When things don’t turn out… as expected

sunset and clouds reflected in waterI can be really miserable to live with, when I wake up after a nap. Especially if I’ve slept more than 30 minutes. Resetting my system to regular life after being “down” is difficult.

A tired brain is an agitated brain, and that’s certainly true for me. Ever since my mTBI in 2004, I’ve been much more prone to anger when I’m tired. It’s neurological. And it’s not much fun.

Yesterday, I was pretty tired. And I was pretty agitated last evening. Cranky. Fighting over every little thing. Grousing and grumbling and having trouble with basic communication. Yelling was my default mode, last evening.

And we were supposed to be on vacation… My spouse and I had a 5-day vacation planned at a waterfront resort about 3 hours from our place. We’d planned on leaving at noon on Thursday, getting there around 3:00… unpack the car, go grab an early supper, and watch sunset over the water. Then we’d turn in, and have the next four days to chill out.

Well, none of that actually happened. My spouse couldn’t get up till noon — too tired. Okay… I adjusted. It did give me time to catch up on my own chores, packing, preparations. The three-hour drive turned into a 5-hour meander through the countryside, which was actually really nice. The weather was gorgeous, and we stopped at a little scenic spot where we relaxed and napped. So, I got about 30 minutes of sleep, which was great. I didn’t even realize how tired I was, till I put the seat back in the car and closed my eyes.

When we woke up, we drove to the resort town, stopping along the way to get some hot soup, which was delicious. It was getting late, so we skipped going to the condo and went right to the beach, where we watched an amazingly beautiful sunset that lasted for an hour, with the amazing afterglow.

Then we drove around some more, exploring the surrounding countryside in the dark. That might sound strange, but we love to do that. There are woody areas where wildlife comes out — we’ve seen foxes, coyotes, bats, raccoons, opossums in those woods, and we always like seeing what happens. We actually did see two big coyotes — one of them ran out in front of the car, but I braked in time. Whatever they’ve been eating, they’ve been well-nourished, that’s for sure.

We picked up some groceries at the local supermarket, then went on to our condo. The management folks just left the door open and a key on the dining room table. I parked in temporary parking and commenced hauling our 12 bags up the flight of stairs to the upstairs unit. We’d packed 5 clothing bags, 2 bags of books and laptop, 4 bags of food we brought, and one bag of beach shoes. That wasn’t counting the clothes on hangers or the beach supplies — we like to travel comfortably, and we also like to have our own food, so there’s always a lot to carry in.

My spouse was moving slowly, since they’ve got limited mobility, so I had everything in the unit before they got into the condo.

When they got inside, however, something was amiss. There was a strong chemical smell — and in fact, there was a sign out front announcing work being done by painters — interior and exterior. My spouse started to have a really bad allergic reaction, sneezing and coughing and throat closing up. It was really bad. We opened all the windows and got some fans running, but after an hour of that, it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to stay the night — or the whole long weekend.

So much for vacation.

There was no way we could stay. I was also starting to get a sick, throbbing headache, which wasn’t good. If a migraine gets hold of me, that’s pretty much the end of me, for days to come. Neither of us could chance it. So, I hauled our 12 bags back down to the car, we closed up the place, and came home.

We got  home around 2:00 a.m., which wasn’t bad, actually. And I got in bed by 2:30. I slept till around 8, so that was better than some nights, lately. I’ve been having trouble sleeping, so actually, Thursday night was kind of par for the course.

Except Friday I woke up even more exhausted than usual. Doing all that driving — about 8 hours, give or take — and packing and caretaking and attending and adjusting… it just took it out of me, and 5.5 hours of sleep didn’t patch things up. I had a little 1.5 hour nap in the afternoon, but again, that didn’t do much for me.

So, by Friday night, I was pretty agitated. I was off my regular schedule, which is always a challenge — even if it’s for doing fun things. And I was tired. And my spouse was upset about having to leave. I personally didn’t care about leaving. Vacations with them are never, ever relaxing. It’s one request after another, constantly helping them with… everything. Their mobility has gotten worse and worse, and their thinking is not great. They have not taken good care of themself, mentally, emotionally, or physically, and after years of neglect, it’s all coming to a head.

The whole experience is pretty crushing, actually. Watching someone you love with all your heart decline… and being helpless to stop the downward slide… that’s not my favorite thing. At all. There’s so much they could be doing, so much that we’ve discussed them doing, so much they intended to do, but can’t seem to do by themself… it just doesn’t get done. And they get worse and worse off, as time goes on. I have no idea how much longer this is going to go on, but when it’s all over, I doubt I’ll have any interest in re-marrying. It’s just one long slog for me, and I need a break.

But so it goes, sometimes. I’m not the first person to watch their beloved decline before their very eyes. But it still takes a lot out of me.

And that was probably one of the things that got to me so much yesterday. I was tired, yes. I was agitated, yes. And I was also heartbroken that my spouse can’t keep up. Through the results of their own choices, their own actions. It’s crushing to see that — and realize that you probably care about your beloved more than they care about themself.

But like I said, that’s how it goes, sometimes. I’ve had friends whose spouses completely bailed on taking care of themselves, too, and I’ve watched them either get divorced or just fade away. I’m in the latter category. I’m not getting divorced — I don’t have the heart to do that, just bail on my ailing spouse. I’m just going to watch all this slowly fade away.

