I can’t believe it’s Sunday, already. Seems like it was just last Tuesday.
I’ve been pretty tired, over the past week – lots going on. Plus, I’m working out in the mornings again, so that’s making me more tired, on top of everything else that’s going on.
So, I need to factor that in, whenever I go about my business and interact with others. I need to track where and when I’m doing not-so-well, and take steps to correct my situation, when I see/feel myself going awry.
Like this morning. I got to bed late, last night, because I lost track of time in the evening and I had to run out and buy supper late. So, we ate late. And we watched a movie that kept me up till midnight. And true to form, I woke up at 6 a.m. — so, I’m operating on 6 hours of sleep.
Not great. I’m feeling sick, and when I got started this morning, I made the mistake of getting into an extended discussion with my spouse about things that need to be done. I only wanted to make a cup of coffee before I went out on my morning walk. But within minutes, we were both sparring, and the conversation rapidly spiraled downhill, with my spouse perseverating, accusing me of perseverating, followed with angry accusations from them, and finally petulant tears.
I didn’t help matters any, by finding fault. And in the end, I managed to get out for my morning walk and work off the aggravation.
Lesson learned. When I am over-tired and not feeling well, I need to just excuse myself and get out of an angry conversation as soon as humanly possible.
It’s the only way. My spouse has their own neurological issues, which they cannot seem to see, and when we are both tired — like at 6:00 a.m.– and I’m trying to get out of the house for my walk, while they are trying to get me to spend some time with them, it’s a volatile situation that’s just no good.
The crescendo develops in a few predictable ways.
First, I am tired, and when I am tired, I am more irritable.
I’m more likely to get tweaked over every little thing. Something as minor as the sun peeking up over the hill behind my house can set me off… let alone getting sidetracked from my activities by my needy spouse. Plus, when I’m tired, it’s hard for me to think and I am less coordinated, so that irritates me all the more.
Second, to wake myself up, I often use anger.
I discovered this little “trick” about 20 years ago, when I had to get up at 4:00 each morning to drive my spouse to work. I would drop them off and then head over to my job… and as I was driving, I’d start to nod off. I discovered that if I made myself angry about things, it woke me up. And it did it quite effectively. So, I have been doing that for many years, and while it’s effective, it’s also a bad habit I need to break.
Third, my spouse loves to wrangle when they are tired, too.
So, the two of us can rapidly escalate to the same-old-same-old nagging and grousing we’ve been doing for years. When I was 10 years younger, it didn’t bother me as much. But now, it’s just a pain in my ass. And a total waste of time.
And I know better.
So, I need to do better. I got myself out of the house without indulging in more drama. I didn’t go back and try to smooth things over, when the tears of frustration started to flow. I just walked away, because I’ve been pulled into that many, many times. It’s just my spouse’s way of trying to pull me back in, and it never ends up well — for me, anyway. They’ll be fine. They’re just worked up, and they need some time away from me. Just like all the other times, we’ll reconverge later in the day, and things will be fine. I’m not getting into it, just getting on with the day.
I’ll take a quick nap around noon to recharge — and another one later in the afternoon. That will keep me going.
And I’m not going to engage. Because I don’t feel well, I’m fatigued, I’m behind on my sleep, and I still have a lot to do before the next week starts.
For the past several weeks — on and off — I’ve been pulling together descriptions of what my symptoms are, Headaches, dizziness, nausea, feeling drugged and “doped up”, tremors and twitching in my face and hands… I usually don’t think about these things. I just get on with my life and don’t let them stop me. Now that I’m putting them all down on paper to discuss with the new neuro, as well as review with my neuropsych.
You know, it’s funny… all this time, I’ve been really actively involved in my own recovery from TBI, and my neuropsych has had a very big positive influence on me, but not in ways that they probably intended. I think they’ve been thinking they’re helping me develop better skills and approaches — and they have.
But the real way they’ve helped, has been just being there reliably for me each week, to turn to and discuss matters of importance to me. Just being able to talk about my life to another person who can get it, is hugely helpful.
The only thing is, now I’m going down this path of digging into all these symptoms and complaints, and it feels very foreign to me. I spend so much of my time looking past the problems, disregarding the issues, coming up with ways to not have to deal with them explicitly – just work around them or do a variety of things to relieve them – that now I’m feeling the burn pretty intensely.
All the things I don’t talk about with others — because A) they can’t believe that it’s true, and B) they get all freaked out that I feel the way I do — is getting put down on paper. And it’s a trip.
God, I have a headache. And I’m sick to my stomach. Migraine? Who knows? And who cares?
There’s no sense in getting all depressed and upset about it. I can’t always do anything about the headaches — they don’t always respond to Advil, and the rest of the supposed “headache medicines” are like sugar pills to me. I’m much better off, just finding something I can focus my full attention on, and sticking with that.
Like my writing projects. Like the books I’m writing. Like the variety of things I have to occupy my attention. Fun things. A heck of a lot more fun than thinking about my headaches.
Anyway, life goes on, regardless. Or it doesn’t. Who knows how long any of us has, and why not make the most of it, while we can? I have my ways of dealing with headache that may even be more effective than medication. If you can’t feel the pain, you don’t have pain. So, if I can keep my focus on something that really captures my imagination and lifts my spirits, why not do that… instead of fretting about the headaches that never go away?
