What an annoying session

Urg

So, I went to see my neuropsych yesterday after about a month away, and they really annoyed me. I almost walked out a couple of times. I think they were all jazzed up because of another patient who was having some trouble, just before my appointment. In the past, when I’ve showed up at the end of what was a long and challenging day for them, they’ve been pretty dismissive towards me and my concerns.

As though I don’t have any problems… compared to their other patients.

Yeah, well, I can go anywhere and have people tell me, “You look fine – there’s nothing wrong with you!” I don’t have to cut my work day short and drive 45 minutes through evening-rush-hour traffic to a little office to be told that I’m just making things harder for myself than need be… and be lectured about how I’m being self-indulgent and pulling a martyr act.

How irritating. But at the same time, I did have some insights at the end of the session — that actually came from friends of mine from many years ago, who would give me a hard time for “sitting on the pity pot” or getting sucked down by justifiable righteous anger. I miss those friends from 20 years ago. I’ll have to look them up. They’re probably on Facebook…

Anyway, it often turns out that the times when my neuropsych is the most annoyingly “all-knowing” and comes across like a bit of a self-satisfied prig who’s got it ALL figured out, that I have these deeply contrarian insights that go directly against what they’re convinced is true — and doesn’t seem to be true (to me) at all. It’s when I have to most vigorously defend myself and my self-respect, that I find my way back to solid ground. Maybe they do it on purpose, because they know it helps me. OR maybe they really are just a self-satisfied prig who thinks they’ve got it all figured out.

All in all, it’s not entirely bad.

But geez, what a godawful pain in the ass they can be. And then I feel a little guilty for being so irked by them, because they’ve helped me so much.

Or maybe my being irked is a good sign — that I’m still my own person, and I’m in no danger of falling under their svengali-like spell, and I’ll always, without fail, make up my own damn’ mind about things.

I’ve got to say, sometimes my np really bugs the crap out of me, but they’re not there to be my therapist. They’re there to create the kind of environment where I can practice and refine the interpersonal and thinking/reasoning skills I need in the outside world in an environment where I won’t be subjected to constant ridicule and second-guessing. I’m there, quite frankly, to be safely pushed — and to see how far I can go. And in a way, I think sometimes I’m there to push them a little bit, too. Somehow, the arrangement seems to work.

So, onward it goes. I’ll be back to see them next week. And in the meantime, I’m going to look up those old friends of mine. They could always be as rude and obnoxious and about as human as a person can get. They were also a lot of fun. And I miss them.

Getting my life back

There is more out there waiting…

So, the bulk of the Project From Hell is done, and the remaining pieces are mapped out to be completed in the coming weeks. So, that drama is behind me, more or less. I’m still exhausted — came home from work last night and crawled into bed to sleep for 3 hours… then had to go to bed after eating dinner, watching a movie and running out of steam. My exhaustion wasn’t just work-related. I also had a doctor’s appointment to follow up on some tests I had done over the past months.

Last spring/summer — about a year ago — I had some weird pain that wasn’t going away, so I visited my doctor and they ran some tests. They did some scanning and bloodwork, and they ruled out the cancer they thought had started up with me. The weekend I spent between being told “well it might be cancer”, having my blood taken and then getting results back the following Monday/Tuesday was probably the longest weekend I’ve had in a long time, and as a result of the existential crisis I plunged into, a lot of my outlook about life and work has shifted.

There’s nothing like lying awake in bed at all hours, staring at the ceiling, wondering if the life you’ve led has really been the kind of life you wanted to lead.

Of course, by the middle of the next week, my test results were back, and there was no sign of cancer, but still… Pondering that whole scenario — and wondering if it would even make sense for me to pursue mainstream treatment options at all — and wondering if maybe it would be better to not fight it but deal with it and check out with my own dignity intact (we’re all gonna die sometime, after all) — well, it changed a lot for me.

All of a sudden, I was keenly aware that I am in fact pushing 50, that life isn’t going to go on forever, and I have this one chance to do the things I feel I’m supposed to do… and what the f*ck am I doing?

All of a sudden, the chasing after this-that-and-the-other-thing made a lot less sense, and I decided to shift my attention away from climbing to the top of the corporate heap… and towards just being happy. All of a sudden, the track that I was on made a lot less sense and seemed like it just wasn’t delivering the goods I was looking for. All of a sudden, the things that really matter most to me — keeping this blog going, having a decent marriage, enjoying the house I’ve worked so hard for, and finding things that bring me actual bona-fide enjoyment — those things started to come front and center.

Of course, it didn’t bode well at work. I mean, people there are crazy. Seriously. They seem to use work as a drug to dull their pain — when they’re not drinking heavily or sleeping around or chasing some exotic high that makes them the envy of their professional peers. The Folks In Charge (FICs) are power-tripping yahoos who run around high-fiving each other like they’ve scoring a couple of overtime goals in a hotly contested, tied Olympic ice hockey game.

Dude – seriously? Your kids are the competitive athletes, not you.

Anyway, I guess the organizational changes have thrown middle management into a tizzy, because they’ve all behaving badly. And the worse they act, the more the pressure the folks in the trenches to PERFORM, the more they play their power games where only certain people get certain information, the less engaged I am, the less inclined to become engaged I am, and the more I look beyond the hallowed (and incredibly boring — would a little non-corporate, non-brand-specific artwork kill you?) halls of the WorkPlace for satisfaction and meaning.

Which is probably just as well. Because my devotion to my Work in the first year of my current job was not very balanced and probably not entirely sane. Ask my spouse; they can attest.

Anyway, back to the present…Yesterday, I had a doctor’s appointment to follow up on some testing that was done as a follow-up to last year. I was supposed to go in for testing, six months ago, but the job change threw me off, and I just didn’t go. I also didn’t feel like dealing with doctors and diagnostics and what-not — even if they were worried about me having something serious wrong with me. The change of commute was bad enough, and I figured that if I went in for testing before I was adjusted to the commute and my system had calmed down, they were going to see a bunch of weird spikes in my levels and readings that had more to do with my relatively normal system responding to unusual circumstances, instead of an unusual system operating in relatively normal circumstances.

So, I showed up at the doctor and met with the physicians’ assistant, who is capable and personable and has been more helpful to me than the doctor, proper. We had some good conversations, until we got into the testing talk and I got the lecture about not coming in earlier when they wanted me to, and they started talking about doing more testing. I did consent to getting some more imaging done, which was fine. But when we started talking about the more invasive procedures, I had to stand my ground and dig my heels in.

No way was I going to submit to what they wanted me to do. The last time I had it done, I felt like crap for days after. And I also started seeing articles about false positives and permanent cell damage from those sorts of diagnostics. And I told the PA that I’d done my research and if they wanted to know such-and-such about me, they were going to need to find another way to do it.

And the PA gives me a lecture about how they care for people who are seriously ill with what they would be screening me for, and they don’t have any other viable options available (at their facility), so that’s the best they can do. But it’s better than nothing. Or so they said.

