St. Barbara of Arrowsmith-Young

Thanks for the help this past Sunday

So, on Sunday I spent the afternoon reading Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain”, about how she learned how to identify the underlying issues beneath her severe learning disabilities, which had made her life a living hell for 26 years of her life. I found the book for free on Scribd.com — my new favorite place of all time. You can read the book for free here: https://www.scribd.com/book/224350322/The-Woman-Who-Changed-Her-Brain-And-Other-Inspiring-Stories-of-Pioneering-Brain-Transformation – you just need a free login.

Anyway, I am finding a lot of similarities between her situation and mine, despite obvious differences. And it occurs to me that after hearing a number of accounts of her hitting her head (running into things, banging her head before she started to study, etc.) TBI might just factor into her account. She focuses on the learning disabilities parts, rather than the root cause, so that makes the book more accessible for folks who have had any kind of difficulty with learning and understanding and communicating — me included.

One section in particular jumped out at me yesterday:

I recall a twelve-year-old student with average intelligence but whose severe weaknesses in both the left and right prefrontal cortexes left her as compliant as a young child — so compliant that other children would toy with her and order her to stand and sit on command or to stay in the schoolyard long after recess was over or to surrender her Nintendo game. Her neurological weaknesses had robber her of her ability to evaluate a command and decide whether it should be obeyed. She addressed her problem areas and eventually was able to say no.

That’s pretty much me — but in very different kinds of situations. I didn’t have a problem with being compliant and going along with others as a kid. If anything, I was defiant and went against what anyone and everyone told me to do (except for my love interests — they could always boss me around).

The compliance and obedience and lack of questioning happened in adulthood. And I wonder if the three car accidents, the fall off the back of the truck, and the occasional head-banging — all in my early adulthood — might have affected my prefrontal cortexes to the point where I would just compliantly do whatever my spouse told me to do.

If that’s the case — and my compliance has been neurological, rather than emotional or character-based — then that’s a huge relief. And it means I can do something about it. For close to 20 years, I pretty much went along with whatever my spouse told me to do. It wasn’t so pronounced in the beginning, but then it got worse.

I had a car accident in 1997 where I was rear-ended, and I couldn’t read for several days. The letters swam on the page, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I recall feeling weird and shaky and being a bit “off” for some time after the car accident, and I wonder if maybe that affected my prefrontal cortexes and made me more compliant. People around me thought my spouse was bullying me, that they were being abusive and domineering, but honestly, I just went along… because it was the only thing that seemed useful to me.

I need to check around to find out more.

Anyway, that’s just one part of the book that I’m really enjoying. There are a number of different places where I recognize myself — the hesitance, the inability to get things done, the self-regulation problems… I’m not sure I want to think about them in terms of learning disabilities, but rather brain capabilities. And they apply to all kinds of situations, not just educational ones. That’s something that the author talks about a lot — how addressing these learning disabilities will improve functioning in the rest of life.

What Barbara Arrowsmith-Young has done is remarkable. She’s really figured it out — and from the inside, not from the outside. It’s amazing. I’m a huge fan, and if I were religious, I’d recommend her for sainthood. Her story is one of the reasons I got myself into neuropsych rehab, in the first place — when I read Norman Doidge’s “The Brain That Changes Itself” her story stood out for me more than any others. Because she took it on herself, and she did the work, instead of having someone else do it for her. And now she’s passing it on to others. She does public lectures. She has her Arrowsmith School. She’s written a book.

Unfortunately for me (and probably many others), the Arrowsmith School is expensive. And it’s in Canada, which is not an impossible distance from me, but still… I have to go to my job each day, I don’t have a lot of money to spend, and I’m thinking there must be another way to get this kind of help without being locked into a specific location, or paying someone to get me on track.

Again, I come back to living my life as the best recovery. Living fully and reflectively. Mindfully. Engaged. All those catchwords that basically say,

Do the best you can each and every day…

Be honest with yourself about what’s going on…

Learn from books and movies and the world around you, your experiences, your teachers and your mistakes…

Change what you can so you do better next time…

And share what you learn with others.

Absent the resources to enroll in the Arrowsmith School for months (if not years), and with the help from a handful of competent professionals, I seem to be making decent progress.

Speaking of which, I’ve got some chores to do.

Onward.

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Amiss, but getting better

On second (or third) thought… no thanks

I’m scrapping the idea of going to the ER today. I stretched and moved yesterday, and I took a real break — spent the afternoon napping, reading Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain” (more on that later), and just puttering around the house, taking it easy. I’m going to mention the left-side weakness to my counselor, just so someone else knows about it. And I’m probably going to check in with my neuropsych on Wednesday. I do feel better, after taking some time off, and now the idea of embarking on a medical adventure doesn’t seem like a good use of energy.

