Brain injury is a brain injury, and as much as we may say “each brain is different, each injury is different,” we still need to look at the ways that each kind of injury is similar to others. And the experiences we have can be quite similar.
Loneliness, isolation, confusion, not feeling like yourself, getting angry quickly, mood swings, and let’s not forget the bone-crushing fatigue and the embarrassment that comes from not being the person you used to be… They are all things brain injury survivors have in common, and it’s helpful to actually treat people accordingly.
I honestly don’t understand why more emphasis isn’t placed on the experienceof brain injury. That’s what trips us up, quite frankly. That’s the thing that makes our recoveries so much harder — the experiences we have and the effects those experiences have on our selves, our Sense-of-Self.
Well, that’s why I’m here. To speak up for those of us who tend to get stuck in our post-BI experiences, and need to see there’s actually a way out… Because there is. There is always hope — even in the most dire cases. Nobody can tell me different. That’s just how we’re built — to amaze… to heal… to grow… to learn. And learn some more.
Here’s a quick summary of the different types of brain injury:
Acquired Brain Injury (ABI)
includes things like stroke and anoxic (being without oxygen) brain injury. Some consider traumatic brain injury to be an acquired brain injury, because it “is damage to the brain that was not present at birth and is non-progressive” (See The ABI Manual for more). Personally, I wouldn’t call it “non-progressive”, but everyone’s experience is different.
is what people often call a “mild” TBI. Concussions are sometimes considered less serious than traumatic brain injuries, and a lot of people consider a TBI that clears up after a while, to be a Concussion.
So, my sleep has been going really well, lately. I’ve been getting anywhere between 7.25 and 8.5 hours a night, regularly, which is great.
Last night was not one of those nights. I tossed and turned, couldn’t get comfortable, had a lot of aches and pains, couldn’t turn my head off… you know the drill. And all the while, my head is thinking, “Dude, you need to turn yourself off. Now.”
Easier said than done. I think I got maybe 5 hours…? If I was lucky. And now I’m feeling out of it, foggy, irritable. Not the way I want to feel, first thing on Monday morning.
Every now and then I have a night like that. Sometimes, it can’t be helped. Of course, my schedule was way off — I changed things up in a big way, yesterday, and went for an afternoon swim with my spouse. We’ve been meaning to get to the really excellent saltwater pool of a hotel about 20 minutes from home. They have a great fitness center, too, and they’re less expensive than a lot of fitness centers I’ve been to. Plus, they have “adult time” blocked off for adults who just need to do laps. Or sit in the hot tub.
My spouse has some pretty significant mobility issues, and they need to get in a pool and move — take the gravity pressure off — as well as sit in the hot tub for a few minutes to ease the back pain.
So, we actually got our sh*t together and headed up the road shortly after noon. Got there in good time. Signed in, changed, and headed for the pool. We took our time, obviously, because of the mobility business. But before long, we were in the water.
Unfortunately, the guests weren’t honoring the “adult time” block — there were a bunch of screaming kids in the water, splashing around and generally being kids. That made it a little challenging to just chill out and do exercises/laps. Eventually, the kids left, so I could do some laps and my spouse could do their water exercises in peace. Then the hot tub… just sitting in the water and soaking felt fantastic.
I also got to spend some time in the sauna. They have one of those, too, which is a huge bonus for me — I’ve been wanting to get in the sauna for years, but haven’t had access — more on that later. I didn’t stay in too long (that’s not healthy — 10 minutes tops is recommended). But I did get a bit of heat, which is so important. Especially on cold rainy days like yesterday.
So, I got in a swim on the weekend, which is huge for me. And I can do it again, anytime I like. I got a sauna. I didn’t get on the weight machines, but I can do that some other time. They have good machines. A whole range. I look forward to using them.
And my spouse got their workout in, which is borderline epic. They’ve been saying they’d do it for months and months. And now it’s happened. And that’s a very, very good thing.
When we got home, I was wiped out. Just spent. I needed to sleep, in any case, and then the workout pushed me even further. So, I got a nap, when we got home. I slept for 2 and a half hours… then lay in bed for another 15 minutes. By the time I was up and around, it was late. I had to make supper. Then we watched the latest Jason Bourne movie. And that cranked me up. Then I got in trouble for putting my spouse’s delicates in the dryer (I put them on low, which is basically just tossing them around in a cool breeze, which I thought was fine). And it looked like I’d ruined one of their favorite tops… until we read the label, and it turned out I’d actually done exactly what they told me to do…
So, there was lateness.
And a bit of door-slamming on my part.
And then a little bit of humor, when my spouse came to find me and show me that the top was completely ruined.
It was a full day.
And I didn’t get enough sleep, last night.
But that’ll happen, now and then.
The important thing is, yesterday was a really, really good day, and we/I accomplished a helluva lot that needed to get done.
I can be really miserable to live with, when I wake up after a nap. Especially if I’ve slept more than 30 minutes. Resetting my system to regular life after being “down” is difficult.
A tired brain is an agitated brain, and that’s certainly true for me. Ever since my mTBI in 2004, I’ve been much more prone to anger when I’m tired. It’s neurological. And it’s not much fun.
Yesterday, I was pretty tired. And I was pretty agitated last evening. Cranky. Fighting over every little thing. Grousing and grumbling and having trouble with basic communication. Yelling was my default mode, last evening.