So long as it’s not something that’s life-threatening, why let it wreck my days? There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to experience… why let headaches stop me, when I know how to stop them?
The holiday season is upon us. All the pressure to BUY-BUY-BUY and run around doing what everyone else is doing, is at an all-time high.
I feel unusually immune to it, this year. Nothing much has changed outside of me — the commercials on t.v. are all the same, the urgency is the same as in other years, and everyone is as busy as ever for this time of year. The world is the same as it ever was, things are just as messed up, we’re getting just as much news about how sh*tty the world is, along with a lot of pleas for financial help (that — just to be clear — is tax-deductible), and pressure to use the last weeks of the year to make up for the last 11-1/2 months of general negligence.
But while everyone else is running around like a chicken with their head cut off, I’m not. I feel pretty calm, actually, and I’m not running around to all the latest sales, spending hours online looking for presents, and going from party to party.
Even if I wanted to, I can’t run around and buy-buy-buy. I don’t have the money, which is kind of a relief. I’ve got to improvise. Come up with other ideas. And I will. I received a book in the mail that looks like something my mother would enjoy. And I’ve got some other ideas for things I can get for other family members for very low cost. I’m not worrying about it. I know how to handle things. And I am. Just handling them.
I also think it has a lot to do with the everyday pressure being off me, thanks to my short commute. I now have the time to get up in the morning and do what I please for an hour or so, before I start doing what the rest of the world wants me to do. I can move about, run errands at lunchtime, come and go as I please, and still get all my hours in at work. I can live my life without having to plan and think through everything I do in detail. And since I’m not a permanent, full-time employee, I don’t have to be existentially affected by changes at work and what they mean for my future.
I can just get on with my daily life and not worry about things like that. I’ll be updating my resume over the next few days, just to log the different thing I’ve accomplished at work, and make sure my resume is current and in good shape. And I’ll be taking time to just relax and enjoy myself.
Having a long commute, along with a demanding job, is a killer for me. I realize that now. I’ve had to work so hard for so long, to get where I am, but now I’m finally at a place where I’m comfortable with myself, professionally and personally. I realize that I’ve been in a good place for some time, now, but for the past number of years, I’ve been really on edge and nervous about where I am and how I’m doing.
Part of that nervousness was due to all the debt I was carrying and the pressures of just paying bills on time. I wiped out my debt over the past four years, so that pressure is off.
Another problem was that I was in a line of work that pays really well, but is inherently tension-producing, high-pressure, and precarious. Just the nature of the work — which is all about keeping current with the latest technology developments — was personally and professionally pressurizing. I got out of that side of the industry, turned my focus to people management, and now I’m in much better shape, overall.
And of course there’s the commute. I keep mentioning it, but it was such a huge factor in my life, I can’t even begin to say. Other people just take it for granted — and in fact so did I, for the last 25 years. But now that I don’t have to travel 45 minutes to an hour (or two) each way, every day, my life has literally turned around. I can rest. And even when I don’t get a full night’s sleep, it doesn’t wreck me like it used to. Long commutes used to seriously mess with my head.
No more. No more to all of the above.
The wild thing is, so much of what was making me miserable, I just took for granted. I figured that was how things were supposed to be. That’s what I knew, and that’s how I figured things were supposed to be. It wasn’t until I was pushed to my utmost limit, that I changed things up. Lots of suffering, lots of years of pain. Lots of change — needed change.
Ultimately, I’ve come out on the other end feeling strong and clear. It’s just such a huge difference. Even when my head is fuzzy and foggy, like today, my ears are ringing, my body is wracked with pain, I’m off balance, my thoughts are jumping all over the place like little jumping beans, and every little sound and light hurts me, I still feel strong and clear. And I know I can adapt and deal with the things that are getting in my way.
I’ve got a lot to do this weekend, but before I do, I’m stopping — just stopping — to take a breath, to get myself in a good frame of mind, and get clear on what needs to happen, before I charge forward into the fray. I’ve got my list — I wrote it out last night, while I was waiting for supper to warm up — and I’ll organize it for the best and most sensible direction to take, so I don’t waste time, and I can really focus on what I’m doing.
The Thanksgiving holiday was good. Traffic was insane, as just about anyone who drove during the past week can tell you. I traveled close to 2,000 miles, going from state to state to see extended family, and it was good. A lot of driving… and now I’m pretty sore from all the sitting… but it was good to break out of my routine for once.
I was really “off” my routine — I did almost nothing similar to what I normally do. I felt a little bit like the guy who jumped out of his space capsule a few years back, and fell 23 miles to earth. Like him, I had my reservations.
I ate different foods, I did different things, I had a different schedule, and I slept different hours. I didn’t sleep nearly enough, that’s for sure, but I managed. I got pretty sleepy when I was driving a few times, but I did things to wake myself up, and I took breaks when I needed to. Got out in the cold air, stretched, did jumping jacks, swung my arms around and sprinted a little bit. Whatever it takes to get there safely.
And like Felix Baumgartner, I came through okay.
