A good sturdy kick in the behind

Every now and then, I need a good strong boot in the butt. Not a gentle reminder, not a tender prompt, but a real impact that stings at the start, but ultimately turns out to be the lesson I needed — a lesson that I either “get” and live my life better in the aftermath… or if I don’t get it, I sink like a rock.

I have fortunately had the good sense to go back to reading the Give Back Orlando materials on Self-Therapy for Head Injury – Teaching Yourself to Prevent Head-Injured Moments. I had told my diagnostic neuropsych about the materials, and they said they thought it’s “good science” and is consistent with what both of us believe — that just because you’ve had a head injury does not mean you have to settle for a marginal life limited by your issues. There are things you can do to offset or compensate for or heal the issues you’ve got. A head injury does not have to be the end of the story.

And after I told my neuropsych about the material, it reminded me that I have not gone back to it lately, and I have not in fact read the whole way through the material. It was embarrassing to admit it, but I’m going to put that embarrassment to good use, and remedy the situation.

I have not been nearly enough focused on my recovery, of late. I have not made it a priority. And, in fact, after reading the section on priorities: CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: SETTING MY PRIORITIES in the Advanced Section, I realized that I need to do something about this. I’ve still got a long way to go to make this somewhat leaky boat of my life seaworthy again. I have made tremendous progress, over the past years — especially since my fall in 2004 — and especially in the past 6-8 months. But I still have a long way to go, to keep the screwed-up automatic responses of my “alternative” brain from messing up my life.

I have a lifetime of bad habits that came out of injuries to address. I may not fix them all, and I may never even discover them all, but by God, I’m going to at least take a shot at doing the best I can to overcome them, turn my thinking around, and live the life I know I’m meant to live.

There is a lot at stake with me. Personally and professionally. I’ve started a new job, which is a gateway to better paying work that suits me better than the production-type work I’ve done for the past 20 years. I’ve become very good at following instructions from other people, and I excel at doing what I’m told. That’s come from a lifetime of hard work and deliberate refinement. My ability to follow explicit directions has been a reliable meal-ticket. It’s bought me a house and two cars and made me far more functional that someone with my history of head injury “should” be.

But now I need to bump it up a notch and see where else my abilities can take me. I have considerable capabilities, in addition to my limitations. I have a raft of strengths that are just sitting around waiting to be used, while my relative weaknesses play havoc with my daily life. I spend so much time managing the cognitive-behavioral challenges I have, that I rarely get/take the time to focus on building my strengths.

And I have languished.  For over 40 years, I’ve settled for less than I was capable of having/doing/being, because of the corrosive effects of those invisible challenges. What a shame and a waste. I have let my talents and abilities sit on the back burner, while I’ve put out fires flashing up all around me. I have not focused fully on developing my strong suits, because the weakling aspects of my person have monopolized my attention to the point of distraction, dissipation, and inertia.

Good grief.

But I really can’t spend any more time, right now, bemoaning that. The time I spent worrying about what’s gone before, is time I don’t have to spend on thinking about what’s yet to come. And I need to think about the future. I have issues, I know that. I have had difficulties in the past. I know that, all too well.

I have spent the past year and a half examining the parts of my life that have gotten totally hosed — specifically by TBI. The whole point of doing this, is not to feel bad about it, to beat myself up, and back away from life. The point of doing this, has been to identify the things that need to be fixed, and then come up with a way of fixing them.

Or compensating for them.

Or avoiding the stuff that just can’t be fixed.

Now I have tools and support to address the issues I know I have. And that’s what I’ll do.

So, what needs fixing? This morning, I’m focused on my long-time bad habit of not following through on what I promise to do. For a lot of different reasons, I tend to commit to things, and then I don’t complete the things I say I’ll do. I get sidetracked. Distracted. Confused. And I back away from the job, going off to do something else, instead of buckling down and doing what I said I would.

It’s one thing, if I do this with myself — I’ve done it all my life, with countless personal projects planned and started and then never completed. But I’ve also done it with people beyond the confines of my head. Ever since I was a kid, failure to complete was a huge issue with me. And it’s dogged me into my adulthood.

And now that pattern needs to change.

So, I’m changing it. Deliberately. Intentionally. With real resolve and commitment.

One of the things I’ve been looking at, is why I lose the fire. Why do I start things so enthusiastically, and then lose my enthusiasm? There are a number of reasons, but the main one seems to be that in the midst of all the details, I lose sight of the Big Picture. I lose track of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I forget the whole purpose behind it. I forget the reasons I got excited to begin with. I lose track of where the details fit in terms of the overall project. And I get lost.

Then I walk away. I lose sight of my Priorities, which inform the Big Picture of my life.

From the GBO Material:

Summary: Good decisions are made in accord with your personal priorities.

The decisions you regret making are the ones that conflict with your priorities.

