Another sort of amnesia

A really interesting thing has been happening with me, lately. It’s actually been unfolding over the past six months or so, when I think about it. More and more, I’m piecing scattered parts of myself back together. Most importantly, I’m becoming increasingly aware that there are pieces of myself I need to piece back together. I’m starting to remember things I used to love to do, things that used to be part of my everyday life, that I couldn’t do without… but suddenly became “pointless” after my last fall.

In particular, mindfulness and meditation are back. And I’m really focusing again on the re-development of the abilities and the interests that keep me focused, centered, and going strong. This return is big. It’s huge for me.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal. After all, everybody loses motivation, now and then. Everybody goes through ups and downs, shifting in and out of specific interests. Why get so worked up?

You have to understand — my shifting away from mindfulness and meditation wasn’t just a flight of fancy. It wasn’t just me getting distracted by other things and taking a break. When I got away from it, I not only got away from it, but I pretty much removed it wholesale from my life.

To understand the full impact of this, you have to comprehend what a significant part of my life mindfulness and meditation were, for many, many years. I had always been a thoughtful kid, growing up. Philosophical, even. I spent a great deal of time contemplating life and its deeper meanings, and I didn’t let the fact that I was young stop me from pondering age-old things. I would meditate on mountain vistas and campfires, commune with nature on solitary walks… be one with the universe while sitting and watching dust particles dance in a sunbeam.

In retrospect, I believe this tendency to contemplate and meditate arose naturally from my difficulties with everyday activities that other kids engaged in. I had trouble with my coordination — real balance problems, at times — and my senses were pretty sensitive when I was tired, which was a lot of the time. I never really fit in, like a lot of kids. But unlike other kids, who went out of their way to remold themselves to they could fit in better, I withdrew to a solitary, almost monk-like life of minding the smallest details of life and extracting meaning from them.

Into my adult life, too, I spent a tremendous amount of time contemplating and meditating, communing with the cosmos whenever I could. I found tremendous comfort in that, a sense of connection that eluded me in everyday life with other people. External situations that others found easy tended to baffle me, so I focused my energies on cultivating an inner life, an inner view of the world that was consistent with my heart and mind. I spent my free time reading and journaling and meditating and exploring spiritual matters. I wasn’t heavily invested in “the things of this world” because I had other interests in mind —  namely, my connection with that still small voice within.

It served me well, too. On the surface, spending a lot of time contemplating and meditating might seem like an interesting hobby, but what good would it really do a person in the real world?

Actually, it helped me tremendously, as I developed a practice I called “modified za-zen” where you maintain your mindful composure and presence of mind in the midst of chaos. It was a real “warrior stance” I took – being impassive and composed even in the face of full-on attack or a schedule packed full of highly stressful tasks. That practice enabled me to play a significant part in many heavy-duty projects at work, and it molded me into a truly competent team player who was a rock and a cornerstone of the groups I was with. It cultivated in me a presence of mind, a peace of mind, that was the envy of my spouse, my friends, my co-workers. Very little could ruffle my feathers, when I was in the zone. I wasn’t always in the zone, to be sure — I had various issues that would come up, no doubt related to my neurology, but that practice of mindful awareness and intentional composure made all the difference in some very tough situations.

After I fell in 2004, that changed.


Broken Bokeh by WatchinDworldGoBy

Suddenly, I couldn’t be bothered with that meditation stuff. And contemplation? Well, that just seemed like a huge waste of time. As for my composure at work and at home, well, who the hell cared about that anymore? I “decided” I was sick and tired of putting forth the effort to hold myself together. I “decided” it was high time that I had a break and stopped holding myself in check. There was a part of me that suddenly felt like making the effort to sustain my calm was stupid and weak. It just didn’t want to be bothered. It told me I was “choosing” to stop controlling my behavior and stop monitoring my moods and state of mind and actively managing them, but the truth be told, I just couldn’t. The part of me that had used to do that wasn’t working the way it used to. It couldn’t.

It was like the responsible, mature part of me that had good sense about keeping myself centered and sane had been shattered. And in its place I found a selfish, self-centered, self-pitying creature who had a hair-trigger temper and frankly didn’t give a damn what anybody had to say. If that part wanted to act out, it acted out, and it had the best of excuses for doing so. The part of me that had long been conscious of how vital it is to keep centered and calm and have mastery over my behavior, didn’t fully recover from that fall. It was like it got knocked out for a lot longer than my lights went dim, and while it was out, it got pushed out of the way by the other part of me that felt like any attempt at composure was cramping its style.

Whereas I had already spent many, many hours… indeed, many months of my life, if you add up all the hours together… cultivating an equanimity that was the envy of many friends and co-workers, starting at the very end of 2004 (I fell at Thanksgiving), I moved pretty rapidly away from that old practice of mine. And within a year’s time, I was in trouble. Deep doo-doo.

Of course, all this was pretty much invisible to me and my broken brain. I told myself, I had other things to do. I told myself, I had to focus on “real” things. I just let the meditation drop and walked away. And whenever some anger or frustration came up, instead of checking in with myself to see if there was any valid reason for me to act on it (there usually wasn’t), I indulged every one of my whims with a self-righteous self-justification that seemed perfectly logical to my broken brain, but logistically made no sense whatsoever.

The result? A lot of headaches at work, a lot of trouble at home, increasing money issues, relationship issues, and health issues. It just wasn’t good.

But all the while, as my struggles compounded, there was still that raging voice in me that was convinced it had every reason and right to accommodate every single negative impulse I had.  Seeing the connection between my feelings and my behavior and the consequences was next to impossible, in my diminished state. I had literally forgotten that it mattered, for me to get a grip.

Okay, enough background. The good news is, I’m coming back. Those old monitoring parts of me that I had worked so hard to cultivate, are coming back online. It’s more than just feeling better and more alert — I AM better and more alert. I’m able to wake up in the morning, I’m able to engage more fully throughout my days, I’m able to step back and take a look at my moods and my behavior and choose the sorts of responses that will work in my favor, not against me. I’m not just on this mad auto-pilot drive; I’m actually able to slow down and contemplate my life and find real meaning in it again.  I’m also able to relax — really relax. It’s pretty amazing.

And as the time passes, with each new success which I fully realize and appreciate, I build up my stores of lost self-regard, self-esteem, self-respect. I also build up my stores of self-control, and I can actually live without being right about everything, no matter what the costs to my relationships. I am better and better able to choose my responses, and even when people around me are acting up and seemingly going out of their way to provoke me, I’m able to pull back from the engagement, figure out what I want to do and say… and do it.

Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. What amazes me even more, is that I went for years without having this as a regular part of my life. It amazes me, I thought I could do without it.

So, I’m enjoying this. Thoroughly. I’m watching my life with a whole new interest, and I’m learning a lot. In a way, I feel as though I’m re-learning skills, like someone re-learns to read and write after a head injury. Like someone re-learns to walk and talk after a stroke. Like someone with amnesia who starts to remember their name, their family, their home, their work… Like someone who wasn’t even fully aware of having amnesia, who suddenly sees a world they once knew, and isn’t sure whether to be elated or dismayed. In truth, it’s a little bit of both. I’m elated that bits and pieces are coming back to me. But I’m also dismayed that I lost sight of them for so long.

It feels very odd to be writing this, and to be realizing it, but I guess I was a lot more impacted in some ways than I really realized. But now that I’ve “got” it, I can move forward. Progress is good.

What really piques my interest is thinking about what got me back on track. I think one of the big things that set it in motion, was taking care of my body — starting to exercise regularly, and waking myself up with exercise and stretching, rather than two strong cups of coffee. That, and stretching and consciously relaxing before I go to sleep at night.

I actually think that I developed a hefty dose of PTSD, in the aftermath. Not right away, not from the fall itself, but rather from the progression of small disasters — bite-size catastrophes — that have dogged me for years. The collapse of jobs, the dramas at home, the startling surprises that I didn’t see coming, the encounters that went poorly or that carried some sort of hurt with them… My sympathetic nervous system has been on high alert for quite some time, now, and it’s taken a toll.

