Into the bleak mid-winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping my brain from filling up with fluff

Recently, I heard someone say that working memory is better understood now, than it was before. And this new understanding shows it to be a lot less resource-rich than folks used to think.

Once upon a time, the general consensus was that working memory — the “chalkboard of the brain” where information is stored for short periods of time, so you can work with it later — could store 6-7 things for later retrieval.

Well, now they come to find that it’s really more like 3-4 things. And all the busy cramming of stuff into our limited space is just driving us nuts. I know it’s doing that to me.

And knowing now that I have a lot less “space” to store stuff in than was believed before (not to mention the fact that I have specific issues with my working memory, thanks to my head injuries) calls for different strategies in living.

Like keeping the fluff out — you know, all those extraneous, non-essential things, like odd distractions that I find interesting and fun to think about, but which actually take me nowhere… all those little “mental hobbies” like tons of writing projects that I’ve been chipping away at over the years… the side projects I’ve promised myself I’d do… the endless list of tasks that I would like to do, but don’t need to be done… indeed, all the long-term plans I have which are not happening NOW — those things I now classify as “fluff”. Things that take up needed space, without contributing anything to my overall life.

Of course, some of the “fluff” is actual activity that matters. But that stuff qualifies as fluff, because it’s not immediate, it’s not in line with what I need to accomplish in the course of the day, and it is just distracting me from what I really need to be doing.

So, it has to go away. Someone recommended to me once that I write down those things on a separate piece of paper and put the paper away… and then focus my attention entirely on a small, select group of activities that MUST be done. I had done that for a while, then for some reason I got pulled off in a bunch of different directions. Now that I’m remembering that I need to do this (yet again), I’ll have to make a point of it.

I’m not sure where I went off the tracks, so to speak. I guess I just got caught up in a lot of activity. Come to think of it, some of my initial attempts at one of the projects I’m working on hit a snag, so I withdrew, backed off them and went off and did something else. And I ended up with a bunch of fluff-stuff filling in the gaps left when my initial plans didn’t work out as expected.

Well, anyway, I’m getting myself back on track, and it’s good. As I go through my piles of to-do items, I’m actively ditching stuff that I will very likely never get done. Some of those things interest me, but you know what? The collected notes I have, the information I put together, however many years ago… that’s all changed dramatically over the past couple of years. So, anything that I have stashed away “for later” is no longer valid.

And in the trash it goes. Or on the scrap paper pile, so I can use the blank sides of the paper for my new notes (and not have to go out and buy paper).

I’m also clarifying much more strictly the things I intend to accomplish in my life. The things I wanted when I was 15… 25… 30… 40… they have all shifted and changed. There are some central interests I still have, but the ways in which I pursue them have changed. My priorities have changed, my skills have changed, my related interests have changed. And I need to allow that change to exist — and make the most of it.

So, I have been going through my hard drive and removing old files related to things I am no longer involved in. I’m also defragging my hard drive regularly to make room for the things I do want. I’m trashing old files, removing old books, getting things out of my work space that no longer serve me, that no longer interest me. I’m letting go of plans I have kept in the back of my mind, wanting with all my heart to make them happen, but never “finding” the time to do them.

Note to self: If I can’t find time to do something that is supposedly very important to me, it’s probably more important to others, and I’m clinging to it for the sake of serving others’ standards and priorities.

Another note to self: This needs to stop.

So, on it goes. Times change. People change. I have definitely changed. And the things that I used to be so invested in, well, a lot of them have changed, too. Which means I have to make a concerted effort to refocus myself, redefine myself, and continually figure out how (and if) what I’m up to is serving my ultimate goals and priorities.

And if it’s not, well, then I need to not do it.

Life, as we all know, is a series of choices. A series of decisions. A constant exercise in movement. Distraction and attentional issues have hijacked me to the point where my movement has not been focused or based on conscious choice — rather, a continual attempt to relieve the stress, anxiety, agitation, and constant restlessness that seems to follow me wherever I go.