And we were supposed to be on vacation… My spouse and I had a 5-day vacation planned at a waterfront resort about 3 hours from our place. We’d planned on leaving at noon on Thursday, getting there around 3:00… unpack the car, go grab an early supper, and watch sunset over the water. Then we’d turn in, and have the next four days to chill out.
Well, none of that actually happened. My spouse couldn’t get up till noon — too tired. Okay… I adjusted. It did give me time to catch up on my own chores, packing, preparations. The three-hour drive turned into a 5-hour meander through the countryside, which was actually really nice. The weather was gorgeous, and we stopped at a little scenic spot where we relaxed and napped. So, I got about 30 minutes of sleep, which was great. I didn’t even realize how tired I was, till I put the seat back in the car and closed my eyes.
When we woke up, we drove to the resort town, stopping along the way to get some hot soup, which was delicious. It was getting late, so we skipped going to the condo and went right to the beach, where we watched an amazingly beautiful sunset that lasted for an hour, with the amazing afterglow.
Then we drove around some more, exploring the surrounding countryside in the dark. That might sound strange, but we love to do that. There are woody areas where wildlife comes out — we’ve seen foxes, coyotes, bats, raccoons, opossums in those woods, and we always like seeing what happens. We actually did see two big coyotes — one of them ran out in front of the car, but I braked in time. Whatever they’ve been eating, they’ve been well-nourished, that’s for sure.
We picked up some groceries at the local supermarket, then went on to our condo. The management folks just left the door open and a key on the dining room table. I parked in temporary parking and commenced hauling our 12 bags up the flight of stairs to the upstairs unit. We’d packed 5 clothing bags, 2 bags of books and laptop, 4 bags of food we brought, and one bag of beach shoes. That wasn’t counting the clothes on hangers or the beach supplies — we like to travel comfortably, and we also like to have our own food, so there’s always a lot to carry in.
My spouse was moving slowly, since they’ve got limited mobility, so I had everything in the unit before they got into the condo.
When they got inside, however, something was amiss. There was a strong chemical smell — and in fact, there was a sign out front announcing work being done by painters — interior and exterior. My spouse started to have a really bad allergic reaction, sneezing and coughing and throat closing up. It was really bad. We opened all the windows and got some fans running, but after an hour of that, it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to stay the night — or the whole long weekend.
So much for vacation.
There was no way we could stay. I was also starting to get a sick, throbbing headache, which wasn’t good. If a migraine gets hold of me, that’s pretty much the end of me, for days to come. Neither of us could chance it. So, I hauled our 12 bags back down to the car, we closed up the place, and came home.
We got home around 2:00 a.m., which wasn’t bad, actually. And I got in bed by 2:30. I slept till around 8, so that was better than some nights, lately. I’ve been having trouble sleeping, so actually, Thursday night was kind of par for the course.
Except Friday I woke up even more exhausted than usual. Doing all that driving — about 8 hours, give or take — and packing and caretaking and attending and adjusting… it just took it out of me, and 5.5 hours of sleep didn’t patch things up. I had a little 1.5 hour nap in the afternoon, but again, that didn’t do much for me.
So, by Friday night, I was pretty agitated. I was off my regular schedule, which is always a challenge — even if it’s for doing fun things. And I was tired. And my spouse was upset about having to leave. I personally didn’t care about leaving. Vacations with them are never, ever relaxing. It’s one request after another, constantly helping them with… everything. Their mobility has gotten worse and worse, and their thinking is not great. They have not taken good care of themself, mentally, emotionally, or physically, and after years of neglect, it’s all coming to a head.
The whole experience is pretty crushing, actually. Watching someone you love with all your heart decline… and being helpless to stop the downward slide… that’s not my favorite thing. At all. There’s so much they could be doing, so much that we’ve discussed them doing, so much they intended to do, but can’t seem to do by themself… it just doesn’t get done. And they get worse and worse off, as time goes on. I have no idea how much longer this is going to go on, but when it’s all over, I doubt I’ll have any interest in re-marrying. It’s just one long slog for me, and I need a break.
But so it goes, sometimes. I’m not the first person to watch their beloved decline before their very eyes. But it still takes a lot out of me.
And that was probably one of the things that got to me so much yesterday. I was tired, yes. I was agitated, yes. And I was also heartbroken that my spouse can’t keep up. Through the results of their own choices, their own actions. It’s crushing to see that — and realize that you probably care about your beloved more than they care about themself.
But like I said, that’s how it goes, sometimes. I’ve had friends whose spouses completely bailed on taking care of themselves, too, and I’ve watched them either get divorced or just fade away. I’m in the latter category. I’m not getting divorced — I don’t have the heart to do that, just bail on my ailing spouse. I’m just going to watch all this slowly fade away.
And take care of myself in the process. Because I still have a lotof life in me, and I’m not about to let someone else’s choices bring me down. We all have choices to make, we all have ways we can help ourselves. I can’t always help others — even the person closest to me — but I can certainly help myself.
Some people are left with changes in emotional reaction or behaviour after a brain injury. These are more difficult to see than physical or cognitive changes. However, they can be the most difficult for the person and their family to deal with.
BB: I had no idea that a TBI would affect me emotionally, or change the way I acted. Like so many people, I figured that a bump on the head was just an external thing. I'd feel pain on my scalp, and maybe I'd feel a little woozy, but it would clear up in a few minutes... or hours. How wrong I was - so many times. Emotional and behavioral issues have been the bane of my existence (and my family's) for years and years, starting back in my childhood when my behavior was erratic, and my emotions were volatile.
Not everybody will experience these problems and their severity will also vary.