I told them that there had to be a better way to screen for that sort of stuff, and I’d been doing some research and had found some new technologies that were looking promising — and I’d be going down that route, rather than helping their facility recoup their investment on that certain kind of imaging technology.

The PA could at least hear me. It wasn’t like I was afraid to have testing done. That’s not it at all. It’s the kind of testing that they use and make available. It’s the sub-human, degrading, painful, potentially health-damaging approach they take, all the while saying, “It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have right now.” Bullsh*t. It’s the only set of technology eggs they’ve put in their diagnostic basket, and they’re going to push that “solution” until it finally pays for itself.

Please. As though the scientific research from nearly 100 years that has warned consistently about this certain type of diagnostics didn’t matter… and would in fact save me. Again. Please.

Again, at least the PA could understand where I was coming from, and they didn’t keep pushing me. But they gave me this long, sad look — like they expected me to come down with this condition, and they expected to see me back with them in a matter of years, as I slowly (or quickly) died from this dread disease.

Yeah, okay, whatever. I’ve heard too many stories about “deathly ill” patients outliving their doctors, to lose much sleep over it. Plus, my triglycerides are a whopping 44, my HDL (good) cholesterol is at 85 — way over the 40-60 desired range, and my LDL (bad) cholesterol is 84, which is in the middle of the desired 40-130 range. Overall, my cholesterol is 178, which pleases me. And aside from a couple of red flags about vitamin deficiencies which can be supplemented, my bloodwork looks like it belongs to someone half my age. So there. I’m sure folks will pardon me if I don’t panic 😉

It’s not like I am courting my own demise, but of all the things that can and may “get me”, cancer contracted from their diagnostics is not going to be it. I’m not losing any sleep over this, now that my bloodwork is back and looking good.

Quite the contrary — if anything, the exchange (on top of the past three weeks of unmitigated crunch-time) put me to sleep. I hate feeling like I have to fight with my healthcare provider to just answer basic questions, and it really took a lot out of me. It was all I could do, to keep focused the rest of the day and get my work done. My afternoon was slow and deliberate, then I drove home to crawl into bed and pass out for three hours.

So, now it’s Saturday. The work week is done, I have some chores to do, the weather is beautiful, and I am presented with a number of choices about what to do with myself. I need to get out of this house, for sure — I’ve been stewing in my work frustrations all morning, looking around at different opportunities online, and giving thought to what I’d like to do with myself. I’ve toyed with the idea of going out for a walk in the woods, but I’ve been so bent out of shape about my work situation, that I didn’t relish the thought of spending my time in the woods obsessing about my job, which I would have.

So, I’ve stayed inside and pondered what I want to do, as well as what I can do. I have a hefty mortgage to deal with, so I can’t just take any old thing. And like I’ve been saying, there are things that I’ve been doing for years and years that are no longer easy and enjoyable for me. So much has become a chore, so I’ve been spending some time thinking about what would make me really happy — what would get my life back.

I once worked with someone who believed that we are all working to earn/purchase our freedom. They believed that we come into the world beholden to the world around us, and we have to spend our lives earning our freedom. They did not believe that it came for free, but that it was a struggle for each and everyone of us to get free. Not everyone does, not everyone can. We all do it to the best of our ability and belief. But that was what they believed that we are doing on this earth.

I can’t say that I agree or disagree. I do see some logic to that outlook, and it has certainly seemed to be true for me.

Whatever the facts of the matter, the bottom line is that nobody but me can secure my own happiness and fulfillment. That is my responsibility, and I take it on willingly. Now, in that spirit, I’m going to get on with my day and get out in this beautiful weather. I may obsess over my job situation while I’m walking in the woods, or I may not. But I won’t know till I step out and go out to find out.

The force of habit

Never cross a Jedi nun compliments of http://dudewheresmydeathstar.blogspot.com/

I had an interesting revelation this morning when I woke up. I got to bed late last night, getting caught up in watching Friday night t.v. instead of going to bed like I should have. I felt like I needed a break, but I got caught in that boob-tube vortex that eventually had me watching UFC fighters discussing the challenges of their lives and telling the camera about how they were just going to power through the pain of their torn ligaments like true warriors and never give in to defeat.

I’m tempted to riff on the hazards of ignoring your injuries and “powering through” (I know a lot about that nonsense), but what I really want to talk about is what occurred to me this morning.

See, it’s been a very tough week. I started having trouble around Tuesday, when my normally scheduled neuropsych appointment didn’t happen. My neuropsych is out of town for a few weeks, and I won’t see them until the 2nd week in April. I’ve gone this long without a consult in the past, but I had a really hard time with it, and I went back to weekly appointments as soon as I could.

During this past week, my emotional lability has been pretty intense – up and down precipitously…. all over the map. And pretty intensely, too. I truly felt like quitting my job for most of the week. I’m usually slow to anger, but this week has been extraordinarily bothersome. Normally under typical work conditions, I am pretty solid and able to focus in on my work and I can get a lot done. This past week, however, there’s been the combination of my neuropsych being away and a pretty massive project being dumped on me that is about ready to drive me nuts. I’ll spare you my snarky bitching (for now) — the bottom line is, I got caught off-guard by a lot of details that didn’t even occur to me beforehand (but I am pretty sure I should have thought of). Basically, I am learning as I go with this project, and it’s extremely high profile and can’t be done wrong, so I’m on the hook.

At the same time that my neuropsych is out of town. And my spouse is working weird hours, so we see each other about every other day or so.

Talk about feeling left out on a limb. It really feels like I’m being fed to the lions, here. Just hung out to dry with no backup or support. At least that’s how it feels.

Anyway, I’ve been behaving really badly at work — not exactly a paragon of professional competence. Oh, sure, I’m capable, and I can totally do this thing. But I’ve been very vocal about how f’ed up this whole situation is, and I’ve been so pissed off by what seems like unbelievable incompetence and sloppiness by others who have been dicking around on this project for the past 8 months — la-la-la-la-la I think I’ll fly to Germany for a few days… hmmm… I think I’ll fly to France… la-la-la-la-la fiddle-dee-dee  — that it’s seriously clouded my judgment. And I am really irritating everyone around me. Seriously. They all want me to suck it up, because everybody has to deal with this stupid shit and they manage to keep it together, but my point is that we’re all a whole lot better than this, and lack of leadership and foresight and basic intelligence and discipline by the people “in charge” has created this stupid situation that is pretty amateur and needlessly stressful and is just so indicative of how out of touch management is with what it takes to actually get work done. Geez, it’s like they’re off in la-la land. Permanent vacation. Yeah, our leaders…

It’s just stupid, and I’m not handling it well.

So, all that aside, I have been wondering why the hell I haven’t been handling this well at all. I’ve been in similar situations a number of times over the past two years, and it’s never affected me as much as this project has. The timeline is obscenely tight, yes. The people I’m working with are behaving like buffoons who are more interested in covering their asses than actually getting anything done. But that’s a given. So, what’s different this time?

Well, a number of things, actually. First, my neuropsych is out of town, and that’s throwing me off. Also, I have been getting up really early and going in hours ahead of when I normally do. I’ve also been staying late. And I haven’t been exercising as regularly as I used to. I’m off my cadence, and it’s throwing me off, big-time.