I’ve been feeling pretty depressed, over the past month or so. I had a death in my family that has shifted the family dynamics. The person who died had a very complicated relationship with just about everyone — in some ways they were very loved, in other ways they were very feared. They were a challenge to deal with, although they had many, many fine qualities that we loved.
Their passing was actually a blessing for some folks in our family, and now they can rest and take a break and get on with their lives. For others, it was a deep loss, and now they don’t know what to do.
I didn’t expect this death to affect me as much as it has, but it’s changed my status in the family — it’s made me more “senior” in the generations, and my parents are now leaning on me, more than ever. Death brings that out in some people — we all become more aware of our mortality, and my folks are certainly more aware now.
So, there’s been more demands on me and my time and attention, and I believe that’s what was pulling me down. Just the demands. Being so tired. Having people relying on me, and feeling a little overwhelmed by everything. I know I can handle it. I just get very tired, and even when I’m doing well, I feel beaten down and low, when my energy is tapped out… which it was.
The other thing that’s been bothering me, is the sense that I haven’t accomplished the things I’ve intended to accomplish in life. I’m not talking about being a millionaire or being a powerful player on the world stage. I’m just talking about simple things like New Year’s resolutions and other projects I’ve started and could not finish. There are a lot of little things I have started and have not completed, and it was really pulling me down — especially since I’m that much more aware of death and how close it is.
It’s been pretty tough… but then again, it hasn’t. The tough part is not having the energy I usually do — feeling so blah and bland, like nothing really matters and there’s no point to anything. I haven’t had that steady “pump” of exuberance I usually do. And people have noticed it — tried to cheer me up, tried to get me all perky and what-not again.
I’ve noticed that people around me really do rely on me being positive and pro-active, and when I’m not that way, they get a little irked. Like I’m raining on their parade. Sorry, folks, I’m just not feeling it.
And I’ve noticed that I’m sort of the same way — I need that burst of positive energy, a certain perkiness, an “up” sense of myself, in order to get through the day.
But is that actually realistic? We can’t always been “up” and perky and feeling fit as a fiddle. Sometimes we’re tired and depressed and troubled by things that really should trouble us. It’s a little mentally ill to NOT be troubled by so much that’s going on in the world.
The thing is, I can’t let the down times derail my life. And what I’ve been working on, over the past couple of weeks, has been functioning very well without a sense of being “up” or pumped or pro-actively positive. Life goes on, even when I’m not emotionally euphoric. I can’t let my moods stop me from living my life. And in fact, when I get myself going, despite feeling down and depressed and defeated, before long, I feel that much better.
My moods follow my activity, as often as not. They shouldn’t set the stage and make or break me. I should be able to choose what I do and think and accomplish, each and every day, regardless of my emotional state.
That’s my goal, anyway.
And somehow, it’s strangely freeing. I’m off the emotional roller coaster, and I’m going about my business as I see fit. I’m not held back by feeling down and confused and depressed. I’m keeping on. Even if it doesn’t feel so fantastic, that actually doesn’t need to matter. If anything, it makes me feel better to be able to continue on in living my life, even if I’m feeling down.
As a TBI survivor, my moods come and go very abruptly. In one day, I can feel a thousand different ways, and each one would be true. My mood swings can be very extreme, as well. I can be euphoric one minute, and in the emotional basement the next. There’s not a lot of rhyme and reason to it — although being tired plays a big part in it. Things just come up, and I need to deal with them. I need to deal with my life in a constructive way, even if my emotions are running wild, and/or the rest of my system is a bit whacked.
That’s where I am, right now. I’m still really tired from the driving, I’m still overwhelmed from the family visits, my world is still evolving after the death, and my whole system is a bit “on the fritz”. I’m having trouble typing and putting words together, the ringing in my ears is pretty intense, and my main issues — fatigue, tinnitis, sensitivity to light and noise and touch, insomnia, general pain, headache, attention issues, emotional lability, panic/anxiety, anger spikes, raging behavior, confusion, difficulty understanding, trouble hearing, slowed processing speed, limited short-term working memory, balance, vertigo, difficulty reading and learning new things, nystagmus, and tremors — are being a real pain in my ass.
I don’t quite feel like I’m “here” yet. That will come, in the next days of getting rest, getting back to my routine, and eating the right foods. It will all come.
The week ahead of me is one of those one-foot-in-front-of-the-other types of weeks. I can’t think too much about things, because inside my head, it’s a swirling mass of panic, rage, fear, anxiety, frustration, and a whole lot of other stuff that has no business coming to the surface.
I’m working my ass off, keeping positive and moving forward. It is a herculean effort, and when I think about how f*cking hard I have to work, to keep myself on track, I’m actually really proud of myself.
Because how things are on the outside is nothing like how they are on the inside.
And to all appearances, I’m succeeding, I’m doing well, I’m holding my act together.
While inside, I’m absolutely dying — or bordering on aggressive rage.
One thing that TBI has taught me, is how to not get sucked into the turmoil that seethes beneath the surface. There is *always* turmoil beneath the surface with me. I walk around looking quite calm and collected, while inside I’m anything but that. I know the chaos is there. It’s like having a Tasmanian devil creature living in a sound-proofed back room of my house. From the street, you can’t see it, you can’t hear it, and you’d never know it’s there. But inside my house, I know it’s there. And even though I can’t hear it tearing around shrieking and howling and slamming into the walls, I can still feel the thud-thud-thud of the creature throwing itself around.
