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 downward spiral of fatigue

It’s wild – it starts with the best of intentions. It’s exciting… very exciting to life my life, to go-go-go, to do lots of things and get tons of stuff done.

But if I don’t watch myself, I can get into trouble pretty quickly. If/when I get over-tired (and at the rate I tend to to, it’s usually a question of when I’ll get over-tired, versus if that will happen), a downward spiral starts in, that just won’t quit, till I start to rattle and shake like the USS Enterprise being pushed through an asteroid field at full speed. (And I hear Scotty yelling, “Cap’n, she’s breakin’ up! I can’t give ‘er anymore!“) I question my sanity, my ability to cope, my ability to live, and I’m exhibiting symptoms that someone who doesn’t know better would interpret as mental illness.

It’s not mental illness, per se. It’s my brain acting strangely under abnormally taxing conditions.

Here’s how things steadily go downhill…

The Downward Spiral of Agitation and Fatigue

And before I know it, I’m in trouble. I’m angry, I’m emotionally volatile, I’m raging, I’m blowing up at people, I’m melting down into a pile of quivering agitation, I’m irrational, I’m over-reactive, I’m hyper-active, I’m everything I know I should not be, but I am powerless to prevent it.

Also, I am in pain. Not just the muscular/skeletal pain that comes from over-exertion, but the surface pain that comes from fatigue, that makes everything hurt, from my clothing to human touch. It’s awful, and there’s nothing to do to stop it, when it’s full-on.  Advil doesn’t help. Only sleep does — days and days of extra sleep.

The thing is (the pain aside), a lot of the behavioral problems that come up are a result of how I perceive myself in relation to the rest of the world. Yes, I’m emotionally volatile. Yes, I’m losing it when I should be keeing cool, but it’s not so much that I am in trouble over things I’m doing — the real trouble happens and I get bent out of shape, when I misinterpret what I’m doing. I assume that because I’m having problems keeping things straight in my head and I’ve gotten turned around, that I’m screwing up (yet again) and I’m a mess, I’m broken, I’m damaged, I’ll never amount to anything, yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada… an unbelievable amount of agitation results, which feeds back into the insomnia/fatigue loop. And that just makes my behavioral issues worse.

I’ve been seeing this more and more, lately, as my sleeping habits have deteriorated. They truly have. It’s been very fun and exciting to do things late into the night (as in, after 10 p.m.), but it’s cost me dearly, in terms of peace of mind, not to mention being able to deal effectively with increasing demands and challenges.

Stop the madness!

Seriously.

So, I have re-prioritized rest. I’ve bumped it up to the top of the heap. And I’ve made some small but important adjustments in how I do my work, so I have a better handle on things.

Objectively speaking, I’ve actually been dealing with some of the challenges and demands quite well — but because I’m so tired, I can’t really accurately assess how well I’m doing. So, when I feel like I’m having trouble, I assume I’m not doing well at all… and my successes are nearly lost on me. Unless someone can talk me through them. Like my spouse or my neuropsych.

Speaking of my neuropsych, I had a really great meeting with them  last night (thank heavens), on the spur of the moment. I was in town, they were in town, they had an opening in their schedule, and I had a sudden cancellation on mine. So, we managed to meet for a few hours. And after checking in with them about some recent experiences that had thrown me for a loop, I realized that I had actually done extremely well under very demanding and challenging circumstances. The biggest hurdle in all of it, was me being so tired that I couldn’t think clearly about what had really happened that was good.

I was so tired, nothing seemed good. But it actually was. So, my neuropsych talked me back from the brink of despair. And then I went home and  got to bed at a decent hour — 9:30 p.m., thank you very much! — and I woke on my own after 8 solid hours.

Wonder of wonders.

And suddenly, the world looked a lot better. The “mental illness” subsided, my mood disorder cleared up, my crappy attitude and biting self-criticism subsided, and I was able to get on with my life. Like a normal person.

And I’m back on track with watching myself more closely than I had been, taking my issues one at a time through the course of each day, and addressing the real underlying problems when they come up, so I can get on with my life, despite them. I’ve refined my daily log for what I have planned and what I really do. I’ve become quite diligent about keeping notes on my daily activities, and now I’m furthering that even more with a better kind of journal that helps me a lot.  Tracking my activities and the results is one sure way to see how I’m doing, from day to day. My brain will tell me any number of things about how I’m doing — many of which may in fact be untrue. But if I’ve got my notes, I can see for myself how I’m doing.

Onward…

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.

Building my cognitive-behavioral exoskeleton

MTBI can do a lot of damage, in terms of shredding your existing skills and long-accustomed habits. It can really undermine your thinking and judgment, so that you never even realize you need to do things differently than you did before. And it requires that you force your brain (and sometimes body) to push harder and harder, even when every indication around (and inside) you is saying, “Let up… let up…”

This can be very confounding. I encounter — all the time — people who are keen on “taking it easy” and doing things “with ease and grace”. They think this is a sign of superior evolution. They think this is a sign of superior character, as though it means they are more “plugged in with the Universe”. They don’t want to have to expend the effort to get things done. They want Spirit/YHWH/God/Creator to do it for them. They don’t want to take a chance and extend themselves, because they are convinced that a Higher Power is more capable than they, and they believe they should just “get out of the way” and let that Higher Power take charge of their lives.

