Last weekend, when I was recovering from a migraine, I checked my blood pressure and pulse:
My heart rate was up, for some reason (this was just after noontime), and my pulse seemed a little off. 100/59 might seem awesome, but it seemed a little low to me.
So, I did my breathing and checked again:
I was able to bring my heart rate down to 73, which felt better, and I raised my “bottom number” on my BP to 66, which actually felt better. I don’t want my blood pressure to get too low, and I can bring it up with my breathing.
So, I did.
I made the mistake of not checking my bp and pulse while the migraine was setting in. I’ll need to remember that later, so hopefully I can head it off at the pass… before the stabbing pain sets in. Who knows? Maybe I can head off the other symptoms at the pass: light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, sensory issues, balance, dizziness, etc.
In any case, this is probably a good thing to do on a daily basis, no matter how I’m feeling. It might save me a lot of hassle – and it’s definitely easier and cheaper than dealing with medication.
Summary: Controlled breathing seems to be helping me control my headaches, especially my migraines. After years and years of having constant headaches, I believe I’ve found a way to control them. This is good news, because constant headaches are no fun, and they kept me from really living my life.
I’m happy to report: My migraines have been under control – The headache part, anyway. Last week, I had a weird couple of days, where I was definitely altered… very strange feelings, colors brighter and higher contrast, everything feeling like it was moving in slow motion… I didn’t take any meds, because I didn’t have a headache, and I wasn’t actually sure if it was a migraine, or if it was just one of those things that comes up.
I will occasionally have bouts of dizziness (well, not occasionally… more often than that). And I will have my bouts of clumsiness and feeling spacey. Especially when I’m under pressure, feeling emotional, or I haven’t slept, it can be a problem, and with the last days of my current job winding down, all three of those boxes get checked off.
So, I just let it ride. And Saturday evening (after my nap, ironically), the headache set in.
But to be honest, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it has been in the past. Certainly not as bad as when I was cutting back on my coffee and went through that miserable withdrawal that lasted for days. And I actually have been feeling pretty good, without the constant headache. I think I must be doing something right.
The thing that seems to have moved the needle, is that I’m actively working with controlling my heart rate and blood pressure with controlled breathing. I can bring my heart rate down from 93 to 73 in a minute, using my technique. And I practice this on a regular basis, sometimes because I need to, sometimes out of curiosity.
It seems to be helping my migraines.
Now, the thing to be careful of, is thinking that one thing leads to another, when there could be other issues happening, too. I have also drastically cut back on caffeine, which supposedly helps headaches. That’s ironic, because I always heard that caffeine will help a headache, and to be honest, the times when I have been really struggling with the pain, having some dark chocolate or a bit of strong coffee really seems to help. If nothing else, they make me feel human again. I’ve also been exercising more regularly — at the very least, riding the exercise bike for 15-20 minutes each morning, and usually lifting light weights to boot. That could certainly be helping.
The thing is, I couldn’t exercise regularly for a number of years, because the headaches were keeping me from it. Nowadays, I still do get little headaches when I exercise, now and then, but when I do my controlled breathing and relaxation, they go away. Pretty amazing, really.
This is how it goes for me, these days:
Exercise: I get on the exercise bike and ride. I set the resistance to about medium, because I don’t want to overdo it. I’ll bump up the resistance and push myself, now and then, but when I do, I will sometimes get a little headache… which in my experience can turn into a big one — and big problems for the day. I back off on the resistance and check my pulse on the handlebars (there’s a pulse monitor there). If it is really high, I will control my breathing and bring it down. And the headache goes away.
Emotional Upset: My spouse and I have always had a “fiery” relationship. Our discussions sound like all-out fights to people who don’t know us. Our actual disagreements literally make other people run away. It wasn’t a problem for me, when I was 15 years younger (we’ve been together nearly 25 years), but in the past years, I’ve been getting more upset by these kinds of exchanges, and I’ve noticed a connection between the upset I feel and screaming headaches that come on — especially migraines. Sometimes I get so upset, I get an 8-out-of-10 headache (complete with light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, sensory issues, balance problems, dizziness, and nausea) that lasts for days. So, I need to find a way to deal with it. Now, when I get upset and I feel something coming on, I immediately “disengage” and focus on controlling my breathing. Sometimes I will go to a dark room and block out all sensory input. I can usually feel my blood pressure and heart rate going way up… but after a little while (maybe 15-20 minutes) of slowing everything down, I can “rejoin the living” and have a logical conclusion to what was probably a silly argument, to begin with. And no headache to speak of.
It’s pretty cool.
And it’s a relief.
Because now I feel like I can live my life without being in constant fear of headaches and migraine symptoms, etc.
Of course, there’s the other host of symptoms that come with migraine. Like feeling like my left side is carved out of a block of wood. But that’s also diagnostic. It tells me I need to take better care of myself, rest, get something decent to eat, and take the pressure off.
Bottom line is, I figured out a way to manage my migraines, and I’m pretty happy about it.
So, this is interesting. I did something to my system over the weekend, and I came down with a horrific migraine yesterday afternoon. It was the worst one I’ve had in quite some time. I’ve had some of those where you go blind in one eye and the world is spinning and you feel like you’re going to throw up, but I don’t remember the headache and weird feeling and light sensitivity ever being as bad as they were yesterday.
