A Perilous Relief – Conventional Wisdom About Risk-Taking/Danger-Seeking Behavior

Risk-taking or danger-seeking behavior, especially in teenagers or at-risk individuals, has intrigued, worried, and frustrated scientists and mental health professionals for aeons — perhaps as long as humans have walked the earth, and there were friends, family and/or hunting party members to be concerned about the welfare of “crazy bastards” who took more risks than most.

In the past, actions like walking up to a mastodon and launching your spear at it point-blank, scaling the face of El Capitan without ropes, or putting every penny you own on the line for a long-shot bet or a chancy investment, were equated with a sort of “death wish” or the desire to do self-injury. Such behavior was (for good reason) considered illogical, even pathological. That professional view has changed, but some residue of it remains, culturally speaking.

I’ve also heard risk-taking behavior explained as a form of self-sabotage or a kind of self-abuse, based in an individual’s general lack of understanding about (and/or desire to flee) deep-seated emotional issues. Surely, the person who races funny cars in their off-hours must be running from something. Smokers and heavy drinkers who cannot help but be well-aware of the dangers of their habits must be in denial. And surfers who court their own destruction in 30-foot waves above razor-sharp volcanic rocks that are just beneath the surface of the boiling sea certainly must have “unresolved issues.”

On the other hand, I’ve heard danger-seeking described as a form of self-aggrandizement, as a way to prove one’s evolutionary superiority over social/biological competitors. Whether it’s competing in freestyle skiing… or “playing chicken” in speeding cars on a pitch black night… or jumping from skyscrapers with a parachute, you’re essentially “showing off” to “get girls” or prove to the world that you’re the superior specimen. And dude, on a certain level, it tends to work.

At a basic, physiological level, I’ve heard risk-taking described as a form of addiction to adrenaline highs, which arises from the brain’s continued experience of adrenaline rushes in the face of extreme danger. It’s a conditioned activity, I’m told — one that arises from the complex biochemical cascade of stress hormones and bodily “cowboying up” which happens over and over and over again… until the body, mind, and spirit just can’t live without the high.

Now, I myself, have a history of danger-seeking and risk-taking behavior, in both my personal and professional life. I’m not one for extreme sports; in fact, few things entice me less than bungee jumping or skydiving. The idea of stock car racing appeals to me… until I calculate the likelihood of getting into a fiery crash, whereupon my enthusiasm dissipates considerably. But in my own unique way(s), I have courted danger and taken risks that others considered foolhardy, and I have done so with gusto and glee. In some cases, the chances I took worked out well for me, resulting in either professional and personal financial advancement or the increased esteem of my peers — or both. In other cases, I narrowly escaped possible disaster, and I was lucky to get out of the situation(s) in one piece. In still other cases, I fell flat on my face — sometimes hard — and lost a great deal in the process.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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A Perilous Relief – Introduction

Risk-taking or danger-seeking behavior has been a puzzle of human experience for generations. Certain individuals repeatedly tempt fate with foolhardy and clearly risky behaviors. They make seemingly rash choices that endanger everything they hold most dear, including life and limb, friends and family, and future prospects for survival. But why?

Explanations by scientists and mental health professionals have often been psychological in nature, and recently with increased understanding of genetics and neuro-chemical processes, additional biological explanations have emerged.

While these new developments shed new light and add more facets and texture to our understanding of why some people actively choose to endanger their own survival, it’s my belief that yet another oft-ignored aspect of human experience plays into the risk-taking behavior equation: namely, painful sensory overwhelm. Further, it is my own belief (and experience, based on personal practice) that the use of “analgesic fear” can be used to control and manage pain and other sorts of sensory overwhelm.

Drawing on my own life experiences with chronic pain, sensory overwhelm, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, fear, and verifiable threats to my personal/professional survival, in this paper I will illustrate how I have repeatedly used risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior as a way to not only minimize my own physical/mental/emotional experiences of pain and sensory overload, but also optimize my personal and professional performance in the process.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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A New Paper – A Perilous Relief

I’ve been head-down for the past several days, working on a paper called “A Perilous ReliefOn the physiological foundation(s) of risk-taking / danger-seeking behavior“. It’s an offshoot of my recent readings about how fear and anxiety have different effects on the body (especially on pain), how self-induced stress can have an analgesic effect, and how this research of mine can explain some pretty puzzling and problematic behaviors I exhibited over the past couple of weeks. I think I’m onto something here — if only for my own edification.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the paper, as I complete them. I wrote about 50 pages, in the past several days (I probably should have gone for a walk on Sunday, but I got to writing, and I got carried away). Eventually, when the work is finished, I’ll make it available for download and/or in print format. I will probably charge something for it, in hopes of getting some financial support for this blog and my research. It’s an ongoing project, but I’m hoping to have it finished within the next few weeks.