The head injury makes it easy to overlook them. By bringing your priority list up to date and using it actively to guide your decisions, you can take better control of your life and make sure that the decisions are guided by your needs.

The Issue: Planning depends on having a clear sense of what’s important to you. You can’t make decisions about what you are going to do, or how you are going to spend your money, or which opportunities you are going to take and which you are going to let go, unless you know what your priorities are. Knowing priorities is something an adult normally does automatically, but it doesn’t work automatically after a head injury. After a head injury, too many decisions are impulsive. They are made to pursue something that is interesting at the time, but without thinking about how the higher priorities will be impacted. For example, survivors get mad at the boss and blow him off, losing the job. Only later do they realize how important the job was to them. If they had only thought about their priorities at the time, they might still have that job.

Yes, too many of my decisions are impulsive. I don’t hold myself firmly enough to a set plan of action. I make my notes and plan my activities, but then I get pulled off in all sorts of different directions by distractions and entertaining sidelines. I start out researching something necessary, then I get intrigued by an experiment I want to try, and I get sucked into that for hours. Eventually, I resurface and realize I’m so far behind, I’ll never get the important things done that needed to be done that day.

And I get down on myself, feel bad, beat myself up, tell myself, “You did it again…” and that takes a toll on what little self-confidence I started with. Slowly but surely, one small failure after another has chipped away at my self-confidence, undermining my belief that I can get things done. Bit by bit, I’ve allowed this to erode my sense of capability… it’s a wonder I ever start anything.

But I do start. I start again. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. I start again. I take another shot. I don’t give up. For whatever reason. There is still a part of me that hopes, still a part of me that’s willing to try. I’m not sure why or how, but that’s not for me to question.

The missing piece is not the starting of things. It’s the continuing. It’s the completing. Tying up loose ends is the temperamental problem-child of my productivity repertoire.

Now, I’ve started again — this time with a new job. And this time I really don’t want to make the same mistakes I’ve made in other places. This time, I need to complete. I need to continue until I complete. I need to clearly and succinctly identify what needs to be done, and I need to do it. This is not optional. This is essential. It’s not up for discussion. I absolutely positively need to make sure I follow up on what I say I’m going to do it, and come hell or high water, by God, I have to get the job done.

That means controlling my impulses. That means mastering my distractions. That means keeping the Big Picture in mind and not losing sight of my promises. That means re-prioritizing my life — clarifying my priorities, to begin with. It means reminding myself daily of what I want, what I need, and what I have to do to get where I’m going.

I am by nature a very disciplined person. I have principles, and I have good intentions, and all I really want to do with my life is help others and reduce the quotient of human suffering in the world. The problem is not with me and my character. The problem is with how my brain works, and how it works against me.

That being said, I’m putting together my toolbox for dealing with all this … complexity

Again, from GBO:

The whole process of thinking about priorities has to be different after a head injury. Before, you probably automatically threw out unrealistic goals. Now you automatically accept unrealistic goals, and you can be realistic only by carefully looking at each goal and judging whether it will work or not. For example, a patient who was highly successful in going to college, getting top grades, and planning a career, was totally unsuccessful in setting goals for romantic relationships. He wanted a really hot, young woman, while he was now middle-aged, physically disabled, and relatively poor. He had gone without a date for 12 years because the women he met who matched up with his priorities would not date him, and the ones who would date him did not match his priorities.

If your priorities are unrealistic (especially if they are based on what your old self could do), then your life will be an exercise in frustration and failure. The only way to lead a successful life is to make sure that you ask yourself to do only those things you are really capable of doing. I cannot begin to properly explain how hard this is to do. It takes even the best recovered people years to reset their priorities so that they are truly realistic. To get there, you need to think about it often, and work on it regularly. But the reward for getting your priorities straight is sweet: Your life begins to make sense again.

Even after you have adjusted your priorities, it doesn’t guarantee that you will use them. Every time you make an important decision, your priorities control your decision process only after you make yourself stop and think about them.  . . .

I need to develop realistic goals. The type of goals that take into consideration not only the abilities I have, but how much time in the day I have. I need to let go of unrealistic expectations and goals and focus on the ones that make sense for me.

That means doing things like jettisoning a lot of the little projects I have sitting around in the wings. If they don’t immediately serve my Overall Goal of paying my mortgage and all my other bills, they have to go away. If they don’t serve my Important Goal of keeping my job and doing well professionally, then they have to go away. If they just serve to distract me from my discomfort, like a recreational drug of some kind, then I have to live my life without them. I don’t drink and smoke. Why would I dissipate my energies and wear myself out on little projects that serve no purpose other than to pass the time and get my mind off my troubles?

