I’ve been reading and hearing a lot of good things, lately, about how to keep on track and keep performing at a high level, despite TBI. It’s really encouraging to read about people who are high-level achievers, even though they were injured badly enough to be in a coma. It gives me hope.
And it lights a fire under me to get my act in gear, with respect to my day job. For years, for certain projects, I’ve kept careful project plans and checklists about what needed to be done. I’ve been able to plan, implement, and carry through on some very intense national (and even global) initiatives, working as an effective team member on projects that affect hundreds, thousands, and even millions of customers. And I’ve kicked ass. I can see a really strong history of achievement, despite my various injuries, and some days I wonder how I’ve managed to do it, day after day.
My longest-running project that I’ve headed up — a national media project that ‘s lasted for 13 years and is still going strong — has been operating nearly seamlessly (aside from some agitating regulatory issues and changing legislation) and it has a national audience that ranges from the Arctic Circle into subtropical islands. Every week, I walk through the steps of Getting It Done, and while some people’s heads would whirl at all the incremental actions, by now it’s second nature to me.
The ironic thing is, this project was first started around the time I was in a car accident that knocked me for a loop and wiped out a lot of the organizational skills I had, as well as the initiatory and motivational resources I’d had — in abundance — prior to the accident. Before the car crash, I had a number of really important initiatives going at my day job, overseeing a small group of producers and being third in administrative command at a mid-size professional services firm in a prominent city. I really had a lot going for me, at the time, and I had good plans and intentions. I was also active on the side, getting together this media project that was more a labor of love than a j-o-b. It was never done as a money-maker, per se, only as something that would make the world a better place — literally.
Then, I was involved in a multi-car chain-reaction accident in Thanksgiving traffic. It wasn’t a pile-up, exactly, but I did hit the car in front of me (their brake lights were out, which made it more difficult to see what was going on), and I got hit from behind. Double-whammy. Aside from being dazed and confused, I didn’t feel like I’d been really injured. And it never occurred to me that not being able to read or make sense of the claim form for the rental agency, not being able to see damage to the car that was right under my nose, and being so clumsy that (a few days later) I slammed my foot so hard I needed to get an x-ray to make sure I hadn’t broken it, might be signs that there was something wrong.
No surprises there — head injury has a way of masking itself. Maddening!
Anyway, in the ensuing months at work, my position become increasingly hectic and my ability to handle it decreased. Everything seemed so much more chaotic. I blamed it on the business, which was struggling under its management (and the problems it had inherited from past administrations). But in retrospect, I can see that I became much more scattered, much more sensitive to sound, and I couldn’t concentrate like I had been able to before, which was tough because my position was smack-dab in the middle of the storms that raged there on a regular basis. The projects I had, which were important to the firm, fell by the wayside. I slowly lost my hold on the group I was managing. And I became intensely stressed and depressed.
That job fell apart… but it also gave rise to a new career — one that involved a lot more machines and a lot fewer people. I went from being a manager to being a technical producer, and it was good for me. Very good for me.
At the same time, I was also getting this media project up and running, and things actually went really well with it. We started out small, then built and built and built, and now it’s enjoyed nationwide on a weekly basis. Ironically, this project came together just as the other job I had was falling apart. And I’ve been wondering how that could be — weren’t my sudden disabilities the same, all across the board? If I had such a hard time dealing with my projects at work, shouldn’t I have had trouble with my side projects as well?
Actually, no. There were significant differences between the two different situations.
- In my day job, it was very chaotic and loud and there was constant interruption.
- In my media project, it was just me and one other person putting it all together, and we were in lockstep with each phase of the launch.
- In my day job, I wasn’t able to move at my own pace — I was on someone else’s schedule, and I had to constantly factor in everyone else’s input.
- In my media project, I was able to pace myself and take things as I saw fit, with no one to report to, no one to take me to task, no one to impose their will on me.
- In my day job, I had to navigate a lot of social minefields, which I did poorly.
- In my media project, it was all task-based, and very objective, and the interactions I had with people were very technical and scientific and binary — a lot of simple yes-no questions, rather than the vague grey areas of the social scene.
- I was doing my day job because I had to, because it was ‘the thing to do.’
- I was working on that media project for the love of it, and because it was a dream of mine — and the person I was working with.
Over the course of my working life (more than 30 years, as I started working for pay when I was in my early teens) I have been through a number of “enagement incarnations” — variations in the level of investment I had in the job I was doing. Growing up, work was just something that was done. There was no questioning whether it was fulfilling or met some inner need. It was done because that’s what you did. You worked. You didn’t ponder the meaning of it all, you didn’t ask whether it was furtherthing your own personal growth, and you sure as hell didn’t moan and groan about the unpleasant parts. That’s just how life was. Life was/is work. And if you want to live like a regular human being, well, you worked.
