Clearing out the gunk

Had a pretty fiery long weekend — and beyond. Several fights – one of them serious. That was Monday night, after the activity of the long weekend. Total meltdown/blow-up.

Felt like crap afterwards. Really awful. Talk of divorce. What else is new? My spouse plays that card, whenever they want to make me believe it’s serious. It is, and I know that. It’s just a brinksmanship thing they do to push me a little more than they already have.

Not that I would mind, some days. Some days, I wouldn’t mind just walking away from all of this — and I mean ALL of it — and starting again. There are a lot of things I would not miss, not least of which are the obligations that I am true to, for the sake of building up relationships with others… relationships which actually don’t do squat for me, because deep down inside I am a profoundly introverted person. And the social “thing” as most people do it, does nothing for me.

It’s not that I don’t need people. I do – but differently than most people I know. My life isn’t just built around a few key relationships with people with whom I’ve cultivated connections. It’s built around having good relationships with everyone I meet. That’s important to me. Because I don’t actually see a difference between all the different people I know. The “close friends” are as important to me as “casual strangers” — because I actually don’t experience people as strangers. They are just everyday people I don’t know very well yet. As for close friends, there is too much of them that I do not know and understand, for me to consider them close friends. I mean, I do see that difference, and I do feel more comfortable talking to some people than others, but my whole social world is very different from the world that I see so many others participating in.

Cliques don’t interest me. Little clubs don’t interest me. I’m not into the “membership thing”. It’s boring to me, and it shows a real lack of imagination, in my opinion. With me, it’s literally a case of all of us being brothers and sisters in one extended family (heaven help us). It’s not some airy-fairy hippie-dippie ideal. That’s literally how I experience the world.

And it is a pretty damned lonely perspective, too. I can’t think of anyone who feels the same way, who doesn’t strike me as an airy-fairy hippie-dippie poseur. They just don’t seem real. And the people who do consider me a close friend with that bond they feel… I dunno… They don’t feel any more close to me than others, most of the time. A lot of them are pretty wrapped up in their personal pain and unfortunate experiences, so they’re not even fully “there” when I’m around them. In any case, their feelings of friendship towards me just barely scratches the surface of what I feel and how I experience the world, so even their closeness is pretty much a faint shadow of what my experience is.

My spouse is the one exception to all of this. They know me better, have been with me longer and closer and more loyally, than anyone else I know, and they are the one person I actually feel a deep bond with. Everyone else in my life just flits in and out, and half the time I don’t really miss them, when they have other things to do. But my spouse has been there, through thick and thin, and they can hold their own with me, when I am at my best. Even when they don’t understand what I’m talking about, when I start going on about technology and science and what-not, they still appreciate that I have that knowledge. And they don’t push me away because of it. We have our issues, that’s for sure, and some days (like today), I can’t say it would kill me if we split up and I bought an old truck and a junkyard dog and headed out to the wide open West to see what life had to offer me there.

But to be honest, I’d probably turn around, 50 miles down the road, go pick them up… and take them with me.

We’ve been talking about doing that for a long time, now, and maybe someday we will.

Anyway, back to my present state of being. We have been under a lot of pressure around money and getting things done, for a number of years, now. It’s been over three years, since we started down the debt repayment, road, wiping out a ton of old debt that was burying us every month, and living so close to the bone for so long has really taken a toll. It’s pretty awful. When I think about how things used to be … it was much easier, when we had money, and both of us were active and really involved in our world.

But now, after years of poor decision making and relationships with troubled people, we find ourselves really stretched. Money issues can tax even the healthiest of relationships, and we’ve had our challenges along the way, in addition to the money situation.

So, it’s taking a toll. And things really flared up this past weekend. It’s the holidays, family are pulling on us, we’re doing the best we can under the circumstances, but nobody seems to understand just how broke we really are. It’s freaky, to be this close to the edge, and have nobody realize it. Of course, we can’t tell people about it, because then a hell of a lot of judgement is going to rain down on our heads, adding insult to injury.

No thanks.