I really didn’t expect it at all. My weekend was going really well. I was cutting back on the coffee and eating a more substantial breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, along with more fruits and vegetables throughout the day, getting more exercise (I rode the bike a long while on Saturday and Sunday and went for multiple hikes in the woods, up to the top of a nearby hill in our local conservation area), and drinking more water. I felt fantastic, with a lot of energy. I also got some roasted dandelion root tea, to try out as a substitute for coffee. I drank some on Saturday afternoon. It was nothing to write home about, and certainly not a reliable substitute for coffee. But it was worth a try. It was in the coffee aisle at the grocery store, after all.
But I woke up to a screaming migraine after my nap on Sunday afternoon. Couldn’t stand the light, head throbbing, sick to my stomach, feeling dull and drugged. Usually my headaches are just there, but this one was intrusive. Holy crap, whenever I moved, it just thrashed me. Up around an 8.5 – 9 on a scale of 1 – 10. I had a bunch of things I wanted to do on Sunday afternoon, but all I could do was sit in a dark room with my sunglasses on, soaking my feet in a hot mustard bath.
I had half a cup of coffee, ate a banana and a piece of chocolate, took a couple of Advil, and drank water (how’s that for performance enhancement?) and I started to feel better. Not as sensitive to light and not as sick. Still not great, but better than I had been. You do what you have to do.
I suspect this was partly about cutting back on coffee… increasing my exercise… changing my diet… and drinking that tea. All that change was abrupt, even if it was in a positive direction. I have a tendency to overdo things out of enthusiasm, and I think this was one of those times. I’m nervous about the MRI, and my anxiety is really rising. So, to calm myself down, I do things that give me the sense that I have some control over my life — changing my diet, exercising, trying new foods, cutting out coffee.
I’ve done some reading over the weekend about migraines, and they can be triggered by a bunch of things, including changes to diet and activity – check, and check. I know that exercise tends to start a headache with me, and I did start to get a bit of an ache while I was riding the bike — both days. But it’s usually just a headache, not the nausea, crazy feeling, and intense sensitivity to light that had me walking around the house with all the curtains drawn and wearing my sunglasses because even through the curtains, the light was too bright.
So, I did a number of things differently than usual, and I learned my lesson. I need to take things slowly — gradually — not dive in head-first, as I tend to do. Impulsiveness plus anxiety equals — surprise!
And not a good surprise, either. Right now, I’m fighting back more throbbing pain, keeping the blinds drawn, and reaching for the Advil. I don’t want to take the Imitrex, because I don’t know what it will do to me, and I have to be “on” this morning.
So, I need to take things easy and make change gradually. Not bombard my system like it’s a machine. As much as I like the idea of roasted dandelion root tea as an alternative for coffee, I don’t think it’s going to do it for me. I think it really contributed to the migraine. After the pain subsided to a relatively simple headache of “4” on a scale of “10”, I tried to drink it again yesterday evening. And the headache started up again. So, even if it’s not the sole contributor, it did not make things better for me. Dandelion is a natural diuretic, and it has other properties, too, that are used as home remedies. I got some to get ready for my MRI on Wednesday, so I can flush out my system and not be poisoned (too much) by the contrast agent. But I just can’t do it.
Well, better I learn now, than later. That’s for sure. I’d rather get this lesson out of the way ahead of time, while I have the time to rest and recuperate. I have a busy day on Thursday, so I need to not get knocked out by the MRI on Wednesday. Most people don’t have problems with it, and they look at me like I have two heads when I tell them I get sick afterwards, but so what? I know what happens to me, and I need to get ready.
So, it’s plain water and healthy foods for me, thank you very much.
Okay, I’m ready to roll. I’ve had my time off, and I’m ready to head back into it. I’ve rested, reflected, taken care of some stuff that was gumming up the works of my head — got clear on things I am NOT going to be doing in the short term… and also found some really excellent reading material to study, to help me get where I want to go this year.
I’m making some pretty cool connections with new folks, as well as getting back in touch with folks I used to know. People want to connect, and it’s a welcome change. Last year was so insane with all the changes and drama all over the place, it seems like now people are settling in and getting their bearings.
I have a feeling this is going to be an interesting year at work. There are lots more changes on the horizon, and I’m sure there will be drama. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. People just need to keep their heads on straight — and that includes me.
Getting enough rest, keeping perspective, keeping really focused on things that truly matter, making a little progress each day… that’s what it’s all about for me, and it’s good.
Anyway, the day is waiting. I spent the weekend collecting a lot of data from my last year of headaches and other symptoms, so I can discuss with medical folks in the coming weeks. I’ll be refining the list of “whazzup” with my neuropsych tomorrow, so they can help me communicate better with the neuro I’m going to be seeing sometime — hopefully before too long.
Headaches have either damped me down or sidelined me, on and off, for the past year — including this past week, when I had a sick headache all day Friday. I’m still kind of out of it … of course, waking up really early today and not being able to get back to sleep doesn’t help. But I guess I was excited about going back to work. That hasn’t happened to me in a while. Imagine that… With any luck, I’ll be able to get some relief for the headaches — at the very least, better understand the sources and causes and what I can do about them.
