The pit of despair was cold and drafty, and it wasn’t much fun. It’s been a while since I was stuck there, and I’d forgotten how unproductive and self-defeating it is to get stuck there.
Even at the bottom of a well, if I keep looking up, I see light.
So, I got down to work, did something constructive with all my energy, and just took it one hour at a time.
And I remembered, for all my difficulties, there are many people in the world who would love to have my problems. Because they happen in the process of me living what’s overall a really good life. And all my worry and distress really makes me more aware of how others feel and how they, too, struggle with things — whether those things are “hard” or “easy” for others.
Compassion. That’s what came of it. For myself and for everybody else.
The transmission went out on one of my cars. It actually imploded, and little bits of the machinery were floating around in the transmission fluid.
Not enough money for another car — so went ahead and had the transmission replaced. Not ideal, but for the money we’d have to spend, we could not have gotten a decent car.
Best just to suck it up and get the transmission done in the car we DO know about, and hope for the best for the next three years.
Money’s scarce. I wasn’t working for a week and a half in December/Jan, and if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. So I lost nearly half a month’s pay, and now I’m feeling it.
Back to work. Pull in some extra hours and get the overtime. And hope for the best, that no more problems come up.
Health scares. More health scares. My good insurance is valid till the end of this year, then I need to make other arrangements. Like Obamacare or somesuch. It all seems so complicated and confusing.
I joke about it being easier to die, but some days it feels that way.
Not that I want to die. I think I’d settle for just being able to walk away from all of this. Move to the woods.Or go on the road. Just leave it all. People have good intentions, trying to help me get ahead at work, but honestly, I’d almost rather not.
Lord, how I would love to just lay it all down and walk away.
Adulthood is overrated. I want to be a pirate and sail the seas, knocking over pricey sailboats carrying rich couples, leaving the people alone, but making off with their loot.
Just an idea.
But with my luck, I’d get clunked on the head and would end up overboard.
I hit my head on the car door frame again last night. I keep doing that. It’s not fun. I’m feeling okay, afterwards. Same headache as usual. Still, I always wonder if THIS will be the final head injury that truly does me in.
I’m not there, yet. So I’ll count my blessings. And leave it at that.
So, I’ve been reading up on the Polyvagal Theory, and it’s really making a lot of sense to me. In a nutshell (if I dare to summarize), the human system has three systems which respond to the environment, especially perceived threat:
The primal vagus – which is responsible for the freeze response like turtles have — shutting down the system in the face of inescapable threat. This kind of freeze slows the heart rate and reduces oxygen to the body — it’s basically getting ready to die, and making sure you don’t feel the pain when you go. This is not a system we can really control.
The sympathetic nervous system – which is responsible for kicking in the fight-flight response. It also kicks in a different sort of freeze response than the primal vagus — the sympathetic freeze response is where you tense up, like a deer in headlights. This freeze is completely different from primal vagal freeze, because your system does the opposite and increases breathing and heart rate. This system responds to our thoughts and reactions and interpretations of our environment, so we can sort of control it to some degree.
The “directing” vagus – which regulates the other two systems and also makes it possible for you to consciously slow your heart rate or breathing, and regulate your system intentionally. The nerve endings are very closely located to the muscles of the face and neck, and we “cue” off the facial expressions that are produced from messages the social vagus detects in our system (like fear or anger or happiness) to regulate our own social behavior, as well as our reactions to our environment.
The directing vagus (as I call it) is the most recently developed system, next is the sympathetic nervous system, and the primal vagus is the oldest and least controllable of the three. The cool thing about this three-fold system, is that they all interplay with each other, and the more developed systems can override the more primal ones.
If the sympathetic nervous system couldn’t override the primal vagus, there would be a lot less people in the world, because the human system can’t handle extended periods of shutting off oxygen and blood flow (like reptiles can). Our lives would be much shorter, if we didn’t have the SNS fight-flight to kick in and take over in times of extreme danger/distress.
