Into the bleak mid-winter

winter sunset with geese flyingI have a confession to make. I love the bleak mid-winter. There’s a hymn about it, that sounds like a funeral dirge. The first verse starts off with a not-so-perky extended complaint:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow…

It’s actually a religious hymn about the birth of Jesus Christ, and I don’t want to get too faith-based here, but the bottom line is, the start of the song sounds pretty dire, but it ends up in a happy, light-filled place. If, that is, you’re a Christian believer. Everybody else will probably be left as cold as the first verse sounds.

Regardless of religious conviction, however, the point of the song is that despite the cold and gloom of the winter months, a light comes into the world. And that transcends it all.

Personally, I like the bleak mid-winter, because it slows everyone down. All the running around and chasing after things during the spring, summer, and fall… well, it all gets a little tiresome, after a while. Our systems aren’t really built to keep going at top speed, all year long. Or even all day long. We need our sleep. It cleans out the gunk that builds up in our brains, and it helps our systems restore their balance.

The idea that you can get up at 4 a.m. and push-push-push for 18 hours, till you collapse, and then get up and do it all over again, is a dangerous concept. Some people can do it, sure. But they’re the exception. The vast majority of us really need our sleep to function. And that includes me. A lot of us could also use a nap, each afternoon. That includes me, also. But I only get that on weekends and my days off. All the other days, I have to keep up with others.

Of course, getting enough sleep is more easily said than done for me. Lately, I’ve been pretty anxious about some work issues, and I’ve been waking up at 5 a.m. instead of 6:30 or 7:00. So, I’ve been losing sleep. I’ve also been staying up later than I should, watching the tail-end of movies that I really like. It’s irresponsible, I know, and I need to stop it. And I will. But right now, my focus is on making sure I’m functional for today… not focusing on the evening at the end of my day.

But I’ve digressed. I love the bleak mid-winter for its cold, which slows us all down, as we have to deal with more layers of clothing. I love it for its long nights, which help me rest and relax. I love it for its crazy weather that keeps me on my toes. I don’t even mind the snow so much, because it gets me active and out and about. And I love how other people slowing down makes it easier to shop and go to the gym, because people are not feeling up to working out (especially after the initial rush over their New Year’s Resolutions has passed), or going to the store at early/late hours of the day.

The bleak mid-winter solves a lot of logistical issues for me, slows things down, gives me a break from the onslaught of constant go-go-go, and it gives me space to move and think instead of having to constantly negotiate the world around me.

And that’s fine. It’s just fine with me. So… onward.

After TBI or concussion – slower brain, craving stress

brain-firingOne of the amazing things about the brain is that it has an uncanny ability to get what it needs in the short term, but which actually hurt you in the long-term.

After injury, it can push you to do things that will feed its immediate need, but the ultimate result is just not good.

Take stress, for example. And danger. And risk-taking activities. All those things look like either bad habits or a taste for self-destruction. But actually, it can be the brain seeking out the pump of energy it needs to function.

After TBI or concussion, the brain’s “tonic arousal” (its general level of wakefulness) can be negatively impacted. The brain is literally more “sleepy” and doesn’t respond as quickly as it once did. Many concussed folks complain of feeling slower than before their injury, and while there may be a number of different reasons for that, tonic arousal can be a big component.

So, what does our brain do? It seeks out opportunities to come alive — to feel like itself again. WOO HOO! And for a little while, when we’re stressed out over our procrastinations, or our altercations with others, or our other poor decisions made in the heat of the moment, we actually do feel alive. We feel like ourselves.

The only problem is, stress and drama actually keep us from learning. The parts of our brain that need energy and information can be literally shut off, when we’re under extreme duress. And as a result, we can end up repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

Because A) We haven’t had the chance to learn from our last mistakes, and

B) There’s a part of us that actually thrives on those stressful situations.

So, it’s a vicious cycle.

And it applies not only to folks with TBI and concussion, but also those with ADD/ADHD, PTSD, or other brain-related issues that slow them down. When you need to go faster, your brain will do what it needs to get its requirements met. The only problem is, over the long term, this can be… just a little disastrous.

You can read more about this here at:

A Perilous Relief

Just something to keep in mind…

Hardship benefit #1 – unparallelled focus

Being able to block it all out can be good.

Hardship isn’t always a bad thing. Obviously, it’s not pleasant — that’s why we call it “hardship”. Yet sometimes it can bring good things with it. It always brings something — and it’s up to us to determine what we’re going to make of it.

One of the things all my difficulties have taught me, is how to focus and keep my attention so intently on what is in front of me, that other things can’t intrude. I am often so inundated by stimuli around me — too much light, too much sound, too much confusion… all the details, details, details — that I cannot concentrate on what’s in front of me.

It can be a huge problem. The distraction, the stress of having to keep up with everything… The exhaustion that comes from blocking out and/or processing all the input… The sheer overwhelm… It’s not always fun. Sometimes it feels like a gauntlet.

And I’ve learned to deal with it — with a focus so intent, that very little around me can intrude.

I am reminded of that fact right now, with my current work environment. It’s more open than the old office was, and I’m also seated right next to the copier/printer. So, periodically throughout the day, I hear the printer kick off, and people come over to get their printouts. It’s not optimal, obviously, but it’s also not throwing me.

There are also other groups around who talk and laugh and have bursts of conversation that I find distracting. And then there’s the regular interruptions from emails and instant messages and people showing up in my cube.

It certainly helps to have at least some separation between myself and everyone else, in the form of a wall that rises above my eye-and-ear-level. But there’s still a fair amount of interruption in the course of each day.

But it’s been worse, in the past.

I used to have a job where I sat at a desk that was just a folding table right set up beside a printer. I was a contractor, so I didn’t warrant an actual cubicle. The people in that office did a lot more printing than the people I work with now. There was constant movement around me, constant distraction. But I loved my job so intently that it didn’t bother me. I was locked on. It was a 6-month contract that was going to be over soon, anyway. And even though they took pity on me and gave me a desk in a cubicle before long, it didn’t make any difference to me. I did damn’ good work at that folding table out in the open.

The interesting thing is, that was a couple of years after my last TBI, when everything was crazy and nuts and a huge-ass problem for me. I was incredibly stressed on many levels — mentally, physically, emotionally.

At the same time, though, when I was at that job, I was AT that job. I WAS the job, as they say. And when I think about it, it seems like I was really using the stress of that location at that job to block out a lot of crap going on around me.

Analgesic stress, you know…

Plus, it was mitigated by the fact that I was working just 20 minutes down the road from where I lived, and it was a contract, and I was sprung free from the overwhelming stress of my former life. The crush of my daily workaday life was balanced by the short commute, my ability to come and go pretty much as I pleased, and even though a lot of really challenging things happened at that time, I handled some of them extremely well and I improved in certain respects. (Although, when I went back to a hellish commute, that all changed and the downward slide picked up.)

Thinking back on my life of regular overwhelm and one problem after another, I realize that I’ve learned how to block out the crap around me and focus in on what is RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME RIGHT NOW.

Nothing else exists. No problems, no troubles, no complications. There is only the moment at hand, nothing else.

That doesn’t always work in my favor, as I tend to forget things that aren’t in front of me, if I don’t take steps to remind myself. I forget to mention important things to people I’m talking to. I forget to do important things that need doing (like paying certain bills or getting my car checked out). I tend to talk about things at that very moment, rather than things that have happened recently, because outside the current moment, nothing else seems to matter. So, I need to write notes and also send people messages to remind them to remind me to mention certain things.

But for the sake of getting things done, I’ve gotta say that getting kicked around a bit has helped me quite a bit. As long as I have ample time for recovering and recouperating, I can adapt and adjust. Take away the recovery time, and things become very different, very quickly. But if I have time to “integrate” and let it all sink in, it’s good. It’s all really good.

It might not seem like it at the time, but ultimately — again, with rest and proper integration of what I learn along the way — what doesn’t kill me, makes me a heck of a lot stronger.

Onward.

Overcoming overstimulation

Lots going on...

I’ve got a big trip coming up next weekend — I’m taking nearly a week to go see family in several states… kind of a follow-up trip to make up for not having been there for the holidays (I was sick and couldn’t travel). There will be lots of driving, lots of activity, lots of interacting with relatives I haven’t seen in many years. There will be a family reunion with relatives, some of whom care about me, others of whom couldn’t care less about me. There will be time with siblings as well as aunts and uncles and cousins. All together in one big melting pot for the weekend.

