… sometimes they make me nuts. Like when they start talking about me being “stuck” as though it’s an emotional issue, or there’s some deep-seated drama that’s broiling just beneath the surface of my psyche that needs to be exorcised, in order for my back to be flexible.
Ugh. Good gaawd.
I suppose it couldn’t possibly be all the falls I’ve experienced over the course of my life, or the cumulative effects of having had to keep myself ramrod straight, to keep from falling over, those many, many, many times I’ve been so dizzy, I didn’t know what to do.
Don’t get me wrong. My chiro has helped me immensely, and I credit them with helping me along the path to an amazing recovery from multiple traumatic brain injuries. The constant headaches that I had for years… gone. The difficulties with turning my head and back… pretty much gone, too. And I’ve had this amazing energy and sense of well-being that is almost unprecedented.
Now, I have had plenty of times where I felt energetic and truly well. But since I started seeing this chiropractor, my level of wellness, not to mention the duration of my sense of well-being, has jumped way up.
And that’s good.
I just wish they’d knock off the talk about mind-body connections that makes the mind and the psyche into the Master Controller of the body.
Lately, I’ve been increasingly sensitive to this mind-body orientation (which a lot of my friends have) that the body is an outward expression of what is going on inside you. There’s this “meme” that runs through my social circle that dictates “a strong body indicates a strong mind” and which equates physical illness with psycho-spiritual imbalances — or “dis-ease”. It’s kind of arbitrary and heady, and it seems to tie in with a modern American version of the “everything is an illusion” school of thought. It’s like folks believe that if your mind and spirit are well, then you won’t “manifest” any outward difficulties. As though physical pain and issues are “lessons” we concoct for ourselves to teach us what we need to know… and when you’re psycho-spiritually “fit” and you know everything you’re supposed to, you won’t experience any bodily pains or aggravations or stiff back or whatever other physical dis-ease seems to correlate with an inner problem.
I wish to high heaven people in the healthcare/caring professions would have compulsory traumatic brain injury training (ahem – that’s standardized and based on fact and the latest research, not all that blather that passes for neuroscience that we’ve been belabored with for the past 50 years or so). Seriously. How many people have concussions every year — let alone full-on traumatic brain injuries — and how many doctors and nurses deal with them each and every day? It’s just crazy, that we have this all-pervasive health care phenomenon (I won’t say “crisis” as the word is way too over-used), which touches countless lives — millions upon millions of people each year. But nobody can seem to get a clue as to how brain injury “works” or what the right thing to do about it is.
It makes no logical sense to me. Maybe it’s all of my own head injuries that make me so idealistic and make me crave a common-sense solution to a vast and lives-altering part of our culture — even our whole world. Maybe it’s my broken brain that thinks this should be a no-brainer. People, it’s serious. It’s a priority. It’s important. Get it?
But no… instead, we have a health care system crammed full of people who are so busy prescribing drugs and procedures, that they can’t see what’s right in front of them. We’ve got alternative health care providers who are getting farther and farther out in left field, looking for some guru-defined explanation for why we’re all so screwed up and can’t seem to get any better.
Good grief. And now I hear my chiro talking somberly to me about my back being “terribly stuck” and needing to get some relief — as though this stiff back of mine were a terrible torture I can’t even begin to endure… and it’s due to some hidden wound that I haven’t faced up to yet.
Hidden wound… yeah — how ’bout nine of them? As in, concussions. Have I got wounds for you! But in all seriousness, framing my difficulties as some sort of psycho-spiritual phenomenon isn’t going to help me through the logistics of my days. It’s not going to help me remember to shampoo my hair in the morning, or put my socks where I can find them (I wore my driving Tevas all day at work today, because I forgot one of my shoes in the car, and after I went out to get it, then I couldn’t remember where I put my socks). It’s not going to help me deal with the vertigo that has me teetering at the tops of staircases (as my life passes before my eyes). It’s not going to help me keep my mouth shut when I’m this close to chewing someone out or making an inappropriate comment to a co-worker.
Anyway, I’m venting this evening, I know. I’m starting to annoy myself.
What’s my point? It’s that sometimes our physical issues are just that — physical challenges that come up as a result of injury or just life, not due to some inner moral or psychological deficiency… and I get tired of feeling judged for having these issues — especially the physical ones, which my chiro loves to lecture me about. I’ve been in a bunch of car accidents, I’ve been attacked, I’ve had a number of falls, and my head got hurt a lot. As far as I’m concerned, I’m extremely fortunate to be as well as I am, and I get a little frustrated with people judging my condition as being terrible and awful and untenable… and due to some deep-seated psycho-spiritual morass I can’t haul myself out of.
Oh, screw it. What-ever. I’m tired and I need my rest. Of course my chiro is going to tell me I need more work. They need the work. I just wish the helping professions could just… help. Without the lectures that go along with it all.