That may be fine for them, but that mindset drives me nuts. First of all, it absolves them of any responsibility for their actions. If things mess up, they can say it was “God’s will” or part of a “higher plan”. If things get really messed up, they can say they just need to be more “in tune with Spirit”.  I have a bunch of friends who are convinced that they are “channels” for Divine Inspiration, and that’s how they should live… just floating along on a tide of holy impulse. And their lives are a shambles. Objectively speaking, they are constantly marinating in a brine of their individual dramas and traumas. It’s just one thing after another, and all the while, they keep expecting Spirit/YHWH/God/Creator to fix all the messes they’ve helped create.

It’s very frustrating to watch this willful disregard of basic cause and effect, but I suppose everybody’s got their stuff.

Now, it’s one thing, if these people (some of whom are very dear to me) are content to live their lives that way, but when they expect me to do the same — and they judge me as being less “evolved” if I do things differently — it’s a little too much to take, sometimes. I don’t do well with living my life from a distance. I don’t do well with telling myself that I’m just floating along on the divine breeze, waiting for some wonderful opportunity to arise to save me from my own creations. I need to be involved in my own life. I need to be invested. I need to put some effort into my life. I need the exertion. It’s good for my spirit. It’s good for my morale. And it bolsters my self-esteem, as well.

Anyway, even if I wanted to just float along, I couldn’t. I’d sink like a rock. I’m not being hard on myself — this is my observation from years of experience. I can’t just ramble about, taking things as they come. I need structure and discipline to keep on track, to keep out of trouble, to keep my head on straight. I can’t just be open to inspiration and follow whatever impulse comes to mind. My mind is full of countless impulses, every hour of every day, and if I followed each and every one, I’d be so far out in left field, I’d never find my way back. I have had sufficient damage done to the fragile connections in my cerebral matter, that the routes that neural information takes have been permanently re-routed into the darkest woods and jungles of my brain. All those injuries over the years didn’t just wash out a few bridges — they blew them up. And they slashed and burned the jungle all around, and dug huge trenches across the neural byways I “should” be able to access.

As my diagnostic neuropsych says, “I am not neurologically intact.”

So that kind of disqualifies me for just winging it in my life. I tried for years to “go with the flow”, and I ended up flit-flitting about like a dried oak leaf on the wild October wind. I got nowhere. I can’t live like that, and I know it for sure, now that I’m intentionally trying to get myself in some kind of order. My brain is different. It has been formed differently than others. It has been formed differently than it was supposed to.

I can’t change that. But I can change how I do things. I can change how I think about things. I can change by facing up to basic facts. As in:

  • My thinking process is not a fluid one, anymore. In fact, I’m not sure it ever was — for real, that is. I’ve consistently found that when I’ve been the most certain about things, was the time when I needed most to double-check.
  • If I don’t extend myself to get where I’m going, I can end up sidelining myself with one minor failure after another. One by one, the screw-ups add up, and I end up just giving up, out of exhaustion and/or ex-/implosion… and I can end up even farther behind than when I started.
  • It’s like nothing internal is working the way it’s supposed to, and the standard-issue ways of thinking and doing just don’t seem to hold up.
  • My brain is different from other folks. It just is. It doesn’t have to be a BAD thing. It just is.

On bad days, it’s pretty easy for me to get down on myself. I feel broken and damaged and useless, some days — usually when I’m overtired and haven’t been taking care of myself. But on good days, I can see past all that wretchedness and just get on with it.

Part of my getting on with it is thinking about how we MTBI survivors can compensate for our difficulties… how we create and use tools to get ourselves back on track — and stay there. There are lots of people who have this kind of injury, and some of them/us figure out what tools work best for us, and we make a point of using them. These exterior tools act as supports (or substitutes) for our weakened internal systems. We use planners and notebooks and stickie notes. We use self-assessment forms and how-to books and motivational materials. We use prayer and reflection ane meditation and journaling. We use exercise and brain games. We use crossword puzzles and little daily challenges we come up with by ourselves.

Some of us — and I’m one such person — use our lives as our rehab. Not all of us can afford rehab (in terms of time or money), and not all of us can even get access to it (seeing as our injuries tend to be subtle and the folks who actually know what to do about them are few and far between). But we have one thing we can use to learn and live and learn some more — life. The school of hard knocks.

I use everything I encounter to further my recovery. I have to. I don’t want to be homeless. I don’t want to be stuck in underemployment. I don’t want to fade away to nothing. And that’s what could easily happen, if I let up. My friends who are into “ease and grace” don’t get this. But then, they’re embroiled in their own dramas, so they don’t really see what’s going on with me. Even my therapist encourages me to “take it easy” a lot more than I’m comfortable doing. (They’ve only known me for about seven months, so they don’t have a full appreciation of all the crap I have to deal with, so I’ll cut them a break.)

It stands to reason that others can’t tell what difficulties I have. After all, I’ve made it my personal mission to not let my injuries A) show to others, B) impact my ability to function in the present, and C) hold me back from my dreams. I may be unrealistic, and I may be just dreaming, but I’m going to hold to that, no matter what. I can’t let this stop me. None of it – the series of falls, the car accidents, the sports concussions, the attack… None of it is going to stop me, if I have anything to say about it. I just have to keep at it, till I find a way to work through/past/around my issues.

And to do that, I use tools. I keep notes. I write in my journal. I blog. I have even been able to read with comprehension for extended periods, lately, which was beyond my reach for a number of years. I keep lists of things I need to do. I come up with ways of jogging my memory. I play games that improve my thinking. I focus on doing good work, and doing well at the good work I’m involved in. I bring a tremendous amount of mindfulness to the things I care about, and I’m constantly looking for ways to improve. To someone with less restlessness and less nervous energy, it would be an exhausting prospect to life this way. But I have a seemingly endless stream of energy that emanates from a simmering sense of panic, and a constantly restless mind, so  I have to do something with it.