Many of the most important things I do to take care of myself and keep myself balanced are not in place. And I’m not doing well with it. When I was thinking about it this morning, I was thinking that it’s because I depend on those things to keep me balanced and sane — that the exercise and sleep and schedule I usually have are essential to my well-being. And that my visits with my neuropsych are required for me to get along in the world.

But then I thought about it some more, and it occurred to me that it’s actually the disruption of my habits that have sent me over the edge. It’s not the lack of input from my neuropsych that’s throwing me off; it’s the lack of that regular appointment in my week that’s throwing off my cadence. I’ve gotten attached to — and dependent on — a certain cadence to my days and weeks, and when that’s disrupted, I go over the edge.

Which is a bit lame, if I say so myself. Just because things are different for me for a few weeks, I can’t keep my sh*t together? That’s a little sad.

On the other hand, when I step back from the situation and don’t make up some judgmental definition of what a loser I am, I can see another side to this — the power of habits, and the need for me to create better habits for myself that will help me live my life better, instead of convenient habits that are like mind-numbing drugs — where, if they’re taken away, I start to piss and moan like a cranky teenager.

See, here’s the thing — habit is a hugely powerful force. Our habits train our brains and our lives to do certain things in certain ways — when we do things often enough and long enough, we can reach a point of “unconscious competence” where we don’t even have to think about what we’re doing. We just know how to do it, like brushing our teeth or starting our car. When we start out, it can take us some time to figure out how to do what we need to do — remember when you were a kid, learning to brush your teeth, and you couldn’t seem to master that movement of up-and-down with the toothbrush? And how many times, when you were learning to drive, did you crank the motor too long, so that the starter screeched — or you stepped on the gas so long that you flooded the engine?

It happens, those things at first, and getting past them is all part of learning. But eventually if we do these things long enough and often enough, and if they are important enough to us in our lives, we do reach a place where we don’t have to constantly think about them when we do them. They become part our lives, our overall competencies. They become habitual. And the neural connections in our brains that enable us to do them without having to consciously think about them… well, those become a regular part of our lives, sometimes as though they were never NOT there.

That’s the power of habit — important things in our lives become so much a part of who and what we are, that we can’t imagine them not being part of us. And since my habits — like my Tuesday neuropsych appointments and my regular daily schedule — tend to become so central to my life that when they’re interrupted or changed, I start to seriously freak out, I can see now that I need to start creating some new habits. I need some larger, even more powerful habits that will help me carry on, even when things around me are not optimally scheduled or managed.

Seriously. I need more resilience. I’m way too brittle to be 100% healthy. That much is clear to me, after this past week. I’ve got to come up with better ways to handle my stress and strains, than relying on a set schedule for getting by.

So, what to do?

Well, first off, I need to evolve my morning habits. Because of my work, there is no guarantee that every morning I’ll have the time to do a full cycle of weight-lifting. Sometimes I have to shower, grab a cup of coffee and a quick bowl of cereal, and bolt. On other days, I can exercise – I have the time. So, what I can do is actually slightly increase the weights I’m lifting on my “on” days, so that the days when I’m not exercising first thing, my body is recovering and I’m not feeling like I’m missing an important part of my day by not lifting.

Another thing I need to do is stop checking Facebook, first thing in the morning. That’s a losing proposition, because so many of my “friends” use FB as a soapbox or a bitch session — it’s where they air their grievances or “share” some slice of ridiculousness. One of my friends has a bug up their ass about politics, and practically everything they write is a crusade of some kind or another. I agree with much of what they say, but they’re so rammy about everything, it’s pretty wearing, even for me. That is no way to start my day. So, that bad habit has got to stop.

Another thing I need to do is actually feed myself — do some uplifting reading while I’m riding the exercise bike. Feed my spirit, feed my head with good things, useful things. Get myself in a positive and pro-active frame of mind, first thing in the morning. I need to do things that will strengthen my hope and resolve and attitude, not drag it down.

There are so many really positive sources of information and ideas out there, I really can’t see why I should waste a lot of time listening to people haggle of stupid crap that’s going to change eventually anyway. All the complaining about things that cannot be changed… How about changing the things that can be changed?

So, that’s what I need to do with myself. Create new habits, each day. Start small — just little things, like reading something uplifting first thing while I’m exercising, instead of scanning the bitchfest that Facebook has become. Strengthening my mind, as well as my body, first thing. Making that a priority.

And making it a habit. Making a deliberate habit of doing something good. Making a deliberate habit of taking care of myself and my dreams and my goals, first thing in the morning, before I do anything else.

Now, I have been an intermittent reader and a big fan of the site www.zenhabits.com (which has since become succcess.org), and maybe that’s where I picked up the focus on habits. Actually, I think I’ve always been serious about habits — it’s just been such a part of my life and my outlook that it’s taken up residence in the back of my mind and become one of those “unconscious competencies” that I don’t quite notice — and value — so much, on my own, unless someone else is drawing my attention to it. When someone else talks about it, I remember it in a new light, and that brings it to life. The thing is, with sites like succcess.org, I have something to read while I’m riding my exercise bike, first thing in the morning. There are plenty of other folks online, too, who are running blogs or podcasts about personal improvement and successful habits, so there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t start out my days like this.

Of course, when I’m tired or out of sorts, it can make keeping that focus a bit more difficult. But I often find that so long as I just start… keep it simple and just do it… I do get the energy I need to move forward.

That’s the force of habit — doing something so frequently and regularly, that NOT doing it becomes more uncomfortable than doing it — creating those neuropathways, those synaptic connections, that thrive on and feed the regular cadence of good that I bring to my day.

So, enough bitching about my job. I’ve got to get my act together and just buckle down to get this project done. Quit wasting time being hard on myself. Quit wasting time worrying about all those things I cannot control, and invest the time in myself, my attitude, my hope and promise. That’s a far better use of my time — an investment, rather than an expense.

Speaking of better uses of time, I’ve got to get ready to go have coffee with an old friend I haven’t seen in quite some time. It will be interesting to compare notes…

Onward.

Getting out of tin can alley

Lots of junk in the way

I’ll admit, the experience of getting lectured by my boss yesterday left me pretty shaken. Getting called on the carpet by someone who is 13 years my junior and who has a fraction of the life experience that I have — was more a blow to my pride, than anything else. I just got caught out. By someone who I shouldn’t get caught out by. I hate when that happens.

I woke up early, full of rationalizations and excuses and counter-attacks, writing notes by the side of my bed that I fully intended to put in an email or type up in an outline I can walk though, point by point, with this boss of mine.

But the bottom line is, I took my eye off the ball, and I got called on it.

It’s more embarrassing than anything else, and that smarts.

I guess the thing that makes it more difficult is that everything gets blown out of proportion with me, sometimes. Especially if I’m tired – which I have been. I also got taken by surprise, by the gravity they gave to the situation. Like these were very serious issues that I needed to address immediately… or else. Please. I’ve gone through worse.

