One day at a time, one experience at a time… TBI recovery over the long term

brain with lots of question marks
How DO you work your way back?

I haven’t been doing nearly as much blogging, lately, as I used to.

Time was, I’d get up, do my exercise, eat my breakfast, and then spend 30 minutes or so blogging before I got my shower and went to work. I did this (almost) without fail, each and every day. And on weekends, when I had more time, I’d blog even more.

I researched. I wrote. I commented. I actively committed to sharing information about my life to everyone who might find it useful in their own recovery from traumatic brain injury, or in helping someone else who was recovering.

And it was good. It kept me going. It gave me a sense of purpose — a mission, if you will. This went on for a number of years. And yes, it was good.

Lately, I find myself wishing I were blogging, more than I really am. There are a lot of thoughts in my head, but it’s hard for me to sort them out, these days. I don’t think I’m declining cognitively… if anything, I think I’m doing much better than I have in a long, long time — maybe ever. The difference seems to be that I’m handling more on a daily basis. I have more challenges in my work life and home life. I have more responsibilities and more accountability. And that takes more energy from me, to handle everything well.

So, as I volunteer more, as I take on more responsibilities at work, as I gear up for my next career move, as I read more and am more active, I get tired more… so, I need to rest more. And I also have less opportunity for blogging.

And from where I’m sitting, that’s a good thing.

Here’s the thing though — in the midst of doing all that I’m doing, I really need to check in and show the rest of the world that recovery after mild TBI is possible. Recovery of a really high-quality life is possible after multiple concussions. And even when you sink as low as you think you can go, there’s still the chance (however remote) that you can get back.

I used to be pretty active on Twitter, but not so much, anymore. Frankly, it depresses me. It seems like all the concussion and TBI talk is around sports, especially pro football, hockey, Aussie football, etc. Despite the fact that countless non-athletic folks sustain mild TBIs from falls, assaults, and motor vehicle accidents, the talk is still focused on pro sports. Lawsuits. Who’s to blame for CTE in football players… and all that.

And it does the conversation a disservice. Because not only does it accentuate the dire nature of concussion — which just puts fear in the hearts of people everywhere (and possibly makes people less inclined to report or seek treatment) — but it also diverts the attention away from actual recovery.

How DO you recover from TBI? Even Mild TBI can do a number on you (as I found out, 11 years ago). So, how do you deal with it? Work with it? Overcome it? Everyone’s recovery is different, clearly, and what I’ve done may not work for everyone, but for heaven’s sake, certainly we can do better than we are now!

When I say “we”, I should really be saying “I”. Because I’ve been to the “valley of TBI despair” — not once, but a number of times. And I’ve wished I could simply die and disappear into the cold, dark earth. At different points, I’ve lost my ability to read, to write, to understand what people were saying to me, as well as how to regulate my moods and control my temper. I’ve had miserable, terrible headaches that wouldn’t go away 100% for years. I’ve had balance issues, sensory issues, work issues, relationship issues… directly related to and resulting from repeat blows to the head. So, yeah, I know what it’s like — at least in part.

All these things have resolved with me, for the most part… although I do have intermittent issues with them, now and then. And if I don’t talk about that, well, then it’s my bad.

It’s my bad, indeed.

I’m not one for sitting around feeling terrible about myself, though. I’m in a position to make a positive difference, so I will. It’s probably not going to be at the frequency and intensity that I’ve been working at for years, but it’ll be a heck of a lot more than I’ve done for the past couple of months. (Hmmmmm… I seem to remember vowing to do that, a little while ago, but nothing much has happened since then… but I can’t be too hard on myself – something is better than nothing.)

Let me close by saying this: My job situation, as tenuous as it is, is kicking me into gear to really re-examine my job choices. There are things I do really, really well, and there are things I struggle to do. I’ve been urged to master the things I struggle with, for my entire life. Now I’m at the point where I feel like I should put more emphasis on what I naturally do well, and not sink so much time and energy into mastering the stuff that I have trouble with. That’s not to say I don’t want to constantly improve, but I think there’s a missed opportunity to make the most of my innate talents and strongest interests… I just have to figure out what those are, after so many years of swimming against the stream of things I have trouble with.

I’m using this job uncertainty as an opportunity to get to know myself better — not only remembering what I’ve done well in the past, but what I’ve really enjoyed doing in the past (whether I did it well, or not). I have a deadline to update my job goals by next week, probably because of the impending merger, and also rumors that a lot of staff will get cut (mid-level management, I hear — although they always say that, and then it’s the little guys who get axed). I need to state clearly what I’m up to, what I plan to be up to, and why that matters to the company.