Some might recommend medication to take the edge off. But that, dear reader, would probably land me in hot water. Without my edge, I fade away to a blob of ineffectual whatever-ness.

I build myself tools. I use spreadsheets to track my progress. I downloaded the (free and incredibly helpful) Getting Things Done Wiki and installed it on my laptop to track my projects and make sure I don’t forget what I’m supposed to be working on. I have even built myself a little daily activity tracking tool that I use to see if any of my issues are getting in my way. It not only lets me track my issues, but it also helps me learn the database technologies I need to know for my professional work.

I am constantly thinking about where I’m at, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it. I am rarely at rest, and when I am, it is for the express purpose of regaining my strength so I can go back at my issues with all my might and deal directly with them. I am at times not the most organized with my self-rehab, but I’m making progress. And I track what I’m doing, to make sure I’m not getting too far afield. And I check in with my neuropsychs on a weekly basis.

I also use external props to keep me in line. I build exercise and nutrition into my daily routine, so I have no choice but do do them — if I break my routine, I’m lost. The anxiety level is just too high. I commit myself to meetings that require me to be in a certain place at a certain time, so I have to keep on schedule. I work a 9-5 job that forces me to be on-time and deliver what I promise. I surround myself with people who have very high standards, and I hold myself to them. As I go about my daily activities, I do it with the orientation of recovery. Rehabilitation. Life is full of rehab opportunities, if you take the time — and make the point — to notice.

In many ways, my external tool-making and structure-seeking is like being a hermit crab finding and using shells cast off by other creatures for their survival. I don’t have the kind of inner resources I’d like to keep myself on track, and I don’t have the innate ability/desire to adhere to the kinds of standards I know are essential for regular adult functioning. I’ve been trying, since I was a little kid, to be the kind of person I want to be, and it’s rarely turned out well when I was running on my own steam.

So, I put myself in external situations and engage in the kinds of activities that require me to stay on track and adhere to the kinds of standards I aspire to. I seek out the company of people who are where I want to be — or are on the same track that I want to be on. And I “make like them” — I do my utmost to match them, their behaviors, their activities. And it works. I do a damned good impression of the person I want to be — even when deep down inside, I’m having a hell of a time adhering to my own standards.

The gap between who I want to be/what I want to do with my life, and how I actually am and what I actually accomplish is, at times, a vast chasm. I have so many weak spots that feel utterly intractable — and I need to do something about them. So, I use the outside world to provide the impetus and stimulation I require to be the person I know I can be, and to accomplish the things I long to do. I use the supports I can get, and I use whatever tools I have on hand. I fashion the world around me in a way that supports my vision of who I can be and what I can accomplish in my life. and I just keep going, layering on more and more experiential “shellack” that supports my hopes and dreams and vision.

Dear reader, if you only knew how different my fondest hopes and most brightly burning dreams have been from my actual reality throughout the course of my 4 decades-plus on this earth, you would weep for days, maybe weeks. But this is not the time to cry. Not when I have within my reach the means by which to put myself on the track I long for. Not when I have the resolve to take my life to the next level. Not when I have — at long last — the information I need to understand my limitations and my cognitive-behavioral makeup. Not when I have the drive and desire to live life to the fullest, to love and grow and learn and … and …

But enough — the day is waiting, and I have things I must get done.

Peace, out

BB

Too much of (a) good thing(s)

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

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

What’s a creative sort to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

After my second cup of coffee, of course 😉

Using my head – for real

A while back, I was wracked with a sort of remorse. It was really sinking in that the way I worked before is not the way I worked now. I saw it more each day, on the job again with people whom I had worked with, 10 years ago. I am not the same person I was back then. That’ s for certain. My temperament tends to be more snarky and snappish, my attention span is shorter, and my ability to grasp and hang onto information over extended periods of time is very different than it used to be.

It’s a problem. ‘Cause this job and my ability to perform it is my bread and butter. And I don’t want to let the people on my team down. But I was having a hell of a time remembering the things I learned only a few weeks ago, especially when I hadn’t used them on a daily basis since I learned them. I was getting pulled off my past projects by new priorities, and I was spending more time testing and tracking and planning my work, than actually doing it. So the stuff I thought I had “down” about a month before, seemed like it had mysteriously evaporated.

It was a problem. It felt like a huge one. And I felt like I was spending all my time playing catch-up.

So that’s what I’ve been doing, lately. Catching up. It often happens that I  need to retrace my steps and redo my work, so I’m doing it once more. This time, though, I’m employing a different learning strategy than I used before. This time, I’m actually putting the learning into action by applying it to my workaday tasks — and working on a private project I’ve been designing for the past several months. This private project actually relates to my workaday world — it’s a special productivity tool I use to manage my strengths and limitations and constructively overcome the hurdles that get in my way, based on what I know about my own tendencies, and my inventory of strengths and weaknesses and coping skills that have worked for me in the past.

This is good. Not only am I integrating my whole life — personal and professional — in complementary ways, but I’m also creating new ways to master the new skills I need to acquire. Instead of just reading and making notes, like I did six weeks ago, I’m now using the new skillset I need to master.

It’s gotta be hands-on. Or I’ll never retain the new information.

It’s so wild, how I forget that. I’ve written before about how I learn best — by doing — and there’s a part of my brain that knows all about it. But putting it into action is the challenge. A big one. And I forget that I have to take a break, let the information sink in, and actually use it before moving on to “learn” something else. Instead, I keep reading. It’s not enough that I learn — and master — one single skill at a sitting. Oh, no — I must read and conceptualize more… and more… and more…

I’m not sure what it is — I think my hungry brain wants to race ahead and learn-learn-learn. It gets into this groove and instead of stopping to implement what it’s just read, it gets lazy or acclimated or lulled into a false sense of security, and when I’ve gotten to the end of one section or one chapter, it wants to jump ahead and read more stuff that’s new, different, interesting. It gets into this habituated flow and gets stuck in a loop. Especially when it comes to reading, studying, taking in new information.