But at the same time, staying stuck in fight-flight 24/7 is no good, so we have the directing vagus that helps us consciously regulate our systems and power down the fight-flight when we no longer need it. The directing vagus is closely connected with interpersonal interactions and reasoning. It not only delivers messages from the body to the brain, but it also helps the brain regulate the body. Problems arise, like PTSD and other mental health issues like panic/anxiety, when we get stuck in that fight-flight loop and can’t get out.
So, how to get out…? I must admit, I’ve been reading a whole lot, so some points may not be totally clear for me yet, but the way I understand it is this: When you’re really stressed, physiologically and neurologically, you are not capable of thinking clearly, and your problem-solving abilities really suffer. But when your system is balanced and rested and responding well to the world, it’s possible for you to “recruit” the full range of your problem-solving abilities and approach your life as a learning experience, not a continuously pitched battle. Now, stress is inevitable in today’s world, but through the directing vagus, you can override the instinct to fight-flight and call on other abilities to deal with your environment that don’t involve still more battle.
And how do we activate the directing vagus? Well, we can do it socially, through talking and sharing meals (talking and eating activate systems in your body that are close to the directing vagus fibers, so the vagus is stimulated as well). We can also do it consciously on our own, through certain types of breathing, movement, mindfulness, and other activities. (The directing vagus both “listens” to the body and gives it instructions, so mindfulness is sort of like exercise for your vagal pathways.) We can also do it semi-consciously by changing our attitude and re-intepreting our experiences to be less combative. By changing our minds about things, we can literally retrain our systems to get out of fight-flight mode, relax, and come up with different approaches to our situation in life.
And that’s important. Because the three systems work in a loop. If the more developed directing vagus system can’t cope with what’s in front of it, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system to spring into fight-flight. And if the SNS isn’t working out, then the primal vagus kicks in to start shutting down the system (preparing to die). It’s an automatic and sometimes uncontrollable chain reaction, and it’s set off when the hierarchical systems fail in the order of sophistication. It’s like the body is looking for the first, best answer to the situation — if the complex thought processes of the directing vagus can’t solve the problem, then fight-flight kicks in, and if that fails, then the primal system takes over and rational thought and conscious choice become that much more elusive. The body keeps looking for answers, and if it can’t find something that will let it respond to a perceived threat, then it just goes into “kill me now and get it over with” mode.
And that’s a pretty rough place to be.
So, what will keep that cascade of diminishing options from kicking off? Well, to me it seems that information and understanding — both about the environment and your internal resources — will go a long way to helping. If you understand in your mind what’s really going on with you (for example, that your brain is acting up because you didn’t get enough sleep last night), and you can reason your way through to a solution (going easy on yourself and taking a nap later in the day), then there’s less reason for the fight-flight response to kick in, and you still have a bunch of cognitive resources available to you. You’re still able to access all your circuits, and that frees you up to make well-informed choices.
Even if you do go into fight-flight mode, and your “unnecessary” neural processes start to shut down because of the stress response, you can take a step back, take a deep breath (or two or three or 20), and re-think things. You can consciously slow yourself down and get yourself back to a more balanced state by using the directing vagus to chill. And that frees up more of your circuits to come up with better ideas and a plan for getting out of the jam you’re in.
Just understanding what’s going on around you — and inside you — can make all the difference in how you approach your challenges. This is why I believe so strongly that TBI/concussion survivors and their loved ones should be educated as much as possible about the brain and how it reacts to traumatic brain injury. Just knowing that you’re not crazy, that this upheaval is a natural response to the injury, and that things will change over time, can help dispel a whole lot of anguish.
I know it did for me.
On top of having information about TBI/concussion, it’s also critical to have knowledge of yourself, to know for a fact that you are capable of handling the things that come up in life, and to be confident that, no matter what happens, you’ll be able to figure things out. Confidence of that kind can be hard to come by in the aftermath of TBI, but cultivating that is so very important. It’s also contagious — your confidence tends to carry over to others, thanks at least in part to the directing vagus, which communicates with the rest of the world via facial muscles and the interpretation of clues and cues coming from others’ faces.