So, today (with no meetings — woo hoo!) I can spend some quality time really thinking about them, examining what I’ve done, thus far, and taking stock of what I’d like to continue to do. I can then transfer that into my resume and update it with what I want to do, not just what other people have told me I do well (but I don’t really like to do). Seriously, I am so hard-headed and tenacious and perseverative, when someone challenges me to do something — even if it’s not a good idea — I do it. I pull out all the stops, and I GO FOR IT. But what I’m going for, is sometimes someone else’s idea of a good thing. It’s not always mine.

For the past several jobs, I’ve stepped up challenges and roles that I’ve been asked to take on. Not because I wanted to, but because I was asked to. And I did a fabulous job — better than I thought, actually. That looks good on my resume, and it’s gratifying to realize I did great, but it’s not how I want to keep spending my life. God help me, no. I want to do things that appeal to ME, and that don’t exhaust me like the stuff that other people tell me to do.

That’s my goal. That’s my plan. Now, it’s time to go examine my life, see it for what it has been, what it is, and what I want it to be.

It’s time to dream a little — and put the pieces in place that will let me reach my dreams.

Onward!

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Another Simple Day

Back to basics

Well, I simplified my day yesterday, and no animals were harmed in the process.

I went back to sleep in the morning and got another couple of hours rest, then after I woke up, I laid in bed and checked in with friends on my smartphone. If it weren’t for my job, I would not have a smartphone. I don’t have the money to have one of my own, I don’t generally see the need for them, and I’d just use my computer for Facebook and email and whatnot if I didn’t have one. But the smartphone makes it so much easier to keep in touch – especially via FB. So, I do. When I need to.

Even when I don’t need to, I am getting in the habit of reaching out, just to stay connected with people. Usually, I keep to myself and isolate. A lot. But having social media makes it easier for me to keep in touch. I also have made a point of taking out the “friends” on FB who drag me down, are negative and whiny, and I’ve liked a bunch of positive motivational pages, as well as amazing pictures pages, so I have a steady stream of optimism and encouragement and downright beauty in my life on a regular basis.

It really is addicting, the beauty and joy. In the best of ways. Whenever I’m feeling down and lost, I check in with FB, and the pictures of nature or the positive sayings lift my spirits. If nothing else, they get me out of my own head, which is a dangerous place to be.

I’m feeling better this morning than yesterday. It was a little rough at first, but I got myself up, had some breakfast, moved around a bit, had some vitamins, a warm drink, and some Advil. Now I’m working on my cup of coffee, slowly… thinking about how I want the rest of my weekend to be.

I was feeling incredibly low, on Friday night. Just burnt out and wiped out from drama at work and how hard it has been to actually connect with other job opportunities. This is a tough job market, if you don’t have easy-to-plug-in skills or a degree, and that’s me. I have been doing what I do for a long time, but I’m not some easy-to-pin-down, cookie-cutter worker bee anymore. And I don’t have a degree and all sorts of certifications, so that disqualifies me in the running, from the get-go.

I was reading an article last week, about how the automation of job searches is passing over some really great candidates. I think I’m falling into that category, and I suspect that I’m getting passed over because I don’t list any degrees on my resume. The thought has occurred to me to just make something up and lie about my qualifications, to get past the automated “gatekeepers”. People would probably believe me, too. But with my luck, I’d get caught. And anyway, I can’t live with that hanging over my head.

All that thinking and reading about how bad things are didn’t actually help me. And it really dragged me down. I get locked into one way of thinking a lot, which is not good, and then I get stuck. It’s worse when the one way is depressed and suspicious and anxious.

So, I broke it up yesterday and got out and did things. I wrote down a lot of my frustrations and got them out of my head and onto paper, and that made me feel much better. Then I took care of some chores and just tended to the day-to-day, and that felt better, too. I moved, I took action, and I did a few things for my Big Project last night, that I’ve been meaning to do. It felt good to finally check them off my list.

By the end of the day, yesterday, I was feeling much better. In spite of simplifying my day, I got a lot done, and I made steady progress. And I even had time to watch a little television before I went to bed.

An interesting thing happened last night as I was getting ready for bed. I looked outside, and it looked like it was still evening, with the sky still light and the world around me still lit up. I could hardly believe it — it was nearly midnight, and it looked like it was 4 p.m.

I went downstairs and walked out on the back deck, and the full moon was bathing the whole world in a bright silver light. It was much milder last night than it’s been in weeks, and the stars overhead were phenomenal. So, I pulled on a couple of layers, got my hat and gloves and a flashlight, and I went for a walk.

The evening was so quiet, the roads were empty, and the moonlight was just amazing, flooding the world with silver light. Everything was lit up, and shadows of great trees sprawled across the road in sharp, craggy relief. Outdoors it was totally silent, except for the sound of distant traffic and the rustling of little creatures under the autumn leaves in the woods along the road. It was as though the whole world were there for me alone, with all my neighbors either tucked in and lights-out for the night, or staying up late with all their house lights on.

