Anger Notes: From mountain to molehill

I had a little difficulty this morning, getting into the day. I go through the same routine every day — wake up slowly… give myself time to wake up enough to get out of the bed without tripping or falling… get up and brush my teeth… go downstairs to put water on for coffee… do my morning workout while I am waiting for my coffee water to boil… think about what I need to accomplish today while I am working out… finish my workout and make my coffee and cereal… and then get into my morning.

Most days, if I have had enough rest, the routine goes like clockwork. But I recently started lifting heavier weights, and I also had a chiro adjustment yesterday, so I’m a little sore and stiff, and I need to get more sleep. Under normal conditions, getting the 7 hours that I had last night would make me very, very happy. I actually slept through till the sun was coming up! And I would feel like enough. But I am still recovering from staying out all night on New Year’s Eve last week, and I need to get even more rest than usual, so I can get back to my regular sleep schedule and get over being stiff and sore from the increased weight and also the adjustment I got yesterday.

Now, for most people, being behind on their sleep and having a little stiffness and soreness in the morning is no big deal. For a lot of people, it’s actually a way of life. They don’t get totally thrown off by lack of sleep. They just muddle through the day somehow. They don’t get all tweaked and freaked out over every little thing, with hair-trigger temper outbursts over every little thing. They just go through their day, like it’s no big deal. And they live their lives like everything is relatively normal, popping Advil or Aleve or having a few drinks at the end of the day to chill out and sleeping in, in the morning.

The people who don’t have issues with sleep deprivation and pain clearly are neurologically intact. They probably have not sustained traumatic brain injuries. They probably don’t have post-concussive syndrome, and they probably haven’t sustained brain trauma/head injury.

I, on the other hand, am not in that “space.” When I am behind on my sleep, it introduces a whole host of issues that make the most basic activities into challenges. When I am in physical discomfort, I tend to push myself even more, perhaps because doing that relieves the discomfort for me. But pushing myself tires me out even more. And when I get over-tired, I have a hard time relaxing and going to sleep… which makes me even more tired in the morning. And then I have all sorts of cognitive-behavioral problems. It’s a vicious cycle that’s very difficult to break.

That’s that cycle that started with me last night. I should have gone to bed around 9:30, but then I had some stuff to do, and I needed to talk to my spouse, who was out at a late meeting till 9:30. By the time they got home, I was ready to go to bed, but the sleepy part of me didn’t want to go to bed, so I stayed up and talked with them about this-and-that.

Finally, they packed me off to bed, seeing that I was pretty much wedged into the couch, and I was making myself comfortable for a long stay-up. It was 10:30, by then, and it took a focused, concentrated, concerted effort on both our parts to get me up off the couch and upstairs to bed. Then — being as tired and as contrary as I was — I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and inspected myself, studying my double chin and looking for gray hairs and trying to make my hair stand up straight by tousseling it and trying to spike it straight out from my scalp. I know, it’s strange. But this is the kind of stuff I do when I’m really, really tired and I don’t want to go to bed.

After about 15-20 minutes of this… and deciding that yes, I am still a handsome individual with good bone structure and not to much saggy skin in the wrong places… I finally got my ass in bed. Then I remembered I needed to stretch and take Advil (my bedtime routine), so I can better relax. I did that, and I then did my progressive relaxation exercises to get myself to sleep, which went really well — even better than I expected. I got to sleep around 11 p.m.

Happily, I slept through till 6 a.m., which is a wonder, because I’ve been waking up around 4-4:30 or so — which sucks — and that felt pretty good. I gave myself some time to wake up, before I got out of the bed. If I roll out of bed right away, I tend to stagger around a lot, which is loud and also a little dangerous. There are plenty of hard surfaces and sharp corners I can hit my head on. Plus, my spouse doesn’t like to be woken up by my clunking around, bumping into stuff — which happens, when I get up too quickly.

I got myself up and started getting into the day. But man, I was clumsy this morning, right from the start. I had trouble holding my toothbrush, had trouble holding onto the water spigot, and it was really really getting to me. I am definitely foggier and more out of it this morning than I’ve been in a while. It’s probably due to the adjustment I had yesterday — the chiro went pretty deep.  And when I’m foggy and clumsy and out of it, I get really, really agitated. Every little thing gets to me, and I have a harder time with those spikes of anger that come up when things go wrong for me. They seem to come out of nowhere, and when they show up, they can be intense — and the intensity makes them even more confusing and frustrating (and damaging) because my mind knows that my reaction to what is happening is wildly out of proportion to what is going on, and I feel like something is terribly wrong with me, that I feel this way. And I start in with calling myself all sorts of names, telling myself I’m a damaged idiot loser who can’t keep their shit together, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

I’ve written about this temper flare stuff before in my posts Flash in the (brain) pan and A constant restlessness (and elsewhere), and it still holds as true as ever.  And this morning, when I was just trying to brush my friggin’ teeth, already,  I could not seem to keep my act together. I had trouble holding the toothbrush, and when I put it down on its rest, something about how it was positioned bothered me intensely. Then I tried to turn off the water, and my hand slipped, and I hit the side of my hand on the edge of the spigot, which hurt.

And that old temper flare jumped out again, like Old Faithful… that geyser that comes up regularly at Yellowstone. Or maybe a better analogy would be, like one of the geysers that erupts periodically without warning. Tori Amos has an album I love called “Little Earthquakes”. Maybe I’ll do an album called “Little Geysers.”

Anyway, for a few minutes, as I stood there nursing my aching hand, I was

absolutely furious!!!!

It was all I could do to keep myself from hitting something or slamming something down. I was angry with the spigot for having hard edges. I was angry with my hand for being so weak that a little bump would hurt so much. I was angry with myself for being so uncoordinated and not being able to simply turn off the water like a normal person would. But most of all, I was angry with myself for getting so bent out of shape over something so simple. “I know better,” I told myself. “Why can’t I act better?

I was really getting whacked-out over this, and it literally threatened to derail my morning. When I get going like this, I descend down into a pit of ugliness, and the whole day can be tainted by my temper outbursts, whether they are internal or external. In fact, sometimes the worst ones are internal, that no one but me sees or hears or knows about, which makes my crabby, short-tempered behavior all the more confusing for people around me. It makes no sense to them — how could it? They don’t know what I’m experiencing, and I’m doing everything in my power to shield them from that.

I could feel that rush of anger, that temper flare, that wild spike of emotion… it tore through me like one of those microbursts I’ve seen on the Weather Channel… and I was starting to get freaked out… and go into one of those wild rages that’s like a forest fire tearing through my head.

Then I checked myself. Something in me — the something that has been observing myself with increasing knowledge of TBI over the past few years — told me to take a break and just give myself time to catch up with myself.

