This is so great. After feeling low and bummed out most of yesterday, I got up early this morning and got together with a friend who’s been going through some tough personal stuff.
Fortunately, it’s working out. They’re finding their feet again, after having been knocked for a loop by an ex who showed up out of nowhere about a year ago. Drama. The good news is, they figured out how to keep their 25 year marriage intact, as well as deal with the ex in a positive way that didn’t end up with stalking madness and scenes.
That’s a good thing.
I hate stalking situations. I’ve been in them before — I know… I’m attractive in an intriguing, unattainable sort of way… but if I tell you I’m not interested and ask you to keep your distance, please do. No joke.
Anyway, while we were talking about the ex situation and pondering the general nature of life, the universe, and everything, the topic of breathing came up. Breathing and meditation and focused breath. Zazen. I had told my friend about the connection between breathing and the autonomic nervous system — how slowing your breathing and focusing on your out-breath can slow your heart rate and get you out of a fight-or-flight loop. They were working with that a bit, marveling at how well it works.
It does! It’s amazing. They’ve been using it when they are in tight spots, and I’ve been using it for general chilling out of my somewhat over-active nervous system. Both of us were pretty blown away by how such a simple thing can make such a huge difference.
I can’t begin to tell you how much focused breathing has changed my daily experience. I have been doing it, on and off, for a couple of years. Nothing serious about my commitment, just doing it now and then. I could tell a difference in how I handled stress and tense situations, but aside from that, I had nothing dramatic to report.
One thing I have noticed, though — and this is in conjunction with exercising daily, too, I think. Since I started doing intentional breathing, I have been able to actually relax. This from someone who could NEVER relax before. I always told myself I didn’t want to, but the simple fact is, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t relax. It was physically painful and disorienting. I needed to be ON every waking minute of every day, just to live my life.
Then I started doing this breathing thing in earnest, almost two months ago. I started doing intentional breathing before I’d get out of bed in the morning. 45 breaths. That was it. More would have taken too much time. Less wouldn’t have felt right. 45 breaths was just right. Since then, I’ve noticed a real change in my overall approach to life. I feel more calm, less jumpy, less hair-trigger. It’s the strangest thing, but I can actually chill. I used to get furious with people who exhorted me to “relax…” as though they were belittling my right to get on with my life. But they were just being clueless about my underlying issues with my fight-and-flight-prone system, and they weren’t offering me anything useful to actually help me to relax… to tell me how… to show me how.
Anyway, now I understand how I can do it. It’s stupidly simple, and almost embarrassingly basic. Just breathe — in a focused, intentional way. And do it every day, just like I do my exercise. Focus on it when I feel myself getting out of synch. Do it whenever I have a few minutes. Do it like my life depends on it. Because, in a way, it does.
My quality of life, that is. I could go on indefinitely, all cranked up and wired and go-go-go. But I don’t feel like doing that anymore.
I can relax now. And it actually feels good. Crazy. There’s a ton of stuff going wrong in my life right now, I’m having a lot of joint pain, and I haven’t been sleeping as much as I’d like.
But I feel great. Deep down inside, on a very fundamental level, I’ve got this peace. This feeling of well-ness.
An interesting thing happens when I focus on my breath. I get distracted. Seriously. I count my breaths, and I get to about 14 or so, then all of a sudden, my brain “changes the channel” like it’s handling a big old remote control in my head, and before I realize it, I’m off thinking about something that has nothing to do with counting my breaths.
Sometimes it has nothing to do with anything in my present life at all.
And it can take a few minutes before I even realize I’ve wandered off.
I’ve been reading some writing about zen and zazen, with a special focus on learning techniques for helping my mind better manage my brain. It’s been tremendously helpful to me over the years. I first started actively practicing silent meditation decades ago, and I started getting more into zen back in the early 1990’s. I credit it with helping me get back on track, after a number of years of confusion and frustration after my car accident in the fall of 1987. Learning about zen and zazen from someone who practiced it regularly and showed me how it was anything but a dull, dreary way to fritter away the hours, and I learned a lot from sitting in silence regularly.