And take care of myself in the process. Because I still have a lot of life in me, and I’m not about to let someone else’s choices bring me down. We all have choices to make, we all have ways we can help ourselves. I can’t always help others — even the person closest to me — but I can certainly help myself.

And so I shall.

Whatever else happens.

Vacation time

road leading into the distance, with country landscape surrounding it
The road ahead is a lot more straightforward than the road behind me was

I actually get a few days off work, starting today. Well, starting at 11:00 today — I have a meeting at 10:30 that I have to lead. But then, I’m done.

It’s been a really challenging time, lately. Morale is terrible at work, and it’s like wading through thick, sticky mud, trying to get anything done. My own morale is not great, I have to say, but I keep on with my work, regardless.  For me, the real pleasure comes from actually being able to DO the work. 10 years ago, that wasn’t the case. I was pretty much of a series of accidents waiting to happen.

  • My short-term working memory was shot.
  • I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me.
  • My ability to plan and follow through was negligible.
  • My temper was short, and the recovery time was long.
  • My spouse was afraid of me.
  • I couldn’t seem to keep a job for more than 9 months at a time – and that was pushing it, for me.

It’s all very different now, thank heavens. I’ve worked at it. I’ve rehabbed myself. I’ve pulled out all the stops to figure out how to restore myself to my former abilities — and the very positive thing is, I’ve actually exceeded my former abilities. I now have much better skills than I had before my mTBI-inducing accident in 2004. Because I could finally see what was going wrong with me, I got help from someone who could assist me, and I worked at it.

Every single day.

It was my other full-time job.

I have to constantly keep this in mind, because it’s so easy to forget. I get caught up in my daily life, I get wrapped up in my everyday experiences, and I lose sight of the fact of how far I’ve come. I get tired. Every day, I’m wiped out at the end of it all, which makes it difficult to be thankful for anything. It makes it difficult to even think or keep my temper cool. Lately, I’ve been snapping a little more in the evening than I’d like, and that’s got to stop.

I’m hoping a good vacation will help with that. Even if it’s just for a long weekend at a waterfront down three hours away. It’s something. It’s a break from the regular grind. And it’s a much-needed “reset” for both myself and my spouse.

So, as I go through my daily life, these days, surrounded by people who are none too happy to be at work and who are deeply fearful about their future, I think about how much I have to be grateful for. I think about how much better I’m doing that I was in 2007. And I think about how much farther I have to go.

Once upon a time, all my dreams had evaporated. Once upon a time, I could see no clear path forward. Once upon a time, my life was collapsing around me, and I didn’t know why.

It’s not like that, anymore.

I’ve come a long, long way.

And I never want to lose sight of that.

Emotional/Behavioural Changes after Brain Injury – Part 1

lightning striking the ground under dark clouds
Sometimes the storm seems to come out of nowhere.

From The Toronto Acquired Brain Injury Network.

My comments are in bold like this.

Emotional/Behavioural Changes

Some people are left with changes in emotional reaction or behaviour after a brain injury. These are more difficult to see than physical or cognitive changes. However, they can be the most difficult for the person and their family to deal with.

BB: I had no idea that a TBI would affect me emotionally, or change the way I acted. Like so many people, I figured that a bump on the head was just an external thing. I'd feel pain on my scalp, and maybe I'd feel a little woozy, but it would clear up in a few minutes... or hours. How wrong I was - so many times. Emotional and behavioral issues have been the bane of my existence (and my family's) for years and years, starting back in my childhood when my behavior was erratic, and my emotions were volatile.

Not everybody will experience these problems and their severity will also vary.

BB: The severity can vary from person to person, as well as from situation to situation. With me, I can be fine, one day... be not-so-great (but seem fine), the next... and then completely lose it a few days later. It's often cumulative, but nobody on the outside sees it building up. That happens inside. Where nobody can see. And when it erupts... hooo boy.
fireball explosion
The problem for me, is that when I blow up, it puts people off, and then they think that's how I always am... and then they walk on eggshells about it, all the time.

And I sometimes never get a second chance, because they've made up their minds about me in a negative way.

Agitation

This frequently occurs at a very early stage after the injury. It can be a coping mechanism for the person, who may be disorientated and very confused. It is most often a stage a person passes through, rather than a permanent change. Examples include: restlessness, pacing and pulling at intravenous tubes.

BB: I've been extremely fortunate to never having had intravenous tubes to pull at, but I know the feeling of not being able to sit still, being extremely agitated - especially after a TBI. A number of times, I can recollect getting hit in the head, and then being flooded with agitation and an overpowering need to MOVE! Like when I got hurt during an informal pick-up soccer game in high school, after the hit, when I was lying there, dazed and confused, I suddenly felt like I'd been given super-powers, and I leaped up and started playing like a crazy person. I don't think I played better than I had before I got hit, but I felt like I did. And I was ON FIRE - or so I thought.

In another soccer game, when I got my bell rung, I knew I'd been hurt, but I felt this incredible urge to GET UP AND GO!!! And I started racing around the field -- in the wrong direction, no less. I nearly scored on my own team, which I think was a red flag for everybody on the sidelines. I did get taken out of that game, and I paced the sidelines in confusion and anger, because I NEEDED TO BE IN THERE! But it was wise to pull me from the game. I was not in good shape, at all.