So, we just keep plugging along, by ourselves… And the biochemical stress sludge builds up and up and up… until it boils over, and we both melt down — or one of us goes off, and the other chimes in. Then we really get rolling, and by the time all is said and done, we are both wiped out, feeling like crap, and feeling like we’re back where we started, all those years ago, when things were really, really bad between us.

Things have been getting progressively worse, over the past years — mostly because of money problems and also work issues. The more I am aware of how I want things to be, the more I’m aware that they’re nothing like I want them to be, and it just depresses the sh*t out of me. I used to be able to just work like a mad person and find some relief in that, but it’s not like that for me anymore. Now I’m just so tired all the time, I’m irritable, I get pissed off over every little thing, and I’m nowhere near as easy-going as I used to be, because now I have a much clearer view of my own self-worth, and I’m not willing to put up with just any old thing, for the sake of having peace.

It was like that with me for years. I didn’t make too much about getting yelled at constantly, at getting hounded and treated like crap. I was making decent money, and as long as I had enough to keep myself entertained and do the things I wanted to do, it didn’t matter how I felt about myself. The fact that I was earning a good living was enough.

Now, however, that’s totally different, and in the absence of money, I require a lot more respect and consideration, which my spouse isn’t always ready to give me. Plus, they’ve got severe anxiety issues, they don’t take care of themself physically, and that makes them even harder to live with.

So, things get bad… and then they get worse.

Main thing for me, right now, is just getting past all the biochemical sludge that’s built up over the last long weekend. And making plans for how to spend the next long vacation I have coming up — over a week between Christmas and New Years. I’m going to need to structure this time pretty well, if I’m not going to go off and get freaked out and end up in shouting matches, all the live-long day. Being off work and interacting with someone who lives like they’re on permanent vacation and expect me to do the same, is intensely stressful — especially considering the dire financial circumstances we’re in. It’s just not good, and I’m the only one here who seems interested in doing anything about it.

It’s a problem.

But I do feel like there’s a change coming. I found some errors I made on past tax returns, and I’m refiling, so I may get some money back from the government from that. I’m also collecting all my expenses and numbers from the past year, so I can do my taxes early and get a quick refund in February. That’s my plan. It’s the only one I actually have, right now, aside from some small business ideas I have brewing.

It’s all a process, of course…

The main thing, is to keep going, keep clearing out the junk, not overload my system with a lot of junk food, sugar, cheap carbs, etc. And get enough sleep.

I did that last night, and it feels phenomenal.

So, enough of all this talk of drudgery and sadness.










Just understanding makes things better

So, I’ve been reading up on the Polyvagal Theory, and it’s really making a lot of sense to me. In a nutshell (if I dare to summarize), the human system has three systems which respond to the environment, especially perceived threat:

  • The primal vagus – which is responsible for the freeze response like turtles have — shutting down the system in the face of inescapable threat. This kind of freeze slows the heart rate and reduces oxygen to the body — it’s basically getting ready to die, and making sure you don’t feel the pain when you go. This is not a system we can really control.
  • The sympathetic nervous system – which is responsible for kicking in the fight-flight response. It also kicks in a different sort of freeze response than the primal vagus — the sympathetic freeze response is where you tense up, like a deer in headlights. This freeze is completely different from primal vagal freeze, because your system does the opposite and increases breathing and heart rate. This system responds to our thoughts and reactions and interpretations of our environment, so we can sort of control it to some degree.
  • The “directing” vagus – which regulates the other two systems and also makes it possible for you to consciously slow your heart rate or breathing, and regulate your system intentionally. The nerve endings are very closely located to the muscles of the face and neck, and we “cue” off the facial expressions that are produced from messages the social vagus detects in our system (like fear or anger or happiness) to regulate our own social behavior, as well as our reactions to our environment.

The directing vagus (as I call it) is the most recently developed system, next is the sympathetic nervous system, and the primal vagus is the oldest and least controllable of the three. The cool thing about this three-fold system, is that they all interplay with each other, and the more developed systems can override the more primal ones.