I also credit it with helping me after my car accident in 1996. I had a regular practice by that time, and I was able to get very deep and very quiet. I think the zazen really helped me get back on my feet. Between changing jobs to something that had me interacting more with stoic computer screens, and having an active zazen sitting meditation practice… and practicing intentional, mindful observation (instead of off-the-handle knee-jerk reactions) at work, it truly helped me handle the intense changes that were going on with me.
Alas, my fall in 2004 totally hosed my practice in a really severe way. I had been getting more into the “samadhi zone” (where you experience oneness with everything, and you’re in a place where no time and no space exists, there is only now), and it was good. But then I fell down those stairs, and within a few weeks, I was swearing off the “fru-fru” meditation routine, journaling, or doing anything other than just living in a very reactionary way, taking cues only from outside me, not inside.
It was truly weird. I couldn’t figure out why, all of a sudden, I wasn’t at all interested in sitting in silence. It was the last thing I wanted. Very uncharacteristic for me, actually. And the sudden lack of ability to focus on things intentionally, along with the inability to just get started with what was in front of me, not only hosed my zazen practice, but also screwed the rest of my life in general.
Now I’m back at sitting zazen, after being convinced I had to give it up for good. I had been thinking for the longest time that there’s no way I can get back to my practice – my brain is too jumbled up, and I can’t manage to sit still for longer than 5 minutes. But then I dug up one of my old zen books (the only modern zen book that has much meaning for me, actually), and I started reading it, and I started thinking about my practice in terms of the Samurais of yesteryear, and something clicked.
TBI doesn’t make me less suited for zazen and that sort of focused practice. It makes me more suited for it.
So, now I’m back at it. I am realizing that I probably have to spend a lot of time building myself back to where I was before, but these things take time. I’m also reading more about how the kind of belly breathing that you use when you’re sitting zazen is extremely helpful for balancing and stabilizing the autonomic nervous system. It actually helps get heart rate variability under control and synch up circulation with your respiration. It works on all levels, and in Eastern and Western contexts. There have even been western medicine studies about how slow, controlled exhalation helps to balance out the autonomic nervous system, bringing the sympathetic (fight-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-digest) into good balance. Not too little of each, as that produces what one person calls a “puny” and weakly constitution, but more of each — in balance with one another — so that you can live your life in a good way. With balance.
That’s really what I’m seeking. Balance. Stability. Oneness of samadhi. And an even-keeled autonomic nervous system. I’ve had some pretty severe blow-ups in the past week or two, and when I look back on them, I can see very clearly the physiological sources of them — it wasn’t just emotional or mental — it was physical issues I was having. Too little sleep. Not enough rest. Letting my system get all revved over good things… only to have it get revved in the opposite direction and blow less-good things all out of proportion.
Molehills into mountains — and then I fall (and push everyone else) off the mountain.
So, I need to focus in. Spend the time in zazen and focus on my breath. Take care of my body, my physical vehicle, and stay present in the moment. My system is accustomed to fight-flight dramas and being fueled by the biochemical cascade of stress hormones — so it naturally seeks a place where I’m in such a state of alarm and distress that I’m blocking out all “extraneous” stimuli that feel like they’re too much to handle. And if I can’t find that… I’ll actually create it. Because that’s what’s familiar and comfortable and useful to my system, which tends to get low and irritable without it.
But that unconscious biochemical “strategy” is a recipe for a nervous breakdown. I need an alternative — and I have it. I can create that 100% total-focus state in my mind in a positive, non-self-destructive way by deliberately focusing on my breath and counting… counting… counting… and making sure I don’t lose track around 14… and then 27…. and then 38… It’s really, really hard. It takes all my strength and focus to do it. And the deeper I go into it, the more I can replicate that present-only state which typically comes with a dramatic emergency. This way is cleaner, smoother, and it actually strengthens me instead of wiping me out. Granted, it is not as extreme and it’s not like the quick sugar-high of instant drama alert. But the high is more thorough and it lasts longer. And in the past I found that the more I worked at it, the easier it became.
So, I need to resume that practice, be patient with myself, and just breathe intentionally. Intention especially involves focusing more on exhalation than inhalation. That focus stimulates and puts the emphasis on the parasympathetic nervous system, which I can use, as I’m skewed towards the sympathetic.
