TBI Recovery: Getting used to the highs and lows – Part 2

For many, many years, I have swung from one extreme to the other — from euphoria to panic to depression — with intermittent periods of balanced moderation, where I caught my breath before going back into the fray. I’ve long sought out work situations which were crazy and stressful and stupidly health-endangering (which passed for “challenging” in the job-spin-speak of the tech world), because I needed that constant pump to keep myself going. TBI can slow down your processing speed and make you feel like you’re half asleep, so those stressful times passed for “wakefulness” and made me feel more alive.

In hindsight, I realize that I was pretty much a ticking time bomb and that it was only a matter of time before I hurt myself badly enough to be ejected from the “everyday world”. I have had multiple mild TBIs over the course of the years (at least 9 that I can recall — and there have probably been more that I can’t remember). So, the effects have been cumulative, and sure enough, back in 2004, I had another fall that eventually put me out of commission.

The past years have been about weaning myself off that need for drama and stupidity. I’ve become increasingly aware of how much damage it does to me, and I’ve been acclimating myself to the idea that I don’t actually need it all, like I used to think I did.

Now I feel like I’m in a good and centered space, where I don’t have to have it, but at the same time, I do need challenge. And even moreso, I need to be able to respond to challenging situations with a level head and a clear mind.

Looking back at my life when it was still dictated by after-effects of all those TBIs, I see how much my life was comprised of reactions. Just reactions. Not measured responses that were determined by me, according to what was best and right at the moment — but knee-jerk reactions dictated by fear, anxiety, panic, external circumstances, and others’ expectations. That’s no way to live. Surely, there must be a better way.

So, I’ve been headed down that road, of late, looking for ways to live better, live more fully, and to have the kind of life I want to have.  I think about the things that hold me back, the things that I have done that have held me back, and the habits of thought that have prevented me from moving forward. And it becomes more and more apparent to me, as I think about it, that no outside circumstances have been The Culprits in my limitations, rather it’s been my own reaction and my own experience and my own choices that have held me back.

Now, certainly, things like getting clunked on the head a bunch of times, being hounded and bullied in school, being mistreated by both my parents and teachers alike, and being raised without much money in a household turned upside-down by a drug addict sibling and their associates, certainly didn’t help. But those things didn’t keep me from doing the things I could have done to help myself. It was the patterns of thought in my mind that held me back — as well as the biochemical reactions to circumstances which short-circuited my choices and actions.

All those years, I certainly did take a beating. But plenty of people take beatings and get up and go back at it, like nothing ever happened. Not everyone interprets setbacks as signs of permanent disability. Granted, I wasn’t surrounded by people who were positive, pro-active thinkers who knew how to free their minds. But at any given point, I did indeed have the capacity to pick myself up and keep going, but the thoughts in my mind and the biochemical sludge in my system short-circuited a lot of the good that could have happened.

My constant biochemical state of intense fight-flight (which was made more intense by what I thought was happening — and never adequately questioned) made it all but impossible for me to imagine all that I was capable of doing, and over the years, and after all the injuries — especially the last one — my possible world became smaller and smaller and smaller, and I made myself less and less capable, in my own mind, of truly following my dreams.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Over the years I have done some Big Things, and I have had some big accomplishments that have gotten me awards and recognition. But these were all substitutes for what I really wanted to be doing. My One Big Dream that I had since I was seven years old, never “panned out”, and year after year, my resolution to do something about it drifted farther and farther from my reach.  Until I just about gave up on it.

These days, things are very different for me, and I realize just how much biochemistry has to do with what’s held me back. And at the same time, it both absolves me of prior blame, and it also offers me the opportunity to change things.

Because now I understand how those things work. I understand how TBI has prompted me to take risks over the years and keep myself in a constant state of stress. I also understand what a toll that has taken on my life over the years, and I’m now resolved to do something about it.

In order to do so, I need to get a grip on my autonomic fight-flight response, which is what I’ve been doing, slowly but surely. I am now moving into the next stage, where I am testing myself a bit, here and there, to get myself familiar with how it feels to be on the verge of panic, and then walk myself back from the edge with the tools I have. I’m stressing myself just a little bit, here and there, to inoculate myself against the stresses. Some call it “exposure therapy”, and maybe that’s what it is. Having read about exposure therapy, it strikes me as more intense than what I’m doing. I don’t want to force myself into a seemingly dangerous situation and then have to sweat it out. No thanks.