So, while agitation may be a coping mechanism for some, as they say above, I suspect it also has to do with the mechanism of the brain - the release of all those chemicals, and the general confusion that causes. The brain is trying to figure things out - plus, it's firing on ALL cylinders, like there's no tomorrow. In addition to being a behavioral coping mechanism, it's a result of the brain's basic function.

Explosive anger and irritability

If there has been damage to the part of the brain that controls emotional behaviour and the ability to tolerate frustration, emotions can swing to extremes. The stress of coping with even minor crises, such as misplaced shoes or a noisy vacuum cleaner, can be too much and trigger an angry outburst. If these stresses can be identified, it may be possible to reduce them.

BB: Amen to this. The part of the brain that controls emotions is particularly susceptible, as it's out in front and there are so many types of injury that can affect it. Car accidents, where your brain slams up against the inside of the skull... or tackles that snap your head back and forth... falls, etc. Minor events can turn into crises -- just being blindsided by a sudden change or something unexpected happening, can set me off. Little things can turn into huge things, in an instant. One minute, I'm fine, then all of a sudden, it's off to the races with emotional overload and over-reaction.
galloping horse
Prolonged stress will also do a number on me, as will fatigue. The more tired I am, the more irritable I get - a tired brain is an agitated brain. And when I get too agitated, it's not cool.

Sudden outbursts... extreme reactions... it's all part of a day in the life for me, sometimes. Unless I can get enough sleep and take good care of myself. If I can keep on my schedule and be smart about eating and drinking enough water, that helps. So does meditation and just taking time to chill out. 

Lack of awareness and insight

The ability to recognize your own behaviours and change them when needed is a sophisticated skill that can be affected by brain injury. This can affect someone’s ability to: be self-aware; have insight into the effects of personal actions; show sensitivity; or feel empathy. It also means that a person may not fully appreciate or understand the effect that the accident is having on their life, health or family.

BB: I honestly had no idea how my TBI was affecting my household, back in 2005. I'd gotten injured at the end of 2004, and 2005 was the start of the downhill slide. I became incredibly self-centered and obsessed with myself. Small wonder - I had to recover and build myself back up, as my Sense-Of-Self had taken a huge hit. I didn't know who I was or what I was about, anymore, and it was devastating. I didn't recognize myself, and I was so caught up in figuring it out inside my head, that I never realized the extent of the changes on people closest to me (who were outside my head).

It took talking with someone on a regular basis about what was going on with me, to help me see what an ass**** I was being, and to do something about it. Until I started talking to a neuropsych on a regular basis, I had no way to understand myself and objectively examine my behavior, because nobody I talked to actually understood how TBI affects the mind, body, and spirit... so they made all kinds of flawed assumptions about who I was and how I was. It was incredibly unhelpful for me, and it did more harm than good. 

I got lucky. A lot of others don't have that opportunity. And that's a damned shame. It's criminal, really.

I’ll continue this post in Part 2. Watch this space for notifications.

Source: www.headway.org.uk

Source: Emotional/Behavioural Changes | ABI Network

After TBI or concussion – slower brain, craving stress

brain-firingOne of the amazing things about the brain is that it has an uncanny ability to get what it needs in the short term, but which actually hurt you in the long-term.

After injury, it can push you to do things that will feed its immediate need, but the ultimate result is just not good.

Take stress, for example. And danger. And risk-taking activities. All those things look like either bad habits or a taste for self-destruction. But actually, it can be the brain seeking out the pump of energy it needs to function.

After TBI or concussion, the brain’s “tonic arousal” (its general level of wakefulness) can be negatively impacted. The brain is literally more “sleepy” and doesn’t respond as quickly as it once did. Many concussed folks complain of feeling slower than before their injury, and while there may be a number of different reasons for that, tonic arousal can be a big component.

So, what does our brain do? It seeks out opportunities to come alive — to feel like itself again. WOO HOO! And for a little while, when we’re stressed out over our procrastinations, or our altercations with others, or our other poor decisions made in the heat of the moment, we actually do feel alive. We feel like ourselves.

The only problem is, stress and drama actually keep us from learning. The parts of our brain that need energy and information can be literally shut off, when we’re under extreme duress. And as a result, we can end up repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

Because A) We haven’t had the chance to learn from our last mistakes, and

B) There’s a part of us that actually thrives on those stressful situations.

So, it’s a vicious cycle.

And it applies not only to folks with TBI and concussion, but also those with ADD/ADHD, PTSD, or other brain-related issues that slow them down. When you need to go faster, your brain will do what it needs to get its requirements met. The only problem is, over the long term, this can be… just a little disastrous.

You can read more about this here at:

A Perilous Relief

Just something to keep in mind…

Overcoming overstimulation

Lots going on...

I’ve got a big trip coming up next weekend — I’m taking nearly a week to go see family in several states… kind of a follow-up trip to make up for not having been there for the holidays (I was sick and couldn’t travel). There will be lots of driving, lots of activity, lots of interacting with relatives I haven’t seen in many years. There will be a family reunion with relatives, some of whom care about me, others of whom couldn’t care less about me. There will be time with siblings as well as aunts and uncles and cousins. All together in one big melting pot for the weekend.

This is coming on top of some very busy times at work. I’m a bit apprehensive, because I’ve been tired and I’ve had trouble sleeping, and I am concerned that it might affect my ability to deal with my family. I also worry that it will affect my ability to deal with my spouse, who is not a big fan of most of my family. We come from very different backgrounds, and my spouse is not always the most open-minded individual when it comes to differences.

