I’ve been watching the video of Malcolm Gladwell that I found on The Concussion Blog a few days ago. I had some time to watch the second half (I started the first half a few days back), and it is good — well worth the hour it takes to watch.
As a point of entertainment — and also a telling view into the landscape at U of Penn, which continues its football program, even after the inexplicable suicide of one of their football players who had no history of depression, but did have CTE, as evidenced in a biopsy of his brain after death — at 43:00 watch the academic try to figure out what to do at the end of Gladwell’s talk. At first he walks up to the podium and sort of stands there. Then at 43:12, he looks around and realizes he’d better start clapping with his peers (who are standing up to clap), while also stepping away from Gladwell, and not making eye contact. My vivid imagination tells me he’s clearly worried about the flak he’s going to take with his administration for having invited this upstart (from NYU, no less) who is publicly taking the university to task for their negligence in addressing football-related injuries, including CTE. Who knows, maybe he’s seeing his whole career flash before his eyes…? He looks around a little bit, as though seeking some sort of direction from someone in the audience, then stops clapping and steps up to take control of the podium.
But also a telling look into the sorts of behaviors that perpetuate the prevalence of football in this country. Granted, I grew up loving football and playing it when I could (though I was more interested in track and cross country than football as a team sport). And up until I realized that my significant life/money/relationship issues I was dealing with were related to the concussion I sustained 8 years ago, I loved watching players run into each other and rough each other up on a regular basis.
I just loved it.
Just like I loved playing it when I was a kid, and I played rough when I did. For the record, I also played rough in lacrosse and soccer, when I participated in them, and I had no qualms about making physical contact, even in sports where that wasn’t supposed to happen. I admit it. I was a bruiser. And it turns out, I bruised myself, too.
What strikes me about the Gladwell talk is how he describes Owen Thomas, the Penn player who hung himself after “a sudden and uncharacteristic emotional collapse (at 39:16)” was never diagnosed with a concussion, and was “the kind of player who might have ignored the symptoms to stay on the field” (at 39:40 of the video). Who knows – maybe it cost him his life, to ignore the symptoms he should have paid attention to. Maybe it contributed to his CTE. The evidence isn’t as clear as people demand, but it’s still a pretty compelling correlation. Somebody who obviously sustained a ton of hits (sub-concussive or more serious — to the tune of about 1,000 each season), kept quiet about any pain or discomfort he might have experienced… and he never lived long enough to tell the truth about what more he may have been experiencing. That knowledge went to the grave with him.
But still there’s the CTE.
This statement, quoted from the New York Times, haunts me. Because on so many levels, that same kind of behavior is well evident in me. I don’t like to complain. I don’t like to draw attention to my aches and pains and difficulties. I don’t like to make much of my discomforts, which are myriad and seem to never end. That’s just how my life is. That’s just how things are. It’s all background noise to the rest of my life, and while I do try at times to mitigate the issues and head them off at the pass, after a certain point, I just quit trying to fix them and try to focus on other things which are more productive (and more interesting) to me.
I’m not the kind of person who loves to dwell on their misfortune. I’d rather do something about it. And if I can’t do something to stop it, then I just accept it, do my best to ignore it, and move on.
But what if that’s part of the problem? I know that when I fell in 2004 and smashed my head on those stairs – bam! bam! bam! bam! – the last thing I wanted to do, was draw attention to my injury. I knew, deep down inside, that I was hurt. But I also didn’t know how to describe it, I didn’t know how to communicate it to others, I didn’t know how to put what I was feeling and sensing into words, and I didn’t know if I should even be worried.
I just sat down for a little bit to recover, gathered my wits about me, then picked myself up and got on with my work. Like I’ve done countless other times while playing sports, after car accidents, after multiple falls (one off the back of a truck I was packing — I stepped back and misjudged the height and fell back (I didn’t hit my head, but I was definitely jarred and out of it for a little bit), after clunking my head on something or other. Just sit down for a little bit, wait till I can see/hear/thinking again, and then get up and get moving again — often at a more brisk pace than I’d been working at before.
The mechanics of this fascinate me. No way have I sustained as many impacts as long-term football players, but I have had my share of rough-ups, and each time I was knocked for a loop, I stopped, composed myself, then went on without mentioning the incidents or how I was feeling afterwards to anyone.
To anyone. Not my parents, not my coaches, not my teammates, not my spouse, not my coworkers. Nobody.
