Changing plans and shifting priorities

tree growing above a rainbowI love my routines. They’ve saved my s$$ over the past 12 years. They helped me retrain my body and brain to be a heck of a lot more functional than they were in 2006. And when it comes to TBI recover, routine and repetition are my friends.

Seriously, they’re like the secret weapon against the disruptions of TBI. Just figuring out how to do things exactly the same way, over and over, till that way become ingrained and you don’t have to think about it anymore… it’s magic. And it does so much to rebuild and solidify the new connections that replace the ones that got frayed and pulled to pieces in the brain injury itself.

Every now and then, it’s good to change things up, though.

That’s where I am, now. I’ve done a lot of hard thinking, over the past weeks and months, and I realize I need to have a different focus in my daily life. I need to spend a lot less time focusing on my career and professional prospects, and spend a lot more time focusing on my health and quality of life.

I’m not gonna lie — I really had to double down on my work situations, over the past years. I was in a downward spiral of sorts, in one overly challenging job after another, working in very hostile conditions that eroded my physical and mental health. And the past 3-1/2 years have also been a real challenge, in some ways. The thing that’s made it the most challenging is that I got caught up in ideas about advancing, getting promoted, moving up in the world. And that sucked me into a vortex of caring about what other people thought of me, what other people said about me, what other people did to me at work.

And that wasn’t a good use of time. Because here I am, years later, no further along on my professional path (even set back, compared to where I was before), and just looking back at a whole lot of frustration and dead-ends.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m highly ambitious. I’m driven. That’s for sure. But at some point, being ambitious according to someone else’s rules is just a bad idea for me. I need to be ambitious according to my own rules. I need to drive towards things that matter to me — having decent relationships with people, doing my best work, learning and growing as I go — rather than getting caught up in other people’s power games.

Somehow, those games never work out in my favor. I just get played.

So, I’m pretty much over that. Time to focus on other priorities. Time to funnel my energy into things that are going to build me up, not tear me down, and pay off in the short- and long-term, when it comes to just doing a decent job.

Heck, I’m not even sure I want to get promoted, anyway, considering the kinds of people who are climbing to the top, these days. It seems like a much better use of my time to focus on my mental and physical health… learning interesting things and applying them to my life… sharing what I know…. and just having the best life possible. So long as I make enough money to support myself and I have the time and opportunity to do something truly useful with my life, that’s what matters.

And that’s where my head is at today.

Ha… we’ll see how I’m feeling tomorrow… or next week… 😉

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No, it’s not fair. I have to plan accordingly.

person sitting on a park bench looking at a coming storm
Photo credit: Myshelle Congeries

I split my day yesterday between handling a Saturday conference call for work, and going to see a friend in the hospital who may be dying. It really wasn’t fair. To anyone.

The phone call happened at 8 a.m., when a co-worker called to ask me if I was going to join the conference bridge. Sh*t! I knew the call was scheduled. I’d been talking about it all week. But Friday night, my spouse got news that our friend needed to see us soon, so we gathered that they were doing poorly and we needed to see them one last time before they passed away.

Their whole situation has really sucked. They have an aggressive and rare form of cancer, and their numbers have been up and down over the past year. They underwent a last round of treatment — a last-ditch effort — and the results were not what the doctors hoped for. So, they’re preparing for the memorial service, getting their affairs in order, and seeing people one last time before they go.

That’s where my head was, yesterday morning. And it took my mind off my regularly scheduled activities, which included the conference call. That wasn’t fair to my co-workers, because I had promised them I’d be on the call at 7:00 a.m., but I didn’t show up till 8:15. I felt terrible about it, but we just had to dig in and take care of what needed taking care of. It sort of happened, sort of didn’t.

We’ll try again on Monday.

The trip down to the hospital, which is in the next state, also wasn’t fair to me. I was really worn out, in general, and pushing myself to help my spouse get their act together, while they struggled with all the emotional baggage, really over-taxed me. It was nothing new — that’s how things have been in my life, as long as I can remember. I’m just getting more clear about how unfair that really is to me. Avoidable or not, whether I want to do it or not, stuff will need to get done, of course. So, I can’t expect life to be fair to me, the way I’d like it to be.

The important thing is that I’m actually thinking about how it works for or against me. And I’m getting clearer on how to better care for myself in the face of life’s inherent unfairness.