I’ve noticed something quite odd, over the past few months…
I don’t seem to be nearly as aware of my left side as my right — to the point of outright ignoring what’s going on on the left side, at times.
I know my left side is there — my left hand, arm, shoulder… my left foot, knee, leg… the left side of my face, too. But when I focus on my body or I think about using my hands or legs (both sides), my attention immediately goes to my right side. Almost to the exclusion of my left.
I first noticed this when I was doing one of my body scan breathing meditations a few months back. I was doing progressive relaxation, trying to get to sleep, and I was focusing on my body, one part at a time. First toes… then feet… then ankles… then shins… then knees… and so on. I really focused on my body, as my attention moved from one part to the next. But when I got to around my knees, I realized I hadn’t been paying any attention to my left side.
I didn’t think much of it at first, but as I’ve repeatedly done exercises which require focus on left-side action, I’ve noticed a significant challenge in perceiving what’s going on there.
Strange. I’ve frequently tried to focus on my left side, along with my right, since I first noticed this. But it hasn’t been working. My left side feels like just a shadow of what my right side felt like. Where my right side feels like it’s at about 95% of being “present”, my left side feels more like 65%. Really strange. And a little disconcerting.
I’ve read about people who have sustained strokes or other brain injuries, and how they can be completely oblivious to one side – they neglect it or don’t sense it, but the whole time they’re convinced that they have no problems — even when they fall over when they try to get out of their chair, and the side they’re oblivious to is paralyzed.
I’m not saying that’s what’s going on with me. Far from it. But there is a pronounced asymmetry to how I perceive and experience my body.
Which is odd, because when I was a kid and played baseball and soccer and other sports, my left side was sometimes my stronger side. I was a switch-hitter, and I batted better as a leftie. My left leg was the one I balanced on and did most of the fancy footwork with, when I played soccer. And I tended to change up sides when I was playing things like ping-pong and pool. I wanted to use my left side along with my right.
In retrospect, I think perhaps I sensed there was an inherent weakness to my left side, which I needed to compensate for and offset with deliberate training. Yeah – thinking back, I recall that I did spend a lot of time as a kid training my left side on purpose. I would “mirror write”, where I wrote with both hands, mirroring each other. I did balancing exercises, and I deliberately used my left side “for fun”. I didn’t do it because I was told to. I didn’t do it because I had to. I did it because it seemed like a fun challenge that I could test myself with, and it was really satisfying when I succeeded in doing things like writing with my left hand or balancing for a long time on one leg. A lot of time, nobody was watching (and if they had been, they might have questioned what I was doing and discouraged me), and the rewards were strictly internal. But they were rewards. And I do believe it helped me.
As a result of these exercises, I believed I actually improved my coordination and my balance. You have to understand — I was a very uncoordinated kid when I was little — I couldn’t even do somersaults, ’cause I’d fall over half-way through the roll). I truly sucked at games like kickball and dodgeball, because I couldn’t seem to kick the ball straight on or react quickly enough to dodge the balls thrown at me. (On a side note, could the teachers of the world please spare TBI kids from playing games that require quick reaction to keep from getting slammed? I’m not sure getting hit over and over again in dodgeball was particularly good for me. I’m not complaining, simply questioning.)
When I was off by myself, balancing and reading backwards and writing with both hands, I had the chance to set goals and challenges for myself that I could appreciate and I could reach on my own time. I didn’t have anyone standing over me saying, “You have to do this exactly this way or you are a failure!” I just set myself a fun challenge that had no down-side or negative consequence if I didn’t reach it right away, and then I tried to do it. I had a hard time at the start, but eventually, I did it.
I did things with my left side that I could do with my right. I became a switch-hitter. I developed a “smart” left hand that could handle a baseball glove with sensitive dexterity. And I could write whole sentences backwards with my left hand. Cool!
I believe this left-side-focus practice of mine played a role in rehabilitating me (slowly but surely) from the TBIs I experienced as a kid (at ages 4, 7, 8, and possibly some other ages in there, too). Something in me instinctively knew I needed to strengthen my left side. I needed to focus specifically on it. And there were benefits, even if only I could fully appreciate them.
And now it looks like I need to go back to doing that. Because I’m not nearly as aware of my left side as I’d like to be. Maybe it’s the constant right-side focus, especially thanks to my using a mouse on the right side of the computer. Or maybe it’s because I tend to watch the right side of the road when I drive (is that a cause, or a symptom, though? maybe both).
Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, this right-side dominance and left-side oblivion bothers me. When I try to focus on my left side, and I can barely feel it, let alone sense the same “presence” in it that I sense on my right side, I feel like only half a person.
I don’t like that very much. I need to do something about it.
Fortunately, I think I’ve found some really good ways to go about doing this. I’ve been checking out the blog The Best Brain, and I’m finding some really good tips there. (Thank you Debbie, for keeping your blog – I can’t believe I haven’t found you before. Good stuff you’ve got there.) Anyway, one of the things that caught my attention is the concept of cross lateral movement. I wish I could find that page again where she talks about crawling as a way of building up coordination of the two sides of the body — it apparently helps the hippocampus, which lets us learn, and also coordinates different sides of the body.