BB: The severity can vary from person to person, as well as from situation to situation. With me, I can be fine, one day... be not-so-great (but seem fine), the next... and then completely lose it a few days later. It's often cumulative, but nobody on the outside sees it building up. That happens inside. Where nobody can see. And when it erupts... hooo boy.
The problem for me, is that when I blow up, it puts people off, and then they think that's how I always am... and then they walk on eggshells about it, all the time.
And I sometimes never get a second chance, because they've made up their minds about me in a negative way.
This frequently occurs at a very early stage after the injury. It can be a coping mechanism for the person, who may be disorientated and very confused. It is most often a stage a person passes through, rather than a permanent change. Examples include: restlessness, pacing and pulling at intravenous tubes.
BB: I've been extremely fortunate to never having had intravenous tubes to pull at, but I know the feeling of not being able to sit still, being extremely agitated - especially after a TBI. A number of times, I can recollect getting hit in the head, and then being flooded with agitation and an overpowering need to MOVE! Like when I got hurt during an informal pick-up soccer game in high school, after the hit, when I was lying there, dazed and confused, I suddenly felt like I'd been given super-powers, and I leaped up and started playing like a crazy person. I don't think I played better than I had before I got hit, but I felt like I did. And I was ON FIRE - or so I thought.
In another soccer game, when I got my bell rung, I knew I'd been hurt, but I felt this incredible urge to GET UP AND GO!!! And I started racing around the field -- in the wrong direction, no less. I nearly scored on my own team, which I think was a red flag for everybody on the sidelines. I did get taken out of that game, and I paced the sidelines in confusion and anger, because I NEEDED TO BE IN THERE! But it was wise to pull me from the game. I was not in good shape, at all.
So, while agitation may be a coping mechanism for some, as they say above, I suspect it also has to do with the mechanism of the brain - the release of all those chemicals, and the general confusion that causes. The brain is trying to figure things out - plus, it's firing on ALL cylinders, like there's no tomorrow. In addition to being a behavioral coping mechanism, it's a result of the brain's basic function.
Explosive anger and irritability
If there has been damage to the part of the brain that controls emotional behaviour and the ability to tolerate frustration, emotions can swing to extremes. The stress of coping with even minor crises, such as misplaced shoes or a noisy vacuum cleaner, can be too much and trigger an angry outburst. If these stresses can be identified, it may be possible to reduce them.
BB: Amen to this. The part of the brain that controls emotions is particularly susceptible, as it's out in front and there are so many types of injury that can affect it. Car accidents, where your brain slams up against the inside of the skull... or tackles that snap your head back and forth... falls, etc. Minor events can turn into crises -- just being blindsided by a sudden change or something unexpected happening, can set me off. Little things can turn into huge things, in an instant. One minute, I'm fine, then all of a sudden, it's off to the races with emotional overload and over-reaction.
Prolonged stress will also do a number on me, as will fatigue. The more tired I am, the more irritable I get - a tired brain is an agitated brain. And when I get too agitated, it's not cool.Sudden outbursts... extreme reactions... it's all part of a day in the life for me, sometimes. Unless I can get enough sleep and take good care of myself. If I can keep on my schedule and be smart about eating and drinking enough water, that helps. So does meditation and just taking time to chill out.
Lack of awareness and insight
The ability to recognize your own behaviours and change them when needed is a sophisticated skill that can be affected by brain injury. This can affect someone’s ability to: be self-aware; have insight into the effects of personal actions; show sensitivity; or feel empathy. It also means that a person may not fully appreciate or understand the effect that the accident is having on their life, health or family.
BB: I honestly had no idea how my TBI was affecting my household, back in 2005. I'd gotten injured at the end of 2004, and 2005 was the start of the downhill slide. I became incredibly self-centered and obsessed with myself. Small wonder - I had to recover and build myself back up, as my Sense-Of-Self had taken a huge hit. I didn't know who I was or what I was about, anymore, and it was devastating. I didn't recognize myself, and I was so caught up in figuring it out inside my head, that I never realized the extent of the changes on people closest to me (who were outside my head).
It took talking with someone on a regular basis about what was going on with me, to help me see what an ass**** I was being, and to do something about it. Until I started talking to a neuropsych on a regular basis, I had no way to understand myself and objectively examine my behavior, because nobody I talked to actually understood how TBI affects the mind, body, and spirit... so they made all kinds of flawed assumptions about who I was and how I was. It was incredibly unhelpful for me, and it did more harm than good.
I got lucky. A lot of others don't have that opportunity. And that's a damned shame. It's criminal, really.
I’ll continue this post in Part 2. Watch this space for notifications.
Family members of individuals with TBI often describe the injured person as having a “short fuse,” “flying off the handle” easily, being irritable or having a quick temper. Studies show that up to 71% of people with TBI are frequently irritable. The injured person may yell, use bad language, throw objects, slam fists into things, slam doors, or threaten or hurt family members or others.
What causes this problem?
Temper outbursts after TBI are likely caused by several factors, including:
Injury to the parts of the brain that control emotional expression.
Frustration and dissatisfaction with the changes in life brought on by the injury, such as loss of one’s job and independence.
Feeling isolated, depressed or misunderstood.
Difficulty concentrating, remembering, expressing oneself or following conversations, all of which can lead to frustration.
What can be done about temper problems?
Reducing stress and decreasing irritating situations can remove some of the triggers for temper outbursts and irritability.