So, I stopped and took a breath and thought about what was happening. And when I took a break from my downward slide, I realized:

  1. I am still tired. I did not get enough sleep, and I am groggy.
  2. When I am groggy, my neuropsych has told me that I am more prone to agitation.
  3. When I am groggy, I also can be uncoordinated. I don’t need a trained expert to tell me this. I have observed it countless times.
  4. When I am uncoordinated, I tend to bump into things.
  5. When I am groggy, I tend to propel myself through events on adrenalin — because I need an extra “pump” of energy — energy I  don’t have from regular sources (like getting enough rest). When I’m fatigued, I have to pump myself up just to do the basic stuff… because otherwise I can’t get going.
  6. When I pump myself up, I move faster.
  7. When I move faster, and I am uncoordinated, I hit things with greater force than I would, if I were rested and had full motor control.
  8. When I’m fatigued, my brain’s constant restlessness and agitation is worse, it makes me snappier and more extreme in my reactions. I am also more physically sensitive, and I feel everything more intensely.
  9. And finally, I remembered — from what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by my neuropsych — this type of reaction from me is actually quite typical of TBI survivors. It’s just what my brain does, when it has to operate on too little sleep/energy.

So, there it was –this drama I was experiencing, standing in front of the bathroom sink, freaking out over hitting my hand on the spigot had everything to do with my brain/body AND it had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.  It wasn’t me being an asshole loser who’s emotionally inept and a worthless use of space. It was just my brain and body doing what they did, when I am tired and out of it and I am moving too fast.

I did NOT need to make a big deal out of it — just recognize what was happening… And I also realized that it was actually my brain sending me warning signals about what was amiss in my day, thus far. I recognized that this little snap of mine was like a gift from the gods — a hint about where I was at, that day, which I could use to inform the rest of my day to make better choices.

I also realized that if I didn’t take steps to stop this flash in my brain-pan, I was going to start the day on a really BAD note. Temper flares with TBI survivors tend to be quick-on, quick-off affairs, instantaneously coming up out of nowhere and disappearing just as instantaneously for no apparent reason. I realized I just needed to occupy my attention long enough for my system to calm down, and then I could get on with my day.

So, I took action. I kicked into gear and did something with all that agitation and energy — I channeled it into a constructive activity. I looked at the spigot that I’d hit my hand on, and I realized that it was slippery with soap on the handle. I studied the handle and felt where the slippery soap was, then I ran the water and rinsed off the handle, until it wasn’t slippery anymore. That made me feel a lot better. Then I dried my hands and went downstairs to make my breakfast.

Again, I had more trouble with uncoordinated blunders downstairs. I was off-balance and I was clumsy, getting my coffee stuff together. But I remembered what I’d noticed upstairs — I’m tired. I’m uncoordinated. This is not about me, it’s about my brain and body. When I am this tired, it’s perfectly normal — for me — to be agitated and restless and make mountains out of molehills. But it has nothing to do with me and my character… Forget about the supposed stupidity and ineptness and all those other words I use to attack myself. It’s about my slightly broken brain which has trouble when it’s tired, and I know what I can do to make it better — take it easy, take things slow, don’t push myself like crazy, and cut myself a friggin’ break, already.

So, that’s what I did. And by the time I got done with my workout, my day had re-booted nice and fresh. I’m still tired, but I’m not wiped out like I could be, because I made changes to how I was doing things. I had a good solid workout, and I lifted shorter sets with fewer reps, because I realized my body needed to catch up with the heavier weights. I also focused more on my exercise — I had been letting my mind wander more, over the past week or so — and I didn’t lose track of where I was with my workout, like I had been, in the past few days. And as I was planning my day, I made a point of scheduling just a fraction of the number of activities I’m prone to schedule for my day, which takes the pressure off, right off the bat.

AND instead of checking email from friends first thing in the morning, as I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, I am waiting till later in the day to do that, because there is a lot I need to get done, and I cannot be distracted from the work that’s waiting for me to finish it.

All in all, even though the day started out on a rough note, it was for the best.

Because I stopped and thought about what was happening. I learned about the experience as it was happening. And I used my tools. I used the info I got from my neuropsych, and I used the knowledge I had of myself. I used the opportunity to stop and think to really appreciate what was going on with me. I cut my brain and body a break.

I am also planning to lie down for a nap later today. I’m working remotely, plus the weather is not good right now. I can get a lot done, if I focus on what I’m doing. And with the appreciation of how tired I am, I can make the extra effort to take care of myself, take my time at what I’m doing, and manage my energy with intention and discipline.

All because I stopped for a moment and thought about what was really going on with me.

This is progress.

What I do, versus who I am – TBI and Behavior Issues

I have been giving a lot of thought to behavior issues that arise as a result of TBI. Discussing my “eventful” childhood with my parents, in light of the concussions I experienced, brought up a lot of old memories about the bad behavior I exhibited, time and time again.

At the same time, I’ve been meeting with my neuropsychologist, who has been trying to explain to me that relatively speaking, the neurological after-effects of my TBIs are not so terribly severe. For the most part, I have a lot going for me, and I score well in key areas. I do have a few significant areas of difficulty, but I’m really not in terrible shape, neurologically speaking.

I’m still trying to get my head around it. Maybe I’m being dense, but it’s hard for me to see how little is wrong with me.

Because I struggle. Oh, how I struggle. The fact that I’ve been up since 1:30 — wide awake from worry and pain — is evidence thereof. Now, part of it may be the fact that I’m a highly sensitive individual with a lot of life and curiosity and adventurousness in me… which tends to put me on a collision course with the less desirable parts of human experience. A lot of it may be due to that, in fact. But it certainly doesn’t help that my memory leaves a lot to be desired, my processing speed isn’t as fast as I’d like, and I tend to get overwhelmed and melt down.

I don’t want to make more of my situation than need be, and I certainly don’t want to hold myself back in life  by focusing on my limits, rather than my strengths. I just need to understand why it is that I have such a hard time with things that others seem to be fine with. What, in fact, is holding me back?

All things considered, I think most of my day-to-day issues are behavior-related, versus purely neurological. I have had a bunch of head injuries, it’s true, but my MRI and EEG both came back looking peachy, and that doesn’t seem to correlate with the difficulties I have. Indeed, the problems I’ve got with insomnia, anger management, becoming quickly fatigued, trouble getting started, trouble reading, getting turned around and overwhelmed, saying the wrong things and doing things differently than I’d like, seem more behavioral than cognitive.

Well, it’s 4:30 a.m. and I’ve been up for three hours. I’m bushed and I need to sleep. So, for now I’ll just share a number of links I’ve found interesting and useful in understanding tbi and behavior:

My solution for TBI/PTSD rage

Anger (or out-and-out rage) is one of the places where my TBIs and PTSD intersect to cause real problems. I’ve been having some rage issues, lately. Getting worked up over little things — getting angry over nothing, really. Just getting angry. Temper, temper…

In the moment, my anger — my rage — seems completely justified. I feel with every cell in my being that I am entitled to be outraged. I am entitled to be angry. I validate my emotional experience, and I end up spiraling down into a deepening pit of anger, resentment, and acting out. Yelling. Making a fuss. Putting up a stink. And getting aggressive with whomever happens to be offending me at the moment.

