Shaking things up just a little bit

railroad tracks on a gravel bed, one of them ends in the gravel
Time to step off the track and improvise. It’s good for my character.

I took a break from my memory training yesterday. I need to let my system just chill out and acclimate. I pushed myself for several days straight. Now it’s time to let the new connections in my brain (and all-over nervous system) chill out and have a rest. I’ll come back to my exercises in another couple of days.

I’m changing things up a bit. Heaven knows, I love my routines. I have had a lot of trouble in the past with getting things done – especially everyday things – so I have routinized many, many aspects of my life. It’s to the point where I don’t even need to think about doing a lot of things that used to really trip me up — getting myself out of bed, showered, dressed, fed, and out the door to work. It used to be such a trial and a pain — and every morning started with rage.

That’s a terrible way to live. So, I did something about it. I developed a routine I would stick with, each and every morning. It was rudimentary. It was far beneath my actual capabilities. But it relieved me of the need to think everything through, each and every day. So, it served a truly valuable purpose. I credit that routine with giving me a functional foundation again. And saving my self-respect in the process.

Now it’s time to shake things up a little bit. Change up the routines to get my brain to work a little harder.

As helpful as it is to do things the exact same way, in the exact same sequence every day, it’s also easy for my brain to just check out and not have to work at things as hard. When you’re struggling just to get out of bed and out the door to work each day, routine helps. But when you’ve got that down, and you know how to do it rote, sticking to the exact same routine can be a little deadening.

Because if you’re not continuously moving forward, then you’re actually moving backwards. Maybe not right away, but over time, if you don’t move… you’re in trouble.

So, I need to switch things around a little bit. I’ve been doing that at work, where I’m getting there earlier in the day. And I’ve been handling a wider variety of work, interacting with different people, taking on a wider array of responsibilities. I’ve been stepping into the kind of role I want to play in the future, and it’s been good. I figure I have the next year to figure out where I want to go and what I want to do — and that includes money. It turns out, I’m under-compensated. I checked on Glassdoor.com, and apparently, people are making a lot more money than I am, for doing the same work. I tend to lowball myself, because I tend to think that expensive people get cut first, but I may be wrong about that.

Anyway, I’ve been doing a wider array of things in my everyday life, too — more cleaning around the house, organizing, freeing up space and seeing how I can improve my living environment. I’ve been exercising religiously each morning, which itself is a bit of a change (I used to do it every now and then). I’m lifting weights differently. And I’m working on my swimming, doing more strokes that are harder for me and demand more of me. I’ve also been pushing myself to do extended laps, rather than just floating from one end of the pool to the other. It feels great to be in the water. And it also feels great to be tired, when I’m done with my workout.

I haven’t been doing as much walking on the weekends as I should. The summer was so hot and buggy. I just didn’t want to go out. I was also pretty tired. But I have to push myself to do better about that. I need to get out and walk today. Just up the road and back. Maybe on the hiking trails. It’s been raining for the past day or two, so things are wet and slippery, so I probably won’t go into the woods, where I could slip and fall and maybe not be found right away. I need to keep safe.

My spouse has a business engagement tonight, so I’ll be helping them get everything together for that. I have been more involved in their work, lately. It’s not quite to the point where I used to be involved, but I am doing more than I had been, over the past few years. They have lost a lot of supporters, over the past few years. I think their erratic emotions and highly demanding nature has put people off. Plus, my spouse expects people to do a lot for free — or be compensated just with words of thanks and gratitude. There’s more to compensation than that, but the don’t seem to understand that.

Well, that’s not my problem. I just need to take care of my own stuff.

But that also includes taking care of them. Because they’re getting older, and they’re not going to be 100% functional forever. We’ll need to make some changes — as my spouse becomes less able, and I continue to need to keep my career going, keep working, keep taking care of myself. I can’t see the point in sacrificing my success for them — no, our success, since everything I do really benefits us both. I am the breadwinner, after all.

So, I’ve been doing some research with regard to in-home care. It’s a thing now. I’ve had people tell me I should put them in a home, right after they had their severe health collapse, about 10 years ago. I was having trouble dealing with their constant neediness and the increased responsibilities of helping them get back on their feet, and a number of people told me I should look into some sort of managed care — that I shouldn’t stick around and have their bad decisions and habits affect me.

It’s just so bizarre to me, how people can be so cavalier about just ditching people who aren’t 100% functional and able-bodied. And I also can’t believe how easily others give up — that they don’t see how you can help someone work their way back to functionality (at least, without professional help). What a shame and a waste. Maybe if fewer people gave up, and more people realized just how much you can really do, we wouldn’t have as much human suffering. Maybe…

Anyway, after months and months of concern about how I’m going to help my spouse if/when they are unable to care for themself, I now know — I will find in-home care. It will be someone who they like, someone who’s really good and helpful. And I think it will be affordable. My spouse is on Medicare, so that might help pay for some of it. If not, I will find another way. If I can just stay at my current earning rate for the next 20 years (even if I never get another raise), I can afford to pay someone to come for 4-6 hours a day, four days a week. And if Medicare can help, even better. Unless something terrible happens to me (which is always a possibility), I can maintain my own state for the foreseeable future, just as-is. And that will let me adapt to my spouse’s changing status, as well.

This is yet another reason why I need to change things up with myself and my daily routine. I need to be flexible and capable under a variety of circumstances. I need to know how to keep my cool and soldier through. I need to be adaptable and not lose it, when things shift around me — as they invariably do. My current job is not secure, it’s not stable. It’s there for the time being, but I am pursuing different opportunities within my role at the company so that I can add them to my resume and beef up my desirability in the job market. Everything around me is an opportunity to improve and make myself stronger, more valuable, and able to command a higher dollar amount. I need those higher dollar amounts. It’s just ridiculous, that I should be paid less than I’m worth, so I need to start doing something about that.