People with brain injury can learn some basic anger management skills such as self-calming strategies, relaxation and better communication methods. A psychologist or other mental health professional familiar with TBI can help.
Certain medications can be prescribed to help control temper outbursts.
Family members can help by changing the way they react to the temper outbursts:
Understand that being irritable and getting angry easily is due to the brain injury. Try not to take it personally.
Do not try to argue with the injured person during an outburst. Instead, let him or her cool down for a few minutes first.
Do not try to calm the person down by giving in to his or her demands.
Set some rules for communication. Let the injured person know that it is not acceptable to yell at, threaten or hurt others. Refuse to talk to the injured person when he or she is yelling or throwing a temper tantrum.
After the outburst is over, talk about what might have led to the outburst. Encourage the injured person to discuss the problem in a calm way. Suggest other outlets, such as leaving the room and taking a walk (after letting others know when he/she will return) when the person feels anger coming on.
The holidays can be tough for anyone who’s got extra difficulties, due to chronic illness. And with TBI / concussion, sometimes the worst thing is being around people who don’t understand what it’s like to have your life turned upside-down by a “mild” blow to the head.
As I’ve said many times, there’s nothing “mild” about a concussion or a traumatic brain injury. That momentary alteration of consciousness means that something “in there” got injured. And no amount of positive thinking or motivation or … consequences… is going to change the functional ability, unless you have adequate time to recover and rebuild your wiring.
You have to keep the stress down, to do that effectively. It takes time and practice and sometimes a bit of luck, to rebuild what you once had. And being pushed and prodded by people who don’t understand TBI or “get” why concussion can turn your life upside-down, doesn’t help with that.
The holidays can be stressful, to begin with. Then you add all the people, the expectations, the increased pace (a lot of us are racing to finish year-end goals at work, at the same time we’re shopping and figuring out holiday party logistics), and money pressures… and it just gets worse. Cognitive reserves that were already in short supply, get even less… and meanwhile, everybody expects you to KEEP UP! KEEP UP! WHAT’S THE HOLD-UP?!
Some of my own challenges have been:
Remembering what I’m supposed to do at work. I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff I was supposed to do – and I even forget to write it down.
Dealing with depression. It comes and goes with me. This year, it seems to be coming more than it’s going.
Keeping cool with my spouse, when tensions get high.
Staying on my exercise routine.
Eating sensibly, and not “stuffing my face” with all kinds of candies and cookies. I’ve done well in terms of candy, because I can’t have chocolate (sets off migraines with me), but I’ve eaten more bread and cookies than I should.
Getting enough rest, and keeping on my regular sleep schedule. A tired brain is an irritable brain, and boy, do I get irritable when I get tired. I’ve had a hard time keeping on my sleep schedule, these past weeks, and I really have to concentrate on getting that sorted out when I’m off work next week.
Not pushing myself too hard. It’s easy for me to push. I know how to do that. But while it used to work okay when I was in my 30s, now that I’m past 50, it’s just not the same. I need to remember where I am… and act accordingly.
Basically, keeping myself together during the holidays is like an extra part-time job. It helps that I haven’t spent a lot of time socializing with friends and family. That takes the pressure off. But for many, many other people, they don’t have that option. And my heart goes out to them.
Still and all, it will be over soon enough. Just a few more days till Christmas, then another week till New Years (which isn’t much of a holiday for me, anyway). Then I can get back to my regular life.
I’m having a strange morning. I got up a little later than usual, and I worked out — got in my five mile bike ride and did some stretching. My spouse woke up nervous and started to pull on my attention, which got me a little pissed off. I needed to concentrate, I hadn’t had my coffee yet, and they kept talking to me and asking me questions and haggling with me over various things, like what to eat for supper, what we’re going to do later for shopping, and how we’re going to manage our day. They’ve got a business thing they’re doing tomorrow afternoon, and I’m helping them with it. That will get me out of the house and give me some time to go do other things while they’re having their meeting. So, we have a fully weekend ahead of us, and they’re anxious. So am I. I hate to admit it, but I’m quite anxious about the prospect of spending a lot of time with them over the next two days. I really don’t want to do all of it. I want to just move at my own pace and not be pressured. I don’t want to deal with crowds and stores and all of that. It’s overwhelming, and it gets to be too much for me during Christmas shopping season. But it’s all got to get done. So, I’ll do it. I’ll do it, and be done with it. And try to have a good time, in the meantime. Keep my sense of humor. Not take things to heart. Keep it light. And watch my sh*t. I noticed that I was getting really bent out of shape with my spouse — I was getting very tense and irritable and starting to do little things to provoke them. Not good. It was not helping. So, I backed it off and changed the subject. I told a joke. I quit doing those little things that I know bother them. I got a grip and extracted myself from the conversation before it escalated — as it so often does — into a full-blown argument that throws us both off for the rest of the day… sometimes longer. Backing off works. So does taking a close look at how things are happening with me… to make sure I don’t fly off the deep end and dig us deeper into a hole of antagonism and anger. The good news is, it worked. Backing off and changing the subject and making a joke, all really helped to diffuse the tension. And we are back on track to having a nice day together, without all the drama and agitation. If I can pay attention to what’s happening with me and modulate my behavior and responses, so much the better. I’ve been doing better about that, lately. Part of the impetus is that I’ve been mentioning my behavior issues to my healthcare providers, and they are all looking at me with that “meds” look in their eye. I don’t want to go on meds. I have nothing against other people using them. But I don’t want to have to take pills to keep myself on track. Sometimes they are medically necessary. I don’t believe they are for me. Or maybe they are, and I’m just digging in my heels and resisting the inevitable. I’ve never been comfortable with drugs — even when I was drinking heavily and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, I wasn’t into drugs. They make me feel weird and off, and they mess up my head. So, no thanks. But if I become a danger to myself and others because of my volatility and aggression, then someone may put me on something. And I don’t want that. Because taking a pill for something makes it possible for me to live my life without developing the skills I need, in and of myself. If I have attentional problems, I want to solve them by developing my innate ability to attend to things. If I have cognitive issues, I want to develop my brain and my thinking techniques to improve. I believe that a whole lot can be achieved by developing the human system — the one we already have — and drugs distance us from that possibility. They relieve us of the duty to do so, as well as the impetus to change. We can take a pill and be done with it. No more work needed, other than remembering to take your meds. I’m oversimplifying, I know. There are many, many people who cannot help themselves or who just need meds to keep things sorted. And I’m really glad they have that option. For me, I’m just more comfortable working on things myself. That way, I won’t be dependent on insurance to get me my medications. And I have more freedom of choice about what I do for work and what benefits I need. I am fiercely independent, and it makes me really nervous to depend on anyone for anything. Self-sufficiency is the way for me. Like I said, everyone has their own way of doing things, and I have no problem with people doing things differently. Whatever works for you… I’ve got no argument against it. And I reserve the right to keep my independence and improve where I can, as best I can. I watch. I learn. I adjust and fix what appears to be “wrong”. And I move on. Life goes on. Yes, it certainly does. Onward.