If the sympathetic nervous system couldn’t override the primal vagus, there would be a lot less people in the world, because the human system can’t handle extended periods of shutting off oxygen and blood flow (like reptiles can). Our lives would be much shorter, if we didn’t have the SNS fight-flight to kick in and take over in times of extreme danger/distress.

But at the same time, staying stuck in fight-flight 24/7 is no good, so we have the directing vagus that helps us consciously regulate our systems and power down the fight-flight when we no longer need it. The directing vagus is closely connected with interpersonal interactions and reasoning. It not only delivers messages from the body to the brain, but it also helps the brain regulate the body. Problems arise, like PTSD and other mental health issues like panic/anxiety, when we get stuck in that fight-flight loop and can’t get out.

So, how to get out…? I must admit, I’ve been reading a whole lot, so some points may not be totally clear for me yet, but the way I understand it is this: When you’re really stressed, physiologically and neurologically, you are not capable of thinking clearly, and your problem-solving abilities really suffer. But when your system is balanced and rested and responding well to the world, it’s possible for you to “recruit” the full range of your problem-solving abilities and approach your life as a learning experience, not a continuously pitched battle. Now, stress is inevitable in today’s world, but through the directing vagus, you can override the instinct to fight-flight and call on other abilities to deal with your environment that don’t involve still more battle.

And how do we activate the directing vagus? Well, we can do it socially, through talking and sharing meals (talking and eating activate systems in your body that are close to the directing vagus fibers, so the vagus is stimulated as well). We can also do it consciously on our own, through certain types of breathing, movement, mindfulness, and other activities. (The directing vagus both “listens” to the body and gives it instructions, so mindfulness is sort of like exercise for your vagal pathways.) We can also do it semi-consciously by changing our attitude and re-intepreting our experiences to be less combative. By changing our minds about things, we can literally retrain our systems to get out of fight-flight mode, relax, and come up with different approaches to our situation in life.

And that’s important. Because the three systems work in a loop. If the more developed directing vagus system can’t cope with what’s in front of it, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system to spring into fight-flight. And if the SNS isn’t working out, then the primal vagus kicks in to start shutting down the system (preparing to die). It’s an automatic and sometimes uncontrollable chain reaction, and it’s set off when the hierarchical systems fail in the order of sophistication. It’s like the body is looking for the first, best answer to the situation — if the complex thought processes of the directing vagus can’t solve the problem, then fight-flight kicks in, and if that fails, then the primal system takes over and rational thought and conscious choice become that much more elusive. The body keeps looking for answers, and if it can’t find something that will let it respond to a perceived threat, then it just goes into “kill me now and get it over with” mode.

And that’s a pretty rough place to be.

So, what will keep that cascade of diminishing options from kicking off? Well, to me it seems that information and understanding — both about the environment and your internal resources — will go a long way to helping. If you understand in your mind what’s really going on with you (for example, that your brain is acting up because you didn’t get enough sleep last night), and you can reason your way through to a solution (going easy on yourself and taking a nap later in the day), then there’s less reason for the fight-flight response to kick in, and you still have a bunch of cognitive resources available to you. You’re still able to access all your circuits, and that frees you up to make well-informed choices.

Even if you do go into fight-flight mode, and your “unnecessary” neural processes start to shut down because of the stress response, you can take a step back, take a deep breath (or two or three or 20), and re-think things. You can consciously slow yourself down and get yourself back to a more balanced state by using the directing vagus to chill. And that frees up more of your circuits to come up with better ideas and a plan for getting out of the jam you’re in.

Just understanding what’s going on around you — and inside you — can make all the difference in how you approach your challenges. This is why I believe so strongly that TBI/concussion survivors and their loved ones should be educated as much as possible about the brain and how it reacts to traumatic brain injury. Just knowing that you’re not crazy, that this upheaval is a natural response to the injury, and that things will change over time, can help dispel a whole lot of anguish.

I know it did for me.