What I am doing is similar to doing interval weight training — I’m doing “stress intervals” — intentionally stressing myself for a short while, then backing off and taking a good break. I know I’m going to push myself hard — and I also know I’m going to let up. So, there’s not that impending sense of doom that comes when I can’t see an end in sight. I know there’s going to be an end, so I can push myself — sometimes pretty hard — and not get freaked out about it.

This gets me used to the highs and lows. And it helps me feel more comfortable with the sensation of those highs and lows.

See, that’s the thing – it’s not the highs and lows that get me. It’s my internal reaction to those highs and lows — the physical sensations of high energy or low energy trigger a dumb-ass (and extreme) reaction from me that sets certain behaviors in motion and put me into a certain mindset. Some examples:

  • I get back from a long and grueling trip to see both sides of my family, and I decide that I’m a worthless piece of crap who will never amount to anything. I’m physically and mentally and emotionally exhausted from a temporary situation, yet for some reason I’m convinced that I’m permanently damaged beyond repair. Accordingly, I slack off on my work and do nothing productive with myself for days, even weeks.
  • I work too hard and sleep too little, and I end up having a full-on blow-out/meltdown that fries my brain with a flood of raging emotions. Afterwards, I am exhausted, and it takes several days for the biochemical load to clear from my system. All during that time, I feel stupid and numb and dull and once again am convinced that I’m permanently damaged beyond repair.
  • I am incredibly excited about something that’s happening in my life. The sensation of all that adrenaline pumping through my system feels an awful lot like danger — it feels just like it used to feel when I was being hunted down by the kids who bullied me in grade school. Consequently, I stop doing what I need to do, to make progress with my goals. I also look for other things to work on that are less “stressful”, and my project falls behind.

All of the above are problematic, but it’s the last one that’s the burner. It’s the thing that’s kept me back, time and time again, and it’s the one I need to really focus on addressing.

So, to that end, I’m deliberately putting myself in exciting and tiring situations, getting used to how they feel while telling myself that this is just a feeling, not an indication of what’s really going on. And then I take a break. I have all but cut wheat and cheap carbs out of my diet to reduce the “junk load” from my system — which in itself is a little stressful, but has great benefits. I’m also doing things like taking cool showers to get my stress response jump-started for just a few minutes in the morning, and I’ve changed up my morning routine a little bit to heighten my attention.

And all the while, I’m using the techniques I’ve learned for balancing out my ANS and keeping the fight-flight response within a manageable, non-tyrannical range. I do it both — stress and relax. Intermittently. Not constantly, because that would be counter-productive, but at intervals.

I have to say it feels incredible. It’s tiring, at first, and taking cool showers instead of hot, is definitely an adjustment. But it’s really helping.

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TBI Recovery: Getting used to the highs and lows – Part 1

One of the things I’ve been actively doing, over the past months, is getting use to the highs and the lows that are just outside my comfort zone. I’ve struggled a great deal with panic and anxiety over the decades, which I believe has been connected to a hefty dose of post-traumatic stress (or PTS). The classic symptoms of “disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal” have been a regular part of my life for as long as I can remember. The strange thing is, my flashbacks and numbness have been related to events that many others would not consider that stressful — making a fool of myself in front of other people, having bad choices of words, doing stupid things, making poor decisions that got me in hot water with authorities (including the police), and so on.

I’ve been flashing back on things that others would consider “just embarrassing” for a long, long time, and I’ve been intensely stressed out over it, avoiding situations, and on edge (that is, ON EDGE) for as long as I can remember.

Until, that is a couple of years ago, when I really started to come out of my TBI fog and things started to fit together for me, better and better, like they never had before. To be clear, I didn’t just magically come out of my fog for no apparent reason. I did the following, which all helped:

  • Got myself on a daily schedule of doing specific things at specific times in specific ways, so I didn’t spend a lot of mental energy figuring out how to do things. This allowed me to develop the objective, observable 100% certainty that I could get myself up and cleaned up and dressed and out the door each morning in a predictably good way. It took the pressure off my mornings and let me relax about the details — because I didn’t have to think about them. At all.
  • Exercised on a regular basis. For several years running, I got up and lifted weights and did some light cardio, the first thing in the morning before breakfast, each and every day. I never wavered from that. It was my morning routine, part of what I Just Did, and the jump start to my brain and body made me feel worlds better than I had in a long, long time.
  • Started cooking more complicated meals. I have been the main cook in my household ever since my spouse got very ill about six years ago, and it made a great deal of difference in both our health. I got into a bit of a rut, and ended up making the same things over and over. When I started cooking more complicated meals, it pushed me to work on my timing as well as my sequencing. And it make our diet more varied, which was good.
  • I learned to relax. This took some doing, but with some guided imagery tapes that I combined with rest/nap time, I have slowly but surely acquired the ability to relax. And for the first time, I know how good it feels to do that. Up until a few years ago, that was not the case.
  • I started sitting za-zen (my own version of it) and doing conscious breathing. My version of za-zen involves just sitting and breathing, sometimes a short while, sometimes longer. I have come across a number of pieces of scientific literature talking about how this helps to balance out the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and get you out of fight-flight. It helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and get you back to a place where you’re not tossed about by every wind that comes along.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve changed how I do things — some of the things, like regular exercise and za-zen, I stopped after a while. I guess I just got bored with them and felt like they were keeping me from doing other things I needed to do. I also let them get rote and boring, and they stopped being any kind of a challenge. I need to be challenged, or I can’t keep my interest piqued. It’s a shortcoming of mine, I know, but that’s how I am.

Currently, I’m back at the regular exercise. All I have to do is look at my skinny little forearms (typing isn’t nearly enough exercise for them) and look at myself in the mirror to realize that I need to do something about this sad state of affairs. Also, my endurance is way down for doing chores outside, which is not good, either.

I’m also taking a za-zen type of practice into my everyday life, using it in my 90-second clearing approach to really take the edge off my everyday experience. I haven’t completely abandoned it. I just needed a new way of using it in ways that got me going in my life, instead of taking me away from life — as sitting za-zen will do.

As for the exercise, after laying off for a long (too long) while, I’m doing more strengthening in actual movements that I do on a daily basis — not the isolated types of movements that focus on a specific muscle group and are useful for bodybuilders. I’m building overall strength, not just specific muscles.

I’m continuing to do my rest/relaxation thing, stepping away from work during my lunch hours to listen to guided imagery and relax — sometimes sleep, too.

And these several pieces are important for what I’m doing now, which is pushing myself a little beyond my routine to challenge myself and keep things interesting. I’m training myself to handle my highs and my lows, and not let them get to me.

To be continued…

Connections between pain and PTSD

The past couple of weeks have been crazy for me, and it’s taken somewhat of a toll. I’ve been busy with work, busy with other activities, busy, busy, and more busy. I also did some traveling for about a week to out-of-state relatives, for a big family get-together. In and of itself, it was a great time. But the change in my schedule, the long hours of driving — over 30 hours, all told, in the car — not being able to get enough sleep, and the change in food choices (how do they eat that stuff?) all threw me off, big-time.

I managed to keep it together and not completely blow-out/melt down during the trip, or immediately afterwards, which often happens when I travel to this particular branch of the family tree. But the past few weeks have been packed full of crazy-busy-ness that I now realize has been a pretty concerted effort to dull the pain of the trip.

I’m not talking about emotional pain… though it’s never easy to spend time as an outsider, when everyone else is connecting and having a wonderful time being together — I’m the oddest bird in the family, and between my difficulties in keeping up with what’s going on around me and my narrow and intense interests that aren’t run-of-the-mill, people often don’t know what to do with me.

What I’m talking about is physical pain.

Yes, physical pain — the kind that burns, that aches, that throbs, that stings. The kind that makes my clothing hurt me, that rakes my legs when my pants rub against them… the kind that makes me jump whenever someone touches me… the kind that sends a shock wave of smacking ache to the marrow of my bones when my spouse puts their hand on my forearm… the kind that keeps me from sleeping, because I can’t stand the feel of sheets on me, but I also can’t stand the feel of air-conditioning blowing across my skin… the kind htat gets worse when I am stressed or tired or upset or all of the above… the kind that I often don’t even know is there until someone makes contact with me, and I jump, and they feel like they’ve done something to hurt me. They have. They didn’t mean to, and they would never do it on purpose. But they hurt me.

It’s not just the emotional pain of family visits that gest me. It’s the physical pain, as well.