And I’m really, really sick and tired of it. Truly, I am.

But it’s good that I know that, that I’ve noticed it. Because now that it’s front and center with me again, I can take steps to do something about it.

Another sort of amnesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After I fell in 2004, that changed.


Broken Bokeh by WatchinDworldGoBy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Telling stories

I’ve been coming across a lot of references people are making to telling stories… what stories we tell ourselves, what stories others tell us… what stories we want our lives to embody.

Once upon a time, I was big into stories. I wrote constantly, and much of what I wrote was stories — fiction, non-fiction… just accounts that were meaningful to me. Sometimes others found them meaningful — when I showed them to others. Most of the time, I kept them to myself. They were my stories, and I didn’t want  anyone else meddling in them.

I continue to write, but now I share my stories. I do a whole lot more writing online, than in my onetime journals, and it’s good. It’s a good development. Looking  back at all my past journals, I’m amazed at how circular I was — rehashing the same topics over and over and over and over and… well, you get the point.

I have that problem a lot less, now that I’m putting what I write out in public.

Keeps me honest.

It’s good for me.

And I’ve been thinking it might be good for me to do more of this writing — along different lines. I’ve written books before, and it’s strangely easy for me to collect several hundred pages of words that hang together well. I’ve written under pseudonyms, to keep my writing identity safe and sound, and the material I’ve written has gotten good reviews from some. And I think it might be time for me to write about growing up with TBI. I’ve been looking around some, and it doesn’t appear that there’s much literature out there about kids with head injuries — especially from the point of view of the child.

The books that I have come across about kids with TBI have been either non-fiction (I did find a really good one, the other week), or they’re biographical accounts/personal stories from the point of view of parents. Not much — that I’ve found — has been written by people who grew up with TBI.

Could be, people just want to put it all behind them and forget about it. I could see that. I feel that way, myself, sometimes. But then I think about all the parents and the kids out there who have experienced TBI — especially concussions in sports, which is so common — and I think, “Maybe this is something I need to NOT put behind me. Maybe it’s something I need to put out there in front of me.”

I’ve been feeling incredibly emotional, lately. My life is undergoing some significant changes, with my home life shifting and taking on new aspects of independence for both my spouse and me, and my job not being the most wonderful experience in the world. I’ve been waking up regularly at 3 a.m., with this nagging sense that I need to make some changes… just what those changes are, exactly, I’m not sure.

I know what I would like to do — have a lot more freedom to move and breathe and travel and enjoy my life (I haven’t had a real vacation in quite some time). I would really like to devote more of my time to this work of educating folks about TBI, writing about my life, informing people of the important details, helping survivors better understand themselves and manage their issues, and reassuring worried parents and spouses and friends that things don’t have to end badly. There is hope.

Yes, I know what I would like to do. I’m just not certain how to get there.

But writing this book will be a start. Yes, I think I’ll start here.

Thanks, but I think I’ll pass on the knitting

This is a sort of follow-on to my last post about extreme sports, extreme living, extreme dying.  Apparently, the extreme sports athlete in me is feeling antsy. Maybe it’s the melting snow — where did it all come from, anyway? But I’m getting distracted (again 😉 )….

Recently, a reader whose opinion I really value offered me the following advice:

… take a deep breath. Go for a walk and pet every dog you meet. Plant flowers. Sew. Get clay and make things. Knit. Bike ride. Join a running club. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Listen to the video of the vets with TBI’s. Get angry and then forgive yourself.

I did part of what they suggested — I checked out the video of the vets with TBI’s, and I got angry. I also forgave myself — just because. I’m not sure what for, but I forgave myself.

Still, I have to say, I won’t be petting every dog I meet along my walk. I’ll likely be walking in the woods, crossing terrain I usually can’t cover in the summertime. Planting flowers, sewing, making things out of clay… knitting… riding bikes… volunteering… While those are things that may appeal to some, for me, they just don’t do it.

