Brain injury comes in a number of different “flavors”, but it affects us in very similar ways

Brain injury is a brain injury, and as much as we may say “each brain is different, each injury is different,” we still need to look at the ways that each kind of injury is similar to others. And the experiences we have can be quite similar.

Loneliness, isolation, confusion, not feeling like yourself, getting angry quickly, mood swings, and let’s not forget the bone-crushing fatigue and the embarrassment that comes from not being the person you used to be… They are all things brain injury survivors have in common, and it’s helpful to actually treat people accordingly.

I honestly don’t understand why more emphasis isn’t placed on the experience of brain injury. That’s what trips us up, quite frankly. That’s the thing that makes our recoveries so much harder — the experiences we have and the effects those experiences have on our selves, our Sense-of-Self.

Well, that’s why I’m here. To speak up for those of us who tend to get stuck in our post-BI experiences, and need to see there’s actually a way out… Because there is. There is always hope — even in the most dire cases. Nobody can tell me different. That’s just how we’re built — to amaze… to heal… to grow… to learn. And learn some more.

Here’s a quick summary of the different types of brain injury:

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI)

includes things like stroke and anoxic (being without oxygen) brain injury. Some consider traumatic brain injury to be an acquired brain injury, because it “is damage to the brain that was not present at birth and is non-progressive” (See The ABI Manual for more). Personally, I wouldn’t call it “non-progressive”, but everyone’s experience is different.

ABI Resources:

Stroke

happens either when a clot blocks blood flow in the brain (called “Ischemic” stroke) or a blood vessel pops and there’s a brain bleed (called “Hemorrhagic” stroke)

Stroke Resources

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

is related to trauma to the brain that comes from a fall, an attack, a sports injury, or an accident.

TBI Resources:

Concussion

is what people often call a “mild” TBI. Concussions are sometimes considered less serious than traumatic brain injuries, and a lot of people consider a TBI that clears up after a while, to be a Concussion.

Concussion Resources:

 

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Picking up the pieces on my own weekend “island”

desert island with two palm trees surrounded by seaI’ve got a long weekend ahead of me. What shall I do with myself? Three days off, with no appointments, no obligations, no requirements… what a luxury this is.

It’s almost like going to my own desert island. My spouse wants to take it easy, too. They’ve been doing a lot, lately, with events every weekend, and some additional events in between. They lead community gatherings — drum circles, song circles, gatherings where people share meals and life lessons — and it’s a lot of work. I used to attend a lot of them, myself. But it got to be too much. I already have a full-time job and a handful of side projects that keep me more than busy.

I prefer it that way, actually. Keeping busy, keeping engaged, making things, coming up with new ideas… that’s what keeps me young. Feeling young, looking young, living young. It’s a challenge, at times, because fatigue gets me down, that whole brain fog thing sets in, I get angry and agitated, and everything feels like it’s melting around me… falling to pieces. Just falling away. And at those times I sometimes just don’t care about anything. Just don’t. Can’t be bothered.

I’m at the point now, where I’m fine with not being busy. I look back on how things have been in my life for the past however many decades — okay, let’s call it 34 years, since that’s how long I’ve been majority age and in control of my own life — all the time I’ve spent on my projects, doing and doing and doing some more… making things, exploring… all that…

What’s it been for?

What have I accomplished? What have I truly gotten done? I do all this work, and then what comes of it? Clearly, I’m not rich and famous. I’m doing okay with a house (mortgage) and a fairly reliable late model car (and car payment), but I have no financial safety net, I’m not entirely secure about my future, and I just feel like crap so much of the time.

Not that feeling like crap matters… It can’t matter, because then I’d never get anything done. If I only did the things I felt like doing, I’d be homeless. Being in pain, being tired, being confused, being overwhelmed… that’s the price I pay for what I have, and if I let it get to me and give in to it, then everything falls apart. Part of me wishes I could fall back on my diminished state as a reason not to move forward. To file for disability (not that I’d get it, because I obviously am capable of working). I’d love to just check out for a while. Decide what else I want to do…

Well, I have three days to chill, so I’ll do that. I actually have more like 3-1/2 days, because everybody’s going to be gone as of noon, today, making a run for it for the last long weekend hurrah till the holidays. And we all know the holidays are no simple walk in the park, so do they even count as time off?

It’s all relative, of course. And things may be changing with my job, since my group got moved to a different organization. We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, I’m submitting my resume for other jobs, not expecting much, but also not chasing after things. It never works out, when I chase. Plus, it’s exhausting.

So, this week is really for chilling out and giving myself some room to breathe. I can go out for walks down the road. Or I can stay in bed and read. Or I can sit around and watch movies all afternoon. Or I can spend extra time exercising, since I’ll have the time to spend. My choice. Time to take the pressure off, and just BE.

I got almost 10 hours of sleep, last night. Nothing short of a miracle, considering how little sleep I’ve been getting lately. I plan to get even more this weekend.

Onward.

The adventure continues.