This is not good. I’ve done it with police officers, and I’m lucky I didn’t get cited. Or arrested. I’ve done it with family members, and it’s cost me plenty, in terms of peace of mind and my relationships. I’ve done it with co-workers, and it strained our connections to the point of breaking.

Not good.

But lately, I’ve been able to pull myself out of my downward spiral before it gets too much of a hold on me. I’ve started doing some basic things that stop the progression of rage before it picks up so much speed it’s like a runaway freight train.

First, I recognize that I’m angry, and I am convinced that I’m right about being angry. This might not seem like a big thing, but I have trouble figuring out how I’m feeling sometimes, and anger is one of those emotions that I don’t always identify well. It just feels like a rush of energy — and while everyone around me knows I’m pissed off, I usually can’t tell what’s going on with me until it’s progressed to a really problematic point. I recognize that I’m angry, and I remember that I need to not let myself get carried away.

Second, I step away. I take a time-out and just walk away. I stop myself from saying what I’m about to say, no matter how badly I want to say it. I tell myself, I’ll give it some thought and figure out how to say it exactly the way I want to say it. I tell myself… anything … just to extract myself from the situation. I step away, telling myself I’ll come back when I’m better able to express myself.

Third, I take some deep breaths.  This helps stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that chills you out. The sympathetic nervous system is what gets you worked up to respond to a crisis situation — and when I get really angry, it’s often because I think and feel like I’m in a crisis situation, and my body is getting all geared up for fight or flight (more often fight). I consciously take some deep breaths to get my parasympathetic nervous system to chill out.

Fourth, I seek out some kind of tactile stimulation. I need to get out of my head, which is spinning out of control, and just give myself a different point of focus. My head is going so madly, at this point, that I cannot even think straight, so I seek out some kind of physical sensation to get my mind off the madness. I press the side of my face against the cold side of a door that leads to the outside. I pick up something rough and rub my fingers along it. I jingle change in my pocket. Or I find something heavy and hold it. The physical sensation, along with the deep breathing, gets my mind off the crazy cycle it was in, just a minute ago, and it lets me focus on a single point — the feel of the cold door against my cheek or the feel of quarters and nickels and dimes juggling among my fingers. Tactile stimulation, like looking at a flame of a candle while meditating, helps me center and get my mind off that crazy downward cycle.

Fifth, I remind myself that my body and brain are playing tricks on me. I am probably not getting angry for the reasons I think I am — it’s my body that’s getting all worked up into a fight/flight/freeze state, and my mind is interpreting that as a real sign of DANGER. And I’m probably starting to panic a little, too. As a matter of fact, when I take an objective look at things, the rage that’s building inside of me might not even be real rage, rather a response to a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system response. It could very well be my body tricking my mind into thinking the wrong things. And I need to remember that I get to choose how I interpret my life. My mind gets to decide how I’m going to think about things, how I’m going to react. And my well-intentioned body, which thinks it needs help, is just misleading my brain into thinking that I have to do something about whatever it is that’s getting to me. When I remind myself that this is a physiological process that’s taking place, I am able to relax… and the anger subsides.

The thing I have to remember, when all this is coming down, is that It Is Not Worth It. No matter how justified my rage seems to be. No matter how entitled I am to be angry. No matter how wronged I may have  been. It is not worth it, to get so tweaked over things. When I go off on an anger “binge” I end up feeling really hungover and dumb and numb afterwards, which just makes my life more difficult, once it’s passed.

I’m no doctor, but I suspect that it may be connected with the mechanics of panic/anxiety… all that post-traumatic stress stewing in a pot, and my TBI brain being unable to sort it all out in a timely fashion… My processing speed is slower than I’d like, and by the time I figure out what’s going on, the damage is often done.

So, I do my best to recognize when I’m getting angry, I step away, I take some deep breaths and try to relax, and I do something that gets my body’s attention — like feeling something cold or rough or tactile in some way. And I remind myself that my brain and body are playing tricks on me again. They’ve done it before… and they’ll do it again.

The adventure continues

Spent the day yesterday recuperating from my meltdown a few nights before. Sick, blazing headache… nausea… feeling wiped out and down and depressed. I took the day off work, tho’, which helped. And I’m taking another day off, today. It’s just not worth my health and my sanity and my family life, to drive myself for no good reason. I’ve been putting in extra hours, anyway, so it’s not like I haven’t put in any billable time.

I’m due for a break, which I’m finally giving myself.

I have been sleeping, on and off, more frequently, over the past few days. Just lying down for a quick nap — half an hour, 45 minutes… a hour or so — and then getting up to get on with it. I’m pretty happy about this, because despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to really get the sleep I’ve been needing to, over the past months. Ever since I made a firm commitment to getting more sleep, I’ve actually been getting less. And that’s a problem. Because when I don’t sleep, bad things happen. Almost like clockwork. I’m so predictable, it’s quite boring.

But over the past few days, I’ve gotten more sleep. And I am slowly but surely finding out what works for me, with regard to timing out my naps. Ironically (and totally surprisingly to me – tho’ I’ not sure why it surprises me), I do better getting more sleep when I’m not on rigid schedule. When I’m going with the flow. When I’m relaxed and not driving myself.

Like I said, I’m not sure why this suprises me, but it does.

I have had it in my head that I need to follow a strict schedule in my daily routine… that I need to schedule everything out and stick to my timetable, in order to be effective and get everything done. I’ve had it in my head that I need to do things a specific way, in order to catch up on my sleep. When I’m working in the city, I need to get up at such-and-such a time, work such-and-such hours, and then come home and go to bed at such-and-such a time. When I’m working from home, I should work from such-and-such a time in the a.m., then eat lunch, then lie down for a nap, and then get up and get back to work. And on the weekends, I should do this, that, the other thing… nap… do this, that, the other thing, and go to bed.

But as appealing as the idea of a cleanly regimented schedule may be, this is not working out for me. Yes, I do need to get certain things done each day. And yes, I do need to catch up on my sleep. But trying to stick with a specific schedule is getting to be draining and problematic, and I need to find a better way.

I need to find more flow. I need to be cool with adventure.

I mean, let’s be honest — life doesn’t go on forever, and when all is said and done, do I want to look back and pride myself in having kept to a set routine, having been “productive” in popularly acceptable ways, having made x-amount of money, and having been the most reliable neighbor on the block? Or do I want something else?

It’s true — TBI has totally mucked with my processing. It’s scrambled things  and diminished capabilities that I’m convinced I should be able to take for granted. It’s made me wilder, less tame, less easy to control, less compliant, less able to keep focused on specific set tasks for extended periods of time, and it’s made me different from how I was used to being.

But the changes aren’t all bad. And in fact, I’m starting to realize that the changes I’ve experienced are actually of a certain type that I can identify and deal with. And even though I have had setbacks in certain areas, my brain has actually re-wired itself to use other areas… and my strengths in those areas have increased, at the same time the old, familiar capabilities have decreased.

