The ghost and the machine

It’s all about your perspective – “Ghost in the Machine” by linnsetane

I had a pretty good weekend — no, I had a pretty phenomenal weekend. I had an exquisite balance between body, mind, heart, and spirit, that I haven’t felt in some time, and I actually felt like myself.


It’s been a long time, since I truly felt like myself. I was reading and studying again, doing some journaling. I did chores around the house and cleaned up outside. And I was out in the woods a whole lot, with naps in between.

I didn’t “accomplish” some of the goals I set out to do, but you know what? I don’t care. I feel really solid, and that matters more than any external goals I set for myself. On Fridays, my weekend goals seem so terribly important. But by Sunday morning, I’ve “rearranged the furniture of my interior life” and a whole new set of priorities come out, which are a lot more life-giving than the ones I identified on Friday last.

It has taken me a long, long time to get to this place. I have been “in the woods” in a not-so-good way for many years, and at last I’m at a really stable place, where I’m not all over the map for no good reason.

Now, in some ways, I still feel strange to myself. But that strangeness has actually become an integrated part of my life now. See, the thing is, I don’t just see myself as a person whose character is set in stone — and that’s it. I see myself now as more of a person whose character is constantly developing along certain lines that are “me” — it’s not the particular details of how I’m feeling and what I’m doing, that make “me” the person I am. It’s actually the process I go through to get where I’m going, that makes “me” the person I am.

For example, I am usually in pain of some kind or another. Either I have a pulled muscle or I have a headache or a backache or joint pain. I literally can’t remember the last time I did not have some kind of pain — and this goes back to my childhood, when I had a very rough-and-tumble kind of life and I was usually getting scuffed up or knocked around by someone or something or other. I was extremely sensitive as a kid, and a lot of times, if someone touched my arm or my back, it felt like I was being hit. It stung like fire ants or burned like fire or it felt like someone had me in a vice and was twisting. Being young, I couldn’t really explain it. That’s just how it was.

And when I was younger, because of that, I felt like I was always being punished. Because when you were really bad, you got hit or paddled or yanked around by an adult. And that hurt. But I wasn’t being constantly punished — I was just having that kind of experience without any connection with reality. My body didn’t realize it, and my mind couldn’t process that.

So, I’ve had this complex — pretty much my entire life — about being a bad person who needed to be punished.

Well, now that I know more about my situation, that’s not burdening me anymore. I know that my sensitivities are connected with how much tension I’m feeling — when I’m tired or stressed or upset — and they’re not about me being a bad person who should be punished. Pain is happening because I’m doing good things — not bad things. Pain is a sign that I am genuinely trying to do better and be better.

It’s like after a hard workout. Your body is absolutely wracked for days on end, while it recovers and gets used to the “new you”. It’s not a bad thing — it’s a by-product of a good thing, and it will totally be worth it in the long run.

So, I have a completely different view of my pain, these days. And I have a very different attitude towards my experience. Thinking of my pain as the result of me pushing harder to be better, makes the pain about me being driven to be better. That’s a far cry from the old way of thinking and feeling — which was all about me being bad and deserving to be punished.

It’s kind of a “no pain no gain” mentality — “pain is weakness leaving the body” and all that.

So, while I don’t feel physically peachy-keen, most of the time, which at times makes me feel really terrible about being in my own skin, the way I think about feeling crappy has actually restored some of my sense of self. Rather than the pain meaning that I’m deficient, it means that I’m genuinely trying to do better, that I’m motivated and really trying. Waking up today with a headache and fatigue means that yesterday I wanted to be better, and I did something about it.

It’s not about me being in an ideal state at any given point in time. It’s about me being in the middle of a process of improvement that is taking me towards a variety of ideals which I can experience at different points in time. Life isn’t always going to be perfect. Where would be the challenge in that? In fact, it seems to me that the more “yourself” you are, the most challenges you’re going to face, because life likes to keep us guessing — and so do we. I have seen so many people unconsciously create situations that get them in trouble, and I’ve seen so many “good” people dragged into complicated messes, that after close to 50 years of wondering “WHY?!” it’s all I can figure.

Being a good person doesn’t mean I’m going to have all good things happen in my life. It means I’m going to have plenty of opportunities to create more good in the lives of myself and everyone around me, no matter what the circumstances.

And that goes for TBI. Lemme tell you, it has been one tough motherf*cker, getting through this, and in a lot of ways, I feel like the “old me” is gone for good. But the “new me” — or maybe the “real me” that I never recognized before — is not so much about being a certain way in certain circumstances, thinking certain thoughts and having certain feelings about things. Maybe the “real me” is actually a dynamic personality who is constantly learning, constantly changing, constantly leaving the old behind.