This is coming on top of some very busy times at work. I’m a bit apprehensive, because I’ve been tired and I’ve had trouble sleeping, and I am concerned that it might affect my ability to deal with my family. I also worry that it will affect my ability to deal with my spouse, who is not a big fan of most of my family. We come from very different backgrounds, and my spouse is not always the most open-minded individual when it comes to differences.

I know I shouldn’t stress over this, but I am a little bit. I have to get a bunch of things done for work before I go — it’s really BAD timing, but there it is. My workload is just crazy, these days, and it will be until mid-September. Then it will probably pick up again through the end of the year. It’s hard to believe July is almost over. August is so packed, it might as well not even exist. Just busy, busy, busy all around.

But it’s a good thing. It beats the alternative. I’ve become a key contributor on some important initiatives, so that keeps me going and it gives me a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself. And I have to keep that in mind. It’s another way of looking at it — it’s a good thing, that going away for a few days is a problem. Because if it weren’t I’d be in trouble.

Likewise, if I think about the upcoming trip with my relatives, one of the reasons it promises to be so full, is that so many people want to see me. They want to talk to me, to find out how I’m doing, to tell me about their lives. They want to share a lot with me, and they don’t realize how overwhelming it can be for me. Over-stimulation has resulted in me going temporarily deaf and blind — I was with extended family members who were very high-strung, and there was so much going on, my system just shut down, and for a short time (maybe 10-15 seconds), I couldn’t see or hear anything. Everything just went silent and black. I came back (of course) and felt dazed and confused. I suspected it might have been some sort of seizure, but then I got checked out, and everything seemed to be fine, actually. So, it was probably just the overwhelm.

Thinking back on that day, which was about six months before I figured out the TBI connections to the difficulties I’ve had in my life, I can think of a number of things that made it more difficult, overstimulating and overwhelming:

  1. I was extremely anxious about a lot of things — if I was wearing the right sorts of clothing (people around me were much better dressed than I, and I felt self-conscious in my jeans and t-shirt).
  2. I was pretty brittle and inflexible in my expectations for the day — I wasn’t going with the flow, and when the group kept changing plans, I got increasingly uptight.
  3. I wasn’t eating properly — I wasn’t eating the same sorts of foods I normally did.
  4. I wasn’t resting enough — I had been pushing myself to go-go-go, the whole time, and I was very fatigued.
  5. I wasn’t exercising enough — I wasn’t exercising at all, actually. I hadn’t been taking the walks I needed, and I hadn’t been working out regularly the way I have been over the past couple of years.
  6. I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses — Big problem on that very sunny day. The brightness only exacerbated everything else, adding to my anxiety and stress.
  7. I wasn’t in command of my thoughts and my reactions — I was being pushed and pulled in a million different directions, and I wasn’t driving the car of my own mind. I was letting everyone else decide for me how to think, how to talk, how to behave. I was trying to fit in and do the right thing so I wouldn’t be as conspicuous (and embarrassing) to my extended family/in-laws. The result was that I stood out even more, I was less able to participate, and I lost it (literally) for a short while that day.

Looking back, I can see how I’ve really come a long way in the past 4 years. I’m nowhere near where I used to be, and I have to remember this as I prepare for this next trip. My anxiety levels have decreased dramatically since I started exercising on a daily basis. And my whole world view has changed as a result. My neuropsych has been a huge help, keeping me honest and realistic — in a good way. They don’t let me get away with the old “stories” about how debilitated I am by my TBIs. They don’t let me easily jump to conclusions about being incapable and incompetent, just because I happen to be human. And they don’t let me make excuses about poor choices I’ve made and things I’ve done. They don’t beat me up over it, but they also don’t let me write myself off with some easy excuse about being impaired.

And that’s quite a feat to accomplish. Because I have a lifetime of experience of reaching the “logical” conclusion that there is something wrong with me, and I am less capable than I actually am. I’ve had plenty of people telling me there was something wrong with me. I’ve had plenty of people “protecting” me from myself. I’ve had plenty of people ditching me or taking me off tasks when I didn’t perform as expected.

It was all a crock, but when you hear it often enough and everyone seems to agree, it starts to sound like the truth.

But it’s not. It’s the farthest thing from the truth.

The real truth is that I have the tools and the experience and the proper mindset to approach this coming weekend in a stable, productive frame of mind. I’ve managed equally — if not more — challenging situations quite well, and I’ve come away a better person as a result.

I know from experience that I don’t have to bury myself in work in advance, trying to keep my mind off things. I don’t have to run away from it, drive myself with all sorts of stress that takes my attention off my anxiety. I can rest and relax and also get good exercise in advance. Eat well and take care of myself, and remember that I’m going to meet and greet people who actually love and care for me, even if they don’t always agree with how I live my life and vote.

That might actually be the hardest thing to handle — that anyone could actually love and care for me. That all my injuries and my issues and my supposed shortcomings might not matter nearly as much as I think they do. It could just be that I have a great time when I go on this trip. It could just be that the only over-stimulation is actually in my mind. And that if I can tame that, all the rest will come naturally to me.

It could be…

Too much of (a) good thing(s)

Well, I’ve done it again…  I’ve let my exuberance get completely out of hand. I’ve got a handful of really great projects I started, over the past couple of years, and as I often tend to do, I didn’t follow through on a bunch of them till they were complete, but ran off to start something else (that we equally cool), leaving the started-but-not-finished projects to languish…

Until I remembered them again and circled back to take another look at them. Then, I realized that they were really cool, and they were good ideas, and I need to follow up on them… Only now, I have not one or two projects, but six or seven.

What’s a creative sort to do?

This is one of the classic ways my little brain gets me in trouble. On the one hand, I have lots of great ideas and some pretty significant strengths. On the other hand, I only have so much time in the day/week/month/year, and my brain tends to get tired… and agitated… and anxious… and when that happens, I tend to seek out other things to do, which will take my mind off my agitation and anxiety. I find it very soothing to start new projects, and since my agitation level goes up, when I’m fatigued, the more tired I get, the more confused I get, the more projects I start… and then I get myself roped into all sorts of wheel-spinning – chasing-my-tail – go-go-go’ing… which ultimately gets me nowhere, but frustrated, with a really messy office.

That’s where I am right now. In my really messy office, trying to put my life in some semblance of order. I “check out” of regular life for about 10 days, for some fun and sun and lazing around. But now I’m back from my week-long beach vacation, and it’s time to put my energy to good use. I promised myself, while I was sitting on the beach, marveling at the constant flow of waves, that I would get my disarrayed house in order, come hell or high water. And that’s what I’m setting about doing. (After I finish this post… and get another cup of coffee.)

It’s so wild… Looking around, I am surrounded by piles of things I thought were really important, once upon a time. And at the moment, they were. Slips of paper. Scraps and notes and scribbles. Ideas I jotted down without having a context or an outlet for them — concepts I wanted to flesh out or explore. The sum total result is a whole lot of disjointed thought without a focus or a sense of continuity. Lots of trees, not much forest. And some of the “trees” are crowding each other out.  Some of the fast-growing ideas which really aren’t good long-term prospects, are keeping the more solid ideas from getting enough “light” to grow.

Time to thin the woods and trim back the fast-growing “soft woods” that are stunting the slower-growing “hardwoods”. I want a forest filled with oaks and maples, not just white pines. I’ve got nothing against pines, but I need solid, sturdy materials to build the ship of my life, so I’ve got to cull out the fast, cheap, and easy activitities that are keeping me from really achieving something significant in this life. I have my limits. My brain has limits, as does my body. There is literally only so much I can do in a day. I’ve spent the last week decompressing and kicking back and taking stock of my life, and now that I’m back I have renewed energy and resolve.

I really do not want to live and work in the midst of perpetual disarray. I used to think it kept me creative and inventive, and in a way, it did. It’s always been very invigorating for me to be surrounded by stimulating images and ideas. But now – whether from age or from injury – I realize that I just can’t do that crazy-busy jumbled mess thing. Who  knows? Maybe I never could before, but I was so busy running from one thing to the next, that I never noticed that it was dragging me down.

Well, whether that’s true about my past, I know now that it serves virtually no productive purpose to run around, chasing after this-and-that just for the sake of chasing. I now realize that I am much better served by narrowing my focus and buckling down to finish the things I start… before I start something else. We’ll see how that goes. But at least I get get going with this office-cleaning business.

After my second cup of coffee, of course 😉

Connections between pain and PTSD

The past couple of weeks have been crazy for me, and it’s taken somewhat of a toll. I’ve been busy with work, busy with other activities, busy, busy, and more busy. I also did some traveling for about a week to out-of-state relatives, for a big family get-together. In and of itself, it was a great time. But the change in my schedule, the long hours of driving — over 30 hours, all told, in the car — not being able to get enough sleep, and the change in food choices (how do they eat that stuff?) all threw me off, big-time.