That’s very unproductive, and it has a tendency to overwhelm me, before too terribly long.

But I can’t be too hard on myself over this. The fact of the matter is, I’ve had six weeks for the initial flood of information to sink in. It may feel like I’ve forgotten it, but when I get back into using the information I read about a while back, a little bit at a time, I can actually sense some familiarity with it. So, it’s not gone. It’s just tucked away in the back of my head, and I need to find a way to coax it out again into plain view, where I can put it to good use.

Here, again, is a great example of where my brain is leading my mind astray. It’s convinced that I’ve lost what I gained, some time back, and it’s ready to panic, run for the door, relegate me to second-class status. The mis-firing processes in my brain are interpreting this extended learning process as a sort of failure. Its artificially elevated standards say, “If you could really do a good job with this, you’d be proficient, by now,” totally underestimating the complexity and level of involvement required to do this new work I’m taking on. My brain gets turned around and confused and disoriented, so it thinks it’s lost in the wilderness for all time and is going to wither and die there like that kid from New Jersey who starved to death in Alaska, instead of it just being momentarily disoriented on a street corner in New York and needing to ask for directions from a passerby. It can’t immediately see a way through my passing frustration, so it thinks there is no way through. It can’t immediately access the information I stashed some weeks back, so it thinks it’s gone for good.

But here’s the thing — it’s not that I’ve lost what I’ve learned before. It’s that it’s filed in a virtual drawer in my head that I just need to find and open up again. I have learned, actually. It might not feel that way, but I have. And now I’m shifting into a different stage of my total learning process. All that reading and reading and reading without associated mastery isn’t a terrible thing. It’s not — I just have to realize that the reason I was reading and reading and reading before was different that what I thought it was — and it’s actually a lot more pragmatic and clever than I realized up till this point.

The real reason I was reading and studying like crazy before was for preparation, not execution. I was reading compulsively, not to master the material, but rather to familiarize myself with it, to get the feel of it, and to get myself to a point where I could listen to someone talk about all the topics and subjects and issues and aspects without being flooded with an overwhelming tidal wave of information overload… and eventual panic. Thinking back, I can remember many instances where conversations with my team members landed me in the middle of an emotional avalanche that totally shut down my brain. I just blanked. They were talking and talking about all this stuff, and I wasn’t able to keep up. So, I spent a lot of time reading about the things they were talking about. It was for the sake of putting my anxieties about verbal communication at rest, rather than implementing anything.

That first piece — the panic switch shut-off — was the first thing I had to do before I could move forward. I realize that now. And in its hidden wisdom, my mind devised this way for me to do just that — through reading and studying and familiarizing myself with the material before I started into all the doing.

So, actually, it wasn’t bad for me to spend all that time just reading and not doing. In fact, it wasn’t spending time, it was investing it. And now it’s paying off. Because I can sit through a conversation with people who are talking about stuff that used to be brand-spankin’ new and totally intimidating… and I don’t freak out.

That’s a good thing.

How severe was my injury when I was 8?

My parents are coming to visit me next weekend,and I’ve been thinking a lot about my earlier injuries and how they affected my childhood. How they affected my development, how they affected my interactions with people, how they affected my future. When I was seven, I fell down a flight of stairs and was very dazed and confused and wasn’t able to talk. And when I was eight, I was hit in the head with a rock and knocked out for a while. (I tell that story here.)

In the ensuing years of my childhood and youth, I had more injuries — concussions and falls. It was not uncommon for me, while playing, to fall hard and/or hit my head and get up a little dazed and confused… but keep playing. Just keep playing.

Now, concussions alone could account for a lot of the problems I had when I was a kid — problems understanding what people were saying to me, problems with distractability, problems with temper outbursts, problems with getting really turned around and confused… lots and lots of mood and behavioral problems that my parents handled with faith and prayer and lots of structure, rather than pharmaceuticals.

In retrospect, I think it really helped, when I was young.  The structure gave me a framework to live within, the faith gave me something bigger to hang onto, and prayer offered me a way to ask for help from a Higher Power when I couldn’t find the words or the means to ask for it from human beings. It was a pretty exacting way to live, though. My family was very religious, and my parents were very strict (at that time) about what was permitted and what was not… what was sinful and “worldly” and what they considered pleasing to the Lord.

But while that faith and prayer gave me a much-needed support system when I was young, when I entered my teen years, it backfired. As I grew older, I still had a hard time, cognitively and behaviorally speaking. The problem was, I wasn’t just having troubles at home, I was having troubles out in the world. Teen years are marked by increasing social activities outside the home, and I just didn’t do a very good job of handling myself. I was alternately shy… and openly rebellious. I was alternately a high achiever and a slacking ne’er do well. I did a lot of good and helpful things in my youth, including saving an elderly lady who was trapped when the open door of her car (it was not in park) rolled and pinned her leg to a very large object (I can’t remember what it was, but she was pinned, and the metal of the door cut into her leg — I can still recall the sight of the inside of her fleshy thigh cut open — I guess my brain selectively records images). But I also sold drugs and bought liquor underage and distributed it to friends. I wasn’t a big-time criminal, but my later youth was marked by a lot of the warning-sign activities of criminals in the making.