And then there’s our friend. Their dire, extremely mortal situation is completely unfair. They’ve lived a good life full of compassion and service… and then this happens? Bizarre. Tragic. Unfair. And the financial burden on their kids, who have to pay for all the hospital bills (for a journey that isn’t ending up where anybody wants it to), is also deeply unfair. They should only have to pay for what works, but of course, they’ll have to pay for everything. And they’ll still have a massive hole left in their lives.

The whole thing really pisses me off. But that really only impacts me. It doesn’t change anything about life.

The one thing it does impact, is how I live my own life, how I know I have to take care of myself and make my own provisions and line up my own help in the way that I need, because my spouse really isn’t in any shape to come to my aid, if something really bad happens to me and I become incapacitated. This whole experience of watching our friend struggle through so much just re-emphasizes how important it is for me to take excellent care of myself. Because nobody else really can, the way I need them to.

And life isn’t fair.

So I have to adjust to that fact. I have to do everything in my power to keep myself in good stead… and also put supports in place that will help me, should I end up on my own and/or get into a situation where I’m no longer self-sufficient and need assistance.

I actually am pretty much on my own, anyway. But things could get worse for me. So much worse.

Plan accordingly, I tell myself. Plan accordingly.

My second neuro visit OR If only they could walk in my shoes…

Here are details from my most recent neuro visit, I believe back in August. As you can see, it was a less than stellar experience, and I’m still recovering a bit from it. It’s hard to believe that someone who specializes in neurological disorders can be so callous, but here we have it…

I had a 9:30 appointment scheduled with Dr. X to discuss headaches I’ve been having. I had been to see another neurologist about my series of mTBI’s some time back, but the results had not been conclusive, and I felt I’d just been shoved off. I didn’t mention this past visit to this new neuro — In retrospect, that was probably a tactical error, but I wasn’t sure how to explain what had happened, so I decided it was better to say nothing. When in doubt, I tend to do/say nothing, rather than initiating and seeing things blow up in my face. Plus, I wanted to start with a clean slate and get this doctor’s opinion without input from anyone else.

I had been to see this neuro on other occasions with a friend of mine who has some issues of their own. I thought it would be a good idea to work with someone who already knew me in a different capacity. I thought it would be easier for me to work with someone with whom I was already familiar. So, I had high hopes for this meeting. Hopes that didn’t pan out.

Here’s what I recall happening:

I arrived early at 9:20 and finished filling out my paperwork.

The receptionist was unpacking boxes at the time. I settled up with her for the co-pay and gave her my license and insurance card. I thought that the co-pay was $15, and when she corrected me that it was $25, I felt as though she thought I was trying to “get one over on them” and get out of paying the $10. I felt as though she was treating me like I was hostile. It was an innocent mistake on my part, and not intentional.

Around 9:30, the receptionist  had me go in to Dr. X’s office. I wasn’t sure about which door to go in, and she said “You know which one it is.” I honestly didn’t. I couldn’t remember which one was his, but when she pointed me to the door, I walked in and took a seat.

Dr. X greeted me cordially, shook my hand, and we chatted a little while.

He asked me why I was there, and I said I’d been having constant headaches.

He looked over my papers and told me that I had forgotten to fill in my employer and my occupation. He seemed miffed that I’d forgotten. It wasn’t intentional on my part. I gave him the information then, and he filled it in. We chatted a little about my work.

He asked me how old I was, and I hesitated when I answered. I don’t tend to think of myself as any certain age, and I will usually have to calculate how old I am, based in the year it is, less 1965, and then figuring out where in the calendar year I am. Dr. X commented that it took me a while to answer, as though there were something wrong with that, and I told him I usually have to do math to figure that out.

He then started to look over my information sheet, which I’d taken great pains to complete as thoroughly as possible. He flipped through the pages, and then started to work his way down through.

I pulled out my notebook with my family medical history, my history of injuries, my symptoms, and other information I’d collected which I thought might be important to know. I also had many pages of a headache journal I’d been keeping for a number of months, which showed exactly where and with what intensity I’d been having headaches. I had compiled this information over a period of more than 6 months, and it contained my most complete understanding of my cognitive situation. I also brought the notes with me to consult, so I could be accurate in my accounts. I tend to get turned around and unintentionally confabulate when I try to recount things (more when I’m under stress, but even under regular conditions, I have had a lifelong issue with unintentional confabulation), and I had hoped that I could rely on my notes to help me be as accurate as possible.