I guess I just don’t understand what the big deal is. It seemed like such a monumental thing. And rather than doing a check and say, “You know what, I’m not happy with how things have been going, either. What can we do about it?” I got caught up in my foolish pride, and that did a number on me.

I’m way too easily thrown by things like this. A lifetime of experiences like this embarrassment all come up for me, and I can’t help but replay each and every one of them. No matter what I do, all the old times come back and bite me in the ass. And it’s much worse inside my head, than in real life. Way.

I think the main problem is, I haven’t been strategic enough in my work and how I prioritize things. Here, I’m going along, thinking that I want to spend my days really involved in my work, experiencing it, getting a lot of meaning out of it, and really connecting with it… thinking that it’s enough. But it’s not enough. I need to feed the demons at the door, to keep them at bay — satisfy the basest of requirements, so that I can get on with my life and develop my own connection with my work and my life.

I work with people who think that putting in 8 hours a day and satisfying all the requirements is enough. Maybe it is for them, but for me — not so much. And there’s that fundamental relationship I have with my work that sets me apart from the rest of the crowd, which so often sets me at odds with the rest of the world. This is nothing new. It’s just the first time I’m encountering it with these people, and it threw me for a loop.

I guess I need to adjust how I work with people. I hate the posturing and self-importance, but that seems to be what works best in that work environment. It’s tiresome. I’ve wanted to be real and down-to-earth, but that’s just working against me in that environment. People don’t respond well to real and down-to-earth in my home office. They respond to posing and self-importance and bravado. Getting real makes them nervous, for some reason. Like they’re going to get called out, or caught, or something. I guess I need to let go of that hope of just being real, and get down to doing the work I’m expected to do the way it’s expected of me. There will be time to be real elsewhere.

I really need to work on two levels — one on the surface, doing the stupid-ass drudge work, meeting the requirements others have, feeding the beasts that drive this whole scene, paying my bills and appeasing the gods. That leaves the deeper level available for me, where I can pursue the things that really bring me life. I’ve got a lot of ideas about how to really transform and evolve the position I’m in and the work I do. I can totally do that. But I have to make sure the pillow is stuffed full of fluff, so the people at the top can rest their heads on it.

I also need to keep true to my own gut instincts. Part of the reason I got sidetracked, was that I followed the lead of my boss, who is really quite inexperienced in many work things. They’ve only ever had one real job, since they got out of college — at this small company, in the same state where they grew up. They’ve spent 1/3 of their life there, and it’s all they know. So, of course they’re going to be a little challenged, dealing with someone like me, who hasn’t just visited different places, but has actually lived and worked throughout the US and in Europe for a while, and has worked their way up from being severely down and out and homeless, 21 years ago… to actually having a life that is all but indistinguishable from the privileged insiders of the ruling upper-middle class.

Nobody would guess from looking at me, that I’ve had to work my way back from such adversity. And that’s fine. I don’t need to pull it out and parade it around. I just need to remember who I am and where I come from, and give myself some serious credit.

I woke up this morning, determined to set the record straight with my boss and defend my honor. Now, I realize that’s a stupid idea, and my best bet is to just let the dust settle, buckle down and focus on satisfying requirements, and not lose sight of the main goals I am being assessed by. Of course I’m going to get off track, now and then. The worst thing I can do, is make a federal case out of it. And there’s really no need to take the lead from someone who has a fraction of the life experience that I do. I’ll take my own lead, thanks.

In times like this, I really need to remind myself — My brain is playing tricks on me again. The only tailspin I’m in, is in my head. So, I just have to pull out, and get on with the business of living my life. Keep cool. Don’t let it rattle me. Just stay focused on what needs to happen, and keep the interactions that have the potential for working against me to a minimum. Life is too precious to get stuck in crap that’s rolling around in the back of my head like so many empty tin cans.

That’s all it amounts to, really. Empty tin cans — the empty casings of past experiences that left me cold and only serve to distract me from my real goal — to just do the best job I can, day in and day out, and live the best life I can, no matter what. Those tin cans make a whole lot of noise. The last thing I need, is to let them distract me from my primary purpose, or let their noise drown out the things I really need to hear.

Life is waiting to be lived. Outside tin can alley.

Doing it differently this holiday season

I did something quite unusual last night — I went Christmas shopping by myself at a much slower pace than usual. I didn’t manage to buy everything I set out to, but I got everything I could, and I got through the experience in one coherent piece — and I was able to get my nap after I got back.

Normally, this time of year is marked by team-shopping with my spouse. They contact everyone in the family and find out what people want… or we talk about what we think people want, and then they make up the list. We take the list, hop in the car, and head out to stores that look like good candidates, then we slog through the process of elimination, muddling our way through… with me getting so fried I either completely shut down and become non-communicative, or I melt down and fly off the handle over every little thing.

We usually spend several evenings like this, ’round about this time of year, and we’ve both come to dread it a little. My meltdowns had become more extreme over the past few years, and this year we were both really dreading the whole Christmas shopping business — to the point where we are going to be late(!) with presents for family members in other states. That’s never happened before. We were always good about it. But my meltdowns screwed everything up.

We both recognize that doing a lot of social things, this time of year (when work is actually getting more crazy, what with year-end and all), takes a huge toll on me. Even if it’s with friends (especially with friends), all the activity, all the interaction, all the excitement, really cuts into my available energy reserves. And then I get turned around and anxious… and I either regress to a cranky 9-year-old state, whining and bitching and slamming things around… or I melt down, start yelling, freak out over every little thing, and start picking at my spouse over things they say and do, to the point where neither of us can move without me losing it.

What a pain in the ass it is. Of all things, the uncontrollable weeping bothers me the most. The yelling bothers my spouse. It’s embarrassing for me and frightening for them, and neither of us has a very Merry Christmas, when all is said and done.

So, this year we did things differently.

We split up for the day and took care of our respective activities.

My spouse went to a holiday party that was thrown by a colleague of theirs who’s married to an attorney who deals with financial matters. I was invited, too, but we both realized that it would be pretty dumb for me to try to wade into the midst of 50+ actuaries and tax attorneys and their spouses who were invited to the shindig… and try to hold my own. Certainly, I can keep up with the best of them, but marinating in such a heady soup, especially with everyone hopped up on holiday cheer (eggnog, red wine, punch, etc.) and all animated and such, would have been a recipe for disaster.

So, I didn’t go. Instead, I took our shopping list and headed to the mall to stock up on what our families had requested. We had written down in advance all the names and the specific gifts we were going to get, and we had also written down where we were going to get them. That list was my lifeline. Especially in the rush and press of the mall, which sprawls out in all directions, with satellite stores on either end.

I’m happy to report that I actually did really well. I made a few tactical errors — like not parking in the first lot I came to and walking in. But that turned out okay, because if I had parked in the first lot, it would have been all but impossible to get down to the other end of the mall. I studied the list carefully ahead of time and used a highlighter to mark the stores where I’d be going. I also kept my focus trained on the task at hand — even if it was just sitting in traffic. I also walked a lot more this year than other years. I found one parking space and used it for two different stores. And I didn’t hassle with finding a space that was as close as I could get to the building. I took the first decent spot I could find, and then I walked to the store.