Oh. My. God. When I think about having to explain my situation to doctors all over again… Yeah, no thanks.

So, a big shout-out to those of you who talked me back from that edge. I owe you.

It’s Monday. Only two more days in the office 20 miles from home. Then I move to the office 5 miles from home. It’s exciting. Also, I’m barrelling down the road towards a couple of big-big deadlines this week. That makes things easier.

It’s interesting — I’m gradually getting the hang of living by deadlines and holding people to them. In past situations I’ve worked in, there were two kinds of situations. Either

  1. The deadlines were fluid and there wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule about when things got done, and in what order. People were sort of lackadaisical about doing their jobs, and if it got done, then woo hoo. But if it didn’t get done, oh well.    Or
  2. Deadlines were in place, but everybody was a top-notch over-achiever who would have sooner cut off their left hand, than not do their job.

Now, everything is about the deadlines… but I don’t have a top-notch gang of over-achievers available to me, to get the job done. I have maybe one or two, who are usually overworked.

Sigh.

Well, it’s all very educational. Now I get to learn how to motivate people who have no real reason to be motivated at all. They don’t report directly to me, they aren’t all that thrilled about their jobs, and the burning desire to excel doesn’t seem to light up their days and nights.

Interesting.

So, now I get to learn how to make it all happen. And in the end, that’s going to be a valuable skill. I just have to acquire it.

I’ve got some more work to do on restoring a sense of self after TBI. I’m also restoring a sense of my own self — as much by slogging through the tough times, as experiencing the good times.

In a way, slogging through the tough times is even more useful to me than having everything go well. It shows me that I can do this thing, called adapting and overcoming. And it teaches me valuable skills along the way. I am extremely rigid and uncompromising in some ways, which can come in handy, when it has to do with personal integrity and delivering on my promises. When things come up to oppose my grand plans — as they invariably do — I can either buckle and fall to pieces (that sometimes happens), or I can learn from it and add to my overall knowledge and skill in handling those types of situations.

I choose the latter. And instead of tearing myself down — e.g., beating myself up for going off the deep end yesterday with the sensations I’m having on my left side — I can learn from the experience, chalk it up to, well, being human, and move on with a little more information under my belt.

And when I focus on learning and growing from experience, that builds up my feeling about who I am and how I handle myself.  Getting bogged down in despair and frustration is not how I want to be. It’s now how I understand myself to be. So, I have to find a better way. And recognize my limits — my tendency to go all catastrophic on things that happen with me — so I can keep them from taking over my life. I have limits, just like anyone else, and they are part of me — but only a PART of me, not all of me.

Having a broader sense of myself as a collection of many features and qualities, as well as a lot of strengths along with my weaknesses, makes all the difference in the world. I can’t gloss over the tricky parts, but I sure as hell can emphasize the cool stuff, and make the most of that.

Speaking of making the most of things, I need to really focus on getting into my day. It is SO HARD to get going for work, this morning. Mondays have been very difficult for me, lately. Transitioning into work and really getting invested, has been a monumental task. I dread everything about it, and I can’t seem to get into the day, no matter what I do. I know why, though. It’s old patterns from many years of bad experiences that are cropping up again, just at this point in time. Four months into just about every endeavor, this happens with me. Like clockwork. More on that later.

Anyway, the day is waiting, and I have a lot to get done today. Things are looking up, and that’s a good thing.

Onward.

Do all the concussions need to wreck us?

Source: diamondduste

I’ve been giving a bit of thought to all the reports of concussions in the news, lately. Football players, ice hockey players, soccer players… not to mention all the reports of kids heading to the ER. Conflicting as those reports may be — some say more pre-teens are being treated, some say more high-school age teens are being treated — the picture is still pretty significant. And the concern is increasingly palpable.

The message, like in a recent blog post of the Chicago Times Union, frames the issue from a concerned parent’s point of view. This isn’t an isolated case, either. Soccer/hockey moms/dads are becoming increasingly vocal about concussion risks in youth sports, and plenty of times there’s an accompanying dismay at the apparent cluelessness of the coaches regarding the risks of unsafe return to play.

Here’s the thing, from where I’m sitting — as a multiple concussion survivor and a former student athlete myself: If we funnel all our energy into fear and avoidance and attempted prevention of injuries like concussions, aren’t we possibly missing a big lesson that sports can teach us, in the first place — namely, that it’s part of human experience to get hurt… and it’s vital that we learn to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and head back into the fray, facing our fears and dealing with what is.

