I had a revelation this morning, as I was waking up. In the space of a few seconds, it turned an imagined failure into a chance for long-term success.
It was the realization that when I started to lose my temper with my spouse last night, it wasn’t a sign that I was failing at my attempts to be more level-headed and calm, no matter what the situation. It was a clear sign that I was tired, and that my brain needed sleep.
I have been working on being more level-headed — no matter what the situation. This is a lifelong pursuit, actually. I saw the need for it, when I was a teenager and a young adult… as an adult in the working world… and it continues to be important to me. It’s not that I want everything to be perfect for me all the time and give me no trouble. What I want, is to be able to handle my circumstances, be okay with them (within reason), and make the best of any situation’s opportunities, no matter now “bad” it may look at the time.
I have had some good success with this approach over the years. After all, I have seen the ill-effects NOT having a level head in challenging circumstances, and the results are rarely pretty. I have had plenty of opportunity to witness this in the people around me — in my family, especially, when my parents could not hold it together with one of my “problematic” (that is — drug-addicted, alcoholic, sleeping-with-anything-that-moved, drug-dealing) siblings. It was bad enough that my sibling had all those problems (which were signs of something far deeper going on with them). But my parents could not maintain their composure or clarity of thought when it came to my sibling, so that made a bad situation even worse.
I’m not judging my parents — they were not equipped to handle it, and we lived in an area where any problem with kids was a reflection on the parents, so they went from being respected members of society to being “those people” who everybody handled very gingerly.
Anyway, I’ve seen many examples in my own life, where keeping a level head and a calm demeanor helped me through tough times. I actually credit my many TBIs (I’ve had 9+) with helping me with this, because they slowed down my processing speed. When your processing speed is slowed down, it makes it pretty difficult to get on the same wavelength with everybody else… and in case you haven’t noticed, being on the same wavelength as everybody else leaves a lot to be desired.
Everybody gets so worked up over things. But when you’re not thinking as quickly as everyone else, you can’t jump to the same conclusions and get to those snap judgments that can send you careening into HOLY SH*T WHAT THE F*CK land. Everybody else is freaking out — oftentimes about something that isn’t worth freaking out about — and you’re still trying to figure out what just happened…
So, if you think about it, slower processing speed isn’t always a bad thing. And equanimity… peace of mind… level-headedness in the face of a crisis is a definite advantage. Especially when everybody else’s “normal-fast” thinking is vectoring off in a really unproductive direction.
Anyway, that’s one half of the story. The other half of it is less cheery — that’s the aspect of my thinking that is WAY more reactive than others’. It’s the instant-freak-out part of my experience that has made me nuts for years. At an instant’s notice, I’ll suddenly FREAK OUT over something. It can be a dropped spoon, or a missed channel that I’m trying to change with the clicker, or something my spouse says or does that rubs me the wrong way.
When things go haywire in my head, they go really haywire. There’s no middle ground. Everything goes nuts. I know I’m being unreasonable, I know I’m being crazy, I know there is no logical reason for me to be freaking out, but it’s happening anyway. And it’s never good for anyone. I’ve lost more relationships than I can say, because of this. That includes a really good job I lost in 2005 after my TBI in 2004.
People are afraid of me, when I start to get agitated and aggressive — which may have to do with me, or may have to do with them. I don’t want to give anyone any reason to be afraid of me. It’s counter-productive. And it hurts everyone involved.
So, there’s all the more reason to keep tabs on myself and foster a calm demeanor, a cool head, and a self-possessed state of mind. And with that goal in mind, I have pursued a number of different practices and philosophies that might help me with that. I have worked on practices that emphasize acceptance, calmness, not reacting to things around me, and philosophies that teach about how transitory life is, and how important it is for us to understand what we can and cannot change, and not make ourselves nuts trying to alter things that can’t be changed.
Like the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.
This has been a very powerful concept in my life, and I have it displayed in my kitchen where I will see it each morning when I get up and make my coffee.