I managed to keep it together and not completely blow-out/melt down during the trip, or immediately afterwards, which often happens when I travel to this particular branch of the family tree. But the past few weeks have been packed full of crazy-busy-ness that I now realize has been a pretty concerted effort to dull the pain of the trip.

I’m not talking about emotional pain… though it’s never easy to spend time as an outsider, when everyone else is connecting and having a wonderful time being together — I’m the oddest bird in the family, and between my difficulties in keeping up with what’s going on around me and my narrow and intense interests that aren’t run-of-the-mill, people often don’t know what to do with me.

What I’m talking about is physical pain.

Yes, physical pain — the kind that burns, that aches, that throbs, that stings. The kind that makes my clothing hurt me, that rakes my legs when my pants rub against them… the kind that makes me jump whenever someone touches me… the kind that sends a shock wave of smacking ache to the marrow of my bones when my spouse puts their hand on my forearm… the kind that keeps me from sleeping, because I can’t stand the feel of sheets on me, but I also can’t stand the feel of air-conditioning blowing across my skin… the kind htat gets worse when I am stressed or tired or upset or all of the above… the kind that I often don’t even know is there until someone makes contact with me, and I jump, and they feel like they’ve done something to hurt me. They have. They didn’t mean to, and they would never do it on purpose. But they hurt me.

It’s not just the emotional pain of family visits that gest me. It’s the physical pain, as well.

Here’s the deal — for as long as I can remember, I have had issues with a whole slew of sensory problems, the most disruptive of which was body-wide pain. I can remember, ever since I was a little kid, feeling like I was being hit, when people would just reach out to touch me in very innocent, social, appropriate ways. I would shrink back from them, and they would often take offense or get angry with me for “rejecting” them. It sorta kinda messes with your head, when the people who love you the most cause you intense pain when they try to show their affection for you. And it tends to muck up your relationship with them, when you can’t accept their (appropriate) affection, but they don’t understand why.

To tell the truth, I didn’t even understand why. It’s hard to explain, unless you’ve been there, but the experience of painful touch is such a visceral, physical thing, it sometimes doesn’t translate into words. It’s just there. You can’t describe it, you can’t even really pinpoint it. Sometimes you have no idea it’s there, until someone makes contact with you. Then, all you know is, it hurts, and you pull away to avoid it, so you can just get on with your life.

And you do things to avoid/mitigate it. You steer clear of expressive people. You avoid demonstrative friends. You always keep more than arms’ length away from other people, just in case they reach out to you. You spend time with people who either don’t like you or couldn’t care less about you, because the chances of them touching you is small to none — and it’s easier to be around those types of people, than the friendly ones who like to make contact.

These things are done on a subconscious, instinctive level, and sometimes they don’t even register with you when you’re doing them. Like pulling away from people when they come close. Like shrinking back from a hug someone is trying to give you. Like jerking away quickly when someone touches you accidentally.

And depending on how sudden or shocking the pain is, it can trigger a whole cascade of other sensations/symptoms/reactions that look a whole lot like PTSD.

Over at Helpguide.org, I found this list of symptoms

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event — memories of past painful contact tend to show up suddenly
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again) — yes, it does feel like it’s happening all over again
  • Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things) — sometimes nightmares do follow an extremely painful episode, tho’ that’s rare
  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma — yes, it is intensely distressing to be reminded of it, it just sends me in a downward spiral
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating) — my heart sometimes starts pounding, I tense up, and I feel sick to my stomach, when people touch me, sometimes

PTSD symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma — I tend to avoid physical human contact of any kind; women frighten me, because they tend to be so tactile, and it’s literally too painful at times, to interact with them
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma — I tend to block out the particulars of painful experiences. All I know is, it’s hurt me before, like it’s doing now
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general — Why should I get involved, if it’s just going to hurt like the dickens?
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb — Oh, yes… ’nuff said.
  • Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career) — how precisely am I supposed to live fully, if the experience of basic human interactions promises me pain?

PTSD symptoms of increased arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep — could have something to do with my insomnia?
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger — yet one more contributing factor
  • Difficulty concentrating — it’s tough to concentrate, when you’re on high alert. Especially if you’re working with tactile people.
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”) — someone might be approaching…
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled — but of course

Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Anger and irritability — not being able to establish comfortable human contact makes me nuts and pisses me off
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame — why can’t I just be normal like everyone else and tolerate a hand on my shoulder?
  • Substance abuse — been there. Thank heavens that’s behind me.
  • Depression and hopelessness — my occasional visitors
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings — once upon a time, occasional visitors. Now, very rarely.
  • Feeling alienated and alone — not just feeling… BEING alienated and alone
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal — it’s hard to not feel that way, when everyone around you might possibly cause you pain
  • Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain — the first two, yes. The third, not so much

So there we have it — PTSD arising from chronic body-wide pain. Painful touch. There’s even a word for it — Allodynia (meaning “other pain”) — a painful response to a usually non-painful (innocuous) stimulus. I haven’t been formally diagnosed. That would require that I talk about it to my doctor. And talking about it out loud to anyone has never really been an option for me, except for with my last therapist who is long gone by now. It’s just too painful. Emotionally and physically.

I’d rather keep my own counsel and just live my life. Pain-free. Alone, but pain-free.

Being alone not only keeps me out of arms’ reach (literally) from people who may hurt me, but it also keeps emotional upheaval at a minimum. It’s hard to get worked into a state, when you don’t have much contact with people who affect you emotionally. I can block out all the politics and social drama pretty well. But the emotional connections I have with people… well, they’re trickier. So, I steer clear of them, by and large. And I steer clear of emotionally charged subjects with people — like avoiding talking about my chronic pain issues with my doctor.

It’s wild, how emotional distress can heighten physical pain. Emotional pain sets off an alarm state with me, and that alarm state unleases a whole avalanche of stress hormones and hypersensitive biochemical agents into my system. And the buildup of all the stuff that gets “stuck” in my system does not help me. Not one bit.

Over at Healthjourneys.com, Belleruth Naparstek quotes from her book Invisible Heroes and describes it well:

Chronic Pain Conditions
This constant activation of the alarm state leads to an accumulation of metabolic waste products in the muscle fibers, and the release of kinins and other chemical pain generators in the tissue, resulting in myofascial pain and the appearance of those seemingly intractable chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headache, TMJ and more.

And because these conditions are generated in the brain stem and the motor reflex centers in the spinal column, and routed through a perturbed, automatic, arousal circuitry, peripheral forms of treatment provide only temporary relief.  Constantly activated by everyday sensory cues, normal muscle movement and spontaneous memories, symptoms grow and become more and more entrenched over time.  In other words, this is one nasty gift from the kindled feedback loop that, if not interrupted, will just keep on giving.

Our epidemiology research has already shown us an astounding percentage of people with baffling chronic pain conditions and “functional” diseases that have no obvious causes, who have been found to have prior histories of severe trauma.  Probably if we could tease out the subset of traumatized people who experienced substantial dissociation during their trauma, and a truncated freeze response in the midst of it, we might find closer to one hundred percent suffering from posttraumatic stress.  Unfortunately for them, they are often assumed to be malingering or engaged in attention-seeking behavior for neurotic reasons, instead of suffering from a very serious, self perpetuating condition with a potentially worsening trajectory.

Included in this group of maligned and misunderstood patients would be scores of people suffering from pelvic and low back pain, orofacial and myofascial pain, genito-urinary and abdominal pain; interstitial cystitis; and the previously mentioned headache, fibromyalgia (FM), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD); irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and migraine.

And there it is — in part, anyway. The post over at Belleruth Naparstek’s blog asks Is There a Connection Between Fibromyalgia and Traumatic Stress? but it’s not just about Fibro, to me. It’s about the “and more” she mentions. It’s about the “whole lot more”.

So, what the hell can I do about this? I’m of the mind that the best reason to talk about anything difficult, is to figure out what to do about it to make it better. To reduce the quotient of human suffering in the world. That includes my suffering (I’m in the world, after all). What can I do about this pain business?