Jekyll and Hyde… or head injury? Given the number of injuries I’ve had over the years, and the fact that a lot of my rebellious and “alternative” behavior was directly connected with an internal storm of confusion and agitation and rage that never disappeared, only subsided a little, I think the latter applies.

Okay, so all that being said, I have been wondering a lot, lately, just how severely I was injured when I was 8. I was knocked out with a rock thrown by some kids who didn’t like my looks and had been taunting and teasing me and my sibling from a distance. We didn’t respond, and they started to throw rocks. My sibling wanted to leave, but I said “NO, we’re staying right here.” I still feel awful about it; they could have been injured, instead of me. But I was hard-headed and stubborn, and I didn’t want anyone to chase me away from doing what I was doing.

Anyway, after a number of rocks landed closer and closer to us, one clocked me on the head. I recall feeling a dull-sharp impact and thinking, “What was that…?” and then I went down.

The next thing I remember, I was looking up and my sibling was hovering over me, crying, with tears streaming down their face. I was woozy and wobbly and at first I wanted to stay and keep playing, but they were so upset, I realized I couldn’t keep us there. I was also not feeling so great, and they led me home to my parents, who had me lie down on the couch while they called a friend who was a nurse, to find out what to do. I didn’t want to do what they told me to — I didn’t want to lie down, I didn’t want to hold still, I wanted to either get up and move around or go to sleep. I remember trying to sleep, but they kept me awake. I seem to recall being really tired, but also kind of punchy and agitated and restless. Eventually, as I recall, after checking my eyes with a flashlight a number of times, they let me get up and move around. And my life went on.

When I think back on that time, it seems to me that it was a pretty serious deal – but I’m not sure how aware of it my parents were.  Or anyone was, for that matter. And when I think back, I honestly can’t say how long I was knocked out for. I might have been out for a few seconds, a few minutes, even an hour or more. It’s impossible to say. My sibling can’t recall the event clearly, so I can only guess at how long it was.

And up till recently, I’ve been thinking I was out cold for a relatively short time. But it could have been longer. I can’t recall the kids who attacked us being in the field when I came to — I can’t recall how the light of the day was, and I’m not sure if my parents were concerned about my sibling and me being out longer than we should have been.

But to be accurate, there is a chance that I was knocked out for longer than a few minutes. It could have been much longer. And from what I understand, the length of unconciousness is an indicator of the severity of an injury, which can also be an indicator of long-term problems. Given the level of difficulty I had when I was a kid — particularly during and after 3rd grade… from that point on, life was one big obstacle course for me — I have to wonder if maybe I wasn’t injured worse than I thought I have been thinking I was.

I need to do some more research on this… It could be a good thing to learn. And I think it might help me talk to my parents about my childhood. Because despite learning a lot and putting a lot of things together over the past year and a half, I haven’t yet discussed my TBIs with them. I haven’t discussed them with anyone in my family. But next weekend, I think that’s going to change.

Figuring out how to talk to my parents about my childhood TBIs is actually one of the big action items on my plate, these days (in addition to working like a mad person to keep my job and keep up with my work… organizing my study in a way that helps me, not hinders me… clearing out old files and projects that were artifacts of TBI-induced agitation, rather than being something that would ever bear fruit… and tending to my marriage and home life). My folks have been saying for years that they can’t figure out what they did wrong to make me so unhappy when I was little. They can’t  figure out why I took so many wrong turns.  They can’t understand why I was so angry and rammy and difficult — what did they do wrong?

I have to tell them, it wasn’t them that caused the bulk of my many issues. It was TBIs. Getting hit on the head. Hard. And at an early enough age that it sheared and skewed the connections in my developing brain so it couldn’t develop “normally,” no matter what they tried. I have to tell them it wasn’t all their fault, and that all things considered, they actually helped more than they hurt.

For all their flaws, for all the things they might have done differently, my parents did create a home where I was able to develop habits of self-inspection and introspective reflection. They created a very structured and well-organized environment in which I could safely do things like paint and draw and write stories and express myself and learn things and be my own unique (and sometimes very weird) self. Certainly, it might have been helpful, if they had taken my shortcomings into consideration more and not overwhelmed me constantly with so much friggin’ input (my mother has always been a manic force of nature, God love her). But the fact that I’m still here, still standing, still able to keep motoring on, despite pain and agitation and confusion and generally feeling like I live my life in the dark and have to just bumble/stumble through a lot of things the first time, before I figure out how the heck to do stuff… Well, I have my parents to thank for that.

Even if my TBI at age 8 was more than mild — even if it was moderate — they raised me in a way that made it possible to keep going, keep moving, keep making my life the best that it could be.

And for that I am eternally grateful.

Now, I have to figure out a way to tell them, when they come to visit. I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t.

Getting it done – and enjoying it

I’ve been reading and hearing a lot of good things, lately, about how to keep on track and keep performing at a high level, despite TBI. It’s really encouraging to read about people who are high-level achievers, even though they were injured badly enough to be in a coma. It gives me hope.

And it lights a fire under me to get my act in gear, with respect to my day job. For years, for certain projects, I’ve kept careful project plans and checklists about what needed to be done. I’ve been able to plan, implement, and carry through on some very intense national (and even global) initiatives, working as an effective team member on projects that affect hundreds, thousands, and even millions of customers. And I’ve kicked ass. I can see a really strong history of achievement, despite my various injuries, and some days I wonder how I’ve managed to do it, day after day.

My longest-running project that I’ve headed up — a national media project that ‘s lasted for 13 years and is still going strong — has been operating nearly seamlessly (aside from some agitating regulatory issues and changing legislation) and it has a national audience that ranges from the Arctic Circle into subtropical islands. Every week, I walk through the steps of Getting It Done, and while some people’s heads would whirl at all the incremental actions, by now it’s second nature to me.