I’m built differently than that, and I need more excitement than that for my life experience. I’m much more of an out-there kind of person. Am I an extreme experience junkie? Perhaps. I prefer taking myself past where I’m comfortable, and seeing what all the world has to offer.

I just cannot seem to bring myself to just settle down and do quiet things that feed my spirit on a very simple manner (“simple” in a good way, not like “stupid” or “simple-minded”).

It just isn’t who I am.

And I have to go with who I am. I understand what folks are saying about needing to accept myself and my limitations, but again — I’m back to the idea that we needn’t just abandon the core, vital parts of ourselves because our brains have been injured.

Part of what’s piquing me about this, is the photo presentation I watched the other day on brainline.org that was done by a brain injury support group in Massachusetts. Part of the presentation was about acceptance. Another part was about chaos. And you know what? Although I could hear what they were saying, I also had this overwhelming sense that the things they were accepting and acclimating themselves to were totally avoidable and fixable.

As in, if your apartment is a wreck, and it gets to be a wreck on a regular basis, do something about it. Make notes about where to put things — use labels, like that one person does. Make a commitment to clean up after yourself on a regular basis. And if you can’t do something about it yourself, get help. Don’t just sit there in your own chaos. Get up and do something about it. Clearly, if you can tell that your place is a mess, you can tell that something needs to be done about it. So, do something about it! Don’t just sit there in your mess! My God, man/woman — have some self-respect!

I’m not saying this to be harsh. I’m saying it because it needs to be said. TBI survivors need to be encouraged to be fully human, wherever and whenever possible. Sure, things may change, but how is sitting in your own chaos truly a reflection of who you are and what you deserve from life? We ALL deserve more. Encouraging people to put up with things that are either avoidable or fixable is akin to killing a part of them. And we need to not do this. The truth sometimes hurts — but it can be a good hurt, especially when it lifts us out of our self-pity and self-sabotage, and ennobles us as full human beings.

Okay, I hear you saying I’m being too hard on people, and I need to have more compassion. Well, that’s what I’m doing — having compassion. As in, not giving up on someone because they have a head injury. Trust me, I sat in front of my computer for hours each day, for weeks and months on end, after my latest TBI… doing nothing… staring straight ahead, not remembering people who came into my cubicle (who clearly knew me), attacking everyone who came within earshot, crying for hours at a time, spending all my money, taking no time to advance my skills and keep myself sharp. It took months and years of tough determination and very hard lessons, to get past it. But you know what? I did. And while things aren’t perfect, and I have a long way to go, I’m a far sight better off as I am now, than if I’d just accepted my memory issues and my disorganization as “how it was”. I often wonder what might have happened, if I’d actually had someone around me who could offer me help.

It’s quite exasperating for me, to watch and hear how some folks just give in. Especially when they’re a far sight less impaired than the veterans who are struggling and fighting each and every day to get the use of their limbs back. In some ways, I suppose it’s almost harder to handle the little glitches that come with mTBI — they’re less obvious, and you tend to not get the help you need. But if you can discern your problems, and you can tell it’s a problem, it seems to me you are in a position to ask for help in fixing them.

A lot of it comes down to philosophy, I think. That, and what you think the purpose of human life is, on a very fundamental, soul level. Why are we here?

Why bother having these experiences, if we’re just going to retire to the background? Why give in?

Why?

Me… I choose something different. Today, on the holiday, I choose to put some hours in at work, so I’m more caught up for the rest of the week. Sure, I have to work harder and longer, but it sure beats being constantly taken by surprise 😉

The force of habit

I didn’t want to exercise, when I got up this morning.

But I did it anyway.

I was feeling “gunked up” and sluggish and I have a lot to do. I didn’t want to spend the first half hour of my day riding the bike and lifting my 5 lb weights.

But I did it anyway.

And I’m glad I did.