But since I started making a point of caring for my parasympathetic nervous system — bit by bit, exercise by exercise, breath by breath — I have been able to feel a difference in my whole system. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s dramatic. But it’s there. Conscious breathing has played a significant role, of late.

It’s good to be getting back. I’ve been toughing it out just about all my life, but this past 5 years has kicked my butt, to the point where toughing it out is no longer the best solution I can think of. Now I have other ways of dealing with the crises and dramas — ways which involve really basic care of myself, basic care of my system, and attending to the details of my life with a much greater depth than I’ve been able to manage for a number of years.

But now I am remembering who and what I am. I am remembering what matters most to me. I am re-learning the wonder and magic of paying attention to little things, and seeking deeper meaning from my life than what the television has to offer. I am re-learning the discipline of just sitting and observing what’s going on around me, rather than diving in with the intention of “fixing” what isn’t mine to fix. I am re-learning the fine art of calm in the midst of storms, as well as making my way in the world in my own individual way.

I wish I could say it’s coming naturally to me. I used to be able to say that. I used to know it and feel it. I seem to recall that I used to not have to really work at it. But I’m not adverse to work, and if extra effort is required to get me back to a place where I can piece back my life into a state of quiet dignity and genuine happiness. then so be it.

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concussion now i’m stupid

Someone visited this blog yesterday with the search “concussion now i’m stupid” and it seems like it’s in the air.

I had a great day Saturday — I had a very social day, and I was out and about in town, which rarely happens with me. I either don’t have the time, or I don’t make the time, or I find a hundred other things to do that are more interesting than interacting with other people in a city.

But Saturday, I took a bunch of chances, and I had a ton of interactions that were really positive and encouraging.

Sunday, on the other hand, was a huge challenge. I wasn’t able to rest as much as I had wanted/planned, and I was really feeling the effects of all the exertion on Saturday. Even if the exertion was good and positive, it was still exertion, and I didn’t remember to rest.

One of my big problems is, when I get over-tired, I often forget to self-monitor. That happened to my yesterday. So, I ran into trouble.

With a Capital T. Had a huge meltdown yesterday. As in — rage and tears and being stuck in a loop of anger and shame and frustration and resentment. I hate when that happens. I could feel it coming on, and I thought I could stop it, but I couldn’t. It was like a repeat tsunami of unwanted overwrought emotion. Waters pulling out, then washing in and wrecking everything in its path. Emotion pulling out, then rushing back in and leveling everything in its way.  It came and went for about three hours, and it totally screwed me up — and my spouse. Not pretty at all. And I’m still “hungover” from it this morning.

Ugh.

Looking back on things with a less emotional eye, one of the things that complicated my situation yesterday was that insidious little voice in the back of my head that managed to find everything I’d done “wrong” on Saturday, amplified it about a thousand times, and then commenced to tell me You’re So Brain-Damaged and Stupid. Who would ever love or care about you? You’re such an idiot – you had a concussion — no, wait, you had a bunch of concussions – and now you’re stupid. You’re so stupid you don’t even know how stupid you are.

Stupid.

Well, you get the idea. And sure enough, as always happens when that voice gets going, before long, I was at war with the world, at war with myself, at war with my spouse, at war with my job, at war with everything and everyone who came anywhere near me.

concussion now i’m stupid…

My thinking is too slow, I’m not sharp and quick like I used to be, I’m not even funny anymore (and I used to be a laugh and a half all the time), and who would want to bother with me?

Geez.

It’s bad enough that I have to contend with the physical and logistical issues, but when that voice gets going… well, the only thing to do is go to bed.

I managed to do that eventually, but not on my own steam. I had to be guided to bed and put away like a cholicky baby. I friggin’ hate when I’m reduced to that. But when I’m in the midst of that storm/tsunami, I cannot for the life of me pull myself out.

For future reference, I need to keep the image of the tsunami in my mind, when I feel it coming up. So I can get to higher ground. Tell my spouse I need to take a break, and remove myself to my bedroom or study, to simmer down. Just get myself out of the way of the wave. Maybe go out for a walk in the woods. I did that yesterday at the end of the day,  and it helped tremendously. Yes, the walk in the woods — climbing up to the top of the nearest big hill — helps me a whole lot.

I also have to have a talk with my spouse about this TBI business – it’s not okay for them to talk to me like I’m an idiot, which is what they’ve been doing more and more over the past year. Apparently, they seem to think that because my memory is a bit spotty at times, and my processing speed has slowed, I’ve lost my innate intelligence. Either that, or they have always acted this way, and I’ve just recently stopped allowing myself to be intimidated into hiding my issues from them. That’s always a possibility.

So, there are three main issues I am contending with — the wave of emotion that cannot and will not be stopped and can only be avoided until it calms down… the voice in my head that tells me I’m stupid… and the voice I live with that tells me I’m impaired. The first one, I just have to be mindful of and learn to avoid being swept away. The second one, I have to either ignore or actively argue with. The third I have to have a serious talk with — and possibly involve my neuropsych to explain to my spouse that my relative weaknesses are manageable and don’t mean I’m reduced to a simpleminded shadow of my old self. Some days it feels like that — like yesterday — but it’s not the truth of the matter.

But ultimately, the bottom line is, here’s the #1 Lesson I (re)learned over the weekend:

I have to pace myself. If I have a big day, even if it is a really good big day, I need to take the next day OFF and SLEEP. Rest. For real. Nothing else matters. No distracting entertainment is worth the price I’ll pay for exhaustion.

Achieving more by doing less

I am really resisting writing this post, but I have to put it out there for the sake of honesty — and also to get it into my head that this is the way things are now.

It’s not that what I’m thinking about is a bad thing, or even an unpleasant thing. It’s a new thing — a true thing — that I’ve been resisting for as long as I can remember, much to the dismay of my family, my coworkers, and my neuropsych.

I hate having to admit that I have been wrong, and they have been right… but in this case at least, I have to admit it:

I get more accomplished, when I do less.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal, to admit it. What’s the big deal?

Well, people have been “on” me for years, that I do too much. I take on too much. I have too much on my plate. I’m spread too thin. My spouse has been lecturing me for years, that I don’t relax enough and I have too many projects going on. We’ve actually had some pretty bad fights about it. I defended my hyper-busy-ness with every fiber of my being, till the bitter end, and it’s not helped our marriage at all. But I was convinced that I was right, in having twelve balls in the air. I felt so energized. Like I could do anything. And it never seemed like there was a problem. If I didn’t finish things, so what? They were boring, I told myself. And I needed a fresh start.

Well, that outlook has modified somewhat over the past couple of years that I’ve been working with my neuropsych.  Taking a long, hard look at my patterns on a regular basis, I’ve realized that being super-busy is often a direct result of anxiety. It’s not about positive exuberance. It’s not about having a vision of a future I can eagerly step into fully and with all confidence. It’s about existential angst that is welling up and driving me ahead of it, like a wild stagecoach driver whipping the team of horses into a mad gallop… in the meantime not holding the reins or guiding them in any particular direction.

This mad gallop is plain to everyone else’s discernment. It’s obviously a ploy on my part to avoid life, rather than engage with it. But it is disguised from my view by something in my perception that interprets a mad dash towards whatever comes to mind as a positive and life-affirming thing ;}

Over the years, countless people have tried to get me to stop and look at what I was doing, but I resisted — and resented — their “interference” with my grand plans. I wasn’t planning, of course. I was just flying willy-nilly in every and all directions, for the sake of flying willy-nilly. Nothing more. And when I got to a point where I couldn’t continue with what I was doing, I’d drop it… and then wonder, sometimes years later, why I ever quit what I was doing, if I was so devoted to it.

Crazy.

Well, as I mentioned, that’s been changing over the past year or so. Once I started logging all my activities and tracking them — for real, not in some quasi-reflective journal entry that rambled on about this and that for pages on end — I started seeing what was really going on in my life, and I wasn’t pleased. I looked back on all the projects I’d started — each one seeming like the thing that was going to catapult me to greatness and/or solve all my personal problems through professional success. What I saw was not greatness, but whatever-ness. Oh, man… what a wakeup call.