Getting bent out of shape over concussions is understandable, but does it need to derail the very important process of learning from screwing up that often comes from childhood and youth? Since when did we start believing that all the lessons we can learn should be framed in positive terms, with no harm or danger involved? I would argue that by avoiding and trying to prevent risks, we are depriving the next generation of really critical lessons they need to learn, in order to deal effectively in the world.

If they don’t learn how to handle injury and adversity now, when they are relatively safe within the fold of their parents’ house, how will they handle it when the shit really hits the fan?

It inevitably does, you know. No parent can prevent that, hard as they  may try.

Now, I’m sure that there are plenty of parents who will take issue with this attitude. And coming from a multiple mild traumatic brain injury survivor, I realize that credibility is an issue. How can someone who’s gotten clunked on the head as often as I have be a trusted source for judgment about how to deal with sports concussions? I’ve talked about my judgment around risk being a bit impaired in the past, so why listen to me now?

Here’s the thing — it’s not that I’m advocating that we put our kids in harm’s way and not give a damn about their safety. Far from it. But at some point, the helicoptering starts to genuinely prevent the most valuable part about childhood and youth — the learning gained from trying and failing and trying again. That includes the learning gained from falling down, getting hurt, getting up and assessing the severity of your injury, letting yourself heal, and then getting back into the game when it is genuinely safe to do so.

Granted, with concussion, the threshold of safe return to play is often elusive and unpredictable.  But the opportunity — indeed, the teachable moments — that healing from an injury provides, can be invaluable in later life.

Concussions happen. They happen a lot. And I suspect they’ve been happening since the beginning of time — we just haven’t always had emergency departments at the ready to accept the steady stream of kids whose parents have good enough insurance and the level of understanding and concern to get them there.  I’m not sure there are more concussions happening today than before — we’re just more keenly aware of them. And this increased awareness means we’ve got a shining opportunity to learn all about the injury — as well as how to heal.

And learn we must. It’s not enough to wring our hands over all those mild traumatic brain injuries. It’s not enough to rush the kids to the ER and lecture the coach about their insensitivity and putting our kids in danger. It’s not enough to turn our heads away from danger and injury and/or do everything in our power to prevent it. We must learn to deal directly with this in a way that actually works, so that it doesn’t get the best of us. We need to learn to face up to the danger, the risk, the harm, the inevitable hurt, and master our skills in overcoming it.

After all, if concussions are endemic to the human experience and people have been experiencing them since the beginning of time (which I believe is accurate), and we’re all still here (more or less) and we haven’t all died off due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy and our societies haven’t completely disintegrated into a dust cloud of demented violence (or maybe we have?), isn’t that at least some evidence that concussions can and do heal — and that we can probably find a better, more effective way to heal than we’ve seen in the past 50 years or so?

Rest alone won’t always do it.  Concussion and TBI experts tend to agree that resting (and doing nothing else) doesn’t always fix the problems that come from post-concussive syndrome. Exercise, on the other hand, has been shown to clear issues with people with remarkable success — as SUNY’s University at Buffalo Concussion Clinic has found. Even professional ice hockey players are turning to them for help, and it appears to be helping. After decades of partial solutions, we’re getting to a point where we’re learning new ways of dealing with the somewhat staggering numbers of head injuries, and we should use them.

Let’s use them. Let’s deal with the issues around concussion — both the prevention of needless injury, and the healing from the hurt. Short-term recovery should be actively evolved and pursued and talked about in every public forum, from youth/amateur sports to professional circles. And long-term recovery should be addressed as well. Nobody who’s sustained a concussion (or more) should have to live under the dark cloud of the depression, the mood disorders, the behavioral issues, and the cognitive problems… not to mention the public stigma that comes from being considered “brain damaged”.

Concussions happen. But they shouldn’t have the last word.

At least, that’s what I think.

What to do while you’re waiting in the emergency department

It occurred to me over the past few days, while walking and breathing, that doing conscious breathing would be an excellent way to spend the hour(s) you have to wait to be seen in the emergency department. ED visits consume an average of 222 minutes of waiting. That’s over three and a half hours. That’s time taken away from doing what you would rather be doing.

What a waste, right? Well, if you take the time there, to focus in on your breathing, to slow down your system, and chill out your sympathetic nervous system with mindful breathing that brings the focus away from all the terrible things that could happen and focuses it on your breath — the one thing you can be certain of — it can do you a whole lot of good.

How? By directing your state of mind away from you panic and into the areas of your brain that are more logical and more centered and better able to communicate with the doctors and nurses, and get them the information they need, to help treat you.

Time spent in the emergency department doesn’t have to be wasted. Nor does have to be consumed by fear and anxiety and dread. You have other options for how to direct your attention.

And if you direct it to your breathing, that can be 222 minutes well-spent.