And I am. Both by doing new and different things, and training myself to do those new and different things without losing my cool.

Onward.

#Brain training test results – 10-20-16

Here are the results of my testing yesterday. I got my test sheet and folded it in fours, then I studied the image below, committing it to memory. I traced the lines with my finger, and I also stood with my shoulders wide and my hands on my hips, to have a kind of physical memory of it, because it looks almost like a robot standing with its hands on its hips. I tried to take my time, but I was distracted by my busy day ahead.

Starting Image
10-20-16-start

I noticed when I was starting out, I was a bit impatient. I was tired (still am), and I was running behind schedule. So, I felt very antsy while I was studying the image

About four hours passed until I did my first attempt at recollecting.

First Attempt
10-20-16-try1

I did pretty well, getting the lines and all the pieces correct. However, I was a bit rushed, and the proportions were not correct. The top bar was too “chunky” (even though I remembered that the bar doesn’t go the whole way across). And I remembered the location of the circles in the middle. But I crowded them, and the bottom squares are too small. For some reason, I start out big, then I get smaller. I get nervous. I get rushed. And it shows.

At the end of the day, I took another shot:

Second Attempt
10-20-16-try2

I was clearly tired and rushed — I started drawing the bottom squares too quickly and forgot that I needed to leave room for the circles. Then I caught myself and course-corrected. The bottom squares are still too small, proportionately speaking. And the right one is smaller than the left. When I’m tired and nervous, I draw smaller. And I was rushed. I didn’t take my time — I think because I was nervous about possibly forgetting what I had in my mind.

So, what does this teach me?

Mainly, that I need to come up with a more effective technique for remembering things and keeping them in mind. I also need to relax and not rush. Because that gets me in trouble. It might not seem like that big of a deal here — it’s just a drawing — but that generalizes to other parts of my life that I really need to keep clear and steady. The skills I build while doing this can come in handy in other ways.

Additional test for today – and every day

circles-3-lines-2-1-r-up-1flagl-2flagsr-cross-r

Here’s a shape I’m going to study for a while… then write a post… and then see if I can replicate it from memory. I’ve found that this helps me really improve my ability to notice details and also remember things. I used to do it a lot. Then I got distracted by other things, and I stopped. I think I’ll start again. Like… now.

In the midst of just going about my life, I’ve gotten to a point where a lot of things I used to really struggle with, have now become rote. I’ve put a ton of energy into developing routines and also getting the discipline together to follow them.

And now I need to shake things up a little bit.

This past weekend was such a shaking-up time. I spent a day and a half going at top speed, helping my spouse with an out-of-town event. Originally, they were going to have friends help, then that fell through.

Rather than leaving them to their own defenses, I agreed to go along, drive the long hours, and help them with prep and wrapping up after the event. I’m actually glad I went, because it got me out of the house and it got me out of my rut. Now, I’m exhausted and I had to take the day off work to recover, but I’m still feeling pretty good, overall. And it was a good exercise for me — good training to work on my composure and ability to plan and follow-through.

I do need to work on a number of things:

  • My memory, which I’ve gotten a little complacent about. I’ve gotten used to forgetting things and then scrambling to make up the difference. I’d like to do better about remembering, to begin with.
  • My planning, which I’ve gotten lax about. I like to “go with the flow” at times, but that tends to get me in trouble, and I lose track of what I’m doing.
  • My follow-through, which doesn’t always happen… thus screwing up the plans I had made, in the first place.
  • Keeping things clean and tidy. It’s not that I’m dirty — I just let things get a little disorganized at times, and that makes everything more complicated than it needs to be. I’d like to simplify my life, which means I need to tidy up more often. So I don’t need to expend energy figuring out what’s where, and how I can find it.
  • Simplifying things by just saying “no”. I expend an awful lot of time deciding between competing priorities. I used to have a “never gonna happen” list, and I put a whole bunch of projects on it. But I still need to do more pruning, and not get pulled off-track by different ideas and intriguing pastimes. I need to just turn down offers from folks who want to collaborate, and stick with My Main Activity, till that’s done.

All in all, I’m feeling pretty positive about my life and the changes I’ve made over the years. Now it’s time to bump it up a notch. I need to test myself more than I have been. I feel as though the rest of my life has taken off without me, and I’m riding in a wagon with a team of galloping horses. I’d like to have a better handle on the reins, if that’s how it’s going to be.

I also need to spend a lot more time thinking about what I’ve done right, after I’ve done it, than get bogged down in the things I want to do better… eventually… whenever I get around to it. I tend to get so caught up in making lists, that I lose sight of actually just doing the items on the list. So, I need to focus on the completion of items, and thinking about them after the fact, rather than planning ahead and getting myself all psyched up … that tires me out. And then I have no energy to just get everything done.

Okay, now for my attempt at recreating that image…

memory-attempt-10-17-16

Mostly, it’s right. I’m feeling pretty positive about it. The places where I messed up, are with the direction of the “flag” on the left, as well as the sizes of the circles, relative to the lengths of the lines. The circles need to be a little bigger. I often seem to under-size the circles, for some reason.

All in all, though – it’s a good “go”.

Now you can help me to help others with TBI

group of hands holding onto each other in a circle
Reaching out to others is what brings us back to ourselves

After some very helpful feedback yesterday, I decided to go ahead and put a “Donate” button on my blog. You can see it in the right-hand column of the page. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time, but I never got around to it. I’m a firm believer that, of all people, brain injury survivors need access to information and connections that’s comprehensive, accessible — and free.