And I started to admit that maybe I was spending an awful lot of time on things for the wrong reasons. Maybe I was spreading myself too thin. No… obviously I was spreading myself  too thin. Judging by what little I was getting done versus what lots I was putting into my efforts, my approach was not effective. It was downright disastrous.

So, I decided to change things up. I swept a whole bunch of projects off my plate. I trimmed the fat off my docket considerably, tabling projects I thought would be cool, but obviously demanded a lot more time and energy and manpower than I could muster. I decided to do without a lot of the lists I made for myself. I also quit imagining I was going to have these multiple career paths, and be able to pick and choose between the cream of the crop, on down the line, whenever I chose to switch my path.

And it was working out pretty well. Suddenly, I had a lot more time to devote to my pet projects — the really pet ones, that is. I could focus more on the details that had slipped by me before. And I had a lot more bandwidth to do the things I enjoyed during my free time. Sleep hasn’t appealed to me much over the past months, because I was still totally into the idea that I could continue to keep up a blistering pace on a select few things — for the fun of it. Literally. I felt really “on” at work — I felt like I was really making headway and was taking the tiger by the tail.  Woo hoo – right?

Um… not so much. Now, months on down the line, I find myself worn out, all turned around by myriad details that once seemed so clear to me, and not delivering at the rate my boss wants me to. My thinking is not clear, my relationships at work are suffering, I feel like I’m slipping into a hole of my own digging, and I’m battling to get myself out. I find myself taxed and tapped, angry and raging and resentful and antagonistic and defensive and increasingly volatile… saying things I wish I hadn’t… and my marriage and work situation are both suffering as a result.

Here, I’d thought I was supporting my family and my coworkers better by driving myself like a crazyperson, taking on all sorts of tasks, when all I was doing was driving myself — and my spouse and my coworkers — crazy.

Which brings me to what I’ve been learning — the hard way — over the past couple of weeks.

I actually perform better, and I accomplish more, when I do less.

… As in, when I work in intervals — planning and thinking things through ahead of time, then mustering my energy and tackling tasks with full attention and focus.

… As in, when I spend less time on busy-work, and I devote the bulk of my attention to strategic and tactical planning and implementation, saving my logistical energy for select tasks — no more than two or three a day.

Indeed, I do better, when I tackle less of the little niggling details work that’s just filler for my time and is more about my brain thinking such-and-such is important, when it’s not really.

And I accomplish more when I don’t insist on taking on this mountain of everything by myself, as I’ve always been prone to do.

Truly, the practice of only doing 2-3 significant things a day, when I used to tackle at least five-to-ten times that amount, is a huge change for me. It’s a difficult change… An unsettling turn of events. It makes me nervous — incredibly anxious. I feel like I should be doing something. But during those stretches when I’m “doing something” to the tune of 20 deliverables a day, and I look back on my notes about what I actually accomplished, well, the results are a lot less impressive, than my fantastical plans.

But if I break it all down and pick and choose from the things I need to get done and don’t worry about the other things, till I get the most immediate couple of things done, it’s friggin’ magic, man.  I get waaaaaay more accomplished if I take things 2 and 3 tasks at a time and do them in an extremely focused and intense fashion, than if I “pace myself” and take on 20-3o items (no joke) at a “reasonable pace”.

They say timing is everything. It’s true. It’s even more true that the right timing in the right way for the person in question is more-than-everything. Some people can go slow and steady through a mountain of small details. I, on the other hand, drown in those details. Just like there are slow-twitch muscles that long-distance runners use, and fast-twitch muscles that sprinters use, I’m more of a fast-twitch kind of person. And if I slow down to go at a “reasonable” pace, I’m toast.

So, there we have it. I’ve had my helping of crow for the day. I have to admit, it feels good to say/write it out loud, but it’s been a long time coming. And I have a lot of work to do, to reverse the damage that’s come from ignoring and denying the truth about how I work best — and worst. But reverse this, I will. I’m the comeback kid. I’m not going to quit till I get where I need to be.

Even though I know it’s good for me and it’s the only way I can really work effectively, the idea of only doing a few things  a day still makes me intensely anxious. I don’t expect to get used to it overnight.

But you know what? Doing a little bit at a time in a very focused, intentional way gets me there. And since actually getting there is what matters to me (and my spouse and my coworkers and my boss) — even more than the “journey” on the way — that’s what I’ve got to focus on. Results. For real. Not plans and methodologies. Results. What works. What works for me.

Onward.

The secret havoc of brain injury

Even among the properly trained, it can be difficult to understand exactly what is going on inside an injured head. At every turn, if you present well, outside your head it is assumed that you are well, that all is well, and that all will be well.

But inside your head, there are no such guarantees.

Inside your head, nestled amongst the tens of thousands of memories of what was supposed to go one way, but went another — with or without warning — lie slumbering catastrophes, just waiting to be awoken by sudden laughter or applause…

All the screw-ups, all the mess-ups, all the misspoken words, the misunderstood directions, the confusions, the communication breakdowns, the confabulations, the failed connections… no matter how small they were, the simple fact remains that things did not go the way they should have. No matter how hard we tried, things did not work out. And there were consequences — we tried like crazy to avoid them, but it just didn’t work out. We may not remember the specific details of each minor catastrophe, but the residue of each and every one is very much a part of who and what we are. Our brains may not remember each detail, but our bodies recall very clearly the experience of being wrong or mistaken or confused all too well.

Inside your head, sandwiched between the best-laid plans and the rock-solid goals and the shining hopes and the lifegiving dreams, the condensation of nagging doubts builds up. There is no true certainty with brain injury. There may be a sense of certainty, but the reality all too often is something very different. They trickle in, these well-versed, well-founded doubts — liquid sabotage — from the pressure cracks in your system, the pressure cracks in your life, seeping in through the fissures to accumulate in the crevices in the foundation you’ve built your life upon. When the weather is warm and pleasant, all is well. But when it gets cold — a sudden snap, perhaps — the liquid expands like icy water freezing in sidewalk cracks, and it separates the pieces of your foundation like so many pieces of stone or brick or cement forced apart by sudden ice.

Outside your head, everything looks fine. Everything looks good. Until you snap. The pressure builds up too much — too little sleep, too many demands, too much long-term fatigue, too much cognitive deficit, too many questions, too much to do, too few resources left over at the end of the day to manage it all. Too much… too. And you lose it. Go off the deep end. Pitch a fit. Fly off the handle. Over what? Sometimes it’s hard to remember.

And then it hits the fan. You’re not the only one in the line of your own fire. And the others who bear the brunt may or may not be accommodating. Chances are, they’re not. And a brick pops out of the wall. A chunk of your foundation cracks off. The mortar between the stones in your carefully constructed retaining wall starts to crack and crumble.

Again.

Maybe the people you lost it around remember other times you’ve done this. Maybe they don’t. If they do remember, chances are they’ve tried to forget, tried to give you the benefit of the doubt, tried to make allowances or exceptions. Tried to give you another chance. But they keep giving you second chances, and still… it comes back to this.

Maybe the people around you don’t remember you losing it before. In which case, depending how long they’ve known you, you’re either the benefactor of their interpersonal largesse and allowed another chance or special exceptions… or you’re marked as someone who isn’t quite right and can’t quite be trusted.

Or maybe the problem isn’t anger at all. It’s not temper. It’s not tantrums. It’s not violent outbursts. It’s something much less dramatic, but all the more sinister — unreliability. Perceived flakiness. An apparent inability to do simple math. Or spell. Or use proper grammar. Perhaps it’s failure to deliver. Over-promising and under-delivering.

The last one is the most sinister of all. It makes you look like you’re either completely out of touch with reality or — worse — a liar. One slip, and you’re suspect. Another, and you’re a marked person. One more, and you’re written off. Yet another, and you’re doomed. The world can tolerate a lot of variability, but the world of work and accountability is brutal on those who fail to deliver what they promise. It’s sink or swim. Life or death. With the economy the way it is, and the global marketplace as competitive as it is, there is even less margin for error, than there was 30 years ago.