Imagine that — in past years, I was possessed with finding parking as close as possible, and I would move the car between stores, even if they were only 500 yards apart.  This year, I just walked the distance. Even though it was cold, for some reason the cold didn’t bother me, and it actually felt good to be out and moving.

I think that my 5 months  of daily exercise has paid off, in this respect. I think part of the reason I was always consumed with driving everywhere was that I just wasn’t physically hardy. I was kind of a wimpy weakling, in fact — though more in thought than in body, but a wimply weakling, all the same. But having a good physical foundation — even just from doing an hour (total) of cycling, stretching, and light lifting each morning — has made a significant difference in my willingness and ability to walk between stores.

It might not seem like much, but the walking (instead of driving) between stores part of the trip actually made a huge difference in my overall experience. Walking between stores — stopping at the car on the way to stash my presents — helped me break up the activity and clear my head. It got me out of that in-store madness, the crush and the rush, and it got me moving, so I felt less backed-up and agitated. And that let me start fresh at the next store.

That was good, because the first store was a friggin’ nightmare. It was one of those big-box electronics places, that supposedly has “everything” but really didn’t. It was exhausting, combing through the stacks of movies and music, only to find everything except what I needed. The lighting was awful — extremely bright and fluorescent and glaring. People kept bumping into me, or walking so close I thought they would run me down. But the worst thing was the acoustics. Everything surface was hard and echo-y and the place was overwhelmingly loud, and every single sound was at least partially distinguishable, which drove me nuts. I’ve noticed that acoustics have a lot more impact on me than light, when I’m out shopping. The store was one big cauldron of loud, indiscriminate noise, and my brain kept trying to follow every sound to see if it mattered. I couldn’t function there. Not with the place full of people — and very agitated, anxious, aggressive people, at that.

I eventually went with a gift card and got the hell out of there. I doubt I’ll ever go back when it’s that full. When the place is low-key and all but empty, I can handle it much better. But at this time of year? Not so much.

Walking back to my car chilled me out. Sweet relief.

At the second store — a bookstore — I started to feel pretty overwhelmed. They had long lines, and the place was packed — which is good for the retailer, but not so great for me. I spent the longest amount of time there, in part because I could feel I was getting overloaded, and I stopped a number of times to catch up with myself and remind myself what I was there to buy. My list was getting a little ragged, at that point, what with me writing notes in the margins and taking it out/putting it back in my pocket. So, eventually I just pulled it out and held onto it for dear life. I must have looked a little simple-minded, but I don’t care. Everyone else was so caught up in their own stuff, anyway. My main challenge there, was not getting trampled by Women On A Mission — many of them carrying large bags and shopping baskets that doubled as ramrods to get through the crowds.

One cool thing happened, though, when I was taking a break — I had a little exchange I had with two teenage boys who were talking about some book they’d heard about. I was just standing there, pretending to look at a shelf of books, just trying to get my bearings, when I hear this one young guy tell his buddy, “I heard about this book I should get — I think it’s called the ‘Kama Sutra’ and it’s, like, about sex, and it’s got these pictures… and it’s really old… like, from India or something.”

Well, I perked up at that, and suddenly very alert, I looked over at them and said, “Oh, yeah — the Kama Sutra, man… You should definitely check it out.”

They kind of looked at me like deer in headlights, and they got flushed and flustered and stammered something about not knowing how to find it. It was about sex, and they didn’t know how to ask someone to help them. I so felt their pain…

I confidently (and confidentially) pointed them to the book-finder computer kiosk, where they could type in the title and it would tell them where to find it in the store.

“Dude, you should totally look into it. It’s got lots of information — and pictures — and it’s been highly recommended… for hundreds of years.”

They got really excited and headed for the book-finder kiosk. Here’s hoping they — and their girlfriends — have a very Merry Christmas.

That little exchange got me back in the game, so I took another look at my list and managed to find the handful of books and music and calendars I wanted to get. I headed for the line and just chilled/zoned out. I didn’t get all tweaked about how long it was taking; I listened in on a conversation for a while, till I realized it was mostly about death and health problems people were having.

Oh – and another thing that helped me keep my act together, was the 4:15 p.m. alarm that I have set on my mobile phone. 4:15 is usually when I need to start wrapping up my day at work. I need to do a checkpoint on the work I’m doing, start to wind down, and begin keeping an eye on the clock, so I don’t get stuck in town past 6:00, which is what happens to me when I don’t watch my time after 3:30 or so. I have this alarm set to go off each day, and it went off while I was in the store, which was a blessing. I had completely lost track of time and I was starting to drift, the way I do, when I’m fatigued and overloaded and disoriented.

It startled me out of my fog, and I knew I still had a bunch of things on my list to get, so I refocused and started thinking about what I would get at the next store, so I could just march in and do my shopping without too much confusion and disorientation. After I paid for my books and music and calendar, I debated whether to have my presents wrapped for free, which might have saved me time in the long run. But I couldn’t bear the thought of having to interact with the folks who were doing the wrapping. They looked really friendly and gregarious — Danger Will Robinson! Warning! Warning! Even a friendly conversation was beyond me at that point.

I realized I just wasn’t up to that, and I must have looked like an idiot, standing there in the middle of the foyer, staring at the gift-wrappers for about 10 minutes, but who cares? Everyone was so caught up in their own stuff, they probably didn’t notice me. And if the gift-wrappers were uncomfortable with my staring, they didn’t show it… too much 😉

Anyway, after I managed to extricate myself from that store, I headed for my last destination. Again, I didn’t sweat the traffic getting out of the lot, and when I got to the final store, I parked at a distance from the front doors and walked in through the icy cold, which was good — it cleared my head.

Inside, I consulted my list again and headed directly for the section that had what I needed. Halfway there, I remembered that I’d meant to buy a very important present at the first store, but I’d totally blanked on it. I started to freak out and got caught up in trying to figure out how to get back to that first store and not lose my mind in the process.  Then, I slowed down and stopped catastrophizing, and in my calming mind, it occurred to me that — Oh, yeah — they probably carried that item at this store, so I went and checked, and sure enough, there it was – score! I didn’t have to back to big-box hell. At least, not that day.

I found some more of the presents on my list, and although I didn’t get everything I needed, I made a decent dent. My partner can come with me and help me sort out the other items either today or tomorrow. Or possibly when we get to our family — they usually have some last-minute shopping to do, and they can cart us around with them. And I won’t have to drive.

By the time I got home, I was bushed. My spouse wasn’t home yet, so I called them — they were on their way home and were stopping to pickup some supper. I said I was lying down for a nap, and they didn’t have to wake me when they got home. Then I took a hot shower to get the public germs off me, laid down, and listened to Belleruth Naparstek’s Stress Hardiness Optimization CD. I had a bit of trouble relaxing and getting down, but I did manage to get half an hour’s sleep in, before I woke up in time for dinner.

My partner had a pretty good time at the party, but they said it probably would have been a disaster for me — so many people, so much energy, so many strangers, and unfamiliar surroundings. I concurred, and I showed them what I’d bought that afternoon.