Well, it’s all good, it’s all fascinating, and it’s all an excellent opportunity to learn.
Now, what is the most present task at hand? To get on with my day. Focus in. Let’s go. Onward.
I woke up today in a state of total, unremitting despair. All the world, it seemed, was caving in on me, and there was no place for me to turn. Looking around my life from the central point of my bed, all I could see was difficulty and challenge, no help to be had anywhere, and I was convinced that I am utterly alone in the world.
How could I help but weep uncontrollably, which is what I did. I was alone in the bed — my spouse and I have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for over a year, now — and even if I had been in bed with my beloved, it would have just made things worse. I would have set them off. And then we’d be off to the races.
I haven’t talked much (at all?) about the health issues my spouse has, but they are fairly serious. Life-threatening, actually. Life-changing. They’ve pretty much been disabled and unable to work since 1996. I don’t talk much about it, because it’s a never-ending saga of two steps up, one step back, one step up, two steps back. It’s exhausting even to think about it, so I don’t write about it or talk to others about it. It’s actually much easier for me to be a caregiver mostly by myself, without needing (with my confounded communication and organization issues) to explain in detail to everyone around me what I need, what they need, what will help, what will make things better.
One of the big drivers behind me trying to figure out this TBI business, is that my injury in 2004 severely curtailed my ability to be a decent caregiver and provider. If I hadn’t realized just how much my injury was mucking up my composure and my ability to earn a living — if those hadn’t been a problem at all — I might not be on this journey, right now. I probably could have let it all slide, for a time anyway. That’s what I’ve been doing for years, after all. It’s landed me in all sorts of trouble, but somehow, when the trouble only seems to affect you — and you can still make a living and slide by in the rest of life — it’s much easier to gloss over it.
When you’ve got an ill partner to care for, that changes a lot. Throw in a whopping mortgage and a bunch of other financial and logistical responsibilities, and you’ve got a hell of a compelling case for figuring this sh*t out.
Anyway, enough about me. The thing with my spouse’s health issues is that flare-ups with physical issues tend to trigger extended cascades of panic-anxiety, which are even more debilitating than the underlying physical problems, themselves. And when they are down or in a prolonged panic state, they neglect their physical upkeep, which exacerbates their physical condition.
Their “regressions” can be months-long drawn-out dramas of them needing almost constant positive reinforcement and support, as well as consistent reminders and motivational pep-talks about why it’s good to stay away from multiple packages of high-carb junk foods, and high-fat, high-sugar “treats”. It takes a mammoth effort of will and radical compassion to steer them back on track. They know they should do it, but there are a large number of complications that come into play. It’s just not a simple cut-and-dried case of steady-on. They’ve got a whole raft of issues from many, many years of awful, violent, immediate-family situations and bad relationships, so we’ve got that to contend with. Ghosts live in our home, and my spouse at times seems to have more of a relationship with them, than with me.
Now, once my partner is back on track, it’s good, and they can carry on in the world with relative normalcy. But I never know if they’re going to stick with their routine or if they’re going to feel like “taking it easy” and go off on another bad-food, bad-habit binge… and stay there for the next six weeks. Eating wrong and stopping the exercise and getting away from regular sleep-waking cycles might not seem like that big of a deal, but believe me — mind and body are totally connected, and if they neglect one, the other starts to go. Pronto. So, I tend to be on-guard a lot. Like a little Shetland sheepdog trotting around their perimeter and nipping at their heels to keep them away from the cliff, as best I can.
As best I can… which is not always that great. Over the years, we’ve had some better and worse times, the better times being when both of us were working and fully engaged in life. We have not had the easiest time of things over the past 20 years. We’ve been in extremely dire financial straits several times, nearly got evicted a few times, were on the run from angry landlords and creditors a few times, and along the way we’ve had our share of trashed relationships with people who purported to be our friends but then turned around and screwed us royally. We’re both trusting sorts with big open hearts. That’s the risk you run, when you’re open to people and you see the best they have to offer — you sometimes see a side of them that’s not their “default”, so you end up expecting one sort of behavior, but are the recipient of another.