Dr. X told me to put away the notes. He didn’t want to see them. He also didn’t allow me to refer to them.

He proceeded to ask me questions about my headaches, the intensity, the frequency, the nature, the duration, and when I took a while to answer him, he became very impatient and told me I was over-thinking things.

He told me not to over-think my answers, but just to answer off the top of my head, which is very difficult for me to do.

I had to pause a lot to think, and my answers were not instantaneous. I could not verbalize my answers as quickly as he wanted me to, apparently, because he kept telling me to just answer with averages.

It’s very difficult for me to answer that simply, because nothing is that simple to me. I do not think in terms of a “bottom line” and I have a very precise and logical thinking process that sometimes takes longer than “normal” to complete. Being accurate and truthful is very important to me, and when I cannot be accurate, I become anxious. He really pressed me for quicker answers. “Just off the top of your head,” he said. “Just on average.”

It felt as though he were intentionally trying to trip me up and make me contradict myself, or find some “hole” in my “alibi”. I felt like I was being grilled, and I had done something wrong.

I had to stop and think a lot — I could see the answers to his questoins right in front of me — when he asked me about timeframes and durations of my headaches, I saaw images of calendars with days marked, and the severity of my headaches marked on the calendar (some were in colors). I could also see the pages of the calendars flipping by, and I tried to see what information was where. It was very hard for me, though, because he was moving faster than I could go, and I kept losing my place with the images. I had to close my eyes a lot to think, and I had to look down at the ground. I couldn’t look him in the eye AND figure things out, because looking at him distracted me from my thinking — and I started trying to “clue in” to him, instead of the answers to my questions.

At one point, he appeared to be very frustrated and said I needed to speed things up, or “We would be here till next Tuesday” before we got all the answers to the questions. I agreed with him, but I told him that I had to translate my visuals into words, and I am not a primarily verbal person. I tried to explain that I see the answers as images, and then I need to translate them into words, but I’m not sure it sank in with him. I was getting very frustrated, and I was tearing up, which seemed to annoy him.

He also asked me about any addiction background, and I told him I had quit drinking in 1989. It had been 19 years since my last drink, and I had not touched a single drop since. He asked if I’d taken drugs, and I told him a little bit — speed in high school, but only a few times a week, as it made me too speedy and upset my stomach. I told him had smoked marijuana while I was drinking during high school and college.

I may have left the addiction piece of information off my form, but it was not intentional. It was an oversight. He didn’t seem to see it that way.

He asked about any medication I was on, and I told him that I didn’t take any, and I was not a big medication person. I told him that I took Advil, now and then, and I had once taken it for headaches, but it had since stopped working at all.

We talked about my head injury experiences, and I gave him details from what I knew and could remember. It was very difficult for me to think on my feet, and I was becoming increasingly anxious. He was moving very fast, so I’m not sure I answered everything completely. I had my notes, but he would not allow me to consult them. When I tried to pull them out, he told me to put them away.

Dr. X seemed to become increasingly impatient with me, and he said we were just going to focus on my headaches.

He asked about the nature of them, if anything helped, if I exercised regularly, if I was under stress.

I told him that I’ve had a lot of stress, and that my headaches have gotten worse over the past 6 months. He asked if I’d been under more stress, and I told him I’d been in a very stressful job for 3 months.

He said he’s not a big “pill person”, and I said I was not, either. I prefer to deal with my aches and pains in other ways, and sometimes I’d rather just live with pain, instead of taking medications that gave me side effects.

He asked about the vertigo, and I told him it was worse when I had allergies. I told him that it was very intense and I had to hold onto things to keep from falling over at times.

He asked about my history with other injuries or conditions, and I told him about a diagnosis of lupus diagnosis in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s. He asked if it was discoid or systemic, and I believed it was systemic, but when I told him about the skin rash, he said that sounded like discoid, not systemic, and I became confused and said it may have been discoid, but not tests were ever conclusive. Also, the medications I’d been on had not helped.