Here’s the deal — for as long as I can remember, I have had issues with a whole slew of sensory problems, the most disruptive of which was body-wide pain. I can remember, ever since I was a little kid, feeling like I was being hit, when people would just reach out to touch me in very innocent, social, appropriate ways. I would shrink back from them, and they would often take offense or get angry with me for “rejecting” them. It sorta kinda messes with your head, when the people who love you the most cause you intense pain when they try to show their affection for you. And it tends to muck up your relationship with them, when you can’t accept their (appropriate) affection, but they don’t understand why.

To tell the truth, I didn’t even understand why. It’s hard to explain, unless you’ve been there, but the experience of painful touch is such a visceral, physical thing, it sometimes doesn’t translate into words. It’s just there. You can’t describe it, you can’t even really pinpoint it. Sometimes you have no idea it’s there, until someone makes contact with you. Then, all you know is, it hurts, and you pull away to avoid it, so you can just get on with your life.

And you do things to avoid/mitigate it. You steer clear of expressive people. You avoid demonstrative friends. You always keep more than arms’ length away from other people, just in case they reach out to you. You spend time with people who either don’t like you or couldn’t care less about you, because the chances of them touching you is small to none — and it’s easier to be around those types of people, than the friendly ones who like to make contact.

These things are done on a subconscious, instinctive level, and sometimes they don’t even register with you when you’re doing them. Like pulling away from people when they come close. Like shrinking back from a hug someone is trying to give you. Like jerking away quickly when someone touches you accidentally.

And depending on how sudden or shocking the pain is, it can trigger a whole cascade of other sensations/symptoms/reactions that look a whole lot like PTSD.

Over at Helpguide.org, I found this list of symptoms

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event — memories of past painful contact tend to show up suddenly
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again) — yes, it does feel like it’s happening all over again
  • Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things) — sometimes nightmares do follow an extremely painful episode, tho’ that’s rare
  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma — yes, it is intensely distressing to be reminded of it, it just sends me in a downward spiral
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating) — my heart sometimes starts pounding, I tense up, and I feel sick to my stomach, when people touch me, sometimes

PTSD symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma — I tend to avoid physical human contact of any kind; women frighten me, because they tend to be so tactile, and it’s literally too painful at times, to interact with them
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma — I tend to block out the particulars of painful experiences. All I know is, it’s hurt me before, like it’s doing now
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general — Why should I get involved, if it’s just going to hurt like the dickens?
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb — Oh, yes… ’nuff said.
  • Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career) — how precisely am I supposed to live fully, if the experience of basic human interactions promises me pain?

PTSD symptoms of increased arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep — could have something to do with my insomnia?
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger — yet one more contributing factor
  • Difficulty concentrating — it’s tough to concentrate, when you’re on high alert. Especially if you’re working with tactile people.
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”) — someone might be approaching…
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled — but of course

Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Anger and irritability — not being able to establish comfortable human contact makes me nuts and pisses me off
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame — why can’t I just be normal like everyone else and tolerate a hand on my shoulder?
  • Substance abuse — been there. Thank heavens that’s behind me.
  • Depression and hopelessness — my occasional visitors
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings — once upon a time, occasional visitors. Now, very rarely.
  • Feeling alienated and alone — not just feeling… BEING alienated and alone
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal — it’s hard to not feel that way, when everyone around you might possibly cause you pain
  • Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain — the first two, yes. The third, not so much

So there we have it — PTSD arising from chronic body-wide pain. Painful touch. There’s even a word for it — Allodynia (meaning “other pain”) — a painful response to a usually non-painful (innocuous) stimulus. I haven’t been formally diagnosed. That would require that I talk about it to my doctor. And talking about it out loud to anyone has never really been an option for me, except for with my last therapist who is long gone by now. It’s just too painful. Emotionally and physically.

I’d rather keep my own counsel and just live my life. Pain-free. Alone, but pain-free.

Being alone not only keeps me out of arms’ reach (literally) from people who may hurt me, but it also keeps emotional upheaval at a minimum. It’s hard to get worked into a state, when you don’t have much contact with people who affect you emotionally. I can block out all the politics and social drama pretty well. But the emotional connections I have with people… well, they’re trickier. So, I steer clear of them, by and large. And I steer clear of emotionally charged subjects with people — like avoiding talking about my chronic pain issues with my doctor.