But that’s another post for another day.
Anyway, lately, my spouse has been a little worse for wear — as have I — over money and work circumstances. They’ve got a couple of jobs coming up that will bring in money, which is great… but they need help doing it. In the past, I’ve helped — I was their main support. But I also over-extended myself, and one of the reasons I’ve gotten brain-injured several times over the past 15 years, is that I over-extended and exhausted myself and I didn’t take good care of my own safety.
Now, all that comes up again — if I don’t help my spouse do these jobs, the money may not come through. Or they may have some sort of breakdown without me around to stabilize them. But if I do help them, I may be compromising my health and possibly my safety. They’ve done events when I wasn’t there, and when the going got rough, they fell apart – which is not a good way to attract new business. So, the pressure is on for me to pitch in and help. Meanwhile, I’ve got this new job and I haven’t accrued enough time to take vacation to help with these gigs, and I worry that the exhaustion is going to impact my performance at work. I’m feeling like if I don’t rob Peter and pay Paul, we’re totally screwed. Both of us. Either way doesn’t look like a good thing.
The most frustrating thing is how none of this can be separated out into my-stuff-their-stuff. When you’re living with someone who has some serious physical and mental health issues, and you’ve got your own TBI complications to deal with, the problems one of you has never just stays your own — you both have the problems.
And that’s a problem.
Which is where I ended up this morning, weeping bitterly and desperately in the isolation of my room. Alone. Completely alone. Screwed. Totally screwed. All the world was closing in on me, and I could see no way out.
How much easier it would be, I thought, if I weren’t around. If I died, my spouse would get my life insurance, could pay off the mortgage, have the place to themself, and wouldn’t be bothered by my outbursts and “rough patches”. The thought has occurred to me a number of times over the years that they’d be better off without me, and it came up again this morning.
But after I’d completely abandoned myself to the despair for a while, eventually I got to thinking…
And it occurred to me that I/we have been in much tighter spots, with far less resources, far less knowledge, and with far fewer tools to deal with everything, than we have today. Things may look desperate, I may feel desperate, but is that really the whole story?
Let me think…
I think not.
Looking back, I can see — plain as day — how things just manage to work themselves out over time. Things change. It’s the nature of the world, the nature of life. And even though the shit may hit the fan, shit always turns into something else.
Or dried chips you can use to build a fire.
What’s more, when I look objectively at my life and compare it with the lives of others in dire straits, I know for a fact that I am not alone. I may not be personally acquainted with everyone who is having a rough time (though many of my friends are), but I know that I am not the only one in this world who suffers. And I know that I am not the only one in search of answers.
No, contrary to all appearances, I am not alone.
And I realized, as I got outside the confines of my poor-me head and really thought about my situation, that the main reason I was in so much pain, was that I was dwelling on the pain. I was dwelling only on the pain. Nothing else.
Which was not the whole story.
The whole story was also about the sun coming up outside my bedroom window, and there was a beautiful pink tint to the clouds.
The whole story was also about me having the presence of mind to plan a nap later today, so I don’t get too depleted.
The whole story was also about me being tight and cramped because I wasn’t taking care of myself — and me knowing what to do about that: get up and exercise.
The whole story also includes the simple, simple fact that doing something as basic as breathing can bring me back into my body, get me out of my head, and infuse me with energy and life that gets me out of the bed with ideas about what is possible — not what’s “impossible.”
The whole story is also about how these friends of ours who are having tough times too, are available to help with some of the things that need to get done, and I am not, in fact the only one who can help. And my spouse, when they’re in a steady place and are actually in the midst of their work (instead of fretting up in their head all the time), is indeed able to tend to their own needs and get help with what they need help with.
They have that skill. They are very in touch with their needs and wants and wishes, and they aren’t shy about speaking up about it. So, I can trust that. I have to trust that.
The other part of the story (I now realize) is that I’m just tired. I’ve had a very busy week, and Saturday was a continuation of that. I’m still in the process of adjusting to my new job and the company, and if I dwell too much on the unknowns, it does a number on my head. So, I need to not do that. Just focus on the work in front of me, immerse myself in that, and get on with living my life.