Bottom line is, knowledge is powerful, and in approaching the trauma of TBI and/or concussion and managing the symptoms and after-effects, you can’t put a price on knowledge and understanding. Having more information makes it possible for us to turn to reason — having less information forces us to resort to fight-flight tactics, which just adds to our stress (and that’s probably connected with why experiences with doctors/medical experts can be so traumatic for so many – they just don’t give us much to work with).
Understanding is hugely important on many different levels. You can’t put a price on it.
And with that, I’m off to work, operating with the understanding that I didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night, and that I need to pace myself and also look for an opportunity to catch a quick nap later this afternoon.
Well, I got another lesson yesterday. I’ve been really struggling with my sleep and my workload, and yesterday I thought I’d try to pack in as much as I could — and it totally backfired. I ended up really frying my system and getting into a protracted argument with my spouse that really took it out of me. By the end of the day, I was sick and more tired than ever, and feeling like crap.
I felt terrible about myself, about my behavior, about my inability to just buckle down and get things done, and about the dynamics at work which have been pretty intense. I was sick to my stomach and sick at heart, and just feeling completely depleted and defeated.
One thing I noticed, however, was something that actually helped me feel better about myself. See, I’ve noticed in the past that after relatively minor “infractions” — a heated argument, or a stressful period of time — my mood spirals and plummets, and I end up feeling disproportionately terrible about myself. In many cases, the arguments or the difficulties I had were not catastrophic, and in fact others who were involved did not end up hating themselves or feeling like trash. But I ended up feeling really, really terrible about what went down, and no matter how I tried to rationally talk myself out of feeling like the world was going to end, nothing seemed to help.
Rational thought was a lost cause. I felt like shit, and that was that. Nothing helped by sleep and keeping chilled out for the next few days.
A few years ago, when I was having some intense episodes of panic and meltdown, followed by terrible feelings of worthlessness and despair, I realized that the times when I felt the worst about myself were when I felt the worst, physically. I know people (including my neuropsych) who believe that our physical well-being follows on what we think about ourselves and our environment, and how we interpret them. That is certainly true to some extent… additionally, I have found that when I feel bad physically, then my mood plummets, and no amount of good sense will turn me around, until I am physically well and balanced again.
It’s like, when I get into these tight situations where I am “pinned down” and feel like I cannot escape, I cannot master the situation, and I am sliding down that ragged slope into a meltdown, my whole body goes haywire, and it fires off all these charges that fill my system with bursts of adrenaline, stress hormones, and whatever else floods my system when I’m feeling cornered. It’s a primal physiological experience, and it completely takes over and shuts down my abilities to deal effectively with whatever is in front of me. I simply cannot recruit the whole of my coping abilities… and in situations of tension where people around me are already on the verge of panic and leaning on me to mirror their own concerns (because not acting as panicked as they are makes them nervous and uncertain), I feel intensely trapped, cornered, and persecuted. But the only way out is through, so I have to deal with them.
But dealing with them in times of intense stress (when my fight-flight response is trying like crazy to override my freeze reaction) the result is some pretty intense battle skirmishes which leave me feeling completely wiped out and destroyed.
It’s not even true that I AM destroyed — I just feel that way. And even if things turn out okay and everything resolves to everyone’s satisfaction in the end, I am left with a backlog of biochemical sludge, just like when a river floods and then recedes, and I’m left with all the sludge-covered bicycles and deflated basketballs and shopping carts and trash that got thrown in the river over the years.
That’s literally what it feels like, and it’s figuratively how it is. Because when I get to that breaking point, I am not dealing only with the present moment. Oh no. I am dealing with all the other moments and hours and days and years behind me when I felt pinned down and couldn’t get myself out of danger… when I was put on the spot by people who meant me ill or well, and I couldn’t come up with anything useful or good to do or say in the moment… and then the memories after the fact of people being so hard on me for things I got wrong or didn’t do or say the way they wanted me to.