I think that once upon a time, I knew this. I cleaned out my study, over the weekend and found some old journals from 20+ years ago. Back when I was still wet behind the ears, I had this amazing capacity for fluid adjustment. I think because everything around me was changing all the time, and the multiple TBIs messed with my head so much, I realized that it was pointless for me to try to hang onto anything for long. But then I “grew up” and got all adult-like and what-not, and for some reason, I had it in my head that “I” was a certain way, and that “I” wasn’t going to change.

How strange.

It got worse after my 2004 injury — my thinking just got so rigid and fixed and brittle. And now that I think about it, that “self” that I felt I had lost… that “self” may have never even existed, because my thinking was so one-dimensional and fixed. I had this vision of myself in my head that was distorted and confused, and for some reason, I thought that was “me”.

It was like going into a funhouse and looking at all the mirrors, and then deciding that one image of myself I saw was THE REAL ME, and I invested all kinds of energy in hanging onto that distorted image of myself. Even though it was as far from “me” as you can get.

So, this weekend, it was all about the process. All about loosening up, all about cleaning out dusty spaces and getting things in order. My study is still in some disarray, but that will change. Gradually, I’ll work my way through — one shelf at a time. And by this time next year, there’s no reason to think that it won’t be in decent shape.


So, that’s the result of my great weekend. It felt so good to just let go of the Friday-fatigue-flavored expectations of last week and just let things flow. Letting things flow didn’t get me “off course” – if anything, it let me get some rest and more inspiration for the coming week. Now I’m coming back to my work week with a renewed energy and a better understanding — the machine of my life is just that: a machine. But it’s the ghost that does all the driving.

Can you tell Halloween is coming? ūüėČ


Back to work again

Writing helps

Well, this past weekend was interesting. Call it a wash. Call it an excellent use of time. I did things, this past weekend, that I haven’t done in years — read a bit of fiction and a bit of essay, explored various countries online, and wrote in my journal. A lot.

I haven’t really written journal-type stuff (outside of this blog) for a pretty long time. It’s been fits and starts, on and off, without much commitment. I’ve also been a bit wary of the whole journaling thing, because it tends to pull me into a self-consumed state of mine where I hash over the same stuff over and over and over again. And then when I look back, it really bothers me that I couldn’t get out off that loop.

This weekend, though, I did a lot of writing. I just didn’t care about the danger of “looping”.¬† I was sick. I was feeling bad. And it gave me some relief.

So, that’s good.

What was really good about it, was that I was writing in a different way than I used to, when I kept those “loop journals”. This time, I was writing for the specific purpose of getting my brain online.¬† See, I believe that the ways we use our brains determine how they are shaped, and I believe that writing is an excellent way of reshaping our brains. Keeping up this blog has been a huge part of my recovery — both because it helps me, and because it seems to help others. There are just no downsides (so long as I don’t let the blogging interfere with my daily routines).

What I did this weekend, was spend a lot of time really paying attention to my life and the world around me. I paid really close attention to the qualities and characteristics of the things around me — the minor parts of life that are so full of rich details that if we stopped to pay real attention to them, our lives would be as full and as wonderful as any action movie. I do believe that. The reason it doesn’t happen is, we just don’t try. We don’t realize that’s possible. And we don’t do it, so we don’t have practice, so it’s hard for us to do — and things that are hard are really no fun, so we don’t do them. And we get even more out of practice.

So, this past weekend, while I was fighting off my ear/sinus infection, I practiced. I looked at the patterns of raindrops on the roof of my car sitting down in the driveway. I examined the movements of clouds and the colors of leaves turning for autumn. I really felt the textures of the things in my house – the uneven surface of the bannister, the roughness of the walls, the weight and rumble of the sliding glass door. And even though I felt really, really sick, it woke me up in ways that I haven’t been awake, in quite some time.

And I realize that the big reason that my journaling didn’t help me — and got stuck in a loop — in the past, is that I was too much inside my head, too consumed by the confused thoughts and conflicts raging inside of me. I wasn’t journaling about the world around me, I was trying to “pin down” what was going on inside of me, and that — frankly — was a lost cause, because it was all a swiftly moving target that was constantly changing and morphing and flying from one extreme to the other, and it could never be pinned down.