It’s there. I’m not sure it’s every going to go away. And yet, I don’t have to let it out of its room. I don’t have to let it into the rest of the house. I can live my life, sliding food under the door now and then to keep it satiated and a little calmed down. I can go about my business, taking care of that side of me, to make sure it doesn’t get too wild, too out of control. I know it’s there. I’m not sure it’s ever going to go away. The confusion, frustration, fear, anxiety, panic, anger…
Whatever. I have a life to live, and I have tools in place to keep me balanced and steady, no matter what.
In a way, learning to manage my own internal state is helping me manage my external state. It’s pretty depressing, sometimes, thinking that this crap may never go away. But when does it ever — for anyone? We all have to deal with it. We all have to handle it.
It’s crushing. It’s demanding. It sometimes feels like too much.
Then I realize there’s more to the picture. There’s the amazingly beautiful weather today. There’s the wonderful day I spent with my spouse, yesterday. There’s the camaraderie of my coworkers waiting for me. There’s the calm I feel as I settle in for a good night’s sleep on the weekend, when I don’t need to set my alarm. There’s all the amazing beauty and inspiration I find from so much of life.
When in doubt, Stone Temple Pilots are good company to keep. I’m listening to No. 4, and it’s as good as ever. I went through a period, over the past few years, when I didn’t listen to much rock music. It was a lot of electronic stuff — trace and whatnot. Always good for getting me flying down the road, to and from work.
Lately, though, I’ve been getting back to my good old rock ‘n’ roll. Lots of hard rock, as I drive to and from work. And it feels normal again. Like I’m picking up where I left off, a few years back.
It’s like I went on a detour for a few years. Thinking I was going to be or do something different. I blame that last job I had, where I was so out of place, and I just didn’t fit in at all, and I needed to take the edge off things.
The whole last ten years feels like a big-ass detour for me. It was that damn’ mild TBI in 2004 that screwed me up. I’m still pissed off about it, and how it derailed me. I’ve been swimming upstream, trying like crazy to get where I’m going, fighting a current I couldn’t see — a downwelling, as they call it in the ocean – watch a video about surviving downwelling here.
In a downwelling, when you’re scuba diving, an invisible current hits you and carries you down-down-down into the depths — potentially past your approved depth. It can take you down very quickly — fast enough to increase the nitrogen in your blood enough to make you feel — and act — drunk. And also pressurizing you very quickly. It’s crazy. If you get caught in a downwelling and can’t get out, you’re done for.
That’s kind of like what chronic mild TBI / concussion is like. Most people see their issues resolve in weeks or months, but some of us are stuck with them, and they can catch us unawares and plunge us into the depths — towards the abyss — before we even know what’s happening. It can be deadly. And if you choose wrong, you can get totally screwed up.
I didn’t realize until late 2007, that there was really a problem — three years past my injury. Everything went downhill, and I didn’t even realize it. Money was disappearing so fast, I might as well have set piles of it on fire. I jumped from job to job, not realizing how it would affect my future job prospects. I could not read, I could not learn, and I felt like I was literally disappearing from my life. I could not go outside very much, because of my light and noise sensitivities, and I had cataclysmic panic attacks that felt like seizures.
I was in the grip of a “life downwelling”, and I didn’t know which direction to swim to escape.
A number of things happened to help me along the way
I realized that something was wrong
I realized I needed to do something about it
I hunted high and low to find information and people who could help me understand what was happening
Almost by chance, I connected with an excellent neuropsychologist who was able to help me soldier through
I just kept going, no matter what
I’m now at a place in my life where I’m back on track. My mountains of debt are gone, my job situation is stable, and I’m able to read again.
And yet, I feel like a stranger to myself.
Technically, I supposed no one really knows themself inside and out. We all delude ourselves to some extent. But with TBI, it feels to me like there are a ton of gaps that I just can’t fill. I don’t even know where to start. It’s like my life is a big hunk of swiss cheese with a lot of holes in it, and I don’t even know the holes are there, till it’s too late. I’m in trouble again.
Anyway, STP helps me get my mind off that. They help me just keep going, even when I’m not feeling up to it. Keeps me swimming — out of the downward spiraling current and up towards safety again. A good dose of heavy guitar and rock lyrics gets me back on track in useful ways.
Gradually, I’m coming back to where I want to be. It takes time. And I need company, along the way. STP is good company. Thanks, guys.
Music is the best company I can think to keep. It’s there when I need it, and I can always turn it off, when I’m done for the day.
Speaking of the day, I’ve got to get on with it. I’ve got a handful of things I need to do today, including resting up. It’s been a long, long week, and I need a break, for sure. I’ll get that break later today after my chores are done, and I can comfortably settle into my bed, pull the covers over my head, and just check out.
Looking forward to it.
But in the meantime, there’s always hard and heavy rock music.