When I’m cornered, I’m not just cornered at that moment. I am cornered through all the moments of my prior life — and all my imagined moments in the future.
And I flood. Like that Hungarian town where the container of toxic sludge broke open and doused the town in ochre red poison. That would be me.
And I feel terrible. Physically awful. Like shit.
And then I start to get down on myself. I feel awful mentally and emotionally.
The thing is, the mental and emotional anguish comes after the physical problems. The physical things come up as a result of my mental perception, but the after-effects, which are the most debilitating for days on end, follow the physical effects.
So, it’s not all about my state of mind and emotions that dictates this. It’s also my state of physical being that matters.
And this is key. Because in knowing this, I can take concrete, definite steps to address how I’m feeling mentally and physically. Rather than staying down in that low state, with my hands shaking, my stomach in knots, my thinking foggy, and my voice halting and slurred, I can simply go to bed. That’s what I did last night, after all the BS was over and done with. I went to bed. And I slept. And when I got up this morning, still feeling dull and foggy and sick, I got my exercise in. I didn’t just lie in bed and look out the window. I got on the exercise bike, did my leg lifts, and I lifted my weights, after being away from that for several days.
It’s critically important that I keep up with my exercise. If I don’t, and if I don’t keep to some sort of schedule, then I go off the rails, and I end up feeling physically bad — which in turn results in me feeling mentally and emotionally fragile. Like glass. It seems ridiculous to think about, but that’s how I feel — like glass. And over what? A misunderstanding that escalated quickly out of control.
But there’s more to it — it’s not just what/how I think about things. It’s how I physically experience them. If I am pushed to the brink, I react physically. We all do. And with me, I react probably more extremely than most normal people do. I escalate very quickly — and it’s not just about my thinking process. It’s about my physical reaction to things, which I really believe is tied in with my underlying autonomic nervous system reactions that have evolved over decades of stress and strain. As a result of so much that has happened to me, as well as systemic issues that come from my TBIs, I’m wound more tightly than I’d like, and I’m on a hair-trigger — all for a ton of different reasons that all add up to a potential explosion, over the seemingly most minor of things.
I’m not saying all this because I’m trying to excuse my behavior and get myself off the hook. I’m saying all this because it’s critical for me to understand, so I can manage it all. This is not a situation I care to be in. I am capable of better, and I know it. The thing is, I can’t manage a situation, if I don’t understand the underlying issues, and I can’t understand if I don’t identify what’s going on.
I’m sure I’ve written about this stuff in the past. I just can’t remember right now. My thinking is still foggy and a bit clunky. The thing is, I’ve at least started out on a better foot than I did yesterday or the day before. I got up at a decent hour. I got my exercise. And I had my breakfast and vitamins. I didn’t overdo it and I didn’t underdo it. I just did it. I also realize that my feelings of depression and despair are physically based, and I know they will pass as I continue to do healthy things over the coming days. It helps to know this, even if I feel like sh*t right now. And despite feeling like a once-flooded Eastern European village, that’s starting to make a difference.
The other thing that’s making a difference, is my increasing understanding with the Polyvagal Theory, which explains so much that I’ve had hunches about before, and confirms my suspicions from personal experience. In many cases — more than some guess, I believe — our bodies set the stage for our mental and emotional reactions and well-being. It’s nice to think that a “top-down” approach of mind-over-matter can control our destiny, however there’s a ton of bottom-up information our systems are constantly dealing with, that affects how we react, how we think, how we live.
So, it’s time to give the body its due. It’s time to recognize the physical components of experience — the felt experiences that affect our thinking and state of heart. And it’s time to take positive, constructive action that makes the most of this recognition. That’s my goal for today, anyway.
I had an interesting conversation with some acquaintances a few days back. For some reason, I ended up sitting at a table with a couple of folks who were lugging around diagnoses of ADD, like so much luggage they had to schlepp around an airport, in perpetual search of a flight that kept changing gates.
