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.



These things take time

The great wave

Read in Japanese by Clicking Here

I was poking around Google Insights this morning, and I found something interesting — Japan has been searching Google for information on “brain injury” pretty regularly since mid-2008. There was a big spike in searches on “brain injury” in February, 2006, then they stopped.

The patterns are remarkably wave-like. There are huge surges of interest, followed by lulls of… nothing.

Here’s what the hits looked like in 2004-2006;

Japan searches for “brain injury” 2004-2006

Then all was pretty quiet for a while. I’m not sure what happened in 2008, but the searches picked up. Then, at the beginning of 2011, the searches dropped off dramatically. See below:

Japan Google Searches for "Brain Injury"
Japan Google Searches for "Brain Injury"

Also, looking closer at the last 12 months, here’s what I’m seeing:

Japan Google searches for "brain injury" over the past 12 months
Japan Google searches for "brain injury" over the past 12 months

And I wonder if the tsunami and earthquake and nuclear events simply exhausted everyone, so they just wanted to go back to work, instead of spending time online. Then again, it could be that the drastic reductions in electricity have kept people offline more and more, so they can’t get to the online information, even if they wanted to.

And that worries me a little bit. Because as time goes on, TBI continues to cause issues. And given the earthquake and all those aftershocks, it seems to me that traumatic brain injury may very well be an issue now and in the future. One of the best ways to get information out, is over the internet, so if people have diminished access, what does that mean for support for people when they need it most?

Especially in the case of mild traumatic brain injury, ongoing support is critical, as the effects can be lasting — and they can compound. Plus, with MTBI, you’ve got an increased potential for post-traumatic stress, which is related not only to the initial injury, but the subsequent issues that emerge over time… all those little problems that snowball and eventually become truly troublesome. Not good.

And if people in Japan aren’t getting sufficient information about how to deal with TBI, then it seems to me that you’ve got a potential problem “time-release capsule” that starts unleashing the biggest challenges in 18 months after the initial event — just when everyone thinks things are settling down and chilling out.

I really feel for the Japanese people. As I understand their culture (and that’s probably very marginally and with a lot of flaws), composure, restraint, and self-possession are highly prized. And if there’s one thing that TBI (especially mTBI) can screw up, it’s your composure, restraint, and self-possession. No matter how you try, if you’re not giving your brain and your body the chance to heal, and you’re not changing how you approach your life to allow for the changes that took place in all your synapses, it can be pretty easy to go off the deep end and land in some deep trouble. Interpersonally, professionally, personally, emotionally, spiritually, and more… MTBI is a “gift that keeps on giving.

I do come across realizations of this, more and more online. A few months back, this article was written about Kevin Pearce, the snowboarder who sustained a life-threatening TBI during a training run. He’s still working his way back to being functional, and he’s relinquished plans to return to professional snowboarding. Seems smart to me. He’s cleared to surf, not snowboard, so he’s doing his thing in liquid water, not on the frozen stuff.

The remarkable thing about Kevin Pearce’s experience is that his family has been with him the whole time. At no time during his hospitalization was he left alone, which may have contributed to his recovery. He had the full support of his family, which makes him an exception to what is often a very sad “rule” of TBI — people tend to scatter, when they find out you’re injured or impaired somehow — especially if you’re potentially impaired for the long term. This doesn’t just happen when you’re on a sports team or you’re in the military — in everyday civilian life, too, people have a remarkable lack of resilience and tolerance for people who are “not 100%”. Sad, but true.

And the definition of 100% tends to change and differ from person to person, as well, so that’s another wrinkle to deal with.

Anyway, it’s good to see that Kevin Pearce is on the mend. I wish the same could be said for all of us. That’s my hope, anyway.

But back to Japan. I’m sure there are public education programs in place to teach people about traumatic brain injuries. Certainly, there must be. And I hope that the programs will keep strong — even strengthen — over the coming months and years, as the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury become increasingly evident. If your culture is centered around the qualities of composure and self-possession and impulse restraint, then TBI — especially MTBI — can wreak havoc on the fabric of all society, one brain-injury survivor at a time.

Because as so many of us know, TBI never affects only one individual, rather everyone who comes in contact with that individual.

Repairing the damage

I’ve been thinking about the article I came across the other day about TBI unfolding over the course of months, rather than the initial timeframe of the obvious injury. My initial reaction was, “This is good – someone is getting a bit more of a clue.” Then, as I read the article, I thought, “Well, d’oh — they have to do a clinical study with rats to figure this one out, when all these people with TBI are walking around in front of them, exhibiting long-term issues, despite “just getting their bell rung”… What is wrong with the medical/scientific establishment?!”

Then I calmed down and decided to be happy that they’ve found research that supports what so many of us know — TBI can wreak havoc with your life for a long, long time, even after the physical bump on your head has gone down.

Whatever the point of view, whatever the source of information, I think we can all fundamentally agree that TBI is a bitch, and while it helps to understand the nature of the condition, its scope, and its ramifications, what we really need (and the article above speaks to this) is a way to address these issues.

The medical/pharmaceutical industry, by their nature, are likely to look to pharmacological “solutions” — pills that will interact with the hippocampus or other related parts of the brain, to counteract the progression of TBI-related symptoms. The psychotherapeutic industry, by right of their orientation, may look to psychological / cognitive-behavioral approaches. And insurance companies, by their nature, may put checkpoints in place to disqualify TBI “experiencers” from medical treatment after a certain point — say, after six weeks worth of treatments — so they don’t incur long-term costs from paying for all those people who got clunked in the head may have prolonged periods of difficulty.