Because who would understand? Who would get it? They’d all thing I was wrong in the head and get worried, and then I’d have to navigate their worry and concern, which was even more disorienting and frustrating and confusing than the injury itself. And there was a very good chance they’d take me out of the “game”, be it life or a sports contest, when all I wanted was to be in the midst of it, playing my part.
I figured I was better off just dealing with it myself.
So, I kept it quiet. Until I couldn’t anymore.
Of course, it catches up with you. It always does. You think you can just keep pushing, keep going, keep moving, and nothing bad will happen. You think something bad will happen if you don’t keep up your pace. And to some extent, it’s true. You can get benched. You can get marginalized. You can get sidelined in a thousand different ways, perceived as “unreliable” by those who depend on you for Important Things. And then you’re not worth quite as much to the team as you were before. And you become expendable. And you can get cut. Fired. Disposed of. Because you’re damaged goods who just can’t keep up.
Retard. (sorry for the “r” word, it’s for illustrative purposes — it’s what people may say/think about you)
And today, I find myself in similar straits. I am exhausted from my business trip, and I haven’t gotten my strength back. I haven’t been sleeping, and work has been chaotic and stressful with so much going on. It’s good to be back in my own bed again and back to my regular routine, but I am wiped. Beat. And I still need to keep going. I have to catch up with a lot of things that have been waiting for me. I have to do my chores, take care of business, keep the joint running — and then some, as I make up for lost time.
I don’t feel like I can afford to take time off, to recover, to relax. There is simply too much to do. And so I put my head down, push forward, keep myself going with adrenaline and resolve and steely willpower… and I am rewarded. I am rewarded by those who depend on me, who look at me and think, “Wow – they are unstoppable.” I am respected by those who look up to this sort of self-sacrifice, who admire this sort of lack of self-regard. And I get to keep my coveted position as a team member of a group that relies on me putting everything ahead of myself — and who know nothing of my daily sensory, neurological, and metabolic issues.
Yeah, I keep going. While I can. And then I crash. When I can. I try to get some extra sleep. I try to take time out. I try to catch up with myself as best I know how… but there’s always that element of self-disregard that comes into play, that willingness — eagerness — to ignore the less than attractive aspects of my life, so I can keep up my resolve and productivity.
In the face of this, the best I can do is be honest with myself and recognize when I’m upping my risk of injury. I can pause for a moment and check in about my state of mind and body, and see if I’m tense and uptight… then take a slow, measured breath and just relax and let the tension go.
This is something I’m working on each day, to improve — just being clued in to my state of mind and body, so I don’t get too intensely stressed and start acting out and losing impulse control (like I did yesterday in conversation with my team and a former co-worker, when I said some things about my current employer in the heat of emotion that I never should have said out loud). It’s the kind of awareness I need to strengthen and hone, because the alternative is not that attractive. And the nice thing, too, is that this practice of just checking in, now and then, to see “where I’m at” really does help me relax and feel more together, which is a great feeling to have when I’m in the midst of a sh*tstorm.
So, while I realize that I push the envelope and I tend to overextend myself, each and every day, I also have some tools I can use to mitigate the effects of that constant stress — I have an understanding of how my central nervous system works, that really helps me develop good strategies for coping. I have things I can practice in the course of the day to check in with myself and see if I’m starting to fray. I have an understanding of what constantly high levels of stress can — and will — do to your body and your brain. And I have the internet to read and study and develop my knowledge further, so I can keep myself on track with more strategies and tools based on recent research.
I need to stay in the game. I have to stay in the game. I can’t just sit out and not participate. I have too much riding on me, and I have too much to lose. So, I have to keep myself going… =I know it’s not good to ignore symptoms and stay on the field despite serious injury, but I also can’t let my injury stop me from living my life. So, I do my best to not ignore what’s going on with me — and with the knowledge I have, manage my issues and not let them stop me. It’s an ongoing process, learning to pace myself, and I’m discovering and developing new ways to do that so that can keep moving and keep engaged, not bail from the situation.
Stepping away for a moment to do something different, then coming back fresh.
Pausing a moment to see how I’m breathing, and take a relaxing breath if I need it.
Stopping the momentum for just a moment, so I can catch up with things and not lose myself in that momentum.
Really focusing on developing resilience and hardiness, and accepting challenges as a part of my everyday that are evidence of my strength, not my weakness.
These are all things I can do. These are all things I try to do on a daily basis.
Because I don’t just want to live. I want to live well.
So far, so good.