One of them embraced their ADD diagnosis with forced gusto, essentially turning the baggage into heavy Luis Vuitton satchels with special locks on all the latches. They proudly proclaimed that they were a “ready-shoot-aim” kind of person, who took things as they came… and proceeded to also comment that for all the balls they have in the air at any given time, they didn’t actually get much done.
Another of them sat silently as we discussed distractability and attention issues and what it’s like to live in today’s world. Not to be dragged down by any ADD/ADHD diagnostic belaborment, I proposed the idea that in today’s world, with all the things that are constantly thrown at us… if we have any interest at all in life, and if we are really invested in what happens to us and the world around us, we darned well sure are going to get “distracted” on a pretty regular basis.
I mean, if you give a damn about what’s going on around you, and if you have a deep and abiding interest in your surroundings, and your surroundings change and evolve, how can you not pay attention to shifting things?
“If you’re really, really alive,” I proposed, “you’re going to be prone to be distracted.”
The one with the “expensive luggage” just looked at me.
The quiet one got up and gave me the biggest hug I’ve gotten in a long time.
I woke up today in a state of total, unremitting despair. All the world, it seemed, was caving in on me, and there was no place for me to turn. Looking around my life from the central point of my bed, all I could see was difficulty and challenge, no help to be had anywhere, and I was convinced that I am utterly alone in the world.
How could I help but weep uncontrollably, which is what I did. I was alone in the bed — my spouse and I have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for over a year, now — and even if I had been in bed with my beloved, it would have just made things worse. I would have set them off. And then we’d be off to the races.
I haven’t talked much (at all?) about the health issues my spouse has, but they are fairly serious. Life-threatening, actually. Life-changing. They’ve pretty much been disabled and unable to work since 1996. I don’t talk much about it, because it’s a never-ending saga of two steps up, one step back, one step up, two steps back. It’s exhausting even to think about it, so I don’t write about it or talk to others about it. It’s actually much easier for me to be a caregiver mostly by myself, without needing (with my confounded communication and organization issues) to explain in detail to everyone around me what I need, what they need, what will help, what will make things better.
One of the big drivers behind me trying to figure out this TBI business, is that my injury in 2004 severely curtailed my ability to be a decent caregiver and provider. If I hadn’t realized just how much my injury was mucking up my composure and my ability to earn a living — if those hadn’t been a problem at all — I might not be on this journey, right now. I probably could have let it all slide, for a time anyway. That’s what I’ve been doing for years, after all. It’s landed me in all sorts of trouble, but somehow, when the trouble only seems to affect you — and you can still make a living and slide by in the rest of life — it’s much easier to gloss over it.
When you’ve got an ill partner to care for, that changes a lot. Throw in a whopping mortgage and a bunch of other financial and logistical responsibilities, and you’ve got a hell of a compelling case for figuring this sh*t out.
Anyway, enough about me. The thing with my spouse’s health issues is that flare-ups with physical issues tend to trigger extended cascades of panic-anxiety, which are even more debilitating than the underlying physical problems, themselves. And when they are down or in a prolonged panic state, they neglect their physical upkeep, which exacerbates their physical condition.
Their “regressions” can be months-long drawn-out dramas of them needing almost constant positive reinforcement and support, as well as consistent reminders and motivational pep-talks about why it’s good to stay away from multiple packages of high-carb junk foods, and high-fat, high-sugar “treats”. It takes a mammoth effort of will and radical compassion to steer them back on track. They know they should do it, but there are a large number of complications that come into play. It’s just not a simple cut-and-dried case of steady-on. They’ve got a whole raft of issues from many, many years of awful, violent, immediate-family situations and bad relationships, so we’ve got that to contend with. Ghosts live in our home, and my spouse at times seems to have more of a relationship with them, than with me.