I know I shouldn’t stress over this, but I am a little bit. I have to get a bunch of things done for work before I go — it’s really BAD timing, but there it is. My workload is just crazy, these days, and it will be until mid-September. Then it will probably pick up again through the end of the year. It’s hard to believe July is almost over. August is so packed, it might as well not even exist. Just busy, busy, busy all around.

But it’s a good thing. It beats the alternative. I’ve become a key contributor on some important initiatives, so that keeps me going and it gives me a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself. And I have to keep that in mind. It’s another way of looking at it — it’s a good thing, that going away for a few days is a problem. Because if it weren’t I’d be in trouble.

Likewise, if I think about the upcoming trip with my relatives, one of the reasons it promises to be so full, is that so many people want to see me. They want to talk to me, to find out how I’m doing, to tell me about their lives. They want to share a lot with me, and they don’t realize how overwhelming it can be for me. Over-stimulation has resulted in me going temporarily deaf and blind — I was with extended family members who were very high-strung, and there was so much going on, my system just shut down, and for a short time (maybe 10-15 seconds), I couldn’t see or hear anything. Everything just went silent and black. I came back (of course) and felt dazed and confused. I suspected it might have been some sort of seizure, but then I got checked out, and everything seemed to be fine, actually. So, it was probably just the overwhelm.

Thinking back on that day, which was about six months before I figured out the TBI connections to the difficulties I’ve had in my life, I can think of a number of things that made it more difficult, overstimulating and overwhelming:

  1. I was extremely anxious about a lot of things — if I was wearing the right sorts of clothing (people around me were much better dressed than I, and I felt self-conscious in my jeans and t-shirt).
  2. I was pretty brittle and inflexible in my expectations for the day — I wasn’t going with the flow, and when the group kept changing plans, I got increasingly uptight.
  3. I wasn’t eating properly — I wasn’t eating the same sorts of foods I normally did.
  4. I wasn’t resting enough — I had been pushing myself to go-go-go, the whole time, and I was very fatigued.
  5. I wasn’t exercising enough — I wasn’t exercising at all, actually. I hadn’t been taking the walks I needed, and I hadn’t been working out regularly the way I have been over the past couple of years.
  6. I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses — Big problem on that very sunny day. The brightness only exacerbated everything else, adding to my anxiety and stress.
  7. I wasn’t in command of my thoughts and my reactions — I was being pushed and pulled in a million different directions, and I wasn’t driving the car of my own mind. I was letting everyone else decide for me how to think, how to talk, how to behave. I was trying to fit in and do the right thing so I wouldn’t be as conspicuous (and embarrassing) to my extended family/in-laws. The result was that I stood out even more, I was less able to participate, and I lost it (literally) for a short while that day.

Looking back, I can see how I’ve really come a long way in the past 4 years. I’m nowhere near where I used to be, and I have to remember this as I prepare for this next trip. My anxiety levels have decreased dramatically since I started exercising on a daily basis. And my whole world view has changed as a result. My neuropsych has been a huge help, keeping me honest and realistic — in a good way. They don’t let me get away with the old “stories” about how debilitated I am by my TBIs. They don’t let me easily jump to conclusions about being incapable and incompetent, just because I happen to be human. And they don’t let me make excuses about poor choices I’ve made and things I’ve done. They don’t beat me up over it, but they also don’t let me write myself off with some easy excuse about being impaired.

And that’s quite a feat to accomplish. Because I have a lifetime of experience of reaching the “logical” conclusion that there is something wrong with me, and I am less capable than I actually am. I’ve had plenty of people telling me there was something wrong with me. I’ve had plenty of people “protecting” me from myself. I’ve had plenty of people ditching me or taking me off tasks when I didn’t perform as expected.

It was all a crock, but when you hear it often enough and everyone seems to agree, it starts to sound like the truth.

But it’s not. It’s the farthest thing from the truth.

The real truth is that I have the tools and the experience and the proper mindset to approach this coming weekend in a stable, productive frame of mind. I’ve managed equally — if not more — challenging situations quite well, and I’ve come away a better person as a result.

I know from experience that I don’t have to bury myself in work in advance, trying to keep my mind off things. I don’t have to run away from it, drive myself with all sorts of stress that takes my attention off my anxiety. I can rest and relax and also get good exercise in advance. Eat well and take care of myself, and remember that I’m going to meet and greet people who actually love and care for me, even if they don’t always agree with how I live my life and vote.

That might actually be the hardest thing to handle — that anyone could actually love and care for me. That all my injuries and my issues and my supposed shortcomings might not matter nearly as much as I think they do. It could just be that I have a great time when I go on this trip. It could just be that the only over-stimulation is actually in my mind. And that if I can tame that, all the rest will come naturally to me.

It could be…

concussion now i’m stupid

Someone visited this blog yesterday with the search “concussion now i’m stupid” and it seems like it’s in the air.

I had a great day Saturday — I had a very social day, and I was out and about in town, which rarely happens with me. I either don’t have the time, or I don’t make the time, or I find a hundred other things to do that are more interesting than interacting with other people in a city.

But Saturday, I took a bunch of chances, and I had a ton of interactions that were really positive and encouraging.

Sunday, on the other hand, was a huge challenge. I wasn’t able to rest as much as I had wanted/planned, and I was really feeling the effects of all the exertion on Saturday. Even if the exertion was good and positive, it was still exertion, and I didn’t remember to rest.