What an amazing walk it was. I wanted to keep going, but I was really tired and I hadn’t had a nap yesterday. I needed to get back, and not so far off in the distance, I could hear coyotes calling. So, it was probably best that I head back. The coyotes in this area don’t usually bother people, but why take a chance of surprising them at midnight.

Back home, I could feel myself so much more relaxed after my walk. Just having the silence and the space and the room to move — all under the brilliant moon and stars — what a gift it was.

Which brings me around to the topic that has been on my mind a lot, lately — gratitude. I’ve realized that with all the changes at work and all the reorganizational challenges, I’ve lost sight of the good that’s come with the changes. There are a number of things that have gone away, that we’ve lost — a lot of autonomy and freedom to move and make our own decisions, as well as the amazing commute that was a real blessing when I had it. In the midst of seeing all the things that are wrong, I’ve lost sight of the things that are right.

A part of me has been stubborn about admitting that some things are right, because part of me thinks that will validate the stupidity that seems to reign supreme, and somehow make it alright. It’s not alright, and there are some serious issues at play in that place, but when I focus on the bad, it blinds me to what good I can find. And it drains me. It doesn’t only hurt the company (which many folks at work would actually like to hurt), it also hurts me. It saps my energy, it taints each and every day with bilious resentment, and it makes the already difficult things that much harder to handle.

And that will never do. So, I’m finding a new way of approaching thing — Seeing the bad (the awful, actually) and seeing how it can lead me to something new and different. There are so many different options available to me — new paths to explore, new ways of interacting, new ways of working, new projects — why get dragged down by the sh*t, when I can be looking to a new way, a new approach, a new chapter of my life?

Indeed, the fact that things are so bad right now, can actually make my life better. I can see them for what they are, not fight and resist and resent them, but simply see them for how they are — plain and simple. I don’t need to complicate matters with all sorts of mental gymnastics that keep me locked in place because I’m gyrating through all kinds of emotional drama. I can simply — very simply — see things as they are, accept that they suck, objectively move on to what is next in my life, and be grateful that they provided the impetus for me to do more with my life.

It is taking me a long time to move along to what’s next, but maybe that’s for the best. Maybe I have not been thinking about things as expansively as I should be. Maybe I have not been considering all the options in front of me. Maybe I really do need more time – and I need to stretch.

These are all things that have been rattling ’round in my head for some time, now. Plain and simple, I’m in a kind of a holding pattern, and I need to find ways to use this time wisely. I’m not sure that making myself more “plug and play” is the answer — I’m capable of more than that, and being slotted into a cookie-cutter position is not going to do it for me.

The thing I also need to remember is that I have a number of different projects in the works, and some of them are really taking off. So, if I start a new job, that’s going to suck a lot of time and energy away from my overall “supplies.” Yes, it will stress me and “wake me up” and make me feel alive again, but long-term, this is not sustainable, and it’s a recipe for eventual pain and suffering.

So, simplify, simplify. Keep things basic and focus on the fundamentals. Apply myself in intelligent ways, and don’t get caught up in distractions that feel like they’re “taking the pressure off” when they’re just distracting me and interfering with what I should really be doing.

When I think about it, I have plenty to keep myself occupied, plenty to add meaning and purpose to my life. I can let the job situation just BE, for a while, focus on other things, and think about where else I want to go with my life.

It’s all good. I just need to stop complicating things for the sake of the drama adrenaline rush, and let myself be grateful for what I have.

It’s not all about what I’ve lost. It’s also about what I’m gaining.

And another simple day is waiting.

So, onward.

Post-TBI Job Strategies for the New Year

I’ve been thinking a lot about my job strategies for the coming year. Even though it’s been some years since my latest head injury, I still have yet to fully adjust my career approach to this reality. But since getting confirmation from my neuropsych that all is in fact not perfectly well with me, cognitively speaking, I’ve been literally forced to look at the decisions I’ve made with regard to work — and with regard to the work I’m considering doing — so that I don’t get myself into hot water that has me end up like a frog in progressively hotter water… never fully aware that the water around me is heating up, until I’m drawing my proverbial last gasps in a boiling cauldron.

I’ve always been a pretty vain person, professionally speaking. Academically, I always knew I could do better than I did. At least, I was convinced I could… I just didn’t “feel like it,” I told myself. In most things in life, where I encountered difficulties that I didn’t fully understand, I often told myself that I just wasn’t succeeding because I wasn’t fully applying myself, and I wasn’t fully applying myself because things were boring or I just didn’t feel like doing more than the bare minimum.