Experiencing a brain injury, or sharing your life with someone who’s had a TBI is taxing enough, as it is. And I think there’s a special place in hell for people who prey on TBI survivors and their families. I’ve had the mixed blessing of getting clunked on the head a bunch of times, along with a love and passion for writing. So, the two of them have combined to produce this blog. I’m committed to carrying the message that

Brain Injury Recovery is Possible.
I should know. I’m doing it.

and spreading that word as far as I can. I’ve been doing it on my own, since ’round about 2008, and as unlike me as it is, I’m actually reaching out to ask for help in doing that. Ideally, I would love to support myself through my writing and this work, but that’s not going to happen overnight. I have a number of writing projects in the works, which I very much want to get done and get out there. It’s just one step at a time with this plan of mine. And if I just keep at it, I believe I can get there — and learn a whole lot in the process.

Putting up a “Donate” button is a first step in that direction. Eventually, I may get to where I can focus on this work full-time. But for now, I’ll simply live my life as it is, share my experiences and lessons, and give others the chance to pitch in, if they like.

Ultimately, though, this is not about me. It’s about you. It’s about the readers. It’s about reaching out to others in a frank and hopeful manner, to offer insights into how brain injury recovery progresses — or regresses — and what can possibly be done to help the process along. It’s a complicated thing. It’s a very, very human thing. And more needs to be written and shared about it on a regular basis.

Whether or not money comes in, I will continue this work. It’s needed. I wish to high heaven I’d had access to this, when I had my last “mild” TBI in 2004 and everything started to fall apart in my life. But I didn’t. I had to learn from too many costly mistakes — which are still dragging me down, to this day. I would hate for that to happen to anyone else, but I know it does. And many people have it much, much worse than I. It’s heartbreaking, really. Absolutely crushing, to think of the level of human suffering — much of which happens because of lack of access to the right information at the right time.

We do know this from multiple studies:

Early intervention with the right information can help to reduce the impact of mild TBI / concussion.

It can help people with recent brain injuries understand their injury and make better choices about how to manage their lives. It can help keep recovery times to several months (sometimes weeks), instead of the years and years that some people experience.

And that’s part of my mission — to get brain injury recovery information to recently concussed individuals quickly, before the desperation sets in and/or they start making the kinds of decisions that will either further endanger them or prolong their recovery.

Beyond the initial “acute” period, I want to provide support and encouragement to individuals who are recovering from mild TBI and are confused about what they can expect, and why it’s taking so long for them to heal.

In the long run, for those of us who have prolonged periods of difficulty, struggle, and various levels of catastrophe, I want to provide an insider’s view into what it’s like to piece your life back together, after others have given up on you, or flatly refused to help you anymore. That happens all too often. I’ve lived it. I’m still living it. And it breaks my heart to think that others have to go through this… “experience” (that’s my nice, polite way of putting it).

So there it is — why I do this, and what my mission is.

I realized today that I’ve been feeling depressed and defeated over my old neuropsych moving away. I really did enjoy working with them, and they gave me so much good, encouraging information to work with. They gave me a weekly shot of hope, like no one else ever had. Losing them was a pretty big loss for me, and five months later, I think I’m nearing the end of my grieving period for that loss. I think it takes about six months to regain your footing after a significant loss. And yes, it was a significant loss for me. I’m just now realizing that.

But I’m ready to get back to work. And getting clear (again) about what this blog is really for, is a good place to start from. It’s a very good place, indeed.

So, if you also believe in this mission, and you’d like to help me get the word out, you can donate below. You can make a one-time contribution, or contribute monthly. Any amount is welcome. Thanks!

 

Onward! … Together

 

More clarity – yes, more clarity

clarity-of-thoughtSo, I posted a TBI injury and recovery story from a reader, the other day, and it seems like a lot of people think her story is mine. Not at all.

Well, of course, there are some similarities, but it’s her story, not mine. I’ve just gone back and updated it with a notice at the very top and quotes around the story — it was easy to fix.

I wish all misunderstandings were that easy to fix.

I’ve also been fielding some comments in Twitter about things I’ve said, that apparently came off wrong. It is really, really easy to be misunderstood on Twitter. I’ve had people thinking I was attacking them, or their sport, or something else they held dear… and then they “fought back” with both barrels blazing, when all I was doing was raising some questions.

All around, it seems like the online world is just primed for misunderstanding — and consequently, a fight. All around us, we are trained to see opponents and aggressors. And that’s a huge problem, when you can’t even disagree with someone and/or challenge their thinking without being seen as an aggressor (or micro-aggressor). There’s a fantastic article in The Atlantic about this (click here to read it), which I came across a while back. It explains a lot — especially with regard to the younger generation who seem to have amazing potential, but also seem incredibly hung up over every little thing.

All the fighting… good heavens. There’s a reason I backed off Twitter for a while. But there’s so much good research coming out that gets posted there, I have to check it out. There’s seriously some great reading available, thanks to all the tweets flooding my feed. I think the key is to not follow a lot of people who get snarky and vicious and outraged. Especially about politics. ‘Nuff said about that.

Anyway, I’m taking more time to think things through before I say / post / tweet them — or trying to, anyway. It’s hard, when the moment to respond presents itself, and there’s something in your mind that seems 100% appropriate and on-point.

I should know by now that that feeling of 100% certainty is a tip-off to the exact opposite being true. The more convinced I am of something, the more likely I am to be very much mistaken. So, I do know that. But that doesn’t always rule how I react and interact. Impulse control issues and all that.

I guess that’s what keeps things exciting. I just have to keep revisiting things that need a little tweaking… making sure I don’t do more damage along the way. I also need to know when to let it go. Not everything needs to be fixed the way I want it to be. It’s also important that I hold my ground and not give into bullying. Just state my case, say my piece, and leave it at that. If people understand, then great. If not, there’s no guarantee I’ll convince them.

Sometimes it’s best to just move on and leave it at that. Or just stop following some people… which I have been doing regularly, when their tone gets too unremittingly intense.

