — an MRI this weekend, and an EEG in another week or so. Who knows what will be uncovered as a result of that? Sometimes I cast about a bit too freely, and I can end up stirring up things that are unexpected and potentially dangerous… but are actually authentic pieces of my human experience.  (The interesting thing is that the cheetah in my dream actually belonged in the woods — it was its home, and it had just returned to its rightful place.)

Sometimes I cast about too carelessly, too — like tossing a nut at the cheetah. Or, I take a calculated risk and push the limits. In my dream, I didn’t just toss the nut at the cheetah for fun — I did it partly to show it that I meant business, and I wasn’t intimidated by it. I also wanted to scare it away. And it almost worked. But my friend with the weak nerves had to take off running — doing exactly the wrong thing, in that situation. They didn’t have the same information as I, apparently, and they let their fear get the best of them. And then all is lost.

This is pretty significant to me, in my real life experiences with others, because as I move forward, I’m going to have to educate the people around me about my condition(s) — TBI, etc. — so that they learn how to respond appropriately to the situation I’m in. I really don’t need them to freak out and get all worked up over things that A) we don’t know for sure, or B) are big and dangerous but are totally manageable with the right information and the right team of caregivers. I don’t need them to lose it and put themselves — or me — in danger. I need them to be cool, be present, be able to help in a substantive and constructive way.

As I go through this next phase of diagnostic testing — maybe it will show something, maybe it won’t — I need to keep my head on. I need to take care of myself and take things slowly, and not only know why I’m doing what I’m doing, but be clear with others why I’m doing it. Everybody needs to be in the loop, and that includes the parts of myself, too, that are prone to freak out and make poor choices out of fear, rather than knowledge and courage.

But at the same time, I also need to be cognizant of my tendency to court danger, as some kind of reflex, some inner/neuropsychological/biochemical need to sharpen and brighten mylife experience… to wake me up and keep me engaged in life. I need to be aware of my tendency to overstep my bounds, when I’m bored or tired or in need of some stimulation. I need to remember that, when it comes to taking on new challenges, I’m not always as smart as I think I am, and I’m not always up to the task of overcoming what I’m presented with. I can’t afford to forget that I rarely know as much as I need to know — either about myself or the situation I’m presented with. In my dream, I couldn’t chase down the cheetah, once it had hold of my friend. And I can’t always overcome my cognitive and behavioral issues as well as I’d like, once they take hold of me and get a ‘running start’ ahead of my logic and innate abilities.

When (not if) I meet a proverbial big cat on the path through my own “woods,” I need everyone with me — the parts inside and the people outside — to remain calm, make informed choices, and keep their heads. I need to focus on the basics — take care of my body and my mind and my spirit, with adequate rest and activities that feed and sustain me and build up my strength (not to mention common sense). And I need to be aware of my limits and not push them carelessly just because I need a thrill. I need to be aware that I do have a tendency (perhaps thanks to my PTSD) to court danger, just to feel awake and alive. And I need to remember that I’m much more use to my friends and family alive and healthy, than injured or dead. No matter how dangerous a situation may seem, the right information and the intention/willingness to intelligently proceed in the proper way can mean the difference between keeping on my path and making progress, and disaster.

Note to self: Get plenty of rest over the coming days and weeks. You’re going to need it, to do a decent job of handling all this.