On top of having information about TBI/concussion, it’s also critical to have knowledge of yourself, to know for a fact that you are capable of handling the things that come up in life, and to be confident that, no matter what happens, you’ll be able to figure things out. Confidence of that kind can be hard to come by in the aftermath of TBI, but cultivating that is so very important. It’s also contagious — your confidence tends to carry over to others, thanks at least in part to the directing vagus, which communicates with the rest of the world via facial muscles and the interpretation of clues and cues coming from others’ faces.

Bottom line is, knowledge is powerful, and in approaching the trauma of TBI and/or concussion and managing the symptoms and after-effects, you can’t put a price on knowledge and understanding. Having more information makes it possible for us to turn to reason — having less information forces us to resort to fight-flight tactics, which just adds to our stress (and that’s probably connected with why experiences with doctors/medical experts can be so traumatic for so many – they just don’t give us much to work with).

Understanding is hugely important on many different levels. You can’t put a price on it.

And with that, I’m off to work, operating with the understanding that I didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night, and that I need to pace myself and also look for an opportunity to catch a quick nap later this afternoon.



Off to a better start (today)

After the flood

Well, I got another lesson yesterday. I’ve been really struggling with my sleep and my workload, and yesterday I thought I’d try to pack in as much as I could — and it totally backfired. I ended up really frying my system and getting into a protracted argument with my spouse that really took it out of me. By the end of the day, I was sick and more tired than ever, and feeling like crap.

I felt terrible about myself, about my behavior, about my inability to just buckle down and get things done, and about the dynamics at work which have been pretty intense. I was sick to my stomach and sick at heart, and just feeling completely depleted and defeated.

One thing I noticed, however, was something that actually helped me feel better about myself. See, I’ve noticed in the past that after relatively minor “infractions” — a heated argument, or a stressful period of time — my mood spirals and plummets, and I end up feeling disproportionately terrible about myself. In many cases, the arguments or the difficulties I had were not catastrophic, and in fact others who were involved did not end up hating themselves or feeling like trash. But I ended up feeling really, really terrible about what went down, and no matter how I tried to rationally talk myself out of feeling like the world was going to end, nothing seemed to help.

Rational thought was a lost cause. I felt like shit, and that was that. Nothing helped by sleep and keeping chilled out for the next few days.

A few years ago, when I was having some intense episodes of panic and meltdown, followed by terrible feelings of worthlessness and despair, I realized that the times when I felt the worst about myself were when I felt the worst, physically. I know people (including my neuropsych) who believe that our physical well-being follows on what we think about ourselves and our environment, and how we interpret them. That is certainly true to some extent… additionally, I have found that when I feel bad physically, then my mood plummets, and no amount of good sense will turn me around, until I am physically well and balanced again.

It’s like, when I get into these tight situations where I am “pinned down” and feel like I cannot escape, I cannot master the situation, and I am sliding down that ragged slope into a meltdown, my whole body goes haywire, and it fires off all these charges that fill my system with bursts of adrenaline, stress hormones, and whatever else floods my system when I’m feeling cornered. It’s a primal physiological experience, and it completely takes over and shuts down my abilities to deal effectively with whatever is in front of me. I simply cannot recruit the whole of my coping abilities… and in situations of tension where people around me are already on the verge of panic and leaning on me to mirror their own concerns (because not acting as panicked as they are makes them nervous and uncertain), I feel intensely trapped, cornered, and persecuted. But the only way out is through, so I have to deal with them.

But dealing with them in times of intense stress (when my fight-flight response is trying like crazy to override my freeze reaction) the result is some pretty intense battle skirmishes which leave me feeling completely wiped out and destroyed.

It’s not even true that I AM destroyed — I just feel that way. And even if things turn out okay and everything resolves to everyone’s satisfaction in the end, I am left with a backlog of biochemical sludge, just like when a river floods and then recedes, and I’m left with all the sludge-covered bicycles and deflated basketballs and shopping carts and trash that got thrown in the river over the years.