About “A Perilous Relief

This paper is a personal study in my own risk-taking and danger-seeking behaviors from a physiological standpoint. It explores my individual history of risky and dangerous choices not only as a way to pursue an “adrenaline high” or avoid emotional pain and dampen the effects of post-traumatic stress, but also as a highly effective way of coping with and mitigating my lifelong chronic pain and sensory issues and enabling me to function more effectively in the demanding world around me. It details:

  • select instances of my past and present personal/professional risk-taking (some of which had near-disastrous consequences),
    the often painful “sensory backdrop” which lay(s) the contextual foundation for my impaired choice-making,
  • the role that anxiety has played in the things I do and the choices I make and my overall physical experience,
  • how deliberately entering into fear-inducing, high-stakes situations not only cuts the pain that is my constant companion, but also helps me think better, perform better, be better... thus not only easing my discomfort but bolstering my self-esteem and enhancing my overall life, and
  • how continued cycles of anxiety–pain–fear–pain–anxiety–pain–fear–pain can create a feedback loop that systematically drains my personal resources and feeds into a downward spiral of diminishing returns, even as I am convinced that my performance is improving.

One of the important pieces of my own puzzle, is that I am a “high functioning” multiple mild traumatic brain injury survivor. Since the age of 7, through the past 35 years, I have sustained at least five (possibly more) head injuries which have had a noticeable impact on my physical, cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and social landscape. Nevertheless, neuropsychological testing has shown that I score around the 99th percentile of the WAIS-III verbal comprehension index. My intention is to use the heightened abilities I have been given to explore and explain the deep limitations I experience and describe my coping strategies and their outcomes, for the benefit of myself and others.

It is my hope that in reading this paper, individuals, health care providers, mental health practitioners, authority figures, and law enforcers of all kinds may come to a broader understanding and appreciation of why some of us take risks (and take them so frequently without apparent regard for our own well-being) and develop more productive ways of managing potentially damaging behaviors — behaviors which in fact provide experiences that are essential to the peak performance of certain highly sensitive individuals.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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More thoughts on pain and TBI and PTSD

The past week has not been easy, I have to say. And I’m just so glad that Christmas is over. I learned a lot about what I can and cannot do, over the past seven days, and I’m now revisiting my lessons to see how I can improve next year.

I have been in a lot of pain, on and off, for the past couple of weeks, and it eventually took a toll on me. I had been actively managing my pain, with pressure points and stretching and Advil (which is the only pill that seems to work for me), but I was just too busy trying to gear up for the holiday season, and I had too much on my plate. Plus, the weather did not help much, and I ended up seriously over-extended.

The net result is that I’ve been withdrawing more and more over the past days, trying to get things straight in my head. I’ve had a lot of trouble thinking clearly, and I’ve had a lot of trouble managing my emotions. I’ve had a lot of trouble, period, and the people around me who could be most impacted by my limits… well, they have been. I’ve experienced some significant set-backs with loved ones, who are now even more afraid of me than before… Part of it is their “stuff” of course, but I haven’t helped matters, by being so erratic and given to outbursts.

It’s depressing, if I think about it on a personal level. So, I don’t. I’m reverse-engineering my issues, in particular the pain pieces.

I picked up a whole lot of papers on the relationship between pain and fear and anxiety, this a.m., and now I need to read through them and give them some thought. The key concepts I’m looking into are:

1. Anxiety can heighten sensitivity and dramatically increase one’s experience of physical pain.

2. Physical pain can bring on feelings of isolation, hurt, rejection, and emotional pain.

3. Fear has a numbing effect — it’s hypoalgesic (decreases one’s sensitivity to painful stimuli).

4. Impaired cognitive processes combined with heightened physical sensations can induce TBI/PTSD survivors to make choices in life that are not only unproductive, but at times downright dangerous. When our executive functions are impaired, we can end up doing and saying things that we don’t really want to — and certainly wouldn’t, if we were in full possession of our faculties.

5. One poor choice after another, combined with unexpected/unanticipated negative consequences, can heighten our anxiety, which feeds into our “pain loop” and can cause us to unconsciously seek out dangerous/risky situations that are fear-inducing and reduce our overall pain experience.