We’d both done well. We both missed each other terribly, but we did get through the afternoon without one of those terrible holiday incidents that has dogged us for many, many years. Like Thanksgiving, which went so well, this Christmas shopping trip actually felt normal. It didn’t have that old edginess that I always associate with holiday shopping. It didn’t have the constant adrenaline rush. In some respects, it feels strange and unfamiliar, but you know what? If strange and unfamiliar means level-headed and low-key and plain old sane, and it means I can keep my energy up and pace myself with proper planning… well, I can get used to that.

Yes, I’ve done things differently this year. And it’s good.

Hello, Officer… A Temper Flare (Almost) Gone Wrong

What a beautiful day it was! The mid-winter sky was bright and blue, and the sun was finally showing its shining face after days of inclement weather. Driving home from work, I gazed around me at the gorgeous landscape. A thick blanket of fresh new snow covered the fields on either side of the back road home, softening the stubble-covered terrain. Intermittent stands of woods were silent with insulating white, trees sleeping silent beneath a delicate frosting that broke loose in passing breezes and showered to the forest floor in a sparkling cascade. Babbling brooks flanked the country road, here and there, cascading cheerily down rocky beds, icicles dangling from sticks and grasses which hung close enough over their splashing course to catch — and instantly freeze — splashes from the snow-melt swollen streams.

I was on my way home from my new job to my new house, and as I gazed around me at the beautiful scenery, it felt as though my life were being made new again. The stress and strain from the recent move from the suburbs to the country had tested my endurance sorely, and all but exhausted my strength. The transfer from my old job had not been without some challenge, as well. Change is never easy for me, and adjusting to not only a new home in a new place with new neighbors, but also a new job with new responsibilities and new coworkers, had turned my post-holiday season into a see-saw of elation and despair.

But after weeks of settling in, getting acclimated, developing my new routines, and finding better ways to drive to and from work than the freeway filled with aggressive drivers, I was finally starting to feel my balance returning.

That day, as I motored happily across the countryside, making it home before dark (for once), everything seemed like it was falling into place. I had the radio on — loud — and my spirits rose with the energetic dance beat. My little car — a late model hatchback with a funky heater — had finally warmed up, after running for 10 minutes. I was making good time, and I’d be home soon.

Or was I? I suddenly looked up at my rear-view mirror, and lo and behold, there was a local cop with his lights flashing… coming on fast. I instinctively took my foot off the gas and glanced down at the speedometer. The needle drifted quickly south from around 45 mph… and I looked up as I passed a sign that said I was in a 20 mph speed zone. Shit! I had been so busy listening to music, and thinking about getting home, I hadn’t even noticed the speed limit. Maybe he was after someone else, I thought for a moment… But no, as I slowed down, so did he. I braked, signalled, and pulled over to the side of the road, and he pulled in right behind me.

*&%! I thought to myself. How could I do something so stupid?! I knew that this stretch of road was where the local cops hung out. I’d passed them plenty of times before, as they lay in wait of commuters taking the back way home. A wave of angry frustration welled up in me, and my head began to spin as the officer got out of his car and approached. I could feel my pulse quickening, a roar in my ears starting, and my gut churned as I started to build up a head of steam. All I wanted to do, was get home. All I wanted to do, was get through this town. All I wanted to do, was put the tough day behind me and relax in front of my fireplace. I didn’t ask for much. And I didn’t mean to speed through this town. I just lost track of how fast I was going! What the hell was this cop pulling me over for? Didn’t he have other real criminals to catch? What the fuck?!

I could feel the indignation rising in me, with every approaching step of the cop. Strings of profanity coursed through my head, and my gut continued to constrict as my hands tightened around the steering wheel. I couldn’t believe I’d been stupid enough to speed. I couldn’t believe this cop had been that stupid to pull me over. Everybody was a fucking idiot. Jesus fucking Christ.

The cop reached the side of my car, and I rolled down the window.

“Do you have any idea how fast you were going?” he asked.

“Too fast?” I heard myself say. It sounded smart-assed, and he didn’t like that.

“License and registration please,” he said, and I pulled my license out of my wallet and handed it to him. Still seething, I reached into the glove box to find my registration. I always kept it in the same place — in a long sleeve that held my insurance papers as well. But as the crashing ocean of agitation crashed in my head, I had trouble finding my papers. I couldn’t find my registration. I couldn’t find my insurance stuff. I couldn’t find anything… and I started to lose it. The cop at my window was getting impatient, and when he prodded me to come up with my papers, I snapped at him that I was looking as fast as I could. I finally just pulled everything out of the glove compartment and spread it across the passenger seat.

“Is this your car?” the officer asked, with a wary edge in his voice.

“Yes, it’s my car!” I barked. “I’ll have the registration in just a minute. I know it’s in here somewhere…”

My vision was getting cloudy and blurred, as I sorted through the mess on the seat beside me. Finally, I found the sleeve, pulled out the registration paper, and handed it to the cop. But after taking a look at it, he handed it back to me.

“This isn’t current,” he said. He sounded like he was talking to a criminal.

A wave of resentment washed through me, pushing to unleash some crack or curse.

I took the paper from him and examined it more closely. Sure enough, it was from a few years back. Consternation welled up in me, and I bit back the curse that sat on the tip of my tongue. I ran through the rest of the contents of the sleeve — there were plenty of registration papers there, but none were current.

The cop pressed me for the papers, and I snapped at him again, “I’m working on it!” I couldn’t believe this shit. I rummaged once more through the pile of stuff on the seat beside me — ice scraper, breath mints, tissues, various receipts, notepads, souvenirs, tools, more papers… where was my goddamned registration!?

“Are you sure this is your car?” the officer asked.

“Yes, it’s my car!” I snapped. “Just give me a second…!” I cringed at the edge in my voice, knowing — from past experience — that police officers don’t respond well to aggressive disrespect. I’ve had several run-ins with cops over the years that escalated when I spoke out of turn or got verbally aggressive with them. A few times, I came close to being arrested, and I couldn’t afford to have something like that happen today. Not when I had this new job and a new house. I just couldn’t afford to get on the bad side of the local cops.

If only he would give me a second. Just one more moment…

But he wasn’t having it. I heard him turn and go back to his car, and when I looked up in the rear-view mirror, I saw him back in his car punching something into his onboard computer. He kept looking at my license plate and then back at his computer, and it looked like he was talking on his radio, too.

What the hell…? I couldn’t believe I’d gotten pulled over… I couldn’t believe I couldn’t find my registration papers. I distictly remembered renewing my registration just a few months before, and I distinctly remembered putting the papers in my glove compartment. Where the hell were they? Where the fuck had they gotten to?!

Suddenly, as though by magic, an envelope from the Registry of Motor Vehicles appeared before me. Inside was my current registration. It wasn‘t in the sleeve where I always put it. It wasn’t in the one place I was sure to find it. Like an idiot, I had just tossed it in the glove compartment. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I pulled out the paper and double-checked the dates to make sure I wasn’t going to make an ass out of myself — again. Then, I waited for the cop to return.