Well, my spouse has done it again. We were supposed to leave for our vacation today around noon, and now they tell me that they’re not going to ready in time. They may — may — get up by 11:00.
That’s pretty disappointing. But then again, we are taking two cars, so I’m not going to be dragged down by their sluggishness. I have to come back home on Sunday night in order to be at the office from Monday through Wednesday. Wednesday night, I’ll head back out to the condo we’re renting, a few hours from home, and I’ll work remotely in the morning on Thursday and Friday, then take afternoons off.
I’m not sure why this “change in plans” surprises me so much. Maybe because my spouse is picking up another friend to join us for a few days, and that friend’s family is going out of their way to drop them off half-way. It seems incredibly unfair to everyone (except my spouse), that everyone’s schedules need to be re-jiggered to accommodate them. People have better things to do, than wait around to find out when they should leave the house.
If anything, it seems a bit sociopathic on my spouse’s part – like nothing matters except them and their own wishes and needs. Then again, they do have neurological issues, as well as some cognitive impairment and possible dementia, so they may not even realize that they’re being selfish. The whole neurological decline thing is a real drain, and if you forget what’s going on with them, it can be maddening. When they’re challenged, they get reallyangry right off the bat, possibly because they get scared at being caught unawares and not being able to think right away. They lash out and yell and threaten and cry and so forth. On the one hand, some people think they’re being manipulative, but I think it’s also a sign of cognitive decline. They really do get scared — and then they use their anger and blustering to stop me from saying or doing anything else… and that way they buy some time to catch up.
The thing is, once they get past their hemming and hawing and blow-harding, they re-orient themself to what’s happening, and then they calm down and can carry on a usual conversation.
The main thing for me is to not take things personally and get really upset when they start acting out. That happens all too often, and I forget that they’ve got cognitive issues. I take it personally and get so upset and bent out of shape — everything balloons in my mind, till the argument is not about what’s happening right in front of me, it’s about everything and anything that’s possibly related to my frustration at that point in time. My own brain goes haywire, too, so we feed off each other — and not in a good way.
Fortunately, I am getting better about checking in with myself and telling if I’m starting to get too wound up. Then I can back off — just walk away and cool off, and give us both a chance to simmer down. It’s just both our brains going haywire, and we both get scared. And we lash out. It gets to be a little much, to tell the truth, and some days I just despair about that downward cycle. But if I can step away and have some time to myself and get enough rest, that helps.
Taking care of myself really needs to be my top priority, in dealing with my spouse. When I get tired, my brain doesn’t work well, and of the two of us, I’ve always been the more functional — by a lot. I’ve been their caregiver, pretty much, for nearly the whole time we’ve been together. Their health has often been bad — especially their mental health, and after a serious neurological illness they had back in 2007. They’ve got a ton of history behind why they’re so mentally ill, and there’s plenty of reasons why they have the issues they do. Panic. Anxiety. Depression. Paranoia. Verbal aggression. A real roller coaster of emotions — with very little calm in the meantime.
Does it get old? Oh, you betcha. But they’re the love of my life, so you take the bad with the good.
And you take care of yourself.
So, this “vacation”, I need to be really clear about what I will and will not do. I need to not bend over backwards for them, just because they’re on vacation and think they should be treated like royalty. They’re not the only person who deserves a break, and I need to get some rest, too. In some ways, coming home from Monday to Wednesday is going to be a real relief for me. I’ll have the house to myself, I’ll be able to eat whatever I like — actually much healthier than how my spouse will eat. And I’ll be able to get to bed at decent times without that late-night drama they love to stir up.
So, it’s all going to work out for the best, I believe.
I just have to remember that my spouse is actually impaired in some significant ways, and I need to adjust and adapt and plan ahead.
And not get my hopes up for things that have never happened before, and will probably never happen, period. Like getting on the road at the pre-agreed time. Or having a low-key and very no-nonsense sort of trip.