Fortuitously, I’ve come across an increasing amount of literature about thinking and learning styles that really seems to apply to me. And it’s given me pause to reconsider what’s really going on with this brain o’ mine.

Here’s the latest conclusion I’ve reached: In the course of my TBI’s, I have been diminished in my sequential-linear processing abilities, but I have improved my visual-spatial processing abilities. The head injuries that I’ve sustained have wreaked havoc with my standard-issue brain, but — perhaps due to a temporo-limbic abundance of energy — the rest of my brain has hungered to keep up, to live, to experience, to have adventures, to learn and grow and understand and take in every piece of life I can get my hands on. And that hunger, that eagerness, that life-force has propelled me forward in developing additional skills and abilities that I didn’t need to have or use before my TBIs.

Now, I’m not saying that my TBIs were “the best thing that ever happened to me.” No way, no how. It’s been a long, hard road, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But in the midst of the wreckage, there have been some prizes along the way. There have  been treasures buried in the twisted, burned-out leftovers of the veritable train wrecks of my life. And identifying them and pulling them out has been my secondary mission in life — second only to getting by.

Thinking about the way my mind has worked over the course of my life, I can totally see how my brain has become more and more visual-spatial over time. I have some theories about how this has come to be, which came to me over the past few days, while I was “off”. I’ll be sharing them soon.* But the bottom line is, my brain has become more visual-spatial and less sequential-linear over time, and that has caused me to become less and less adept at keeping to rigid time schedules and doing things sequentially. It’s made it harder for me to break certain things down into small pieces and follow them through, bit by bit. I can do it — indeed, I do do it for a living, as a software engineer. But I have to work at it, and it’s not my “default setting” in living my life.

Still there’s something in my head that tells me, I need to live my life like that. I get it in my head that that’s how I should be (perhaps because everyone else is that way, and it’s how our society is structured), and I work like the dickens to make myself that way. And I lose sight of the fact that maybe I don’t need to be so rigid about everything.  Maybe it’s okay for me to be a little more loosey-goosey… But then I get anxious and freaked out and start to panic… My thinking gets all turned around and I can’t process my way out of a wet paper bag.

I think one of the biggest things that makes TBI problematic for me is that anxiety-based rigidity of thinking that leads to reduced fluidity. It keeps me from being able to think well and/or adequately address my life issues and challenges in a creative and productive way. I get so turned around, at times, I can’t tell which end is up, andI can’t figure out where I went wrong. I try to think it through, front to back, left to right, up and down… and I fail. I end up in a cognitive cul-de-sac, spinning ’round and ’round and going nowhere, thinking that I’m in one conceptual neighborhood, when I’m really in another… getting all disoriented by the numbers on the mailboxes that are not in the range I was expecting… never suspecting that my thinking just took a wrong turn, three blocks back.

And then I start to panic. Get worked up. Can’t think straight. And I start to melt down. I get carried down the path of panic/anxiety freakout, trying in vain to stop the slide, trying to think my way out of things… and failing…  When all along, the whole problem is trying to think my way out of things — I easily get  to a meltdown state with a fundamentally flawed assumption — that things needed to be done in a certain way, or else.

If that makes any sense.

Anyway, slowly but surely things are starting to come together, in some respects. Making the visual-spatial connection has been a huge watershed for me, this week, and I truly think it’s going to make a difference for me in my life.

So long as I don’t panic.


* While they don’t have double-blind controlled scientific testing behind them — they totally make sense to me. And they’re multi-disciplinary and wholistic, rather than being teeny-weeny little specifics that have been observed in hermeticaly controlled circumstances. They’ve  been observed and proven out in my life, which makes them a whole lot more interesting to me, than proper “science” (which, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t exist, in today’s commercial cultural climate).

It’s been a rough 24 hours

My fatigue and stress levels are catching up with me. And it doesn’t help that I have been on prednisone for the past week, to bring down inflammation that was kicking the crap out of me for a while.

Yesterday, I thought I was having a pretty good day. The weather wasn’t as great as I’d hoped, so I wasn’t able to get out and about like I’d hoped I would. And I didn’t get a bunch of stuff done that I had planned. I had something of an outline for my day, and I really didn’t get as much of it done as I’d hoped.

So, big deal, right? Well, actually it was. I had a TFM — Total Friggin’ Meltdown — last night, that started around 7:00 and lasted till midnight. Not good.

I have been so tired, so stressed, so agitated and nervous about my work situation and my impaired work-life balance and trying to find my footing with my new job and new schedule, trying to figure out how to pay for the commute and lunch and the rest of my life… Routine is about the only thing that keeps me sane. It may sound boring, but routine lets me operate at a very high capacity, and it lets me get through my days without having to think and re-think everything I do.

I have a tremendous amount of energy, which is great. It lets me accomplish huge amounts of work, without frying my system. But when I can’t direct that energy appropriately, when I get jammed up and stopped up, when I can’t “get my head” and get free rein, then I start to implode.

That’s what happened last night. I was supposed to do a bunch of things with a family member who has been feeling poorly, lately. We were supposed to go out and run errands and get some stuff done. We could have, too, except that my family member wanted me to take their sweet old time and just enjoy each moment, instead of getting things out of the way, and then relaxing. They wanted to amble and ramble and not rush… to just savor each moment and enjoy the springtime, chat with people, look around, just enjoy the time we had together.

I wanted to, too. I started out wanting to, with a really positive attitude. Thing is — it occurred to me at the time, but I dismissed the thought, and now I realize how right I was — I got completely overloaded with the sensory input and there was literally too much information coming in for me to process. The spring weather, changeable as it was… the sights, the sounds, the movement in town… the sunlight that was brighter than I’d expected (I left my sunglasses in the car)… the tastes of the food we ate… the words of the people we talked with… the total sensory input all proved to be too much for me.

I tried to shake it off and chill. I went for a little walk by myself to calm myself down. But I was really tired and wasn’t thinking well, and the walk wasn’t as relaxing as I was hoping it would be. When I got back to my family member, they wanted to go home right away because they were starting to feel bad again… then they wanted to stop off and do some more quick errands… then they wanted to get a DVD… then they wanted to take another detour… all the while, I was thinking they needed to go home to rest, because they were feeling sick, and I didn’t want them to feel any worse than they already did.

I was tired, myself, and I was trying to keep it together, but all of a sudden, it all bubbled up and blew up.

I just snapped. Yelled. Really yelled. Raged. Flipped out. Threw things. Accidentally hit them with what I threw, too, when I was trying to miss. I took off in the car too fast and I wasn’t driving very intelligently. Then I pulled over and said I would just walk home – they could have the car, they could have everything. I didn’t care. I was just beside myself with overwhelm and confusion and frustration and sensory overload. The whole time, there was this part of me watching from a distance, wondering what the hell I was getting so worked up over, and why was I being so extreme? Didn’t I know this family member wasn’t feeling well, to begin with? And here I was, flipping out on them… over what?

