The only good reason to look back

The only time you should ever look back,
is to see how far you’ve come

An old college friend messaged me this morning to catch up. It was good to hear from them, and we had a good — but brief — chat. They were one of my closest friends in college, and they saw me go through an awful lot, thanks to my heavy drinking. They tried to reach out to me to help, a number of times, but I was pretty much of a goner, in those days.

It would be easy to say it was just the drinking, but it was so much more. I really believe that the multiple concussions I had in high school had a lot to do with my attitude problems and inability to keep focused and clear about my priorities. I was not accustomed to making good decisions about the people I hung around with — in high school, I faded to the background, when the after-effects of several concussions and a whole lot of rough-housing and heavy partying took over my life.

So, by the time I got to college and I was away from the structures and restrictions of my youth, I was ready to just “let go” — and that’s exactly what I did. It only took me a year to get into real trouble, and this college friend of mine has been saying repeatedly over the past year or so that we’ve been back in touch, that they wish they had been a better friend to me. I am assuming that means they thought they could somehow save me from myself and my inner demons. Or maybe at least advocate for me better, when the police got involved, and a nasty-ass judge who favored local townspeople over ne’er-do-well college kids started making life difficult for me.

Looking back, I don’t think that there’s much of anything they could have done for me. I had too much I needed to work through, and I transferred out of that school after two years there. The next stop I made was a better solution, academically, but again I got into trouble — drinking too much, falling down drunk a lot, doing more of the same as I was before, but this time, much worse. And I isolated like crazy, which didn’t help me any.

I wonder sometimes… if I had been able to reach out for help earlier, if I had allowed others to help me (instead of pushing them away like I did), would things have turned out differently for me? It is really hard to say. Even if they had been able to be a friend to me, I doubt I could have let it all in. I was too much at odds with myself and everyone/everything around me, to really allow much to penetrate this hard head of mine. Combining a succession of mild traumatic brain injuries with drinking, was a really bad idea, but — like so many others — I did it. And it did me no good. At. All.

In any case, it’s all water under the bridge, and the experiences I have had, have made me who I am. The best reason to look back on all of it, is to see how far I have truly come, to look back on the flood waters and rapids I have navigated in my past and to be genuinely grateful that I am alive today. It didn’t have to turn out that way. I have found myself in the midst of human traffickers, drug dealers, violent criminals, and all manner of thieves, cheats, and liars, over the course of my life. The fact that I am living a good life today, with a marriage of 20+ years and a home and a favorable employment situation, is really something to celebrate, rather than regret because it’s not something else.

I’ve been grappling with that a lot, lately — regret over my past, and things not turning out better than they did. So many of my professional peers, including folks 10-15 years younger than me — are farther along and doing more with their lives. They have much better prospects than I, or so it seems. Job-wise, I do feel like I’ve been held back by my situation… until I really think about it and realize how other people with the same type of history as I are living.

I have friends who have been through similar circumstances to my own, and none of them are even close to the quality of life I have. They came from similar circumstances, but they made different choices, and now — as far as I can tell — they are in decline, while I am on the ascent. I don’t want to get caught up in making anyone better or worse than anyone else, because who can tell what is in the mind and heart of another. And yet I can’t help comparing my situation to others’.

I guess that means I’m human.

Anyway, it’s fall, and that means it’s a time of reflection and recapping the past year. I always feel like this is the end of the year, with Halloween being a sort of turning point leading into the new year. It’s a cellular thing, I guess. Growing up in farm country, Halloween was the time when everything was ready to be cut down and turned over, and the nights were obviously longer than ever, so it really felt like The End. Thanksgiving, to me, feels like the start of the year, with a kickoff celebration of what’s to come.  This time of year, with the falling leaves and shortening days, prompts me to look back on the past months to do a kind of inventory of where I’ve been and how far I’ve progressed.

I have to say, for all the challenges of the past 12 months, I have made significant progress. I’ve managed to extricate my mind from the hold of my current employer, and I have managed to stick it out long enough to not look like a flake, by leaving my employer in two years’ time. I have made some real progress in my work, achieving some pretty impressive feats – even if the cost was high. I’ve also had some real revelations about myself and where I want to fit in the world, and I’ve made some real strides with regard to my eating and exercising. I’ve become more active — all across the board — and that’s a really good thing.

With regard to the part I want to play in the world, after re-connecting with some old friends and co-workers, I’ve realized that I really did get sidetracked by the whole career thing. For the past three years, I’ve been living under the belief that by applying myself and working hard and showing real results and good progress and transforming the way my job is done, I can be a valued team player who has real career prospects. The first year in my job, that was pretty much true. The thing that held me back, was me. I didn’t put myself forward enough and I didn’t leverage the connections I had, to move forward. For the past two years, my prospects have shrunk and shriveled, and now it’s pretty clear that no matter how well I do my job, if I don’t say the right things to the right people at the right time, I’ll be perpetually marginalized and relegated to the “average 80%” pool of employees at this mega-corporation. Just a number.