I would like to say that I was able to follow through with my morning routine because I realize it is good for me, and I look forward to doing it every single day. But that would be untrue. Fact of the matter is, I’ve built this routine into my daily schedule so completely, that to veer from it or deviate in any way causes me intense anxiety. Its not so much high-minded intentions and enlightenment that gets me on the bike and stretching and lifting weights, first thing. Its the sheer force of  a strictly enforced habit.

A friend of mine tells me it takes six weeks for a habit to form. Well, I’ve been at this morning routine for nearly six months, and its so ingrained in me that doing something different is not a prospect I relish. I have a tendency to intense anxiety and nervousness — and I use that to my benefit, by creating positive, constructive structures which cause me intense anxiety if I deviate from them.

If you can’t get rid of your neuroses, you might as well put them to work for you. That’s what I did this morning. And I’m glad I did.

‘Cause now I feel a whole lot better. My sinuses have cleared, my body feels more awake, and I’m mentally much clearer.

Clear is good. I have a lot to get done today. It’s Sunday, and part of me feels like I should be taking it easy, as I had such a rough and long week, last week. But if I work this right and play my cards right, I can actually settle into what I’m doing and take it easy while I’m doing it.

Easy does it, say friends of mine. After hearing them say this for 20 years, it’s starting to sink in.

About time 😉

Anyway, this morning I realized I’ve run out of my pre-printed daily tracking forms, and I had to go back to writing things out by hand on scrap paper on my clipboard. In a way, I like this better. I’ve recently realized that the more stressed I am, the worse my handwriting is, so I can use that as a measure of how tweaked I am over things. Since being tweaked over things sets in motion a whole bunch of complications that set me off-track — I start to load up all sorts of extra activities on myself that do not need to be done — I’ve realized that I can gauge how well or how poorly I am doing, in general — and how well or how poorly I am likely to do through the course of the coming day  — by my handwriting.

Having a pre-printed form with lines on it that keeps me neat and tidy is actually a short-cut that keeps me from having to really focus in on my handwriting. It’s also a little bit of a crutch for me, as it structures my day for me and tells me what I’m supposed to do — and when. I’ve been very much in need of that kind of structure, for the past decades, and I’ve suffered with out it. Stuff just didn’t get done. It just didn’t. Important stuff. Stuff that I’m now paying the consequences of not finishing. And a lot of stuff got started and commitments got made that had no business ending up on my plate. Not having that structure, not having a consistent way to go about things, was — well — in some cases small-scale catastrophic.

But in the past couple of years, since I realized what havoc mTBI has played in my life, I have done a really focused and intensive job of ordering my life in a much more constructive way. I’ve created routines for myself specifically to strengthen and support the parts of me that need help. I’ve taken myself to task for lots of things that I messed up for no good reason, and I’ve taken steps to remedy them. I’ve really stepped up in many, many aspects of my life that used to either languish or fall by the wayside. And I’ve made tremendous strides in the past 18 months — largely because I suddenly realized that I had problems, and those problems needed to be solved.

Now I find myself not only able to follow through with the required activities I set for myself each day, but I’m also better able to manage the optional ones.  I’m also better at distinguishing which ones matter and which ones are wishful. I am better and not packing my plate full of things that “must” be done, and I’m better at deciding which ones are energy drains and not contributing to my overall progress.

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally starting to come together. And a key part of all of this has been the force of habit. Identifying what I’m going to do, and doing it religiously, each and every day without fail. The things that are important to me — like exercising — I do every single day. Without fail. At the same time, each and every day. Without fail. And it’s the daily aspect of it that I think really makes a difference.

Now, a lot of people say that you don’t have to exercise every single day, in order to get benefits. Well, I tried that, and in my case, if I don’t do my exercises each and every day, I end up forgetting about them, doing other things, and not doing them even once a week. Trust me – I’ve tried to do the “half-way” fitness routine, and it doesn’t work. So, I broke the cardinal rule of fitness and I do my workout every single morning.