The whole danged episode lasted through most of the evening. And it left me feeling like crap. Without getting mired in the details, it pointed out pretty clearly that I need to watch my energy, I need to keep up on my sleep, and I need to make extra efforts to take care of myself, especially when I’m taking care of others. I need to wear my sunglasses when I’m out and about in the sunlight. I need to take frequent breaks when I’m walking around in town. I need to keep to something of a routine and make sure I do at least some of the things I feel I have to get done — or come up with an alternative plan. I need to step away, and take a break to calm down, too, when I start to get out of control. I need to do better at this, for sure.

Lessons learned. I only wish I’d gotten a clue earlier.

Moment by moment – on mindfulness and TBI

About a year ago, I had a conversation with a friend who was wondering aloud how I manage to get through life with the deficits I described to them. I had just finished telling them about my memory problems, my cognitive processing problems, my physical problems, the troubles I had when I was a kid… I didn’t hold back, but just let it all hang out. And when all was said and done, it was a lot to process, even for me (who’s been living with all that for as long as I can remember).

One of their first questions, when I’d finished, was how the hell I managed to get through life? How did I do it every day? How did I manage to make it through so many “regular” situations… not only adequately, but in fact better than many? For years, I’ve worked in high-stress, high-pressure environments that have one crisis after another. For decades, I’ve experienced job changes, moves from one part of the country to another, serious health problems that felled family members, deaths of close relatives, career insecurities, near-eviction… How did I manage to keep it all together, and actually look even more functional than others, who have not had brain injuries?

It sounded a little hokey when I said, it but the first words out of my mouth were, “Mindfulness. I just pay really, really close attention to each moment as it comes.”

At the time, I wasn’t sure that was really 100% accurate. And when I thought about it, over the coming weeks and months, I came up with a whole bunch of other ideas for how I get by:

  • mimicking others who seem to have it all together
  • being silent instead of speaking up and showing my limitations
  • hanging with good people who care about me and can help me
  • learning to ask for help in ways that don’t make me look stupid
  • learning to be stoic under any given situation, and then falling apart when I’m out of sight of others

The list goes on, of course, and the more I think about it, the more coping strategies I can come up with.

But once I got tired of thinking how else I manage to get by, I came back to my original thought, which was correct:

I get by in the world, head injuries and all, by paying really, really close attention to each moment, and living the very best that I can in that moment.

Throughout the course of each day, countless situations arise which enable me to learn more about myself and be true to that moment.

People approach me for help or input. I can choose to pay attention to them, really get what they’re saying to me, and respond to the best of my ability… Or I can pretend to listen to them, brush them off, and go back to what I was doing before.

People interact with me in stores and public places and at work. I can choose to be pleasant and polite to them, or I can be rude and impatient and make them sorry they ever met me.

Opportunities arise to make choices that will change the direction of my day. Will I dress up for work, or will I dress down? Will I take back roads to work, or will I take the freeway, or will I take the train? Will I slow down when the traffic light turns yellow, or will I speed up?

Every single choice I make through the course of each day has the potential to change my course in good ways or bad. And every action I take is both informed by my neurological profile and affects my personal relationship with my brain. It’s a two-way street. I have to both factor in the issues I have with my broken brain when I decide how to act… and deal with how my perception of myself alters, based on the outcomes of what I chose to do before.   If I neglect the former — e.g., don’t bother to remember that fatigue is a huge issue for me, and it’s impacting my ability to think and coordinate my movements — then the latter can suffer — e.g., I’ll get really down on myself for being dumb or dense or uncoordinated. Even though I know I’m somewhat impaired, I still get down on myself for doing/saying/choosing things that were better left alone. And that takes a toll… like water dripping on a rock and eventually eroding a virtual Grand Canyon through my self-esteem.

Mindfulness matters with me. Perhaps moreso with me than with other folks who are neurologically normal. Because if I want to live my life to the best of my ability, I don’t have a choice, but to force myself to be mindful. When I’m racing through my days, not paying attention to my limitations, not being mindful of where I am and what I’m doing, unfortunate things tend to happen. I rub people the wrong way. I say things I shouldn’t. I get pulled over by cops. I bump into hard/sharp objects and bruise myself. I get snarky with authority figures and alienate my supporters. I tend to end up in hot water, and then I feel just awful. I start to doubt myself. And when I doubt myself and my self-confidence takes a hit, I have a harder time just living my life later on.  Even the most basic activities can become a difficult chore, when my self-confidence has taken a hit… they’re hard enough, as it is, without the added burden of screwed-up self-confidence.

But when I slow down and focus on the present moment… When I’m totally involved — to the best of my ability — in what I’m doing, what someone is saying to me, what is happening around me… When I manage to block out everything else around me and focus wholly on what’s right there in front of me, magic happens. I become involved in my own life. I am able to see, feel, hear, and experience all-round the situation that has presented itself to me. When I can manage to stop the rest of the world from intruding, and I can slow down the action enough to devote my full attention to what’s going on in that moment, at that specific place in time, I can turn the full force of my abilities towards it, and be true to it.

Now, looking around at websites about mindfulness, I’m finding a lot of mystical stuff. Enlightenment stuff. Claims that mindfulness is the path to Buddha-hood. A cure for psychological ills. A cure for the soul. I don’t know about all that. I think that mindfulness is certainly a key part of becoming a fully conscious individual. But in my case, mindfulness isn’t something optional that I add to a personal spiritual practice for the sake of additional help. It’s a central and esential part of my day-to-day coping strategies, without which I’d be totally sunk. If enlightenment comes along with it, then great. But I’ll settle for basic functionality.

And that’s exactly what it offers me. Because when I’m not paying attention, when I’m not cognizant of the fact that I’m overly tired, when I’m ignoring the fact that I’m getting more and more agitated, bad things happen. I lose my cool. And when I lose my cool, I blow up. When I blow up, I say things I don’t want to be saying. I say things I don’t really mean. I break things. I throw things.  I flip. Trust me, it’s not pretty. And people close to me are occasionally afraid of me, which does not feel good. Ultimately, I start to close down, shut people out, stop communicating with them, start to get down on myself… and I slide down in that sinking spiral… sometimes into total and utter despair. The cost to myself and those around me is very high, when I’m not being mindful and paying attention to what’s going on with me.

But when I am paying attention and I’m aware of where I am and what’s going on with me, I can manage my limitations. I can see that I’m tired, and take a nap. I can see that I’m not following what someone is saying to me and either ask them to clarify or make a note (a real note on paper, ’cause I’ll forget mental notes). I can tell that my attention is wandering and bring myself back to the moment. I can see that I’m starting to lose my cool for no good reason and physically remove myself from the situation – walk away or even run, do something different, or just stop talking. I can prevent myself from going off the deep end and overreacting to what others are doing and saying. Just reminding myself that I’m  being “very TBI” at the moment chills me out. I can remind myself that my brain is misbehaving and I’m probably getting overwrought for no good reason. And I can stop the downward slide before it starts.