But this different kind of writing — the “outside-in” writing, which is about what’s going on beyond my brain — is a whole other way of sorting through things. It’s like I’m exercising parts of my brain that don’t get any exercise in the course of my everyday logistics life. It’s like I’m
“airing out” the musty corners that don’t get much sunlight when I am so very intent on just getting something done that’s a problem for me. Focusing intently on doing things like making breakfast or doing my morning warm-up is good for the attention, but it doesn’t do much for my imagination. And the imagination part is what really rounds out my life and makes it enjoyable and worth living. Imagination is what I need help with, and this sort of writing — even just a few sentences about the shape of raindrops on the roof of my car — fires up that part of my brain like nothing else. It jump-starts my ability to experience life around me, in small pieces that don’t overwhelm me. And that’s good.

So, today I am awake with a very different perspective on things. I have finished my antibiotics, and I have another appointment with my doctor tomorrow to make sure my ears are alright. I still don’t feel well, and I have a ton of things to take care of at work today. I also have more things I need to do for my own life, because my spouse has been very, very sick and I am a bit more functional than they are, so someone needs to pick up the slack.

I feel, in a way, like I’ve turned the corner on something. I’ve had a pretty rough couple of months, with my job change and all the craziness going on inside my head. But I’m settled, now. I am settling in. I have a really good understanding of the physiological basics of keeping my life on track. I have a pretty good understanding of how to keep stress from wrecking me. I am determined to stick with those things and make my life better. And I have this new way of writing and exploring and improving how I think, how I feel, how my brain works — how I experience my life.

And it’s good. I can get back to work again. It’s going to take time, but I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy the process.

When in doubt, write — but don’t forget to live

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about how fortunate I am. ¬†Life hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve had some pretty down times and my share of close calls. But all in all, I have to say, I have been extraordinarily blessed along the way.

One¬†of¬†the key¬†ingredients¬†in my good fortune, I believe, has been an inner¬†compass and an inner orientation that has guided me through many challenging¬†and taxing situations. I have had my¬†share of sorrows,¬†and I’ve had my share of issues. But through it all, I have kept myself relatively¬†upright¬†in the¬†stormy seas of¬†life. And¬†one¬†of the ways I’ve¬†done that has been with writing.

Barbara Stahura’s¬†website Journal After Brain Injury, has some interesting ideas about how you can use journaling to deal with a brain injury you or someone you love has experienced. I have to admit, I have not spent a ton of time there, but I have spent a ton of time doing the sorts of things she talks about. And I have to say, it truly has helped.

What do I write about? Well, when I first realized I was dealing with the long-term effects of multiple traumatic brain injuries, I did a lot of journaling about my¬†past experiences —¬†childhood experiences that formerly made¬†no sense¬†to me… adult experiences, I could never¬†quite explain. I wrote¬†pages¬†and pages¬†and¬†pages of journal entries, till it started to make sense to me. And I also started¬†this¬†blog, where I have¬†the chance¬†to share my experiences with others.

Even before that,¬†though,¬†I was writing. In my basement and spare bedroom¬†and study¬†are many, many journals that I’ve kept over the¬†years. Lots¬†of¬†them¬†are full of circular thinking, ruminations, obsessive-compulsive attention to minute details that mean¬†nothing — to the rest¬†of the world,¬†and even to me. I¬†have filled¬†more notebooks than I care¬†to think¬†about with the ramblings of my brain. My neuropsych cringes when I show¬†them my¬†notebooks — to¬†them,¬†they¬†are a sign of consuming attention to minutiae that has¬†no redeeming value. But to me,¬†on a certain level,¬†they were exercises¬†in trying to find¬†out who I was¬†and¬†what I was about¬†and¬†what was¬†going¬†on¬†with me.

Interestingly, I¬†didn’t¬†really start to figure¬†out¬†what was¬†up¬†with me, until¬†I¬†put down¬†the pen¬†and stepped away from my hours¬†and¬†hours of writing. It wasn’t until I looked¬†up from the¬†notebooks I was filling with extensive¬†notes,¬†and explored¬†the world and the real people around me, that I became able to actually interact with the world. But at the same time, writing — the act of sitting down and having time with myself — gave me much-needed pause to check¬†in¬†with myself¬†and find¬†out where¬†I was at.

My writing¬†habits have¬†changed a great deal, since¬†I started down this path¬†of active recovery from my TBI-colored¬†history. Now¬†I write within limited timeframes, and I¬†set¬†limits¬†on¬†the topics I cover. There’s¬†no¬†more rambling from one topic to another (if you think I’m bad now, you should have seen me 10years ago!), and I don’t just disappear off the face of the earth for days at a time, in order to write. Also, the writing I do is much more public, so I edit myself more and watch what I say. Before, I would just let it all hang out.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I do¬†think that¬†there is room for letting¬†it¬†all hang¬†out. But for 20 years? And to the¬†point¬†where¬†you’re filling a 3-subject¬†notebook every two weeks with the same¬†things¬†you said last¬†month? That’s a bit excessive. Not to mention counterproductive. All those hours I spent writing the same things over and over and over and over and over… Well, those hours, those days, those months, are not coming back.