After a while, we went into the examination room, and he conducted a physical neurological exam. It was standard, and he seemed to go very quickly — more quickly than I’d seen him go with a friend of mine. He seemed to be in a rush, and it was painful when he checked the reflexes on the bottoms of my feet. It was hard for me to answer quickly, when he pricked me with the pin, and sometimes it took a little while for me to verbalize I’d had the sensation. He seemed to think that I was “fixing” my answer to fit what he wanted to hear. I was getting confused and felt like the room was pulling away from me, and my reaction time was slowing.

During the exam, he asked me again if I had taken drugs recently. I told him no, I had not taken any drugs since stopping drinking in 1989. I believe he repeated the question, and I answered him again in the negative. I couldn’t figure out why he was asking me if I’d taken any drugs. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing he’d be asking me while he was checking my reflexes.

He told me that my exam was normal, and everything looked good.

We went back into his office, and he said that my exam looks clear – no indication of a tumor or vascular issues. He said he believed my headaches are tension headaches and he wrote some notes on a piece of paper. He gave it to me, and he said that my headaches are probably muscular in nature, related to stress. He also said that he thinks the vertigo is probably BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo) or Meniere’s Syndrome, and I could check with an Ear-Nose-Throat (ENT) specialist if I chose to. He didn’t seem to think I needed to see someone, but my ears have been hurting me a lot, and I said I would like to talk to an ENT specialist. He referred me to a doctor he knew and believed was good. He wrote that down on a piece of paper (his prescription pad?), as well, and gave me that.

He said that he didn’t think that medication would necessarily help, as it may cause side effects, and I agreed with him. He also said he didn’t think an MRI or EEG would show anything, which was really disappointing. I mean, I have a whole lot of issues, and I have trouble sorting them out, and the one way I can think of reducing some of the mystery, is to have an MRI or an EEG or something like that. I really didn’t know what to say at that point. All I could manage, was to agree with him, which irritated me when I did it, but I was helpless to do anything else. My thinking process had slowed considerably by that time, and I was feeling very overwhelmed and confused by everything. I wasn’t sure if he was being congenial or if he was upset with me. He seemed distant. But I couldn’t really tell for sure how he was being with me.

He asked if I exercise, and I didn’t know what to say. I lead a pretty active life, and I move a lot through the course of each day. I could see myself walking and moving a lot at work, walking across parking lots, and making extra effort to incorporate exercise into my daily life, but I couldn’t just come up with a simple “yes” or “no”. I had to think about whether or not I was going for walks. I eventually answered “Not regularly,” and he said, “No” and wrote that down. He said he wanted to see me exercising on a regular basis, nothing really heavy, just maybe going for a brisk walk with a friend several times a week. I saw a friend of mine and me walking along a road near my home, but I didn’t know when that would or could happen, as I work such long hours during the week. Dr. X appeared a little exasperated with me, as though he thought I wasn’t being fully cooperative.

He asked me if there was anything I do that relaxes me, but I was having a hard time processing at that point. I couldn’t think of anything — I was drawing a blank. I told him I draw and I write, and he recommended I draw 15 minutes a day. I couldn’t figure out how to explain that when I draw, I get very absorbed in my work, and I lose track of time, but there was no time for me to figure out how to say that. He also recommended that I exercise regularly, go for a brisk walk with a friend on a regular basis. Again, there was no time for me to respond in a way I felt was adequate.

I told him I was going to see another doctor for a neuropsychological exam, and he said he would like to know the results of that. I told him I would keep him apprised.

He said he wanted to see me again in 7 weeks, to see how I was doing.

I made an appointment with his receptionist. I had a hard time thinking through my schedule at the end of August, beginning of September, and she was not very patient with me. She acted like I was pretending to be “slow”.

Basically, I felt completely humiliated and treated like I was a liar who was seeing him under false pretenses — as though I had been an addict showing drug-seeking behavior. I left in a daze, and I went to the nearest bathroom, locked the door tightly, crouched down in a fetal position, and cried… and cried again in the car before I drove to run an errand. And felt like crap for the rest of the day. I did collect myself and manage to get on with my day, but the flow of my day was completely disrupted, as was my weekend. It was too disruptive for words, and I in retrospect, I really resent the implications that I think were in play.

Sometimes, it just sucks when nobody can tell you’ve got issues… and they treat you like a criminal, just because you’re trying to get some answers (and they apparently can’t help you, but don’t want to say so).

It also sucks to have processing difficulties that might be making things look worse — or better — than they are, and that keep you from being able to ask for help.