Choosing to stay chilled out

Image shows a cat lying on its back on an easy chair, with a t.v. remote lying on its belly
Image shows a cat lying on its back on an easy chair, with a t.v. remote lying on its belly

I’ve been uptight for way too long. I’ve been cranked up, worked up, stressed out, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I didn’t know how to relax until about 10 years ago, when I started deliberately practicing that.

I had no choice. My spouse was seriously ill. I was losing it. I had to figure out a way to get myself back from the edge… I was dangerously close to it, and my life was literally disintegrating around me, along with my sanity.

I got help. I found a neuropsych who could work with me.

I also learned how to do “progressive relaxation” — and I did it on a regular basis. It wasn’t just some fun thing I wanted to try out. It was life-and-death, and the balance of my life depended on it. I sat za-zen. I meditated each day before I did anything, and then again when I went to bed.

Over the years, I’ve lost touch with that old practice. I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore. And I’ve gotten increasingly cranked up and tied up in knots, as the months and years have progressed.

I’m back at that “choice point” again. Relaxation isn’t optional for me. It’s got to become a way of life. It’s not that I’m close to the edge. I’m just sick and tired of being stressed out about everything, and having nothing good come of it. Consider it a reality check on the ROI of being stressed. The return on the “investment” isn’t good.

That means, the time and energy spent is it’s not an investment. It’s a waste. I can’t get those hours and days and weeks back, that I lost to being stressed. They’re gone for good. And what do I have to show for them? A little, but not a lot.

So, I’m going to try something very different. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, but my plan is to keep my system in a prolonged state of relaxation. Just let my body relax. Just let my mind not worry about all that sh*t that everybody else is so worried about. I get too bent about crap I can’t control. It’s just kind of dumb. What the heck do I expect to happen as a result of my outrage, anyway? That it’s going to change anything? It doesn’t — except my internal state of mind. It just wrecks my peace. It doesn’t actually turn the speeding car in the right direction. If anything, it just pushes my internal accelerator to the floor.

And what do I have to show for it, after all those years of slamming the pedal to the metal? Not a whole lot, to be honest. I’ve spent a lot of time being angry, frustrated, outraged, confused, and not nearly as successful as I’d like to be. I’ve gotten in my own way, with all the frenzy. I’ve literally made myself sick, by letting my fight-flight response get the better (and worse) of me.

I know, I know, TBI has complicated matters for me. It’s at the root of much of my suffering, and not understanding it has made things so much worse. There’s no doubt of that. But I’ve also made things more difficult for myself by my choices to get bent out of shape, and stay that way — and also by not actively managing my issues. I have no excuse, now. I haven’t had an excuse for years. I know I’ve got sh*t going on with me, and it’s my responsibility to handle it, already.

But I’m getting tense again.

Let’s try to change that… No, don’t just try — DO.

To quote Yoda…

Do, or do not. There is no try.

It is possible to actively change your internal state from fight-flight to relaxation. I’ve known how to do it for years. But I haven’t consistently made a habit of it.

Till now. Till I got sick and tired of having nothing to show for my outrage, other than… outrage.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been deliberately relaxing when I felt myself tighten up. I tighten up — get tense — a lot. After being in a constantly tense state for most of my life, I know how to do that. It’s an immediate reflex. A knee-jerk response.

And when I consciously relax — just let it all go — things tend to clear up. Even if they don’t completely clear up, I feel better. And that’s something. I’m tired of feeling bad all the time, for no good reason. I’m old enough to know better, and I do. I’m also old enough to want to just enjoy myself, instead of chasing all sorts of distant goals that — if I’m honest — were never going to work out, in the first place.

Enough wasting the energy. Enough wasting time I’ll never get back.

Time to relax.

Choose to chill.

And enjoy my life.

Regardless.

Onward.

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Good gone bad in a hurry

Bummer… and things were going so well

So, last night I was fixing supper, and I messed something up. My spouse was in the kitchen with me, and they started saying things that sounded critical to me, like they can do better than me. I got really agitated and frustrated, and I had a bit of a blow-up at them. I was really angry over them finding fault with what I was doing and comparing their own performance to mine. It was a double put-down. 1) I screwed up, 2) they can do so much better than me.