After #TBI – Don’t depend on your brain’s weak systems

hand holding pen, checking off lists on a checklist
Getting stuff done… one thing at a time.

From the Give Back summary of how to fix your brain… This is something I have to constantly remind myself. It’s a hard one, because I hate to think of my system as being weak — or weakened. But that’s exactly what’s happened. And the thinking systems that have been weakened have been permanently altered. So, I need to always keep this in mind. When I forget it, I suffer. And so does my work and my relationships. My whole life starts to go downhill.

3. Don’t depend on your brain’s weak systems for organizing and memory to manage your time and your activities.

  • Get your brain to use your full intelligence to plan your day thoughtfully, a day ahead of time, when you can think everything through well.

It’s practically impossible for me to do this a day ahead of time, because things can change so rapidly with me. From day to day, I don’t always know what’s “coming down the pike”. Stuff changes rapidly — plans change, weather changes, people change their minds about what they’re going to do.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t plan in other ways. The best way for me to do this is break it up — look at my next day plan on the afternoon / evening before… and then check in with myself first thing in the morning. And keep track of things throughout the course of each day. Track it.

  • Write that plan down on a schedule form so that you take no chances of forgetting what you need to do.

Scheduling things has become a lost cause, in general, because things are so unpredictable at work and at home. So, I have a standard list format that I use.

[ ] Thing I need to do

[ ] Really important thing I need to do (I use a yellow highligher)

[/] Thing I am in the process of doing or have started

[x] Thing I have done (I have a green marker to track the things I’ve completed)

–> [ ] Thing I needed to do today, but didn’t get to, so I need to do it tomorrow. (I use an orange marker to make it stand out)

I try to keep a running list of things that I “carry over” from one day to the next. I’ll copy my –>[ ] items onto lists for later days. That way, I can keep track of everything I need to complete.

  • Develop the habit of writing plans and following them, and soon you will be in total control of your time and your productivity.

I agree. The habit of writing out plans and following them (as best I can) has done wonders for my ability to get things done, as well as my self-confidence. I have a support system that works for me. And when I use it (which I admit is not consistent enough), it really helps offload a lot of the mental grunt work, to save my brain for more interesting and important (and challenging) things.

If there had to be one thing I’ve done that’s helped me get back to the level of functioning I’m at now, it’s developing lists and systems around lists, that let me do what needs to be done without having to think too much about how to do it all. Coming up with a ‘standard operating procedure’ for just about everything — from getting up in the morning and going to work, to taking down the Christmas decorations — has made me a whole lot more functional than I ever was, when I was just going with the flow or winging it.

Lists are my friend. They can be yours, too.

Onward.

1. Know that you have a new brain, one that can work well once it is reprogrammed.

hand holding magnifying glass over brain, which is made up of gearsOne of the things I really appreciate about the  Give Back Orlando materials is that they don’t sugar-coat TBI recovery, but they also don’t make it into a “accept your new normal” approach, where you have to resign yourself to everything being so much worse than before. The core message is that you can improve… provided you make some specific changes in how you live your life.

The first change is:

  1. Know that you have a new brain, one that can work well once it is reprogrammed.
    • It needs to be reprogrammed because your old programs don’t run quite right on your new brain.
    • Help yourself to keep this fact in mind as you go through your day.

When we’re very young, we come into the world with the capacity to create a whole lot of synapses — connections in the brain that carry information. Over time, our synapses are “pruned”, as our brain refines its ways of doing and understanding things. By the time we get past adolescence, a lot more connections have been pruned than we had, just 10 years earlier.

It’s been said that one of the things that “gets you” after TBI, is that you may have lost a bunch of the connections you really depended on… and that’s a loss.

But here’s the thing, see? If we have “neuroplasticity”, we can create new connections to take the place of the ones we’ve lost. That, to me, is the essence of TBI recovery.

Granted, there may be parts of the brain that are so damaged that there’s no repairing them by present means. Maybe sometime on down the line, but not right now. But the brain is an amazing thing, and we can create a lot more connections than people used to think we could. In fact, the old ways of understanding the brain — that you can’t repair it, if it’s injured… that only certain parts are used for specific activities… that damage is permanent — those old ways have been disproved.

It’s not true.

What IS true, is that with regular practice and the right approach, the brain can be “reconditioned” to perform at, near, or even better than levels you had before.

But you have to realize that change has to happen. You have to deliberately create those new synapses, those new connections, those new ways of your brain functioning. You can’t keep doing things the same way as before, over and over.

You have to realize you have a new brain.

And you have to keep reminding yourself of that, through the course of each day.

It’s like trying to run a Windows 10 program on Windows 3.1 (remember that? I do). It’s just not going to work. Not because Windows 3.1 was so much worse. It was good for what it did. It’s just that the “gears” work differently now.

And you have to accept that fact.

I’m not talking about accepting it because it’s a sad fact that life is going to be so much worse.

I AM talking about accepting it, so that your life can get so much better.

Big difference.

So, that first step is the best kind of acceptance of all.