One of my big problems is, when I get over-tired, I often forget to self-monitor. That happened to my yesterday. So, I ran into trouble.

With a Capital T. Had a huge meltdown yesterday. As in — rage and tears and being stuck in a loop of anger and shame and frustration and resentment. I hate when that happens. I could feel it coming on, and I thought I could stop it, but I couldn’t. It was like a repeat tsunami of unwanted overwrought emotion. Waters pulling out, then washing in and wrecking everything in its path. Emotion pulling out, then rushing back in and leveling everything in its way.  It came and went for about three hours, and it totally screwed me up — and my spouse. Not pretty at all. And I’m still “hungover” from it this morning.

Ugh.

Looking back on things with a less emotional eye, one of the things that complicated my situation yesterday was that insidious little voice in the back of my head that managed to find everything I’d done “wrong” on Saturday, amplified it about a thousand times, and then commenced to tell me You’re So Brain-Damaged and Stupid. Who would ever love or care about you? You’re such an idiot – you had a concussion — no, wait, you had a bunch of concussions – and now you’re stupid. You’re so stupid you don’t even know how stupid you are.

Stupid.

Well, you get the idea. And sure enough, as always happens when that voice gets going, before long, I was at war with the world, at war with myself, at war with my spouse, at war with my job, at war with everything and everyone who came anywhere near me.

concussion now i’m stupid…

My thinking is too slow, I’m not sharp and quick like I used to be, I’m not even funny anymore (and I used to be a laugh and a half all the time), and who would want to bother with me?

Geez.

It’s bad enough that I have to contend with the physical and logistical issues, but when that voice gets going… well, the only thing to do is go to bed.

I managed to do that eventually, but not on my own steam. I had to be guided to bed and put away like a cholicky baby. I friggin’ hate when I’m reduced to that. But when I’m in the midst of that storm/tsunami, I cannot for the life of me pull myself out.

For future reference, I need to keep the image of the tsunami in my mind, when I feel it coming up. So I can get to higher ground. Tell my spouse I need to take a break, and remove myself to my bedroom or study, to simmer down. Just get myself out of the way of the wave. Maybe go out for a walk in the woods. I did that yesterday at the end of the day,  and it helped tremendously. Yes, the walk in the woods — climbing up to the top of the nearest big hill — helps me a whole lot.

I also have to have a talk with my spouse about this TBI business – it’s not okay for them to talk to me like I’m an idiot, which is what they’ve been doing more and more over the past year. Apparently, they seem to think that because my memory is a bit spotty at times, and my processing speed has slowed, I’ve lost my innate intelligence. Either that, or they have always acted this way, and I’ve just recently stopped allowing myself to be intimidated into hiding my issues from them. That’s always a possibility.

So, there are three main issues I am contending with — the wave of emotion that cannot and will not be stopped and can only be avoided until it calms down… the voice in my head that tells me I’m stupid… and the voice I live with that tells me I’m impaired. The first one, I just have to be mindful of and learn to avoid being swept away. The second one, I have to either ignore or actively argue with. The third I have to have a serious talk with — and possibly involve my neuropsych to explain to my spouse that my relative weaknesses are manageable and don’t mean I’m reduced to a simpleminded shadow of my old self. Some days it feels like that — like yesterday — but it’s not the truth of the matter.

But ultimately, the bottom line is, here’s the #1 Lesson I (re)learned over the weekend:

I have to pace myself. If I have a big day, even if it is a really good big day, I need to take the next day OFF and SLEEP. Rest. For real. Nothing else matters. No distracting entertainment is worth the price I’ll pay for exhaustion.

Achieving more by doing less

I am really resisting writing this post, but I have to put it out there for the sake of honesty — and also to get it into my head that this is the way things are now.

It’s not that what I’m thinking about is a bad thing, or even an unpleasant thing. It’s a new thing — a true thing — that I’ve been resisting for as long as I can remember, much to the dismay of my family, my coworkers, and my neuropsych.

I hate having to admit that I have been wrong, and they have been right… but in this case at least, I have to admit it:

I get more accomplished, when I do less.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal, to admit it. What’s the big deal?

Well, people have been “on” me for years, that I do too much. I take on too much. I have too much on my plate. I’m spread too thin. My spouse has been lecturing me for years, that I don’t relax enough and I have too many projects going on. We’ve actually had some pretty bad fights about it. I defended my hyper-busy-ness with every fiber of my being, till the bitter end, and it’s not helped our marriage at all. But I was convinced that I was right, in having twelve balls in the air. I felt so energized. Like I could do anything. And it never seemed like there was a problem. If I didn’t finish things, so what? They were boring, I told myself. And I needed a fresh start.

Well, that outlook has modified somewhat over the past couple of years that I’ve been working with my neuropsych.  Taking a long, hard look at my patterns on a regular basis, I’ve realized that being super-busy is often a direct result of anxiety. It’s not about positive exuberance. It’s not about having a vision of a future I can eagerly step into fully and with all confidence. It’s about existential angst that is welling up and driving me ahead of it, like a wild stagecoach driver whipping the team of horses into a mad gallop… in the meantime not holding the reins or guiding them in any particular direction.