Anyway, it’s a new day. It’s Saturday. I have some time to myself today, and my headache has abated somewhat. I’ve got some reading I want to do, as well as some thinking. “Tinkering and thinkering” as I’ve heard it described in something I read recently. I’ve always got to be careful when I have free time, because I can very easily get carried away in all sorts of distracting directions.

Last week, I was caught up in researching mind-control techniques of expensive large group “personal growth” programs… and a week before that, I was caught up in some fringe neuroscience that is so far beyond me, it became apparent after two days of compulsive reading that I couldn’t even scratch the surface enough to wrap my head around the name of the phenomenon. Admittedly, it is good for me to range a bit farther afield in my reading and studies, but I can get too caught up in too many fringe activities, and then I lose valuable time for the things that I really do want to work on.

Like the handful of books I’ve started to write and got 3/4 of the way through, but are all waiting for me to pay attention to them again, so I can finish them up.

Anyway, today is different. I’m not feeling great — and ironically, not feeling great is a key factor in how well I am able to focus. When I’m feeling rested and fully functional, I get pulled off base very easily — all that energy gets spread too thinly — and I get nothing done.

But when I’m not feeling great — I’m at maybe 65% today — I know I have to be more deliberate in my activities and pick and choose. So, more gets done. And oddly, I have more clarity when I’m under the weather, than when I’m feeling at the top of my game.

I wouldn’t mind feeling just a little better today. Who knows? Maybe I will by the time the game is on this afternoon. I’ll pace myself. Take naps when I need to. And pick and choose the things I want to do.

That should be good.

Onward.

Oldie but goodie – Brain Injury Rehab Ideas from Harriet Katz Zeiner

I came across this several years ago, when I was traveling and needed to fill my mind with things other than overseas business. I enjoyed it (still do) and hope you do, too.

Bringing light

Light is where you find it – find more art like this at http://www.atagar.com/bobsGallery/

I’ve been thinking a lot about this holiday season – and all the ways that it’s associated with light. Most of the “big” traditions I know about feature light of some kind, and no wonder — this time of year is when the days become longer, and we literally can celebrate the return of the light. It’s a physiological thing, as well as a psychological and spiritual thing. And it’s well worth celebrating.

I celebrated yesterday by walking deeper in the woods than I have in a long time. Once upon a time, when I first moved to this place, I was out in the woods for most of my waking hours every weekend, rain or shine, good weather or bad. I guess I’ve always been drawn to the forest — it was the one place I felt at home when I was a kid, and there’s something really calming about being in the woods. When I was younger, I wanted to be a forest ranger, until my guidance counselor talked me out of it because it wasn’t “practical”.

Hm.

Anyway, now I get to be my own forest ranger, and I don’t have to worry about government funding cutting me off from my livelihood, so it’s not all bad, the way it turned out. And yesterday I got a good reminder of the things that matter most to me in my life — clean air, fresh water, room to roam, and friendly, like-minded people also sharing the paths.

And I couldn’t help but think about how — for years after my concussion/TBI in 2004 — I couldn’t go into the woods. I just couldn’t. There was too much stimuli there for me. It was either too bright or too dark, or it was too quiet or it was too loud. I got tired so quickly, and when I did, I got confused and anxious. And the idea of interacting with anyone I came across on the paths, was out of the question. I panicked anytime I had to interact with someone who was out for a nice quiet hike like myself. I also got turned around and lost very easily, and since I have never had the best sense of direction to begin with, I would spend hours just trying to find my way back to where I wanted to go. I told myself I was “exploring” but the fact was, I was getting lost and had to keep walking to find my way back.

And half the time, I couldn’t remember where I’d come from. Even reading maps was impossible for me. Especially reading maps.

So, I quit going into the woods. I gave up my forest. And things were very dark and dreary for a number of years. The crazy part was, I told myself it was by choice, not something I was stuck doing, because I was so trapped in anxiety and sensory overwhelm.

What changed it? I think just living my life. Working with my neuropsychologist to just talk through my daily experience. Also, doing my breathing exercises — and exercising, period. And practicing, practicing, practicing some more at the things I wanted to do, until I could do them pretty close to how I wanted to. And learning to not be so hard on myself for being different now than I was before.

I also really paid attention to the times when I saw signs of more functionality — like when I started going on hikes again, after years away from them. Like when I was able to read an entire book, after years of only being able to read short papers — and not understand much of them at all. Like when I gave things my best shot, and found them turning out pretty darned close to how I intended — sometimes even better.

Taking the edge off my anxiety, giving myself a break, focusing on things that were bigger and more significant than my own petty concerns… those helped. Those brought light to my life.

And it continues to get better.

When I think back on how I was, just five years ago, it amazes me. I was so trapped in a dark place, confused and not knowing what was wrong with me. I didn’t understand what was holding me back, I didn’t understand what was stopping me from just living my life. I didn’t understand how confused I was or what I was confused about. I couldn’t discern the different issues I had, because it was all just a dark blob of problems that pulsed like a nebula of hurt and pain and confusion. When I think about how things are now — with so much light and so much more possibility… it amazes me.

There are answers out there, if we look… if we know to ask. There are solutions out there, if we take the time to be clear about what the issues truly are. There is hope out there, when we are willing to take a chance, have some courage, and move on — move on.

As the days lengthen and we roll towards the spring (I know, winter is just now beginning, officially)… as we take this holiday season to step away from the everyday grind and do something different with ourselves… as we try to imagine what else is out there for us… let’s all remember that as dark as it gets sometimes, the night does pass. There is always dawn and a new day, just around the corner.

Yes, let there be light.

Crossing the river(s) when the bridge is washed out

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my brain developed over the course of my life, wondering if/how my early mtbi’s affected me.