I had a lousy meeting with my neuropsych on Friday evening. First problem was, it was Friday evening after a very long week. I was not in a good space, and neither was my neuropsych, apparently. They kept wanting to talk about diagnostic labs and bloodwork and tests and all that stuff that goes along with figuring out levels of vitamins and what-not.
As it turns out, I have been running a low-level Vitamin D deficiency for about five years. I am sure it has not helped my cognition in the least. But my doctor told me they weren’t worried about it, because they figured it would sort itself out. I was supposed to be supplementing Vitamin D — which I often forgot or just decided not to do. I resolved — about a million times — to spend more time outside and get my Vitamin D through natural sunlight. But then I didn’t do it, and my D levels stayed low — to the point of danger.
The weird thing is, my PCP didn’t seem to think much of it. Despite the fact that Vitamin D levels directly affect cognition, and you can end up feeling foggy and dull as a result. I’ve felt that way for a long, long time — but since I started aggressively loading up on Vitamin D, and my levels have improved, I don’t feel nearly as foggy as I used to. I’m now within the acceptable range (in the lower 33%, which I’d like to raise), and I feel more clear and “with it” than I’ve felt in a long time.
And that pisses me off, that my PCP just kind of blew off my Vitamin D levels and was willing to wait a year, to see if they were better. It’s like my doctor waits for me to report symptoms, but to me, everything is a tangled mass of experiences and feelings, and on any given day I can feel both fantastic and terrible, all at the same time, so making sense of any of it is sorta kinda impossible in my jumbled-up head. So, I take a stab at things, and if I get lucky, it works out. If it doesn’t work out, I try again — and again — and again — till I get where I’m going.
Ultimately, it pays off, but it’s a long time getting there, sometimes.
Anyway, I got pretty angry that my neuropsych kept talking about healthcare and choices and things to do to get proper care. I couldn’t see what it had to do with anything that mattered at the time, and it made me angry that they were going on and on about the best process to follow to get medical help. Now, I realize that they were kind of pissed off that my doctor had done nothing about my Vitamin D levels — that they hadn’t kept an eye on it and raised a flag earlier.
Part of the responsibility is mine. I didn’t think that Vitamin D was that big of a deal, and I figured I could just go outside regularly and get the light I needed to synthesize. Untrue. I don’t go outside nearly enough (as is the case now, as I sit at my desk in my study, looking at the outside, rather than sitting on the back deck, working “in the wild”). I didn’t realize that Vitamin D affected your cognition and mental functioning. If I’d known that before, I’d have done more about it.
But that’s water under the bridge.
Looking back, I realize that I spent a lot of time being really angry with my neuropsych. I didn’t tell them that, but I was upset to the point of wanting to not go to them anymore. That happens, every now and then. I don’t “get” what they’re trying to communicate to me, I feel like they’re talking to me like I’m an idiot, and I get resentful and resistant. And I want to just drop it and just live my life without having to work at it.
But that generally doesn’t go that well, and if I walk away from my neuropsych, I walk away from one of the very few people who understands what’s going on with me — and is equipped to talk some sense into me. Going it alone has a way of backfiring on me. I have few real friends. I’m on friendly terms with a lot of people, and I feel pretty connected with other people, but I have no immediate support group I can turn to — other than my neuropsych. I also have a therapist I see — but that’s more to check in and make sure I’m taking care of myself and to build some self-preservation skills in the face of dealing with my spouse’s various illnesses (both physical and mental). Other than those two, I’m on my own.
Anyway, yesterday I decided not to keep harboring that anger, and I just let it go about my neuropsych being a pain. I realize now that what made me angry, was 1) being really tired after a long week, and 2) not fully understanding what they were talking about, and why. Also, I think my neuropsych was tired after a long week, and they were in rough shape, as well. I’m the “easiest” patient they have to work with, I believe. There are tons of other things going on for them, and I’m just one face in a crowd of many — many of whom need a lot more support and assistance than I.
This is how it often is. When I’m really tweaked and upset, it’s best that I just get some sleep, take a long walk, and let it all settle. Then I can get my balance again, get my bearings, and enjoy the life I have, instead of stewing about the life I’m imagining.
Weather is nice today. I should be able to get that last lawn-mowing of the season done, later this afternoon when the grass is more dry. I may just go out for a long ride, too. I hear the colors are getting nice up north.
I had a revelation this morning, as I was waking up. In the space of a few seconds, it turned an imagined failure into a chance for long-term success.
It was the realization that when I started to lose my temper with my spouse last night, it wasn’t a sign that I was failing at my attempts to be more level-headed and calm, no matter what the situation. It was a clear sign that I was tired, and that my brain needed sleep.
I have been working on being more level-headed — no matter what the situation. This is a lifelong pursuit, actually. I saw the need for it, when I was a teenager and a young adult… as an adult in the working world… and it continues to be important to me. It’s not that I want everything to be perfect for me all the time and give me no trouble. What I want, is to be able to handle my circumstances, be okay with them (within reason), and make the best of any situation’s opportunities, no matter now “bad” it may look at the time.