Ultimately, what I seek more than fixes, is understanding. There’s a chance that nothing can be done — or the cures they propose are worse than the condition itself. In any case, I just need some help understanding the nature of what I’m dealing with — not doing scatter-shot attempts at relieving symptoms, when the underlying causes are still an issue.
Anyway, tomorrow I call. Today, I focus on getting back to work, answering all those emails, and getting on with the new year.
The last few weeks have been pretty quiet, all things considered. Since getting back from Thanksgiving travels, things at work have been fairly chilled out andsteady — the re-org notwithstanding. I’m getting ready for a nice week and a half off work with time to pursue some interests without the pressures of time crunches, deadlines, and the like.
I’ll also be pulling together some details on my physical condition — possibly — for a neurologist who I may be able to connect with in the new year. I have good hopes about this, as my neuropsych has finally come through with a recommendation, and I think they’re a good possibility. I did some Googling and checking out their record, and I like what I see.
Then again, I’ve been confident before about my choices, and I chose wrong, so… only time will tell. And if I end up screwing things up again, then I’m really no worse off than I am now, which isn’t all that shabby. It’s painful and confounding and frustrating at times, but I’m managing. And there we have it.
Anyway, I don’t want neurology to derail my holiday time off. I’d really like to get into a steady flow and do some reading and writing on some projects I’ve got in the works. Some of them have been “in the wings” for many months, now, and I haven’t had the time and energy to finish them up. Between family crises and interstate travel, well, it’s been a demanding fall. Now, though, everything feels chilled out and quite calm, which is nice.
Finally. A real Christmas holiday.
I’m looking forward to it.
For all the calm, though, I’ve been feeling sad. I think the idea of starting to track my physical symptoms again and working with another doctor, is kind of bugging me. I’d almost rather just get on with my life. But I’ve been having tremors and sick headaches, and if there’s a way to deal with it all, so much the better.
Anyway, I’m getting an early jump on supper tonight — eating about 3 hours earlier than I did last night. I haven’t been getting much sleep, being so wound up and off my usual schedule. I’ve been exercising, which has been really good for me. And I’m still adjusting to it.
Well, whatever happens… happens.
The main thing is to just relax and get some rest tonight. Tomorrow is the last day I’ll work for the next two weeks, and for that I am so very grateful.
So, I’m headed back out on a business trip again next week, which means it’s probably going to be pretty quiet here for the next 10 days or so. I may get a chance to check in while I’m traveling, but I’m guessing things are going to be busy, so I might not get to check in.
One thing that’s been happening, which I’ve talked about before, is that I’ve been discussing my testing results with my neuropsych, comparing how I am now to how I was before. Back in 2008, when I had my first test, I was in pretty rough shape. I was struggling with a pretty constant sense of overwhelm, I had a pervasive sense that there was something terribly wrong with me, and my mental health was all over the map. I was borderline disabled… and headed in that direction, due — I’m sure — at least partly to the fact that almost all of my friends and associates were living disability-centric lives. By that I mean, they either considered themselves too broken to do much with their lives, or they devoted their lives to comforting and counseling the broken.
But in either case, my friends’ focus was on disability, wounding, victimization, and struggle. And in most cases, their perceptions of themselves and others was very similar — they not only helped wounded, damaged people, but to at least some extent, they also considered themselves wounded and damaged.
Anyway, the one exception to that has been my neuropsych, who has never let me get away with settling into a victim mindset, and who has really reminded me on a regular basis of what I really think about life — that it throws us some pretty intense curve-balls sometimes, and sometimes it really roughs us up, but in the end we do have the means and the ability to turn things around for ourselves and no matter how bad things may seem on the surface, we have the capacity to move on and do better.
And that’s been my experience. Truly, it has. They have helped me and offered me encouragement and information all along the way. Granted, I’ve only seen them for an hour a week — and sometimes not even that often. But they really have been a help. Because they’ve been the one person in my life who has not been sucked into the abysmal void of mistaken beliefs telling you that you have to settle for less, which I see all around me, each and every day.
I have been getting better. A lot better. My numbers are remarkably improved over last time. And we haven’t even gotten to the purely cognitive stuff yet.
What has been getting notably better is my overall functionality and my self-perception. The old depressiveness and the overwhelm is down — way down. Anxiety levels, impulsive acting on anger, social discomfort and avoidance, negative emotions, and my general sense of maladjustment are all significantly reduced — often to normal levels. It’s literally like a light has turned on in my life. It’s like I am a completely different person on paper, and my life has gotten one of those major renovation makeovers you see on HGTV.
And yet, what all has changed? Seriously — what has actually changed in my life?
I don’t have the blindingly intense, constant headaches I once did, and the seizure-like behavior has subsided. I don’t go into anxiety/panic attacks the way I used to, and the anger and sense of confusion has subsided. But other than that, a lot of things have objectively stayed the same. I still have chronic physical issues — the pain, light-sensitivity, noise-sensitivity, balance issues, vertigo, headaches, insomnia, sleep issues, and I still find myself flying off the handle over things that “shouldn’t” get to me. I still get confused over things, I still lose track of where I am and what I’m doing, and I still actually have a lot of the 84 concussion/TBI issues that can make your life really interesting.