I have to say, it’s a bit confounding. It’s hard to see where the differences between me and everybody else are just regular personality differences, and which ones could be related to my falls and accidents and the assault when I was eight. I’ve actually remembered more incidents, over the past few months, most notably an incident when I was in daycare as (I believe) a 4-year-old.

I don’t remember much — just climbing up some stairs when some of the older kids encouraged me to come play… then running and jumping a lot… and then lying on the ground, looking up at an older kid looking down at me… and one of the other kids running downstairs to tell the lady who watched us all that something was wrong… the lady coming at me, looming over me, checking me over… yelling at the big kids… lots and lots of yelling. I’m not sure if my parents ever found out that something happened, but I remember trying to get upstairs a few more times, but the lady who ran the place wouldn’t let me, which really made me mad! It was fun playing with the big kids. I didn’t want to be stuck downstairs with the “little peepies”. I wanted to run around and play with the big kids.

I think that I may have been kept downstairs because I was small for my age. A couple of my younger siblings were actually bigger than me, till I was about 12 years old and I started to grow. I was a little kid, so I think the lady who kept me probably told me to stay downstairs so I would be safe.

Clearly, that didn’t work. If memory serves — and there’s the distinct possibility that it doesn’t. At least, in this case. I was reading a book, lately, about how the brain doesn’t always store the information it’s exposed to. It’s not like a tape recorder or digicam. It doesn’t just take in everything it’s shown. And sometimes it “records” things that never happened. So, I could be wrong about this — yet more fiction about my life…

But I’ve felt for a long, long time that something bad happened to me when I was little — in day care — and I always had this faint memory lurking in the back of my mind. It’s always just been there, I just never paid any attention to it. But then, the other week, all of a sudden, I got this big Wham! of a hit of the sequence of events. Like all of a sudden, they “clicked” with me, and I could see it all happening in front of me, like it was yesterday.

Hmmmm…

I also remember falling down the stairs more than once when I was a kid — one time in particular, I went down and slid the whole way down the carpeted stairs, banging my head on them, one at a time. Similar to my fall in 2004, which anniversary is coming up soon, but when I was little, I hit just about all the stairs on my way down. I can still remember the feeling of my head bouncing off the stairs — bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang — and the dull fog that enveloped me when I got to the bottom.

Man, oh, man…

Well, anyway, I know that I have a long history of head traumas — plenty of them subconcussive, as I was a very rambunctious kid with a lot of energy but not quite as much balance… I was always biting off more than I could chew, energy and coordination-wise. So, I fell down a lot, hit my head a lot, ran into things a lot. I got banged up, bounced back up, and got back in the game. I was game. Totally. Always up for more. Just try and hold me back…

Sometimes, people were able to, like the lady who watched me when I was little. But most of the time, they weren’t.

I showed them. I could do it. I’d be up and at ’em in no time. Sure! I could do it!

Now, I’m dealing with the after-effects of my (sub)concussive childhood. And I’m wondering if the impacts over the years had a lot to do with how my brain developed. I have to say, although I have some complaints (who doesn’t, tho?) I’m pretty pleased with how flexible my thinking is, and how well I can perform, by and large. I tested very high in my neuropsych evaluation – high 90’s, percentile-wise. In my moments of self-satisfaction, I imagine I’m a genius or a savant of some kind. (Ha – yeah, right – when I figure out how to keep my study clean and get stuff done when I’m supposed to and make it to the train on time, then I’ll qualify). I have to say, though, I don’t have that many of those kinds of self-satisfied, self-congratulatory moments (I should be so lucky), so I try to savor the ones I have.

But anyway, back to the washed out bridge thing. I’ve heard head injury described as a shearing of fragile connections in the brain — the fine connectors get disconnected, sheared, frayed, and generally disrupted. Kind of like the frayed strings in my sweatpants when I was a kid and I wore my sweats to shreds. And the routes that normally connect the different parts of the brain end up having to re-route to find other ways to connect. And that’s where the fatigue comes from. And the constant restlessness. And the agitation. The brain has to work all the harder to do basic, regular stuff. It can do it, it just takes more effort. The ways that are usually used, the pathways that everybody else seems to have intact, don’t quite work the same for us.

So, we mtbi survivors have to find other ways to get down the neural pathways of our lives. We have to find other routes, when the highways and byways of our brains are washed out by the storms that take us by surprise. The traffic of our brains doesn’t stop — not as long as there is life in us. It just keeps coming and coming and going and going, and when it comes to a place in the road where a bridge used to be, or a paved portion is mising from a huge-ass virtual sinkhole that opened up under it, or there’s a huge fallen tree getting in the way, we — the traffic in our brains — have to find a different way of getting where we need to go.

And I think about all the times when I was a kid, feeling like I was so far behind, just struggling to keep up with what was going on around me, hassling and hassling and hassling over every little detail… all the while seeming to be fine, because I learned pretty early on to be stoic and not let on when I was having trouble — and anyway, I was a tough little kid who didn’t take shit from anyone — and I think about my brain and how hard it was working to put two and two together…

Man, I have to hand it to myself for not going crazy. Granted, I was a strange kid who went off on horrible tantrums, beat up on my siblings, and had all sorts of weird habits, like rubbing through the satin edge of my blanket because the feel of the satin between my fingers was the only thing that would calm me down enough at night to get to sleep… I won’t go into the hiding in dark corners and talking to myself for hours on end and tearing out clumps of my hair — that’s a tale for another time. But all that disturbance aside, I actually came out okay. And nobody I know seems to have noticed there was something really amiss with me.

Of course they didn’t. I learned a long time ago, to hide what goes in with me. In fact, it wasn’t until I realized I was several hundred thousand dollars poorer than I’d been three years before, and I couldn’t explain to myself exactly why or how or when that had happened, that I noticed there was something amiss with me.