The main thing is that I find a way to really enjoy myself, take care of myself, and actually get some rest. The condo where we’re staying has three floors, and I’ll be downstairs in a quiet, dark bedroom with couch and desk and its own bathroom, while my spouse will be up on the top floor. It works out well, and it leaves room for both of us to move at our own paces and have some freedom from each other. We’re both getting older and a lot more set in our ways — and a lot less willing to compromise.
More rigid? Yes. But also more discerning, and not so willing to give ground on things that really matter to us personally.
I think a lot of couples find this as they get older. They either split up, or they stick together and find a way to peacefully co-exist, whilst pursuing different interests that are all their own. I know I’m at that point in my life, and it’s not worth hassling over. It really isn’t.
So, I just need to take care of myself and have the vacation I want. Whatever my spouse does, is on them. No skin off my teeth. Not if I don’t let it.
I had my doctor’s appointment the other morning, and it went pretty well. I got some antibiotics for the infection that has been bothering my ears and making it hard for me to keep my balance, and I gave my doctor the holiday card my spouse told me I needed to give to them. It was a good call – and I picked out a good card, because it really touched my doctor a lot. They didn’t want to let on, but I could see it meant something. I mean, if you think about it, doctors spend their lives trying to help others. They have their limitations, like all of us, but in the end, their whole reason for doing what they do is to help people.
I have been taking my meds for the past few days, but I’m still having balance issues. I’m going to keep on doing it, and hope for the best. I really don’t want to go back, though. It’s just more opportunity to get put on more meds — which my doctor tried to do, when I told them about the balance issues. They tried to put me on meclozine / antivert, thinking that would fix what was wrong with me, but I told them no, because that stuff just makes me feel rotten and weird and dense, and it doesn’t do a thing for my vertigo. It’s supposed to fix the nausea thing and supposedly make me feel less dizzy, but it’s an antihistamine and the side effects whack me out.
Drowsiness and tiredness and that weird spacey feeling that antihistamines give me, is just not worth it. So, I told them not to prescribe it. Even if they had, I wouldn’t take that stuff. Like I need more crap in my system…Anyway, I can always take Dramamine if it comes to that. I’ve taken it for seasickness and it seemed to help me. At the same time, it still make me feel weird and “off” and the fishing trip I was on was a lot less fun because of it.
Anyway, I had been planning on “having the talk” with my doctor about not being a risk-taker, just having a hard time sorting through the myriad little “issues” I have on a daily basis. For any doctor who is reading this, please take note: TBI can introduce a whole host of physical issues, from noise sensitivity to light sensitivity to touch sensitivity to pain to ringing in the ears… a whole host of physical issues that can cloud the overall picture of one’s health. And that’s not even the mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, which can make everything seem 1000x worse than it really is… or it can make everything seem like it’s nothing at all. This obviously has implications for patients with TBI being able to accurately self-assess their level of well-being. And it’s helpful to address that aspect of our experience.
The only problem is — and I realized this when I was driving to my dr. appointment and was thinking about the best way to broach the subject. I thought about how I would approach it, how I would introduce the topic of my not being a risk-taker, but just a person who struggles with sorting through all the stimuli of each day… and I considered (based on past experience) what my doctor’s response would be.
I’m glad I did think it through, too, because it gradually dawned on me that if I talked about my issues the way I was, my doctor would try to prescribe me something. Or prescribe tests. Or try to DO something, instead of just understanding and thinking things through and letting that inform their approach with me. They tend to jump right into action! as though that will solve anything right off the bat. Sometimes it does. But in some cases, you don’t need a procedure, you need comprehension and understanding and a slightly different way of approaching things.
Knowing what I know about my doctor, after seeing them for a number of years, I really think that if I’d “had the talk” about my issues, I might have ended up fending off a slew of prescriptions and tests — they’ve already tried to get me CT-scanned and/or X-rayed over sinus issues. I mean, I’m sure they mean well, but I am notexposing myself to a bunch of radiation over a sinus infection. Seriously… It’s just not going to happen. Not unless I am in serious danger.
Likewise, I’m not going to raise a red flag that my doctor is going to treat like an invitation to charge. They’ve got a bit of a fight-flight predisposition, and the last thing I want is to have to try to explain and fend off their headlong charges and attacks against what might be vexing me, when all I really want is for them to temper their responses with a little more knowledge. I can easily see them ordering a bunch of tests and prescribing a bunch of meds, in the interest of helping me… and all the while, I just get sucked into the medical system with more crap on my chart to fuel the standard-issue medical responses that pathologize and (over)medicate my condition… when all I really need is some understanding and consideration. All I really need is for people to slow down… but knowing my doctor, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. At least not with them.
So, I didn’t have “the talk” with my doctor, and I’m a little disappointed in myself. At the same time, though, I’m glad I thought it through carefully ahead of time. In a way, I feel like I may have dodged a bullet from a weapon that I had trained at myself. I unloaded the weapon and put it down, and now I’m feeling a bit better. What I really need to do is speak up, in the course of conversations, when I feel that things are going too fast or my doctor says something that doesn’t sit right with me. Sometimes I can speak up and defend myself quickly, other times I can’t. I’m working on that. The times when I don’t speak up, I feel terrible afterwards, so that’s more impetus for me to practice speaking up.
That was something I did do on Friday — I spoke up about the meds and the tests and the assumptions my doc was making. They seemed a little peeved that I was questioning their judgment, but you know what? It’s my body, it’s my life, and I need to do what I need to do. Provided, of course, I’m not putting myself in danger.