So, what’s changed? Basically, a few things have made a world of difference.
First, I am aware of the issues. I know I have these issues, I know that when I am not sleeping well, it affects my thinking and my sensory sensitivities, which makes life more of a pain in my ass. It’s not all this big mystery for me anymore — I’ve spent a lot of time observing my life and seeing what sets me off and what works, and after several years of serious study, I have a pretty good working understanding of what impacts me, and how.
Second, I have stopped fighting the issues. Sh*t happens. That’s just a fact. Especially with TBI. Instead of battling against the things that just are and fighting their existence, I use my energy for simply noticing that – yes, again – the sh*t has happened, and I need to respond to it, instead of wringing my hands and crying poor-me and cursing life for dealing me a crappy hand.
Third, I actively manage the issues. From my observations, I can clearly see that one thing leads to another, and I can tell when I need more sleep, or I need to wear my sunglasses when I go out. I generally know when I’m in rough shape (which is more often than I’d like, but oh well…), and I can then anticipate things going a certain way. For example, when I am very tired, I get clumsy. When I’m clumsy, I drop things. When I drop things, they often make loud noises, which startle me and set me off. So, when those things happen on days when I am tired, rather than getting completely bent over them, I just deal and move on. I take a deep breath, pick up the fork I’ve dropped and get a clean one from the drawer, and I eat my food. If I’m dizzy, I hold onto the side of the counter when I’m leaning over, so I don’t fall. And if I’m sick on my stomach because of fatigue and dizziness, I just move more slowly and eat my food at a more leisurely pace. And I get on with my day.
It might not sound like much — it might even sound very common-sense to a lot of folks — but for me, this is huge. It means the difference between
starting out in a really shitty frame of mind, thinking I’m damaged and wrecked and whatnot, and not feeling up to much of anything… which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy… and
starting out on a note that shows me that I can manage my situation just fine. It’s not ideal, but I can manage. And that certainly helps.
You know, it’s funny — while we were going over my test results, my neuropsych was saying how my physical problems had been really reduced almost to non-existence. Au contraire. Sure, they don’t ruin my life like before, but they are still very much there. They’ve been there for as long as I can remember. I’m just doing a hell of a lot better job of managing them, of dealing with them, of working them into my daily life, than ever before.
Again, being aware of them and realizing how they fit into the overall constellation of my life, how they shade my existence and contribute to things like anxiety and overwhelm and difficulties with thinking and processing information on the spot, has made a huge change. It’s not that I have this identity as a disabled person who cannot do anything much with their life. I have an identity as a human being who can do a lot with what they have, despite the issues that come up on a regular basis. I manage my TBI issues all around, and while it’s not my favorite way to live at times, it still gives my life a unique and very hopeful feel.
It pretty much sucks that I have these issues, and that they show no signs of going away permanently. But at the same time, I usually know how to handle them, so even though they’re there, they don’t have to ruin — and run — my life. They’re just there. Background noise. Oh, well. If nothing else, they are an opportunity to learn.
So, the bottom line is that things aren’t perfect. When are they ever? But I can manage. I do manage. Personally, if something has to be wrong (and part of me think there’s always gotta be something), I’d rather have it be this, than something more terrible that is insurmountably soul-sucking. There are plenty of folks who struggle in pain they cannot identify or address, and I’m not one of them. Not anymore. I struggle, sure, but after years or work, now I can identify the real source of the pain, and I can sure as hell do something about it.
I’m going to do something today I have not done in a long time – I’m taking a sick day. I feel achey and weak and shaky, and my head hurts. This is one of those days when adrenaline alone won’t take me through the day. I just need to step away from the expected and do the unexpected — rest.
I have one phone call in an hour that I need to take, then I’m checking out and I’m doing what I need to do, to take care of myself. At some point, too, I am going back to bed. To just lie there. Read. Sleep. But rest. I may watch a movie later on, but for all intents and purposes, I am out of commission, work-wise, for the day.
It’s a difficult nearly impossible thing for me to do, to sideline myself for even a day. There is so much I want to do, so much I want to read and learn and experience and write about. There is so much that the world offers, just waiting for us to discover it. Granted, it’s not always wine and roses, but even the hard lessons are good lessons, and they all add up to good things.
Those hard lessons, like today, can include the brutal facts that there is only so much I can push myself without adequate rest. Try as I might, I have not been successful at getting more than 6-1/2 to 7 hours of sleep a night… for months, if not years. I recall getting a full 8 hours of sleep some time back, but that was weeks (if not months) ago, and to be honest, I’ve all but given up trying to set that right. I will have to do something about this, and today is a good day to do so.
Not only today… but each day. Getting proper rest, especially in times of transition and change (which for many of us, these days, is all the time), requires a bit of a re-think about lifestyle and schedule. I’m happy to say that for the past two days, I ate dinner before 7 p.m., which needs to be a priority. Eating after 8 p.m. — sometimes as late as 9:30 or 10:00 — and then going to sleep shortly after that, is no way to sustain health and well-being. Over the past year, with the job change and the longer commute, my eating and exercising have gone way off the rails, and I need to turn it around. I need to turn a lot of things around, which is hard work.