No, I do not give myself time to “rest” between daily workouts. I do not give my body time to “catch up”. But I also don’t push myself really hard every single day that I exercise. Some days, I’ll put a little more into bike ride, pushing myself to work up a sweat. Or I’ll focus on more weights with my lifting, so I feel a little sore the next day. But I don’t give myself time off, because by this time exercise has become like any other daily activity — like eating a meal or sleeping. It’s just part of my daily routine. It’s just part of my life.

Force of habit to the rescue.

And now that I’ve got the exercise thing down — which still takes discipline and determination, some days, like today — I can extend that into other areas of my life. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what I want my life to be like, on down the line, and I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what parts of my life now are contributing to making that a reality later. I’ve come to the realization that my neurological and physiological issues may never go away and I’m going to have to factor them in at every turn, but I’ve also proven to myself that I am capable of positive change, and if I follow certain steps and do so consistently, I can — and will — make the kinds of changes I need in my life.

I may not be able to get back the years and the money and the relationships which fell prey to my injury, but I can work towards building something new for myself which is a reflection of what capabilities I have, and what my character truly is.

Ultimately, for me, the real power of the force of habit is about it relieving me of the need to think through every single action I take. Developing good habits frees up valuable time and energy I would otherwise be spending considering the pros and cons of what I’m doing, getting my head around the reasons why I’m doing them, and convincing myself they’re worthwhile. Developing rock-solid habits around good activities and behaviors enables me to focus on the important stuff — the actual doing of the activities, not the constant thinking about them. Developing positive habits frees me from analysis paralysis, and it acts as a kind of artificial executive function that keeps things running smoothly, even as the thinking parts of me are noodling about how to go about things.

Set-in-stone habits take care of the What and Why, so I can focus on the How.

And that’s a good thing.

So, that being said, it’s time to come up with some more habits. It’s time to create some more structure around what I absolutely positively need to do, in order to get where I’m going. This morning I created my daily planning list without the benefit of a pre-printed form. And my day is progressing really well anyway.

Good, good, good… and more good.

Working TBI issues one at a time

Traumatic Brain Injury issues do not have to sideline you and disqualify you from a productive and satisfying life. There is a way to address your own particular issues, even if your issues are unlike those you hear others talking about. Despite multiple TBIs, starting in early childhood, I have been dealing with recurring concussion/head injury issues regularly and very successfully for years. I have not received any formal rehabilitation, until about a year ago. It’s helping immensely, but I wasn’t “dead in the water” before I connected with my neuropsych. Through trial and error and a whole lot of hard work and practice, I’ve figured out how to make it in the world, TBIs and all.

For me, successful recovery is more about your method and techniques, than it is about treating a specific symptom. Everybody’s symptoms are different. What we have in common is the nature of our injuries — our brains have been hurt, and they don’t behave the way they used to, anymore. It’s confusing and frustrating and overwhelming, and it is really tempting to give up.

A lot of time, I hear people who have been affected by TBI (both survivors and friends/family members) say that when it comes to dealing with TBI, they just don’t know where to start. So, they settle for less of a life than they should/could have.

It’s true – it is hard to know where to start. The brain affects every single aspect of our experience, cognitively, behaviorally, physically… you name it, the brain is involved. And when the brain is injured, then you’ve got problems.

Without a doubt.