I’m always interested in learning how to use body and mind to heal the brain, so I Googled “cross lateral movement” and I found this information:
Cross Patterning: A Jump Start to Brain/Body Integration
This Cross Patterning technique from One Brain is simple to learn and activates (in some cases re-establishes) communication between the two brain hemispheres and the whole body. It works by stimulating the brain to shift between integrated (both sides) processing, using a cross lateral (two-sided) march, and parallel (one-sided) processing using a uni-lateral (one sided) march. Use it whenever it’s hard to “do” and ”think” at the same time.
Each brain hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body. So by intentionally moving an opposite arm and leg across the midfield, we fire off both brain hemispheres at the same time, creating and myelinating better neural connections over the corpus callosum. This cross lateral movement stimulates the whole brain––the vestibular (balance) system, the reticular activating system (the brain’s wake-up call!), the cerebellum (automatic movement), the basal ganglion (intentional movement), the limbic system (emotional balance), and the frontal lobes (reasoning). As already mentioned, slow cross lateral movement also increases dopamine levels in the brain (enhancing our ability to see patterns and to learn faster).
When we then switch to a same side arm and leg movement, we deepen the neural netting that assures our ability to quickly shift with ease and full access, to each individual hemisphere as needed. The intent is never to be “stuck” in any one pattern of brain communication. Multiple connections and instant flexibility are the key!
And that’s very cool. I’m still studying the image, to see if I understand how it works, but I think I get the basic premise — use movement of alternate sides of the body to coordinate the various actions of the brain.
While this info was from a web site for kids learning, the concept strikes me as very powerful for TBI survivors — all of the above parts of the brain — the vestibular (balance) system, the reticular activating system (the brain’s wake-up call!), the cerebellum (automatic movement), the basal ganglion (intentional movement), the limbic system (emotional balance), and the frontal lobes (reasoning) — have been impacted to some extent by my TBIs, and any exercise or practice that strengthens them simultaneously has the potential to dramatically improve my performance and recovery.
Strengthening the vestibular system is key — it helps me balance better, so I run less risk of falling again, which is a very significant concern for me. I’ve sustained at least 9 concussions in the course of my life, each one wreaking progressively more havoc than the last.
Boosting my reticular activating system is also key, so I can wake up better. Being foggy and dull just plain sucks. It’s no way to live, but until I started exercising regularly, I’d been living just that way for years and years, relying on caffeine and cheap carbs and drama to keep me going. That’s no way to live. Why not strengthen my “wake up call” system instead?
Intentional movement is something I can’t live without. Literally. Emotional balance and reasoning, too. These are aspects which have given me (and those I live and work with) very real hassles over the years. Oh, God, I can’t even begin to tell you how much havoc they’ve wreaked in my life. To the point of outright disability. It sucked to no end, and finding ways of addressing those aspects of my experience and behavior has been key to my overall recovery.
Looking at this web page showing the cross lateral movement, I’m struck with how I’ve actually been instinctively doing these sorts of exercises, over the past three months or so. I do “shoveling” exercises I saw on an exercise video — in a squat, hold your weight(s) down to one side, then as you rise up from the squat, move the weights up and across your body (straight-armed) to the other side, kind of like you’re shoveling dirt. The movement should be slow and controlled, from what I gather — at least in part because you don’t want to pull something. The main thing is the movement.
Another cross lateral movement I’ve been doing for almost a year is alternating leg-left crunches. I stand straight with my legs shoulder-length apart, and I lift up my left knee towards my right side, as I crunch down with my right arms and shoulder to my left side. It’s like I’m making an “X” with my arms and legs, with my left knee and my right elbow moving past each other. I usually have my arm tucked closer to my body, so my left knee crosses in front of my right elbow. When I’ve completed the movement and brought my right arm back to my right side and my left leg back to my left side, I switch and have my right leg and left arm cross over my body.
It does get a little disorienting at times, and sometimes I have to stop and think about what I’m doing — I lose track of which side is doing which. But nobody’s watching, there’s no consequence to me losing my place, and I just stop, collect myself, and continue. Not only is this good for coordinating both sides of the brain/body, but it’s also good for your lower abdomen and your obliques. It’s a good core exercise, and it’s also good for balance, which as I mentioned is very important to me.
The main thing with these exercises for me, is making sure my movements are slow and controlled. Especially if I’m holding dumbbells, I run the risk of pulling something, which is about the last thing I need. Slow, controlled movements help me work on my impulse control, and they foster mindfulness on an increasing level I need. I can come up with a hundred different reasons to rush my “x-crunches” as I call them. But the point of doing them slowly and controlled — to foster impulse control, executive control, and mindful attention to what I’m doing — trumps them every time.