I cannot even begin to say how important this is. For myself, and for everyone around me. It means the difference between being a good partner and being a vexation (and sometimes a threat) to the ones I love. It means the difference between having a conversation and having a fight. It means the difference between finishing a thought and taking a definitive action, and getting mired in bogus details that keep me from going anywhere. It means the difference between being a TBI victim and a TBI survivor.

Mindfulness is not just an optional practice for me. It’s not something I can do now and then, when the spirit moves me or I’m in a meditation session. It’s something I absolutely positively must do all the time, in order to meet the most basic requirements in my life.

The beauty part is, because mindfulness is such a powerful practice outside of basic coping, it enables me to do the most basic things with tremendous focus and energy. Taking one small thing at a time, focusing fully on one moment at a time, allows me to use the full range of my abilities on that thing, in that moment.

And in so doing, my life becomes more than just a series of limitations to be dealt with. It becomes more than just a sequence of chores and tasks and obligations. It becomes more than work, work, and more work. My life — through mindfulness — becomes a form of worship. It becomes art.

Flash in the (brain) pan

Perhaps one of the biggest and most persistent issues I’ve had with MTBI over the years — and I mean all the years, starting when I was a kid (I had my first TBI when I was 7) — is uninvited and unexplained anger.

Like a storm it comes, barrelling across the plains inside my head… like a tornado dropping suddenly from a swirling dark-cloudy sky. Touching down unpredictably and tearing across my inner landscape, ripping up trees and houses as it goes… sending cars and cows and tractors flying through the air… snaking and twisting and turning and doubling back across its own path, a demon in flight…

Like a wildfire, it flares up. A late summer California brush fire that needs only a shift in the winds to send it screaming voraciously across the proverbial fields inside my head. When I am tired, when I am frustrated, when I am out of resources, the inside of my head — and heart — is like a dry grassy field that’s seen no rain for months. The tall grasses are parched and just waiting for a spark to burst into flame. The sappy pines are ready and waiting for heat to make them explode. And the wide steppes inside my head roar and rush with the winds that kick up at a moment’s notice.

When that spark comes — something as small as a dropped potato peeler, or something as significant as being pulled over by a police officer — it touches to the kindling in my head, and flames shoot out in every direction. And when the winds of my thoughts kick up, the fire can flare up with maddening speed and race up-down-left-right, flames finding their way into the nooks and crannies of my psyche. And there is nowhere I can feel genuinely safe. There is nowhere that I can know others are safe from my sudden sharp tongue.

“Anger” is too simple a word for it. “Temper” hardly does it justice. It’s a force of nature. And when it’s at its worst, it’s a natural disaster.

It’s insane. The smallest thing can set me off, given the right conditions. I might be tired. Or I might be confused. Or I might be feeling vulnerable and stupid and slow. I might feel threatened. I might feel nothing in particular. But suddenly, without warning, there is something else in the room with me that I know I need to control. Manage. Keep on top of. Not let get out of hand. Yes, control.

So, I dig in trench lines. I set bounding fires. I do what I can… and pray for the winds to die down and this sudden fire to pass.

Where did I go? Losing myself to TBI (the first time)

Actually, this is a story of the first time that I clearly remember — when I was eight. I had a fall down some stairs the year before when I was seven that knocked me for a loop and altered my consciousness (which constitutes a mild TBI), but I don’t remember immediate changes or “losing a part of myself” after that first fall.

But when I was eight… I do remember the loss of self that came after that.

I’m the oldest of a handful of kids in my family. And as the oldest, I was raised with a strong sense of duty about setting a good example and being a good older sibling. My parents frequently reminded me that I was the oldest, so the other kids would follow my lead… so I needed to be the best, the strongest, the most ‘together’ one of the crowd.  I really took that to heart. Plus, at school, I was really looked up to because I was smart, and I wasn’t afraid to look stupid.

When other kids in my class had a question they were afraid to ask, I would ask it for them. I used to sit at my desk in elementary school, looking around at the other kids who were obviously struggling with the lesson. Most of the stuff that was taught seemed very simple to me, so I was often ahead of the game. I knew the answers to their questions… the only problem was, when I tried to tell them, the teacher got all tweaked at me and shut me up.

So, I “went around that obstacle” and started asking the questions for the kids. In retrospect, it probably would have been good for the other kids to ask the questions themselves, so they could get in the habit of doing that, but they were just struggling so much, and everyone else would laugh at you, if you asked too many questions. I had good “cred” in school — everybody knew I was pretty smart — so when I asked the questions the other kids couldn’t vocalize, nobody laughed at me.

Thinking back on my earliest years in elementary school, I remember trying like crazy to do the right thing. I guess the pressure at home carried through into my life and attitudes outside my family’s house. I always had a strong sense of duty, of needing to fulfill some higher purpose, of needing to be better, to constantly improve, to make myself useful to others. To blend in. To get along. To be a part of the “team” and contribute. I was a mixed bag — a little on the shy side, a little on the brash side (when I was caught up talking about things I thought I knew about), usually working hard inside my head trying to figure out how to navigate the social landscape.

Now, to be clear, I wasn’t always the easiest kid to deal with at home. I did have lots of problems with dealing with my siblings, and I tended to act out when I was with my own family. But outside the home, I was a very different person with a different persona, who could keep it together, because in the public arena, I had a role to fulfill that I could perform quite well.

Being outside in the world was very important to me. I grew up in turbulent times, when there was a lot of social tension and upheaval and a fair amount of violence. I started school when integration started up, and there was a lot of chaos around me a lot of the time. But being outside my home gave me a chance to be the person I couldn’t be at home. It gave me the chance to perform, to meet academic requirements and expectations, and have a measure of my success.

What I wanted more than anything, was to be a good person, protect my younger siblings, be a good child of my parents, be a good student, be a good friend. I wanted to be like one of King Arthur’s knights of the roundtable — brave and hard-working and devoted to a higher cause. And my life at school, in that structured environment, gave me the chance to do just that.

It might sound odd for a young kid to be into higher causes, but I was. In a very big way. I was totally into King Arthur, and I got in trouble for reading books about King Arthur under my desk, when I was supposed to be paying attention to the teacher. (I never did manage to forgive the classmate who turned me in.) Trouble aside, being a good and decent person and helping others was, even from a very young age, a burning desire and a huge part of my personality. I tended to fail at home, but out in the world, I could hold my sh*t, so to speak.

After I got knocked out with that rock — while playing at a field near my house, when some kids from another neighborhood came by and started heaving stones at me and my sibling — all that changed. It might sound unlikely for an eight-year-old kid to be aware that their personality had shifted dramatically, but I was.

I noticed that all of a sudden I was teasing and taunting the kids I walked to school with. There was no busing for some of the elementary schools in the area, so kids walked to school — a mile each way. And some of the neighborhoods we passed through were pretty unsafe. So, our parents had us team up and walk together. I had been walking with the same group for a couple of years. Some kids would keep walking with the same group, while others moved away, and others would join us. I had been walking with pretty much the same group for over a year, when I was hit on the head with the rock. And as I recall, I had an okay relationship with them. I was awkward, socially, but I at least tried to make conversation and foster good relationships with the other kids.