It’s not just the case for the workers of the world — also for the spouses, the friends, the family members, the community members. There’s just not that much tolerance, anymore, for those who don’t measure up. Perhaps there’s never been. But in this world we have made, the stakes are much higher. 500 years ago, you could retreat to the forest and survive. Now, nobody really remembers how to live on the land. We are much more interconnected and interdependent than ever, yet our tolerance for variations in human expression has not kept up.

We have invented a world for ourselves that has no room for many of us.

Where, then, shall we go?

Within.

It’s the only place that’s safe anymore — and that’s a relative statement, in any case. After all, within is where you store the collective memories of all your screw-ups. It’s where you wrangle with the very real recollections of your own failings, the collected experiences of your shortfall. It’s where you have to live with yourself, like it or not. It’s the one place that who you are and what you are — and are not — capable of, is very clearly known. Except when it’s not.

Within is a haven that has significant limits, to be sure.

But within, at least you have a chance to sequester the truth of yourself and your limits in their own company, and they can keep each others’ confidences in the silent corners of your mind. No one needs to know, just what a hard time you’re having these days. In fact, no one wants to know. They have their own troubles. And how they have their own troubles. Nobody likes to think others have troubles nearly as bad as their own.

Funny, how people are like that. If you step forward and ask for help, you stand a better chance of being smacked down than given the help you need. You stand a better chance of being reprimanded and chastized, than assisted, even if you ask for specific kinds of help. “Everybody has problems with something… Look at you – you’re lucky! You can still walk and talk! You still have your health! Some people have it really bad — at least you don’t have MS or Cancer or Parkinsons or Alzheimers! Stop complaining and just live your life.”

Buried in the litany of “real” problems that other people have, there’s a common theme, a recurring chorus, that goes, “I’m in pain too, but I don’t vex the rest of creation with nagging pleas for help. If I can suck it up, you can too. Get with the program, cowboy, and just deal with it. Oh, by the way, have you paid your taxes yet?”

Looking without for assistance is a tricky thing. You may be better off, not even trying. If it’s logistics, like staying alive during a long, cold winter, then yeah – speak up. But if it’s “higher” functioning stuff like memory or fatigue or distractability or behavioral issues, chances are you’re better off keeping your own confidences.

You may wish to keep the bad news about the havoc in your life to yourself. I do. And it’s working out better for me, than when I told people the whole truth about my situation. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about it, for the rest of the world simply does not, cannot, and will not understand. Most people have their own troubles — ironically, much of it their own making, due (among other things) to poor time management practices, crappy sleep hygiene, and bad living habits. It’s not neurological with them. It’s either mental laziness, lack of character, or addiction to drama. They create their own overwhelm, and then they liken their situation to mine.

Ironic, to say the least. I could teach them a thing or two about time management and improving performance. The fact that I can get as much done as I do, despite the limits I’m dealing with, says a lot about how-well designed and oiled the “machine” of my life is. I should bottle my system and sell it. I’d be rich, if I could. But most folks I know are heavily invested in their self-created drama, they’re getting by okay, in spite of their chaos, and they don’t see anything wrong with it. Me trying to get help from them to fix something they don’t think is a problem — somethign that they think is just how life is — when I know differently — is like trying to outlaw drinking on a cruise ship.

Yes, most folks have havoc enough — self-created as it is. And they can’t for the life of themselves fathom why others (whom they assume have self-created their own havoc, just as they have), are whining about needing extra help getting on with their lives.

Outside the mind, the odds of getting your needs met as a traumatic brain injury survivor (or as a significant other of one) are slim to none. Money is tight, after all. Only the most severe and obvious cases stand much of a chance of qualifying for help.

But there’s always within… When you keep your own confidences and you hold your own counsel in the privacy of your own mind, you have a chance to make right the very things you know for a fact are wrong. You can work with your demons on your own terms, in your own time, without the messy meddling of others who may say they understand, but really don’t. Within, you have a chance — if you know yourself and your situation for what they truly are — to negotiate and navigate and accommodate and mediate… to adjust and tweak and compensate. And just get on with your life.

Outside, there’s precious little that anyone else can do for you. Sad, but unfortunately generally true. People don’t know shit about brain injury. Nor do they want to. They’ll glance at the billboards and skim over the ads in the magazine, and get on with their busy, havoc-filled lives. And never give it a second thought.

But within… there you have a chance. Only you know just how messed up things can get. And only you can identify exactly what is wrong. Only you can know for sure if the results are what you planned. The rest of the world thinks you meant to say or do such-and-such. Only you know the truth — that what you did or said was anything but what you planned and intended.

Havoc… catastrophe… conundrum… confusion… Screw-ups… Failure… teetering on the brink of collapse…

Nobody truly knows about it, but you.

So, what will you do?

The warrior’s walk

Over the past year or so, I have been giving a lot of thought to head injury survival through the ages. Getting hit on the head, knocked out, attacked, and generally brain-damaged is about as regular a part of the course of human history as, say, losing your teeth or having a part of your body chopped off.

Think about it — dental care as we know it today is a relatively recent development. Used to be, a blacksmith was the one with the tools to pull a tooth — or you did it yourself with a heavy object slammed against a bad molar, or a string (tied around the offending tooth) and a slammed door. And it’s easy to forget in this convenient age, that once upon a time, people used actual tools to get their work done — lots of them sharp — and lived under conditions that were harsh and unyielding. Chopping off part of a finger — or a whole finger, for that matter — losing part of your foot to frostbite, and/or having a piece of your ear bitten off in a bar fight, happened with a lot more frequency than we 21st century folks recall.

Think about it — once upon a time, wars weren’t fought in faraway lands by trained, dedicated armies that only wanted to vanquish each other. Time was, raiders and looters and rapists and pillagers roamed the seas and the countryside, doing as they pleased to whomever was there. What’s more, in the middle ages, just about the only way am ambitious young man who wasn’t the firstborn in his family could get ahead (other than by taking up a trade or currying favor with some overlord) was to sign on as a mercenary with a local feudal lord and maraud his way to fame and fortune.

In our cozy, warm homes, with only the television and the internet to connect us with a reality outside our own, it’s easy to forget just how rough life has usually been on the human race. And it’s easy to forget that traumatic brain injury is not something that is unique to football players, boxers, and survivors of car accidents and falls. We look at statistics about brain injury — how many of them come from sports and falls and accidents and assaults — and we shake our heads, wondering what we can do to make the world safer — both before and after the accidents.

But think about it for a moment… how safe can we reasonably expect life to be? Granted, nobody wants to have their brain rearranged by unexpected trauma. Nobody actively seeks out a cognitive-behavioral condition that can be not only disturbing but downright disabling. Nobody plans to be at a perpetual disadvantage in life. But it happens.

And it’s been happening for a long time.

So, what do we do?

Certainly, we can try to prevent as many head injuries as possible, with helmets and education and training and good sense. But there’s just no way to live your life freely, if you’re on constant alert about what might happen, and what that might mean for your long-term prospects.

As an old, old relative of mine says, “Life is dangerous!” To try to limit the dangers, also means trying to limit the full range of human experience. To live fully, you need — on some level, anyway — to accept the possibility of harm, damage, danger, injury. To live fully, you need to walk — head up, shoulders back — into the face of some pretty scary stuff, and be prepared to deal with the consequences.

To live fully, to walk fully upright in the world, you have to be a warrior.

maori warrior

Maori Warrior

You have to be ready, willing, and able to look the world in the eye with a resolve that says, “I will not bend before you, I will not break beneath you, I will not yield the ground I have won. I will not falter and I will not fail, until I have reached my final destination.  The only way I am going to fall short is if I fall permanently, period.”

To do this, to think this, to live this as a recovering survivor of brain injury (or many other kinds of injuries, including PTSD), you must be a warrior.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should pick up a sword or a spear or a gun and march out into life swinging and shooting. I’m not saying that you have to be on the defensive or the offensive at all times. Far from it. According to dictionary.com, a warrior is someone who is

1. a person engaged or experienced in war(fare)

2. a person who shows or has shown great vigor, courage, or aggressiveness

Vigor, courage, aggressiveness… yes. Those are key. And they are also predicated upon the experience of war.