And hard work requires rest. Additional stress requires adequate recovery time, and I have not been providing myself with the latter. It’s all out of whack, and I feel so very different now, than I did 18 months ago. Little by little, I feel as though I’ve been drained by both my environment and the choices I’ve made in response to environment challenges. And I know I’ve got to turn things around, or I’m going to have some serious health consequences. No job is worth that, quite frankly. I’ve watched loved ones die early deaths because they pushed themselves too hard and didn’t take care of their health. I have no interest in following in their footsteps — although my behavior over the past years says something quite different 😉
Anyway, I find it really interesting how we can get into certain situations and fall into routines with the people around us, that really undermine our health and happiness. At work, everyone shares in this overwork ethos, pushing each other to do more, work harder, party more, work longer, and stay caught up in this whirlpool of activity. It’s like a collective addiction that everyone gets swept into, spinning us around and getting us to the point where we’re just happy to keep our heads above water. This is not a high-performance model, from where I’m sitting. When your criterion for success is not-failing, well, that’s no criterion for success. That’s just a formula for maintenance and survival.
What I want is something entirely different. And that difference is what I’m going to focus on today. Just taking myself out of that crazy spin-cycle is a start. And really focusing on the type of work experience I do want to have, is a next step. Ultimately, I believe that in addition to workplace culture and internal and external criteria for success, the quality of experience you have at work everyday, is a big determiner of how satisfied and fulfilled you are at work. I disagree with the business thinkers who proclaim that every worker is responsible for his or her own happiness in the workplace, and that each and every one of us is capable of making a purse out of a sow’s ear.
Look, sometimes a shitty workplace environment is just that — and no matter how ruggedly individualistic a person may be, there’s no avoiding the fact that some workplace configurations simply do not work (no matter what the furniture salespeople told you). My workplace configuration is sheer hell for anyone who needs to sustain concentration more than 10 minutes at a time. And it’s sheer hell for anyone who doesn’t need to know the details of their co-workers’ lives and work in blow-by-blow detail. It’s hell for anyone who places productivity at the top of their list.
What I hear happening in many corners of the business thinker world, is the focus on the empowerment of the individual — to manage themselves (and their boss) as well as their workload, workspace, and work/play time. That’s all very well and good, but too often it seems to devolve into an abdication by senior leadership from their positions of leadership — by stepping away from “micro-management” roles, they seem to step away from leadership, as well. What’s worse, a lot of them seem unwilling to accept responsibility for the decisions they make which so dreadfully affect those who report to them, as though failure by their minions to adapt to their capricious and theoretical approaches were a sign that we had done something wrong. It’s all backwards, like the out-sourcing fad of ten years ago. It’s based on a sheet of numbers and a concept that sounds great to MBA folks. But in practice, it simply does not work. And we’ve seen that, up close and personal, over the past decade.
Now yet more ridiculousness is being pandered about “empowerment and engagement” — probably originating in some MBA think-tank filled with academicians who are so specialized, they metaphorically see no connection between eating habits and constipation — being either nutrition experts or upper GI experts of colon experts or sphincter experts, and never the gaggle of experts shall meet (except at some annual conference when everybody sits in rooms listening to motivational speakers, until they go out and get drunk together each evening). Supposedly, each employee is responsible for their own survival, and they need to build a system of “supports” at work that benefit first their boss, then them, in the eternal quest for efficiency and productivity. Each individual is responsible for their own engagement level, and if you’re not fully on board with everything that’s decreed and devised by upper management, then it’s your own damn’ fault for not properly managing your energy and/or your time. And if you should find yourself overwhelmed by an unstemmed workflow, and completely exhausted by the deluge of interruptions and changes in direction by executive management who are in love with the latest MBA-related fad, then you’re not “fully embracing change” and resisting the “creative chaos” of the modern dynamic workplace and rapidly evolving job market.
It’s just so lame. I’m not seeing any self-criticism, any introspection, any brutal honesty about the ways that management overwhelms and undermines and generally sabotages the workforce with a basic unfamiliarity with what it takes to get the job done. Everybody is so busy being important, that coherence, integrity and basic workability go right out the window. But at least people are quoting the Harvard Business Review, and that’s what really matters, right?
But wait, I’m supposed to be resting right now. Not venting. Have to say, though, venting is taking some of the pressure off my head, and I’m starting to feel a little more human. I’m still exhausted, still weak, still shaky and in pain, but lo and behold, my headache is a little less brutal than it was 45 minutes ago.
So, I have one more thing I need to do for work, then after that I am done for the day, work-wise. I’ll probably go back to bed to read and rest and take it easy, which I haven’t let myself do in a number of months — and certainly not on a weekday. I can’t remember the last time It’s been over a year and a half (December, 2010, when I was deathly ill) since I last interrupted my weekly routine to just take care of myself and not push through feeling like sh*t. I usually just push through… Put my discomfort out of my mind and just muscle on through.
I’ve been grappling a bit with pain, lately. The headaches that used to dog me are back, and I’ve been having a lot of pain in my neck, lower back, shoulders, hands, wrists… lots of places I used to have pain, but then wasn’t bothered (as much) for a while.