6. But we are not doomed to lives of disaster. Knowing about these risk factors can give us the awareness we need to develop the ability to identify our issues and actively manage our situations, so we pose less of a problem to society, our friends, family, and other loved ones, and can actually built decent lives for ourselves in the process.

With regard to 1, over at About.com, I found this:

Anxiety sensitivity refers to a person’s tendency to fear anxiety-related symptoms (for example, increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension, headaches) due to the belief that there will be some negative outcome as a result of having those symptoms. For example, a person may fear having an increased heart rate because they believe that it will increase their risk for a heart attack. Another person may fear being anxious because they think that others will view them in a negative light. Finally, someone might fear having the anxiety symptom of having a headache or difficulties concentrating because they think this is a sign that they are “going crazy.”

With regard to 2, in a paper on sensory deprivation and isolation, I found this:

At a symposium held in April 1956 by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, researcher Harold Wolff reported:

We also have reason to believe that the painful experience is one that has a highly symbolic significance and is closely linked with feelings of isolation and rejection, especially when imposed by other human beings under hostile circumstances. (Vernon 1956)

With regard to 3, over at Wikipedia, I found this

Fear induced hypoalgesia

Fear induced hypoalgesia is another example of a mechanism controlled by opioids. It is postulated that fear is a defense mechanism that has evolved over time to provide protection. In the case of hypoalgesia, a decreased response to pain would be very beneficial in a situation where an organism’s life was at stake, since feeling pain would be a hindrance rather than a help. It has been well documented that fear does cause a decrease in pain response[5], however much like the exercise induced hypoalgesia, the exact mechanisms of action are not well understood. Studies have shown that opioids are definitely involved in the process, yet opiates alone do not completely explain the analgesic response[6][7]. What the other mechanisms of action are is still unknown.

I think, when it comes to dealing with TBI and PTSD and pain and anxiety and fear, they are all closely interconnected – and they feed into each other in significant ways.

This is all I have time to post about, right now, as I’ve got errands to run and responsibilities to fulfill. But suffice it to say, I’ll be adding more about this in the future, especially as I read up on more info about pain and anxiety and fear and how they are interconnected.

The scars of war: ‘The look in her eyes was the look of a lost soul’

Great article at the El Paso Times about a soldier back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD and TBI

At 38 years of age, [Capt. Fayette Frahm] has more than 17 years of experience in the medical field serving in four wars in 12 countries. Out of the Army for nearly a year, she suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and she says the transition from soldier to civilian has been anything but smooth.

It’s a terrible thing to happen to anyone… especially folks who have made defending this country their life’s work.

The more we learn about this brutla combination, the bettter.

My internet connection is slow today… and so am I

It’s maddening, really. The reason I got into computers in the first place, was so that something within reach would be quick for me to work with. I’ve been dealing with TBI stuff since 1973, but only when I got into computers and learned to code — step by step, piece by piece — did I really feel like I was keeping up with the world around me.

It’s interesting — thinking back on the problems I had as a kid with hearing and comprehension, I realize now that the “unsexy” jobs I had when I was in my early 20’s, doing transcription, actually helped me to learn to listen and comprehend. My parents just had a fit, when they heard about me not having a ‘real job’ and just doing freelance transcription. But y’know what? Using that machine to go forward and backwards and listen and type and having something to do (typing) while I listened actually rehabilitated me a great deal.

Only in looking back realistically at all the troubles I had, over the course of my life, with hearing and understanding and getting what was being said to me, have I really started to appreciate how much that “dumb” job helped me.

But today, I’m feeling really slow. I’m back at my house, after being displaced by storms and power outages, and it’s going to take me a while to recover. Some of my electronics equipment got fried by the power surges, so now I need to come up with some alternatives… find batteries to run the portable versions of my CD player… and figure out what works and what doesn’t.

I’m feeling really dull, this morning. Dull and dense and not very bright. I had a bunch of meltdowns during the past two weeks, and they left me feeling stupid and lame and incompetent. But now it’s time to rally and get back into the swing of things — first order is restoring my daily routine and getting to bed at a decent hour at night.

Fatigue really does a job on me. I cannot stress that enough. OMG — it just fries me. And when I’m dealing with even more crap than usual in my life, it sends me into a major tailspin.

But like I said, now I’m back, and I need to just pick up my pace a little bit through the end of the year. Then, things can get back to normal, and I can relax. I’m looking forward to that.