So, I have these ways of strengthening my cross lateral movements, which helps my brain connections in many ways. That’s great. Now I need to specifically strengthen my left side, so I can not only use it better, but actually feel it and have a working relationship with it. It’s no good for me to just favor one side of my body — or just one side of any part of my complex life. I want to experience all of me, not just half.
I’m a whole person. I need to have the whole of me engaged in what I do. And I don’t want this left-side neglectfulness to get entrenched in my life. I’ve got a lot of years to go, and if I let this pattern get too set, I don’t see good things coming of it. Now is the time to fix this, while I’m aware of it, before it takes over my life.
So I guess it’s time to go back to the discrete little games that I play by myself to ensure that all of me is involved in my life. There are many, many things I can do to strengthen the pathways of my brain that relate to my left side, so I’ll do them. The main thing is to have some fun with it, not treat it like some sort of obligatory therapy drudgery that’s required to avert disaster — or else. Where’s the fun in that?
Come on, left side – time to get (back) in the game.
The other evening I was walking upstairs with a bowl of soup balanced on a plate. I started to lose my balance a little bit, but then I caught myself, and I made it upstairs without spilling the soup.
And it struck me that I’ve really made amazing progress since my fall in 2004. Just a few years ago, I would have struggled to even walk out of the kitchen with a bowl of soup on a plate, let alone carry it upstairs. And if I’d lost my balance before, I’d have really lost my balance — and spilled it all over the place. And then I’d have beaten myself up for being such a klutz. And I’ve have flipped out.
But that didn’t happen the other evening. I regained my balance, I made it upstairs, and I had my soup.
Simple things like this are the stuff of miracles in my life. And for all the forces and individuals who have helped me get here, I am profoundly grateful.
I’ve decided that it makes no sense for me to take the ruminating rumblings in my brain very seriously, these days. Fact of the matter is, I’m tired and I have a lot of old crap rattlin’ ’round in there that is just taking up space. And that crap distracts me from the truth of my life — that I am in a living, breathing relationship that has stood the test of time and looks likely to do so in the future… that I am doing really well at work and advancement looks like it’s in the not-too-distant future for me… that I am more physically fit than I’ve been in years, and I continue to improve.
There is no point in me focusing on the rough patches. Everyone has them. They exist. I’m not saying they don’t matter and don’t require work. But they’re not all there is to the story.
Life is a big place, and it’s often all too short. Why spend my time fomenting discontent over whatever comes to mind?
It makes no sense.
So, rather than stay stuck in the gray nether regions of my more twisted parts, I’ve been making an effort to look around at the world around me, engage with it, and soak up as much extra input as I can get. That means I turn off the radio when I’m driving home and roll down the window and put my elbow out to catch the breeze. That means I run my hands along the walls of the rooms in my house to feel the textures of the different surfaces. That means I look — really look — around me and take things in — the colors, the shapes, the sounds. All of it.
In a way, it’s eclipsing the dread grayness that’s been creeping over me for no apparent reason. Maybe it’s the change of seasons. Maybe it’s that it’s getting colder. Maybe it’s that we just don’t have enough money to make ends meet. Or more than that — things I barely recall.
In any case, as valid as those feelings and concerns may be, they’re not all there is to me, and I cheat myself of a full experience of life if I let them get the upper hand. Life has a way of working itself through, if you give it its due. And that’s what I’m doing.
I’m feeling profoundly sorry for myself, this evening. Lonely and lost and adrift.
But I’m being ridiculous. And tired. I realize that, and I have the good sense not to succumb to my despair.
Heck, I don’t have to stay stuck in my difficult experiences. I can choose to have whatever experience I want.
I can choose to live like I’m at the beach.
Yes, that sounds good. That’s what I’ll do — live like I’m at the beach.
I must admit, I’ve been fantasizing about ditching it all and moving to Hawai’i and living on the beach there. I’ve got relatives in the Honolulu area, and since their kids are all out and off in the world, they’d have room for me. Or, at least they’d let me use their shower. ‘Cause I’d rather live on the beach.
There’s always California, too. Someplace with lots of sand and waves and surfer life really appeals to me, these days, in the midst of all my hyper-responsibility.
What’s with the responsibility, anyway? How did I get to be grown up? Sometimes, it just sucks.
But back to how I want to live… I don’t want to live like I’m burdened by all this intense responsibility. I want to live like I’m whiling away my days on a beach, without a care in the world. And I can achieve that mindset myself, without needing to relocate (and divest of all my earthly possessions).
If I just live as though the things in my life aren’t weighing me down, and I treat my everyday experience like the discovery it is… then it doesn’t really much matter that I’m not camped out on a sandy stretch of open-air.
That’s what I’ll do – live like I live on the beach.