[As an aside, the truly chilling part of the insurance scenario for me, is the prospect of all these people finding out about the devastation that TBI can cause, and then deciding that if they’ve sustained one, their goose is cooked, so they really can’t expect to ever go back to the way things once were, so why not just give up and file for insurance pay-outs and/or public assistance/disability… while the medical/pharma/insurance industries are keeping two steps ahead of them, policy-wise, and ten steps behind, treatment-wise… and not only are hurt people not getting the help they need (or believe they need) from the trained experts, but the trained experts — by right of their ignorance and/or wilful decision to avoid incurring costs and/or outright greed — are blocking their access to real, substantive help, thus plunging the lot of them/us into a morass of ignorance-fuelled helplessness.]

Anyway, back to my originally scheduled post…

Outside the realms of medicine and pharma and insurance claims, what do the rest of us do? What can those of us do, who have sustained TBI, who are outside the fold, in terms of getting help? Are we doomed to perpetual dimness, impaired memory, a short-changed life, and a host of physical problems that our doctors cannot possibly treat?

Perhaps. Certainly, it happens. All too often. But it doesn’t have to. This has been my perspective and my belief, almost from the start of this blog — a firm personal conviction, even faith, that TBI does not have to be the final judge and jury of our lives, condemning us to a marginal existence marked by confusion, disorientation, rage, hate, and fear. Things can get better. Things do get better. They will get better.

Now, anyone could argue that with me and point to countles examples of TBI situations that didn’t get better. All the vets who return from overseas with TBI and PTSD who end up in jail or taking their own lives. All the survivors of car accidents and assaults and falls who fade away into the shadow lands of the neurologically impaired. All the folks who never fully understand why it is their brain isn’t working like it was before, and can’t figure out how to get back to a level of functioning they’re truly comfortable with. There are myriad stories — all of them true — about how TBI is a main ingredient in a recipe for disaster.

TBI does damage, certainly. Short-term damage. Long-term damage. It unfolds unpredictably over time, and too little is known about it for mainstream help to be readily available. There are steps forward, there are steps back. And since every brain is different, you’ve got yourself a vast array of possibilities, when it comes to plausible explanations for why things are so screwed up… and a vast array of possible responses to those reasons.

But here’s the thing — at least, for me. The human brain is “plastic” — that is, it changes over time, depending on stimuli and the internal workings of the person it belongs to. It responds to biochemical stimuli, it responds to physical input, it reacts to physiological conditions. And while neurons and axons and synapses may be totally  mucked up by the wrenching, tearing, shearing action of traumatic brain injury, neurons that fire together wire together, so as long as there are at least some neurons still viable, there is opportunity for change.

There is a virtual guarantee that there will be change.

And the key to me is that we are in charge of that change.

Oh, certainly, there are aspects of life which are totally beyond our control. Injustice and unfairness and exploitation and oppression are part and parcel of the human experience, and they happen to us daily — just because we’re alive. But the thing we CAN control, is our reaction to those things. We can choose how to approach these challenges in life — as violent opponents given to rage as a driving force in attacking the wrong-ness of life… as curious, engaged participants in life who choose to contribute to a solution… or as a combination of those two in different parts of the spectrum. Our reactions, our involvement in life, fashion the internal chemistry of our brains, and our plastic brains respond with gusto to whatever we send their way. They can’t help it. That’s what they do. The brain changes. It can’t help but change.

When you experience a TBI (or two or three… or nine – like me), the input that you receive can be terribly confusing and disorienting. It’s messed up, no doubt about it. Your wires are crossed. You’re confused and scared and walking around with a rage-provoking hair-trigger. Your brain is getting constant signals that SOMETHING IS WRONG! SOMETHING IS WRONG! WTF?!?!? SOMETHING IS WRONG!!!! All the old ways seem like they’re gone for good, and you can’t find your way back.

But it doesn’t need to stay that way.  Because if you stick with it, one way or another, you can find your way back. You may not find your way back to the exact same place you were before, and you may never regain the exact same old abilities you once had, but those old abilities are not the only ones you have at your disposal. You have a ton of abilities you don’t even realize you have, and if you never test yourself, never push yourself, never get outside your comfort zone, you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to discover and develop them.

In many, many ways, TBI is like a natural disaster that destroys your home. Maybe it’s like a river that floods and either washes away or damages beyond repair all that you once held dear. Maybe it’s like a tornado that touches down in your town and not only destroys your home, but the homes of everyone close to you. Maybe it’s like a wildfire that takes out one house while leaving others intact… and that leads to even more damage from the water used to put out the fire. Maybe it’s like an earthquake or sinkhole that buries or swallows your house and every earthly possession in one fell swoop.

The old ways of doing things are gone. The old ways of thinking, of acting, of relating, even of walking down the street… gone. The memories may be gone… or the sense of humor… or the sense of balance… or the quiet in your ears — gone. But you can’t just sit around and worry about the things that are gone… the things that were lost in the fire or the flood or the tornado or the earthquake. You’ve got to get back on your feet, repair what damage you can, and resume some semblance of life.

Not that any of this is easy. Far from it. But people go through disasters every day, some of them more survivable than others. And somehow we survive. WE repair the damage. We patch the holes. We keep walking or paddling or steering the vehicle in the direction of our choice.

And we survive. We even thrive.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to get to work. I have three deadlines to meet before Monday. Three excellent problems to have.