Now, once my partner is back on track, it’s good, and they can carry on in the world with relative normalcy. But I never know if they’re going to stick with their routine or if they’re going to feel like “taking it easy” and go off on another bad-food, bad-habit binge… and stay there for the next six weeks. Eating wrong and stopping the exercise and getting away from regular sleep-waking cycles might not seem like that big of a deal, but believe me — mind and body are totally connected, and if they neglect one, the other starts to go. Pronto. So, I tend to be on-guard a lot. Like a little Shetland sheepdog trotting around their perimeter and nipping at their heels to keep them away from the cliff, as best I can.
As best I can… which is not always that great. Over the years, we’ve had some better and worse times, the better times being when both of us were working and fully engaged in life. We have not had the easiest time of things over the past 20 years. We’ve been in extremely dire financial straits several times, nearly got evicted a few times, were on the run from angry landlords and creditors a few times, and along the way we’ve had our share of trashed relationships with people who purported to be our friends but then turned around and screwed us royally. We’re both trusting sorts with big open hearts. That’s the risk you run, when you’re open to people and you see the best they have to offer — you sometimes see a side of them that’s not their “default”, so you end up expecting one sort of behavior, but are the recipient of another.
But that’s another post for another day.
Anyway, lately, my spouse has been a little worse for wear — as have I — over money and work circumstances. They’ve got a couple of jobs coming up that will bring in money, which is great… but they need help doing it. In the past, I’ve helped — I was their main support. But I also over-extended myself, and one of the reasons I’ve gotten brain-injured several times over the past 15 years, is that I over-extended and exhausted myself and I didn’t take good care of my own safety.
Now, all that comes up again — if I don’t help my spouse do these jobs, the money may not come through. Or they may have some sort of breakdown without me around to stabilize them. But if I do help them, I may be compromising my health and possibly my safety. They’ve done events when I wasn’t there, and when the going got rough, they fell apart – which is not a good way to attract new business. So, the pressure is on for me to pitch in and help. Meanwhile, I’ve got this new job and I haven’t accrued enough time to take vacation to help with these gigs, and I worry that the exhaustion is going to impact my performance at work. I’m feeling like if I don’t rob Peter and pay Paul, we’re totally screwed. Both of us. Either way doesn’t look like a good thing.
The most frustrating thing is how none of this can be separated out into my-stuff-their-stuff. When you’re living with someone who has some serious physical and mental health issues, and you’ve got your own TBI complications to deal with, the problems one of you has never just stays your own — you both have the problems.
And that’s a problem.
Which is where I ended up this morning, weeping bitterly and desperately in the isolation of my room. Alone. Completely alone. Screwed. Totally screwed. All the world was closing in on me, and I could see no way out.
How much easier it would be, I thought, if I weren’t around. If I died, my spouse would get my life insurance, could pay off the mortgage, have the place to themself, and wouldn’t be bothered by my outbursts and “rough patches”. The thought has occurred to me a number of times over the years that they’d be better off without me, and it came up again this morning.
But after I’d completely abandoned myself to the despair for a while, eventually I got to thinking…
And it occurred to me that I/we have been in much tighter spots, with far less resources, far less knowledge, and with far fewer tools to deal with everything, than we have today. Things may look desperate, I may feel desperate, but is that really the whole story?
Let me think…
I think not.
Looking back, I can see — plain as day — how things just manage to work themselves out over time. Things change. It’s the nature of the world, the nature of life. And even though the shit may hit the fan, shit always turns into something else.
Or dried chips you can use to build a fire.
What’s more, when I look objectively at my life and compare it with the lives of others in dire straits, I know for a fact that I am not alone. I may not be personally acquainted with everyone who is having a rough time (though many of my friends are), but I know that I am not the only one in this world who suffers. And I know that I am not the only one in search of answers.
No, contrary to all appearances, I am not alone.
And I realized, as I got outside the confines of my poor-me head and really thought about my situation, that the main reason I was in so much pain, was that I was dwelling on the pain. I was dwelling only on the pain. Nothing else.