Today is a big day – my new boss starts today. Actually, it’s my boss’es new boss — the existing boss’es boss who flipped out over my faux pas a few weeks ago wisely perceives that they need an additional layer of management to help with all their reports. It’s good. Plus, there is a chance that it may mean I get a promotion (and possibly a raise) in the deal, because it’s common knowledge that I have a ton more experience at what I do, than what my current boss does. And it could mean that the two of us become peers, rather than me staying subordinate.
Plus, my spouse has a conference call this morning with a potential new business partner which could really help bump their business up in a way it’s been needing to, since around 1999, when a former business partner changed their business model and moved on. Ever since that, my spouse has been seeking a replacement business partner, but they never materialized.
Now they’re materializing, and it looks very promising. Good stuff. That, on top of the fact that my partner is getting more and more clients for their business, and they’re developing new services that are catching on in the community… more good stuff.
It’s exciting. And uncertain. And I haven’t been sleeping well, lately, which makes this the prime opportunity for a freak-out melt-down, which happened last night (this morning) at around 2 a.m.
For some reason, my brain decided that my spouse has been lying to me about a relationship they’ve developed with a co-worker — someone they work very closely with, and with whom they have admitted they have “chemistry”. It’s been a pretty sore spot for me for the past 9 months or so. It’s been a subtext in our lives that I have tried valiantly to be tolerant and understanding of. My spouse has assured me, time and time again, that there is nothing untoward going on, and I’ve had to believe them.
But lately, between being tired, starting the new job, and the great new business developments… not to mention the change of the season which always gets me a little down… it’s been getting harder and harder fight back the tendency to suspicion and distrust.
Now, you have to understand — the potential “other man/woman” has been a regular presence in our relationship for as long as we’ve been together — nearly 20 years. There have been “others” who have been more or less intimate/inappropriate with both of us. And we’ve both always had some other people experience sort of “spark” with each of us. We’re very different people, but we’re both very much alive, and people are attracted to our liveliness. It goes with the territory. Plus, we’re married, but we’re not dead, and we both appreciate an attractive, alluring individual when we encounter them.
When we’re strong, we’re fine. Neither of us has let infidelity get hold of us, and we’ve always come back from those kinds of gray areas stronger than ever.
But this time is different. For me, for my spouse. My spouse has traditionally turned to me for support (both moral and logistical and economic) when they needed an extra set of eyes for a marketing piece, or a strong back for lifting and carrying gear, or a little extra $$$ to pay a contractor or some other obligation. In many ways, I’ve been a silent partner in their undertakings. But over the past year, they’ve resolved to be more independent, more self-sufficient, and not depend so much on me.
It’s for good reason — one that has as much to do with me, as with them. As I’ve emerged from my latest TBI fog, I’ve realized how much I tend to overdo it, how I tend to over-extend myself, and I’ve realized that helping my spouse with as much as I have has taken a significant toll on my energy stores, which has made the rest of my life more difficult. So, I’ve requested that they “use” me a lot less for their events and activities, and they rely more on their support network for getting things done.
And they have. So I have been doing much better about handling my energy stores and my overall activities. But it also leaves me feeling unwanted. Unneeded. Cast away. Pushed aside. Discarded.
How does that work, exactly? I say I can’t keep holding down three jobs (my 9-5, another regular job I have that takes from 5-10 hours a week, plus helping my spouse), and I need a break from being their utility person. And when they give me what I ask for, I feel like so much human refuse. What’s up with that?
I think it’s human nature, actually. And I think it points out that I have used my position with my spouse, over the years, to “give them a reason” to stay with me. If they were dependent on me, then they would put up with my moodiness, my temper outbursts, my wild emotional lability, my melt-downs, my blow-ups, my friggin’ temper flares… and my intermittent troubles, thanks to intermittent TBIs. I figured, as long as they needed me for the most basic, fundamental stuff in life, they would keep me around. And I wouldn’t be alone.
But now that’s changing. And my job is changing. And the world is changing. And the seasons are shifting. And I’m tired. So, I become convinced that they’re having an affair and lying to me about it and hiding other things and making a fool out of me, talking about me behind my back with friends in common, and generally keeping me around until they can get enough money together to leave my sorry ass.
It came to a head at 2 a.m. this morning. Ugh. Fortunately (and I think this may have to do with my spouse having grown up in a household with volatile, sometimes violent parents) my partner was able to keep cool and not flip out on me, and what could have escalated into a full-scale fight that ended up with me driving off in the car and sleeping in a parking lot somewhere, ended up with us just talking things through.
And I got my head to calm down. With the help of my spouse, I managed to tame my crazy-ass broken brain that fixates on stuff and then turns it into something Big And Bad and awful, and got in touch with the fact that I’m feeling pretty alone in the world, right now, without any real-world friends of my own to just hang out with. I don’t have a real-live support network. Work doesn’t count – you need to maintain some professional distance there. And the friends that I have in common with my spouse… well, I haven’t done much to reach out to them. I’m so tired, so much of the time, I just can’t find the energy to reach out. Even my family is at arm’s length for me. We’re all so busy. So busy working just to keep it together and make ends meet.