Looking back, there’s part of me that regrets not pushing harder for the career advancement thing. But with a week’s vacation behind me, I realize now that it would not have worked, because that’s just not how I want to organize my life. I don’t want to be a high-flying hot-shot at work, to the point where it takes over my life and is my identity. I don’t want to give myself 100% to that path, because there is so much else I want to do with myself, and there is so much else I need to experience, beyond the realm of that whole career business.

If I had wanted to push for promotions and move up in the corporate world, I would have done it. If I had wanted to advance professionally and take it all to the next level, I would have gotten it done. But the fact of the matter is, I am deeply distrustful of that whole world, and more than anything, I want freedom and balance and the ability to move at will about the world. I’m more interested in questions, than answers, and I want to be free from any licensing agency or professional association that could impose its standards on me and shut down my voice. I would much rather hold down a day job for the structure and society, and then be free to do my own thing in my own hours.

And given that for the past three years, I’ve been in a job that has required me to be available pretty much anytime, any day, moving back to a 9-to-5 job will probably feel like a breeze. It will give me time to research TBI and to write. It will give me time to build out the library of resources I’m compiling for mild TBI understanding and recovery. It will give me time to do what I really want to do —  freely read and write and think and talk the way I see fit and am drawn to do, without the intrusion of those who crave power and influence in the world.

And that, to me, is progress. Realizing and remembering – yet again – where I am going, and why… that’s the best sign of growth and strength that I could ever get.

Looking back, there are many things that could have gone differently and could have been “better”. There’s also a lot of stuff that could have turned out a whole lot worse. All in all, it’s been a wild ride — and here I am, on down the road, with a whole lot of experience under my belt, that makes it all worth it.


So, onward we go. Looking back to see how very far I’ve come. And yes, it is very, very far.


The importance of not giving up

I am looking for a new job. The one I’m in, while a step up from where I was a year ago, is not a good long-term prospect, and I need to reach out and stretch to see where else I can learn and grow.

It’s no small feat, taking this on.  It’s downright nerve-wracking, in fact. Every time I look at my resume, I am reminded of my past injuries, for most of them immediately preceded a job change. People have been asking me for years, why I moved from job to job so often, and I’ve long since gotten in the habit of saying, “A better opportunity came up.” But in fact, many of the changes I underwent happened because I got hurt and/or my brain stopped working thanks to my longstanding issues, and I couldn’t do the job I was doing before.

So, I had to find a new one.

Another thing that makes resume-updating difficult is covering all the details again, making sure I haven’t missed or misstated anything… finding old errors that I missed before… it’s a little unnerving, thinking that these inaccuracies have been out there for so long without my realizing it. And there might be other things I have missed.

So I review my resume one more time.

As daunting as it is, I’m not giving up, however. As I look over my work history, I am frankly amazed at how well I’ve done for myself. Not bad for someone whose working memory is in the low-low end of the spectrum, and whose behavior issues have cost them numerous quality relationships along the way. And as I look over the parts of my past that signal Warning Will Robinson! Danger! Danger! I am making a conscious, concerted effort to turn my mind away from its automatic impulse to think the worst of myself, and I’m choosing to think the best.

I wasn’t a bad employee. I wasn’t a bad person. I wasn’t a slacker. I wasn’t a good-for-nothing deadbeat. I was injured. Repeatedly. And I have prevailed, nonetheless.

Still, it’s tough going. One of the hardest things for me, at this point, is dealing with the fact that I don’t have a degree. I attended college for four years — two in the States, and two in Europe — but I never got my degree. I had so many serious problems, when I was in college, due in no small part, I believe, to the multiple concussions I sustained during high school, and the bad patterns and behaviors I developed as an adolescent with a history of head injury.

Looking back, I am frankly amazed that I wasn’t worse off than I was. Don’t get me wrong, I was running wild, engaged in various kinds of petty crime and involved in business dealings with criminals. But my external circumstances never caught up with my interior reality. Frankly, I’m lucky I didn’t end up in jail. The one thing that I think saved me was that my parents were prominent members of their community, and nobody seriously thought that I was at risk or a troubled teen. I was just ‘moody’ — just another angry young person who would eventually grow up and grow out of it. Or something like that.

One thing I wasn’t saved from, however, was the lack of education. High school, let’s face it, was not an educational time for me, or for many of my peers. I fudged my way through most of it, thanks in no small part to the preponderance of multiple-choice (multiple guess, in my case) tests throughout the four years. Nobody paid much attention to deeper thought or intellectual activities. School was a either training ground for the adult world of work and 9-to-5 schedules, or it was a place to rack up points to get into some college.