It really pissed me off, and I got so angry, and then they went into their usual behavioral “repertoire” of acting like I was a bad person for getting angry and yelling — like I was threatening them and being abusive. Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord… I was upset and trying to express myself, and all they could do was make me look like I was the one at fault, and my anger was a threat to them.

I got pretty angry — not over the top, throwing-things angry, but so frustrated and agitated that I almost couldn’t see. And then POP, something in my head felt like it snapped, and I had this sensation of my brain locking up and slowing down to a crawl. It was like someone cracked open a smelling salts capsule — but it had the exact opposite effect. I instantly felt dull and numb, with my face numb and tingling, and my hands tingling. I could physically feel it in my head. I turned into an instant idiot — it was hard for me to understand what was being said, and I couldn’t put words together. My head felt like it had filled up with cotton, and I was suddenly so dull.

I didn’t think it was a stroke, because I haven’t been impaired on one side of my body or the other — and I stuck out my tongue to see if it bent from one side or the other, and it didn’t.

Then again, according to the National Stroke Association, here are the signs of stroke:

Stroke symptoms include:
  • SUDDEN numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg – especially on one side of the body.
  • SUDDEN confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
  • SUDDEN trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • SUDDEN trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • SUDDEN severe headache with no known cause.

So, maybe it was one. I don’t know. One side of my body wasn’t weaker than the other, which is what I usually associate with stroke. I have a meeting with my neuropsych this afternoon, so I’ll check with them. I’m hesitant, because I don’t want trouble from all this. Plus, it has happened to me before — about 3 weeks ago after a meeting when I got really upset with the behavior of some of the folks in the meeting. It was very similar to that time — I felt something “pop” in my head, and I turned into an instant idiot — couldn’t put words together, had trouble speaking, felt slow, and had a low-grade headache.

This time I didn’t get nearly as angry. But the feeling was the same, and now I’m dense and dull and I’m having trouble putting words together. Three weeks ago, it passed. And it didn’t seem like a big enough deal to investigate. It was not much worse than other “episodes” I’ve had in the past, and when I tried to investigate them before, nobody seemed to think they were that big of a deal, and I felt like an idiot for even bringing them up.

I know I’m supposed to go to the ER as soon as I suspect I’m having a stroke, but how would that work, exactly? I can’t miss work, because then I don’t get paid. And my mortgage won’t wait. I’m the only one who’s supporting my household, and if I’m out of work, we’re all pretty much screwed.

I started to get a headache after a while, last night, and I took some Advil, but it didn’t really help. I still have that headache in the front and top of my head, and also towards the back where I hit my head on Saturday.

Seizure? Stroke? Whatever. I’m sounding a little nonchalant about this, I guess, but my feeling is that this kind of stuff has happened with me so often over the years, it’s just one more thing. And even if I did have a stroke, I know how to fix my brain, and manage my issues, so I’m not all that worried. Hell, even if I do become really hampered by my brain, I know how to live my life in a way that brings me happiness and joy. I know how to bounce back and keep going, so I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing.

I am reminded of a number of things I need to do is stay vigilant about:

  1. Remember that my spouse is actually mentally ill. Their panic/anxiety disorder has wreaked havoc, and it is a genuine mental illness. They seem to believe that their anxiety is keeping them “safe” from whatever dangers may be out there, and the “help” they are getting from friends and their therapist seems to only reinforce their fears and their devotion to their “precautions”. They are so absolutely imprisoned by their fear about every conceivable thing on the planet, that anyone around them has to abide by their brittle rules or bear the brunt of their wrath. They feel safe when everything is going their way, but it’s absolutely smothering and restrictive for anyone who does not share their view.
  2. Underlying all this anxiety is a handful of neurological issues which are screwing with their thought process. It’s not something I can take personally, when they go off on me. I love and adore my spouse and would love to spend more time with them. Still, it’s really hard to be around them. The other thing that makes it all hard, is that I’m just about the only one who can spend any extended time around them — they’ve chased off just about everyone else with their anxious control. And they don’t understand why that is. Explaining won’t make any difference, because to them, their fears all make perfect sense — and it’s neurological. So there’s only so much explaining I can do.
  3. I need to take care of myself and get what I need for myself to stay strong. I was tired, last night, and I pushed myself too hard. I need to back off and take some time to myself, especially when I spend extended periods with my spouse. My spouse and I had gone for a drive earlier, yesterday before my outburst, and they are so anxiety-ridden about just about everything, that it’s very stressful to be around them. It’s like a never-ending drama — over huge dangers and threats which seem like they’re nothing to me. When I do the driving, they constantly boss me and yell at me about how I drive, where I should turn, what I should do. It’s a total friggin’ drain.
  4. I need to keep to a regularly active schedule. I was out of sorts already, last night before my outburst, because I was off my regular schedule. I also did not expend enough energy over the weekend and wear myself out physically. I need that. I need to keep active and tire myself out, so I don’t think too damn’ much.
  5. My spouses’ way of living is not healthy — for them or for anyone. They spend a lot of time sitting around thinking about shit that makes them crazy, and they end up pulling me into their undertow. When I am around them, they use me as a “sounding board” which just sucks me into their downward spiral. This is not good. I need to keep myself up and elevated and healthy and take regular breaks when I spend a lot of time around them.

Truthfully, I actually need to protect myself from the one person I love with all my heart. It’s kind of tough, but there it is. If I can think of it as protecting myself from the demons that are eating them alive, that’s a better way to look at it. But it’s still very painful to watch them on that downward spiral, and be helpless to do anything about it.

Having extra days off can be good, but they can be be bad, too.

I just have to keep all this in mind and take the best care of myself that I can.

My head hurts. I’m foggy and dull… and a little bit afraid of bringing up the episode last night with my neuropsych. I’m afraid of what might happen if they tell me to go to the hospital and get checked out. But at the same time, if I don’t get the help I need, then what?

On the bright side, I’ve got almost four months’ worth of pay stashed in the bank, so if I do have to take some time off, I can. My mortgage is taken care of for the next month, and I’ve got enough to at least keep going, if I need to take some time.

Ideally, it won’t come to that. But when I think it through, the fact is, I can afford to take a week (even a month) off work, if I have to. I could even go to part-time for the short term, and we’d be okay for at least three or four months.

Anyway, speaking of work, I’ve got to get going. My fingers aren’t typing very well, and I’m fortunate to work with folks who have never seen me at my peak, so they have no idea just how impaired I am, right now. I’ll just get through the day, talk to my neuropsych, and try to keep as clear as possible, so I can make the right decisions and do the right things.

Main thing is to keep chilled out and cool. I’m really bummed out that I couldn’t even make it through a weekend with my spouse without yelling and getting upset. We were doing so well… that is, I was doing so well. They were doing really shitty. But all I can control is myself. So, I have to take care of what I can control — myself — as much as humanly possible.

Screw it. Onward.

Second chances – found by accident

I have a full day ahead of me. And it’s all good. I have some programming techniques to learn and test out, and I have some documentation to write. I have some busy-work to do for my day job, and I have another set of house chores I need to take care of.

The beauty part is, I can get it all done. I can do the programming for a few hours this morning, while everything is quiet… then I can move on to the chores that need to get done. Then I can have my lunch and a nap, and then move on to the other things for work-work. I’ll get a little bit of exercise, while I’m running my errands, and I’ll get out and about a bit. Heck, I might even be able to catch up with some friends for lunch.

On second thought, I need to not cram too much stuff into my day. I need to keep things simple, because life will become complicated enough on its own. Just because it does.

I feel incredibly hopeful, because I know that I don’t have to run out of steam and drag through the second half of my day like the walking dead. I don’t have to live that way anymore – especially because today is Saturday, and I don’t have to be anywhere, or do anything that I don’t choose to be or do. And tomorrow is Sunday, which gives me yet another day to move at my own pace, get things done, and really take good care of myself and my life.

Now that I have figured out how much just a 20 minutes of sleep in the afternoon helps me, and I have found a way to make sure I get a nap in regularly, it’s like I have a whole new lease on life. Seriously. It makes all the difference in the world, to not have to cram all my important activities into the first two hours of each day, and then spend the rest of the day worried that I’m not going to have the energy or the resources to make it through in top shape.