Which was not the whole story.
The whole story was also about the sun coming up outside my bedroom window, and there was a beautiful pink tint to the clouds.
The whole story was also about me having the presence of mind to plan a nap later today, so I don’t get too depleted.
The whole story was also about me being tight and cramped because I wasn’t taking care of myself — and me knowing what to do about that: get up and exercise.
The whole story also includes the simple, simple fact that doing something as basic as breathing can bring me back into my body, get me out of my head, and infuse me with energy and life that gets me out of the bed with ideas about what is possible — not what’s “impossible.”
The whole story is also about how these friends of ours who are having tough times too, are available to help with some of the things that need to get done, and I am not, in fact the only one who can help. And my spouse, when they’re in a steady place and are actually in the midst of their work (instead of fretting up in their head all the time), is indeed able to tend to their own needs and get help with what they need help with.
They have that skill. They are very in touch with their needs and wants and wishes, and they aren’t shy about speaking up about it. So, I can trust that. I have to trust that.
The other part of the story (I now realize) is that I’m just tired. I’ve had a very busy week, and Saturday was a continuation of that. I’m still in the process of adjusting to my new job and the company, and if I dwell too much on the unknowns, it does a number on my head. So, I need to not do that. Just focus on the work in front of me, immerse myself in that, and get on with living my life.
Do what’s in front of me. Dwell on that. Take things a bit at a time, and just be smart about how I budget my energy. Don’t run around like a chicken with my head cut off, because it’s summer and it’s not going to be a beautiful day forever. Pace myself. Use my noggin and all the experience I have. Chill.
And ask for help when I can.
Things really do have a way of turning around… so long as I stay open to them, and I spend as much time — if not more — dwelling on the possibilities, instead of the dread.
None of us knows the whole story about what is and is not possible. None of us knows how much we’re capable of doing, contrary to all indicators. None of us has it all figured out, and we probably never will.
I’ve been in a really up-and-down place, lately. I’m dealing with the residue of various traumas, I’m dealing with the day-to-day crap from various head injuries, and I’m winding down one job to move on to another. In the midst of my cognitive and emotional floundering, I’m hanging in there and falling back on my old coping mechanisms of smiling stoicism and shutting down those parts of me that are prone to freak out over every little thing.
I would rather not use repression as a coping mechanism, but I really need to make this job transition, so I’m just clamping down on the heartache and emotional upheaval… until I’m settled into my new job.
It’s a bit of a gamble, really. I have to remind myself that in another few weeks, I’m going to need to decompress and do some serious “autotherapy” — using guided imagery, time alone to break down, and lots of long walks down country roads… and city streets as well.
I wish I were less nervous about this, but my pattern in the past, when I was moving on from one situation to another, has been to burn bridges behind me, so I had to move forward. Poor person’s motivation. As a result, I have a lot of bad blood in my past that I’m not proud of. I just don’t want to go there, this time. I don’t want to alienate the people I’m leaving behind, so I don’t feel so badly about leaving them.
Fact of the matter is, I do feel badly about it. I have to leave to take this new job. But I don’t want to leave the old one. It’s a wonderful problem to have, in this economy, but I’m still struggling with it on some level.
One of the things that’s helped me a great deal, over the past week has been reading about “Positive Disintegration” — or positive mal-adjustment and separation from “norms” that no longer work for you. The concept was developed by Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski, who (as I understand it) rejected the widespread practice of labelling “maladjustments” as forms of mental illness. His premise, as I understand it, is that as people develop and mature, they inevitably encounter things about the world that don’t sit right with them and that cause them considerable distress.
In fact, the more capable of maturing you are, the more distress you’re going to be in, because no culture is perfect, and there are a lot of things that could — and should — be done differently. When you positively dis-integrate (that is, you un-integrate from the norms of society based on your own evolving and advancing understanding of your own values and concept of right and wrong), you basically differentiate yourself from the status quo and break out to form your own identiy, with your own moral compass.