To be a warrior, you have to realize and accept that you are engaged in war. Not only war in the classical sense, but:

War 4. active hostility or contention; conflict; contest

For those who struggle daily with TBI (or PTSD) in a world that doesn’t give a damn about our struggles, this is not a huge cognitive stretch. We are constantly faced with active hostility or contention, conflict, and contests — whether those come from within, or without. In my case, I would have to say the source is frequently more internal than it is external, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging. If anything, it makes it moreso.

Sometimes walking through the world without acting out, without attacking, without leaping in to “defend” yourself from a mis-judged situation takes more warriorship, than striking out. Being able to stand your ground… to hold your fire… to be fully present in a moment which threatens you on every level, without flinching or fleeing… that takes true strength, courage, and vigor. And mastering the self, learning to calm and/or disregard the constant chatter that goes on in our rewired brains… well, that takes a good deal of aggressiveness.

Not against the rest of the world (tho’ sometimes that’s required), but against the inner impulses which impel us to flinch and flee and fly off the handle. It takes monumental skill to stand when you want to bolt. It takes determination to listen, when you’re just dying to shout. And it takes all you can give, to walk, when everything in you is telling you to run.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not recommending that everyone just be 100% okay with the after effects of traumatic brain injury or other tragic traumas. I’m not saying we need to just sit back and take all the crap the world has to throw at us. Far from it. What I’m saying is that we as recovering survivors need to develop the inner resources to be our own people, to stand our own ground, hold true to our values, and not be diverted by externals when they keep us from our ultimate goals.

We need to be warriors in the truest sense. To walk our own paths, wherever they may lead us. To know ourselves for what we truly are, not what the rest of the world says we are. To do what must be done to protect ourselves and our lives and all we hold dear. And whatever route we take, it must be our own, and we must be loyal to the True inner voice that compels us, while learning to discern and dismiss the internal chatter and endless distractions which strive to pull us off our path.

Only we can achieve that. But when we do, we know it is our own. We have earned it, we have won it, we have paid dearly for it. And nothing and no one can take that from us.

March on.

Anger, anger, and more anger

temper strikeOne of the things that can make TBI particularly difficult, in the ensuing weeks, months, even years, is anger issues. Rage issues. Flying off the handle and attacking others for no good reason that they can see.

There are a lot of reasons this happens. Some of them are:

  • Fatigue – your system is compromised by too little sleep and/or too much activity (with me, the two go hand-in-hand), and you don’t have the energy/wherewithall to stop yourself from going off
  • Fear – there’s nothing like a sharp spike of adrenaline, combined with anxiety and fear to set you off. Fear has a way of clouding your judgment, so you not only under-think situations (from fatigue) but you also overreact to the circumstances (which may or may not be true).
  • Frustration – when you’re trying to get something done/said/understood, and it’s just not happening, no matter how hard you try, patience wears thin — especially with yourself. My frustration tends to be directed inwards, though it also gets directed outwards. But the inward-turning kind is actually a lot worse for me. It makes me mean and aggressive. The worse I feel about myself, the angrier I get with life in general, and the more I tend to blow up.

It certainly doesn’t help that my brain gets into an uproar and starts getting into a biochemical soup drama, so that even if I wanted to think straight, I can’t.  The constant restlessness of my brain, coupled with the toll that agitation and fatigue take, can combine for a pretty potent mix of explosives.

So, what can I do about it?

  • At a very minimum, be aware that I’m angry. It often feels like something completely different — it feels like I’m just revved, and I don’t recognize the emotional piece of it. It may sound simple, but realizing that I am actually angry is a big challenge for me.
  • Realize that my anger does not necessarily make sense to others. What I’m thinking and feeling may be entirely unique to me.
  • Realize that my brain may be sending me wrong signals, and the surge of emotion that’s coming up may be simply a biochemical response by a physical system that is WAY overloaded and highly sensitive.
  • Remember that the long-term effects of a blow-up are probably not worth the satisfaction I get from venting. No matter how justified I feel about my anger, it can do much more harm than good. I have to think about whether I want to spend the next days/weeks/months patching up the damage I do to myself and my relationships with others, thanks to uncontrolled anger.
  • Keep myself in check. No matter how justified I feel, the more revved I get, the more I need to step away. I need to do whatever I can to remove myself from that situation, before it escalates and turns really nasty.

It’s not a perfect process, but it’s something. It’s an ongoing thing, and I’m far from perfect. But ultimately, life has a way of teaching me the lessons I need to learn, so if I just keep at it, eventually I do make some progress.

Anger Notes: From mountain to molehill

I had a little difficulty this morning, getting into the day. I go through the same routine every day — wake up slowly… give myself time to wake up enough to get out of the bed without tripping or falling… get up and brush my teeth… go downstairs to put water on for coffee… do my morning workout while I am waiting for my coffee water to boil… think about what I need to accomplish today while I am working out… finish my workout and make my coffee and cereal… and then get into my morning.

Most days, if I have had enough rest, the routine goes like clockwork. But I recently started lifting heavier weights, and I also had a chiro adjustment yesterday, so I’m a little sore and stiff, and I need to get more sleep. Under normal conditions, getting the 7 hours that I had last night would make me very, very happy. I actually slept through till the sun was coming up! And I would feel like enough. But I am still recovering from staying out all night on New Year’s Eve last week, and I need to get even more rest than usual, so I can get back to my regular sleep schedule and get over being stiff and sore from the increased weight and also the adjustment I got yesterday.

Now, for most people, being behind on their sleep and having a little stiffness and soreness in the morning is no big deal. For a lot of people, it’s actually a way of life. They don’t get totally thrown off by lack of sleep. They just muddle through the day somehow. They don’t get all tweaked and freaked out over every little thing, with hair-trigger temper outbursts over every little thing. They just go through their day, like it’s no big deal. And they live their lives like everything is relatively normal, popping Advil or Aleve or having a few drinks at the end of the day to chill out and sleeping in, in the morning.

The people who don’t have issues with sleep deprivation and pain clearly are neurologically intact. They probably have not sustained traumatic brain injuries. They probably don’t have post-concussive syndrome, and they probably haven’t sustained brain trauma/head injury.

I, on the other hand, am not in that “space.” When I am behind on my sleep, it introduces a whole host of issues that make the most basic activities into challenges. When I am in physical discomfort, I tend to push myself even more, perhaps because doing that relieves the discomfort for me. But pushing myself tires me out even more. And when I get over-tired, I have a hard time relaxing and going to sleep… which makes me even more tired in the morning. And then I have all sorts of cognitive-behavioral problems. It’s a vicious cycle that’s very difficult to break.

That’s that cycle that started with me last night. I should have gone to bed around 9:30, but then I had some stuff to do, and I needed to talk to my spouse, who was out at a late meeting till 9:30. By the time they got home, I was ready to go to bed, but the sleepy part of me didn’t want to go to bed, so I stayed up and talked with them about this-and-that.

Finally, they packed me off to bed, seeing that I was pretty much wedged into the couch, and I was making myself comfortable for a long stay-up. It was 10:30, by then, and it took a focused, concentrated, concerted effort on both our parts to get me up off the couch and upstairs to bed. Then — being as tired and as contrary as I was — I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and inspected myself, studying my double chin and looking for gray hairs and trying to make my hair stand up straight by tousseling it and trying to spike it straight out from my scalp. I know, it’s strange. But this is the kind of stuff I do when I’m really, really tired and I don’t want to go to bed.

After about 15-20 minutes of this… and deciding that yes, I am still a handsome individual with good bone structure and not to much saggy skin in the wrong places… I finally got my ass in bed. Then I remembered I needed to stretch and take Advil (my bedtime routine), so I can better relax. I did that, and I then did my progressive relaxation exercises to get myself to sleep, which went really well — even better than I expected. I got to sleep around 11 p.m.