Well, first, I need to get back on my schedule. I need to get back to my sleeping routine, which I’ve been doing pretty well with. I need to get back to eating the right kinds of foods at the right times of day — and I’ve been doing that pretty well, too. I also need to exercise and do other things that will enable me to discharge some of the built-up stress from the trip. I tried explaining to my new therapist how disruptive that sort of travel is to me, but they didn’t seem to “get” the intensity of it, so I’m not getting much support there. Screw it. I’ll support myself. I’ve been having a lot of good long cries, in the privacy of my own company, over the past few days, and that seems to be helping me. I also need to get back to my regular work schedule and just get some stuff done. Being productive has a way of chilling me out nicely, so I’ll do that.

And drink plenty of water. Take some Advil before I go to sleep. Listen to the Healing Trauma CD from Belleruth Naparstek to deal with the PTSD. Have a good cry. And another. And another. And make sure I let loose in my own company, away from others who neither understand nor want to understand just how hard things are for me… and end up minimizing and negating and invalidating my feelings about what I really go through, and tell me I’m fine and I don’t have a problem and I shouldn’t worry about this stuff,  just because they either don’t have the emotional resources to hang with me, or they’d be too traumatized, themselves, if they knew what it’s really like to live in this body.

Most of all, I need to keep it simple. Count my blessings. Remember just much good there is, along with the bad. And remember, tomorrow is another day, and all things considered, I’m pretty lucky to be alive.

A Perilous Relief – The Physical Backdrop(s) of My Risk-Taking Behavior(s)

At the risk of sounding like I’m sitting around feeling sorry for myself, let me tell you about my physical experience. I don’t want pity, I don’t want clucking of tongues, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. This is just my experience, and I’ve acclimated to it over the years. But I’d be lying, if I told you it’s easy…

To fully appreciate just how my risk-taking and danger-seeking constitute attempts to soothe my overworked physical/mental/emotional system, you’d have to understand just how anxious, sensorily overloaded, and painfully sensitive I tend to be. And you’d have to understand the impact that repeated injuries, including head injuries, have had on my everyday life. I have, in fact, sustained numerous mild traumatic brain injuries since age 7, the experience of which is consistent with my sensory and other physical issues. (See http://www.traumaticbraininjury.com/content/symptoms/mildtbisymptoms.html for a list of mild tbi symptoms.)

All my life, I have had issues with pain and handling sensory input. As a child, I had a hard time differentiating between different sounds, but at the same time, my hearing was very sensitive. I was very attuned to fine details, and I was highly distractable. I experienced touch as pain, which caused many forms of regular human contact to be uncomfortable, even painful for me. I was not very limber, I had trouble touching my toes, and doing exercises like somersaults was difficult. Cartwheels were out of the question. I was an active child, and I loved to climb and play and join in with games, but my coordination wasn’t always the best, and I was often picked last for team games in school.

I loved to play sports, but I didn’t have a very broad range of abilities. For example, I loved to play softball. I loved it so much, that I wanted to become a professional softball player, when I grew up. Baseball didn’t appeal to me, because having a small, white object hurled at me scared the bejesus out of me. I had a hard time judging distance and speed, and the larger, softer softball wasn’t nearly as frightening to me.

There were a couple of problems with my pro ballplayer aspirations, though. The first was, I had a hard time catching fly balls. When my dad would practice with me and hit flies to me, I couldn’t judge the distance to the ball, or I shrank away from it in fear. My preference was to let the ball drop and then pick it up and throw it to another player. But that kind of choice-making in a serious ball game would have cost my team dearly.

Playing the outfield was not an option for me.

Sliding was out of the question. I was to hesitant and too gawky to do it very well. And the pain that came afterwards was inhibitive, whenever I considered sliding.

I couldn’t react quickly enough on the spot to play shortstop.

My coordination issues kept me from being a very good baseman. My reaction time wasn’t consistent, and my ability to catch and tag wasn’t very good. I wanted to play shortstop, but it made me too nervous, and I couldn’t think and react quickly enough to make a very good player at that position.

I made up for all this by throwing myself wholeheartedly into the small range of activities I could do well. I had too much trouble with fielding and reacting quickly to be an all-round good player. What I could do, was play third base, hit, and be a good team captain. Third base was a kind of in-between position that was half-baseman and half shortstop, that let me be in the infield, but in a more marginal position. I was a pretty decent batter, and I also learned I could switch hit. I’m right-handed, so I always thought that I should bat right-handed. But I actually found that I was better able to bat left-handed. It just felt so much more natural to me. Most of all, I was a good team leader — a captain who led by the example of just throwing myself into the game and doing my best at any and all times, even if I messed up, now and then. I think, if anything, my spirit helped the team more than any amount of technical skill.

But still, it wasn’t easy to come to terms with the fact that I just didn’t have what it took to become a professional softball player.

When I was young, there wasn’t really anything like a diagnosis of sensory integration dysfunction or sensory perception disorders, and attentional challenges weren’t yet on the radar. All I know/knew was, I was immersed in a seething cauldron of sensory input and there was really no escape.

I’d like to say things got better when I grew up, but I can’t say that’s so. All I can say is, I’ve gotten used to these problems, which doesn’t make me very happy, actually. But there it is.

Below is a run-down of the persistent physical issues I’ve had to deal with most of my life, and that still plague me intermittently. I’ve tried to be as thorough as possible, so you can get an idea of the scope and intensity of my “sensory landscape.” These issues can range from mild to extreme, and they manifest with varying degrees of frequency. I do not experience all of them simultaneously, but many can appear concurrent with others.

Ringing in my ears (tinnitus)

I have a constant ringing in my ears. I’ve had this as long as I can remember. It used to drive me crazy as a teenager, but eventually I got used to it. It’s a high-pitched whine, not so much ringing — a very thin, reedy, penetrating whine “over” several other deeper tones. It rarely goes away. If there’s no ringing when I wake up, it usually starts by mid-morning. It’s worse when I’m tired and/or stressed and/or have allergies. It’s better when I’m rested.

Vertigo, Dizzy-ness, Light-headedness

I have occasional feelings of being “woozy” and/or losing my balance suddenly. Sometimes it can last for a day or more. Sometimes, when it’s really bad, it lasts for days — nearly a week, in the past. I have to be very careful that I don’t fall, when it’s particularly bad. Holding onto things, keeping myself rigidly upright and intently focusing my attention on something in front of me helps. Tactile activities help me focus — holding onto things, making contact with things around me, like fabrics and curtains, arms of chair, objects held in my hand. It’s much worse when I am tired, and when I have allergies, it’s worse. It gets better when I’m rested, but it usually takes at least a day or so to clear up, even when I am rested.

Balance (Vestibular) details (when they’re at their most extreme)

When I’m experiencing “vestibular challenges,” the whole world spins wildly around me… swaying and shifting. Every time I move, no matter how small the motion, I feel like I’m going to fall over. I cannot move my head without being overwhelmed by waves of nausea that wash over me in progressive swells. When I turn my head this way or that — I never know when, or which way — there is a swooshing sound in my ears that is sometimes accompanied by pressure and pain. My ears hurt me with a dull ache that’s sharp at the center… like thick sticks that have small points being pressed into my eardrums. My stomach lurches, and my head pounds with a sick headache. A whining, whistling, high-pitched roar fills my ears, and through the intense ringing, I hear muffled sounds that annoy me with distraction. Even when I stop and hold still, the sense of imbalance continues, like a bucket of water that’s been swung to and fro, sloshing back and forth for a while, even after it’s set down on a level surface.

Going about my everyday business, I sometimes have a sudden sense of falling that eclipses and overrides all other sensory input in my system. The room spins, my legs become weak, and my head swirls in sickening waves of disequilibrium. The walls seem to move before my very eyes, the floor rolls beneath me, and my body feels like it’s swaying. For as long as the feeling lasts, I cannot think, I cannot talk, I cannot react to anything around me. I cannot hear or see much of anything around me. I’m dimly aware that there are objects or people nearby, but they don’t register. I’m faintly aware that people are talking to me, but I cannot respond immediately. All I can do, is try to right myself, try not to fall, try to fight back the waves of sickening vertigo, and hang on, till the nausea passes.

My condition does not seem to respond to “standard treatments”. I’ve tried ear drops and anti-vertigo medications, and they did nothing for me. I also wish I could just write this off as a simple balance issue and have that suffice. But there’s a whole lot more to my situation, than being off-balance. Vestibular issues are just the beginning.

Coordinated Balance (“Proprioceptive?”) Issues

I also have issues with sensing where my body is in relation to the world around me (“proprioceptive” issues). These tend to kick in most intensely when I’m off-balance. I cannot feel where my body is in relation to things around me, and I bump into objects all the time — corners of tables, sides of counters, chairs I’m passing… I also knock things off flat surfaces, if they are too close to the edge. I have a hard time gauging how quickly my body is moving in any one direction, which can cause me to misjudge distances and be uncoordinated. I fumble at picking up objects, I drop things I’m holding, and I tend to have trouble judging distances between myself and others. I also inadvertently bump or hit people when I’m just trying to reach out to them or move past them. When I’m trying to keep my balance, I tend to (for lack of a better word) “proprioceptively overreact,” which makes me either bump into things and people around me or shy away from them abruptly, neither of which is interpersonally optimal.