Anyway, about 3:00 a.m. I managed to calm down enough to go back to bed. My spouse and I have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for almost 2 years now. They kicked me out a few winters ago, when my volatility got to be too much for them — they’d come to bed later than me, and I’d freak out on them waking me up and screwing up my sleeping pattern. Not good. Not pretty. So, I moved to the “guest” bedroom, which by now is really my bedroom. It’s a little lonely, and the mattress leaves a little to be desired, but it’s dark in there all night (my spouse likes to sit up late reading, and they like a night-light on all night), and with my earplugs in (to block out the sound of them moving around, which seems all the louder when I’m tired), I can sleep through.
Which is what I did today. I slept through the 6:30 alarm and woke up at 8:00. I had wanted to get into the office today early, so I could be there when my new boss gets there, but you know what? I’m rarely there that early, and I’m going to stay late today, so why do something to throw myself off and put myself in an untrue light?
Plus, my present boss gets in around 9:30, and I don’t want to upstage them. I just want to start off on a foot that gives folks an accurate view of who I am and how I work — not manufacture an ideal image that I can’t live up to.
So, I’m running later than I expected to, and that’s fine. I’m also back on-line with my spouse, and I’m thinking about how I can change my life this autumn/winter to make it more “mine” the way I am now, instead of a shadow of the life I had before my last TBI. Much in my life has changed, since I embarked on my intentional TBI recovery, and I’m finding that the ways I’ve been over the years have not been true to who I really am, and how I really am.
I need change. I need something better. I need something that’s mine.
I did oversleep today, but it gave me something I’ve been needing desperately — more rest. The kind I can actually use.
Somebody needs to do a study on the cumulative biochemical impact of constantly finding out you screwed up. I’m serious about this – especially for new mTBI survivors. And long-term survivors, as well.
See, here’s the thing – stress impacts thinking. Cortisol mucks with your thought process. Stress hormones block out complex reasoning abilities, in favor of pure fight-flight-freeze reactions. And the long-term effects of high levels of stress hormones do have a cognitive impact.
So, after you sustain a TBI, and you’re in that initial phase of cluelessness, where you are so positive that you’re fine and everyone else is screwed up… and you keep undertaking things that seem perfectly reasonable to you, but aren’t exactly good ideas… and you keep bumping up against your new limitations (I won’t say “newfound” because it takes a while to find them)… all the while, you’re getting hit with these little “micro-blasts” of stress. The plans you make don’t work out. The relationships you depend on start to erode. Your behavior becomes not only mysteriously different, but also uncontrollable and unmanageable, and every time you turn around, something else is getting screwed up. You weren’t expecting it at all. It’s a shock — to your self and to your system.
Lots of false starts, lots of botched attempts, lots of pissed off people… and all the while, the cumulative effect of your body’s stress response to these “micro-traumas” is building up. The really messed-up thing is, that when you’re freshly injured, the experiences you have can take on vast proportions, and every little thing can seem like a monumental event. Which makes your reaction to them that much more extreme — a lot more stress hormones get released into your system that might otherwise, if you had a sense of perspective that was proportional to the actual events of your life.
But no, when you’re freshly injured, EVERYTHING can seem like a
Of course, you have no reason to clear out the biochemical sludge with something like exercise or mindfulness meditation or anything like that, because either your brain is telling you that it’s much more pleasant to sit around and watch television, and/or you’re so exhausted from the stresses of daily living that making additional efforts or changes is out of the question, and/or you’ve got a lot of pain, and/or you don’t have access to the equipment or a support system or good guidance for how to start with something like that.
You’re off in your own private Idaho — no, wait, your own private hell — of watching your life fall apart for no reason that you or anyone else can discern.
After all, it was just a little bump on the head, right?
People have been puzzling for some time about the connection between TBI and PTSD, as though they are two entirely different and distinct conditions. I can tell you from personal experience that traumatic brain injury, even mild head injury, can and does result in post-traumatic stress disorder. Because even though the build-up of stress hormones is gradual and incremental, it still happens. And unless and until you figure out a way to clear out the biochemical sludge of one alarming stress response (no matter how small) after another, you’re going to have a heck of a time clearing your mind to the degree you need to clear it.
Being a mild traumatic brain injury survivor (I’m actually thriving, not just surviving), and having experienced what my neuropsych has called a “phenomenal” recovery, I can personally attest to the importance of exercise and good nutrition in helping the brain recover. I can’t even begin to tell you how “gunked up” I was, when I first showed up for my neuropsych testing. I was a wreck. Just a walking series of screw-ups waiting to happen. I bounced from job to job, just dropped out of a couple, made really bad choices about my money and my career and my home and my relationship, and to those who were watching, I was indeed teetering on the brink.