Surviving the Storms of Combined TBI and PTSD

This has been an extremly trying week for me. No, make that ten days. The storms that buried many parts of this country in ice and snow have been very challenging, yes, but my responses to them have been even more of an issue. I’ve been “going off” on people around me and being a raging terror to the people closest to me, and I feel even worse than I would if my life were just complicated.

I’ve been shut down, unable to communicate, unable to ask for help, unable to logically parse through the events around me and come up with common-sense responses to events around me. I’ve had an incredibly short temper, I find myself flying off the handle over every little thing, I haven’t been sleeping, and I haven’t been able to think past the next half hour. All this, over lots of ice and snow and the power going out.

I know that I live in an area where I am safe. I know I have a job that will pay for all these expenses. I know I have friends and family who can come to my assistance. But my body is telling me I’m in mortal danger, and I’ve been alternately freaking out with the stress, on and off, for the past week and a half. My PTSD has blown my responses way out of proportion, and it is taking a toll on my self-esteem and my ability to cope. It’s also worrying, that I should have so much trouble with such simple, basic stuff, and it makes me fear for my life, should something really bad and really serious happen. It’s worrying.

Now, I’m very grateful, that the past week or so hasn’t been a truly life-threatening situation. My mind knows it hasn’t. But to my body, it sure feels that way. And I’ve been managing a level of panic that hasn’t taken over me for quite some time. That rising, falling, ebbing, flowing sense of impending doom that sends my adrenaline pumping and slowly fries my ability to think clearly, has been a constant companion for the past 10 days, and that doesn’t make me happy. It makes me jumpy and frazzled. It makes me way beyond irritable — it makes me extremely volatile and it makes my temper outbursts frighteningly violent.

And my diminished ability to cope with even the most basic demands (like carrying an armload of firewood in from the wood pile) without melting down, makes me feel like a wuss and a coward and a pansy-ass. It makes me feel incompetent, deficient, a loser. I feel like such a simpleton, when I end up spinning my wheels and unable to think through a logical progression of steps, during such a simple thing as the power going out. It just makes the more complex tasks (like having to relocate and keep my life on track) that much harder. It makes me feel like a total loser, to be churning and churning and not able to deal with the simplest of tasks, like shutting down the pump and furnace in the proper order… draining pipes and keeping up with my tasks at work and keeping current on paying my bills. It makes me feel like a freak, that I can’t keep my head on straight and just work my way through things.

I wish my mind were clearer — ten years ago, it would have been — even five years ago, I’m certain that I could have just dealt with all this in good form. But that fall down the stairs in 2004when I hit the back of my head, had such an effect on me. I can see it now in living color. Where I was once able to really embrace this kind of situation, roll with it, cowboy up and ride into battle with all flags flying, now I find myself cowering in a corner, struggling to sort through the different pieces of information I have, unable to prioritize, unable to think things through in an orderly manner, unable to discern the relative importance of different events… getting more and more panicked all the time.

Should I turn off the water again? Should I drain the pipes? Should I turn the heat up? Should I call my relatives? Should I worry about the health and safety of the older animals we have? Should I be this worried? Should I…? It’s maddening, but I can’t seem to make head or tail of things, at times. And that drives me nuts. All the while that my brain is trying to sort through things, my panic level is rising. I can’t seem to put my reactions in perspective, can’t seem to distance myself from what I’m feeling, can’t seem to hold back the waves of anxiety and fear that rush through me without warning.

If anything, the intense responses that I’ve had to the power outages and the disruption to my daily schedule have served to make me feel even worse than I “should” feel — I know I am not exactly in mortal danger, I intellectually know that I probably will get through this all in one piece, and I am well aware of how lucky I am to have the resources and community support that I have — but there is a part of me that gets so freaked out and starts to flail… while my mind sits back and says WTF — what is your problem? What are you, some kind of retard? What’s gotten into you? You can handle this? Why are you being such a friggin’ loser?

I have spent a whole lot of time beating myself up over this… feeling stupid, feeling ignorant, feeling incompetent. I can’t seem to care for my household. I can’t seem to keep up with the most basic elements of providing for and protecting my own family. I can’t even keep my own shit together, let alone care for the ones I love. It’s so fucking debilitating, sitting and watching myself lose it over stupid shit that didn’t used to bother me. And I wonder if I’ll ever be the person I once was… if I’ll ever be fully functional… or if this brain of mine, this spirit of mine, is so damaged beyond repair, that I’ll live out the rest of my born days as a shadow of the person I once was.

