It seems so obvious to me. Or maybe it’s just me. I just got done reading Eve LaPlante’s book Seized, about temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). It’s a fascinating book, even for folks who don’t have a vested interest in the specifics of epilepsy (or seizure disorders, for those who are a little faint of heart about the topic). I have relatives who have (seldom discussed) seizure disorders, some of whom have distinctly unique personalities that are very similar to what LaPlante talks about with regard to Geschwind’s Syndrome — a set of personality characteristics that, while controversial, are commonly found among folks with TLE.
Anyway, the book is a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in how the brain interacts with the body and personality. It covers all sorts of ground that probably is taboo in the scientific/medical community, but since LaPlante is a writer, not a scientist dependent upon institutional funds for research and professional survival, she can write what she pleases. She intimates about controversies that surround TLE within the scientific/medical community, and hearing her talk about all these doctors with radically opposing opinions gives me hope, on my own side, because I don’t feel quite so alone or quite so crazy, having all these conflicted impressions and opinions of the doctors I encounter.
My favorite part of the book is the last chapter, where she talks about the intersection of body and brain. She advocates something that makes total sense to me, and which I’ve long felt would make for better medicine and better psychotherapy — training therapists in basic neurology, so that they don’t end up treating conditions which cannot be fixed with talk therapy, but they also don’t miss doing the work of helping their clients live with the burdens of neurological issues.
Amen to that, sister! I’m telling you, it would have made my life a whole lot easier, if someone along the way had insisted that I have a real neurological workup done — top to bottom, front to back, beginning to end — before I commenced with my therapy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I really dig my therapist. They have a great way about them, and I look forward to meeting with them each week, even if the terrain we’re covering is dark and stormy. But the more I find out about TBI and how it affects people’s lives, and the more I think about how my own TBI’s have impacted my own experience and shaded it in certain ways, the more I realize that not addressing the neurological aspects of my condition leaves a huge, gaping hole in the efficacy of my psychotherapeutic treatment.
In Seized, LaPlante talks about how in some cases of psychiatry, patients are sent out for a battery of imaging tests to rule out any organic bases for their issues. Makes sense to me. In fact, I think that I had that in the back of my mind, when I selected this therapist, who actually has a medical background — albeit short-lived, as they got out of the psychiatric nursing business before too terribly long. I believe that a part of me has always known there is something structurally “unique” about my makeup that causes me to experience life in a much more extreme, much more convoluted, much more confusing way than others appear to experience it. I mean, how many times do I have to get left in the dust, metaphorically speaking, while others are having these long, involved conversations, or the movie I’m watching takes off on intricate tangents, before it starts to sink in that I’m not processing information as quickly as other people? Not long, really.
Of course, it hasn’t helped that I’ve learned to mask my slowed processing time by “cueing” off other people and just kind of going along with what they’re doing, agreeing with them ’cause it seems like the thing to do, not ’cause I necessarily want to. My coping strategies have actually worked against me, in many ways, as I’ve gradually come to believe that I was getting everything that was going on around me, when all I was really doing, was doing a damned good imitation of getting what was going on around me. It’s no easy task, to admit this, now. It really isn’t. I mean, how humiliating, to have to cop to the fact that you’re, well, slow… In some ways, anyway.
But what helps even less, is working with someone who is convinced that — absent some verifiable data that I process information slower than most people — what I really need, is to just stop being so hard on myself and boost my self-confidence by feeding myself a constant string of affirmations. I have sat there in sessions and admitted that I was having trouble following what was going on around me, only to be told by the trained professional sitting across from me that, No, that wasn’t true at all. I was just being too hard on myself, too exacting, and everybody has trouble processing information, now and then, so I shouldn’t make an issue of it.
While I appreciate their attempt to make me feel better (and presumably foil some impending suicide attempt or other form of self-injury lurking in the hind-parts of my brain), I have to say that in my case, I’d rather be factual and turn in less rosy numbers, than delude myself any more about my cognitive capacity. It just doesn’t help, when I’m trying to do a realistic assessment of what I can and cannot (safely and prudently) do with my life, if one of the people I rely on for objective information is busy further obfuscating my true situation — all in the name of making me feel better.