Hearing

My hearing is also affected by my simply not being able to pay attention to anything but staying upright and not running into things. I can be so intent on trying to stay balanced, that I don’t hear anything around me immediately. I’ll hear things, but they don’t immediately register. And when they do register, I’m often so far behind in figuring out what’s going on, I get the message turned around and am not successful in responding to what I’m hearing right away. When I’m really struggling to navigate contact with the world around me, it can take a few minutes for sounds to sink in and be processed in my brain. I hear them, but I don’t process them immediately. This can be a problem when someone is talking to me. I won’t hear them for a few seconds, and then when I do hear them, I am so busy trying to figure out what they just said to me that I miss what I am able to hear. This is less than optimal.

One of the most annoying and disorienting auditory aspects of my bad days is the whooshing sound, which comes and goes when I’m “off” — sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually. I can rarely predict when it’s going to happen (although during allergy season it is usually more pronounced). It often takes me by surprise and thoroughly distracts me from what I’m doing. I’m usually so caught up in going about my daily business, I don’t notice the dull roar or the achy pressure or even the whooshing sound until it’s unmistakable. And when I finally hear this whooshing sound, I tend to feel nauseous and dizzy. I seem to associate it with feeling lightheaded and sick on my stomach, and whenever I hear it — whether I’m nauseous and dizzy or not — I cringe. I freeze. My rest of body seems to remember what it feels like to hear that whooshing sound, and it reacts accordingly.

Sight

My vision can be affected, too. When I’m off-balance, and I’m not well in-touch with the world around me, my vision gets “re-assigned” to the task of helping me keep my balance. It’s hard to describe, but when I’m “off,” I can visually detect things around me, but I don’t readily process what that means. It’s like with my hearing — I know I’m seeing something, but my brain is too busy trying to figure out how to just keep steady and parse out all the input coming in, to interpret what that something I’m seeing is.

Probably the best quick example I can give of this, is from a time when I was driving through a parking lot, and I literally didn’t see another driver, who nearly hit me, and I didn’t hear him honking his horn at me, until I was nearly out of the parking lot. I was at an office supplies store, and I’d just bought myself a new headset for my cell phone, so I could drive hands-free and still talk on the phone. I try to avoid talking on the cell phone while I drive, but I was hoping that a headset might let me at least be able to accept incoming calls without being a hazard to other drivers.

I sat in my parked car for a few minutes, figuring out how to put the headset together, then I placed it on my head, positioned the mic in front of my mouth, and slowly pulled out into the parking lot. As I was rolling towards the exit, I noticed that a car was pulling out of a side lane just ahead of me. The headset felt like it was slipping off my head, and the microphone wasn’t staying in front of my mouth. My attention was focused intently on the feel of the headset on my head and the mic at my mouth.

As though in slow motion, I saw the front of the other car inch out into my path. I didn’t slow down, but continued to drive towards the exit. The headset felt strange on my head, and I could hardly think of anything but keeping my head straight. The front the other car was rapidly approaching the driver’s side front fender of my own vehicle, but I continued to drive on. I didn’t veer, I didn’t slow down, I didn’t speed up. I didn’t react at all — I just drove on. Only dimly was I aware that I had barely slipped past the front of the other car and avoided a collision. It never occurred to me that I should react in some way. It never occurred to me that I should interact with the other car.

As I continued to coast towards the exit, I could hear a beeping in the distance. The headset on my head continued to bother me with its pressure on my one ear and the feel of the microphone near the side of my cheek. The mic wasn’t pressing against my skin, but I was keenly aware of its proximity. I really felt like I was losing my balance, and I held my head absolutely still to keep the apparatus properly positioned. The beeping continued, and I wondered if someone’s car alarm had gone off. But the sound wasn’t rhythmic or regular, so it must have come from somewhere else.

I looked in my rear-view mirror, and I saw driver of the car I’d narrowly missed yelling and beeping his horn at me and wildly gesticulating, pointing at his head. At first, it didn’t sink in, that he was communicating with me, but when I looked up again, I realized that his behavior was directed at me. And he was furious. The headset kept slipping off the side of my head, ever so slightly, but enough to distract me.

Realizing what was going on around me, at last, I tore it off my head and threw it on the passenger seat beside me. When the headset was off, it was as though the lights went on in a dark room, and someone suddenly turned up the volume on life all around me. I could suddenly see. I could suddenly hear. Suddenly, I wasn’t sitting in an enclosed cell with a headset on, I was driving a car in a parking lot. I got out of the parking lot as quickly as I could, merged into traffic, and went back to work, shaken but grateful that I hadn’t done any damage.

I haven’t used that headset at all, since I bought it.

My vision and hearing aren’t the only senses that get “whacked” when I’m out of sync. My taste and smell do, too. My sense of smell tends to be either all-on, or all-off. It’s very rare that I smell something “normally” and can take deep breaths of scents, like perfumes or foods. If I get too strong a whiff of something, it makes my head spin and really overloads me. And if I’m already off balance, or I’m not connecting well with the world around me, my sense of smell sometimes completely turns off. My sense of taste is even less predictable. It’s muted and vague, and I often judge the foods I like more by their texture, than by their taste.

Touch – Pain

My sense of touch is quite variable — like my sense of smell, either it’s all-on, or it’s all-off. I can literally slam into things, and never feel the impact… sometimes I don’t know I slammed into something until I see the bruises on my leg the next day. But my sense of touch in my hands is very active. When I’m feeling nervous or agitated, running my hands over objects — like the interior upholstery and surfaces of my nephew’s new BMW — is very soothing for me. I’ve always loved satiny fabrics, and when I was a kid, I couldn’t fall asleep unless I rubbed the satin edge of my blanket. I rubbed that smooth, soothing edge so long and so often, I wore a hole in it!

On the other hand, I can experience a lot of tactile discomfort. A simple human touch can feel like a blow to me, and when people put their hand on my arm, sometimes it feels like they’re smacking me. Hard. It’s very strange and difficult to describe, and it makes me very uncomfortable to talk about it, but I experience pain and discomfort from things like clothing, hugs, harmless social touches, and jewelry. I don’t wear any bracelets or extra rings or necklaces, or even a watch, because the contact tends to be very uncomfortable — and distracting — for me.

There are a number of different kinds of tactile discomfort I experience. They are not like muscular pain, but are very much on the surface and localized in my skin surface. Here are some details and descriptions:

Burning – It feels like being burned with a hot coal(s), like embers are laid on top of my skin and are burning down through to the bone. This occurs often on my upper arms and across my shoulders and back. It’s usually worse when I’m tired or have a lot of stimuli coming in on me, and its origin is internal in nature (I’ll call it “autonomic”).

Twisting – It feels like I’m having my skin twisted by two hands having a firm grip on my skin, and twisting in opposite directions (like the “Indian burns” we kids used to give each other). It is mostly on my outer forearms and wrists, and it’s worse when I’m tired or stressed. (Autonomic)

Healing burn – It feels like having second-degree burns that are healing under my skin – not on the surface, not down at the bone, but just under the surface of my skin. This occurs mostly on my outer forearms and wrists, and it’s aggravated by having long sleeves. It’s usually worse when I’m tired or have a lot going on around me. (Autonomic)

Chafing – It feels like being rubbed by by a rough surface – either a piece of rough material, or in some cases, a surface that is a little sticky or ‘grippy’ and pulls my skin a little as it rubs. Some people talk about “sandpaper” type of pain, and this might be close to it, but it’s not exactly. It sometimes feels like a moist, tacky texture being rubbed across my skin. I experience this mostly on the tops of my thighs, aggravated by my slacks. Sometimes I feel it on my arms, and it’s aggravated by the touch of light clothing. (Autonomic)

Prickling – This feels like being jabbed with little tiny pins over an extended area. It’s somewhat similar to “sandpaper” type of pain, but not exactly. It sometimes feels like coarse sandpaper against my skin — not rubbed across it, but held in place, so it irritates me with its presence, but it doesn’t rake. I usually experience this when my clothing brushes my forearms and wrists, also happens without prompting on my upper arms and across my shoulders. (Autonomic)