I have had some good success with this approach over the years. After all, I have seen the ill-effects NOT having a level head in challenging circumstances, and the results are rarely pretty. I have had plenty of opportunity to witness this in the people around me — in my family, especially, when my parents could not hold it together with one of my “problematic” (that is — drug-addicted, alcoholic, sleeping-with-anything-that-moved, drug-dealing) siblings. It was bad enough that my sibling had all those problems (which were signs of something far deeper going on with them). But my parents could not maintain their composure or clarity of thought when it came to my sibling, so that made a bad situation even worse.
I’m not judging my parents — they were not equipped to handle it, and we lived in an area where any problem with kids was a reflection on the parents, so they went from being respected members of society to being “those people” who everybody handled very gingerly.
Anyway, I’ve seen many examples in my own life, where keeping a level head and a calm demeanor helped me through tough times. I actually credit my many TBIs (I’ve had 9+) with helping me with this, because they slowed down my processing speed. When your processing speed is slowed down, it makes it pretty difficult to get on the same wavelength with everybody else… and in case you haven’t noticed, being on the same wavelength as everybody else leaves a lot to be desired.
Everybody gets so worked up over things. But when you’re not thinking as quickly as everyone else, you can’t jump to the same conclusions and get to those snap judgments that can send you careening into HOLY SH*T WHAT THE F*CKland. Everybody else is freaking out — oftentimes about something that isn’t worth freaking out about — and you’re still trying to figure out what just happened…
So, if you think about it, slower processing speed isn’t always a bad thing. And equanimity… peace of mind… level-headedness in the face of a crisis is a definite advantage. Especially when everybody else’s “normal-fast” thinking is vectoring off in a really unproductive direction.
Anyway, that’s one half of the story. The other half of it is less cheery — that’s the aspect of my thinking that is WAY more reactive than others’. It’s the instant-freak-out part of my experience that has made me nuts for years. At an instant’s notice, I’ll suddenly FREAK OUT over something. It can be a dropped spoon, or a missed channel that I’m trying to change with the clicker, or something my spouse says or does that rubs me the wrong way.
When things go haywire in my head, they go reallyhaywire. There’s no middle ground. Everything goes nuts. I know I’m being unreasonable, I know I’m being crazy, I know there is no logical reason for me to be freaking out, but it’s happening anyway. And it’s never good for anyone. I’ve lost more relationships than I can say, because of this. That includes a really good job I lost in 2005 after my TBI in 2004.
People are afraid of me, when I start to get agitated and aggressive — which may have to do with me, or may have to do with them. I don’t want to give anyone any reason to be afraid of me. It’s counter-productive. And it hurts everyone involved.
So, there’s all the more reason to keep tabs on myself and foster a calm demeanor, a cool head, and a self-possessed state of mind. And with that goal in mind, I have pursued a number of different practices and philosophies that might help me with that. I have worked on practices that emphasize acceptance, calmness, not reacting to things around me, and philosophies that teach about how transitory life is, and how important it is for us to understand what we can and cannot change, and not make ourselves nuts trying to alter things that can’t be changed.
Like the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.
This has been a very powerful concept in my life, and I have it displayed in my kitchen where I will see it each morning when I get up and make my coffee.
Along the way, I have had many surges in interest in deepening this practice — in really getting to a place where I can make peace with the things I cannot change, and make the most of the opportunities that are hidden there. I’m a big believer that some of our worst hurdles and challenges offer us the greatest rewards — and when we resist those challenges, we miss out on the chance to become bigger and better than ever before.
Some things I can accept and work with — political changes, cultural changes, relocations from one area to the next, and small-scale changes at work. Other changes I have a harder time with — job changes, especially. The ones that make me the craziest are the ones I feel like I cannot understand or control — or that go off in a direction that is completely different from the direction I see myself headed.
Other things I cannot seem to accept, are the foolishness of others — the stinkin’ thinkin’ that my spouse indulges in, their constant anxiety, their devotion to drama, their bad habit of telling everyone exactly what they want to hear instead of the constructive truth. I have trouble with the attitudes of people at work, who can be cliquish and juvenile. I have trouble with the judgment of Management at work, when their decisions seem counter-productive and get in the way of us doing our work. My siblings also depress the sh*t out of me, with their choices and their prejudices and their holier-than-thou attitude. My parents are a little easier to deal with, because they are many hours away, and I don’t see them that often.
It’s the people who are closest to me, who I have the greatest investment in, that get me with their unhealthy habits of thought and action, their outlooks, their attitudes, and their behavior that seems to serve no useful purpose, other than to make them feel good about themselves — at the expense of everyone else.
The thing is, their behaviors and beliefs and actions have almost nothing to do with me. Even my spouse’s bad habits have more to do with them, than with me — no matter how much they may blame me for their anxiety. I am making myself unhappy over things that are far beyond my control, and it’s not helping me at all.
So, there is all the more incentive for me to calm myself down, not react to what they are doing, and step back and look at them and everything from a distance.
I have found some philosophies and outlooks that can help me do that, and I have pursued them eagerly, on and off, over the years. The thing is, I get to a certain point, then everything falls apart. My equanimity dissolves. I melt down, inside my head and heart. My temper explodes. And I end up feeling worse off than when I started. I feel like I’m back to Square 1, without having made any progress at all.
But in fact, I have made progress. My meltdowns and explosions do not mean that I have utterly failed at learning a new way of thinking and being and relating to others. They do mean that my brain has been working hard, so it is tired. And I need to rest it.