What I have found particularly helpful is a daily practice that is sort of along the lines of Give Back Orlando’s approach. It’s not always easy, and it can be time-consuming, but without it, I’d be sunk. Here’s how I handle my issues and manage my life:

  1. Each day, I write down the things I want to accomplish. The things I want to do. The things that will make my life worth living. I write it all down in a list format on the blank side of a piece of 8-1/2×11 scrap paper (I’ve got tons of that), and I put checkboxes beside each item. I also write down the times I want to get them done, if time is important (like an appointment or a deadline). I mark the most important ones with yellow highlighter, so I don’t miss them.
  2. I take this list with me as I go through my day. I use it to keep myself on track and remember what I am supposed to be doing.
  3. If/when I accomplish something, I put a check-mark in the checkbox I drew beside the item and I make a note about why it worked out (like “I was focused” or “I HAD to get this done”).
  4. If I did not accomplish something on my list, or it got totally screwed up, I put an X in the checkbox and I make a note about why it got screwed up (like “I was too tired,” or “I ran out of time because I was impulsively doing other things”).
  5. Either during the day or later on, I take different colored highlighters and mark the checkboxes of the things I got done with green. I mark the checkboxes of the things that got messed up with pink (I hate pink). And I mark the checkboxes of the things that didn’t happen through no fault or doing of my own with orange.
  6. At the end of the day — or on the morning of the following day, if I am too tired the night before — I sit down with the list and look at how I did. I make notes on the paper about what caused me to mess up. I think about what my day was like and I think about how I could have done things differently.
  7. I also make a point of learning about the parts of the brain that manage those things I have trouble with, and throughout the course of my days, I exercise those parts by doing those things in enjoyable ways, so the affected parts work better when I’m doing necessary things I’m not that keen about. For example, I have had a lot of trouble reading and comprehending what I read, since my last accident in 2004. To get myself back on track, I practice reading things I really enjoy and get my blood pumping — like action adventure thrillers and magazine articles about things that fascinate me, and books about current subjects that others are talking about. Malcom Gladwell is a great one to read, because he’s a great storyteller, and so many people have read his best-selling books. I can discuss what I’ve read from him with just about anyone, and they (unknowingly) help me remember and process what I’ve read. The trick with this, is to make sure I don’t wear myself out. I can tire myself out quickly by being too consumed by activities that fascinate me, and when I’m tired, it introduces a whole other set of complications.
  8. When I am putting together my list of activities for the next day, I make a point of referring to my lists from the past days, seeing what was derailing me, and figuring out coping strategies for how to handle my new set of activities. Failure is not an option for me, and some things MUST be done well, or they should not be done at all.

It’s an ongoing process, and it’s become part of my everyday routine. It is extra work, but oh, how it pays off!

It has taken me some time to get this system together in a way that works for me. Give Back Orlando’s approach is excellent, but I needed to tweak some things for my own purposes. I need to be a bit less rigid with how I manage my time, than they appear to be — I understand the need for holding to a schedule, but I have to be more flexible, because that is how my daily professional life goes — it’s a stream of constant interruptions that keep me on my toes. Having my list nearby all the time helps. I also put it into my computer at work, so I am tracking my progress throughout the day.

I am also more expansive than Give Back Orlando with my explanations for why things messed up. Fatigue and exhaustion factor in very strongly for me, as does anxiety, so I focus on them pretty intently.

But no matter what the differences between me and GBO, the approach is more or less the same — decide how you want to live your life, and then figure out what issues are keeping you from accomplishing what you want to accomplish. Address those issues on a case-by-case basis, watch for emerging patterns. Learn about the things that are holding you back. And never, ever, every give up working at achieving what you want to achieve.

(Speaking of Malcom Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” he talks about how you need to do something for 10,000 hours in order to get really good. Regardless of innate talent, people who do what they do for 10,000 hours are consistently better than people who practice/do less. So, it looks like true success is really a matter of time. I’ve got time — it’s one thing I do have!)

If you do your daily planning and analysis and remediation regularly and with intention, and you believe that you are capable of change in your life, I truly believe that (no matter what anybody else has to say) you can overcome the cognitive-behavioral and physical pitfalls of traumatic brain injury. You do not have to abandon your hopes and dreams and settle for less in your life.

You just have to figure out what you want to do, be determined to do it, and work your ass off to get there.