Blistering – It feels like my skin is blistering and cracking, like paint cracking in the sun, or my lips cracking from being chapped. It usually happens when I am just lying still and trying to relax, like when I’m in bed and trying to sleep. The more I relax and just breathe, the more my skin feels like it’s blistering and cracking and peeling. It happens when my skin is exposed to the air and doesn’t have anything over top of it. It’s much worse when I am tired, but it can happen pretty much anytime. It often takes me by surprise. (Autonomic)

Brushing/Raking – This feels like having my skin brushed/raked/ stroked with a metal-bristle hair brush – the sharp ends pulled across my skin, not pressed in really deeply, but just on the surface, where it irritates and I can’t get away from it. I usually feel this on the tops of my thighs — when my pants brush against my skin lightly. It’s not startlingly painful, but it does hurt. (Autonomic)

Smacking – This feels like being hit hard with an open hand or broad surface – and then the pain scatters out across my skin, as though it were a campfire that had something land in it, and the coals and sparks scattered all around it. It usually happens when someone touches me for a few minutes (an short but extended period of time). Like when my partner put their hand on my forearm when we were driving down to visit family for Christmas. They just laid their hand on my forearm affectionately. It really hurt, and I could feel the pain spreading out around where their hand lay on my forearm. The pain continued, even after they took their hand away. (This is an interactive type of pain, brought on by human contact.)

Banging – This feels like being struck with a blunt instrument – and then the impact reverberates throughout my body. This usually occurs when someone touches me briefly without warning, often in casual conversation, like when my brother-in-law was talking to me at a restaurant one Christmas, and he was harmlessly touching my arm (in a friendly, appropriately affectionate way). This also happens when someone tries to hug me. I have also experienced this when my partner was checking me over for ticks, and they touched the backs of my legs, near my knees. The pressure was very light, but it felt like they were poking me very hard with a blunt object. (Interactive).

Please keep in mind that (thankfully) not all of these types of pain happen simultaneously, and they tend to vary. From one minute to the next, I can go from a relatively pain-free state, to waves of strong physical discomfort. I can be 75% fine one day, and be 15% fine, the next. One type of clothing can be unbearable for me, while others are benign, even pleasurable. And a person’s sudden touch can be excruciating one day, while the next, it can be welcome and enjoyable. “Pain” can also be relative, varying from mildly uncomfortable to downright agonizing. But I differentiate it from “discomfort” in that its degree is different.

Discomfort is something I can deal with, but pain is something that every fiber of my being seeks to escape. An itch is uncomfortable for me. Fabric sensitivity, even at its slightest, feels painful to me. It’s not just discomfort, which to me to me is just annoying and transitory. It’s pain.

My autonomic pain seems to be exacerbated by the qualities of the things I contact — the chemical makeup of fabrics, the quality of light and sound around me, the intensity of the sensation I have (such as the strength of pressure on my skin from the cell phone headset). It tends to get worse, also, when I’m over-tired or I’ve got a lot of different sensory input to process. I haven’t taken the time to figure out what kinds of textiles or materials give me the most trouble. Some days, everything gives me a lot of trouble. I just kind of go with it, and see how I’m doing, where I’m at, and I adjust accordingly.

My interactive pain tends to be exacerbated and complicated by my vestibular and proprioceptive issues. Being unable to gauge distances from people who are reaching out to touch me (no matter how appropriately), makes it difficult to A) prepare myself for their contact, or B) react appropriately. It is difficult for me to receive hugs from friends and loved-ones when my sensory issues are kicking in, and this contributes to my social awkwardness. I tend to stiffen and get tense, which actually makes the experience worse for everyone — for me, because it heightens my agitation, and for them, because they sense a reluctance from me that is physical rather than emotional or interpersonal, and their contact tends to become a bit more clumsy. Stress and strain tend to sharpen my pain, so when my vestibular and proprioceptive issues are acting up, the startling experience of a sudden physical contact can make even a simple touch extremely painful.

The different types of pain I experience can be helped by things like sleep, immobility, keeping away from the source of irritation, movement, stretching, steering clear of people and physical contact, preparing for physical contact with others, or just distracting myself from the sensation by some sort of activity. Analgesics like Advil are not very effective, although they do sometimes take the edge off things. A hot shower can be very relaxing, and swimming in a heated pool is probably the thing that helps me the most. Depending on the type of pain, and how well I’m rested, sometimes relaxing and being immobile makes it worse. Other times, it makes it better. It all depends how I’m feeling at the time, and how well I can redirect my attention to things other than the pain. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly how best to address this. I usually just think about something else and keep myself busy to keep my mind off it, as there’s really no escaping it, when the pain is in “full swing”.

Touch – Insensitivity

One of the other tactile issues I experience is on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum — lack of sensation. When I’m off balance, and my proprioceptive sense is diminished, I tend to run into things, but I often don’t feel it right away. I sometimes notice a sharp shooting pain when I bump into things, but the sensation disappears immediately, and I won’t know how badly I’ve bruised myself till later. I have also accidentally cut myself and not felt it until some time later. At times, when I have really cut myself deeply, or I’ve bumped myself hard enough to get a deep bruise, I’ve been so intensely focused on what I was doing at the time, I hardly noticed the pain and only realized I’d hurt myself when I felt the blood or saw the bruise later.

I suspect this may have something to do with adrenaline — my adrenaline is pumping so hard, at times, as I try to keep myself together, that it seems to numb me to the pain. I’m not a doctor and I don’t know nearly enough about human physiology, but my experience when I unwittingly injure myself is very similar to when I was injured while playing sports — I’d be so intent on the game and so “adrenalized” that I would hardly notice the pain. Again, I’m no doctor, but that’s how I experience it.


A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

The Magic of “Analgesic Stress”

Clearly, the human body is built to survive. And the mechanisms that kick in to save our asses are as built-in as breathing heavily after a sprint or sex, as instinctual as brushing shaggy hair out of our faces when we encounter someone or something we need to see more clearly.

What’s more, the survival mechanisms we employ to escape imminent physical doom are also important parts of less extreme, yet equally vital physiological and psychological survival strategies. Physical responses to mortal danger don’t have to originate only from physical situations, like a mother grizzly discovering you standing between her and her cubs. They can just as easily — and probably, in today’s world readily — arise from psychological ones, such as a sneaking suspicion that your boss is going to fire you at the one-on-one meeting they just scheduled, or the surprise discovery of your spouse in bed with the neighbor.

In order to trigger the biochemical cascade of fight-flight-fright, our brains don’t have to be presented with cut-and-dried physical reasons to pump our systems full of glucose, adrenaline, cortisol, etc. The juices can start flooding our systems over perceived threats, as well. And those threats can be just as existentially distressing if they’re job-related or relationship-related, as threats that involve our physical being.

If something truly threatening to any aspect of your survival is registering, your brain doesn’t particularly care whether it’s a charging bear or a discharging boss. It doesn’t matter if the grizzly is coming at you with a roar, or your spouse is coming with a scream. A threat is a threat, and the part of our brains that differentiates between different sorts of threats is offline, at the time we’re reacting to something wretched happening to us. Sure, the refined, discriminatory, gray-area-friendly parts of our brains are still there, but they are waiting till after the excitement has died down, before they start to tell the difference between a purely physical fight-flight-fright scenario and one that’s all about our emotions or our self-worth or our hopes for the future. The problem is, in the interim, while the sensible part of our brains is “down,” the survival-based part of our brains is flooding our bodies with all sorts of biochemical franticness that both hops us up and dulls us down, that pumps us full of energy, while shutting down the very systems that can regulate the rest of our delicately balanced systems.

So, where does that leave us, if we’ve experienced tons of traumatic stress over the course of our lives? Where does that leave us, if we’ve been stressed and over-taxed and put-upon in very intense ways over a long term? Chances are, it dopes us up with a pretty compelling case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that modern version of “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” or “nervous exhaustion” that clouds our judgment and heightens our reactivity.

And the more it happens, well, the more it happens. If you get sucked into a cycle of intense trauma response often enough, your reactions become so sensitized that your experience doesn’t need to be extreme to trigger a heightened stress respose. I’m no neuroscientist, and I’m not a formally trained psychologist, but it’s my understanding that if you’re put through enough trauma over the course of your life, your body can get in the habit of switching on those stress hormones at a moment’s notice, just to get you through the day. You don’t even need to be in severe mortal danger, for the action to take effect. It can just look/feel/seem like severe mortal danger to the body, and the mechanisms that prevent disaster will spring into action.