Crazy.

Anyway, something must have worked, because here I am, relatively normal, as far as anyone else can tell, testing well, for the most part, in my evaluations, and able to hold down a job and advance my career. Maybe I’m just fooling myself and I’m in for a rude awakening, when I find out that I’m not nearly as competent as everyone else seems to think I am. Maybe I’ll crash and burn. Maybe I’ll self-destruct. I don’t plan to, and I don’t think I will, but you never know.

All I know is, all these years, whether because I’ve kept busy or just kept moving, I’ve been able to re-route my brain around lots of obstacles, and find other ways of getting where I need to go. I may have had all those falls and all those injuries, but if anyone is a testament to neuroplasticity, I am. I’m serious. All the crap that’s gone down in my life, and miraculously my brain has managed to adapt, grow, change, and not show up horribly deformed on my MRI or register more than slight abnormalities on my EEG. For all I’ve been through, for all the crap that’s been done to me, and the wrecks I’ve survived, I’m doing okay.

Even if the bridge is washed out in places, there’s plenty of territory to discover while I’m bushwhacking my way through the underbrush. And if I’ve learned anything from this life, it’s that if you just keep going and use your good sense and you don’t go out of your way to do genuinely stupid stuff, you can find your way back to a beaten path of some kind. It might not be the road you left, and it might not be the road you were looking for. But sometimes a detour is the best thing for us.

Just keep going.

Journaling for TBI Recovery

I’ve been really thinking a lot about the two articles I read lately — the first Offensive Play – Football, dogfighting, and brain damage, by Malcom Gladwell in the New Yorker, and the second The Magnificent Minnesota Nun Brains by Ken Korczak.

They are both really good reads, and I also plan to read Aging with Grace by David Snowdon, which talks in greater detail about the Nun Study and what they learned about how you keep your brain and cognition intact, even in the face of considerable damage.

A bunch of things can be done — living a structured life with like-minded people, keeping a positive attitude, not fretting over material things, tending to your spiritual well-being, and (perhaps most significant to me, these days) keeping a daily journal where you mindfully and deliberately keep track of your daily life and critique yourself to improve where you can.

This matters tremendously to me, because after reading the Malcom Gladwell piece, I got to thinking about my childhood, how rough-and-tumble it was, how many times I got hit on the head in the course of playing, and how many times I was dizzy or woozy or out of it, after falling or colliding with something/someone.

Excerpted from the Gladwell piece:

But what sidelined the U.N.C. player, the first time around, was an accidental and seemingly innocuous elbow, and none of the blows he suffered that day would have been flagged by a referee as illegal. Most important, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the lineman on that first day in training camp. He didn’t just suffer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thirty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his concussion, in other words, was his cumulative exposure. And why was the second concussion—in the game at Utah—so much more serious than the first? It’s not because that hit to the side of the head was especially dramatic; it was that it came after the 76-g blow in warmup, which, in turn, followed the concussion in August, which was itself the consequence of the thirty prior hits that day, and the hits the day before that, and the day before that, and on and on, perhaps back to his high-school playing days.

This is a crucial point. Much of the attention in the football world, in the past few years, has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing, and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.

That’s why, Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

The bold parts are the ones that apply to me especially. Because in the course of my life I have had a ton of little hits. Too many to count, really. All those ballgames, the football, the lacrosse, the baseball, the soccer… all those times when I got clocked or had my bell rung or just plain fell and smacked my head… even the times when I didn’t smack my head, but had my head snap back as a result of a fall or a hit or a collision… It’s crazy, thinking back, and I can see how all those impacts of my childhood could easily have added up to a weakened network of connections, which made me more susceptible to more serious effects, long after I quit playing rough sports.

Perhaps my history of impacts explains why I could be in relatively minor car accidents, but be so tremendously impacted by them — unable to understand what people were saying to me, unable to initiate conversations with the police (that would have cleared my record of inaccurate info that the cops entered on the report, in order to cut the guy in the other car a break) and thus  kept my insurance costs lower — unable to function adequately in my jobs after the accidents, so that I literally had to leave and find other pastures.

Maybe that’s why one of the accidents I was in affected me so profoundly, but it didn’t affect the other person who was in the car with me. If my neural connections had  been compromised over the course of 18 years of rough play and impacts, while the other person in the car led a relatively sheltered life that was not as sports-oriented (while I was out on the field, slamming into people and things in various games, they were sitting on the sidelines, playing the flute in the band), it would make sense that the effect of double impacts — front-end and rear-end collisions — would be greater with me.

Of course, there are a ton of different variables, but if repeated exposure to head impacts plays a role, then it makes sense that I’d be more susceptible than I ever guessed I was.

Anyway, everybody’s brain is different, and I understand that self-diagnosing and trying to explain my own situation from inside my addled head can introduce problems with logic and deduction, so I could be wrong about it. I don’t think I am, but I’ve been wrong plenty of times before. The main thing I’m concerned with, these days, is how to avoid the kinds of problems other people with repeated head trauma have encountered, namely, the dementia and cognitive degeneration that can develop over time. Like everyone (who is lucky enough to be alive), I am getting older, and like many folks, I’m concerned about cognitive decline.

So, my thoughts turn to the Mankato, MN nuns, the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I think about this bit of info, in particular:

Amazingly, some of the nuns maintained clear healthy minds even though their brains showed the scars and deterioration characteristic of severe brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and strokes.

In the case of the brain of one Sister Mary, who died well into her 100s, scientists were astounded to find large-scale deterioration of brain tissue, and even lesions associated with strokes and progressive Alzheimer’s Disease — yet she remained clear-headed and lucid to the end of her life.