Narrowmindedness breeds disability

Permanent Vacation is a post everyone should read. It’s important. And it’s true. And since the chances of you getting through life without encountering at least one person who needs a little extra help are slim to none, you should read it, think about it, and let it guide your future thoughts and actions.

The issues around disability have been a regular part of my life for a long time. I’ve lived with disabled people, and I’ve worked with them.

Back in the day before I fell down the stairs in 2004 and my life almost completely fell apart, my day job was ensuring that large-scale websites were accessible for disabled folks and others with accessibility needs. Accessibility isn’t just about helping the blind use a website, or offering text-based alternatives to audio for hard-of-hearing or deaf folks. It’s also about making a website usable for folks who can’t use a mouse (too much mouse use can do that to you – trust me), or for folks who needed text to be larger than the 20-something-chosen miniscule stylized fonts that folks born after 1980 seem to be particularly fond of. It covers everything from how you navigate a website to how you use the information. There’s a lot to cover, and a lot of software engineers don’t want to bother with it.

I’m not sure why – it’s just basic human decency that drives the accessibility train.

At the time I was making websites more accessible, I had no idea that one day I would have my own disability to deal with — a twice-hidden disability, no less, which is as adept at hiding itself from me, as it is at hiding itself from others. Granted, one of the things that obscures TBI as a disability is the fundamental human aversion to brain problems. We don’t want to know about it, don’t want to think about it, don’t want to explore it, and we certainly don’t want to have to live our lives around a traumatic brain injury, concussion, whiplash, or whatever else you care to call the damage to what’s between your ears.

There’s a weirdly Darwinian streak we all seem to have within ourselves, when it comes to surviving head trauma. Either we heal, or we don’t. Either we’re okay, or we’re not. No middle ground. No gray areas. No good days or bad days. Just OK or NOT OK. And if you can’t make a go of living your life after you’re diagnosed and have treatment… or after having a few days/weeks/months off to get back on your feet… and if you can’t go back to functioning as normally afterwards as you did before, then you deserve to be shunted to the back of the room/bus/line, as someone who is “just not trying hard enough.”

Well, there’s head-injured, and then there’s stupid. These kinds of attitudes towards head-injured people are just plain stupid. And they do more to hinder the long-term well-being of TBI survivors, than any amount of brain trauma.

I could get incredibly riled over this — and believe me, I have in the past — but I’ve got a full day ahead of me, doing things I love to do, so I’m not going down that road. I will say, however, that if people could just get some basic facts about head injury and its effects… if people in general could just realize that an injury to the brain is indeed an injury and it never stops affecting the person who was hurt… if people could just step back and take a little bit more time and stop being so haughty and egotistical in their attitudes toward disabled and otherwise challenged folks, the world would literally be a better place.

See, here’s the thing… A serious, enduring injury (like TBI) is not the sort of thing you can heal all on your own. It’s not like a broken leg. You can’t put a cast on it that people can see and sign — and help you with, when you’re approaching revolving doors. The brain (especially) has a way all its own, and it’s a mystery to even the most accomplished experts, how it heals — and why. And while the brain may restore itself to some extent, the full-spectrum impact of a TBI is not the sort of thing that can be healed only by the physical knitting together of the severed connections — which can actually never be restored to their pre-injury state… Once the damage is done, it’s done (from what the experts say).

The full-spectrum impact of a TBI can touch every aspect of your life, from your sleep/wake cycles, to your tolerance of heat and cold, to your ability to understand what people are saying to you, to your tolerance for frustration. It can make you jumpy and irritable and verbally abusive, and it can cause you to say and do things you would never want to do, by reducing your brain’s ability to inhibit unwanted words and action.

And what’s more, the changes don’t just affect the injured party — they affect everyone that person comes in contact with, either directly or indirectly. Even if you manage to present as perfectly normal, even if you manage to keep your act together on the surface, if you’ve got TBI related issues like increased distractability, lower thresholds for anger, and sleep disruptions, the cascade of behavioral and logistical effects can create subtle cracks in the foundation of your everyday life, which ultimately compromise your ability to get on with your life in a mature and responsible fashion, even your physical and mental health.