And I understand all too well, why soldiers back from Iraq or Afghanistan, who are dealing with the after-effects of TBI and PTSD end up killing themselves. I totally get it. Your brain isn’t working the way you need it to — you can’t even tell that it’s not, half the time. All you know is, things are not clicking right, and you start to panic. The adrenaline gets pumping, the cortisol gets flowing, the body kicks into high gear, trying to respond to a perceived threat that the brain can’t quite comprehend… and the biochemical onslaught slowly but surely erodes your capacity to deal… to think… to manage your own emotions…

Time after time it happens… the downward spiral, the fear, the anxiety, the feelings of hopelessness and the inability to parse out just what is happening in your life, to your life, to your body and mind and spirit. And with each successive onslaught of biochemical assault, you become a little less capable of dealing effectively with the world around you. You get a shorter fuse. You get a faster, more sensitive hair-trigger. You explode more violently. You freak out more embarrassingly. You just can’t deal… you just can’t deal… and you don’t know why.

All you know is, this downward spiral doesn’t seem to have an end.

You’re totally screwed.

The thing is, it’s not necessarily true. It feels that way. It may even seem that way. But I have to remember, in my own case, when things are at their worst, it’s often because my brain is not telling me the truth. In fact, knowing that my brain is broken, can be the best defense against doing something rash that would devastate my family and friends. Killing myself is NOT the answer. For me or for the ones I love. I frankly could never do that to the people around me — it would be too awful for them. I have a hard time, sometimes, believing that anyone could care enough about me to miss me when I’m gone, but when I think about the stigma and humiliation that my suicide would cause my family… well, from that standpoint alone, I have to stop the thoughts of ending my life.

Seriously, I have been on the brink so many times in my life, but it never seemed like it was fucking worth it, to kill myself. First, I might not succeed, and then I might end up either horribly disfigured and/or incapacitated and even more of a burden to my family and friends. Or I would find out, after killing myself, that I was stuck for eternity in purgatory. Or hell. And I’d be unable to redeem myself from the other side. Death is so final. So irreversible. At least, while I’m alive, I’m able to take action to make amends. Or I can at least have a chance STOP the behavior that’s getting me into trouble, and I can look to someone who knows better than I, what should be done. And then take order from them.

If you’ve had a TBI and you’re dealing with PTSD, believe me, I can relate to what you’re going through. I may not have been on the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq, but I know very well what it’s like to have your body sending you messages of HIGH ALERT, driving you to do and say extreme things that frighten and alienate and harm others… when your mind is either too confused to understand what’s going on, or it thinks things are okay and can’t figure out why you’re constantly on edge. I know very well what it’s like to have no fucking excuse for being so screwed up, and be convinced that there’s something deeply wrong with you, tho’ you’d never tell anyone else you feel that way. I know what it’s like to have no excuse at all for your shitting attitude, your bad behavior, your defiance, your violence, your uncontrollable outbursts, your desperation, your depression… but still have it all piling up, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after fucking month.

I’ve been there, too. I am there, too.

And trust me, killing yourself is NOT the answer. Not for you, not for anyone. Not for your friends, your family, your buddies, your colleages, your brothers in arms, your commanders, your dependents, your employer… not for anyone. So long as you’re alive, there’s always a chance of redemption. There always is. I don’t care what anyone says. The world is a big place and there’s lots of room for improvement all across the board. And life never ceases to surprise. You may — and probably will — suprise yourself, in fact. It’s impossible for life to do anything BUT surprise us. After all, we’re not perfect, we’re not all-knowing. We’re not God. And we don’t have the right to play God… especially when it comes to our lives.

Believe it or not, you were brought into this world for a reason. A very special, important reason. Maybe that reason is actually going through everything you’ve been through and showing the world that it can’t get the best of you. Maybe it’s going through all the shit you’ve endured, so you can learn how to handle it… and help others who are in the same place as you. Maybe it’s just showing up at the right time and the right place and helping out in a way that seems small to you, but is huge for another person. I, myself, have been in that situation a number of times. And I had the opportunity to help people who could not help themselves… just because I noticed they had fallen or were nearly unconscious when I passed by them. As of this counting, I have been able to run and get help for at least four different people who were either trapped or had fallen or were unconscious. I may have saved the lives of some of them. Or, maybe they would have been fine without my help. All I know is, if I had ended my life when I wanted to in the past, I never would have had the chance to help them. And they might be dead, too. Or irreparably injured.