Having a nap in the middle of the day is like having two days instead of just one. It’s like that stock split at Google, which has pretty much cemented the two founders’ control over the company. Having some more rest in the middle of the day, when I have completely wiped myself out with all my going… and then having a second chance to pick up where I left off.. or just start something completely new… THAT is an amazing thing.

The other amazing thing is that having a nap in the afternoon actually helps me get to sleep at night. I can just allow myself to feel tired, not push myself through like a crazy person. I can just let myself feel exhausted, not force myself to be ON, like I used to have to, before I got into the whole nap thing. And when I really get into feeling how I feel, and I allow myself to just feel tired, then I can call it quits for the day, when it makes sense to do it, and just get myself to bed.

I did that last night, when my spouse wanted me to stay up and watch more episodes of a show we both really enjoy. I wanted to stay up a bit longer, and they wanted me to do it, too. But I just couldn’t do it. So I turned in at 11:30 — later than I wanted to, but earlier than I might have. After all, it was Friday night, so I “deserve a break” and should stay up as long as I damn’ well please, right?

Wrong. Staying up that late does a number on me. And today I woke up at about 5:30, so that means I got maybe 6 hours of sleep, if I’m lucky, which is not enough.

The pressure’s off, though, because I can always nap later. And because I have been getting more sleep lately, and I know I will have time later to nap, I don’t feel this intense pressure to be ON for the next four hours — or else. I can relax. And that’s so important.

Another benefit of getting additional sleep is that I have been making better choices with the time and energy that I do have. I have a number of new things I need to learn, and it’s easy for me to spin my wheels and run in a million different directions, but I’m better able to stop myself from getting too distracted, and I’m finding it easier to just choose to NOT do or learn or try certain things.

Life is better with naps. And I realize how much it was stressing me out, to feel like I only had about four good hours each day to work with. Nobody really gets just how exhausted I am — all. the. time.  They just seem to assume that because I can keep going, I should keep going. That because I don’t complain or draw attention to my exhaustion, it must not be that bad.

It has been bad. The fatigue has been crazy. And it really screwed up my life for years and years.

But now I have alternatives, and it’s good.

Onward.

 

 

 

Training my brain to choose

I talked before about how sitting za-zen helps me to physically wake up. I can’t sit for very long before I go to sleep, because it wakes me up too much. So, I sit in the mornings – and I’m going to try to sit in the afternoons, when I have a few minutes. I just set up a reminder on my calendar to do it every day at 3 p.m., and we’ll see how that goes.

Now, waking myself up is fine. But in fact, for me, sitting za-zen is about more than that. It’s actually about training myself to choose what kind of experience I want to have — if I want to give in to fatigue and frustration, or if I want to dig down and find the resources to deal better with my situation. I am actually able to change my frame of mind in different circumstances — that’s what I do when I interact with certain types of people. I suffer from terrible dread in so many situations, but I “buck up” and decide I’m going to have a different experience that being full of dread and anxiety, and when I do that, it actually works. I forget about my fears and dive in… and almost always, the result is a good one

Sitting za-zen has given this to me. That’s what it’s about for me — choosing the experiences that I want to have.

It’s very much about learning to choose my reactions to situations… training myself to wake myself up as needed, or to calm myself down if necessary. Sitting with focus demands that I pay close, sustained attention to some very simple things — my breathing and my posture. It trains me to pay attention to how I’m feeling in my body, so my posture is always good. It also trains my attention on my breathing, as I count my breaths and make sure I am breathing at a constant rate. It trains me to note any ideas and thoughts that are flit-flitting through my head, which are taking my focus away from my breathing and my posture.

And it’s hard. It’s quite demanding. It’s so demanding, that it’s rare that I can count 17 full cycles of breath without some interference from thoughts and distractions. I do my best, but it is incredibly difficult at times, to just keep my attention trained on my posture and breathing. My posture is not typically za-zen — I can’t sit cross-legged, because it is too painful and I have back and knee problems, so I generally sit up in a chair. My breathing is steady and balanced — five slow breaths in, a slight pause, then five slow breaths out, followed by another slight pause. Many’s the time when I get to 7 full breath cycles, and then my mind starts to wander.