Now, I’ve been extraordinarily blessed to have connected with a neuropsych who firmly believes (after 25 years of working in TBI rehabilitation and 30 years in neuroscience) that recovery is possible, even probable, and that there is hope of some kind for even the most intractable cases. But even they weren’t expecting me to do as well as I have.
Especially in the last year, I’ve made some pretty great progress, and it coincides with my starting to exercise each morning. I don’t do a lot, most days — just get my heart rate up for 15-20 minutes, then stretch, then do some light strengthening exercises. The main thing is that I get my heart and respiration rates up, and that I jump-start my system. This is something that anyone can do — and you don’t need special equipment to do it. We all have bodies, and most of us are able to exercise them enough to get our heart rate and breathing up.
This is key. I can’t say it enough — to help clear out the buildup of stress hormones in the body which can impair thinking and make the aftermath of an mTBI even more challenging than it is already, exercise helps like nothing else.
Why does this work? How does it work? There are lots of possible explanations, but at the core — for me — it’s about giving your body the ability to deal with the constant onslaught of surprise and alarm and reaction to situations which emerge (often blindsiding you) in situations where you thought you were fine. For me, it’s very much about giving your body the ability to return to balance, to homeostasis, so it can just get on with living life. It’s about clearing out the cortisol, the adrenaline, the noradrenaline, and the handful of other biochemical substances that our brains normally secrete in order to help us deal with emergencies. Humans don’t have the same ability as animals, to clear this stuff out. Rabbits and antelope will shiver violently and shake and run around to clear out their biochemical “load”, but humans just end up hanging onto it, for better or for worse.
But, you may say, having things turn out differently than you expected isn’t such a big deal. Why would that be so stressful?
Trust me, when you’ve sunk a whole lot of time and effort into something and your self-image and survival (i.e., job) depend on things going the way you planned… and then things turn out to be screwed up in a way you hadn’t anticipated, and everyone is all worked up and pissed off and gunning for you ’cause you wrecked things (again), it does produce an extreme reaction. Especially in someone who has to contend with the extreme emotions and volatility, uncontrollable anger, rage, inexplicable confusion, and all that crazy anxiety and agitation that go hand-in-hand with traumatic brain injury. Even folks with “mild” injuries have these kinds of issues, and it can exacerbate and compound matters to no end.
Ultimately, if it builds up enough (and let’s not forget the embarrassment and shame and confusion that can be socially isolating), it can all become utterly debilitating. Disabling. And all because our bodies haven’t had a chance to recover adequately from all these little incremental alarms, shocks, and other reasons to get pumped full of adrenaline and cortisol.
So, it’s important to not gloss over the effect of those million little hits. Inside our bodies and inside our minds, they do add up. And as our bodies accumulate the sludge of fight-flight-freeze, our minds are affected. Fortunately, there is a way to deal with it — exercise. Vigorous to a degree that gets your heart and respiration rate up.
Don’t have access to a gym? So what? Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Don’t have a set of weights? Big deal. Carry around some heavy stuff in your home. Don’t have an exercise bike? Do some knee bends, jumping jacks, and run in place. Swing your arms around. Stretch and move. Just get going — enough to get your heart rate up and create a noticeable difference in your body.
Now, I’m not saying it can fix things overnight. It’s taken me a year of consistent effort and commitment to get to this point, and when I started out, it was about the last thing I wanted to “have” to do each morning. But I wasn’t making the kind of headway I wanted to in my recovery, and the doctors were starting to talk about putting me on meds for my attention and mood issues. Given the choice between pharmacopia and 15 minutes of exercise each morning, I went with the latter. I’ve done the drug thing before, and it just made my life that much worse. I can’t go back there again. I just can’t.
So, I started getting my butt out of bed, and am I ever glad I did. I’ve read about biochemical stresses and PTSD in the past, and I’ve read about how animals can clear out the “soup” but humans can’t. But until I started exercising and got clearer as a result, the full impact of what I’d read didn’t sink in.
Now it’s sunk in, and it makes total sense. TBI can very much lead to PTSD — by right of the constant barrage of surprise and alarm and shock (not to mention our tendency to over-react to the unexpected or unfortunate events in our lives) which bombards us with stress hormones that don’t automatically clear themselves out of our sensitive systems. Given that TBI survivors’ systems tend to be even more sensitive after our injuries, it’s all the more reason to get up and get moving.
If you’re still sitting down while reading this, please get up off your butt and move. Your brain — and your life — will thank you for it.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought, lately, to how fragmented and disconnected my life tends to become when I’m tired. When I’m fatigued, head injured moments start to show up and proliferate, like a couple of rabbits in close quarters. And my thinking becomes a lot less resilient, a lot more brittle, a lot less fluid.
I’ve been tired a lot, lately. My new job is going pretty well, but I have a tendency to overdo it, and I’m so intent on proving myself, that I’ve quickly fallen into a pattern of overwork (which leads to fatigue), which is not good.