The ironic thing is, this project was first started around the time I was in a car accident that knocked me for a loop and wiped out a lot of the organizational skills I had, as well as the initiatory and motivational resources I’d had — in abundance — prior to the accident. Before the car crash, I had a number of really important initiatives going at my day job, overseeing a small group of producers and being third in administrative command at a mid-size professional services firm in a prominent city. I really had a lot going for me, at the time, and I had good plans and intentions. I was also active on the side, getting together this media project that was more a labor of love than a j-o-b. It was never done as a money-maker, per se, only as something that would make the world a better place — literally.

Then, I was involved in a multi-car chain-reaction accident in Thanksgiving traffic. It wasn’t a pile-up, exactly, but I did hit the car in front of me (their brake lights were out, which made it more difficult to see what was going on), and I got hit from behind. Double-whammy. Aside from being dazed and confused, I didn’t feel like I’d been really injured. And it never occurred to me that not being able to read or make sense of the claim form for the rental agency, not being able to see damage to the car that was right under my nose, and being so clumsy that (a few days later) I slammed my foot so hard I needed to get an x-ray to make sure I hadn’t broken it, might be signs that there was something wrong.

No surprises there — head injury has a way of masking itself. Maddening!

Anyway, in the ensuing months at work, my position become increasingly hectic and my ability to handle it decreased. Everything seemed so much more chaotic. I blamed it on the business, which was struggling under its management (and the problems it had inherited from past administrations). But in retrospect, I can see that I became much more scattered, much more sensitive to sound, and I couldn’t concentrate like I had been able to before, which was tough because my position was smack-dab in the middle of the storms that raged there on a regular basis. The projects I had, which were important to the firm, fell by the wayside. I slowly lost my hold on the group I was managing. And I became intensely stressed and depressed.

That job fell apart… but it also gave rise to a new career — one that involved a lot more machines and a lot fewer people. I went from being a manager to being a technical producer, and it was good for me. Very good for me.

At the same time, I was also getting this media project up and running, and things actually went really well with it. We started out small, then built and built and built, and now it’s enjoyed nationwide on a weekly basis. Ironically, this project came together just as the other job I had was falling apart. And I’ve been wondering how that could be — weren’t my sudden disabilities the same, all across the board? If I had such a hard time dealing with my projects at work, shouldn’t I have had trouble with my side projects as well?

Actually, no. There were significant differences between the two different situations.

  • In my day job, it was very chaotic and loud and there was constant interruption.
  • In my media project, it was just me and one other person putting it all together, and we were in lockstep with each phase of the launch.
  • In my day job, I wasn’t able to move at my own pace — I was on someone else’s schedule, and I had to constantly factor in everyone else’s input.
  • In my media project, I was able to pace myself and take things as I saw fit, with no one to report to, no one to take me to task, no one to impose their will on me.
  • In my day job, I had to navigate a lot of social minefields, which I did poorly.
  • In my media project, it was all task-based, and very objective, and the interactions I had with people were very technical and scientific and binary — a lot of simple yes-no questions, rather than the vague grey areas of the social scene.
  • I was doing my day job because I had to, because it was ‘the thing to do.’
  • I was working on that media project for the love of it, and because it was a dream of mine — and the person I was working with.

Over the course of my working life (more than 30 years, as I started working for pay when I was in my early teens) I have been through a number of “enagement incarnations” — variations in the level of investment I had in the job I was doing. Growing up, work was just something that was done. There was no questioning whether it was fulfilling or met some inner need. It was done because that’s what you did. You worked. You didn’t ponder the meaning of it all, you didn’t ask whether it was furtherthing your own personal growth, and you sure as hell didn’t moan and groan about the unpleasant parts. That’s just how life was. Life was/is work. And if you want to live like a regular human being, well, you worked.

So, there was never much call for me to get caught up in motivational stuff and getting all invested in my jobs. I just did what I did, and I did it to the best of my ability, and I didn’t sink a lot of my soul into it. I just performed my role(s) and went home at the end of the day. End of story.

Which was fine, when I was 20-something (even 30-something) and didn’t have any pressing responsibilities. It was fine, when I wasn’t in charge of a household with dependents, and making sure a mortgage was paid each month. It was fine, when I was still blissfully unaware of all the screw-ups I was making and could freely move from job to job and not worry about the long-term consequences. In a way, prior to my fall in 2004, I led this charmed life of ignorant bliss, always keeping a step or two ahead of my screw-ups, keeping moving before people could figure out that I wasn’t performing nearly as well as I presented, focused more on the excitement of new (and entirely useless) information that teased my mind but sucked the usable daylight hours out of each and every day.

Then, in 2004, when I fell down the stairs, it all caught up with me. And years of distractions and not keeping myself current and not focusing on the basics at my day job, just pulled the rug out from under me. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have useful and marketable skills. I did. But my coping skills, my ability to handle stress effectively, my ability to interface well with other people, my ability to be productively invested in my day job and perform as a key team member, and my ability to keep on-task and focused and follow through, proved to be a lot less developed than I thought they were.

I didn’t have the kind of foundation I needed to feel really comfortable and confident in the outside world, and now I’d sustained a mild traumatic brain injury that scrambled things even more… and exacerbated all my issues.

And the money started to disappear…

Now I find myself at a critical juncture in my life. I can’t afford to not deal with the ongoing issues I have, and I can’t affort to kid myself about what is a problem for me, and what isn’t. I can’t afford to go, day after day, not finishing the things I’ve started, not understanding what’s going on around me, and not being able to see that I’m having trouble.