So, never underestimate your ability to contribute to the world. The times when I did the most good, were often times when I was just walking along and paying attention to what was going on around me. I wasn’t “at peak function” and I wasn’t “performing at top capacity”. I was just walking along and almost barely noticing the world around me. But I was able to act. And that was enough.

On Pushing Through the Post-Traumatic Stress

The past week’s events have really given me a great opportunity to examine my brain’s responses to intense stress, under somewhat “safe” conditions. Despite being relatively safe and with access to help and shelter and the company and assistance of friends, my TBI-addled brain is not functioning properly, and I’ve had a slew of post-traumatic responses that have not made my life easier.

I’ve pushed through the events… I’ve soldiered on, just putting one foot in front of the other… I’ve really tested myself, taking on more things that needed to be done, than was probably safe, at times.  I should have probably taken more frequent breaks during my work — both at home and at the office. I’ve really taxed my system, and now I see that it’s not been very productive. If anything, it’s really slowed me down and diminished my coping skills.

Now, some people I know tell me that my urge to push through is about avoiding dealing with my feelings. That I just don’t want to face my fears and anxieties about possible damage to the house, possible injury to myself, possible impacts to my job performance. Maybe that’s true. Maybe I haven’t wanted to face the fact that I’ve been scared half to death, on and off, for the past ten days.

But I really think there’s more to why I have been pushing through, than just avoiding my feelings. What I’ve noticed about myself is that when I’m under duress, when I’m dealing with a crisis, I sometimes actually feel better than when things are normal and uneventful. I feel more focused. I feel more clear. I feel alive. It’s not just that I’m high on an adrenaline rush — although at times I am. I actually think better, when I’m under a certain amount of pressure and the stakes are high.

I’ve always been this way. I’ve always been inclined to seek out risky situations and push the limits — taking up with questionable people, taking professional risks (like assuming more responsibility than I was up to at the time), pushing myself to continue, even when I’m exhausted and not doing well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve continued to work or play or drive when I was almost too tired to stand. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pushed on, to get my second wind, and then kept working when I should have quit and gone home to sleep. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken risks with physical labor — going up a ladder when I was dizzy and lightheaded and not balancing well.

But contrary to what my psychotherapeutic friends may say, the times I’ve done that, were not necessarily times when I was hell-bent on self-injury. It wasn’t that I was trying to hurt myself or run from my feelings or avoid dealing with other aspects of my life. Those times actually made me feel better — they made me feel focused, alive, alert. They helped me STOP the constant onslaught of stimuli that tend to overwhelm me when I’m in a relaxed state. They helped me parse through my surroundings and relate to the world around me in a much more stable and calm way.

The times when I’ve been most tested, physically, have often been the times when I’ve been the most clear, mentally.

The only problem is, the times when I’ve really pushed myself, I’ve also hurt myself. Accidentally. Without realizing what was going on. I got into car accidents because I was overtired. I had bad collisions while playing sports that knocked me silly and made me get up slower and punchier than before. I also fell down the stairs in 2004 and hit my head hard on the top 3-4 stairs, because I was pushing myself too much. I was so busy doing and doing and doing and making progress, that I wasn’t paying attention and I slipped and fell.

And that was the beginning of the end of a lot of things I didn’t want to lose — like my job. Like my retirement savings. Like my ability to cope with things like extreme winter storms.

I really think that people need to stop treating the urge to push on through like it’s some kind of psychological disorder. I believe there’s a physiological aspect to it — some of us just function better under high stress, because we need that kind of environment to function at our best. Some of us actually think better, we act better, we understand better, when we’re “high” on adrenaline. Our brains need the biochemical cocktail of high pressure, in order to function at our peak level. It’s a physical need we have… a valid and justifiable need. It’s not that we’re emotionally or psychologically impaired, as some folks I know would say. We’re just built to function better with a certain amount of stress.

But those of us who have a need for stress, who exhibit risk-taking behavior, who are danger-seekers, also need to realize that this physical need can cloud our judgment. It can make us disregard the logical limits of our bodies and our brains. It can make us choose poorly. It can exhaust us without our realizing it. It can make us do and say and pursue things that we really should not. It’s not that we’re deficient. It’s not that we’re any less “manly” because we “can’t keep up.” It’s just that the very thing that feeds us, also can deplete us. And that without our knowing it. Especially if we’ve got a TBI in the mix that clouds our judgment to begin with.