It’s wild, how emotional distress can heighten physical pain. Emotional pain sets off an alarm state with me, and that alarm state unleases a whole avalanche of stress hormones and hypersensitive biochemical agents into my system. And the buildup of all the stuff that gets “stuck” in my system does not help me. Not one bit.

Over at Healthjourneys.com, Belleruth Naparstek quotes from her book Invisible Heroes and describes it well:

Chronic Pain Conditions
This constant activation of the alarm state leads to an accumulation of metabolic waste products in the muscle fibers, and the release of kinins and other chemical pain generators in the tissue, resulting in myofascial pain and the appearance of those seemingly intractable chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headache, TMJ and more.

And because these conditions are generated in the brain stem and the motor reflex centers in the spinal column, and routed through a perturbed, automatic, arousal circuitry, peripheral forms of treatment provide only temporary relief.  Constantly activated by everyday sensory cues, normal muscle movement and spontaneous memories, symptoms grow and become more and more entrenched over time.  In other words, this is one nasty gift from the kindled feedback loop that, if not interrupted, will just keep on giving.

Our epidemiology research has already shown us an astounding percentage of people with baffling chronic pain conditions and “functional” diseases that have no obvious causes, who have been found to have prior histories of severe trauma.  Probably if we could tease out the subset of traumatized people who experienced substantial dissociation during their trauma, and a truncated freeze response in the midst of it, we might find closer to one hundred percent suffering from posttraumatic stress.  Unfortunately for them, they are often assumed to be malingering or engaged in attention-seeking behavior for neurotic reasons, instead of suffering from a very serious, self perpetuating condition with a potentially worsening trajectory.

Included in this group of maligned and misunderstood patients would be scores of people suffering from pelvic and low back pain, orofacial and myofascial pain, genito-urinary and abdominal pain; interstitial cystitis; and the previously mentioned headache, fibromyalgia (FM), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD); irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and migraine.

And there it is — in part, anyway. The post over at Belleruth Naparstek’s blog asks Is There a Connection Between Fibromyalgia and Traumatic Stress? but it’s not just about Fibro, to me. It’s about the “and more” she mentions. It’s about the “whole lot more”.

So, what the hell can I do about this? I’m of the mind that the best reason to talk about anything difficult, is to figure out what to do about it to make it better. To reduce the quotient of human suffering in the world. That includes my suffering (I’m in the world, after all). What can I do about this pain business?

Well, first, I need to get back on my schedule. I need to get back to my sleeping routine, which I’ve been doing pretty well with. I need to get back to eating the right kinds of foods at the right times of day — and I’ve been doing that pretty well, too. I also need to exercise and do other things that will enable me to discharge some of the built-up stress from the trip. I tried explaining to my new therapist how disruptive that sort of travel is to me, but they didn’t seem to “get” the intensity of it, so I’m not getting much support there. Screw it. I’ll support myself. I’ve been having a lot of good long cries, in the privacy of my own company, over the past few days, and that seems to be helping me. I also need to get back to my regular work schedule and just get some stuff done. Being productive has a way of chilling me out nicely, so I’ll do that.

And drink plenty of water. Take some Advil before I go to sleep. Listen to the Healing Trauma CD from Belleruth Naparstek to deal with the PTSD. Have a good cry. And another. And another. And make sure I let loose in my own company, away from others who neither understand nor want to understand just how hard things are for me… and end up minimizing and negating and invalidating my feelings about what I really go through, and tell me I’m fine and I don’t have a problem and I shouldn’t worry about this stuff,  just because they either don’t have the emotional resources to hang with me, or they’d be too traumatized, themselves, if they knew what it’s really like to live in this body.

Most of all, I need to keep it simple. Count my blessings. Remember just much good there is, along with the bad. And remember, tomorrow is another day, and all things considered, I’m pretty lucky to be alive.

Tired of being tired

I don’t like being as tired as I’ve been for the past week. I started losing sleep last weekend in anticipation of my testing results. And then when I had my neuro visit, that threw me off, too. So either way, I can’t seem to catch a break. Even though I got good news, I had been keyed up to possibly getting bad news — I like to be prepared. But when things came back inconclusive, well, my system was still on high alert, I wasn’t sure what to do with all that energy. I think it might have been easier, had I gotten something definitive, even if it were less than positive news. At least then I’d have something to focus on, to aim towards, to measure myself against. Even if it’s problematic, it’s at least something.