Trust me, it doesn’t make me feel better to delude myself. It doesn’t make me feel better, to spin fairy tales and fish yarns about how fabulous I am, when a big chunk of my objective mind is questing for the truth about my capabilities. It doesn’t make me feel better to overstep my bounds and overreach my capabilities — in front of others and in work situations where there’s a lot on the line. It doesn’t make me feel better to realize — when it’s too late to stop myself or fix what I’ve broken — that I’ve once again screwed up, because I bit off more than I could cognitively chew.
What does make me feel better, is knowing precisely where I stand, cognitively speaking, so I can manage to it. If I know that my processing speed is slower, that I have trouble absorbing spoken words, that I get meanings turned around, that I confabulate and confuse not only nouns in sentences but verbs as well, and that I’m completely, wholly, entirely, and blissfully unaware that I’ve mucked up this language-based learning… well, that gives me something to take to the bank.
As in, it tells me that project management is probably NOT the route I should take in my career. It tells me that heavily verbal work, predominantly spoken work, work that depends on my understanding exactly what I’m told at a given time and not losing track of what I heard 10 minutes ago, is NOT the kind of work I will thrive in. It tells me that I should avoid that sort of career change and not get my heart set on moving into management anytime soon. It tells me that — as I’ve known for many, many years, but just now got objective confirmation — I do best in work that is very visual, very immediate, very binary, very technical. I do best working with machines that can “forgive” my muck-ups and allow me to screw up over and over and over again — in ways that people never can/could/will/would. It tells me that my instincts were utterly correct, all those years ago, when I went into web development, and it tells me that although I do love to write, it’s probably best that I stick with coding to make my living and let my writing be more something I do to talk about my life, rather than document mission-critical systems.
As hard as it is to know that my brain is broken in certain ways, it’s invaluable, as well. Because even if there are parts of my wiring that are totally hosed, there are other parts that have overcompensated so enthusiastically, that there is no one — but no one — who is my equal in my areas of expertise. I’ve been called “the best in the business” by more than one co-worker, when it comes to building out code. I’ve been praised and lauded and paid lots and lots of money, because I am literally able to recreate in code the very same image that I’m shown in Photoshop. I am so good at it — and this is objectively speaking, not boasting (a habit I detest) — that I have at times been unable to tell which image on my computer screen was the starting Photoshop comp and which was the completed web page I created. AND I’ve been able to recreate the experience across multiple browsers, which — if you know browsers — is no small feat.
So, in some ways, while I’m incredibly dense, in other ways I have these gifts which add a sublime transcendence to my daily life that makes all the pain and suffering well worth it.
I think that’s what my therapist doesn’t understand. They may be trying to take the sting out of the pain I’m in, but they don’t seem to grasp that the pain is real, and the sting is real, and it’s very important for me to be well aware of the sting, of the pain. If I don’t know that I’m prone to turning words around and turning positives in sentences into negatives, as well as confusing subjects and objects in statements — who did what to whom — then I run the risk of taking up a line of work that relies on me being 100% accurate with my language and interpretation of others’ language. Once upon a time, I did technical writing, and a part of me has thought seriously about returning to it. But the fact of the matter is, I’ve had a bunch of head injuries since my last bona fide tech writing gig, and each one has probably disposed me a little (a lot?) less to that line of work.
So I need to step away from that option.
To avoid creating more pain for myself, on down the line, without knowing it.
Let me tell you, it’s bad enough having to deal with the fallout of a turned-around life… deal with the consequences of poor choices, the residue of numerous traumas, the burden of mis-steps, and injuries… all those injuries… But what’s even worse, is not identifying the real reason that many of them happened — not understanding the limitations I have that contributed to them, and will continue to contribute to my poor choice-making and mis-steps and traumatic outcomes, unless I identify them and come to terms with them.
I can patch up the holes in my leaky boat as much as I like. And I can bail all the water out of my dinghy from dusk till dawn. But if I keep rowing around in rocky shoals in the middle of a moonless night, what can I expect, but to keep knocking holes in the bottom of my boat?
That’s what I’m trying to do — find out where the rocks are, where the shoals are. So I can steer my boat in a different direction. And if I can’t seem to get out of the shoals, maybe I should just jump overboard and swim for shore and take up walking on solid ground.