Along the way, I have had many surges in interest in deepening this practice — in really getting to a place where I can make peace with the things I cannot change, and make the most of the opportunities that are hidden there. I’m a big believer that some of our worst hurdles and challenges offer us the greatest rewards — and when we resist those challenges, we miss out on the chance to become bigger and better than ever before.
Some things I can accept and work with — political changes, cultural changes, relocations from one area to the next, and small-scale changes at work. Other changes I have a harder time with — job changes, especially. The ones that make me the craziest are the ones I feel like I cannot understand or control — or that go off in a direction that is completely different from the direction I see myself headed.
Other things I cannot seem to accept, are the foolishness of others — the stinkin’ thinkin’ that my spouse indulges in, their constant anxiety, their devotion to drama, their bad habit of telling everyone exactly what they want to hear instead of the constructive truth. I have trouble with the attitudes of people at work, who can be cliquish and juvenile. I have trouble with the judgment of Management at work, when their decisions seem counter-productive and get in the way of us doing our work. My siblings also depress the sh*t out of me, with their choices and their prejudices and their holier-than-thou attitude. My parents are a little easier to deal with, because they are many hours away, and I don’t see them that often.
It’s the people who are closest to me, who I have the greatest investment in, that get me with their unhealthy habits of thought and action, their outlooks, their attitudes, and their behavior that seems to serve no useful purpose, other than to make them feel good about themselves — at the expense of everyone else.
The thing is, their behaviors and beliefs and actions have almost nothing to do with me. Even my spouse’s bad habits have more to do with them, than with me — no matter how much they may blame me for their anxiety. I am making myself unhappy over things that are far beyond my control, and it’s not helping me at all.
So, there is all the more incentive for me to calm myself down, not react to what they are doing, and step back and look at them and everything from a distance.
I have found some philosophies and outlooks that can help me do that, and I have pursued them eagerly, on and off, over the years. The thing is, I get to a certain point, then everything falls apart. My equanimity dissolves. I melt down, inside my head and heart. My temper explodes. And I end up feeling worse off than when I started. I feel like I’m back to Square 1, without having made any progress at all.
But in fact, I have made progress. My meltdowns and explosions do not mean that I have utterly failed at learning a new way of thinking and being and relating to others. They do mean that my brain has been working hard, so it is tired. And I need to rest it.
Because changing yourself and your brain and your patterns of thought and action and attitude is hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight. And the fact that I am getting frayed and losing it, actually means that I am making progress — I just need to take a break, rest up, learn what I can about what sets me off, and resume learning again, once I am rested.
This realization is just what I’ve been needing — for a long, long time. Getting frayed at 10 p.m. over someone being a pain in my ass is NOT a sign that I’m failing. It’s a sign that I’ve been working hard all day at changing my mind and my brain, and that it’s time to rest. It’s not a condemnation — it’s a diagnostic tool. And far from being an indication of my inferiority, it’s evidence that I’m actually making progress.
The simple fact is, I’m a brain-injured human being. If you think about it, there are a lot of people who are injured in one way or another, and we are all working our way through the maze called life, trying to find a better way to live. And because of my injuries, because of my history of experiences, my individual makeup, and all the different things that have made me what I am today, I have certain limitations I need to be mindful of and accommodate, so I can work around them and not let them get to me.
Fatigue and the irritability that comes from being tired are a couple of those limitations. So is:
- a sharp tongue — over little things
- a hot temper — at an instant’s notice
- slower processing speed than one would expect
- the almost constant pain that I’ve become resigned to living with, the rest of my born days
- perpetual, never-ending tinnitus
And so on.
It’s not that my life is awful. It’s pretty sweet, to tell the truth. I just need to be aware of these issues, not forget them — or when I do forget them, find a way to remember that the things I’m doing and saying are about my brain injury, NOT about my character.
So, there is hope. There always is, so long as I don’t give up.
And speaking of not giving up, I’m going to get ready for work and get into my day, knowing that I didn’t fail last night, when I got cross with my spouse. I was just tired, and no animals were hurt in the filming of that movie.