Focus… Focus in… That’s what I’m about, now. It’s what I have to be about. I can’t afford to screw around anymore. I’ve found work I love to do, that I can excel at, and now I need to make doing it a top priority. I realize more and more, each day, that my neurology mucks up my life in countless little ways that add up to big problems. And I need to make my ongoing recovery an even bigger priority. First things first. Figure out what matters. Ditch the rest. Be honest, be brutal, be effective, and in the process get my life back to a state that actually makes sense to me.

Onward.

Disaster at Sea – My ill-fated encounter with “Life of Pi”

Some years back, my parents gave me the book Life of Pi for a present. It’s the story about a guy from India whose ship goes down at sea, and he ends up in a lifeboat at sea with a bunch of wild animals (that had been on the ship) with him in the boat, and how he manages to survive the voyage with a tiger on board. I guess my folks thought I would enjoy it, since I work in technology and I have a lot of dealings with folks from India on a regular basis. Plus, it was full of interesting facts about animals and zoos and …  I’m not sure what else, because I couldn’t finish the book. Bottom line is, it was just the kind of book I loved as a kid, and they seemed to think I’d really get a kick out of it.

In retrospect, some Benadryl would have done me more good in improving the quality of my life. I know my folks were only trying to help me entertain myself, but my attempt at reading the book — about a year after my fall in 2004 — was so ill-fated, it stands as an excellent example of what TBI has done to my thought process and memory… and how that affects my ability to read, remember, and make progress with written material. It also highlights how TBI has utterly stripped me of one of the great joys of my past life — engrossing, fact-filled fiction that educates as well as entertains.

If you’ve read Life of Pi, you know that it is rich in detail and the action is pretty cerebral — it’s perfect for my parents, who are very heady types and love to noodle around with ideas that intrigue them. It used to be perfect for me, too, but from my very first attempt at reading the book, it became pretty clear that something was different with me. I started reading and got pulled into the backstory… the early years of the protagonist in India, his upbringing, his experiences, and how he ended up on a ship with a bunch of animals on it.

I did prett well for the first 20 pages or so, but I found that the farther into the book I got, the more turned around I got. I thought I was following, but things were starting to not make much sense. There’s a lot of information in there about animals and India and zoos, and the action switches between a lifeboat at sea and a house in — I think — Toronto, Canada. And the more information that was packed into the storyline… the more references there were to past info that I “should have” remembered… the more confused and frustrated I got.

Once upon a time, I would have really thrived on this sort of writing. It read like a wave of accumulating detail, each page building on past pages of information, insight, cross-reference, and so on. Talk about a recipe for TBI disaster! Before long, I was totally lost. I couldn’t keep track of who was doing/saying what… which animals were in the boat… what the main character was talking about… if it was in the present or the past, or wherever. It was the supreme WTF?! reading experience for me, and I had to keep back-tracking to refresh my memory about who was who and what they were doing and why they were doing it. Here’s a picture of how my reading experience went:

Attempt at reading Life of PiIt was really very frustrating. There I was, with this book in hand that my parents were sure I would just love — and just a few years before, I probably would have. But I kept getting so confused and so turned around by the details and losing my place and running out of steam and not being able to concentrate and not being sure what was happening and why I should care… it took me months and months just to move a few pages ahead, and even when I was making good progress, I would have to retrace my steps, check details earlier in the story, and then slog on through, trying to pick up where I’d left off.

Eventually I just gave up and left the book on my bedside stand.

My intention was to pick it up again and finish reading it, but time passed, I lost track of even more details about the story, and ultimately I had to hide the book — out of sight, out of mind — that danged reminder/hint that something was wrong with my brain.

The wild thing was, it didn’t even occur to me that I might be having genuine cognitive problems reading and comprehending and remembering. I thought that the book was the problem. “It just didn’t hold my attention,” I told myself. “It was obscure. Obtuse. Disconnected.” Or somesuch. I didn’t stop to think that it was my brain that was having the problem — it was the book… all about the book. Oh, no – the problem couldn’t possibly be with me!

I spent the next year or so dodging questions from my folks about how I liked the book. I gave them some vague answer — like I have done my entire life, when they’ve asked me about things or tried to talk to me about things that I was foggy or confused about. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t tell them that I’d become hopelessly lost, a quarter of the way into it, and I just didn’t have the stamina or the patience to slog through the ordeal of  — from the way they described it — a pleasant and entertaining read. I didn’t want them to feel badly — for me, or for themselves. They had been so sure I would love the book, and in a former incarnation, I’m sure I would have. But that kid they once knew was gone, and in their place was this overtired, cranky, easily confused, easily provoked wild person with a hair-trigger temper.

Crazy. Just crazy.

Eventually, I gave the book away — I almost made the mistake of giving it back to them for a holiday present. Thank heavens I at least remembered where the book came from, so I didn’t have to dig myself out of that embarrassing situation. It’s bad enough losing something that meant so much to me once upon a time — my love of fiction — but having to explain it to people who don’t perceive or understand that loss is a recipe for despair. And I’m not going there, if I don’t have to.