Looking back now, I can see that I often covered up my confusion and disabilities and difficulties at following what was going on around me, by making lame excuses that weren’t even true. And I realize that over the past four years since my most recent TBI, I’ve essentially done the same thing: told myself that I was consciously choosing to not learn the things I need to learn to stay employable, because they were “beneath” me, or they weren’t challenging enough to hold my attention, or I just had other things to do, than apply myself to mastering them.

But these days, I can see that not only is this not true — I do have trouble with learning in ways that used to come easily to me — but I need to fully own up to the fact that I have newfound limitations that have substantially changed the way I learn, the way I retain information, the way I relate to the world around me, and the way I go about starting tasks. I have to admit that my skills, sharp as they are, still move more slowly than they used to. And I take longer to grasp certain concepts that used to come quickly to me. I can no longer acquire information the way I used to: starting at the beginning of a book and reading through to the end and remembering everything I read, the whole way through. Now, I have to use other strategies to retain the information, and in fact I need to develop new strategies to even get started reading and learning the information. Forget retention. It’s the initiation that stumps me, these days.

I also need to realize that I cannot assume that just because I have my heart set on making certain “advances” in my career path, that it will work out for me. Things like managing other people and being able to navigate complex political organizational landscapes, are now not only annoying and frustrating to me — my diminished ability to deal with their complexities — can actually jeopardize my career path, even my job. Things that used to just irritate me or even roll off my back now send me halfway ’round the globe in a fit of frustration and anger. I not only have a harder time dealing with things like communication and temporary setbacks, but I also have a hard time dealing with my inability to deal with them. All too easily and quickly, I slip into a downward spiral of raised hackles, raised voice, and hot temper. Not good, if you’re in management, I’d say.

So, I need to rethink my career path and reorient myself towards the way I learn, the way I work, the way I get through my days.

Am I making sense? I hope so. But here are some examples, in case you’re as confused as I may be:

Old Way of Learning

1. Decide I want to learn something, just ’cause it sounds cool.
2. Pick up a book and read it through, using a highlighter to call out key concepts.
3. Now and then sit down at a computer and tap away at some exercises. Get the general gist of the new material.
4. Trust that I “get it” and start using what I’ve learned in the everyday.

New Way of Learning

1. Find out what skillsets are important and make me marketable. Pick one or two that I want to focus on.
2. Go online and find articles about the skill to read, to generally familiarize myself with them.
3. Install the language/program on my computer and get my development environment in place to work with it.
4. Find working, best-practice examples of the skills in action, such as code snippets and small applications, and then fiddle with them to see what happens if I make this change or that change.
5. Keep fiddling with the pieces, until I can see, feel, smell, taste, touch the way the language/application works, so that it becomes a part of me and it’s almost second nature. Start at the end, and work my way back towards the beginning, very hands-on and experimental, and involved with the inner workings.
6. Forget about trying to understand the underlying principles and the minute details of how it’s all put together from the start. Just concern myself with becoming familiar enough with the pieces, that I don’t get frustrated and confused and anxious and irate when I hit a bump with the language/application, and I can just work my way through it.

Old Way of Defining My Career Path

1. Trust my employer/headhunter to guide me in the right direction.
2. Keep an eye out for new opportunities and pursue them with all my gusto.
3. Keep moving up in the world, moving from production to management, and on up the mangerial ladder, into the corporate stratosphere.

New Way of Defining My Career Path

1. Keep a close eye on the job market. What are people paying for?
2. Focus on my skills, my technical proficiencies, rather than looking for managerial positions.
3. Keep my attention on jobs that involve working with machines and logic, rather than people. Forget about climbing the corporate ladder. That’s just not happening for me. I cannot deal with the complexities of politics and I cannot be responsible for the well-being of others. I really just want to code, alright?
4. If I start to be pressed for signs that I want to advance, assure my employer/headhunter that I’m much better off — and so are they — if I just keep my focus on dealing with machines, not people.

The last piece is tricky, because employers who have loved me in the past (and yes, in the past, before I fell and turned into a different person, they really did), have been really encouraging when it came to “advancing” through moving into management — project management, team leadership, you name it. As though the real value to their operations lay in my being able to make people obey me the way I could get machines to. Well, fortunately or unfortunately, people are not like machines, and even though I did a great job of handling people in the past, and I was able to really motivate and guide others to do their best, the fact is that now I’m a different person with different skills and different inclinations, and a whole lot less interest in running other people’s lives, than in just making the most of my own.

It saddens me, yes, to think I need to let go of that old potential I once had. I feel a distinct sense of loss and grief, that my abilities have been so sharply curtailed. But on the other hand, I’d rather be realistic and honest and accurate about where I stand, right here and now, than hold out false hope for something that not only isn’t very realistic, but could have serious negative consequences not only for me but for my direct reports, if I ever bit off more than I could chew, functionally speaking.

This is a new way of looking at things. But it’s a necessary one, as well.