Do what’s in front of me. Dwell on that. Take things a bit at a time, and just be smart about how I budget my energy. Don’t run around like a chicken with my head cut off, because it’s summer and it’s not going to be a beautiful day forever. Pace myself. Use my noggin and all the experience I have. Chill.
And ask for help when I can.
Things really do have a way of turning around… so long as I stay open to them, and I spend as much time — if not more — dwelling on the possibilities, instead of the dread.
None of us knows the whole story about what is and is not possible. None of us knows how much we’re capable of doing, contrary to all indicators. None of us has it all figured out, and we probably never will.
Things are coming together. The weeks are passing, and I’m getting more and more into the swing of my work. I’ve gotten past the initial worry of not keeping up, and I’m going with the confidence that I have in the unseen, seemingly mysterious ways my brain wraps itself around experiences.
Because it does. I can’t explain exactly how or why, but it manages to take care of itself, one way or another. And when I mess up, which I tend to do (being human and all), I sit up, pay attention, learn… and move on. I keep going. I’m a little like a shark, that way — I have to keep moving, or I’ll drown.
Thinking about the unusual ways my life has unfolded, I was marveling this morning at how well I’ve actually done for myself, despite having a very different perspective than most people I know. I guess I’ve had my synapses and axons mixed up often enough, to end up with a brain that’s obviously not like everyone else’s. Or maybe I might have turned out this way, even if I’d never been injured. What-ever. The point is — and I was contemplating this today while I was driving to work… I heal.
I figure this sh*t out and move on.
I always have… even when I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me, and I couldn’t decipher the words on the page in front of me, and people were tormenting me for fun, and when I had a heck of a time staying vertical, and when I would completely freak out at the drop of a hat (literally), and I couldn’t sleep past 3 a.m. for months and months on end.
One way or another, I figured out how to heal, how to move on. I figured out how to abandon the strategies and ways of doing things that used to work so well for me, but suddenly no longer did, for no reason I could decipher.
I think in a way it was lucky that I never fully realized why it was that I was having so much trouble. It forced me to not look outside myself, but to look within. It forced me to buckle down and just figure things out. Not many people were cutting me any breaks, coming to my assistance, etc. And the ones that tried often screwed everything up. And then they’d get pissed off at me(?)
The usual expectations of growing up and performing on par with everyone else were totally on me, even though I was often not up to fulfilling them for a very good reason. I didn’t start out being up to it, but eventually I often figured out how to get myself up for it. The same pressures, the same tasks, the same responsibilities as everyone else around me had, were laid squarely on my shoulders. And I had no excuses. I had no reason for my start-stop life. I had no explanation for why I was the way I was.
So, I had to make do. I had to figure out a way to make up the difference.
There was no point in struggling to hang on to old ways of doing things. There was no “old” way of doing things, because countless things I tried and did often ended up in the crapper before my activities could become habits. I’m not sure my life has ever allowed me the luxury of developing certain habits for long. Something was always happening to screw things up — little did I know why.
But that’s not important. The important thing is, I adapted. I changed. I shifted my focus. Because I had to. No excuses. No explanations allowed. Not even a plausible reason for my track record of underachievement was permitted. It screwed me to the wall countless times, but it was also necessary for my growth and development. No matter how hard it was, no matter how much I struggled, no matter how intensely painful it was, none of that mattered.
All that mattered was the results. That I did what I was supposed to. That I lived up to basic expectations — and paid the piper, if I didn’t.
It’s interesting — I’ve been having ongoing conversations with people here and there about our “culture of accommodation”. And the same people who publicly support accommodating people with disabilities, secretly admit to not wanting to cut everyone a break just because they have a tough time of things. Sometimes, you just gotta suck it up and get on with your life.
Now, I’m sure I’m going to ruffle a few feathers with this little missive, but I have to say, if people had accommodated me throughout the course of my challenging life, I doubt very much that I would have gotten as far as I have. Truly.
Making up the difference. It’s made all the difference.