So, there was never much call for me to get caught up in motivational stuff and getting all invested in my jobs. I just did what I did, and I did it to the best of my ability, and I didn’t sink a lot of my soul into it. I just performed my role(s) and went home at the end of the day. End of story.
Which was fine, when I was 20-something (even 30-something) and didn’t have any pressing responsibilities. It was fine, when I wasn’t in charge of a household with dependents, and making sure a mortgage was paid each month. It was fine, when I was still blissfully unaware of all the screw-ups I was making and could freely move from job to job and not worry about the long-term consequences. In a way, prior to my fall in 2004, I led this charmed life of ignorant bliss, always keeping a step or two ahead of my screw-ups, keeping moving before people could figure out that I wasn’t performing nearly as well as I presented, focused more on the excitement of new (and entirely useless) information that teased my mind but sucked the usable daylight hours out of each and every day.
Then, in 2004, when I fell down the stairs, it all caught up with me. And years of distractions and not keeping myself current and not focusing on the basics at my day job, just pulled the rug out from under me. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have useful and marketable skills. I did. But my coping skills, my ability to handle stress effectively, my ability to interface well with other people, my ability to be productively invested in my day job and perform as a key team member, and my ability to keep on-task and focused and follow through, proved to be a lot less developed than I thought they were.
I didn’t have the kind of foundation I needed to feel really comfortable and confident in the outside world, and now I’d sustained a mild traumatic brain injury that scrambled things even more… and exacerbated all my issues.
And the money started to disappear…
Now I find myself at a critical juncture in my life. I can’t afford to not deal with the ongoing issues I have, and I can’t affort to kid myself about what is a problem for me, and what isn’t. I can’t afford to go, day after day, not finishing the things I’ve started, not understanding what’s going on around me, and not being able to see that I’m having trouble.
Clearly, I need to transfer some of my positive coping skills — like the ones I’ve used on this non-paying 13-year media project — to the rest of my salary-earning life. I’ve done well for myself. And now I need to do better. And I need to have a more in-depth experience in all of my life — not just the side projects.
I realize that I’ve never gotten really, really invested in my outside work, because outside work is not typically on my terms. I have to adjust to conditions outside my head which I find difficult, distracting, disorienting, and anxiety-producing. And I have trouble understanding and making myself understood, which is a huge pain in the ass at times, so it adds to the stress. Then I get upset with myself, and then I really can’t think. And it starts the downward spiral. In many ways, I realize that I’ve done less than what I could, because I’ve gotten turned around and confused, and my brain does not like to be turned around and confused. So, it goes on strike. And the rest of me is like, “Oh, I guess I really do need to take a break…” And I quit. Just stop thinking.
In some ways, I’m a very hard worker. In others, I can really slack off. And my little brain can justify slacking — with no problem. It will even take it a step further and tell it/me that it’s doing the opposite of what it’s doing. It tells itself/me that it’s “working on it” when it’s doing the exact opposite — it’s stopped working and has wandered off somewhere to do something else that seems like a lot more fun. And I have to go find it, bring it back to task, and try to catch up to where I was, when my brain stopped trying.
So, I’m working at figuring out how to keep my brain engaged. How to keep it interested. I’ve started planning my work days much more aggressively, like I often plan my own personal projects. I know how to plan — I do it a lot. Thing is, I don’t do it with the activities with other people that actually make me money. I have this “disinvestment impulse” — an inclination to avoid personal investment, to be always ready to abandon ship if it starts to sink — in work I do for others, perhaps because working for others has been so fraught with confusion and dread and disconcerting surprise screw-ups that I couldn’t explain. And the fact that I’m being paid to do certain things, but mess up all over the place also adds pressure, which exacerbates my symptoms and issues.
How can I reverse this impulse and really get engaged with what I do? A number of things have come to mind that I’ve been doing more actively:
- Actively plan my days and break out all my projects into manageable pieces, so I know what to expect and I don’t get overwhelmed.
- Write everything down in my notebook and follow my progress throughout the day.
- Think about my present work in terms of long-term payoff. See where the skills I’m building now can help me later on down the line.
- Think about what this activity will bring me, not only what I bring to it. Let it feed me. Allow myself to enjoy the pieces I can find enjoyable.
- Talk to my boss frequently, check in with them, and track how I’m doing.
- Think about the next day, the night before, and review what I still need to get done.
- Reward myself for jobs well-done.
- Pace myself. Work from home a couple of days a week and take breaks when I can. Actually go for walks in the middle of the day.
It’s not a perfect science, but I’m getting there.
And I’m actually learning to enjoy it!