But after working with this for many years — on and off — I am doing much better about not losing track of the number of breaths, and I’m not as “absent” as I used to get, when I would sit and breathe.

It turns out that this kind of practice is incredibly good for the brain — it decreases the activity which is associated with falling asleep and actually wakes you up. So, contrary to a lot of beliefs that meditation is all about relaxing and chilling out, according to the Awakening Is Not A Metaphor study:

“… the result (of meditation) is not a calming in the direction of relaxation/sleep, but rather a move in the opposite direction: toward an increased alertness and vigilance that counteracts mental laxity and sleepiness.” (p. 6 of 18 in the pdf of the study)

The study talks in depth about it, listing a number of examples where meditation training of one kind or another improved alertness, reduced fatigue, and had positive after-effects for months after a single training session. From personal experience, I can testify that when I sit za-zen regularly, I feel better, I act better, and I’m able to handle what life throws at me, even in very challenging circumstances. I’m training myself to decide — for myself — what my reactions to life are going to be, and I’m reducing my overall reactivity. I’m teaching my brain to not just run in every different direction, following whatever shiny object it might find, and I’m training my mind to not chase after my brain when it starts acting like a monkey running off into the forest with my car keys.

This is such an important part of my TBI recovery — it really supports and strengthens my ability to choose for myself how I will behave, how I will think, how I will react. That choice can mean the difference between saying and doing things to others I will regret and not be able to take back, and keeping my relationships neutral and healthy. It can mean the difference between getting into hot water with the cops and getting let go with a warning, or getting sent to jail. It can mean the difference between becoming angry and letting it go, or letting the rage take hold of me to the point where I break something or hurt someone.

It literally can make all the difference between a temporary upheaval — a speed bump in the road of my life — and a semi-permanent deep-sh*t situation that I have to then manage and smooth over and fix, taking tons of time out of my regular life to fix what I’ve broken.

So, sitting za-zen is more than just a way to pass the time. It’s an important part of my everyday life, that helps me not only feel better, but also helps me act and overall function better. It wakes me up. Because I’m training my brain to wake up. And I’m teaching my mind to react the way IT wants to, not the way others expect or try to force it to.

Less Facebook, more za-zen

Keeping it simple

So, I’ve had a crazy busy week, and I’ve taken a few steps to make my life simpler and less hectic.

The first thing I did, was unfriend a person who has become a tremendous pain in my ass. I work with them, and our relationship has really altered over the past months, with them climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, and me holding back and not diving into all the politics and drama for a number of reasons. First, I’m not at all impressed with the opportunities available to me at work. Second, I’ve already done the ladder-climbing thing, and while it was exciting for a while, back about 15 years ago, I saw the dark side of it and opted out. Third, I’m not big on games. Fourth, in their heady rise to the top, they compete intensely and step on people to get there, and I’m not interested in being someone they compete against. That sh*t just depresses me.

So, while this onetime friend of mine has been maneuvering and operating all over the place (and trying to pull me into their activities), I’ve really cooled to them. And I unfriended them on FB. Which kind of freaked them out and made them feel rejected (which they were, if you think about it). But it simplifies my life, because now I don’t have to worry about getting miffed over something they post — or some comment they make to one of my posts.

FB has gotten way too intrusive for me.

The other thing I did was remove FB from my mobile phone. It was just getting too enticing for me, and I was spending way too much time on pretty much nothing. I mean — like so many others — I would start looking at posts, pictures, movies… and before I knew it, an hour had passed me by.

Which is never good. Especially when I have so little time for the things I truly want to be doing.

So, I made it harder for myself to go on FB, and I removed it from my phone for a few days. And it did simplify my life. (Turns out, I had to reinstall it last night, because my internet connection died, and my smartphone was the only way I could reschedule a meet-up I arranged for today) Just not having access to FB for a few days gave me additional time to focus on projects that are late-late-late, and just calm the heck down.