Sister Mary’s brain apparently defeated the effects of these brain diseases by countering them with an unusually rich growth of interconnection between her brain cells, or neurons. Her extra dendrites and axons were able to bypass damaged areas of her brain to keep her lucid and healthy.

I need to do what Sister Mary did. Okay, I’m not a nun, and believe you me, there is no way I’d qualify to join them, even if I wanted to. Fundamental human differences (like anatomy and philosophy) preclude that. But if Sister Mary could manage to remain clear-headed and lucid despite large-scale deterioration of her brain tissue — including strokes and Alzheimer’s — then heck, why can’t I?

Seriously — the nuns are human, and I’m human. Perhaps Sister Mary didn’t grow up climbing and jumping and falling and fighting and tackling and being tackled, but if she was able to keep her act together despite some seriously damaging conditions, then why can’t I?

I may have led the kind of life that’s laid the groundwork for some serious cognitive degeneration as I continue to age, but by God, if there’s a way I can avoid going down the long dark tunnel to diaper-clad dementia and the total loss of everything I hold dear that makes me actually human, then I’m all in.

So, here’s my plan:

  • Stay positive (no matter what) – no matter how dismal things may seem, life has a funny way of turning around, sometime or another.
  • Introduce structure and order to my life – make sure I plan my days, and then stick with the plan (like they tell me in the Give Back Orlando material)
  • Cultivate more discipline to maintain that structure – because the stuff won’t get done by just listing it on a page
  • Do what I can to surround myself with like-minded people – friends are important, and I haven’t done enough over the years to cultivate those connections. I know this should change, and so I’ll do that.
  • Journal, journal, and journal some more – It worked for Jefferson, Edision, Faraday, Isaac Newton, and Einstein, and it can work for me.

The great thing about journaling, from where I’m sitting, is that it enables me to do all of the above items. It lets me work on my attitude, tweak my outlook, and get in touch with what is holding me back. It helps me introduce structure to my life, not only by committing to do it daily, but also by journaling in a way that is as much planning as it is reflection. I can use my journal to track my progress and develop my discipline — in ways that are appropriate to me. And it can help me work through the things that keep me from others. In my journal, I have a safe place where I can uncork at will, and no one is harmed. Too often, I have just said what I felt to people who either could not hear it, or who didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of my intensity. Using a journal lets me say what I need to say and vent, without the danger of harming others. That’s important. Especially for me. My past is littered not only with subconcussive head traumas, but also with tons of relationships that could not withstand the pressure of my outbursts and lack of control.

So, onward and upward. I have access to information about people who managed to overcome some pretty serious threats to their sanity and cognitive health. I have access to accounts of their lives and scientific investigations into what worked for them. I can avail myself of their teachings and lessons and use them to my benefit — so that I can live out my days in good health and soundness of mind. I have a plan, and I’m determined to stick with it.

All good.

Does blogging make me brilliant?

It’s quite possible…

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what can be done to help myself not end up like football players described in Malcom Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on Football, Dog Fighting and Brain Damage. I must admit, it wasn’t the best idea to read that story before going to bed last night. It kept me up, actually, which wasn’t good.

Anyway, it’s Saturday, so I can always sleep later to make up the time. And there’s something about drifting in that in-between place, that gets my mind turning in different directions for the answers it craves.

A few years ago, I heard about The Nun Study (by the Universities of Minnesota and Kentucky) which followed an order of nuns in Mankato, MN, who lived longer — and better — than was typical of the average population. They found some interesting things in their study — including the fact that some of the sisters’ brains (after they had passed on and their brains were donated and studied) were chock full of signs of Alzheimers. Yet, they had exhibited none of the symptoms we associate with the degenerative disorder.

In The Magnificent Minnesota Nun Brains Ken Korczak writes:

Most of the Sisters of Notre Dame stay vital and active well into their 90s. There are almost no symptoms that are typical of age-related brain disorders, such as senile dementia, strokes and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Amazingly, some of the nuns maintained clear healthy minds even though their brains showed the scars and deterioration characteristic of severe brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and strokes.

In the case of the brain of one Sister Mary, who died well into her 100s, scientists were astounded to find large-scale deterioration of brain tissue, and even lesions associated with strokes and progressive Alzheimer’s Disease — yet she remained clear-headed and lucid to the end of her life.

Sister Mary’s brain apparently defeated the effects of these brain diseases by countering them with an unusually rich growth of interconnection between her brain cells, or neurons. Her extra dendrites and axons were able to bypass damaged areas of her brain to keep her lucid and healthy.

. . .

After examining and dissecting dozens of brains, scientists have come to several conclusions. Interestingly, the secret to the long lives and clear minds of these nuns may be attributed to a couple of simple things.

After looking at dozens of different variables, researchers discovered that the Sisters of Nortre Dame all did one thing that the majority other people do not do — they kept a daily personal journal recording their deepest thoughts, emotions, impressions and ideas.

Also, the Sisters Of Nortre Dame condemn “mental idleness” as sin. They did not allow themselves the frills of mental down time. Most of the Sisters have college degrees and some graduate degrees. They also play a lot of brain teaser games, solve puzzles and engage in rigorous debates at weekly seminars.

Keeping a rigorous daily journal is also required by the Order, and is considered as important as daily prayer, work and devotion to their primary vocation, the education of children. The Sisters believe in thorough, critical self examination.

The journaling aspect of the nuns intrigued scientists so much, some went looking for independent confirmation that daily journaling or diary keeping may be the secret to defeating the brain diseases of old age, and longer life.

Well, they not only found confirmation, but some scientists determined that frequent journaling may be a sure way to raise the IQ of any person, and may even springboard some people to genius level.

. . . (more here)

… researchers pointed to many other facets of their lives which may have contributed to their longevity:

• They belonged to a religious order and prayed daily. Recent independent studies have suggested that people who go to church or belong to any kind of religion, tend to live longer and be happier than those who do not.