Happily, I slept through till 6 a.m., which is a wonder, because I’ve been waking up around 4-4:30 or so — which sucks — and that felt pretty good. I gave myself some time to wake up, before I got out of the bed. If I roll out of bed right away, I tend to stagger around a lot, which is loud and also a little dangerous. There are plenty of hard surfaces and sharp corners I can hit my head on. Plus, my spouse doesn’t like to be woken up by my clunking around, bumping into stuff — which happens, when I get up too quickly.

I got myself up and started getting into the day. But man, I was clumsy this morning, right from the start. I had trouble holding my toothbrush, had trouble holding onto the water spigot, and it was really really getting to me. I am definitely foggier and more out of it this morning than I’ve been in a while. It’s probably due to the adjustment I had yesterday — the chiro went pretty deep.  And when I’m foggy and clumsy and out of it, I get really, really agitated. Every little thing gets to me, and I have a harder time with those spikes of anger that come up when things go wrong for me. They seem to come out of nowhere, and when they show up, they can be intense — and the intensity makes them even more confusing and frustrating (and damaging) because my mind knows that my reaction to what is happening is wildly out of proportion to what is going on, and I feel like something is terribly wrong with me, that I feel this way. And I start in with calling myself all sorts of names, telling myself I’m a damaged idiot loser who can’t keep their shit together, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

I’ve written about this temper flare stuff before in my posts Flash in the (brain) pan and A constant restlessness (and elsewhere), and it still holds as true as ever.  And this morning, when I was just trying to brush my friggin’ teeth, already,  I could not seem to keep my act together. I had trouble holding the toothbrush, and when I put it down on its rest, something about how it was positioned bothered me intensely. Then I tried to turn off the water, and my hand slipped, and I hit the side of my hand on the edge of the spigot, which hurt.

And that old temper flare jumped out again, like Old Faithful… that geyser that comes up regularly at Yellowstone. Or maybe a better analogy would be, like one of the geysers that erupts periodically without warning. Tori Amos has an album I love called “Little Earthquakes”. Maybe I’ll do an album called “Little Geysers.”

Anyway, for a few minutes, as I stood there nursing my aching hand, I was

absolutely furious!!!!

It was all I could do to keep myself from hitting something or slamming something down. I was angry with the spigot for having hard edges. I was angry with my hand for being so weak that a little bump would hurt so much. I was angry with myself for being so uncoordinated and not being able to simply turn off the water like a normal person would. But most of all, I was angry with myself for getting so bent out of shape over something so simple. “I know better,” I told myself. “Why can’t I act better?

I was really getting whacked-out over this, and it literally threatened to derail my morning. When I get going like this, I descend down into a pit of ugliness, and the whole day can be tainted by my temper outbursts, whether they are internal or external. In fact, sometimes the worst ones are internal, that no one but me sees or hears or knows about, which makes my crabby, short-tempered behavior all the more confusing for people around me. It makes no sense to them — how could it? They don’t know what I’m experiencing, and I’m doing everything in my power to shield them from that.

I could feel that rush of anger, that temper flare, that wild spike of emotion… it tore through me like one of those microbursts I’ve seen on the Weather Channel… and I was starting to get freaked out… and go into one of those wild rages that’s like a forest fire tearing through my head.

Then I checked myself. Something in me — the something that has been observing myself with increasing knowledge of TBI over the past few years — told me to take a break and just give myself time to catch up with myself.

So, I stopped and took a breath and thought about what was happening. And when I took a break from my downward slide, I realized:

  1. I am still tired. I did not get enough sleep, and I am groggy.
  2. When I am groggy, my neuropsych has told me that I am more prone to agitation.
  3. When I am groggy, I also can be uncoordinated. I don’t need a trained expert to tell me this. I have observed it countless times.
  4. When I am uncoordinated, I tend to bump into things.
  5. When I am groggy, I tend to propel myself through events on adrenalin — because I need an extra “pump” of energy — energy I  don’t have from regular sources (like getting enough rest). When I’m fatigued, I have to pump myself up just to do the basic stuff… because otherwise I can’t get going.
  6. When I pump myself up, I move faster.
  7. When I move faster, and I am uncoordinated, I hit things with greater force than I would, if I were rested and had full motor control.
  8. When I’m fatigued, my brain’s constant restlessness and agitation is worse, it makes me snappier and more extreme in my reactions. I am also more physically sensitive, and I feel everything more intensely.
  9. And finally, I remembered — from what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by my neuropsych — this type of reaction from me is actually quite typical of TBI survivors. It’s just what my brain does, when it has to operate on too little sleep/energy.

So, there it was –this drama I was experiencing, standing in front of the bathroom sink, freaking out over hitting my hand on the spigot had everything to do with my brain/body AND it had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.  It wasn’t me being an asshole loser who’s emotionally inept and a worthless use of space. It was just my brain and body doing what they did, when I am tired and out of it and I am moving too fast.

I did NOT need to make a big deal out of it — just recognize what was happening… And I also realized that it was actually my brain sending me warning signals about what was amiss in my day, thus far. I recognized that this little snap of mine was like a gift from the gods — a hint about where I was at, that day, which I could use to inform the rest of my day to make better choices.

I also realized that if I didn’t take steps to stop this flash in my brain-pan, I was going to start the day on a really BAD note. Temper flares with TBI survivors tend to be quick-on, quick-off affairs, instantaneously coming up out of nowhere and disappearing just as instantaneously for no apparent reason. I realized I just needed to occupy my attention long enough for my system to calm down, and then I could get on with my day.

So, I took action. I kicked into gear and did something with all that agitation and energy — I channeled it into a constructive activity. I looked at the spigot that I’d hit my hand on, and I realized that it was slippery with soap on the handle. I studied the handle and felt where the slippery soap was, then I ran the water and rinsed off the handle, until it wasn’t slippery anymore. That made me feel a lot better. Then I dried my hands and went downstairs to make my breakfast.

Again, I had more trouble with uncoordinated blunders downstairs. I was off-balance and I was clumsy, getting my coffee stuff together. But I remembered what I’d noticed upstairs — I’m tired. I’m uncoordinated. This is not about me, it’s about my brain and body. When I am this tired, it’s perfectly normal — for me — to be agitated and restless and make mountains out of molehills. But it has nothing to do with me and my character… Forget about the supposed stupidity and ineptness and all those other words I use to attack myself. It’s about my slightly broken brain which has trouble when it’s tired, and I know what I can do to make it better — take it easy, take things slow, don’t push myself like crazy, and cut myself a friggin’ break, already.

So, that’s what I did. And by the time I got done with my workout, my day had re-booted nice and fresh. I’m still tired, but I’m not wiped out like I could be, because I made changes to how I was doing things. I had a good solid workout, and I lifted shorter sets with fewer reps, because I realized my body needed to catch up with the heavier weights. I also focused more on my exercise — I had been letting my mind wander more, over the past week or so — and I didn’t lose track of where I was with my workout, like I had been, in the past few days. And as I was planning my day, I made a point of scheduling just a fraction of the number of activities I’m prone to schedule for my day, which takes the pressure off, right off the bat.

AND instead of checking email from friends first thing in the morning, as I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, I am waiting till later in the day to do that, because there is a lot I need to get done, and I cannot be distracted from the work that’s waiting for me to finish it.

All in all, even though the day started out on a rough note, it was for the best.

Because I stopped and thought about what was happening. I learned about the experience as it was happening. And I used my tools. I used the info I got from my neuropsych, and I used the knowledge I had of myself. I used the opportunity to stop and think to really appreciate what was going on with me. I cut my brain and body a break.

I am also planning to lie down for a nap later today. I’m working remotely, plus the weather is not good right now. I can get a lot done, if I focus on what I’m doing. And with the appreciation of how tired I am, I can make the extra effort to take care of myself, take my time at what I’m doing, and manage my energy with intention and discipline.

All because I stopped for a moment and thought about what was really going on with me.

This is progress.

Doing it differently this holiday season

I did something quite unusual last night — I went Christmas shopping by myself at a much slower pace than usual. I didn’t manage to buy everything I set out to, but I got everything I could, and I got through the experience in one coherent piece — and I was able to get my nap after I got back.