That’s literally what it feels like, and it’s figuratively how it is. Because when I get to that breaking point, I am not dealing only with the present moment. Oh no. I am dealing with all the other moments and hours and days and years behind me when I felt pinned down and couldn’t get myself out of danger… when I was put on the spot by people who meant me ill or well, and I couldn’t come up with anything useful or good to do or say in the moment… and then the memories after the fact of people being so hard on me for things I got wrong or didn’t do or say the way they wanted me to.

When I’m cornered, I’m not just cornered at that moment. I am cornered through all the moments of my prior life — and all my imagined moments in the future.

And I flood. Like that Hungarian town where the container of toxic sludge broke open and doused the town in ochre red poison. That would be me.

And I feel terrible. Physically awful. Like shit.

And then I start to get down on myself. I feel awful mentally and emotionally.

The thing is, the mental and emotional anguish comes after the physical problems. The physical things come up as a result of my mental perception, but the after-effects, which are the most debilitating for days on end, follow the physical effects.

So, it’s not all about my state of mind and emotions that dictates this. It’s also my state of physical being that matters.

And this is key. Because in knowing this, I can take concrete, definite steps to address how I’m feeling mentally and physically. Rather than staying down in that low state, with my hands shaking, my stomach in knots, my thinking foggy, and my voice halting and slurred, I can simply go to bed. That’s what I did last night, after all the BS was over and done with. I went to bed. And I slept. And when I got up this morning, still feeling dull and foggy and sick, I got my exercise in. I didn’t just lie in bed and look out the window. I got on the exercise bike, did my leg lifts, and I lifted my weights, after being away from that for several days.

It’s critically important that I keep up with my exercise. If I don’t, and if I don’t keep to some sort of schedule, then I go off the rails, and I end up feeling physically bad — which in turn results in me feeling mentally and emotionally fragile. Like glass. It seems ridiculous to think about, but that’s how I feel — like glass. And over what? A misunderstanding that escalated quickly out of control.

But there’s more to it — it’s not just what/how I think about things. It’s how I physically experience them. If I am pushed to the brink, I react physically. We all do. And with me, I react probably more extremely than most normal people do. I escalate very quickly — and it’s not just about my thinking process. It’s about my physical reaction to things, which I really believe is tied in with my underlying autonomic nervous system reactions that have evolved over decades of stress and strain. As a result of so much that has happened to me, as well as systemic issues that come from my TBIs, I’m wound more tightly than I’d like, and I’m on a hair-trigger — all for a ton of different reasons that all add up to a potential explosion, over the seemingly most minor of things.

I’m not saying all this because I’m trying to excuse my behavior and get myself off the hook. I’m saying all this because it’s critical for me to understand, so I can manage it all. This is not a situation I care to be in. I am capable of better, and I know it. The thing is, I can’t manage a situation, if I don’t understand the underlying issues, and I can’t understand if I don’t identify what’s going on.

I’m sure I’ve written about this stuff in the past. I just can’t remember right now. My thinking is still foggy and a bit clunky. The thing is, I’ve at least started out on a better foot than I did yesterday or the day before. I got up at a decent hour. I got my exercise. And I had my breakfast and vitamins. I didn’t overdo it and I didn’t underdo it. I just did it. I also realize that my feelings of depression and despair are physically based, and I know they will pass as I continue to do healthy things over the coming days. It helps to know this, even if I feel like sh*t right now. And despite feeling like a once-flooded Eastern European village, that’s starting to make a difference.

The other thing that’s making a difference, is my increasing understanding with the Polyvagal Theory, which explains so much that I’ve had hunches about before, and confirms my suspicions from personal experience. In many cases — more than some guess, I believe — our bodies set the stage for our mental and emotional reactions and well-being. It’s nice to think that a “top-down” approach of mind-over-matter can control our destiny, however there’s a ton of bottom-up information our systems are constantly dealing with, that affects how we react, how we think, how we live.

So, it’s time to give the body its due. It’s time to recognize the physical components of experience — the felt experiences that affect our thinking and state of heart. And it’s time to take positive, constructive action that makes the most of this recognition. That’s my goal for today, anyway.

Now, off to work…