That is to say, if it turns out — as it seems to be — that my language-based-learning oriented brain functions are not as fully functional as they could/should be, for someone with my level of brightness ) had I mentioned I’m in the 99th percentile? 😉 ), due to all those brain injuries over the years, then it’s probably a pretty safe bet that I should seek out work that is NOT primarily language-based-learning oriented. Yes, it’s sad that someone with a vocabulary in the 99th percentile and an ability to connect two disparate ideas in the 98th percentile, should be so prone to screw up fundamental components of sentences… that someone with my love of language should be ill-suited to making a living off the thing I love so much. But at the same time, there are other things I do extremely well that can provide the level of challenge and fulfillment I need — not to mention a good deal more money than writing — that do not require that I get nouns and verbs and subjects and objects just right.
It doesn’t take a lot of verbal acumen and accuracy, to look at two pictures and tell if they match. It doesn’t require a high level of linguistic accuracy to create properly coded applications. It doesn’t require a sticky short-term memory to tell if a web app functions properly or not. In the binary world I have instinctively gravitated to, I have immediate, simple, straightforward feedback from machines that do not look at me strangely or call me names or make me feel like an idiot, if I get things wrong, the first 2, 3, 10 times.
If I jump from the proverbial dinghy of writing-for-hire (especially technical writing or systems documentation or some other sort of high-accuracy type writing), and wade onto the shore of straight-ahead programming, and I turn my back on the shoals of my language-based learning disabilities, well, then, I’m so much the better for it.
And I have not lost a thing — other than the risk of making an ass of myself, screwing up a project, making myself less employable, and setting back my career and future prospects through my own ignorance and/or unwillingness to squarely face my own limitations.
Plus, if you think about it, I haven’t actually lost anything, by not being able to be gainfully employed as a tech writer or editor or some other sort of language professional. Fact of the matter is, I love to write, and I love to do it on my own terms, in my own way, without having someone to answer to. I have this blog, I have my journals, I have plenty of outlets for my writing, that don’t rely on me being 100% accurate according to someone else’s standards. I can write about my life, because there’s no one outside dictating to me, that I can screw up. I can write about my experiences in great detail, because being there and living it is a very different thing than hearing it from someone else. I can really get down to the nitty gritty of my own body of work, editing my own words and making sure they’re in line with what I want them to say, rather than being tied into some other outside influence that I may or may not be able to satisfy.
In fact, if anything, being forced to look to non-verbal ways of making a living actually widens my world. It sends me into areas I’d never dare to venture, if I could just fall back on my writing to get me by. It forces me to reach beyond myself and find out what else I can do, other than the standard stuff that everyone assumed I’d do — become a writer, or an editor, or some other sort of literary-type person. It impels me to find other ways to express myself and make my way in the world, and it pulls me out of myself to see what else is possible for myself, my brain, my talents, my gifts.
It’s hard to let go of my belief that I’ve got everything all straight in my head. But it’s also very liberating and challenging and, in some ways, invigorating to realize that there is yet more to me, that I must discover. And this at age 43, when a lot of my peers are just starting to settle into the rut they’ll occupy till they depart this mortal coil. It’s hard, yes, to come to grips with my difficulties. But it’s tremendously humanizing, as well. And what more could I ask from life, than a wholeheartedly humanizing experience?
So, contrary to what my therapist might have to say… contrary to what the can-do coaches of the world may think… contrary to what the you-can-do-it-if-you-just-put-your-mind-to-it cheerleaders of the world may cry from the rooftops… I’m much better off admitting my shortcomings and facing my acquired limits, than soldiering on, oblivious to what’s really going on with me. Believe you me, I don’t want to be this way. I didn’t ask to be this way. I never, in a million years, would have wished for or expected this type of language-based deficit to rear its ugly head. But there it is, warts and all. I’m better off seeing it for what it is and getting on with my life.
In the end, the book is not yet closed on what all I can accomplish in this world. And I’ll feel much better about myself, and I’ll stand a better chance of having a healthy, balanced life, if the person I’m cheering on and praising and parading around for all to see actually exists.