This mad gallop is plain to everyone else’s discernment. It’s obviously a ploy on my part to avoid life, rather than engage with it. But it is disguised from my view by something in my perception that interprets a mad dash towards whatever comes to mind as a positive and life-affirming thing ;}

Over the years, countless people have tried to get me to stop and look at what I was doing, but I resisted — and resented — their “interference” with my grand plans. I wasn’t planning, of course. I was just flying willy-nilly in every and all directions, for the sake of flying willy-nilly. Nothing more. And when I got to a point where I couldn’t continue with what I was doing, I’d drop it… and then wonder, sometimes years later, why I ever quit what I was doing, if I was so devoted to it.

Crazy.

Well, as I mentioned, that’s been changing over the past year or so. Once I started logging all my activities and tracking them — for real, not in some quasi-reflective journal entry that rambled on about this and that for pages on end — I started seeing what was really going on in my life, and I wasn’t pleased. I looked back on all the projects I’d started — each one seeming like the thing that was going to catapult me to greatness and/or solve all my personal problems through professional success. What I saw was not greatness, but whatever-ness. Oh, man… what a wakeup call.

And I started to admit that maybe I was spending an awful lot of time on things for the wrong reasons. Maybe I was spreading myself too thin. No… obviously I was spreading myself  too thin. Judging by what little I was getting done versus what lots I was putting into my efforts, my approach was not effective. It was downright disastrous.

So, I decided to change things up. I swept a whole bunch of projects off my plate. I trimmed the fat off my docket considerably, tabling projects I thought would be cool, but obviously demanded a lot more time and energy and manpower than I could muster. I decided to do without a lot of the lists I made for myself. I also quit imagining I was going to have these multiple career paths, and be able to pick and choose between the cream of the crop, on down the line, whenever I chose to switch my path.

And it was working out pretty well. Suddenly, I had a lot more time to devote to my pet projects — the really pet ones, that is. I could focus more on the details that had slipped by me before. And I had a lot more bandwidth to do the things I enjoyed during my free time. Sleep hasn’t appealed to me much over the past months, because I was still totally into the idea that I could continue to keep up a blistering pace on a select few things — for the fun of it. Literally. I felt really “on” at work — I felt like I was really making headway and was taking the tiger by the tail.  Woo hoo – right?

Um… not so much. Now, months on down the line, I find myself worn out, all turned around by myriad details that once seemed so clear to me, and not delivering at the rate my boss wants me to. My thinking is not clear, my relationships at work are suffering, I feel like I’m slipping into a hole of my own digging, and I’m battling to get myself out. I find myself taxed and tapped, angry and raging and resentful and antagonistic and defensive and increasingly volatile… saying things I wish I hadn’t… and my marriage and work situation are both suffering as a result.

Here, I’d thought I was supporting my family and my coworkers better by driving myself like a crazyperson, taking on all sorts of tasks, when all I was doing was driving myself — and my spouse and my coworkers — crazy.

Which brings me to what I’ve been learning — the hard way — over the past couple of weeks.

I actually perform better, and I accomplish more, when I do less.

… As in, when I work in intervals — planning and thinking things through ahead of time, then mustering my energy and tackling tasks with full attention and focus.

… As in, when I spend less time on busy-work, and I devote the bulk of my attention to strategic and tactical planning and implementation, saving my logistical energy for select tasks — no more than two or three a day.

Indeed, I do better, when I tackle less of the little niggling details work that’s just filler for my time and is more about my brain thinking such-and-such is important, when it’s not really.

And I accomplish more when I don’t insist on taking on this mountain of everything by myself, as I’ve always been prone to do.

Truly, the practice of only doing 2-3 significant things a day, when I used to tackle at least five-to-ten times that amount, is a huge change for me. It’s a difficult change… An unsettling turn of events. It makes me nervous — incredibly anxious. I feel like I should be doing something. But during those stretches when I’m “doing something” to the tune of 20 deliverables a day, and I look back on my notes about what I actually accomplished, well, the results are a lot less impressive, than my fantastical plans.

But if I break it all down and pick and choose from the things I need to get done and don’t worry about the other things, till I get the most immediate couple of things done, it’s friggin’ magic, man.  I get waaaaaay more accomplished if I take things 2 and 3 tasks at a time and do them in an extremely focused and intense fashion, than if I “pace myself” and take on 20-3o items (no joke) at a “reasonable pace”.

They say timing is everything. It’s true. It’s even more true that the right timing in the right way for the person in question is more-than-everything. Some people can go slow and steady through a mountain of small details. I, on the other hand, drown in those details. Just like there are slow-twitch muscles that long-distance runners use, and fast-twitch muscles that sprinters use, I’m more of a fast-twitch kind of person. And if I slow down to go at a “reasonable” pace, I’m toast.

So, there we have it. I’ve had my helping of crow for the day. I have to admit, it feels good to say/write it out loud, but it’s been a long time coming. And I have a lot of work to do, to reverse the damage that’s come from ignoring and denying the truth about how I work best — and worst. But reverse this, I will. I’m the comeback kid. I’m not going to quit till I get where I need to be.

Even though I know it’s good for me and it’s the only way I can really work effectively, the idea of only doing a few things  a day still makes me intensely anxious. I don’t expect to get used to it overnight.

But you know what? Doing a little bit at a time in a very focused, intentional way gets me there. And since actually getting there is what matters to me (and my spouse and my coworkers and my boss) — even more than the “journey” on the way — that’s what I’ve got to focus on. Results. For real. Not plans and methodologies. Results. What works. What works for me.