Part of it is because I’m still learning my way around the company, and my first project that I launched was not done properly. Ugh. Now I feel like I have to work even harder. Which means I have been eating more sugar and drinking more caffeine. Which means my sleeping is thrown off and I have been staying up later. Which means my thinking has become fragmented and partial and incomplete — like my decision the other day to just stop this blog. The idea suddenly emerged — and very strongly, almost overwhelmingly — and without giving it more thought or careful consideration, I decided, “This is it – I’m just going to stop blogging.” And I announced it to the world.
Hmmmm. Red flag.
I must be tired.
Yes, I certainly am.
When I’m tired, a single thought in a single context can take on monumental significance for me, and I can decide — for a few hours at the most — that the course of my life will necessarily change with this thought.
And yet, when I think about it later, and I talk to others or hear feedback from others, I come to realize the fleeting nature of that thought, and I’m reminded, yet again, that short-term ideas shouldn’t necessarily be applied to long-term circumstances. I’ve completely missed the larger context in my thinking (if you can call it that), and I’ve run the risk of cutting off my nose to spite my face. Or cutting off my face to spite my nose, to put it in a larger perspective.
Truly, the fragmentation of my thinking process is one of the trickiest aspects of this traumatic brain injury business. It’s like I’m walking around with a fragmented hard drive in my head, and I never think to check to see if it needs defragging.
My thinking tends to get so localized, so specific, that I can’t seem to see the forest for all the different trees. I think it may originate in part from my distractability — I need to focus intently on specifics, at times, in order to get my head around them, so I have learned to block out everything else. When I am tired, especially, this single-minded focus is what keeps me afloat.
But the “everything else” is what adds texture and context to my life. It’s what enables me to make good decisions that take multiple factors into consideration. When I lose sight of that texture, in favor of single-minded focus, I run the risk of making poor decisions — the kinds of decisions my spouse and my neuropsych help me noodle my way through. The kinds of decisions that make the people close to me (and perhaps some of the people who read this blog) a little crazy from my contradictions.
Perhaps the most maddening aspect of this fragmentation of thought process, is that I don’t even see it, when it’s happening. In fact, the more severely impacted I am by fatigue, the more my brain-injured side steps in and takes over and tries to push everything else out of the way. It’s like that tendency I’ve always had — right after a head injury — to push away help or input from outside sources… each time, to my own detriment. My unhinged brain decides it’s going to take the helm, like a drunk driver who declares they’re a better driver than the designated teetotaler for that night, and wrestles the sober friend to the ground, takes the keys from them by force, and drives off — going the wrong direction on a divided highway.
It can be very frustrating. And the most confounding piece of the puzzle is that I don’t even see it, till it’s progressed… sometimes past the point of no return.
So, what to do?
I think the thing that saves me, time and again, is remembering what a “fickle” nature I have, due to my conflicted thought processes. I have a tendency to jump the gun, yes, but I also have the tendency to question myself and my thoughts and my decisions on a regular basis. People who know me, tell me I am far too cautious and distrustful of my own instincts. They haven’t lived inside my head, nor would I ever wish that upon them. My caution and distrust is NOT due to low self-esteem or faulty messages I internalized as a child. They are entirely due to a lifetime of watching myself making bad decisions that felt 100% right at the time… and reaping the fruits of what I sowed.
Knowing how changeable I am, and how unreliable my head can be, prompts me to invest a fair amount of thought in the things I do. Now, that’s a fine line to walk, because I’m given to getting stuck in a rut and having my oft-injured brain go over the details again and again and again. Analysis paralysis doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s more like ALL SYSTEMS STOP, until I figure it out. But the problem is I rarely feel as though I’ve actually figured it out.
So, that leaves me with the option — which is a good one — of running things by people and getting their input. It’s a bit nerve-wracking when I do this, however, because when I’m nervous and anxious, I am more distractable. And when I’m easily distracted, it’s hard for me to talk to people and understand what they’re saying to me. I miss big pieces of what they say, because my attention is being pulled in a hundred different directions — unless I make a concerted effort to laser in on what they’re saying. I tend to have a hard time following, and all the head-nodding in the world doesn’t make up for the lag time I experience between when they say something and when I get it, and the various details I miss.
Ultimately, though, the input of others isn’t going to do my job for me. So, I have to sink a lot of thought, a lot of time and energy, into processing what I’m experiencing. It’s not an awful thing — in fact, it’s quite pleasant, when I’m thinking about something I like and enjoy. But it does take intention. And it does take effort.
Main thing is, I need to be prepared to do the work. I need to not get caught up in thinking, “Okay, I’m all better now! No need for compensatory activities!” I just need to hunker down and do what needs to be done — not gloss over details and cut to the chase, but really consider what it is I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and all the different elements and aspects of my activity. It’s more time-consuming, yes. But it’s also a very valuable use of time. And ultimately, it deepens my experience of life to an almost technicolor degree.