About a year ago, I had a conversation with a friend who was wondering aloud how I manage to get through life with the deficits I described to them. I had just finished telling them about my memory problems, my cognitive processing problems, my physical problems, the troubles I had when I was a kid… I didn’t hold back, but just let it all hang out. And when all was said and done, it was a lot to process, even for me (who’s been living with all that for as long as I can remember).
One of their first questions, when I’d finished, was how the hell I managed to get through life? How did I do it every day? How did I manage to make it through so many “regular” situations… not only adequately, but in fact better than many? For years, I’ve worked in high-stress, high-pressure environments that have one crisis after another. For decades, I’ve experienced job changes, moves from one part of the country to another, serious health problems that felled family members, deaths of close relatives, career insecurities, near-eviction… How did I manage to keep it all together, and actually look even more functional than others, who have not had brain injuries?
It sounded a little hokey when I said, it but the first words out of my mouth were, “Mindfulness. I just pay really, really close attention to each moment as it comes.”
At the time, I wasn’t sure that was really 100% accurate. And when I thought about it, over the coming weeks and months, I came up with a whole bunch of other ideas for how I get by:
- mimicking others who seem to have it all together
- being silent instead of speaking up and showing my limitations
- hanging with good people who care about me and can help me
- learning to ask for help in ways that don’t make me look stupid
- learning to be stoic under any given situation, and then falling apart when I’m out of sight of others
The list goes on, of course, and the more I think about it, the more coping strategies I can come up with.
But once I got tired of thinking how else I manage to get by, I came back to my original thought, which was correct:
I get by in the world, head injuries and all, by paying really, really close attention to each moment, and living the very best that I can in that moment.
Throughout the course of each day, countless situations arise which enable me to learn more about myself and be true to that moment.
People approach me for help or input. I can choose to pay attention to them, really get what they’re saying to me, and respond to the best of my ability… Or I can pretend to listen to them, brush them off, and go back to what I was doing before.
People interact with me in stores and public places and at work. I can choose to be pleasant and polite to them, or I can be rude and impatient and make them sorry they ever met me.
Opportunities arise to make choices that will change the direction of my day. Will I dress up for work, or will I dress down? Will I take back roads to work, or will I take the freeway, or will I take the train? Will I slow down when the traffic light turns yellow, or will I speed up?
Every single choice I make through the course of each day has the potential to change my course in good ways or bad. And every action I take is both informed by my neurological profile and affects my personal relationship with my brain. It’s a two-way street. I have to both factor in the issues I have with my broken brain when I decide how to act… and deal with how my perception of myself alters, based on the outcomes of what I chose to do before. If I neglect the former — e.g., don’t bother to remember that fatigue is a huge issue for me, and it’s impacting my ability to think and coordinate my movements — then the latter can suffer — e.g., I’ll get really down on myself for being dumb or dense or uncoordinated. Even though I know I’m somewhat impaired, I still get down on myself for doing/saying/choosing things that were better left alone. And that takes a toll… like water dripping on a rock and eventually eroding a virtual Grand Canyon through my self-esteem.
Mindfulness matters with me. Perhaps moreso with me than with other folks who are neurologically normal. Because if I want to live my life to the best of my ability, I don’t have a choice, but to force myself to be mindful. When I’m racing through my days, not paying attention to my limitations, not being mindful of where I am and what I’m doing, unfortunate things tend to happen. I rub people the wrong way. I say things I shouldn’t. I get pulled over by cops. I bump into hard/sharp objects and bruise myself. I get snarky with authority figures and alienate my supporters. I tend to end up in hot water, and then I feel just awful. I start to doubt myself. And when I doubt myself and my self-confidence takes a hit, I have a harder time just living my life later on. Even the most basic activities can become a difficult chore, when my self-confidence has taken a hit… they’re hard enough, as it is, without the added burden of screwed-up self-confidence.
But when I slow down and focus on the present moment… When I’m totally involved — to the best of my ability — in what I’m doing, what someone is saying to me, what is happening around me… When I manage to block out everything else around me and focus wholly on what’s right there in front of me, magic happens. I become involved in my own life. I am able to see, feel, hear, and experience all-round the situation that has presented itself to me. When I can manage to stop the rest of the world from intruding, and I can slow down the action enough to devote my full attention to what’s going on in that moment, at that specific place in time, I can turn the full force of my abilities towards it, and be true to it.
Now, looking around at websites about mindfulness, I’m finding a lot of mystical stuff. Enlightenment stuff. Claims that mindfulness is the path to Buddha-hood. A cure for psychological ills. A cure for the soul. I don’t know about all that. I think that mindfulness is certainly a key part of becoming a fully conscious individual. But in my case, mindfulness isn’t something optional that I add to a personal spiritual practice for the sake of additional help. It’s a central and esential part of my day-to-day coping strategies, without which I’d be totally sunk. If enlightenment comes along with it, then great. But I’ll settle for basic functionality.
And that’s exactly what it offers me. Because when I’m not paying attention, when I’m not cognizant of the fact that I’m overly tired, when I’m ignoring the fact that I’m getting more and more agitated, bad things happen. I lose my cool. And when I lose my cool, I blow up. When I blow up, I say things I don’t want to be saying. I say things I don’t really mean. I break things. I throw things. I flip. Trust me, it’s not pretty. And people close to me are occasionally afraid of me, which does not feel good. Ultimately, I start to close down, shut people out, stop communicating with them, start to get down on myself… and I slide down in that sinking spiral… sometimes into total and utter despair. The cost to myself and those around me is very high, when I’m not being mindful and paying attention to what’s going on with me.
But when I am paying attention and I’m aware of where I am and what’s going on with me, I can manage my limitations. I can see that I’m tired, and take a nap. I can see that I’m not following what someone is saying to me and either ask them to clarify or make a note (a real note on paper, ’cause I’ll forget mental notes). I can tell that my attention is wandering and bring myself back to the moment. I can see that I’m starting to lose my cool for no good reason and physically remove myself from the situation – walk away or even run, do something different, or just stop talking. I can prevent myself from going off the deep end and overreacting to what others are doing and saying. Just reminding myself that I’m being “very TBI” at the moment chills me out. I can remind myself that my brain is misbehaving and I’m probably getting overwrought for no good reason. And I can stop the downward slide before it starts.
I cannot even begin to say how important this is. For myself, and for everyone around me. It means the difference between being a good partner and being a vexation (and sometimes a threat) to the ones I love. It means the difference between having a conversation and having a fight. It means the difference between finishing a thought and taking a definitive action, and getting mired in bogus details that keep me from going anywhere. It means the difference between being a TBI victim and a TBI survivor.
Mindfulness is not just an optional practice for me. It’s not something I can do now and then, when the spirit moves me or I’m in a meditation session. It’s something I absolutely positively must do all the time, in order to meet the most basic requirements in my life.
The beauty part is, because mindfulness is such a powerful practice outside of basic coping, it enables me to do the most basic things with tremendous focus and energy. Taking one small thing at a time, focusing fully on one moment at a time, allows me to use the full range of my abilities on that thing, in that moment.
And in so doing, my life becomes more than just a series of limitations to be dealt with. It becomes more than just a sequence of chores and tasks and obligations. It becomes more than work, work, and more work. My life — through mindfulness — becomes a form of worship. It becomes art.