It’s that time of year again, when we try to bring some awareness to brain injury. It’s also the month when I become all the more keenly aware of my own brain injuries. It’s not the easiest month, to be sure, when I start thinking back on all the challenges and difficulties and struggles and plain old complications I’ve experienced, because of issues I was not aware of.
It’s bad enough dealing with a brain injury, but when you’re not aware of the real reason, and you spend a lot of time (and a fair amount of money) looking around for other explanations and exploring solutions that only address the symptoms, not the underlying cause, it can build up to a whole lot of frustration and pain.
To be followed by intense relief (of a kind) when you finally figure out what the real reason for all your troubles has been.
Which can be followed by anger and frustration that nobody looked further into the issues and found you real, genuine help.
Which can be followed by the impulse to reach out to others and help them in ways you never were helped, in hopes that they may come to understand the true nature of their experience and find ways to successfully deal with their challenges.
It’s a hope… it’s an intention. Who can say if it ever really turns out that way, but a person can try. It’s the least we can do.
Anyway… I’ve been reading this paper on Higher-Order Reasoning Training Years After Traumatic Brain Injury in Adults, and for some reason it’s striking a nerve with me. Maybe I’m already raw with all the changes going on at work. Maybe I’m already feeling vulnerable because I’m so tired from the transitions and talking to recruiters and trying to sort things out. Whatever the reason, reading the paper is getting to me, because it’s reminding me about the issues I’ve had, and it’s causing me to re-examine my life in light of those difficulties and issues… and when I look back on all that I’ve struggled with, all that I’ve tried (and not succeeded at), those issues come front and center — along with all the associated stories I developed around them to explain myself and my experience.
- Planning and organization
- Flexible thinking
- Monitoring performance
- Solving unusual problems
- Learning rules
- Social behavior
- Making decisions
- Initiating appropriate behavior
- Inhibiting inappropriate behavior
- Controlling emotions
- Concentrating and taking in information
In some cases, my issues are not uniform, and the experience has been variable. A lot of these I’ve managed to work with over the years and have found ways to overcome or rehabilitate. Some of the areas I’ve been literally forced to develop, like planning and organization, multi-tasking, solving unusual problems, making decisions, and concentrating and taking in information. Others, I continue to have consistent issues with — especially when I am tired. And it depresses me a little, to think about how much I have to work at some things that are central to my everyday life — central to everyone’s everyday life, in fact.
I know I’m not alone in my reactions to brain injury. All of society seems to recoil at the idea of brain injury, despite how widespread it is, and how thoroughly it impacts the lives of so many… and despite how loudly it really calls out for a wise response.
That reluctance, that fear, that avoidance, just drives a wedge between us and solutions that can help us — all of us — live our lives better. The things that help folks with brain injury can help people in general — especially when it comes to executive function. And when I think about it, much of the self-improvement material that’s out there has an executive function focus. Planning. Making decisions. Motivation. Look at your local bookstore and you’ll see them all — and more. It’s just that the popular literature is not particularly focused on addressing the underlying issues — the neurological ones. That might be one of the reasons why self-help materials have a spotty success record — they just don’t go deep enough. Of course, that ensures repeat business, as people keep coming back looking for the “true” answers, and that makes for good business profits. But that’s another rant for another time.
In any case, brain injury awareness is not the easiest thing to engage with. It cuts to the core of who we are and what we are about. It cuts to the deepest parts of ourselves, our deepest fears, our fondest hopes, our most intense anxieties. It’s not easy, by any stretch. And it’s really easy to avoid and gloss over.
But for some of us, we can’t do that. It’s not an option. We need to face it head-on and take on the challenge with all our hearts and minds. Or else.
That’s kind of where I’m at, right now… that “or else” place, where all the issues that have come up over the years relating to my brain’s executive dysfunction are standing out in glaring relief against the contrasting vision of what I had hoped would be — and could be. I’m pushing 50 years of age, and looking back it seems that there was so much I had hoped to do and accomplish, which never came close to happening, because there was always some insurmountable invisible issue in my way, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
Of course, it doesn’t take a brain injury (or two or three or nine) to thwart your fondest dreams. It happens to everyone, in some way, I suppose. The things we hoped for and wished would happen… that never did… the plans we had and ambitions we felt… which came to naught, for whatever reason… But I can’t help but wonder what might have been, had I not had all that to deal with. Thinking back to how I was when I was a kid… my mother tells me I was once such a happy and engaged kid… then that changed. For more than 30 years.
I know I should really be grateful that I’m out on the other side of all that, with the real reasons and the actual causes clear to me now. And I am profoundly grateful. At the same time, I can’t help but feel a keen sense of loss at all those years that were trashed because of an host of invisible issues that nobody knew were there, including myself.
Well, anyway, it’s a new day and I need to get on with it, not sit here and feel sorry for myself. I guess one way I can look at this is that I had a ton of experience along the way to teach me compassion and patience and round out the sum total of my life. Things never ever turn out the way we expect, in any case, and truth be told, I’m lucky I’m alive. I’ve got a lot going for me — my health, a fresh new outlook, a far better understanding of why things are the way they are with me, and lots of tools to address those things. I have a pretty good sense where my Achilles Heel limitations are, and I know how to address them, pretty much.
Getting down, because I’m feeling overwhelmed by the things I’m telling myself about my past experience — few of which are positive and uplifting at this moment — just doesn’t make sense. So, I’m going to stop that “stinking thinking” for now.
I think all in all, I’m in a pretty good place to deal — I might have my share of issues to deal with, but who doesn’t? What’s more, the fact that I have learned to deal with uncertainty and insecurity and constant shifting change, and I can function well in spite of it all, has positioned me extremely well for life in these modern times. Learning to live very well without a very good memory actually gives me an edge in life, because it’s taught me to shift and adapt and find compromises when things become blurry and unclear. Knowing how to function in the face of uncertainty and total confusion, and knowing how to take action despite a lack of direction and guidance and specific information qualifies me extremely well for my present situation, which has none of the guidance and direction and specific information that any of us would benefit from having.
I know how to keep going. I know how to set a direction. I know how to do that, and that’s what I’m doing.
And brain injury awareness is at the center of my strategy. Because the minute I lose sight of its presence and effect in my life, my goose is cooked. All of the executive function abilities listed above are required for functioning well in my present life. I have issues with a large number of them — but I also know that, and I know there are ways I can address them. And so I do. With awareness. With resolve. With hope. With my share of trepidation and dread and anxiety, sure, but still with determination that I will not be denied the life I choose to live.
So it goes.