Clearly, I need to transfer some of my positive coping skills — like the ones I’ve used on this non-paying 13-year media project — to the rest of my salary-earning life. I’ve done well for myself. And now I need to do better. And I need to have a more in-depth experience in all of my life — not just the side projects.

I realize that I’ve never gotten really, really invested in my outside work, because outside work is not typically on my terms.  I have to adjust to conditions outside my head which I find difficult, distracting, disorienting, and anxiety-producing. And I have trouble understanding and making myself understood, which is a huge pain in the ass at times, so it adds to the stress. Then I get upset with myself, and then I really can’t think. And it starts the downward spiral. In many ways, I realize that I’ve done less than what I could, because I’ve gotten turned around and confused, and my brain does not like to be turned around and confused. So, it goes on strike. And the rest of me is like, “Oh, I guess I really do need to take a break…” And I quit. Just stop thinking.

In some ways, I’m a very hard worker. In others, I can really slack off. And my little brain can justify slacking — with no problem. It will even take it a step further and tell it/me that it’s doing the opposite of what it’s doing. It tells itself/me that it’s “working on it” when it’s doing the exact opposite — it’s stopped working and has wandered off somewhere to do something else that seems like a lot more fun. And I have to go find it, bring it back to task, and try to catch up to where I was, when my brain stopped trying.

So, I’m working at figuring out how to keep my brain engaged. How to keep it interested. I’ve started planning my work days much more aggressively, like I often plan my own personal projects. I know how to plan — I do it a lot. Thing is, I don’t do it with the activities with other people that actually make me money. I have this “disinvestment impulse” — an inclination to avoid personal investment, to be always ready to abandon ship if it starts to sink —  in work I do for others, perhaps because working for others has been so fraught with confusion and dread and disconcerting surprise screw-ups that I couldn’t explain. And the fact that I’m being paid to do certain things, but mess up all over the place also adds pressure, which exacerbates my symptoms and issues.

How can I reverse this impulse and really get engaged with what I do? A number of things have come to mind that I’ve been doing more actively:

  1. Actively plan my days and break out all my projects into manageable pieces, so I know what to expect and I don’t get overwhelmed.
  2. Write everything down in my notebook and follow my progress throughout the day.
  3. Think about my present work in terms of long-term payoff. See where the skills I’m building now can help me later on down the line.
  4. Think about what this activity will bring me, not only what I bring to it. Let it feed me. Allow myself to enjoy the pieces I can find enjoyable.
  5. Talk to my boss frequently, check in with them, and track how I’m doing.
  6. Think about the next day, the night before, and review what I still need to get done.
  7. Reward myself for jobs well-done.
  8. Pace myself. Work from home a couple of days a week and take breaks when I can. Actually go for walks in the middle of the day.

It’s not a perfect science, but I’m getting there.

And I’m actually learning to enjoy it!

All new me… all the time…

I have been contemplating my situation as an MTBI survivor pretty intensely, lately. Thinking about how it’s changed my brain — not only since 2004, when I fell down a flight of stairs and smacked the back of my head hard a number of times on the steps… but throughout my entire life. After all, I have had a wide array of injuries — I got knocked out, I’ve had several sports concussions, I’ve been in car accidents, and I’ve had other falls.

Head injury has undoubtedly affected my life, and until a few years ago, I had no idea that the problems I’d always had (but never wanted to own up to) were in fact of a common kind and traceable to common reasons — mild traumatic brain injuries.

The more I realize just how much MTBI has affected me, the more I realize that I really need to re-learn how to walk through the world. Not just because of my most recent accident, but because of a lifetime of TBI-related changes to my cognitive-behavioral version of reality. I need to seriously back it up and rethinking just about everything I assume to be true… because so much of it has been shaped by TBI and clouded by a broken brain… and now I have tools — the Give Back Orlando material as well as other info and tools I’ve come across — to repair some of the damage and renew my life.

Some of the repairs are relatively small – like just changing around some of the things I do when I get up in the a.m. Others are larger, like changing direction with my work and being more realistic about my abilities and inclinations. But the bottom line is, I really need to rethink many of the aspects of my life and not take everything for granted, all the time.

The habits of thought and action I have become accustomed to, may be working against me. I know many of them are. So, I need to fix that.

I’ve recently reached the conclusion that MTBI, as “mild” as it may be, has significantly skewed my perception and interpretation of the world around me and it has effectively caused me to live in a different version of reality than lots of other people. Many situations in my life, I now believe, may have been very different from how I perceived them, which has caused me to grow up with inaccurate understandings of others and my place in the world.

Let me explain — I have always had a heck of a time interpreting people’s social cues. I don’t always understand how to make conversation (correction — I very rarely understand how to make conversation) and I don’t always understand what people are saying to me. This has happened for as long as I can remember. It’s also a point of frustration for people, that I don’t communicate as well as they apparently expect me to (while talking, not when writing – one of the reasons I write so enthusiastically is that conversation and spoken communication is such a bear of an undertaking for me).

When I was growing up I was constantly getting things turned around, and people would lose patience with me. They would raise their voices at me — to get my attention or out of mounting frustration. And I would often startle, because I had trouble following what was going on. I’d then get that rush of adrenaline and heart-pounding and all of that uproar in my head and body that told me “You’re in trouble — they’re mad at you, and they’re yelling at you because you’re a bad person.” I thought I was in trouble — that people hated me. That they didn’t like me. That I was being bad and awful and problematic.