Unfortunately, standard-issue cultural norms can consider such separation and differentiation as a form of mental illness or psychosis, and plenty of psychology and counseling is geared towards “helping” people adjust to life and be “well-adjusted”. But that’s not always good. Because (for the sake of “peace of mind”) you could become well-adjusted to widespread cultural acceptance of genocidal atrocities… domestic violence… the gutting of the Constitution… accepting (and promoting) inaccurate military intelligence that warns of WMD… and buying more house than you can afford.
All cultures are a work in progress, and according to Dabrowski (who passed away in 1980 and whose name is — I think — pronounced da-BROV-ski), it’s the mal-adjusted, individually guided, conscience-driven individuals who move the culture forward to a more advanced state.
He treated “dis-ease” and “disorders” as potentials for growth and change, encouraging his patients (and others) to examine their difficulties to see what potential for growth they revealed. If you think about it, this is a pretty revolutionary approach to mental health. And it’s inclusive in ways that excite and intrigue me… and which I’ve long agreed with, though I could never articulate it as well as he does/did.
Where I am now is really in a state of positive dis-integration. I’m un-integrating from the workplace I’ve been in, for nearly a year… de-coupling from people I’ve learned to really like and work with (tho’ with varying degrees of success)… dis-connecting from the “security” of a permanent job offer that wouldn’t pay me enough to actually live on or give me the skills that will keep me fully employable over the coming years, in exchange for a really great-paying gig that’s a contract with no guarantees but will make me more employable than ever in my chosen field.
I’m dis-integrating in favor of something better, something bigger, something with great potential. And while it’s very exciting on some levels, it’s also terrifying on others. I’m fearful that my brain will fail me, that I’ll become over-tired, that I’ll lose my ability to cope, that I’ll end up where I was way back when, when I was in high-pressure situations and melted down. I’m very concerned about my resilience, if I’ll bring too much stress home from work, if I’ll be able to maintain my effectiveness and productivity. And in moments when I’m especially tired and lonely and afraid, I despair.
That despair, however, can be a good thing. Fortunately, I know myself well enough to realize that in the morning things will quite literally be better. After I get a full night’s sleep, I write a little bit, I read a little bit, and I get on with my life, I’ll not feel so desperate, so alone and afraid. I know myself well enough to realize that the despair is there because something is missing… and once I figure out what that something is, and take steps to address it, I’ll be able to get on with my life.
Despair is also a good reminder to me that I’m not perfect — and I know it. Someone who had no clue about their impairments and had no clue about how much better off they could be, wouldn’t bother being this down. But I know about my deficits, and I have a very keen hunger for the ideal. So, of course I’m going to feel this way, now and then.
For me, the degree of my despair is the measure of distance between my perceived real and my imagined ideal. It tells me where I’m at and it reminds me that I can’t afford to get cocky. Fortunately, my personality is sufficiently fickle — and bores easily — so I don’t stay stuck for long in that desperate state. But when I’m there, as frightening as it can be, as dark as it can be, as agonizing as it can be, there are lessons to learn. And my life would be far less bright and light-filled, if I paid no attention to them.
When it comes to head injury, chronic illness, PTSD, or any other intractable physical or mental condition that won’t respond immediately to therapy, but takes seemingly forever to get better — if it does at all — despair can be a recurring theme. I can’t speak for anyone else, and not being a trained psychotherapist, I certainly shouldn’t dispense mental health advice (if you feel you’re in mortal danger, please seek qualified psychological help!). But in my case, when despair comes to visit — as it so often does — I find I can use it as a classroom of sorts. It has plenty of things to teach me, in the moments or hours or even days it spends with me. And I ignore/suppress it at my own peril.
Despair doesn’t have to be a bad thing — unless it’s a permanent state that requires medication or other intervention to avoid suicide. It can actually be a valuable part of maturation and personal growth.
After all, it’s easier to find a little glimmer of light, when you’re in a pitch-black room.