And yet, they helped. In some way they did. While my head was spinning with everything that was going on around me, I could step back and take some room for myself to figure out what the heck was up with me.

So long as I came out of that room… Which I didn’t for many years. I was absolutely¬†intent¬†on figuring¬†out¬†what was wrong¬†with me — but the place where¬†that was happening was¬†a place with precious few answers. And¬†although it was¬†a¬†relief for¬†me to spend¬†the¬†time by myself, ultimately, it¬†worked¬†against me,¬†as I¬†concocted a number of explanations — many of¬†them flat-out¬†wrong — for why I was having such a hard¬†time in¬†life.

I¬†still do write, as you can see in this blog. But now my writing is different. It’s focused. It’s deliberate. It’s topical. It’s not a wandering ramble through the uncharted territories of my inner¬†self. It’s much¬†more about¬†how my inner¬†self deals¬†with¬†the world¬†outside me. And it’s good. It makes sense. It¬†moves me forward, rather¬†than holding¬†me back.

Which is the whole point. Moving forward is good.

Tracking my progress, step by step

I’ve had some questions from folks about how to use the log pages I created. Here’s how I do it, with some sample info filled in the way I fill it in. I created four different forms, filled out with sample details, like I do. You’re welcome to use these as templates for your own self-therapy/rehab.

Again, the way you do this — if you do it at all — is totally up to you. But this is how I do it:

  1. I start out the day, recording how much sleep I got, and listing the things I want to get done, as well as when I want to do them — as shown in the attached Morning Log Sample. A lot of times, I’ll list out things I plan to do, the night before — e.g., when I intend to get up and go through my morning routine, etc. I tend to write down even the smallest activities, if they are significant. I list things like the steps of my morning routine and standard-issue activities which are the bread-and-butter of my daily ritual, no matter how “basic” get included, if they are important for me.
  2. As my day progresses, I keep track of what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it. Like in the attached Noontime Log Sample. It might seem like a lot of work, but really, when you’re actively managing your time and you must keep to a schedule, it’s not optional. And when you incorporate it into your daily life, it’s really not that much effort.
  3. Later in the day, I’ll fill in more information, like in the attached Afternoon Log Sample. Keep in mind that this day’s info is a Sunday — a light day for me. If it were a weekday, I would have a lot more detail and a lot more stuff listed to do.
  4. At the end of the day, I’ll fill in my daily journal, like in the attached Evening Log Sample. I use a highlighter to mark the things I’ve gotten right, and the things I messed up. It’s important for me to distinguish between the things that turned out differently because I messed up (shown in red) and the things that turned out differently just because priorities changed or I did things a little differently (shown in orange). I also do my “360 feedback” journaling. I don’t write a whole lot, but I do spend some time examining my day and thinking about what went right and what went wrong. I really try to focus on what I did right, since there are days when those experiences are rare, and I need as much positive reinforcement as I can get. But I also really think about the things that went wrong, keeping in mind what I will do differently next time.

Again, it might seem like a lot of work, but when you incorporate this practice into your daily routine, it becomes a way of life.

“An unexamined life is not worth living,” someone once said.

That sounds depressing, so I prefer to say, “An unexamined life leads to much more difficult living.”

Truly, the price of taking the time to examine my activities and follow up on them is well worth the value I receive in return. It’s when I don’t do my daily tracking and logging and self-assessments, that I get into trouble.

Oh, one last thing — if I have a long series of unfinished tasks and things I messed up, over and over and over again over the course of days and weeks, I pay special attention to that and make a priority of learning about it. Over the extended term, I look at my log pages and I watch for patterns. If I see that I am failing regularly to get certain things done, I explore that and then do research on it. And if I look long and hard enough and am focused enough on it, I can often find info that helps me deal with the issues, and overcome them.

For example, I have a fairly long list of action items I am responsible for following through with at work, but I haven’t been able to start a number of them, for lack of motivation (and difficulty with initiation).¬† So, I did some research on motivation and initiation problems, and I learned that I may have issues with my cingulate gyrus, so I’m paying more attention to my initiatory abilities and doing some exercises to improve how that part of my brain is engaged.

It can be a bit daunting to do this every single day — and the stack of papers I’ve got showing what all I’ve tracked is a little overwhelming. But unless I track myself and take a look at what I’m doing on a regular basis, I don’t have the chance to do a course correction, and can I end up stuck in a bad groove that just drags me down.

So, I track myself. And it helps.

It might just help you, too.

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