Here’s how you can get into trouble, thanks to a TBI:

  • TBIs have a nasty way of slowing down your thought processing speed.
  • Sleep disruptions have a nasty way of resulting in increased agitation and distractabilty.
  • Increased distractability can lead to “careless mistakes”.
  • These can lead to arguments with others.
  • Arguments can escalate if your flashpoint threshold is low.
  • A low anger flashpoint threshold can become even more explosive if you’re tired and not thinking well.

Now, if the people you’re dealing with have no idea that you’re having trouble sleeping, and you take a little while longer to process what’s happening, and they don’t have a clue how quickly your temper escalates (through no intention of your own, by the way), that just compounds the problems. Everything is complicated by impatient people who are in a hurry to get stuff done, without being mindful of the one they’re dealing with. Nothing is easy, when someone does stupid stuff to provoke you, or doesn’t cut you any slack. A hidden disability has a nasty way of getting worse, when you have to deal with someone who has no compassion and no patience for others who are just operating at a different speed than them… and who say and do unkind and hurtful things, just because they can.

Truly, it doesn’t have to take much to help someone with a disability like TBI get through the day. All it takes is some understanding and humility and respect. If you know full well that everybody has issues, that everybody has an impairment of some kind (large or small), and you understand that people-helping-people is a great way to not only get the job done, but also humanize your interactions, then the abilities of both parties are enhanced, countless issues can be avoided on the spot.

The injured person standing at the counter gets an extra few minutes to figure out what they want to do, and the person waiting on them gets an extra few minutes to catch their breath in the midst of a busy day. It’s not a bad thing.

But if the people you’re dealing with don’t have patience and compassion and aren’t willing to cut you a break, they create havoc for both you and them. The lack of simple, fundamental human decency, and a close-minded judgment of those who are different in some way, does far more damage in the long run, than the actual injury itself. Treating the disabled like they’re sub-human registers with us on a deep and fundamental level that wreaks havoc with our concentration, our focus, our available energy stores. Instead of solving a problem, like ordering from a menu or discussing a customer service issue, we’re plunged into a life-and-death battle for our basic human dignity. When people who are supposed to serve us refuse to treat us with respect, we walking wounded have to shift our attention away from the real problem we’re trying to solve, and shift over to the debasing challenge of convincing the person who’s supposed to help us solve the problem that we deserve to have the problem solved.

Which is a total friggin’ drain — one that should never have to happen.

Look… everyone has issues. Can we agree on that? Everyone has some problem of some kind. There’s no escaping that fact. Some of us have more obvious or more comprehensive injuries than others. But it’s really how we deal with our problems, and how we treat others who have different kinds of problems, that determines the debilitating effects of the injury.

If someone with a TBI has more problems when they’re rushed and pressured, then others can help them out by not putting all sorts of pressure on them, and not rushing them to do and say things they need to think through, first.

If someone with a TBI has more problems when they don’t get enough sleep, then their friends and family can help them by not demanding that they stay up late to watch a movie or television with them.

If someone with a TBI has hard of hearing, then others can help them by talking directly to them, not covering their mouths, and not making additional background noise while they’re talking.

But if everyone who thinks they’re okay is locked into the idea that if you don’t behave in such-and-such a way… or you don’t think or talk at such-and-such a speed… there’s something wrong with YOU, then the small problems become much larger. And the after-effects of injuries become even more debilitating.

Ultimately, I believe there is a solution to almost every problem out there. And with the right information and the right mindset… the right education and intention, issues that are sticky can be unstuck, and disability can be diminished. But if people who are supposed to help, flatly refuse to do so, then they themselves are helping to create and perpetuate true disability.

It’s not the injury that’s ultimately the problem. It’s ignorance and smallmindedness.

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.