Because changing yourself and your brain and your patterns of thought and action and attitude is hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight. And the fact that I am getting frayed and losing it, actually means that I am making progress — I just need to take a break, rest up, learn what I can about what sets me off, and resume learning again, once I am rested.
This realization is just what I’ve been needing — for a long, long time. Getting frayed at 10 p.m. over someone being a pain in my ass is NOT a sign that I’m failing. It’s a sign that I’ve been working hard all day at changing my mind and my brain, and that it’s time to rest. It’s not a condemnation — it’s a diagnostic tool. And far from being an indication of my inferiority, it’s evidence that I’m actually making progress.
The simple fact is, I’m a brain-injured human being. If you think about it, there are a lot of people who are injured in one way or another, and we are all working our way through the maze called life, trying to find a better way to live. And because of my injuries, because of my history of experiences, my individual makeup, and all the different things that have made me what I am today, I have certain limitations I need to be mindful of and accommodate, so I can work around them and not let them get to me.
Fatigue and the irritability that comes from being tired are a couple of those limitations. So is:
a sharp tongue — over little things
a hot temper — at an instant’s notice
slower processing speed than one would expect
the almost constant pain that I’ve become resigned to living with, the rest of my born days
perpetual, never-ending tinnitus
And so on.
It’s not that my life is awful. It’s pretty sweet, to tell the truth. I just need to be aware of these issues, not forget them — or when I do forget them, find a way to remember that the things I’m doing and saying are about my brain injury, NOT about my character.
So, there is hope. There always is, so long as I don’t give up.
And speaking of not giving up, I’m going to get ready for work and get into my day, knowing that I didn’t fail last night, when I got cross with my spouse. I was just tired, and no animals were hurt in the filming of that movie.
Today is another “on” day for me. Yesterday I had to step away from my LIST of to-do items that I’d put together on Friday, and just move at a more restful pace. I’ve been pushing pretty hard all week, with a lot of good ideas which promise to bring good things to me.
But by Saturday morning, all the Activity caught up with me, and I had to just back off a bit. I juggled a bit in the morning, wrote a little bit, then got together with friends, took a long nap, and got up to do a little bit here and there in the evening.
All in all, it was a good day. There were some things I was really hoping to get done (some that I really needed to get done), but I didn’t. And that’s that. I don’t really care, right now. The main thing was, I got some rest, caught up with myself, and gave myself some breathing room.
That’s important. I tend to push myself so hard — overachiever that I am — that I don’t give myself enough down-time to recoup. And that is far more damaging than any lack of ambition or “failure to launch”. Overwork and overtrainng are all very well and good for the short term. I almost have to do it, sometimes, to get things to lodge in my brain permanently.
But every single day of every single week of every single month of every single year?
Thankfully, I’m learning to do things differently.
It’s interesting, what changed that mindset for me. Most of the time, I try to overpower my unhealthy tendencies with raw, brute force. Willpower. Resolve. Even a bit of guilt. But that doesn’t work. What does work, is introducing a new piece of information into the mix that provides a better Idea about what will be most effective.
Case in point: Rest. And its importance.
I have intellectually “known” for a long time that rest is important. It helps the brain consolidate memories. It helps the body remove toxins from the brain. It is important for rebuilding the capabilities that you’ve fried, in the course of everyday overwork. I know that rest helps me keep emotionally centered, as well. It keeps me from snapping out. It keeps me from getting depressed. It gives me a great sense of well-being and ability.
But have I made a point of getting to bed at a decent time and sleeping all the way through the night?
Until recently, not so much. I “knew” I was supposed to, I had the whole raft of ideas about how helpful it was. But not until I had an Experience of the incredible help that rest gives me, have I enthusiastically gone to bed at a decent hour — during the week before 11 p.m., on the weekends, before midnight.
What changed things? Having a bunch of good great experiences with Rest, that really brought home how much it helps me.
First, actually being able to rest in bed has been huge. I bought a new bed a couple of weeks ago, and ever since then, I have not had any trouble falling asleep. I used to lie in bed for hours, unable to sleep. I couldn’t afford a new bed. And I had to make do with what I had. But it was rough. I never actually put it together that the problem was the bed. I figured it was just how things were. For some reason I didn’t get that the lumpy mattress that wasn’t flat and forced me to balance my weight in different ways was keeping me up. Now that I have a new bed which is exactly flat and very firm, I have been falling asleep almost immediately. The only times I don’t, are when my body is seizing up from not stretching enough. But when I get out of bed and stretch, I’m able to relax, and I fall right to sleep. And I sleep pretty much through the night — except when I wake up in a sweat, which has been happening lately, with the change of seasons and the stresses at work. Now, when I think about going to bed, I don’t dread it because I expect to lie there for hours, unable to sleep.
Second, waking up rested is a whole new thing for me that puts a whole different spin on my day. I’m actually semi-functional, first thing in the morning. And with my rocket-fuel coffee that gets me going, my mornings are now something I look forward to, and get myself out of bed for. I wake up feeling so great, that I can’t wait to get to bed at night, so I can have that feeling again.