That’s where PTSD really digs in and becomes more persistent, more pronounced, more likely to take over. Which cycles around to exacerbate not only its own instantaneous reactiveness, but also its after-effects. And they aren’t pretty. PTSD’s symptoms can include (in no particular order, and in a bunch of different combinations):

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
  • Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)
  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

Avoidance and emotional numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
  • Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

Increased arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled

Other common symptoms

  • Anger and irritability
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Feeling alienated and alone
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain

Which can all conspire to make you feel like you’re either losing your mind, or you’re not fit to live in the world, or everyone is out to get you, or you just can’t make it through the day, or all of the above. And more. I’ve had a pretty eventful life, myself, thanks at least in part to the after-effects of multiple traumatic brain injuries, so I’ve got my fair share of trauma in my past. And post-traumatic stress. And full-blown PTSD.

My brain’s biochemical reactivity has, in many cases, worked very much against me. And I freely admit that I haven’t done nearly enough tending of my parasympathetic nervous system to decompress and regain my balance on a regular basis. But where my brain has often worked against me in stressful times, it has also worked for me, thanks to stress. And the things that have worked for me are those handy endogenous opioids I talked about in my last section.

Remember, the biochemical/hormonal stress response in humans doesn’t care what the stimuli are that are freaking out the brain. All it knows is that it’s freaking out, and it needs to supply the right magic cocktail of hormonal juices, so that the taxed system can function adequately in the face of mortal danger. Even in the absence of lions and tigers and bears and horrific natural disasters, in our modern world, endogenous opioids kick in to numb us to our pain, suppress responses that would keep us from fleeing to safety, and keep us bright and alert on some level — and they can save our asses just as much as they did our Grendel-fleeing ancestors’. At least that’s my experience.

And this is not something we can necessarily stop, once it gets started. We are literally hard-wired to have these biochemicals kick into gear when we’re in danger, we’re uber-stressed, and when we’re in pain. Whether the stress is from a charging bear or an angry boss chewing us a new one in a performance review… whether we’re in danger of losing a limb or losing our job (and our house and our car and all the stuff we owe money on)… whether we’re in pain from lacerations to our legs or sleep-deprived, repetitive-stress-fried joint agony… our bodies are still sending signals via stress hormones (our messengers to/from the gods) and our instinctively hard-wired brains are going to get a shot of numbing sweetness that takes our mind off our ills and lets us live to see another day.

And so a heightened stress response becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a self-perpetuating loop of spontaneous over-reaction that not only jacks us up, but chills us out, as well. It’s like having an existential smoke — nicotine has the dual effect of first stimulating the system, then chilling it out (which is what makes it more addictive than heroin, I’ve been told). Getting that rush of adrenaline, feeling the mind clear, sensing the body coil and prepare to pounce or flee… and then getting that soothing rush of endorphins… It’s hard to beat that, when it comes to being fully functional.

And it does make me fully functional. In more ways than one. The net result of our inborn neuro-biochemical survival/support system is the heightened ability to respond to immediate threats, reduced pain experience, and clearer, more focused thinking. And when I am in a state of extreme agitation and sensitivity, the effect on me is like the effect of clicking the button on a morphine pump for someone who has recently come out of surgery.

Indeed, I have to say that the same survival mechanisms that let me haul my ass out of mortal danger, also enable me to function at a “normal”level in my day-to-day life. This is probably going to sound crazy to some people, even mentally ill to others, but there’s a logistical reason I find my ass in a sling, time and time again — an inborn, ingrained need, even dependency, on stress hormones to function adequately in the world, and actually feel like a normal person.

Putting myself in the direct line of danger — whether by cultivating friendships with people who are innately hostile towards me, seeking out work with employers whose environment seems custom-tailored to trashing my work-life balance, or taking on too much work at a time when my body is sorely in need of rest and rejuvenation — triggers that magic biochemical cascade of endogenous opioids, and suddenly everything is better. It’s not only BETTER, it’s just better. Normal. Regular. Boring. Standard-issue. Uneventful. Drab. Blah.

This probably sounds odd, but normal, uneventful, rote life is something I really need to work at. Whether due to my head injuries or just my nature, I seem to be hard-wired for excitement. And that tends to get in the way of living my life — especially around other people and when I’m at work. Plus, I have a raft of physical/sensory issues that really get in the way and keep me from getting on with it in a productive and steady way. I don’t need my experience to be over-the-top better, just normal. Just regular. Just standard-issue, run-of-the mill… the way everyone else’s life seems to be, and the way I wish my life were.

And analgesic stress lets me do just that.


A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

Picking and choosing and trimming the fat

I’ve been taking a long, hard look at how I’ve been living my life for the past 20 years. I suppose that’s to be expected, as I have a birthday coming up, and I’m in a living situation that needs some work. My marriage is good. It’s great, in fact. In spite of everything, we’re still going strong, and the relationship continues to evolve and grow and change and stretch and do whatever it has to do, to keep going. Because, well, we love each other. We’re really well-suited for one another. And we both realize just how vital each is to our individual and mutual well-being.

To do anything less than tend to this relationship and keep it going, no matter what, would be self-destructive. And neither of us – head injuries or no – is that.

But in a number of areas of my life, I need some real work. I have indulged an awful lot of fantasies and schemes over the course of the past two decades, some of which have been mildly disrupting, others of which have completely derailed my progress. I have started – and abandoned – countless little projects, sketching them out and scoping them and putting all the plans in place to make it happen… only to lose focus, lose interest, and end up wandering away to do something else.  And all my hours of planning and thinking and BIG IDEAS just went to waste.

The wild thing is, I just didn’t care, when I let them go. I found that I had almost no investment in actually following through with them. It was the busy-ness that appealed to me. The process of imagining. The activity of dreaming, not taking action, that really moved me. And when I got to the point where it was time to actually do something… well, then I just lost my mojo.

Which is fine, if you just want to twiddle away your life, spinning your wheels and passing the time. It’s fine, if you’re either independently wealthy with a trust fund that’s hermetically sealed and shielded from market conditions, or you’re not particularly invested in keeping a house and home and lifestyle running. If you’re either extremely wealthy or materially indifferent, you can spend your life just jumping from one Big Thing to the next.

But I’m not in that situation. And every day, it hits home a little harder, how much my bad habits of “recreational busy-ness” have cost me. They cost me every day, in fact, in terms of lost focus, lost productivity, lost effectiveness. These aren’t just corporate-speak weasel-words. These are real things. I haven’t been able to complete tasks I’ve promised I’d do. I haven’t been able to finish jobs in the timeframe I said I would. I haven’t even been able to concentrate on things long enough (in advance) to figure out exactly how long they will take will take me to complete. For someone in my kind of job, doing my kind of work, on my kind of team, this is a bad thing.

And it needs to get fixed.

You see, I like my job, and I want to keep it. I need to figure out how to settle in and do the work, already. Quit being so danged fancy-pants and focus on the basics. The fundamentals. The boring-ass stuff that requires a great deal of concentration and focus, but that has to get done. I need to figure out how to just do it.

This has been sorta kinda nagging in the back of my mind for weeks, now. But I’ve managed to just kind of gloss over it. Things at work have been really disorienting, and that has been emotionally draining for me. I get it in my head that this is my One Chance, my One Shot to Make It, and I get fixated on the idea that if I screw this situation up, I’ll be out of work permanently. That crazy-ass one-sided thinking picks up speed very quickly, and before you know it, I’ve convinced myself that one more screw-up is going to land me back on the streets, I’ll lose everything, including my marriage, and I won’t be able to even open a bank account. When my head gets going like that, it’s not a pretty thing. But I go there so quickly…

The thing is, that thought process really keeps me from just doing what I need to do — focus in and get the job done. It keeps me focused on details — and implausible ones, at that — and it swamps me in minutiae that are not only distracting but extraneous and not central to my core issues.

So, what are my core issues?

After watching myself pretty closely for the past year and a half, I have to say that the biggest problem I have, that affects me all across the board is… (drum roll please…)

Fatigue+Distracting Busy-ness+Fatigue+Distracting Busy-ness

Fatigue Cycle

You see, when I get tired, I tend to get agitated. When I get agitated, I tend to want to do something. Anything. Just something to get my restless mind off my agitation and mounting anxiety. And so, I find something “important” to do — like a new project or some ground-breaking discovery — and I launch into that with all my might.

Thing is, I get so swamped in details that my brain starts getting turned around, and I start to fixate on the wrong things. I get consumed by minor aspects of a project, get pulled off on associational tangents, and my thoughts spin out in all directions, picking up speed, the more overwhelmed they get and the more agitated and restless and anxious they get.

It’s really something to watch, objectively speaking.