The calming down is the important part. Because even when the things I see on FB are good, they are still energizing and invigorating, and they get my blood pumping. There are jokes, there are observations, there are rants. And they always get me thinking and reacting. They jump-start my system as few other things can.

Now, that’s fine, if I actually do need a boost to wake me up. But all that uproar, all the time? It’s not necessary. And even if I am dragging a little bit, the neurocognitive / biochemical jolt of Facebook is usually a lot more than I really need, to get going. Going on FB for me, when I am a little “off” is like drinking a couple cans of Red Bull when I’m feeling a little distracted. It’s way too much for me, and no matter how good it feels to get that Facebook “rush”, it’s still putting a strain on my system that ultimately wears me out.

So, now I’m repairing the damage I’ve done, and I’m doing several things:

  1. I’m rationing my Facebook time and staying OFF it, first thing in the morning, as well as last thing at night.
  2. I’m back to doing za-zen, or sitting silently and focusing on my breath and my posture for set periods of time.

This is accomplishing several things:

  1. It is keeping my system from becoming drugged by biochemical / neurocognitive overload.
  2. It is re-training my system to develop its own ability to wake — or rest — at will.

Za-zen — my own version, which is simpler than thinking about koans, but more focused than Shikantaza (which is just sitting) — is for me about simply sitting, being wakeful and mindful about what is going on in my body and mind, but not “taking the hooks” of thoughts that “want” me to follow them, like monkeys running off into the woods with my car keys.

Some say that meditation is for relaxation, to relieve stress, but I have long believed — and I recently came across a study that echoes my belief. That study, “Awakening is not a metaphor: the effects of Buddhist meditation practices on basic wakefulness” talks about how sitting meditation can actually heighten wakefulness in long-term practitioners. It’s not necessarily about relaxation — it’s actually about waking up.

I have noticed, over the past years of sitting za-zen (which I have done for over 20 years, since I first learned about it), that I have actually learned how to wake myself up, even when I am incredibly tired. Sitting — just sitting — focusing on my breath and keeping myself alert to my posture, the sensations in my body, and whatever thoughts might be rattling ’round in my head, doesn’t relax me. In fact, it does the opposite. So much so, that I cannot sit za-zen right before I go to bed, because it wakes me up too much.

I sit in the mornings, instead. And I’m considering starting to sit in the afternoons when I start to get cravings for sweets. When I’m feeling low and groggy, I tend to reach for the trail mix, which is a far better option than a Snickers bar or some other kind of sugar. But I often end up eating too much sugar in the course of a busy afternoon, so I need another option.

The more I think about it, the more za-zen seems like a good option for me. Sitting with silent focus, even for just a few minutes, does wonders for me. And if I can incorporate it into my daily life — not only stepping away to sit in silence, but also having that attitude of za-zen when I am in meetings at work, or I’m trying to better focus on what’s in front of me… well, so much the better.

I used to actually do that, years ago before my last TBI. And it helped me so much. It “leveled out” the upheavals that had long been with me, because of all my previous TBIs. But when I fell in 2004, that completely threw me, and I became just a shadow of myself. I stopped sitting. I stopped meditating. I stopped thinking about anything except the daily business of just getting from Point A to Point B, and not falling victim to the demons that seemed to rage in me.

Now much has evened out with me, and I’m in a place where I can actually put my focus back on za-zen. I’ve done this before, so it’s not new to me. And the Awakening study confirms that people with past meditation experience can have greater increases in “tonic alertness” which is where you can become more alert in unexpected situations.

That’s what I’m striving for, these days — more alertness, more engagement in my daily life, less reactivity, and more skill at handling sudden and unexpected situations. And it turns out that I have the past experience and the present tools to help make that happen.

When I just sit and breathe and count and focus on my posture, even for just a few minutes, everything gets better. And that’s what I want. Better.

I’ve got another full day ahead of me, so it’s time to get going. On it goes.

Onward.

Finished another book! Woo hoo!

The books are back!

Holy smokes – I actually finished another book! It’s called “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?” and it’s about how to deal effectively with manipulators. I have had issues with getting involved in relationships with manipulators for as long as I can remember. When you have skills and talent and energy, and you don’t have a lot of real direction and you haven’t developed the ability to clearly focus on what you want and how you’re going to do/get it, it makes you very vulnerable to the manipulations of others.