But actually, in some cases, they were just trying to get my attention, and they did it in ways that were less gentle than they could be.

This happened over and over and over again. And over the years, when I was a kid, I developed this godawful complex about  being a terrible person, an ogre, a monster… you name it. I was convinced that everyone hated me — teachers, parents, other kids. A lot of them were unkind to me, especially my peers, but my assumptions about being bad and always being in trouble may not have actually been true.

So, I ended up with a variety of complexes and a nagging suspicion that I was good for nothing and just a drain and a chore for everyone to deal with… when actually, I just had a hard time keeping up, nobody realized it, and they did a clumsy job of bringing me up to speed.

In many ways, I think that my MTBIs had a negative impact on my mental health. Depression and PTSD and low self-esteem have all hounded me my entire life, along with a bunch of other conditions that could be in the DSM-IV, but I’m not looking up for the sake of time. I also don’t want to know. Heck, I’m reasonably functional in basic ways… why belabor it with mental health diagnoses? 😉

One of the other byproducts of this cognitive skewing is that some of my greatest skills and talents have been systematically overlooked and underdeveloped by not only the world, but also myself.

That anosognosia business (not knowing what you don’t know) has complicated my life by diverting so very much of my energy into trying to smooth over and patch up my foibles in the areas where I don’t excel (but didn’t realize it), meanwhile diverting so very much of my energy away from the areas where I have the greatest strengths. 

What a waste. All my life, I’ve been trying to make up for what I lacked, which in many cases just isn’t coming back, and in the meanwhile I’ve neglected the areas where I am strongest… thinking I need to be at least 75% all across the board, instead of allowing myself to be at 30% in some areas, while being at 99% in others.

That deliberate focus on making up for deficits at the expense of raw talent is how people dealt with special needs kids when I was growing up — trying like crazy to get them moderately functional where they were weakest and most struggling… all the while neglecting the areas where they/we were highly, highly, almost eerily functional.

Missed opportunities for the sake of common denominators.  For the sake of my sanity, I just can’t contemplate what that’s cost me…

So, now I’m going to do something about it. Because I can. Because I’m entitled. I have a right to do everything in my power to make the most of the abilities I have, while letting the less-strong areas just be. I have a right to tend to myself and gather all the knowledge I can. Even if  I’m not highly educated in a traditional sense, with all the degrees and the certifications and whatnot, I can be highly educated in a personal, modern sense. There is so much great information out there, and I have a knack for reading and digesting things over time — all the while making use of them.*

*Indeed, one of the things I love about the Give Back Orlando material is that it’s geared for self-therapy, and it never tells you “You’re just a peon without a Ph.D — what do you know!”  Dr. Schutz actually tells us what books we can read, and where we can turn for answers, which is truly amazing in the highly (almost rabidly) territorial intellectual property driven world we currently inhabit.

I’ve got my notebooks, I’ve got my library card, I’ve got my file folders and my lists of issues I need to address. I’m paying attention to myself at a much deeper level than ever before, and I’m determined to work at it as best I can, so I can overcome what’s standing in my way. I’m not just going to roll over, saying, “Oh, well, I got hit on the head a lot over the course of my life, so I guess that disqualifies me from living!”

It’s not about that, with me. Hell no! It’s about taking an objective look at what in my thought processes and behavioral patterns needs fixing – and then fixing it as best I can.

Or compensating for it.

Or avoiding situations that play to the parts of me that can’t be fixed.

I have sustained multiple mild traumatic brain injuries over the course of my life. These injuries have altered my perceptions of life around me and fostered erroneous deductions that have led to poor choices and bad behavior. They have also stoked mental health issues that have their root not in what was done to me or what happened to me, but how I thought about what took place in my life. I am a grown-up individual in my mid-40s who cannot afford to harbor erroneous thinking and poorly constructed patterns any longer.

So, I’m going to do something about it. I’m changing my life, one day at a time. One minute at a time. One experience at a time.

But change it, I will.

The problem with sunny summertime

Checking my blog stats, I see more and more people are finding their way here when searching for info about “light sensitivity”.

Well, it is getting to be summer, after all, which means bright, bright days that are getting longer and longer.

I don’t usually think of myself as being light sensitive — or “photosensitive” — but one sure way to push me over the edge, is by subjecting me to constant exposure to bright light without my sunglasses. If I spend time outside on a sunny day without wearing sunglasses, I become highly agitated and frantic and hyper-reactive. I blow up very easily and melt down easily, too. It’s embarrassing, to be so sensitive to light and not be able to “keep it together” over something as basic as a sunny day, but there we have it. I’m light-sensitive, and that’s that.

To cut down on the impact, I wear amber lenses, which block out certain spectra better than gray or green lenses. I didn’t realize that this was objectively true, till recently, when I read that amber blocks certain spectra better than others. All I knew was, amber lenses “felt better” to me.

I also wear prescription sunglasses that have larger frames than are fashionable, these days. My frames are actually about 20 years old, and I bought them when I got my first expensive eyeglass frames. I have taken really good care of them, because I paid (at that time) almost half a week’s salary for them — I didn’t have a job that paid that well, but I wanted to get a really good set of glasses frames, so I did. Needless to say, those frames are very precious to me and I go out of my way to take really good care of them.

The thing is, they’re not very fashionable. They look very 1990, being large and round, not like the current trend which is short and rectangular. If I went with smaller frames, however, I wouldn’t have the kind of protection from light that I need. I need larger frames, so I forego fashion to keep myself sane.

Light sensitivity is a crazy thing…  And — like so many other issues I have — it sneaks up on me, when I’m not paying attention to it. So, I pay attention. And it pays off.