Third, getting a little bit of rest at work in the afternoons, has completely transformed my days. I used to really dread my days, because I would burn through all my energy by noontime — if not before. Then I’d spend the rest of the day scrambling to keep up, feeling like crap, eating junk food that would rev me up and make me crash, offsetting that effect with more coffee… and more coffee… and more coffee… and ending up so wired by the evening, that I could not fall sleep, even if I was on a decent bed. Taking a quick power nap for 20 minutes in the afternoon, when I just can’t go on anymore, has completely turned that around. Now I know the pressure is off, and if I need to step away and take a nap — or just close my eyes for a short while — I can do it. I generally keep a couple of hours open and free of scheduled meetings, most afternoons of my week, just so I know I can step away, if need be. And I do it. It makes all the difference in the world, to sleep — or simply relax. The boost I get, coming back after a nap, not only makes me more productive, but it makes me feel so much better about myself and my abilities, that I actually don’t mind being at work. I don’t dread and resent it the way I used to, which is a real blessing.
Fourth, learning to juggle much faster than I thought possible — after giving myself time to rest in between practice sessions — is truly inspirational. I love having this feeling of surprise and delight that I can actually keep more than one ball in the air. I never thought I could juggle. I tried many times in the past, and it never “worked”. But now I am learning pretty quickly, and the thing that seems to make the difference, is Rest.
The first day I was trying to keep a couple of balls in the air, I did it for a count of 42, max.
Then 37 times.
Things were clearly not improving, so I lay down and took a nap.
And when I got up, I kept the balls in the air for 135 tosses. That’s quite the improvement. What a confidence-booster! And I credit Rest for that.
Last but not least, I like myself a whole lot better when I’m rested. I am much easier to live with — both inside my head and outside. I have a higher tolerance for frustration. I can think more clearly about things to come up with good solutions. I don’t have the same temper flares, my fuse is a lot longer, and I don’t have the extreme outbursts that come when I’m really wiped out. Just the other evening, after helping a friend move, I started harassing my spouse about something they had done that was troublesome, but not exactly catastrophic. I had it in my head that if they kept doing this, Something Would Go Terribly Wrong, and I needed to “nip it in the bud”, so to speak.
The net result was that we were both pretty unhappy by the time the conversation was through, and I felt like sh*t as a result. There was no need for me to go off like that, but I did. Because I was tired. Getting more rest over the next few days did wonders for my mood and my stability. Too bad my spouse is the kind of person who holds grudges. They’ve recovered less well than I have. (But that’s on them – I’m not responsible for their state of mind, much as they’d like me to be.)
Now Rest is my friend. We’re on good terms. What a difference Good Rest makes.
I have come to recognise and realise, we people with TBIs need to embolden a special type of shell-fish (to otherwise be read as selfish.) The “shell” to house us from what would otherwise be attacks, accusations and allegations over being or feeling “bad” or that we may seem self-centered, any of our actions taken had very real and perceptive reasons and consequences.
Only when we debride a wound, or reach deep within residual scar tissue, are we allowed to uncover (very necessary to the healing process) healthy tissues.
A thorough study of the self amid the healing process, is a study in contradictions. The study of the self in TBI is, filled with cyclical change, growth, angst, beginnings. It is as though we are of two or more persons; walking through the situations in real time, taking the time to study, perhaps rehearse and may even attempt to resolve the consequences of earlier decisions.
Are these not the habits of people without TBI? Of course.
Therefore, the “shell” of being shellfish in TBI, may need to be a little more hearty and courageous, mayhaps even a little outrageous, to understand the absolute truth of these matters.
It’s very true. Like a hermit crab, we need to find shell-ter where we can, develop our defenses like a protective shell, and learn to carry it with us, as we go through life. No one else can know 100% what we are going through, so we need to develop our own defenses, our own sense of self, our own techniques and tricks to get us by.
I was just thinking about this yesterday — how I can basically make it through most situations in life without alerting everyone to the fact that I am struggling so terribly at times. My memory fails me.
The noise is too loud, the lights are too bright, and I have deafening ringing in my ears.
I am in pain.
I am off balance, struggling with vertigo, feeling like I’m going to lose my mind with having to keep upright.
Or I am boiling on the inside and fighting back my intense desire to either run screaming from the building or punch someone in the face.
Or I am dying inside, feeling like I am just not keeping up, and I have no idea what is going on in the conversation I’m participating in, even though it really matters a lot that I keep up.
I can get through those situations intact, because I have a shell of collected tactics I have built up over the years. Some of them I’ve been using a long time, while others are fairly recent.
But whatever their source or “vintage”, they work.
They keep me safe. They are not me, and they are not something I want to have, but I lost my “real shell” a long, long time ago, so I make do as best I can. And it works.
That’s the main thing. My internal state changes frequently, often without making any sense to me. It’s usually connected to my physical well-being — when I get tired, everything gets harder, and I am tired a lot of the time. So, I have to have a way to offset that effect, so my life can continue.
It’s not easy. It’s pretty painful at times. And it takes a lot out of me. But it works.
And that’s what really matters.
It’s bad enough that I have these issues. But having them screw up my life at the same time? That’s no good — not if I can at all avoid or prevent it.