Onward.

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.

Doing it differently this holiday season

I did something quite unusual last night — I went Christmas shopping by myself at a much slower pace than usual. I didn’t manage to buy everything I set out to, but I got everything I could, and I got through the experience in one coherent piece — and I was able to get my nap after I got back.

Normally, this time of year is marked by team-shopping with my spouse. They contact everyone in the family and find out what people want… or we talk about what we think people want, and then they make up the list. We take the list, hop in the car, and head out to stores that look like good candidates, then we slog through the process of elimination, muddling our way through… with me getting so fried I either completely shut down and become non-communicative, or I melt down and fly off the handle over every little thing.

We usually spend several evenings like this, ’round about this time of year, and we’ve both come to dread it a little. My meltdowns had become more extreme over the past few years, and this year we were both really dreading the whole Christmas shopping business — to the point where we are going to be late(!) with presents for family members in other states. That’s never happened before. We were always good about it. But my meltdowns screwed everything up.

We both recognize that doing a lot of social things, this time of year (when work is actually getting more crazy, what with year-end and all), takes a huge toll on me. Even if it’s with friends (especially with friends), all the activity, all the interaction, all the excitement, really cuts into my available energy reserves. And then I get turned around and anxious… and I either regress to a cranky 9-year-old state, whining and bitching and slamming things around… or I melt down, start yelling, freak out over every little thing, and start picking at my spouse over things they say and do, to the point where neither of us can move without me losing it.

What a pain in the ass it is. Of all things, the uncontrollable weeping bothers me the most. The yelling bothers my spouse. It’s embarrassing for me and frightening for them, and neither of us has a very Merry Christmas, when all is said and done.

So, this year we did things differently.

We split up for the day and took care of our respective activities.

My spouse went to a holiday party that was thrown by a colleague of theirs who’s married to an attorney who deals with financial matters. I was invited, too, but we both realized that it would be pretty dumb for me to try to wade into the midst of 50+ actuaries and tax attorneys and their spouses who were invited to the shindig… and try to hold my own. Certainly, I can keep up with the best of them, but marinating in such a heady soup, especially with everyone hopped up on holiday cheer (eggnog, red wine, punch, etc.) and all animated and such, would have been a recipe for disaster.

So, I didn’t go. Instead, I took our shopping list and headed to the mall to stock up on what our families had requested. We had written down in advance all the names and the specific gifts we were going to get, and we had also written down where we were going to get them. That list was my lifeline. Especially in the rush and press of the mall, which sprawls out in all directions, with satellite stores on either end.

I’m happy to report that I actually did really well. I made a few tactical errors — like not parking in the first lot I came to and walking in. But that turned out okay, because if I had parked in the first lot, it would have been all but impossible to get down to the other end of the mall. I studied the list carefully ahead of time and used a highlighter to mark the stores where I’d be going. I also kept my focus trained on the task at hand — even if it was just sitting in traffic. I also walked a lot more this year than other years. I found one parking space and used it for two different stores. And I didn’t hassle with finding a space that was as close as I could get to the building. I took the first decent spot I could find, and then I walked to the store.

Imagine that — in past years, I was possessed with finding parking as close as possible, and I would move the car between stores, even if they were only 500 yards apart.  This year, I just walked the distance. Even though it was cold, for some reason the cold didn’t bother me, and it actually felt good to be out and moving.

I think that my 5 months  of daily exercise has paid off, in this respect. I think part of the reason I was always consumed with driving everywhere was that I just wasn’t physically hardy. I was kind of a wimpy weakling, in fact — though more in thought than in body, but a wimply weakling, all the same. But having a good physical foundation — even just from doing an hour (total) of cycling, stretching, and light lifting each morning — has made a significant difference in my willingness and ability to walk between stores.

It might not seem like much, but the walking (instead of driving) between stores part of the trip actually made a huge difference in my overall experience. Walking between stores — stopping at the car on the way to stash my presents — helped me break up the activity and clear my head. It got me out of that in-store madness, the crush and the rush, and it got me moving, so I felt less backed-up and agitated. And that let me start fresh at the next store.

That was good, because the first store was a friggin’ nightmare. It was one of those big-box electronics places, that supposedly has “everything” but really didn’t. It was exhausting, combing through the stacks of movies and music, only to find everything except what I needed. The lighting was awful — extremely bright and fluorescent and glaring. People kept bumping into me, or walking so close I thought they would run me down. But the worst thing was the acoustics. Everything surface was hard and echo-y and the place was overwhelmingly loud, and every single sound was at least partially distinguishable, which drove me nuts. I’ve noticed that acoustics have a lot more impact on me than light, when I’m out shopping. The store was one big cauldron of loud, indiscriminate noise, and my brain kept trying to follow every sound to see if it mattered. I couldn’t function there. Not with the place full of people — and very agitated, anxious, aggressive people, at that.

I eventually went with a gift card and got the hell out of there. I doubt I’ll ever go back when it’s that full. When the place is low-key and all but empty, I can handle it much better. But at this time of year? Not so much.

Walking back to my car chilled me out. Sweet relief.