• They felt comfortable in the fact that they “belonged” to a supportive group of like-minded human beings. This longevity factor has also been noticed in independent studies on peoples in Japan, Pakistan and Crete.

• They stay physically active as well as mentally active, not slowing down when reaching ages 70s through 100s.

• They actively cultivated positive attitudes.

• They lead selfless lives, and devote themselves to caring and giving to others.

• They rarely worried or fretted over material things such as money, mortgages, taxes and the like.

• They accept death as being a part of life. Funerals for the nuns are said to be almost occasions for joy among the Sisters.

Most of the above, I can relate to. I tend to substitute “spirituality” for religion, but the concept of being part of an organized, regularly scheduled spiritual practice strikes me as being very beneficial. And different people have different definitions of religion and spirituality, so I would imagine that avid readers who are passionate and disciplined about their reading could substitute weekly book club meetings for church. I don’t mean to be sacreligious. Different people just relate spiritually to different things, so those of us who are not regular church-goers shouldn’t be condemned to dementia by association.

Also the journaling aspect of things really caught my attention. Over the course of my life, I’ve kept journals regularly, even when they were full of gibberish and meant nothing to me later on. The simple fact of writing — in longhand — my thoughts and impressions and hopes and dreams and fears and frustrations, may have helped me overcome at least eight distinct head injuries, to the point where my life is unmarked by those injuries to the eyes of the outside world (my inside world is another story). Ultimately, for the sake of my own survival, what the outside world thinks is waaaay important. I can always address my internal issues on my own time and in my own way. But I do need to keep a job.

It’s interesting that I’m coming across this today. A few days back one of my neuropsychs was telling me that keeping voluminous journals is not the best use of time. They would like me to spend my time more fruitfully, making my  mark in the world. Well, sure, I would too, but it’s a good thing to read that keeping a lot of journals is not actually a waste of time.

Now I need to arrive at their office with this article in hand, and hopefully they will revise their opinion. If not, it’s of no consequence to me. I’ll keep writing, regardless.

Interesting — since my fall in 2004 (I’m coming up on my 5-year anniversary of the mild TBI from hell), I have not written much in longhand. It’s like, I just stopped. I told myself I didn’t have any use for my journals, anymore, but the fact was, I was having a hard time writing. I had suddenly become a bit dyslexic, after nearly 40 years of never having that problem. And I was having trouble focusing and concentrating long enough to get words on paper.

Now, it seems, I need to get back to that. Not only because it’s good for my brain, but also because I need to discipline and I need to exercise those parts of myself that are helped by writing in longhand:

  • discipline (the ability to put words together in a meaningful way, as well as keeping myself on topic)
  • impulse control (the ability to slow down and gather myself when I need to)
  • eye-hand coordination (keeping my writing on the lines — or practicing writing on blank paper and keeping my writing in straight lines)
  • focus (keeping my mind on the page in front of me)
  • checking in with myself in a deliberate, measured way

Yes, the more I think about it, the more sense it makes for me to do this. Not so much for the old reasons — before, I thought I was helping myself realize truths about myself, when I was really wandering around in a fog, much of the time — as for the new ones I’ve listed above.

Also, my writing needs to change. It  needs a new focus. Not this old rambling, wandering, free-association stream of thoughts all the time (though sometimes that may be good to do), but a more focused, more deliberate kind of writing that doesn’t take me away from my life, but brings me into the midst of it.

And all the while, I am continuing to blog. Continuing to share what I’m finding. Continuing to reach out and relate what I’ve found to be useful — or not helpful — in this path of recovery, which is as much about just living my life, already, as it is about specifically addressing TBI-related weaknesses and problems. There’s a whole wide world out there, and there’s lots to talk about. Blogging gives me a chance to do it in a way that isn’t as insular and as esoteric as my own private journaling, and with any luck, it does others some good, too.

And if I do it often enough and with enough focus and discipline, it can help me think better and write better, which in turns helps me feel better about myself, focus on solutions rather than the endless stream of problems that follow me around like so many crying, swooping, begging seagulls following a fishing boat. I’m at the wheel of my own fishing boat, and I’m the one at the helm of my life. I can choose to pay attention to the gaggle of hangers-on and let them distract me from my activities, or I can pay attention to my boat and my nets, and haul in whatever catch I can get.

My choice.

Bottom line is, this writing activity of mine is actually a good use of time, and I need to value it. Even though it’s seemed like an exercise in futility (to myself and others), that belief has been based on incomplete information, and those beliefs can change. Beliefs can change, and so can behavior. I can “bump up” the activities I’ve followed “just for fun” — and practice them as regular parts of my active recovery from mild traumatic brain injury. I can use them as opportunities not only to heal from my recent damage, but also to ensure my long-term cognitive health and happiness.

Fact: I have sustained at least 8 (possibly more) mild (and some possibly moderate) traumatic brain injuries throughout the course of my adventurous life.

Fact: Plenty of people get hit on the head or sustain some other sort of brain damage or degeneration, and some of them live long and happy lives, devoid of any signs or symptoms of their hidden issues.

Fact: Some of those asymptomatic survivors do specific things that appear to help them. Studies have shown correlations between certain behaviors and choices and long-term cognitive health.

Fact: Those activities are things I can do, myself. They are not mysterious or beyond my reach. They include activities like faithfully keeping a daily journal, cultivating a positive attitude, and maintaining a disciplined way of life that is devoted to service to others. I can do them, too. In fact, I have been doing many of them for many years, and this may account for my tremendous success as a long-term multiple head injury survivor.

If the simple act of blogging about my own life doesn’t make me brilliant, alone, certainly learning from the blogs of others — and blogging in turn about it for others to read — can’t hurt.

Onward, upward. And outward. The world is waiting…