But this “we couldn’t get anything definitive” trip has been quite demanding. I’ve got all this energy, all this readiness, all this alertness… and nowhere to go with it. My body has been in a state of high alertness, on and off, for many years, and now it’s starting to really take a toll. I should probably exercise to work it off, and I have been trying to get myself to do just that for months — no, years. But one of the things that my TBI in 2004 did was making me really nervous about being around other people, so going to the gym has not been an option for me. That’s bad. I’m not in as good condition as I should be, and I have a hard time getting motivated to GET in better condition.

It’s a problem. It really is. But at this point, I’m more concerned about my sleeping — ‘cuz if I can’t sleep, then everything goes haywire, and I end up in this downward spiral all over again.

You wouldn’t think that sleep would be such a big deal, especially considering how exhausted I usually am. But I’ve had to really work at figuring out how to sleep, as well as get naps in. It’s wild, how napping feels like my new “hobby”. I do it whenever I can… and I’m actually enjoying it. I’ve been “off” my sleeping patterns since my fall down the stairs in 2004, getting anywhere from 3-6 hours on a regular basis, and rarely getting more than 7 at a stretch. It was such a departure for me — for most of my life I craved 8-9 hours each night, without exception. It was what I used to aim for, even when I was a kid. But I didn’t even fully realize just how bad it was, until the past year or so.

The other crazy thing about my sleeping change, was that for some reason I thought it was an okay thing to do without sleep. I guess I would just get so jazzed up and so charged and so whacked out with agitation and nerves, I would think I needed to work off my nervous energy and “get things done”. Well, news flash — I wasn’t really getting much of anything done. Just spinning my wheels. How crazy is that — I would just start all these writing projects, work like mad on them, write and edit, write and edit, write and edit, but then I would get distracted and go do something else, and completely forget about what I had been so determined to do.

Madness. I was just running like a blind fool, spinning my wheels, just being busy for the sake of being busy. Geez! I wasted so much time imagining myself pursuing success, but I was just churning. And exhausting myself in the process.

I have to say, post-traumatic stress may be a significant factor in all this. I’ve been reading so much about traumatic stress, thinking about it, talking about it with psychotherapist friends, pondering it, looking at it, I’m pretty sick and tired of it always being on my mind. But PTSD must be playing a role in my sleep conundrum. After having gone through so much over the past year, tracking down my tbi and other neurological issues, going through all the testing, changing jobs, dealing with family stuff, having various neurological complications, and trying to put two and two together and make sense of it all… not to mention the hard, hard winter we’ve had… I’ve probably got my fair share of PTSD to deal with. I’ve just been so tapped, week after week, month after month, and it’s taken a big toll on me and my already sensitive system. No, I haven’t been at war, and the past year hasn’t been as hellish as it could have been, but stress is stress, and I have been “on and off” about how well I’ve dealt with it all.

Oh, God, I am so tired. It’s crazy. I can’t even figure out how far behind I am on my daily quota. All I can do, is try to catch up when I can. I had a 2-hour nap Saturday afternoon, and I slept for 3 hours on Sunday. I was still really groggy after both naps, and I didn’t feel like I had caught up as much as I needed, but at least I did manage to lie down for a while, and it feels so good to relax.

This is relatively new for me, in the past years. I have gotten worse and worse at relaxing, especially after each TBI I went through. With each accident, I became a little more wound-up, a little less inclined to sleep. I think it’s become a lot more noticeable in the past years, as the cumulative effects of my injuries is catching up with me, and I’m getting older, too.

When I was a kid, I remember having a lot of trouble relaxing and falling asleep. It was very on-again, off-again. I tended to get tired and go to bed earlier than other kids, but I often had to sleep in a specific position, holding something close to me, like my blankets or a pillow (not so much stuffed animals). I also couldn’t sleep if there wasn’t a blanket over me. I was kind of high maintenance when it came to falling asleep, but at the same time I really craved a good long nap, a good rest, something that would recharge my waning batteries.