Because the control they exercise over you and their ability to get others to do what they want them to do, can be very attractive to someone like me, who wants to be effective, but doesn’t always have the attentional ability or sustained focus to make things happen reliably.

And being manipulated doesn’t feel like manipulation – it just feels like you’re making progress in the world, and it can feel really good. The only problem is — it’s not your progress. It’s someone else’s idea of progress.

So, over the years, you can find yourself drifting farther and farther from where you want to be, and the life you want to live. And eventually, you can even forget what it is you originally wanted to do.

That has happened to me a lot over the course of my life. I haven’t even minded it, until the past few years, as I’ve gotten clearer about my own abilities and interests, versus the interests and agendas of everyone else. I was so mired in TBI and attentional issues, that I was an “easy mark” for people who wanted to use me for their own purposes.

A great example is my job — I got into my current line of work because it fit the definition of a “real job”, with the regular schedule and seat at a desk. I have never, ever longed with all my heart to sit at a desk all the livelong day, working for someone else, and hoping to be noticed by the “right people”. That just kind of happened because I needed to make a living, and this line of work was the path of least resistance.

It was originally interesting to me, and I turned out to be pretty good at it, but I have felt the burn of carpal tunnel issues, back issues, and all sorts of physical issues, in the past 25 years of being a desk jockey.

And while the money was good, and the rewards were there, I have still ended up entangled in a way of life — being sedentary, primarily mentally engaged, sitting at a desk from 9-5 each day (or more like 10-7) — that has never, ever appealed to me, and which I used to cringe when I thought about doing it. 30 years ago, I would have sooner killed myself, than been consigned to the life of a desk jockey.

That’s probably the best example of my life going off the rails, that I can think of. And manipulation has played a large role in getting me where I am. The coworkers who maneuvered and schemed with or against me, the bosses who tried to control me, the whole system, which threatened and rewarded and has pulled out all the stops to keep itself in place… Also, my spouse is a masterful manipulator, and they have roped me into doing a ton of things that I did not want to do. The big reason we have been so deeply in debt, is that I gave into their pressures to spend money on things that we did not need, or that were massively over-priced. I have only myself to thank for that… and I have actually used the last three years of lean living as an example of what can and will happen, when we live beyond our means. It has been hard on us both, but mostly for my spouse — who then in turn has taken it out on me.

I don’t want to sound like a whiner or a victim. I am neither. I am just seeing clearly the manipulating-capitulating patterns that got me where I am today. I have willingly participated in this kind of relationship, at home and at work, for the sake of the rewards. And now I am seeing that something else is possible.

I really need to escape this way of life for the sake of my sanity and physical health. This manipulation-capitulation will not stand. I’ve already started taking steps to stop the momentum of those moments when I’m urged to do such-and-such right away, even though it’s not the right thing to do. And I’m turning things around at home. My spouse manipulates for their own reasons — largely out of anxiety, because not having things all set and figured out and exactly “just so” makes them intensely uncomfortable, and they don’t do well with discomfort.

I myself am working on becoming inured to discomfort. I try to condition myself a little more each day, and it’s working pretty well. But my spouse… that’s not their “thing”, and they chase after relief for their self-induced discomfort, just about every waking moment. Their habits of mind are what hold them hostage, and everyone around them pays.

Reading the “Strings” book has helped me see things more clearly. And it’s also validated the steps I am already taking to shift the balance of power in my marriage. I know my spouse loves me with all their heart, as I do them, so I have hope that things can turn around. I just need to be more clear about what I want, and what my agenda is. That’s something my spouse understands — a self-centered agenda. So, if I can invent one (even if it is not 100% accurate, seeing as I have very few agendas in my life, period), that changes the dynamic, and they respect that.

Reading this book has been both eye-opening and validating. And it has kept me engaged throughout. I actually read almost 200 pages of it yesterday afternoon, while I was resting. I had a very active morning and I needed to rest, so I just read… and read… and read. The amazing thing was that it went very quickly. I could follow what was being said, I could remember what was on the previous pages, and the flow of the book made sense to me. I could even tell when the author was repeating herself and over-simplifying things, so I just skimmed some parts.