It seems to be bothering me more, lately. I know the headaches that used to make my days a living hell subsided considerably when I started seeing a chiro, and my neck was doing better. But I don’t have the money for the chiro anymore, and I also don’t have the time or availability to see them regularly, so there’s not much point. I’ve been doing some stretching, trying to stay fairly active, and I’ve been focusing my breathing exercises on noticing the sensations in my body, so I can track them.
It’s hard… not sure why it’s harder now than it was before. I think the longer commute is tearing the living crap out of me, with the prolonged sitting. And sitting longer and more at work isn’t helping, either. I have resolved many times to start taking regular breaks, but I never seem to be at a “stopping point”. It’s my fault, entirely. I have control over my schedule. I just get stuck in a rut. Must do something about that. Really.
Anyway, I’ve noticed that even on days when my pain is up around an 8.5 out of 10, if I can immerse myself in some activity, some reading, some work, and completely pay attention to that, it gets my mind off the pain, and I don’t even feel it anymore. Of course, when I get up again to move, it comes back, but while I’m 100% focused on something I’m doing, it’s not a problem.
So, I’ve been spending time trying to find ways I can get my mind onto other things and cut the pain that way. I’ll eventually need to find ways I can cut the pain when I’m not in some intense concentration zone, I suppose, but for now, finding something more compelling to think about than my pain is the only solution I can come up with.
That, and ibuprofen.
Oh, and some homeopathic pellets I came across. I used to take them and they helped somewhat. I’ll have to start taking them again. Magnesium phosphate — 6x or 30x. It seems to help.
Anyway, it’s a beautiful day, and I have a ton of stuff to do, including help a friend find another car — theirs died in a parking lot, when a belt failed and the engine blew. Tough break. But it’s fixable.
I’ve been reading The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and (no surprises) I’ve been learning a lot. Waitzkin was a top-ranked chess player as a kid and young adult (he was the subject of the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), then he moved on to the Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands martial art and became a national champion in that arena.
His revelation about his amazing success has been this — it’s not that he has innate talent either as a chess player or as a Tai Chi fighter, rather that he is exceptionally good at learning. And his approach to learning has enabled him to master not one but two highly demanding and competitive arenas. He’s even beaten Tai Chi opponents 50 pounds heavier than him — with his right hand broken.
Reading his book and learning about his approach – start slowly, master good form, then practice, practice, practice and use your losses as lessons – I can see a lot of similarities between his mastery of chess and Tai Chi and my own recovery from multiple TBIs. While in some areas (being able to put things together and come up with creative solutions) I have tested above average, on the whole I’d have to say I’m a regular person with more than my fair share of limitations. And defeats. And disappointments.
The thing is — and I’m realizing this now — all those limitations have been opportunities to learn and grow, and even if they don’t go away (I’ve had recurring headaches like I used to, for the past couple of weeks, some of them sickening and seriously numbing), the other areas I develop to compensate actually serve to put me out in front of where I might be, if everything were going well for me 100% of the time.
See, here’s the thing – we all have our “uneven” attributes. We don’t all come into this world with all our faculties 100% intact and 100% engaged. Life takes a lot of out of us, and we develop patterns and approaches that specialize in us developing certain aspects of ourselves and ignoring others, sometimes to the detriment of our overall happiness and ability to function and enjoy life. In many ways, a lot of us actually cripple ourselves in some ways, in the interest of strengthening ourselves in others. We use one side of our bodies predominantly, and the other side becomes weaker. We focus on work, to the detriment of our families. Or we focus on enjoying our lives to the detriment of our work. Workaholic or ski bum… rightie or leftie… and we end up with these uneven, asymmetrical lives that have considerable rewards on one hand, but on the other are dessicated and hollow.
And sometimes the only thing that snaps us out of that one-sided focus is when our dominant or masterful side is injured or damaged.
Then we are presented with several choices:
We can bemoan our fate and struggle and fight to keep things exactly as they were, by doing things exactly as we always have done… and possibly end up defeated and depleted and depressed.
We can “accept our limitations” and get used to having less of a life than we’d hoped for.
We can accept that life has thrown us a curve, and that things have turned out different… we’ve turned out different… and then we can set about finding the new ways and new strengths we can develop in order to get where we’re going.
We can hire someone to do everything for us.
We can pretend everything is fine, fudge our way through life, and battle the demons of “impostor syndrome” and a constant fear of being found out, while seeking out more and more ways to present the person we want to look like, while launching offensives against anyone who might expose us.
We can give up completely on the hope that things might ever get better and careen through life as “adventure seekers” without a care or consideration for anything of substance, while secretly believing a daredevil life is the best we can ever hope for.
We can tell ourselves that we’re so damaged that the best we can hope for is mediocrity. And that’s that.
Choices, choices. I’m sure there are more, but right now let’s work with the above collection.
I think personally I’ve progressed from 1 to 2 to 3 — and 3 is where I am now and it’s where I intend to stay. The way I got to 3, is by going from being an entity learner to an incremental learner. And entity learner is someone who gets things quickly, who masters certain tasks and concepts quickly, without much effort, while struggling with other things. They’re the kind of person who needs to “get it” all at once, not one step at a time. And if they have to work at it, piece by piece, they feel stupid and slow and don’t stick it out.
It’s all or nothing with an entity learner.
