Engaging Anyway

September 14, 2012

Vacation is treating me well, I have to say. The weather is gorgeous, the condo is great, and the beach was amazing last night. We got here late – off to a delayed start, no surprises there — but we had some time to get something to eat and then crash on the beach. We must have slept for at least an hour. I was exhausted, and I could barely keep my eyes open. I have been pushing really hard at work for a number of weeks – and I got sick in the meantime, too – so small wonder that I’m shaking-tired, my stomach is in knots, and I look like I have permanent dark circles under my eyes.

I’m hoping this coming week will change that up a bit. Just being able to rest will be great… though with a spouse who suffers from intense panic-anxiety, it’s constant work to keep stabilized and even-keeled. All the drama about little things… things not being placed in the right way, things not being done in the right sequence… it’s surprising what some folks get hung up on. Oh, well. I think it’s biochemical – no logically thinking person would get this bent out of shape about how a towel is hung in the bathroom.

I’m on vacation, after all.

So, we’re having some friends come to visit later today – one of the friends is very much like me – even-keeled and very “grounding”, as they say. Another one is like my spouse – always on hyper-alert, very uptight about every little thing, and always looking for something that’s WRONG that they can take on and fight over. The third friend, I’ve only met once, by my spouse knows them, and they seem cool. We’re going to hang out and just chill for a few days. That’s the plan, anyway.

Last night I had an interesting conversation with the strung-out friend over some housing issues they’re having. They’ve been having trouble finding a place to live for a couple of years, and they’ve been bouncing around, here and there, living out of their truck (they have a big-ass pickup with a cap on it that they have a bed and all their earthly belongings in) and looking around for other options. They’ve had a bunch of opportunities come up, but they keep deciding that’s not good enough. They say if so-and-so offers them something, then they’ll have to offer something in return, and they don’t want to get into that. Yada-yada-yada. And winter is coming. There’s not a lot of time to screw around.

This person seems to think that they can hold out indefinitely and the perfect thing is going to come up. I’m going to have a talk with them when they come around this weekend. They have got to quit acting like they’ve got all the time in the world. Because they don’t. They seem to think that “the universe” – whatever that is – is going to provide for their every need perfectly. They keep talking about “the universe” like it’s a benevolent parent who wants to make sure they’re taken care of and all set.

News flash — “the universe” (at least, the one that I live in) doesn’t work that way. It’s all very nice and wonderful to think so, but from what I’ve seen, you’ve got to get involved in your own life and take responsibility for your own decisions and do what you can when you can – not wait around for some invisible Force to step in and save you from everything. Interestingly, this friend was treated really badly as a kid – they were beaten and shuttled around between family members and foster homes and probably have a history of tbi in the mix. (When I say “interestingly” it’s not to make light of their hardship – I think it’s just an important piece of the puzzle they are.) They’re also dyslexic and have a really hard time reading. And they’ve got major ADHD. Those are some more pieces of the puzzle.

The puzzle that they are seems to be living in some fantasy world – like maybe they did when things got so rough for them as kids and they had nowhere to hide but in their own mind. They seem to be all hung up on the idea that something outside of them needs to come and save them – that they can’t figure things out for themself. I think that’s a big piece of it – they don’t seem to want to figure things out. Because it might get messed up as it does so many times. And then, no matter how hard they try, they will be back at square one.

Now, in the midst of all of this, the place where I see them needing the most help – and not always asking for or using it – is with communicating with people. I think they’ve got huge problems following what others are saying, they have a hard time comprehending, they jump around a lot, and by the end of the conversation, they have wandered off in different directions and are in a different cognitive “neighborhood” than when they started out. It looks and sounds so familiar to me – like I’m looking at myself, from the time before I got help for my TBI issues. It’s crazy – all the faking it through, all the bravado, all the halting interactions, the jumping around, the inability to hold conversations and make real decisions… it sounds eerily familiar. It reminds me so much of how I was before. Really, truly.

And I wonder how I got past all that. Because I really was locked into that for years and years. For over 40 years, actually. That’s a long time to be locked away in that prison of non-comprehension and confusion.

The way I got past all of it, when I think about it, was doing the exact opposite of what I was used to doing – I started reaching out to others and engaging. I started extending myself and taking a chance at sounding stupid, so that I could have actual conversations with people. To be perfectly honest, I had gone most of my life without having actual conversations with anybody – it was just nodding my head, repeating back to people what they’d said to me, and pretending I got it, when I was actually losing much of what they’d said to me, in the past few minutes. It got me by, but it was a really shitty way of living. And it only helped others, not me. In fact, it didn’t help others, either, because they were talking to a ghost. They were talking to someone who didn’t even exist.