He did… with a citation in hand.

“Here’s my registration,” I said, using as neutral a tone as I could muster. I handed him the delinquent paper.

He took a long look at it and then took a longer look at me and my license.

“You should have found this sooner,” he said, handing them back to me, along with the ticket. He sounded like he wasn’t sure what to do with me — let me off the hook or cuff me and haul me into the station.

I shrugged, biting back words that I was afraid might provoke him even more.

“I had to run your plates, so now I have to have a record of this stop. I’m just giving you a warning, this time, but it’s on your record.” He sounded a little regretful, but also irritated with me. “If you had gotten your registration, I wouldn’t have had to run your plates.”

I wanted to say, “If you hadn’t been in such a godawful hurry and had given me a minute or two, I might have found it in time!” But I held my tongue and just nodded.

As he drove off, I started to shake, my stomach in knots and my torso damp with sweat. I felt like I’d just dodged a bullet… a bullet I’d stepped right in front of.

Snap! Anatomy of a TBI temper flare

If you’re a TBI survivor, you may be very familiar with the flares of temper that can sneak up on us unawares. It is very disconcerting, if you’re a pretty even-keel sort of person, or if you really don’t want to pitch a fit, but find yourself flying off the handle against your own will.

This has happened to me as long as I can remember — temper flares that come out of nowhere and decimate not only my relationships with people around me, but my self-esteem and self-confidence, as well.

I recently wrote a post called One Potato, Two Potato… that talks in greater detail about my experience of an intense temper flare that builds up over time.

I actually have identified a number of different kinds of flares I experience:

  1. Flares that originate inside me – and come up suddenly without any warning
  2. Flares that originate inside me, but percolate and develop over time, till I boil over. (That’s what One Potato, Two Potato… is about)
  3. Flares whose source originates very suddenly outside me – they’re knee-jerk reactions to external conditions that actively provoke me.
  4. Flares whose source comes from outside me that percolate slowly until I boil over.

There are other ones, as well, and I’m devoting a fair amount of my time, these days, to thinking about them. Of all the cognitive-behavioral issues I have, my temper flares are some of the most challenging. And since so many people reach this blog by searching for info on TBI and temper, I know I’m not the only one.

For the uninitiated, here’s a general description what happens in one of my TBI temper flares, how I deal with it, and how I pull out of it:

  1. I have a goal in mind — it can be as simple as picking up a pencil, or as complicated as making a three-course dinner.
  2. I turn my attention to the thing I want to do… think about doing it… think about not doing it… and then I decide to do it.
  3. I shift into gear — I reach for the pencil… or I start peeling vegetables for cooking.
  4. Suddenly, something stops me — I drop the pencil, or a potato slips out of my hand and skitters across the floor.
  5. A sudden wave of violent emotion sweeps through me, like a wildfire through dry California underbrush. My eyesight dims briefly, as my heart pounds and adrenaline floods through my veins. I want to strike out, lash out, hurt whatever is getting in my way. I curse the pencil… or I feel a sharp stab of rage directed at the potato. If I were able to kinesthetically direct energy at will — and if my temper had its way — the pencil or the potato would be a smoking little pile of ashes.
  6. In the back of my head, the calm, collected voice reminds me that it’s just a pencil or a potato, and that no one was harmed by this thing slipping out of my hand. I don’t need to strike out and harm anyone, just because I lost my grip.
  7. The part of me that doesn’t care for these temper flares is mortified at my intense reaction. It’s deeply ashamed that I would get so worked up over such a little thing. So what, if the pencil or the potato got away from me? What’s the big deal? The wild animal part of me that flared intensely is cowed and tries to defend its reaction, but when the logical, sensible, even-keeled part of me prevails in its reason, that little animal part of me slinks away to a corner to lick its wounds and chastise itself for being bad… again.
  8. In an attempt to de-escalate my just-add-water instantaneous rage, I pause and take a measured breath. I turn my focus back to the basics — the simple act of picking up the pencil… retrieving the potato from the other side of the kitchen. I focus on the most basic aspects of the moment, waiting till the rage subsides and I can get back to doing what I started out doing.
  9. If all goes well, I can continue with my task and not suffer too much at the hands of my self-recrimination. If things aren’t going well, like if I’m stressed or fatigued or scattered, I may throw something or curse or hit something or lash out… with the consequence of not achieving what I intended to achieve, and descending into a downward spiral of shame and blame and guilt and embarrassment. If I’m lucky, no one is around to see this. If I’m out of luck, someone I love and care for is nearby and is strongly impacted — and quite negatively so — by my sudden rage.

Now, I’ve noticed that if I have built up a lot of momentum around Step 2, my rage response is much more intense, than if I proceed with measured pace, taking things one at a time. I also need to be careful not to indulge every reaction that comes to mind.

It’s helpful if I can sit back and just observe myself, not participate 100% in the whole unfolding drama. But observation doesn’t always work. Especially if I’m tired.

Over the coming weeks (early 2009), I’ll be writing more on this. It may be helpful to others who are dealing with the challenges of TBI temper flares… with greater or lesser success. In fact, some folks have said that what I’ve written so far, is very helpful to them, so it’s my hope that I can help more.

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What happened in the field that day

Here’s what I remember:

I was about 8 years old and I was playing up at a field near my family’s house. I was with my younger sibling. The field lay right between two different neighborhoods, and we never went into the other neighborhood by ourselves. We rarely went there at all, period. We were playing about 50-100 feet from the entrance on our side of the field. The line of garages that flanked the alley on the other side of the field were behind us, and we were facing the direction that our one-way street went.

The field was bounded on the other side by a high (maybe 20-foot) chain link fence, and our side was the only “real” entrance to the area.

My sibling and I were there by ourselves for a little while, then two kids appeared on the other side of the field. They crawled under the bottom edge of the fence, slipping through a depression in the ground and looked over at us.

We looked over at them — I’m not sure if we called over to them and said hello. I’m not sure if we even acknowledged their presence.  I suspect we didn’t. The kids weren’t supposed to be there — they had crawled under a fence that was built to keep them out, after all. As I recall, we decided to mind our own business and keep playing.

The kids called over to us a couple of times, but we ignored them and just kept playing. Then they started yelling at us — calling us names. We didn’t respond, and after a while they started throwing rocks at us.

At first the rocks didn’t fall very close to us. It was a bright afternoon, and we wanted to play. We decided we were going to stay put. My sibling wanted to go home and pulled at me to go back home. But I said we needed to stay. Or maybe I just thought that, and my sibling just went along with me. Our dad was really into standing your ground and not backing down from your position, if you were threatened, and I wanted to make my dad proud of me and not give in to bullies. I remember the thought going through my head, that we needed to stand our ground and not just run away.

Several rocks fell closer and closer to us. I think the other kids threw 3 or 4 rocks before they got close. While they were throwing the rocks at us, I remember them laughing and urging each other to get closer. I remember focusing on just ignoring them and not being intimidated by them. It didn’t occur to me that I could be hurt — or maybe I didn’t care?