Yes, those of us who thrive on stress do need to give ourselves permission to have the need to push through, but we also need to recognize our own limits. Get enough sleep — especially those of us with TBI after-effects — eat right. Keep tabs on where we’re at, and how we’re doing… And remember to check in with someone who doesn’t have cognitive/behavioral issues (if there are such people) — or, perhaps better said, check in with someone with a different/complementary set of cognitive/behavioral issues — to make sure we’re not getting off-track and we’re not endangering ourselves and our loved-ones with our deficits.

Push on, yes. But know when to say when.

When PTSD and TBI Intersect, Hide, and Exacerbate Each Other

I’m not much in the mood to post, these days. I’m still fried from my last 4 days of being assailed… seeking shelter… being displaced… being at the mercy of the elements… and knowing that the winter is just starting. But I haven’t posted in about a week, and this PTSD+TBI business is actually something I need to write about.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this, and it won’t be the last. One of my first posts here, as I recall, had to do with how post-traumatic stress/PTSD and TBI can be interrelated, and TBI is often misdiagnosed as PTSD (which delays treating the TBI symptoms).

What I’d like to talk about is how I’ve been seeing a whole lot of interaction between post-traumatic stress and TBI in my own life, lately. A couple of weeks ago, I overheard a very heated conversation about someone’s trouble with neighbors. There was some problem with boundary issues and noise problems at all hours, and one of the guys I heard talking was just going off about this neighbor of his who was overstepping his boundaries. It was really getting heated, and the more he talked about it, the angrier he got, and the less clear he got in his reasoning. Then, I heard him say that when he was a kid, he had his nose broken a bunch of times by someone who used to beat him up — badly.

I got to thinking… this guy really got the crap kicked out of him, and the only way you can break someone’s nose is if you hit them in the face — that is, in the head. Plus, the fact that he got the crap beaten out of him repeatedly tells me that he probably has some level of post-traumatic issues going on, too. I’m no doctor, but listening to him was like listening to myself on a really bad day. Reasoning (or lack thereof) all over the place… getting set off by character traits of the problem individual (who may have reminded him of the person who’d beaten him when he was younger)… getting really worked up… going on and on about the same stuff over and over… and just not holding back. No impulse control. Hostility. Anger. Threats. Frustration. Hurt… the works.

Some of the stuff the neighbor was doing was on the fine line between agitating and infuriating — the operative factor was this guy’s capacity to deal with it… which was close to nill. I could totally see how even a little bit of PTSD and TBI could concoct a really volatile situation.

I just hope he doesn’t/didn’t act on any of his threats. It was not good.

And then we had the ice storms last weekend…

I was in an area that was pretty hard-hit (though not as hard as others) by the intense ice storms last weekend. And the house where I was staying was in the middle of the woods. All night, last Thursday night, I lay awake in bed, listening to trees and limbs crack and crash and fall and splinter not far from the room where I was supposed to be sleeping. Every 15-20 minutes, something else would break or fall, and I’d be listening hard to tell how close it was to the house… if it was coming my way… if it was coming through the window or the wall or the roof… listening to stuff hit the roof, hit the ground around the house, hit the ground in the woods not 20 feet from the bed where I was huddled. It was no war zone, it was no combat situation, but I swear, several times an hour, I wondered if I was going to make it through the night in one piece.

The adrenaline rush was intense. Just wave after wave of overwhelming fight-or-flight pouring through me like one flash flood after another. I’d hear a slow cracking off in the distance that got louder and sounded like it was coming closer, and the adrenaline would shoot through me, waking up every cell in my body, all my senses on high-alert, the blood pumping, sweat pouring off me, holding as still as I could, till whatever was falling would fall… then I’d listen to see if there was anything more, and I’d peek my head over the window sill to look out, but couldn’t see anything from the rain and the fog… that full moon eerily brilliant behind the clouds overhead… I’d grab my flashlight and call to others in the house to see if everyone was okay, and I’d check around the sides of the house to see if anything had fallen close or had come through a window or a wall. I couldn’t see much of anything, with all the rain and fog and my flashlight not being bright enough. Then, after satisfying myself that there was no damage, I’d head back to bed, thinking things were okay… and I needed to get some sleep.

Back to bed I went… for another 15 minutes, till the next tree or limb went down… Ice cracking and crashing… tops being taken off trees.. branches giving way… stuff just falling and crashing at every turn… There were times I seriously thought I was done for. I was in the middle of the woods, surrounded by 80-100+ -foot trees, in a monster of an ice storm. For all I knew, the end was near.