Again:

  1. Know that you have a new brain, one that can work well once it is reprogrammed.
    • It needs to be reprogrammed because your old programs don’t run quite right on your new brain.
    • Help yourself to keep this fact in mind as you go through your day.

From Give Back (Orlando): Summary of How You Fix Your Brain (after #TBI)

merry go round with city in backgroundI’m dusting off my old Give Back Orlando materials and taking another closer look at them. Since I’m back to being on my own — but this time with a whole lot more context, as well as a whole lot more experience and a history of actual support. I’ve made amazing progress over the past 10 years, and now the page turns in the chapter of my book.

I’m not sure a book is the right comparison, though. It’s more like a merry-go-round that slowly turns in cycles, while I ride the highs and lows. Yep, it’s exactly like that — a merry-go-round. Except, it’s not always a lot of fun. Then again, with my vertigo and nausea, merry-go-rounds stopped being fun for me, a while back. So, maybe that’s about right, after all.

Back to basics… I repeatedly come back to basics in this work. And it is work. It’s continuous, regular process that really has to be a way of life for it to actually take hold. I’m incredibly fortunate that I’ve found the supports I’ve had along the way. And Give Back Orlando was one of the first resources I found that helped me so much. My old neuropsych used to tell me how impressed they were at my progress, and I have to credit Give Back for much of that.

Heck, just knowing that it’s possible to recover, that there are others who have been through it and are just getting on with their lives — or doing better than ever… that’s huge. It was a major turnaround for me, when I first read their Models of Exceptional Adaptation in Recovery After Traumatic Brain Injury: A Case Series. To say that was life-changing is an understatement. It gave me incredible hope and a positive outlook that has stood me in good stead for the past 10 years.

Here are the basic tenets of the Give Back approach. If you’re struggling with TBI, I strongly encourage you to consider these – as well as the resources here.

  1. Know that you have a new brain, one that can work well once it is reprogrammed.
    • It needs to be reprogrammed because your old programs don’t run quite right on your new brain.
    • Help yourself to keep this fact in mind as you go through your day.

     

  2. Since your old habits don’t quite work well enough, you need to TAKE CONTROL of your brain and get it to think through the things you are going to do.
    • Your BRAIN no longer does its job well enough on automatic pilot.
    • Now, your MIND has to make sure it does its job properly, whenever you do anything in which the results are important.
    • Any time you need your actions or your words to have quality, your mind has to make sure that your brain produces quality at every step.
    • It’s as if your mind now has to be the boss.
    • You need to be MINDFUL so that you can be an effective boss.

     

  3. Don’t depend on your brain’s weak systems for organizing and memory to manage your time and your activities.
    • Get your brain to use your full intelligence to plan your day thoughtfully, a day ahead of time, when you can think everything through well.
    • Write that plan down on a schedule form so that you take no chances of forgetting what you need to do.
    • Develop the habit of writing plans and following them, and soon you will be in total control of your time and your productivity.

     

  4. Learn how your new brain works by studying your head-injured moments.
    • If you study them carefully, they will teach you a great deal about your new brain.
    • The more you become an expert on your new brain, the better you will be able to make it do what you want it to do.

     

  5. By analyzing your head injured moments, you will realize that you make most of your mistakes when you are not mentally prepared.
    • By writing a good daily plan, and by warning yourself whenever you are about to get into a situation in which you tend to make mistakes, you will help yourself to become well prepared for almost everything.
    • As you do this, you will have fewer head-injured moments.

     

  6. Your analysis will teach you how often you get overloaded, what overloads you, and how overload affects your thinking and your ability to do things.
    • Once you know what overloads you, you will be in a position to plan to prevent it from happening.
    • This will make a big difference in reducing head-injured moments.

     

  7. Every time you discover another head-injured moment, that is another step toward recovery.
    • Celebrate the discovery, just like finding a twenty-dollar bill in the street.
    • Develop a great attitude about recognizing when your brain malfunctions, because that is what makes a great self-therapist.

     

  8. On the other hand, if you analyze a head-injured moment, it shouldn’t happen again.
    • If it does happen again, you should be ticked off at yourself.
    • What did I miss?
    • How could I let this happen to me?
    • I’m supposed to be in charge of these head-injured moments, and this one snuck right past me!
    • Figure out exactly what went wrong with your plan, and be determined to never let it happen again.

     

  9. Be sure to understand that fixing your brain is not like fixing your car.
    • This is an ongoing fix-it process.
    • Whenever something important in your life changes, the change creates a flurry of head-injured moments that need to be fixed.
    • Whenever something stresses you out or makes you ill, you have more head-injured moments.
    • As you do self-therapy, you will also discover new, unexpected and quirky head-injured moments, even after years of self-therapy.
    • So self-therapy is not a task. It’s a way of living.

     

If you live this way, you control your head injury and keep head-injured moments from interfering with your life, but if you slack off, the head-injured moments will be back.

So help yourself to welcome self-therapy as something good you do for yourself, and avoid thinking of it as a chore.

That will help you to make it a part of your life.

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.