I still have trouble falling asleep, if I’m not in a certain position or if I don’t have blankets on me. And I’m still exhausted… by myself and my crazy brain. Some people call me a Type A personality. I am driven. I do push myself. I do tend to get aggressive. And I generally go full-force after whatever I want, not letting anyone come between me and my intended goal. But it’s not all psychological/ego drive that moves me. There’s more to it than that — and sleep plays an important role. In fact, the more closely I examine my life and pay attention to what’s going on with me, the more clues arise about what makes me do the things I do — including not relaxing. And in some ways, it has as much to do with physiology as psychology. In some ways, I’d say it has even more to do with the state of my body than the state of my mind. (I’ll write more on this in a bit — it’s actually a pretty important realization/development for me, and it might help others to understand and accept themselves better, too.)

But I’m operating more and more from a deficit, and it’s just not good. Nowadays, I’m trying to learn how to relax. I used to know how, but I seem to have forgotten in the past years. It helps me to listen to some guided imagery for “training” on how to do this. I’ve lost a lot of my former ability at it, so I have to have someone else walk me through the steps of relaxing… progressive body relaxation, deep breathing, letting myself “go” to an imaginary place where I’m safe (which, for me, is a made-up, imagined place I’ve never physically been to — very few of the places I’ve been in real life are places I can relax in)… At first, I felt kind of inept. I mean, who doesn’t know how to relax? What a strange concept. But when I think about it and am totally honest about it, no, I actually don’t know how to relax. Not anymore. And I need help.

I also need help falling asleep. I have noticed, over the past year or so, that when I have the worst insomnia or am waking up way before my alotted 8 hours, I am often very tense, like I’m spring-loaded. Instantly ready for action. Always on alert, because something might come up that I need to react to. My broken-brain reaction time tends to be slow to begin with, so I compensate by always being on-guard, on-point, on-alert. It’s fine when I’m going through my days, but when I lie down to sleep at night, it makes it mighty difficult to relax, let alone fall asleep. But once I let go of the tension in me… once I relax, I can start moving towards sleep.

One thing that’s really helped me, is starting to go to bed before I “have” to. If I wait until 11:00 to go to bed, and I have to get up by 7:00, I feel like I’m under tremendous pressure to perform — to get to sleep promptly and stay asleep for eight hours. I actually put pressure on myself to relax and sleep. But if I head to bed around 9:30 or so, putter and futz around and take my time getting to bed… and if I can get in bed by 10:30 or so, I have a lot less pressure on me, because I am pretty sure I’ll be able to get my hours in.

I’ve been using some guided imagery to get me “down” too. Fortunately, I get so relaxed by the initial cut on the CD, that I usually get to sleep before the “restful sleep” part starts. So, while I’m sure that it helps me, I’m not entirely sure how. Supposedly, it helps even when I’m asleep and am not actively listening. I’ll just trust that, I guess.

Shout-out to the guided imagery folks

Belleruth Naparstek has noticed this blog and has nice things to say about it, which is really very gratifying.

I’ve been using her guided imagery for about couple of years now, and if anything has helped me to come to terms with the complications and hurdles of my TBIs, it has been her Healing Trauma and Stress Hardiness Optimization CDs. I owe her a great debt for her assistance, not least of which because the CDs are self-manageable… as in, I don’t have to endure an in-person session with someone else, I can start and stop them and listen to them as often or as seldom as I like, and I can be totally under the radar when I use them. For all anyone knows, I’m just listening to a relaxation tape or music at work — Note: I only listen to the affirmations at work, as the guided imagery tends to put me into a super-relaxed state, which is not what I need at work.

Personally, I have historically tended to steer clear of guided imagery and meditations. They often strike me as smarmy or condescending or namby-pamby. They often make me feel like the narrator is talking down to me or over-simplifying things. As a TBI survivor, I’m particularly sensitive to being talked down to, so that gets in the way.

Plus, I have trouble hearing at times, and some voices really grate on me. Belleruth’s narration, however, really works for me. I’m able to understand her words, even when I have the sound turned down really low, which I often have to do, ’cause my hearing is very sensitive when I’m stressed. It took a little while to get used to how she pronounces “worry” and “courage”, but after a bunch of times listening, I could eventually deal with it 😉

It might not for everyone, but I gotta tell you, it’s like some kind of magic bullet. Amazing stuff. And it doesn’t make me feel like a total idiot, which is a plus.

I’ll explain more how I think it’s helped me. The mechanics are pretty fascinating. I’m not formally trained in this stuff, but I can definitely relate the details my experience that might help folks understand — and make use of this invaluable resource.