After a number of times of trying to hit us, they succeeded. I remember the distant feeling of a rock hitting my head — then everything went dark.

The next thing I remember, was looking up to see my sibling sitting beside me, crying. They hovered over me, tears streaming down their face, looking terrified.

I remember being really dazed and foggy as I came to. But I did finally know we needed to go home. The kids on the other side of the field were laughing and cheering that they’d hit me, and when we left the field they were jeering at us. I remember feeling like I’d failed, like I’d given in to being bullied, and I was really disappointed with myself.

I recall being wobbly and woozy on the way home, and my sibling was very upset and crying the whole way there. I was embarrassed by the display of emotion. I wanted to be stoic and take it like a grown-up. I didn’t want to be injured. I didn’t want to be woozy. I didn’t want to be wobbly. And I certainly didn’t want to cry.

When we got home, I remember my sibling telling our mom and dad what had happened. I was embarrassed that I’d been hurt and needed attention, and I was upset that I worried them. I remember Dad telling me to lie down on the couch, and he looked at my head — I don’t remember bleeding — but I recall that I did have a huge lump on my head.

The bump on my head was above my hairline, which made it difficult for my mom and dad to see where I was hurt. The bump was pretty prominent, and they got some ice to put on it, which hurt, because the edges of the ice cubes were hard and felt sharp. I really just wanted to not attract attention and not be fussed over. I just wanted the whole experience to go away, so  wouldn’t worry everyone. My sibling was so upset and crying, our mom had to take them out of the room and get them away from me.

My parents called a friend of theirs who was a registered nurse, and she told them to get a flashlight and check my eyes for any dilation. I seem to remember something about them not being sure if my pupils were dilated or not, but in any case, they had me lie on my left side, facing the back of the couch, and put ice on the bump.

I remember I was so tired, and I wanted to sleep, but my dad made sure I stayed awake. I remember him looking in my eyes several times to see if I had a concussion, and both my parents discussed whether or not I should go to the hospital. If I remember correctly, my dad said he didn’t think I had a concussion, so they didn’t take me.

Things were very foggy for me, after that. And I recall not being allowed to play much, in the coming days.

It wasn’t long after that, that I noticed that the moon was double, when I looked up at it, at night. When I told my parents this, they were alarmed and took me to the eye doctor.

Wrong doctor, I think…

Temper, temper…

I’ve been checking my stats and seeing what search terms people are using to find this blog. “Temper” is a popular one. TBI and temper issues often go hand-in-hand… and for me, it’s been one of the biggest hurdles. I’ve lost jobs and burned bridges over temper outbursts. I’ve gotten into hot water all my life, because of my temper — starting with my parents, who really came down on me very hard for ‘not being able to control myself’.

If they had known that my falls and getting knocked out by that rock didn’t help matters, they might have been nicer to me. But they weren’t. And I was convinced all my life — till a year ago, when I realized that my multiple tbi’s had affected my cognition and behavior — that I was a BAD PERSON who wasn’t entirely fit to be around nice people.

You know what? I wasn’t BAD. I was INJURED.

That doesn’t excuse my behavior, of course, but it explains it. And knowing now that aggression, hostility, rage, temper outbursts, emotional volatility, and impulse control often go hand-in-hand with brain injury — be it mild or moderate or severe — helps me manage myself in ways that keep me and others safe from my outbursts.

So, what do I do about my temper (which has caused me to break many things, lash out, even physically assault people, to the point where I once had a restraining order against me)?

First, I remember that my tbi’s have affected my reasoning and the way my brain reacts to the world around me. I remember that there are mechanisms deep in my brain that react on a very primal level to perceived threats. There’s the amygdala, which is the fight-or-flight switch that seems to work in overdrive with me. And there’s the limbic system, which is about emotion. And then there’s the parts of the brain that control impulse, which are around the area where I got hit in the head (and knocked out briefly) with a rock, when I was eight. People used to believe that when kids’ brains were injured, they recovered better than adults, but now they’ve realized that if you injure a young brain, it affects how it develops for the rest of the child’s life.

So, I try to stay objective, and remember that my brain doesn’t work the way I really want it to.

Next, I try to stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system — the counterpart to the sympathetic nervous system — to chill everything out. The sympathetic nervous system, as I understand it, is the source of the fight-or-flight response that’s making me react so intensely and act out. So, to calm my system down, I need to trigger the parasympathetic system. I’ve been taught that deep breathing causes the lungs to expand, and when they press against the inside of the ribcage, it stimulates the parasympathetic system, so I try to breathe deeply and feel my lungs filling with air and pressing against my rib cage. Also, counting my breaths gets my mind off the turbulence and forces me to focus on something other than what’s pushing me over the edge.

I also rub my neck near the jugular vein — there’s a nerve in there called the vagus nerve that triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s a huge nerve that runs through our whole body — look it up online for more info, as there’s more to it than I can come up with at this point — and one of the treatments for epilepsy to keep people chilled out and reduce danger of seizures, is actually to surgically implant a vagus nerve stimulator in their body. I’m not keen on the idea of having something implanted in me. I’d rather just massage my neck on the right side — but gently, as I’ve heard stories from doctors and nurses about people knocking themselves out by massaging it too hard.

Bottom line: I actively try to stimulate the part of my nervous system that’s built to chill me out. We all have it. We can all use it. And I do.

If this doesn’t work, I try to get my mind off things by doing something. I take a walk. Or I work in my workshop. Or I write something. Or I draw something. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be active, and I need to really concentrate while I’m doing it, so I redirect that wild, primal energy/rage/agitation into something productive. Sometimes, I’ll clean my study, which gets to be a total wreck, at times.

I try to get my mind off things that were making me crazy, and do something  positive with my energy.

If all else fails, I remove myself from the situation, if I can, and take a breather. I physically exit the area, and I pull myself together. If I cannot stop the rush of temper with people I do NOT want to hurt (and I really don’t want to hurt anyone), I just walk away and gather myself. I give myself a talking-to. I don’t drive when I’m in that kind of a space, but if I can go into another room and close the door and have some quiet time in a darkened room, I do. I try to stop the cascade before I do/say things I cannot undo or take back.

I try to protect the ones I care about by removing my malfunctioning brain from their presence.

Most of all, I try to not judge myself and be too hard on myself. I’m a long-term multiple mild traumatic brain injury survivor, and the fact that I’m still here means I’ve done something right. I try to learn from my experiences and keep an eye out for things that may cause problems later. I make amends, whenever I can and should. And I do what I can to atone for the things I’ve done that hurt others — without my intending to or wanting to.

I have to remember that I am a good person, but my brain does not work as well as I want it to, and if I had total choice in the matter, I would definitely not do the things that my brain is prompting me to. This is not an excuse for bad behavior. It’s a warning to myself of what I have to pay even more attention to, so I can live the best life possible and, wherever and whenever possible, do no harm to others, but help in any way I can.

Not all of these approaches work 100% all of the time. And I don’t always have the presence of mind to do them when I should. But these things have worked for me and my extreme and volatile temper.

They might work for you, too.

Good luck!