Anyway, that’s one example of things not working out as planned, and it being okay.
Another example is last night, when I decided to go to bed early, then I got caught up in going on Facebook “one last time”. I swear, that thing is a massive time-sink, and I have to be careful. By the time I got to bed, it was over an hour later, which just sucks. Oh, well. I’ll just have to nap today. I had planned on doing some last-minute Christmas shopping, but the other thing that’s happening is that we have company from the party last night. Rather than driving home, we had someone stay over, which is fine. But now I need to be social and hang out, instead of running out to the mall. That’s annoying to me. But come to think of it, I actually knew that we might have company staying over, so I’m not sure why I was thinking that I was going to run out, first thing this morning, and take care of that. More annoyance — this time with myself.
Oh well — tomorrow is another day, and I can probably get all my shopping done early in the morning before the crowds hit the mall. I pretty much know what I want, and there’s not much of it, so it will keep things simple. Plus, having less time to spend on it really focuses me. Even if that doesn’t happen, and I get stuck in the crowds, and the lines are long, and I get trapped in the holiday crush, I can always check Facebook while I’m standing on line.
So, yeah – plans. I have them. We all have them. And when they don’t go the way we expect them to, then it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to handle them. I can get worked up and bent out of shape. Or I can roll with it and come up with another course of action. I can get annoyed at this, that, and the other thing, or I can just let it all go and see what happens. When I’m tired (like I am today), I am less able to just let it all go. When I am stressed (like I am over my job, even though I am off on vacation for a week and a half – the residual stress is ridiculous), it’s harder for me to just BE.
I’ve noticed an increasing level of intensity with me – I’m starting to lose my temper again (though inside my head, not out in the world around me so much). I’m starting to react really strongly to little things… like I used to, before I started exercising regularly and doing my breathing exercises. I’m noticing a change, and I’m not liking it much — especially the parts where I’m not rolling with changes as well as I would like to. Things are starting to sneak up on me again.
So, it’s back to using the tools I was working with before. Despite my good progress, I had gotten away from the exercise and the breathing for a while, in part because I just got so uptight over doing it each and every day like clockwork, and also because I just needed to let it all sink in for a while. I was working really hard on my technique and also my regular practice, and it got to be just another chore that didn’t have much sense to it. I just hit an impasse with it — maybe I had too many ideas and my head was spinning, maybe I had too much experience that I needed to just get used to… in any case, I needed a break.
So, I took a break. And I must admit it was a pretty big relief to not “have” to do the sitting and breathing every morning. All of a sudden, I had extra time, and ironically, I felt like I could breathe. I was still doing intermittent breathing throughout the day, when I felt my stress level increasing, but I didn’t have a daily practice.
Still, I do feel like I need to get back to a bit of that again. I’ve had my break. Now I need to try it again to see how it helps me… pick up where I need to — maybe where I left off, or maybe somewhere else… Just do what I need to do to get myself back on track and take the edge off this intensity, which has been building and is starting to drag me down.
Things change. Plans change. What we think we can do is often very different from what we can do, which is also different from what we DO do. Life has a way of changing directions on us when we least expect it, and the only constant is change. So, I need to work on my flexibility and chill-ness, so I don’t end up ship-wrecked over every little thing. Yeah… I need to work on that. And so I shall.
I recently was pointed to an excellent blog post by someone who writes about disability. Her post No, You Are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother and Yes, Your Kid’s Privacy Matters really struck a nerve with me. She basically took to task the author of a blog post that went viral, recounting personal struggles with a challenged kid and what she felt she was forced to do. She seemed to truly believe that her kid might one day turn into a shooter like the one who massacred all those little kids and teachers in the Newtown, CT elementary school.
When I read the words of that mother who blogged about her troubled son and publicly “outed” him in ways that can — and will — follow him the rest of his life, frankly it was eerie. And like the author of No, You Are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother, it really bothered me, hearing a mother tell the world about her usually brilliant, sometimes violent son. To all appearances she was calling out for help. I got that. But I also had to wonder – what about her son? And not only now, but what about later?
Certainly, it must be horribly, terribly difficult for any parent to struggle so much with a kid like that. I feel a great deal of compassion for her. At the same time, I also cannot help but think of my own mother, who spent much of my childhood reaching out for support and help from her friends, by telling them what a difficult time she was having with me and one of my other siblings, who was also a “problem child”. I can remember quite vividly the winter vacation we took with the family next door, when I was 12 or so, and I overheard my mother complaining with great anguish about me and my anger. She could not understand why I was so bitter, so angry, so uncontrolled. I’ll never forget the tone of her voice, the disgust, the helplessness, the blame — as though my anger, regardless of the cause, was an insult to her.
I was making her look bad.
After all, my other siblings were so good — except, of course, for the other problem child who ended up addicted to heavy duty drugs, dropped out of high school in 9th grade, and was in and out of trouble with the cops for years. If only we could all be like the other three who were such good kids, such diligent students, so responsible for their age. If it weren’t for the two of us,everything would have been just right — no criticisms from grandparents, no condemning stares from strangers, no tsk-tsk-tsk from the “church family”. Just a nice all-American family growing up together in a happy little unit.