Normally, this time of year is marked by team-shopping with my spouse. They contact everyone in the family and find out what people want… or we talk about what we think people want, and then they make up the list. We take the list, hop in the car, and head out to stores that look like good candidates, then we slog through the process of elimination, muddling our way through… with me getting so fried I either completely shut down and become non-communicative, or I melt down and fly off the handle over every little thing.

We usually spend several evenings like this, ’round about this time of year, and we’ve both come to dread it a little. My meltdowns had become more extreme over the past few years, and this year we were both really dreading the whole Christmas shopping business — to the point where we are going to be late(!) with presents for family members in other states. That’s never happened before. We were always good about it. But my meltdowns screwed everything up.

We both recognize that doing a lot of social things, this time of year (when work is actually getting more crazy, what with year-end and all), takes a huge toll on me. Even if it’s with friends (especially with friends), all the activity, all the interaction, all the excitement, really cuts into my available energy reserves. And then I get turned around and anxious… and I either regress to a cranky 9-year-old state, whining and bitching and slamming things around… or I melt down, start yelling, freak out over every little thing, and start picking at my spouse over things they say and do, to the point where neither of us can move without me losing it.

What a pain in the ass it is. Of all things, the uncontrollable weeping bothers me the most. The yelling bothers my spouse. It’s embarrassing for me and frightening for them, and neither of us has a very Merry Christmas, when all is said and done.

So, this year we did things differently.

We split up for the day and took care of our respective activities.

My spouse went to a holiday party that was thrown by a colleague of theirs who’s married to an attorney who deals with financial matters. I was invited, too, but we both realized that it would be pretty dumb for me to try to wade into the midst of 50+ actuaries and tax attorneys and their spouses who were invited to the shindig… and try to hold my own. Certainly, I can keep up with the best of them, but marinating in such a heady soup, especially with everyone hopped up on holiday cheer (eggnog, red wine, punch, etc.) and all animated and such, would have been a recipe for disaster.

So, I didn’t go. Instead, I took our shopping list and headed to the mall to stock up on what our families had requested. We had written down in advance all the names and the specific gifts we were going to get, and we had also written down where we were going to get them. That list was my lifeline. Especially in the rush and press of the mall, which sprawls out in all directions, with satellite stores on either end.

I’m happy to report that I actually did really well. I made a few tactical errors — like not parking in the first lot I came to and walking in. But that turned out okay, because if I had parked in the first lot, it would have been all but impossible to get down to the other end of the mall. I studied the list carefully ahead of time and used a highlighter to mark the stores where I’d be going. I also kept my focus trained on the task at hand — even if it was just sitting in traffic. I also walked a lot more this year than other years. I found one parking space and used it for two different stores. And I didn’t hassle with finding a space that was as close as I could get to the building. I took the first decent spot I could find, and then I walked to the store.

Imagine that — in past years, I was possessed with finding parking as close as possible, and I would move the car between stores, even if they were only 500 yards apart.  This year, I just walked the distance. Even though it was cold, for some reason the cold didn’t bother me, and it actually felt good to be out and moving.

I think that my 5 months  of daily exercise has paid off, in this respect. I think part of the reason I was always consumed with driving everywhere was that I just wasn’t physically hardy. I was kind of a wimpy weakling, in fact — though more in thought than in body, but a wimply weakling, all the same. But having a good physical foundation — even just from doing an hour (total) of cycling, stretching, and light lifting each morning — has made a significant difference in my willingness and ability to walk between stores.

It might not seem like much, but the walking (instead of driving) between stores part of the trip actually made a huge difference in my overall experience. Walking between stores — stopping at the car on the way to stash my presents — helped me break up the activity and clear my head. It got me out of that in-store madness, the crush and the rush, and it got me moving, so I felt less backed-up and agitated. And that let me start fresh at the next store.

That was good, because the first store was a friggin’ nightmare. It was one of those big-box electronics places, that supposedly has “everything” but really didn’t. It was exhausting, combing through the stacks of movies and music, only to find everything except what I needed. The lighting was awful — extremely bright and fluorescent and glaring. People kept bumping into me, or walking so close I thought they would run me down. But the worst thing was the acoustics. Everything surface was hard and echo-y and the place was overwhelmingly loud, and every single sound was at least partially distinguishable, which drove me nuts. I’ve noticed that acoustics have a lot more impact on me than light, when I’m out shopping. The store was one big cauldron of loud, indiscriminate noise, and my brain kept trying to follow every sound to see if it mattered. I couldn’t function there. Not with the place full of people — and very agitated, anxious, aggressive people, at that.

I eventually went with a gift card and got the hell out of there. I doubt I’ll ever go back when it’s that full. When the place is low-key and all but empty, I can handle it much better. But at this time of year? Not so much.

Walking back to my car chilled me out. Sweet relief.

At the second store — a bookstore — I started to feel pretty overwhelmed. They had long lines, and the place was packed — which is good for the retailer, but not so great for me. I spent the longest amount of time there, in part because I could feel I was getting overloaded, and I stopped a number of times to catch up with myself and remind myself what I was there to buy. My list was getting a little ragged, at that point, what with me writing notes in the margins and taking it out/putting it back in my pocket. So, eventually I just pulled it out and held onto it for dear life. I must have looked a little simple-minded, but I don’t care. Everyone else was so caught up in their own stuff, anyway. My main challenge there, was not getting trampled by Women On A Mission — many of them carrying large bags and shopping baskets that doubled as ramrods to get through the crowds.

One cool thing happened, though, when I was taking a break — I had a little exchange I had with two teenage boys who were talking about some book they’d heard about. I was just standing there, pretending to look at a shelf of books, just trying to get my bearings, when I hear this one young guy tell his buddy, “I heard about this book I should get — I think it’s called the ‘Kama Sutra’ and it’s, like, about sex, and it’s got these pictures… and it’s really old… like, from India or something.”

Well, I perked up at that, and suddenly very alert, I looked over at them and said, “Oh, yeah — the Kama Sutra, man… You should definitely check it out.”

They kind of looked at me like deer in headlights, and they got flushed and flustered and stammered something about not knowing how to find it. It was about sex, and they didn’t know how to ask someone to help them. I so felt their pain…

I confidently (and confidentially) pointed them to the book-finder computer kiosk, where they could type in the title and it would tell them where to find it in the store.

“Dude, you should totally look into it. It’s got lots of information — and pictures — and it’s been highly recommended… for hundreds of years.”

They got really excited and headed for the book-finder kiosk. Here’s hoping they — and their girlfriends — have a very Merry Christmas.

That little exchange got me back in the game, so I took another look at my list and managed to find the handful of books and music and calendars I wanted to get. I headed for the line and just chilled/zoned out. I didn’t get all tweaked about how long it was taking; I listened in on a conversation for a while, till I realized it was mostly about death and health problems people were having.

Oh – and another thing that helped me keep my act together, was the 4:15 p.m. alarm that I have set on my mobile phone. 4:15 is usually when I need to start wrapping up my day at work. I need to do a checkpoint on the work I’m doing, start to wind down, and begin keeping an eye on the clock, so I don’t get stuck in town past 6:00, which is what happens to me when I don’t watch my time after 3:30 or so. I have this alarm set to go off each day, and it went off while I was in the store, which was a blessing. I had completely lost track of time and I was starting to drift, the way I do, when I’m fatigued and overloaded and disoriented.

It startled me out of my fog, and I knew I still had a bunch of things on my list to get, so I refocused and started thinking about what I would get at the next store, so I could just march in and do my shopping without too much confusion and disorientation. After I paid for my books and music and calendar, I debated whether to have my presents wrapped for free, which might have saved me time in the long run. But I couldn’t bear the thought of having to interact with the folks who were doing the wrapping. They looked really friendly and gregarious — Danger Will Robinson! Warning! Warning! Even a friendly conversation was beyond me at that point.