All of a sudden, I noticed that I was saying things that were mean, I was mocking and ridiculing them, and I was getting pretty vicious. I made up songs designed to humiliate them, to liken them to animals, to poke fun at them. And I egged on the other kids to join me. Thankfully, they didn’t. They knew what I was doing was wrong. And so did I. But I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t keep myself from starting, and once I got started, I couldn’t let it go. I drove everyone crazy, including myself, but I was helpless to stop myself.

I distinctly remember walking along one day on the way to school, hearing myself taunt and tease this one kid who was one of the most sensitive ones in the group. I could hear myself saying all sorts of mean things to them, and I could hear the other kids getting angrily silent. I knew I shouldn’t be saying those things. I didn’t want to be saying those things. But I couldn’t stop myself. And I distinctly remember thinking — almost out loud — Why I was acting so strange. Why was I being so mean? It was like I was standing outside of myself, watching myself do and say these cruel things, and I was unable to stop myself. It was like the words and actions just jumped out of me, and I was too slow to stop them.

It was crushing. Why was I doing this?! I didn’t want to do this! I didn’t want to say this stuff! What was wrong with me?! I knew what I was doing and saying was wrong, I only wanted to do right. But I couldn’t get myself to do what I wanted to do, or say what I wanted to say.

How devastating it was. Somewhere, somehow, I had lost my ability to do and say the right thing. I just couldn’t manage it anymore. Even worse, part of me seemed determined to do and say the wrong thing. That part of me that was so very central to my concept of who and what I was — a good example for other kids, a leader, a peer they could look to for assistance — was gone. And I didn’t know why. I knew the change was abrupt. That much was very clear to me. It was not some gradual change over time — it was a sudden, obviously noticeable change in my personality that had not been there before. I had become a train wreck of sorts.

Not being able to hold my tongue — and I did try, so many times — I eventually just withdrew and stopped interacting with the other kids, as we walked to school. I held back. I stopped walking in the middle of them. I quit having conversations with them. I didn’t feel like I could even really understand them, anymore. I tried a few times to interact, but between my mean-spirited teasing and their sensitivity and my mounting insecurity, things really went south.

When my parents asked me about walking to school and the other kids, I started dodging the issue. I was so ashamed of my behavior, of my failure, of my sudden inability to be… civil. I was mortified at my outbursts, my taunting, my ridiculing songs… all that stuff that jumped out of my mouth before I could stop it and made things so uncomfortable for everyone around me.

As I walked to school with the other kids, I felt so alone and so confused. They had started walking ahead of me, leaving me in the dust. I tried to keep up, but I had to  keep some distance between myself and them. They weren’t safe with me too close to them. We all knew that.

And so, I was left to walk with myself, to be with this new self that I didn’t like very much, wondering where my old self was. What had happened to me? Where did I go? What was wrong with me? Why was I this way? Why couldn’t I just do what I had once been able to do? Why had I turned into such a terrible person? I knew better, I had done better before, I knew I had once been capable of being better. But now I wasn’t. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Alone, I walked with my confusion, to and from school each day.

The next year, I didn’t walk to school with that same group. Maybe some of the kids had complained about me to their parents. Or maybe they moved away. But whatever the reason, I was soon walking to school with other kids. On those walks, I tried to start fresh, but I would get so wound up when we were talking about stuff… I got so agitated and antsy… Before getting knocked out, I had been a bit shy and withdrawn, but I had at least tried to “synch up” with the world around me. After that injury, everything seemed out of whack… I remember being really confused a lot of times, saying things that I thought were right, but turned out to be wrong, getting wound up and hyper about stuff… and confused. I remember being confused a lot, when I was in 4th grade.

I can’t even begin to tell you how 5th grade was. Talk about a loss… But that’s a long story for another time.

Thinking back on those days of walking to school, what’s notable for me is that I have almost no recollection of walking home after school. From kindergarten through second grade, we were bused across town, and I have memories of riding the bus home. But I have almost no memories of walking home from school in third and fourth grades. I know I walked to school, so I must have walked home. But I have almost no recollection of it.

Why? I think I was exhausted. I suspect that my fall when I was seven (in 2nd grade) affected my memory AND made me more susceptible to fatigue, so it caused my brain to really misfire by the end of each day. I think I just didn’t have anything left after school, in 3rd and 4th grades. School and all its demands and upheaval in those wild times could get pretty strenuous for me, so I think it just plain wore me out. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t remember from my childhood — my parents regularly ask me if I remember such-and-such, and I don’t. There’s some sense of loss there, too. Everybody sits around talking about what happened when, and I’m in the dark. But at least I do have my points of light. And I try to focus on the good things that I do have, rather than what I don’t.

Maybe it’s just self-preservation, that I feel so compelled to focus on the good side. I’ve been through so much painful crap, over the course of my life, and I’ve taken so much crap from people who “diagnosed” me with various psycho-spiritual illnesses and (in one way or another) have tried to essentially “excorcise” me in a variety of ways. But the bottom line really is that my brain has been altered over the course of my life, so I haven’t processed my experiences the same way as everyone else — in good ways and in bad. Being different can be so quickly pathologized. Which, in the words of some of my Southern friends, is “just plain stu-pid”. But it’s still there and it has to be dealt with — both the internal issues and the external ones.

Losing important parts of your individual self is never easy. If it happens when you’re young, it can send you down trajectories that put you at odds with everything you’re supposed to be, become, and hold dear. If it happens when you’re mature, it can mean deeply grieving the loss of critical parts of yourself that you’ve relied on for your survival, sense of purpose, and your place in the world. Whenever it happens and however it happens, it can be a crushing, debilitating experience that some people never fully recover from.

I like to think that my brain, heart, spirit, and body have managed to figure out how to compensate for the losses I’ve sustained over the course of my life.  I would like to think that they are resilient enough to survive just about anything. To some degree, I think that’s true. But I can’t help wondering if there’s a limit to my resilience, and if in some ways I may just never recover… but just have to make do without pieces of me that I don’t want to do without.

So, what’s “normal” after TBI?

I’ve been giving some thought to M’s comments about what folks might want to know about TBI, and I figured I would start with the “normal” question.

It’s truly hard to say, what is and is not “normal”…  but my experience was that I was doing and saying a lot of cranky, precipitous things that pissed people off and alienated them and gave them the wrong impression of what was going on inside my head… all the while without having a clue that the problem was with me.

As I understand it, when the brain is injured, it starts to mis-fire. The connections that were there before can be severed or frayed, so the usual ways that energy and ideas get from one part of the brain to the next just aren’t there. And the brain has to find another way of doing it.