But of course, there was me… the kid who’d gotten hit in the head a bunch of times (not that anyone put two and two together and understand that was why I was so angry, so quick to act out, so impulsive, so unable to keep focused on anything for long). I was a problem. An embarrassment. A puzzle that could never be solved. I was the wedge between my family and perfection, the barrier between my mother and her happiness. My dad spent a lot of time traveling for his work, when I was a teenager, so he got out of dealing with us, most of the time. So, mom was left to deal with me and The Other One. We were her cross to bear. Especially me — at that point in time — age 12-13, when I seemed irreversibly at odds with everything in the world, including myself, and nothing could calm or soothe me except solitude and the company of my own imagination.
And I wonder about that kid who got basted in that blog post. I wonder how he must feel — how he’s going to feel. The sound of my mother’s dismissing, disparaging, judging, disgusted voice in that cabin in the woods, some 35 years ago, stays with me to this day, and it did a number on my head for years after I first overheard it. I cannot even imagine how that kid must feel, having his issues broadcast all over the world wide web, for all to see and read and think they know about.
Truly, it must suck.
What also sucks, is imagining what it means for the kid long-term. He’s been committed, and his mother has publicly said he’s a threat. What are the chances now, do you think, of him ever being admitted to a public school, or for that matter a college? What school would want him? What college — especially considering the episodes at Virginia Tech — will welcome him with open arms, with a record he’s already started at 13? It probably makes no difference if they sort out his meds. It probably makes no difference if his chemistry rights itself with his advancing years. And it certainly makes no difference, if he learns coping mechanisms and behavioral strategies that help him keep centered and grounded in the midst of any storm.
The damage is done. His face and his name are out in the open for all to see. He’s well and truly screwed.
But hey, at least his mom feels better, right?
What a strange feeling this is. I can only be thankful that my mother had no access to the blogosphere when I was a kid. If she had, she would have been all over it, broadcasting her woes and my ills to the world on every forum and blog and social media outlet she could get to. She did that sort of thing — old-school — as much as she could, with both me and my other problem sibling, with whomever she could, so long as they were willing to listen.
To this day, she hasn’t let go of the pain and humiliation and hurt which my ex-addict sibling brought to her and her otherwise perfect family. She continues to punish them with judgments and criticism and public humiliation, even decades after they had their last high. And she continues to treat me like I’m somehow deficient — to this day she still jumps a little whenever I make a sudden move, as though I’m still as unpredictable and volatile as I was when I was younger. It makes no difference that both of us kids have paid our dues and gotten our lives in order. It makes no difference that we are different. For her, we are just the same.
She remembers. She remembers what we did to her and her chance at perfection. And we will never live it down.
That recollection of what it’s like to have your mother broadcast your illness for her own sake… it’s only half the actual struggle with all this I’m having right now. The other half is with privacy, and the freedom to be anonymously imperfect in this increasingly invasive world. There’s a reason I don’t tell people who I am and where I live. There’s a reason that no one I know is aware that I keep this blog going. Because people just don’t get it. Unless you’ve been in this kind of situation, where your brain and your body and much of your life are all seemingly pitted against your will and best intentions, you cannot know how it is. But you can sure as hell judge. You can sure as hell condemn. And you can sure as hell make certain that your views are known — whether it be on Twitter, Facebook, blog comments, or some other online social medium. There’s just too much talk and not enough knowledge, too much criticism and not enough compassion.
And that is a battle I choose not to take on. Because it’s a losing one. A long and losing one, at that.
Now, being curious to see if there was any kind of response/backlash against the blogger who took issue with Pseudo-Adam Lanza’s mother, I checked back today. Sure enough, she got a ton of comments, apparently a lot of them were not that great. She followed up with a great post: Debriefing: On the Ethics and Implications of Outing a Child in the Media and she touched on many of the things I was thinking, myself. I hope you’ll read her piece – she says it all quite well.
In the end, like many people after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, I’m feeling quite raw and vulnerable, these days. But even moreso, as someone with a history of cognitive issues and anger issues and attentional issues that could easily be amplified and skewed by the scapegoating mob who are seeking to root out “bad influences” and “threats” from polite society. Behind every rock, there seems to lurk a demon. People are looking high and low, and you generally find what you look for. It’s truly bizarre, to feel that after so many years of working so hard to gain some semblance of normalcy, I should experience this sense of intense vulnerability — not as a victim, but as someone who might be targeted by the status quo, because of my past. Especially my childhood.
And it makes me reluctant to actually speak my mind and talk about what’s really going on “ïn here”. Someone might take it the wrong way, after all. And then what?
I know I’m indulging in some pretty far-ranging what-if’s… and yet…
Are people with mental illness going to be targeted by an uninformed and aching public? It’s quite possible.
Are people who have different cognitive capacities going to be singled out and marginalized by a world seeking desperately for ways to return to normalcy — a normalcy which never actually existed and we frankly will never “get back”? It wouldn’t surprise me if that happened.
Are people with known anger issues, who struggle with impulse control, who honestly and sincerely work towards keeping to stable ground and staying centered in the midst of chaos going to be seen as potential threats to those around them? I wouldn’t doubt it.
In the extremes, of course we have to be careful. We have to be wise and prudent and use our heads and not let the batshit crazy people loose their rage on the rest of us with tools of mass destruction. But there’s a whole lot of different kinds of crazy swirling around in many, many guises, and I for one wouldn’t care to be labelled by the maddening crowd and possibly targeted by those who “mean well” and are trying to protect their loved ones from threats they imagine are there.
Nor would I want my ills to be dragged out into the light of day without my consent or say-so, and marked as “a future Adam Lanza” — just because my mother needed to feel that she wasn’t quite so alone.