When I started working with my neuropsych, however, that really started to change. To be completely accurate, a lot of the “work” we did each week was just sitting and talking – me saying stuff that probably sounded like I was half insane, and them sitting there just listening and responding to me like I had good sense. They didn’t call me on the crazy stuff I came up with; they just let me talk. And eventually I built up some skills in having a conversation with another person that I could actually participate in. I learned how to engage.

And what a difference it made. I can’t even begin to say. Between those weekly conversations and my regular blogging, I gradually learned how to put thoughts together in a relatively coherent way that had something to do with reality, rather than some fantasy concoction in my head – some fantastical interpretation of what was really happening and what it all meant.

Crazy. I mean, it was just nuts, the way I used to live. It had nothing to do with actual reality – it was all about my own internal interpretations of what was happening and what people were saying to me.

And that’s exactly where I see this friend of ours living. That’s the “cognitive neighborhood” where they live. And it’s where my spouse lives, as well, with their anxiety-driven interpretations of how everything that’s out of place, everything that isn’t perfectly to design, is a sign of imminent danger — and it needs to be fought against and overcome right away – right now – no hesitation – just strike hard and fast – and rule with shock and awe. It holds you back, it stops you from interacting with the world. It keeps you from engaging with your life, and it keeps all the best ideas from showing up and becoming reality.

That’s what happens inside our heads. We all do it. We all get pulled into that, at some point or another. And all the while, the chance at having a peaceful, happy life is draining away, as our anxiety and interpretations of What’s Happening pull the plug out of the tub of our presence of mind.

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you can probably guess what I’m going to suggest next – that these are issues with the Autonomic Nervous System – the constant activation of fight-flight that keeps us on edge and keeps us from being present, even intelligent, in our daily lives. It’s our histories of trauma, our mass of experiences with being beaten, abused, violated in some way, neglected, mistreated, dismissed, and generally treated like ever-loving CRAP that puts us in that state of mind, and keeps us there indefinitely, when our lives are filled with drama that we cannot control.

It’s when we grow up that we get the chance to control the drama – or at least manage it. But if we’re so accustomed to (and comfortable with) the drama that we feel out of place or we feel like strangers to ourselves if it’s not around, then we end up re-creating it, over and over and over again, and we keep ourselves stuck in that place where we cannot think on our own and act, only react. We end up in that place where we are our own worst enemies – even when we think we’re being our best friends.

And there you have it. At least, that’s my neat little sum-up of how it works. In the case of this friend, I can totally see it. They’re so strung out on anxious drama, that they can’t even think. All they can do is find reasons to doubt every option they have – and poke holes in it. Till their whole life looks like a loosely woven wicker basket they’re trying to use to carry water.


People sure are funny… Except it’s not funny when your life is hanging in the balance and you don’t have a clear view to how to get the hell out. Which is where this friend is, right about now. So, maybe I’ll get to talk to them, maybe I won’t. I’m going to try. Because winter’s coming, and they have GOT to get their shit together. They can’t keep living like this, living in some fantasy world about how things will be so great, if the impossible happens. Life is full of contradictions and hard choices. We always have to make trade-offs and we always have to deal with things that are less than perfect, and anything but ideal. The way I’ve found to deal with all of these, is to step up to life and really engage with it – get involved, don’t hold back, just get in there. I can’t afford to think about what other people think of me. It’s just not worth my time and energy. Anyway, people are so self-obsessed that they probably don’t notice half the stuff that I do, and if they do notice it, they probably have a completely different interpretation of what it means and what it’s about.

So, I’ve just gotta engage, no matter what. I’ve just gotta keep going, and make it all work. Just keep at it, never give up, never give in to the fears and hesitations. Acknowledge them yes, but keep moving forward.

The past two years have done wonders for helping me get me to that place. I’m not perfect at it, and I’m still learning, but I’m a hell of a lot better now than I was just a few years ago. A lifetime of holding back and not being able to stand on my own, make my own decisions, speak my own mind, and have actual conversations with people, is gradually giving way to something else, something different, something new.

And I’ve got to keep on keeping on. I’ve got to keep moving forward. I really feel like I need to talk to this friend and let them know A) they’re not alone – I know exactly what it’s like, and B) I have discovered some tools that have helped me a whole lot, and might actually help them, too. They have to know they are not alone. I used to operate like they operate – every single day of my life. And they have to know that I figured out a way to live that works for me. With the help of a handful of people who know how to not make fun of me, how to not beat me down, how to not treat me like shit, I have come a long way. If anything, I hope that I can get this friend to trust that I’ll be able to do the same for them.

Winter is coming. There’s no time to wait. Life wants us to engage with it. So, let’s engage.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

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