Subjectively speaking, it’s a wretched downward spiral into the breaking-point zone of my cognitive behavioral swampland.

The more tired I get, the less well I can think. The less well I can think, the more keyed up I get. The more keyed up I get, the more frantic I become, and the busier I get, and the less that actually gets done.

At the time it’s all happening, it seems like I’m just cooking along, making good progress. But I’m not making progress at all — quite the opposite. And eventually I melt down in a shaking, sputtering pile of profanity-spewing wreckage.

So much for my pet projects, my “cutting edge” concepts, my pioneering initiatives.

That all being said, now I’m taking a close look at what I’m really working on, these days. I’m removing a whole lot from my plate — and I’m seeing how many new projects I’ve started, just in the past six months. I also see how little I’ve actually finished in the past year. This is depressing me, as some of those projects are near and dear to my heart. Two of them, in fact, I am still very excited about. And there are a few others that are close behind. I need to finish them. I have needed to finish them for months, now. But it didn’t get done.

What’s more, there are things I need to do for work that haven’t been done properly. Not yet. It’s really bad. My job is to produce, and I all that I have been producing has been promises. My job is to deliver, and that’s been lagging.

Granted, life happens, and there have been a number of things that have kept me busy outside of my various projects. But this is just getting to be ridiculous. Something must be done.

So, I’m doing something about it.

  1. I’m working through all the different things I’ve got going on — personal and professional — and I’m getting more disciplined about them.
  2. I’m making sure that I’m only working on things that actually serve a long-term purpose, like sharpening key job skills, or teaching me new ones.
  3. I’m making lists of the things I’m working on and figuring out where they fit. And if they fit.
  4. I’m pitching out the things I started on a whim — as an effort to do nothing more than soothe my jangled nerves.
  5. For the things that fit, I’m coming up with some new tools — since I’m a software engineer, I’m engineering my own tools — and I’m designing/building a truly good-looking project management program that I can use without pain (the standard-issue ones are so visually unappealing, they actually make it hard to use them).
  6. I’m consolidating what projects I can, and I’m prioritizing them according to:
  • how much I want/need/have to do them
  • how long they’ll take to get done
  • when I originally wanted them to be done
  • when they are required to be done
  • which ones will totally screw me up, if I don’t do them
  • etc.

There’s more, but I need to get on with my day and do some of this stuff, instead of thinking about it all the time.

One thing is certain, I cannot continue to work as I have been — willy-nilly floating from one thing to another. I need to dig in and finish one thing before I start another. I can’t just keep starting new projects as “stress-management” techniques. If I need to burn some energy and work off steam, then I need to exercise, rather than doing more strategizing. If I need to take a break from one thing I’m doing, then I need to take a break from that kind of activity, not that specific activity.

Where I tend to fall down is, I “take a break” in ways that are not breaks at all — rather than resting to let my brain catch up, I drive it harder to get the stress hormones pumping that take the edge of my cognitive discomfort. I tend to push myself even harder, rather than letting up, and my broken brain thinks everything is just fine — simply because I can’t feel the pain anymore.

But it’s not fine. It’s anything but. I’m distracting myself, not restoring myself. I’m adding to my cognitive load, not lightening it. And ultimately, I get overwhelmed. Again. And it’s back to the drawing board… again… with even less self-confidence and self-esteem than before.

So, there it is. Time to prune back. Time to restore focus. Time to get my scattered brain together and make some real progress.

Any time I devote to activities should be an investment, not an expense. I just can’t afford — literally and figuratively — to waste my precious life force, anymore.

A Perilous Relief: Bliss From Within – The Glory of Endogenous Opioids

For better or for worse, I tend to have pretty high stress levels. It comes from an eventful past, as well as a busy present, and the intense drive to realize my deepest desires for my future. Certainly, it’s not much fun having to constantly “quality control” my thoughts and my actions, so I don’t get myself in trouble over post-traumatic stress that has nothing to do with what’s really going on around me. I certainly don’t want my energy and attention to get pulled down by old stuff that still makes me jump when an unidentified figure appears out of the corner of my eye. And it’s no fun “melting down”

But being highly stressed isn’t as bad as it might sound. In fact, there is a side to my typically high levels of stress that feeds me. And I love it. After years of being down on myself for being “over-stressed,” I’ve come to terms with that shadow side of myself. And I’ve learned to love my stress.

Here’s why:

In addition to these classic “fight-or-flight” responses to get you going, the little almond-shaped gland in the brain, the amygdala, triggers the brain to release endogenous opioids (opium-like chemicals that originate in your own system) which help your system function adequately in high-demand situations.

These endogenous opioids are a built-in part of our naturally functioning system and they are ever-available in varying quantities. Endogenous literally means “from inside”. And endogenous opioids are magic opium-like potions our systems create on their own (it’s been discovered that the human body actually produces morphine in small amounts). Yes, Virginia, there is a way to get high on your own steam, as the biochemicals our brains produce are of the same type as the illegal, intensely addictive stuff you can buy in a plastic baggie from some sleaze who will take sex as payment for the goods instead of money. They’re just a little different, so they match our body chemistry better. And they aren’t usually available to our bodies through our brains in the intense concentrations that leave overdosed junkies dead on the street.

In particular, these internal substances can have a hypoalgesic or analgesic (pain reducing) effect on the body, which helps you deal instinctively with whatever threat is in front of you, without having to deal with pain, as well. I’ve read that endogenous opioids serve to suppress the “lick response” in injured animals, so they can escape. (An animal, when injured, will instinctively stop to lick itself and tend to its wounds, but if it’s been injured by a predator this instinctual response makes it easy prey for its hungry attacker. By suppressing the pain – and the lick response – this natural impulse lets the animal ignore its wounds and focus on escaping to live to see another day.)

The same holds true with us humans. Imagine how short-lived we would be in crisis situations, if we were distracted by pain and other heightened sensations. We’d be too busy going “Ow! Ow! Ow!” and checking to see what bone we broke or what piece of flesh we tore, to get out of the way of the oncoming rockslide, tidal wave, or speeding bus, or haul ourselves out a burning car and run to safety before the gas tank explodes. The adrenaline rush and sudden biochemical cascade of pain-numbing opioids makes it possible for us to do important things like rescue each other, even when the rescuer is injured… to pull ourselves from danger, even if we’ve been hurt… and do things that would be utterly impossible, if we had to deal – for real — with intense pain. Endogenous opioids may well have been what let that tech guy save himself from dying on an ill-fated hike through the California wilderness by hacking his arm off below the elbow with a pocket knife.

Now, these endogenous opioids are truly wonderful things. Among them are Endorphin, Enkephalin, and Dynorphin. More research keeps trickling in about these substances — and others like them. It seems implausible that we could know so little about these important biochemicals until recently, but some of these have only been identified and studied since the mid-1990’s. And by the time I write (and you read) this, much more will probably be known about these substances, and how they interact with our sensitive systems.

It’s my understanding that the reason that artificial opiates work is because they are so much like the opioids we produce in our own bodies. Like a copy of a master key fitting into a lock, artificial/man-made opiates “open the same doors” that our own bodies normally have closed… and then open, when properly prompted by our biochemical “keys”. If you consider how strongly heroin and morphine can affect the human system, and if you consider that the only reason they work is ‘cause they mimic the qualities of opioids we already have in our own brains/brains, you can begin to understand just how powerful our own biochemical systems intrinsically are.

Yes, these endogenous opioids have the same sort of effect on us as opiates. They cut pain. They give us a euphoric feeling. They help clear our minds. They do amazing things to make life worth living. Lenny Bruce, the heroin addict, said of his addiction, “… it’s like kissing God.” If you consider that endogenous opioids can work the magic of relieving/inhibiting pain, imparting euphoria, and making us think better, it explains how human beings can sometimes perform at super-human levels irrespective of pain, danger, stress, or other normally stymieing influences (like, for example, the voice in their head urging them (in vain) to keep a low profile).

These magic potentialities we have in our brains have recently been getting more “air time” from scientists like Irving Biederman, who studies perceptual and cognitive pleasure. According to Dr. Biederman, we’re not only wired to survive — we’re wired to enjoy ourselves in the process. A lot. Things like learning new things, encountering novel situations, looking at innovative art, “tickle” the parts of our brains that release endogenous opioids into our systems.

So, under the worst and the best of circumstances, endogenous opioids are about as close to a gift from God as you can get. Not only do they buffer our bodies from the ill effects of extreme duress, but they also reward certain kinds of behavior (learning, in particular) with a pure shot of unbridled joy.

Kind of makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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