An incremental learner, on the other hand, takes things one step at a time. They start slow and then as they master one element after another, they grow and build mastery. They don’t see a challenge as a thing to overcome in one fell swoop, rather as an opportunity to learn. And they never stop learning.
I think of the difference between entity learners and incremental learners like the difference between people who “learn computers” and people who learn to type. People who “learn computers” are often easily intimidated when things don’t turn out right. They click a button, and something different happens than they expected. They click a link, and the web page does something they didn’t anticipate. They can get intimidated and give up easily. I have lots of friends who do this — they seem to have this idea in their minds that computers should “just work” and when they don’t “cooperate” they throw up their hands and dismiss the whole experience as defeating.
On the other hand, learning to type is an exercise in dull repetition of proper form. I learned to type in high school back in the dark ages, when we still had electric typewriters (remember the old IBM Selectrics with the type ball?) and it was probably the most boring-ass class I’d ever had. The most fun I had in it was sitting behind a guy who I partied with, who had about 1,000 well-thought-out reasons why Jimmy Paige was the best guitarist of all time. I heard about 578 of those reasons in that class, when I wasn’t hammering out a-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fhour after ever-loving hour. But you know what? That dull repetition paid off, and when it came time to learn to use computers and code and what-not, the speed and technique with which I’d learned to type made all the difference in my basic ability to function. And that’s translated to steady work over the years.
Clearly, that incremental learning has paid off big-time.
Those same lessons of incremental learning now apply to my TBI recovery. When your brain is injured, you literally need to become an incremental learner all over again. You can’t get stuck in the old beliefs about being able to do a lot of the things you used to do, easily, simply, without effort. TBI recovery is very much an incremental learning process, with each person needing to attend to different aspects of their own functionality to:
Identify issues and weaknesses in everyday things that don’t work anymore
Identify better/different ways of approaching those everyday things
Find the “movements” or approaches that work (in slow motion)
Practice those movements to train the brain and the body to perform these new movements with increasing ability
Continuously reflect and examine the way things are going, to make corrections and fine new ways, if the ones you’re working with aren’t very productive
I truly believe that not being able to switch modes to incremental learner is what trips up so many TBI survivors. After all, there are many things we don’t even realize are messed up. So having decent feedback helps. It’s critical, in fact. I was fortunate enough to have checked my bank statements (for their own sort of feedback) at a time when my cognitive/behavioral issues (e.g., impulsiveness and cluelessness) were causing me to hemorrhage money. Those bank statements were clear feedback that something was amiss — Where’s all my money?
Likewise, working with my NP has been a regular source of feedback. My spouse has unfortunately not been very helpful, because they have set expectations of me (once high, now low) and when I do something unexpected, their feedback tends to be “entity-based” — either I nailed it, or I’m a loser. They have their own issues, and I can see that entity learner approach really holding them back in so many ways. But if someone isn’t 100% convinced that they have a right to 100% excellence, it’s tough to have constructive conversations about growth with them.
Well, never mind that. The point I’m trying to make is that when you’re an adult and you’ve got the hang of living life a certain way, then TBI comes along and mucks it all up, it can be easy to fall into entity learner paralysis. That’s what happened with me, and I also developed a healthy dose of learned helplessness. Because apparently I couldn’t do anything right, anymore.
But if you approach things as an incremental learner, which I have been working at, thanks to my NP and Give Back and all the TBI and human performance bloggers I follow, it totally turns things around, and rather than slips being catastrophes, they become lessons… investments in the future, provided I take the time to learn about them.
I’m still working on being open to those lessons. I’m still working on not getting too rigid with my expectations and outcomes. It’s a process which is not made easier by TBI or fatigue or any of the other sensory issues I encounter on a daily basis. But with incremental learning, that’s perfectly fine. Because with difficulty comes growth, and with practice comes mastery of one kind or another.
The main thing is to keep going, keep learning, and use each and every situation as fuel for the fire that burns with you and keeps you moving forward… backwards… side to side… and then forward again.
I think I need to start seeing my chiropractor again. The headaches are back after quite some time of being away, and I haven’t been feeling that great, lately.
Lots of pain. I wake up in pain, and at the end of the day I’m in pain. I also haven’t been sleeping that great, either. All of these things were better when I was seeing my chiro, but I had to stop because I ran out of money and I couldn’t afford $120/month for adjustments. It’s just too expensive, even when insurance does cover it. When I’m fully covered, it’s $15 co-pay, and I have to go twice a week, so that’s $30/week — $120/month. That money needs to go to things like my electric bill, to run my air conditioners, pay off some back bills, etc.
Come to think of it, I guess I don’t need have the option to start seeing my chiropractor again. There’s just no way I can come up with that kind of money on a monthly basis. You’d think that it wouldn’t be a problem because of my job and my salary, but between car repairs, mortgage payments, food and gas, and … well, you know the drill. Something has to give, so I have to find another way to do better for myself and feel better in my daily life.
So, it’s back to the drawing board and doing basic things like stretching and moving on a regular basis… getting decent sleep by making it a priority and making sure I at least start to bed well before midnight. I also need to watch my posture and make sure I don’t stress out my body by slouching or getting stuck in off-balance sitting positions at work all day. Just basic stuff, really — but the kind of basic stuff that gets lost in the shuffle, because, well, it’s just not very sexy, it’s drab and everyday and it doesn’t always grab my attention.
