I paid a visit to some members of my extended family a few days back, and I’m happy to report the visit was a good one. I was able to actually enjoy myself.
This visit was in fact very different from past ones, when I really struggled with interactions and had a pretty rough time keeping up with everyone, mentally and physically. My relatives eat very different food than I’m used to — lots of sugar and fats and heavy sauces. And that tends to bog me down and make me feel sluggish… which makes me feel badly about myself.
I often start feeling bad and have trouble interacting after the first couple of meals. I get cranky and irritable and start to snap at people.
But this time, even though I was eating the same food they eat, I was able to keep myself together and stay really positive and upbeat throughout the whole visit.
This is good. And I do believe it has to do with my increased fitness and stamina, since my last visit, over 6 months ago. I’ve had more time to work out, get myself in better shape, and be better fit overall, so my body can handle the extra load of the travel and the change in schedule and meals.
I’ve been “hooked” on the idea that I can build back my stamina after TBI in much the same way I built up my stamina while running track in high school. Thinking back on my freshman year, I never thought I’d be able to work my way up to the 5-mile training runs we did for the mile and 2-mile races. But I did. It didn’t happen overnight, and it took a lot of hard work and practice, but I eventually got there.
If I could do it then, why shouldn’t I be able to do it now? I know I need more stamina; being overtired frays my nerves and makes me very difficult to deal with… which in turn cuts into my self-esteem and makes all my issues that much worse. I can work to change that the same way I got myself in race condition when I was a freshman in high school — starting from where I am, not worrying about being out of shape — why would I start this, if I were in shape? … Deliberately building up my stamina with regular work and exercise to get myself into “competition shape” that will support me and make it possible for me to live my life without a lot of needless stress and strain that comes from fatigue. When I was 14, it didn’t happen overnight, but with proper encouragement, and gradually working my way up, I got into race condition, and by my senior year, I was really kickin’ some serious ass.
Yeah, if I could do it then, I can do it now. Never mind that I’m 30 years older, and I’ve got a long history of injuries and trauma along the way. The simple fact is, my body is still responsive to exercise and attention. And when I was visiting my relatives and we went out for walks, everybody except me got out of breath walking up steep hills. That felt pretty great, I can tell you. In the past, I was the one who was out of breath and had to slow down.
And whereas before I would always end up pretty rough and ragged by the end of each visit, this time I kept my act together and was able to interact with my relatives and their friends, as a normal person without the temper and edginess that has dogged me ever since I was a little kid.
Whew — what a relief it is, to be able to spend time with my family and not lose it constantly! My moods are definitely connected with my fatigue levels, and pushing that threshold back, bit by bit, makes all the difference in the world. It’s huge, actually.
There was none of the usual emotional volatility, the temper flares, the anxiety, even the rage that would come out of nowhere… gone. The panic, the tension, the agitation, the quick frustrations, the difficulty sleeping and resting, the tension… gone. And in their place was relaxation, rest, and heightened attention to what was going on around me. I could actually enjoy myself, which is something I have rarely had in that place, for more than 30 years. Amazing.
Now, my neuropsych is keen on telling me that I’m doing better cognitively and emotionally, but I think the real key is my physical fitness. My family is pretty high-maintenance, and they like to be on the go. Constantly. They usually wear me out, and this time they took a bit out of me. But I was able to rest and relax and regroup and take care of myself so I didn’t start to lose it when I was running out of steam. Not having such a low fatigue “set point” frees up a whole lot more energy for interacting in ways that I want — in ways that I choose. It takes a lot of energy for me and my brain to get through each day, especially with my family, so the more stamina I can build up, the more strength and flexibility I can foster, the more sanity I enjoy overall.
And so does my family.
Absolutely, positively, the cognitive behavioral stuff helps. But there’s nothing like having a solid, sturdy physical foundation for your mental health. After all, the brain is part of the body. Take care of the body, and the mind can take care of the brain.