I realized I just wasn’t up to that, and I must have looked like an idiot, standing there in the middle of the foyer, staring at the gift-wrappers for about 10 minutes, but who cares? Everyone was so caught up in their own stuff, they probably didn’t notice me. And if the gift-wrappers were uncomfortable with my staring, they didn’t show it… too much 😉

Anyway, after I managed to extricate myself from that store, I headed for my last destination. Again, I didn’t sweat the traffic getting out of the lot, and when I got to the final store, I parked at a distance from the front doors and walked in through the icy cold, which was good — it cleared my head.

Inside, I consulted my list again and headed directly for the section that had what I needed. Halfway there, I remembered that I’d meant to buy a very important present at the first store, but I’d totally blanked on it. I started to freak out and got caught up in trying to figure out how to get back to that first store and not lose my mind in the process.  Then, I slowed down and stopped catastrophizing, and in my calming mind, it occurred to me that — Oh, yeah — they probably carried that item at this store, so I went and checked, and sure enough, there it was – score! I didn’t have to back to big-box hell. At least, not that day.

I found some more of the presents on my list, and although I didn’t get everything I needed, I made a decent dent. My partner can come with me and help me sort out the other items either today or tomorrow. Or possibly when we get to our family — they usually have some last-minute shopping to do, and they can cart us around with them. And I won’t have to drive.

By the time I got home, I was bushed. My spouse wasn’t home yet, so I called them — they were on their way home and were stopping to pickup some supper. I said I was lying down for a nap, and they didn’t have to wake me when they got home. Then I took a hot shower to get the public germs off me, laid down, and listened to Belleruth Naparstek’s Stress Hardiness Optimization CD. I had a bit of trouble relaxing and getting down, but I did manage to get half an hour’s sleep in, before I woke up in time for dinner.

My partner had a pretty good time at the party, but they said it probably would have been a disaster for me — so many people, so much energy, so many strangers, and unfamiliar surroundings. I concurred, and I showed them what I’d bought that afternoon.

We’d both done well. We both missed each other terribly, but we did get through the afternoon without one of those terrible holiday incidents that has dogged us for many, many years. Like Thanksgiving, which went so well, this Christmas shopping trip actually felt normal. It didn’t have that old edginess that I always associate with holiday shopping. It didn’t have the constant adrenaline rush. In some respects, it feels strange and unfamiliar, but you know what? If strange and unfamiliar means level-headed and low-key and plain old sane, and it means I can keep my energy up and pace myself with proper planning… well, I can get used to that.

Yes, I’ve done things differently this year. And it’s good.

I’m sorry… I think?

I’ve been thinking a lot about my reaction to the post about the BIA booting a blogger from their conference. And I’m wondering if I should regret my hot-headed reaction.

On the one hand, I have received tremendous help from the BIA in some respect. On the other, I have heard stories like this — and other accounts, where people were actively discouraged by the BIA from saying that you can recover from traumatic brain injury.

It’s a mixed bag. As most things with people are.

The thing is, though, the Brain Injury Association is more than a person. It’s a collection of persons which professes to assist other persons. And as such, if it’s going to truly assist, I would think they would welcome the presence not only of a member of the press but also someone who has been impacted by brain injury.

Or maybe they’re wary of brain-injured folks in general, knowing what they do about “us”…?

Who can say? One of the things I’m taking away from this is yet another reminder of how hot I can get on short notice. And it warns me to check myself periodically, to make sure I don’t go off the deep end. It reminds me I’ve had multiple concussions, multiple mild traumatic brain injures… and as such, I owe it to myself and to others to measure my responses carefully, and weigh the possible effects/consequences, before I let fly.

I had considered taking down the post from before, but it’s a valuable learning/teaching lesson. So, I’ll leave it up there, warts and all.

My solution for TBI/PTSD rage

Anger (or out-and-out rage) is one of the places where my TBIs and PTSD intersect to cause real problems. I’ve been having some rage issues, lately. Getting worked up over little things — getting angry over nothing, really. Just getting angry. Temper, temper…

In the moment, my anger — my rage — seems completely justified. I feel with every cell in my being that I am entitled to be outraged. I am entitled to be angry. I validate my emotional experience, and I end up spiraling down into a deepening pit of anger, resentment, and acting out. Yelling. Making a fuss. Putting up a stink. And getting aggressive with whomever happens to be offending me at the moment.

This is not good. I’ve done it with police officers, and I’m lucky I didn’t get cited. Or arrested. I’ve done it with family members, and it’s cost me plenty, in terms of peace of mind and my relationships. I’ve done it with co-workers, and it strained our connections to the point of breaking.

Not good.

But lately, I’ve been able to pull myself out of my downward spiral before it gets too much of a hold on me. I’ve started doing some basic things that stop the progression of rage before it picks up so much speed it’s like a runaway freight train.

First, I recognize that I’m angry, and I am convinced that I’m right about being angry. This might not seem like a big thing, but I have trouble figuring out how I’m feeling sometimes, and anger is one of those emotions that I don’t always identify well. It just feels like a rush of energy — and while everyone around me knows I’m pissed off, I usually can’t tell what’s going on with me until it’s progressed to a really problematic point. I recognize that I’m angry, and I remember that I need to not let myself get carried away.

Second, I step away. I take a time-out and just walk away. I stop myself from saying what I’m about to say, no matter how badly I want to say it. I tell myself, I’ll give it some thought and figure out how to say it exactly the way I want to say it. I tell myself… anything … just to extract myself from the situation. I step away, telling myself I’ll come back when I’m better able to express myself.

Third, I take some deep breaths.  This helps stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that chills you out. The sympathetic nervous system is what gets you worked up to respond to a crisis situation — and when I get really angry, it’s often because I think and feel like I’m in a crisis situation, and my body is getting all geared up for fight or flight (more often fight). I consciously take some deep breaths to get my parasympathetic nervous system to chill out.

Fourth, I seek out some kind of tactile stimulation. I need to get out of my head, which is spinning out of control, and just give myself a different point of focus. My head is going so madly, at this point, that I cannot even think straight, so I seek out some kind of physical sensation to get my mind off the madness. I press the side of my face against the cold side of a door that leads to the outside. I pick up something rough and rub my fingers along it. I jingle change in my pocket. Or I find something heavy and hold it. The physical sensation, along with the deep breathing, gets my mind off the crazy cycle it was in, just a minute ago, and it lets me focus on a single point — the feel of the cold door against my cheek or the feel of quarters and nickels and dimes juggling among my fingers. Tactile stimulation, like looking at a flame of a candle while meditating, helps me center and get my mind off that crazy downward cycle.

Fifth, I remind myself that my body and brain are playing tricks on me. I am probably not getting angry for the reasons I think I am — it’s my body that’s getting all worked up into a fight/flight/freeze state, and my mind is interpreting that as a real sign of DANGER. And I’m probably starting to panic a little, too. As a matter of fact, when I take an objective look at things, the rage that’s building inside of me might not even be real rage, rather a response to a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system response. It could very well be my body tricking my mind into thinking the wrong things. And I need to remember that I get to choose how I interpret my life. My mind gets to decide how I’m going to think about things, how I’m going to react. And my well-intentioned body, which thinks it needs help, is just misleading my brain into thinking that I have to do something about whatever it is that’s getting to me. When I remind myself that this is a physiological process that’s taking place, I am able to relax… and the anger subsides.

The thing I have to remember, when all this is coming down, is that It Is Not Worth It. No matter how justified my rage seems to be. No matter how entitled I am to be angry. No matter how wronged I may have  been. It is not worth it, to get so tweaked over things. When I go off on an anger “binge” I end up feeling really hungover and dumb and numb afterwards, which just makes my life more difficult, once it’s passed.

I’m no doctor, but I suspect that it may be connected with the mechanics of panic/anxiety… all that post-traumatic stress stewing in a pot, and my TBI brain being unable to sort it all out in a timely fashion… My processing speed is slower than I’d like, and by the time I figure out what’s going on, the damage is often done.

So, I do my best to recognize when I’m getting angry, I step away, I take some deep breaths and try to relax, and I do something that gets my body’s attention — like feeling something cold or rough or tactile in some way. And I remind myself that my brain and body are playing tricks on me again. They’ve done it before… and they’ll do it again.