But it’s the kind of stuff that matters — really matters — on a regular basis. And if I don’t pay attention on a regular basis, I just get into trouble. In a way, seeing a chiropractor was compensation for me living like a bit of an idiot. I wasn’t taking good enough care of myself, so I hired someone to fix what I’d broken and wasn’t taking care of. I get that now. So, it’s no more excuses — and back to basics.
Which is a good place to start for July 4th – Independence Day. If I think about taking care of the basics in terms of supporting my own independence from expensive experts and professionals (who may or may not be able to help me), then it becomes a lot more interesting and compelling, than thinking about it as something I “have” to do (sigh)… or else.
What a difference a slight change of perspective can make. It can mean the difference between an odious task and something I do on my own to make my life better, to make myself better, to be stronger and more free than ever, without being held back by lack of money or access to professionals.
If that’s not what Independence Day is about, I’m not sure what is.
Speaking of changes in perspective, I’ve been reading more on the Polyvagal Theory, and it’s making a lot of sense to me. The basics are pretty self-evident to me — we have a three-fold system for dealing with challenges in our lives:
An ancient, primal (vagal) system which automatically shuts down our heart rate and breathing and muscle tone in response to inescapable threat. I call this “hypo-freeze” because hypo means “lower” — as in hypotension or hypothyroidism.
A more recently developed sympathetic nervous system which causes fight-flight (and hyper-freeze — which is the high-muscular-tone freeze that’s completely different in nature from the hypo-freeze primal vagal impulse) to kick in to override the hypo-freeze, so you don’t get killed off by your body’s own automatic response to inescapable threat.
A more developed vagal response system which can control the two earlier systems. This system is closely tied in with the muscles of the face and neck, and it can literally signal the “all clear” based on observing the expressions on others’ faces, among other things.*
Essentially, what can happen, is that you can run out of coping and response strategies when faced with inexplicable, inescapable, and seeming insurmountable challenges. When we run out of higher-level approaches (like being able to think things through), we revert to the older ways of responding. And then we can get stuck in those ways of responding, because the “neuroceptive” response (what we take in on a biological/neurological level, rather than an intellectual/conscious level) which is based on prior experiences, kicks in at levels thatprecede conscious thought.
Long story short, our bodies are wired to survive, and when they’ve become trained to respond with fight-flight, time and time again, we automatically jump to that without even thinking about it. Even if we are thinking about it, we sometimes (or often) can’t stop the process of kicking into fight-flight mode, because our bodies are so well-trained in doing that.
Which ties in with the readings I’m doing on trauma and PTSD. It puts trauma and post-traumatic stress in a whole new light. And it gets it out of the domain of the psychological mental illness… and into the domain of the physiological. It explains a whole lot, and actually excuses a whole lot, too. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it excuses the brain’s/mind’s role in “causing” bad behavior to happen.
And what happens, when we get our brains/minds off the hook for our “mental illness” and start to see our cognitive-behavioral issues as physical issues which were trained to be that way? For me, it tells me that I’m NOTcrazy, that I’m NOTmentally ill (as well-meaning and ill-meaning people like to pronounce me). It tells me that I am dealing with a physical condition that was trained into place, and it can be trained to do something different. It doesn’t just get me off the hook in ways I never should have been ON the hook, to begin with. It shows me the way to do something about my situation — and approach my challenges in whole new ways.
Being human and all, of course I have a lot to learn, and my understanding is still imperfect. It will probably always be imperfect. But at least now I have more to go by, than I did just six months ago.
And that’s the beauty of the right information — and access to the right information. I have found a bunch of really great papers and links on the polyvagal theory (I’ll have to dig them up and share them here), which have served to really expand my understanding and give me much hope. I can’t say that my understanding is perfect, but when I practice what I read and I think about what it all seems to be saying, it helps. It helps a great deal. It’s information that I can put into practice, by doing my daily breathing exercises first thing in the morning before I start anything else, and also recognizing the biochemical processes that are kicking off when I (or others around me) start to get revved and rammy. It helps me come up with different responses and it motivates me to take better care of myself, get better sleep, take it easy (especially last night after the fireworks, which were both beautiful and very stressful with all the noise and lights — and me being behind on my sleep). It gives me more to go by, than “I’m a nervous wreck again” — and it shows me the way to level out after those extreme spikes and jolts that used to just wreck me.
Information is power. Knowledge (the ability to put information into action) is power. It’s all power of the best kind — not power over others, but power over our own lives, our own experiences, our own futures… beyond the dictates of fate.
Well, it looks like it’s turning out to be a beautiful day. The rain of this morning has given way to sunny, clear skies. We needed the rain, and now we have a clear day for the 4th. Not bad. Not bad at all.
* People are calling the most recently developed vagal system the “social” vagus, but to me, that’s just a related aspect of the mechanism that doesn’t describe what it actually does. It describes how — based on just some of the ways it operates. The “social” moniker seems to have sprung up as a result of people connecting malfunctions of this vagal system with autism and other social challenges, so they’ve taken a bit of a conceptual detour (probably in the interest of popularizing the concept and making it more appealing to funding sources). But my arguments about naming conventions are getting me off track, so more on that later.