It’s like when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco area, back in 1989. Someone I once worked with who lived through that said that their drive home from work usually took them 45 minutes — 20 minutes if there was no traffic. But after the earthquake, with all the roads closed and impassable and extra traffic with people panicked, it took them 3-4 hours to get home. And when they got there, they were exhausted… and all their dishes were lying smashed on their kitchen floor.

That’s a bit like it is when you’ve had a TBI. All the usual ways of thoughts getting from point A to point B are mucked up… and there’s this traffic jam of concepts and energy and ideas and impulses that are all glommed up in the process. By the time your brain figures out how to get where it’s going, you’re just plain wiped out. And there’s sometimes a big mess all around you, too.

That being said, “normal” after TBI can be:

  • feeling exhausted
  • feeling dull and dense
  • having a very short fuse and blowing up at a moment’s notice
  • having a headache
  • being dizzy
  • having trouble hearing
  • having trouble seeing
  • having trouble sleeping
  • having trouble waking up
  • being easily distracted
  • having trouble concentrating
  • not being able to understand what people are saying to you
  • not being able to do things you always did as easily as you used to do them
  • becoming confused over “simple” things for no reason that you can tell
  • feeling like everyone is out to get you

All of this is made worse by fatigue. Without question. The brain needs extra rest to recover and rebuilt its pathways, and if you’re tired and your energy is all taken up with trying to keep up with your life, that doesn’t help your head any.

You basically have to just get lots of rest, take it easy, and be very, very patient with yourself.

And get used to redefining “normal”. Forget how things used to be. Get used to how things are now. Let the old stuff go, and come up with a new set of measurements for what’s “normal” in your life.

It’s not very easy, at times, but it is what it is.

Hits madness… the good kind

What a day I’m having… That little post I put together on the train while coming to work has caught people’s attention. My normally sleepy little blog has by now logged 1,646 visitors. Up from a high of 200-some, a few months back.

Suddenly, people are paying attention
Suddenly, people are paying attention

I’m pretty excited about this, and checking where the traffic is coming from, Alphainventions and are both feeding me. Alphainventions mores0, but Condron is doing it, too.

It’s a pretty intense jump — a 10-fold increase over what I typically get. Dizzying. It’s kind of depressing, that this happened as a result of me talking about terrible things happening, but I guess in these times, everybody is paying closer attention to terrible things.

I think that perhaps we’re really trying to figure out how to handle it all. It’s not easy, living in these times, and I suppose it’s human nature for people to ponder imponderables. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. Writing about terrible things isn’t the most pleasant activity, but if we can come away with some lessons learned, then we may be able to turn negatives into positives.

One can only hope.

I talked to my friend today about their nephew. People think it was a drive-by shooting. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What’s the point?! What does it give us — anyone — to strike out against others from a safe distance?! From the safety of a passing car… What is the point?

I can think of a number of reasons someone would want to do such a thing. I can think of a whole lot. In a small way and on a very limited scale, it certainly has allure. But on a grander scale, within a community context, it has on meaning at all, and it only serves to destroy what little connection we have with our world.

And I think about how this relates to TBI. And PTSD. I can’t help but think about it. I wonder if the people involved were cognitively impaired, in some way. If they were socially impaired. If they had been injured so often and so badly by a wrecked family system and a wrecked culture, that there was no way they could get through it in one piece. If they were so brutalized by the inequities of this culture we tend to adore, that there was no hope left for anything but violence. Shooting. Cowardice from a moving car.

Certainly, whoever did this was alienated from their community, else they wouldn’t have done this. People are by their nature self-preserving. They do most things because they get something out of it. My logic is getting all tangled around, I’m sure, because I’m so pissed off about this shooting — about all the shootings that have been going on. But it seems to me that people who feel they have a place in the world, who have a future ahead of them, who can clearly see how they are interconnected with one another, and who have positive, mutually beneficial relationships with others they care about, are not going to run around shooting other people from moving cars.

But, you may say, people are responsible for their life choices. They have to make wise decisions and act on them, and if they choose the lesser, then they should be caught and punished… possibly put away for a very long time. I’m not saying that isn’t true. I agree with it. Personal choice is critical in all this, and I do believe in finding, catching, and punishing wrong-doers. I hope whoever killed my friend’s nephew is found, tried, and sent away for good.

But if someone is so f’ed up by a long, long history of abuse and neglect, and thanks to many beatings and falls and fistfights, their brains have been altered in ways they’re unaware, so that they’re doing things and making choices whose reason escapes them, and their skills and abilities are eroded by lifetimes of neglect and misunderstanding and seemingly random punishment, what chance do they have of acquiring the ability, even skill, of assessing their behavior and their situation and figuring out how to set right what’s been wrong for so long?

I do think, based on my own experience, that head injury probably plays a much larger role in our society’s ills than we care to admit. Certainly trauma and post-traumatic stress does. We should probably look closer at it as a nation. I suspect we’ll have ample opportunities to do so, as our veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them with TBI and PTSD — and not all of them diagnosed and treated or supported in any way. I fear we are headed for social melt-down, even as our economic situation worsens waaaay past where we thought it would bottom out.

This is not to say that I think everyone who’s been hit on the head or suffers from PTSD gets a “pass” when it comes to bad — even evil — behavior. Some sh*t is precisely that — pure evil. The thing is, with brain injury, you don’t always know how evil your behavior is. It’s when you start to approach your injuries and deficits and learn to understand it and you get your broken head around the ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong and what you should and should not do, that you have the chance to examine your choices, become conscious about them, and become capable of taking responsibility for what you’ve done.

But until you can look at your injury and the after-effects, and come to terms with the person you’ve become as a result, you can’t really even start to approach the level of self-examination that’s so important, even vital, to responsible behavior.

My friend’s nephew is dead. It is a goddamned tragedy. Hearts have been broken, and some of them will never heal. This happens every day, all over this country… all over the world. And every time it happens, it is a tragedy. There’s no two ways around the awfulness of it all. But the worst thing of all is, this sh*t keeps happening, and we don’t seem to learn. We can’t seem to figure out how to stem the tide of this wretched self-destructiveness, and we can’t seem to figure out how to make our streets safe. Not just the nice streets in the nice neighborhoods, but all streets. In all neighborhoods.

I’m just one person looking on from something of a distance, but I am holding onto some hope. Maybe it’s easier for me to do it, because I’m not in the middle of my friend’s family’s pain. I’ve been in similar pain… and if nothing else, I cannot lose hold of hope.

I can only pray that maybe someday we’ll figure out ways to approach our social limitations with common sense and compassion, find the courage to reach out to ask for (and offer) much-needed help, and force ourselves to look at social ills not just as opportunities to capture and punish the anti-social dispossessed, but as gateways to greater understanding… Gateways that not only make it possible for us to understand, and sometimes forgive, but which force us to face up to the terrible things we have done… and change our ways.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic. I’m sure on some level I am. But after all I’ve been through and survived, after having come through so much wretched difficulty in my own life, after having won so much and achieved so much despite my limitations, I’m convinced, there are such things as miracles.

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