It wasn’t, now I realize. But it sure felt that way, at the time. And the lack of sleep didn’t help matters. Plus, when it comes to human experience and the effect it has on the body and mind, sometimes a threat doesn’t even need to be that intense or severe, to do serious damage. All that’s required is you think it is — and your body reacts to it as though It is real. At least, this is how I understand things.

Truly, when your brain is releasing all those biochemical reactions to perceived threats — the adrenaline, the cortisol, the glucose, the various hormones and secretions that help us run from charging elephants/bulls/creditors and live to see another day — whether that threat is “real” or not isn’t the issue. It’s how real your brain thinks it is, and how extreme your body’s reaction to it is. If your body is freaking out because of an apparent threat, the power of psychological rationalization tends to decline. And the body has an interesting way of escalating… and escalating… and escalating… so that cycles of shock and surprise and fright and terror diminish the ability to think rationally about a situation, further compounding the effects of shock and surprise and fright and terror… so that with each subsequent wave of trauma, even if each wave is quantitatively “less”, it seems like more — it’s qualitatively more. And the experiences you have — even if they become milder — can take on an inflated nature that defies reason.

So that every little thing makes you jump. And the more intense your reaction — and the less threat there logically is — the harder it is for you to get your mind around it. To the point where you think you’re losing your mind, and you can’t figure out why you’re such a wuss.

That’s the trickiest part of post-traumatic stress for me. The fact that my body can be so fried by my brain’s constant cascades of chemicals, so exhausted from the sudden shocks and ups and downs… yet the reasons I’m jumpy don’t seem like that big of a deal. So, trees were falling in the woods around me? So what? It wasn’t like I was under fire in Falujah. So, I spent the night listening to limbs snap off, wondering if one was going to come through the window. It wasn’t like I was in Bosnia in the 1990’s, for heavensake. My body is indeed exhausted by its own experience, but my mind can’t seem to wrap itself around the fact that I’m entitled to be a bit jumpy, after four days of drama, being low on sleep, rushing around, trying to keep my life going… helping to tend fires to keep the house warm and the animals inside alive… helping so split wood and haul water and take care of sick folks who were wondering if they should go to the hospital to be safe… No, I wasn’t holed up in Afghanistan, but my body and brain took a beating this past weekend, I was in fact traumatized by a constant fear of imminent harm… even death, and it’s going to take a while to recover.

I think one of the hardest things about dealing with post-traumatic stress, when TBI after-effects are involved, is being able to get things straight in my mind about what I “should” and “should not” be thinking/feeling/doing. My brain gets fuzzy and one-track, when I’m under extreme stress, and I process things slower. Given that my processing time is slower than I’d like it to be, this adds more stress to already stressful situations, in that I’m mortally afraid that my reactions aren’t going to be quick enough, that I’m not going to be able to respond adequately, and I’m not going to keep up as I should. My brain gets scrambled, and I get agitated, jumpy, angry, hostile… to the people I need to be on good terms with… which adds to my existential crisis, because not only do I not know immediately what I need or what’s going on around me, but I also don’t know how to communicate well — or sustain good relations — with the people who can help me.

It’s a terrible, terrible thing, to be standing across the road from someone with the experience and resources (and power tools) to help you get through a crisis, but not be able to figure out A) what to ask them for/about, and B) how to ask them for what you need. To be that alone and clueless, just an arm’s length away from help, is a terrible feeling. And to be so fuzzy and turned around and fatigued and churned up, that you are only dimly aware that something is terribly wrong, but you can’t figure out what it is, just adds gasoline to the raging fires of anxiety and panic.

This winter is going to be an interesting one, I can feel it. It’s going to be time to tell people I know about my injuries and ask them for help. It’s going to be time to own up to being somewhat impaired and far less independent than I want to be. It’s going to be time to batten down the hatches, simplify my life, and find out who my real friends are. It’s going to be time to make changes — especially with people close to me, who get the brunt of my crushing anxiety when it’s at its worst — and we’re not at our best. I have a feeling it’s going to be time have large helpings of humble pie, suck it up, and forget all about my pride, in the process of just getting things done.

And it’s going to be time to take a long, hard look at my trauma fallout and understand how it intersects with and compounds my tbi symptoms. It’s going to be time to talk to my parents, to tell my family about my situation, and see if/where/how/when they can help me get by.

I hate this. I hate it all with every fiber of my being. But if I don’t learn how to ask for help quick, heaven only knows how long and how well I’m going to be able to make it through.