High school as we now know it didn’t exist in my day. It wasn’t the kind of thing my parents really went out of their way to support me in, like I see happening with kids today. My folks just assumed that I’d get certain kinds of grades, and they just assumed that I’d graduate and move on from there. Get a job, settle down, be a regular person. But the importance of high school wasn’t really on their radar. In fact,  I’m not sure my parents even bothered to come to my graduation. They may have come, but I have almost no recollection of the event. Another result of concussions, perhaps?

Anyway, high school was survivable, but college was where it all broke down for me. My parents had decided that I would go to a certain religiously-affiliated college, near where some of my relatives lived. I think their plan was to send me to the school to reform my wicked ways within plain sight of my relatives, so they could report back about me. Either that, or they could try to curb my wild behavior.

When I announced I was not going there, the reaction was, “Well, then you’re on your own.” They eventually softened up and offered me a thousand dollars a year for help with tuition and living expenses, and they just barely managed to complete the financial aid forms so I could get some help from someone.

Long story short, I had a very interesting time earning my way. Again, I fell in with some bad folks, I ended up doing some illegal stuff to make ends meet (though, ironically, I didn’t realize at the time that I was doing anything wrong), and before long, my only viable alternative for continuing my education was to leave the country. So, I did.

Quelle adventure. Those are more stories for other times. On the whole I had a really great experience and learned a whole lot, the first year I was there. But again, my troubles caught up with me, and I spent the second year scrambling to keep my act together — on another continent in a different language. When I got back to the States in 1987, I was a stranger to myself, my family, and my country.

I had run out of money, and I had no degree. What to do?

Well, I managed to get some temporary work, here and there, and then eventually employers would notice that I had a spark or something, and they would promote me for no apparent reason I could see. But I went through the motions of being a good employee, discharging my duties… feeling like I was falling farther and farther behind… In the meantime, I’d get in a car accident, and/or my neurological issues would flare up again under the stress of increasing responsibility and pressure, and that combination would set me back again big-time.

And I’d totally screw up what I was doing — or at least become so agitated and anxious that I thought I was screwing up — and I’d have to find another job to keep sane. And keep afloat.

In the meantime, I met the love my life and married… didn’t (dare) have any kids — my intense emotional lability and violent temper of 15 years ago might have led me to seriously injure my children, I’m not happy to say. (But I am happy to say, I’ve improved tremendously over the past decade.) And I just kept working. I had to keep food on the table. I had to keep a roof over our heads. I thought about finishing school a bunch of times, but I barely had the energy to crawl home at the end of each day. Take on college coursework on top of that? How?

Well, now I find myself wishing that I’d been able to figure that one out. Twice in the past year, I’ve either been passed over for consideration for a good job or I’ve been docked 10% of the base salary offer because of my incomplete degree.  Nobody I talk to has any idea what I’ve had to overcome, and they never will. No way am I going to play that card. Maybe I’m too proud. Or maybe I just want to be on the same playing field as everyone else. But it does take a bit out of you to be brushed off because of what I consider a formality – that academic piece of paper.

I suspect the intensified requirement for a degree is the result of our increasingly global job market. How can global companies know you’re good, just by glancing at your resume? They need to see evidence of a degree. It’s nobody’s fault — it’s just a sign of the times.

But it is pretty troubling to not get a chance at jobs I know I could do — and I could them well — and earn accordingly, because of my troubled past. Nobody really cares that I’ve gotten my act together. Like my parents, they probably think I never should have gotten in trouble to begin with, and it’s my own damned fault for ending up where I am. Brain injuries mean nothing to most folks — other than that you’re “permanently” impaired, and you’ll need special assistance all your days.

Oh, what the hell. People are going to do and think what they want, but I’m not giving up. I’m not like my parents, who gave up on me when I was in college. They shelled out two grand, then they cut me off when I went to Europe. So what? I made it through. Just barely, but I did make it. I’m still here, and I’m still a contender. I’m still here, and I think there’s a reason I keep hearing Tom Petty sing “and I won’t back down” on the radio, as I’m driving to and from work.

It’s important to not give up. It’s vital to keep believing, to keep the faith. That’s true, whether you’re a TBI survivor or you know someone who is. If you’re a survivor, depending on the nature of your injury, you may be predisposed to depression and negativity. I seem to have “lucked out” in that regard and been “blessed” with injuries that make me more inclined to minimize or disregard imminent danger — for better or for worse. Or maybe I’ve just been through so much crap over the years, I’ve gotten used to everything looking like it’s going to hell, and I know from past experience, that that doesn’t always hold true.

In any case, I’m sure I’ll find something. Even in a job market flooded with young noobs who think (and act like) they know everything and have the paperwork I lack — that coveted Bachelor’s. Somewhere, somehow, someone must have a place for an adventurous soul who never gives up and refuses to quit till they get to the goal.

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