At the second store — a bookstore — I started to feel pretty overwhelmed. They had long lines, and the place was packed — which is good for the retailer, but not so great for me. I spent the longest amount of time there, in part because I could feel I was getting overloaded, and I stopped a number of times to catch up with myself and remind myself what I was there to buy. My list was getting a little ragged, at that point, what with me writing notes in the margins and taking it out/putting it back in my pocket. So, eventually I just pulled it out and held onto it for dear life. I must have looked a little simple-minded, but I don’t care. Everyone else was so caught up in their own stuff, anyway. My main challenge there, was not getting trampled by Women On A Mission — many of them carrying large bags and shopping baskets that doubled as ramrods to get through the crowds.

One cool thing happened, though, when I was taking a break — I had a little exchange I had with two teenage boys who were talking about some book they’d heard about. I was just standing there, pretending to look at a shelf of books, just trying to get my bearings, when I hear this one young guy tell his buddy, “I heard about this book I should get — I think it’s called the ‘Kama Sutra’ and it’s, like, about sex, and it’s got these pictures… and it’s really old… like, from India or something.”

Well, I perked up at that, and suddenly very alert, I looked over at them and said, “Oh, yeah — the Kama Sutra, man… You should definitely check it out.”

They kind of looked at me like deer in headlights, and they got flushed and flustered and stammered something about not knowing how to find it. It was about sex, and they didn’t know how to ask someone to help them. I so felt their pain…

I confidently (and confidentially) pointed them to the book-finder computer kiosk, where they could type in the title and it would tell them where to find it in the store.

“Dude, you should totally look into it. It’s got lots of information — and pictures — and it’s been highly recommended… for hundreds of years.”

They got really excited and headed for the book-finder kiosk. Here’s hoping they — and their girlfriends — have a very Merry Christmas.

That little exchange got me back in the game, so I took another look at my list and managed to find the handful of books and music and calendars I wanted to get. I headed for the line and just chilled/zoned out. I didn’t get all tweaked about how long it was taking; I listened in on a conversation for a while, till I realized it was mostly about death and health problems people were having.

Oh – and another thing that helped me keep my act together, was the 4:15 p.m. alarm that I have set on my mobile phone. 4:15 is usually when I need to start wrapping up my day at work. I need to do a checkpoint on the work I’m doing, start to wind down, and begin keeping an eye on the clock, so I don’t get stuck in town past 6:00, which is what happens to me when I don’t watch my time after 3:30 or so. I have this alarm set to go off each day, and it went off while I was in the store, which was a blessing. I had completely lost track of time and I was starting to drift, the way I do, when I’m fatigued and overloaded and disoriented.

It startled me out of my fog, and I knew I still had a bunch of things on my list to get, so I refocused and started thinking about what I would get at the next store, so I could just march in and do my shopping without too much confusion and disorientation. After I paid for my books and music and calendar, I debated whether to have my presents wrapped for free, which might have saved me time in the long run. But I couldn’t bear the thought of having to interact with the folks who were doing the wrapping. They looked really friendly and gregarious — Danger Will Robinson! Warning! Warning! Even a friendly conversation was beyond me at that point.

I realized I just wasn’t up to that, and I must have looked like an idiot, standing there in the middle of the foyer, staring at the gift-wrappers for about 10 minutes, but who cares? Everyone was so caught up in their own stuff, they probably didn’t notice me. And if the gift-wrappers were uncomfortable with my staring, they didn’t show it… too much 😉

Anyway, after I managed to extricate myself from that store, I headed for my last destination. Again, I didn’t sweat the traffic getting out of the lot, and when I got to the final store, I parked at a distance from the front doors and walked in through the icy cold, which was good — it cleared my head.

Inside, I consulted my list again and headed directly for the section that had what I needed. Halfway there, I remembered that I’d meant to buy a very important present at the first store, but I’d totally blanked on it. I started to freak out and got caught up in trying to figure out how to get back to that first store and not lose my mind in the process.  Then, I slowed down and stopped catastrophizing, and in my calming mind, it occurred to me that — Oh, yeah — they probably carried that item at this store, so I went and checked, and sure enough, there it was – score! I didn’t have to back to big-box hell. At least, not that day.

I found some more of the presents on my list, and although I didn’t get everything I needed, I made a decent dent. My partner can come with me and help me sort out the other items either today or tomorrow. Or possibly when we get to our family — they usually have some last-minute shopping to do, and they can cart us around with them. And I won’t have to drive.

By the time I got home, I was bushed. My spouse wasn’t home yet, so I called them — they were on their way home and were stopping to pickup some supper. I said I was lying down for a nap, and they didn’t have to wake me when they got home. Then I took a hot shower to get the public germs off me, laid down, and listened to Belleruth Naparstek’s Stress Hardiness Optimization CD. I had a bit of trouble relaxing and getting down, but I did manage to get half an hour’s sleep in, before I woke up in time for dinner.

My partner had a pretty good time at the party, but they said it probably would have been a disaster for me — so many people, so much energy, so many strangers, and unfamiliar surroundings. I concurred, and I showed them what I’d bought that afternoon.

We’d both done well. We both missed each other terribly, but we did get through the afternoon without one of those terrible holiday incidents that has dogged us for many, many years. Like Thanksgiving, which went so well, this Christmas shopping trip actually felt normal. It didn’t have that old edginess that I always associate with holiday shopping. It didn’t have the constant adrenaline rush. In some respects, it feels strange and unfamiliar, but you know what? If strange and unfamiliar means level-headed and low-key and plain old sane, and it means I can keep my energy up and pace myself with proper planning… well, I can get used to that.

Yes, I’ve done things differently this year. And it’s good.

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.