The skimming is probably the biggest sign of progress for me. It shows that:

  1. I can read and comprehend what is there at a glance.
  2. I can get the “gist” of what’s in the paragraphs without needing to digest every single letter of every single word. I can understand what’s being said on the page, without needing to consume every single paragraph.
  3. I am not nearly as obsessive-compulsive about every single little detail that’s being communicated. I am not spending 15 minutes on a page that should take me 2 minutes to read and digest.

Only a few years ago, I wasn’t able to even get through an entire page without losing my way and having no idea what was being said. I would forget, from one page to the next, what I had read, and I would give up after a while. That was so demoralizing. I grew up with books as my best friends, my only solace in an otherwise overwhelming and hostile world. Books where my refuge, my safe place, my domain. And I would write my own stories and invent my own worlds, when books fell short. Books surround me in my home and my study — there are shelves full of them, in every room of my house. My bedside stand has a stack of books 8-high on it, and my spouse’s bedside stand has even more.

Books have been the cement in many a relationship. Having my parents read to me was a way for us to bond when I was very young. Reading the same novels smoothed over interpersonal conflicts with my parents later in life, seeing what books others were carrying and reading helped me figure out who could be my friend, and showing others what I was reading let them know if we had common interests — especially with regard to science and non-fiction. Sharing things we read has joined my spouse and me together, and bookstores have been one of my favorite places to meet interesting people.

So, when I was no longer able to read, and I lost all interest in writing, I lost a huge chunk of my life. I lost my safe place, my solace, my refuge. I lost my best friend(s) from before I could even read. It wasn’t just words — it was any story line, any collection of ideas that I needed to keep in my memory for later. I just couldn’t follow. I just couldn’t manage it. Everything just evaporated so quickly for me… and it was devastating and left me feeling left out in the cold.

The weird thing was, it didn’t even register as that huge of a loss to me. Maybe there was part of me that couldn’t face up to the intensity of the loss, and it was so potentially devastating that I could not even really think about it. Or maybe I was just too busy keeping things in order and trying to keep my life in some semblance of togetherness, that I just didn’t have the time to read. That could be part of it.

But whatever the reasons, it was tough to lose that part of my life.

And now it’s back. If I can find a book that deals with something I am intently interested in, that is relevant to my life, and that gives me good food for thought and tools to use in my everyday life, that is a huge help. It keeps me engaged. It keeps me coming back for more. I have another book called “White Coat: Becoming a Doctor at Harvard Medical School” that I am also reading, because I wanted to be a doctor when I was little, and I am fascinated by what makes doctors the way they are. This book is helping me to understand the process people go through to be enculturated into the medical community, and I am getting lots of useful tips about the mindset and the orientation of doctors.

That’s always helpful. I read this book while I am riding the exercise bike in the morning, and I’m about 1/3 of the way through. It’s a little slim on substance, but it’s an entertaining and informative overview of the kinds of experiences that make docs how they are.

I also have another book which my neuropsych loaned to me several years ago. It’s called “A User’s Guide to the Brain” by John Ratey, and it’s all about how our brains work.  I have not been able to finish it — I read it 3/4 of the way through, years ago, then I put it down when I got too confused and overwhelmed by all the information. I want to finish it and return it to my neuropsych before spring comes. It’s a goal. If things are going really well, maybe I’ll just start from the beginning and re-read it. I think that would be a good exercise, because it will show me how much I retained over the years. And I think it will also help me better understand it this time, because my comprehension is better and I’m better able to get the gist of things.

Now, I’m not sure how things are going to be tomorrow… or the next day… or the next.  It could be that I’ve maxed out my reading-with-comprehension muscles for a little while, and I need to rest for a few days or weeks to rebuild my resources. I do feel a little tuckered out, to tell the truth. But for today, by God, I have finished a book, and it feels pretty damned good!

Now, it’s time to go outside, to get my blood pumping and get some sun on my face. I’ve got a whole Sunday ahead of me, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a good one.

Onward.