Something came together for me over the weekend — it’s something that has been in my mind for a number of years, now, but suddenly it has a whole new meaning. It seems to explain pretty well some of the things that have puzzled me over the course of my life.
It’s the idea that the injuries I’ve sustained are a warrior’s injuries. And to address those injuries, I need to do so as a warrior, using a warrior’s tools. My main tool of choice is Zen. Za-zen. Sitting with the intention of overcoming the limitations of my unruly mind.
As a bit of background, I have been fascinated by warrior codes and cultures for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was practically obsessed by King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Something about the stories of the knights really captured my imagination, and I spent many an hour as a child studying heraldry, swords, draft horses, and castles.
To this day, I’m still fascinated by stories of chivalry and the exploits of knights errant. Something in me really relates to them.
In the course of my travels, I have had the good fortune of having encountered a handful of people who have been Zen practitioners. The ones I related to most strongly were solitary practitioners. They sat za-zen in the morning outside — in all seasons of the year, no matter what the weather –before they did anything else, they traveled around and had adventures, they wrangled with family and community problems, and through it all they had a sparkle in their eye (even a wicked gleam) and their most common response to anything unexpected was, “Isn’t that fascinating!”
I sat and listened to their stories of what they encountered along the way in their lives, and I was amazed by the courage they showed in the face of tremendous adversity. But to them, it wasn’t a question of courage, it was a question of simply being with the situation and responding the the way that seemed most appropriate.
I guess it rubbed off on me, because I felt myself drawn to zen — particularly za-zen, the act of sitting motionless for some time, focusing on the breath and just letting the attention disperse. Not following any of the thoughts that come up, but noticing them and then letting them go. I practiced this for some time, myself, years back. I didn’t attend any formal sitting sessions at zendos or meditation centers. I was a solitary and I liked it that way. Plus, I was very nervous about being around other people who knew how to do something I was new at. I was so accustomed to new people taking issue with the way I did things and/or finding fault with me and/or making a public example of me doing things “wrong” that I just couldn’t bring myself to spend any time with people who did this sort of thing.
I thought about it many times. But I could never bring myself to move forward.
Then I fell in 2004, and my practice fell apart. It just disintegrated. I couldn’t be bothered with sitting in silence. I couldn’t be bothered with intentional breathing and paying attention to what was rattling ’round in my brain, for the sake of letting it go. I couldn’t be bothered with any of that silence stuff. I was too agitated, too restless, and I was too injured to realize that something was amiss.
Over the past 5 years or so, however, I’ve been drawn back to zen. I can’t be bothered with a lot of the doctrine that gets tossed about – all those words and pontifications about something that is essentially about just being. Maybe I’m just a contrarian, but many of the people who purport to practice zen annoy the crap out of me. But in place of the people, there are the writings of practitioners and students from years gone by, and I’ve been digging into them a bit — one of the pieces I’ve found that I’m enjoying is The Religion of the Samurai, which is a free download at Project Gutenberg.
I have been reading a few places where scholars have wondered aloud why Zen (which may or may not be part of Buddhism, depending whom you talk to), would have been adopted by the Samurai, a warring class, as their “religion”. Buddhism, from what people say, is a practice that honors all life and warns away from killing other living creatures. How could Zen end up the practice of a warrior class specifically dedicated to being highly effective “killing machines”?
The answer, I think, lies in the effect of Zen on the autonomic nervous system. It’s been my experience that Zen is extremely effective at teaching you how to modulate your fight-flight responses, as well as training you to ignore the pointless chatter of an overactive mind. In my own experience, it seems to specifically condition your mind and your body to do as you choose, not simply race from one stimulus to the next, in a never-ending and ultimately futile attempt to assuage every fear, satisfy every appetite, and overcome every perceived foe. Za-zen practice (in my own experience) trains you to “hold your sh*t”, if you’ll excuse the expression, and keep your act together, even in the face of truly daunting odds.
That, I believe, is why Zen (especially za-zen) became such an important part of Samurai culture. It trained and toned their minds and their systems to be masters of their own unruly passions, and put them in the driver’s seat of their own lives.
That’s a mighty powerful thing. And the clearer I get — each month seems to bring a little more clarity (though I do have set-backs) — the more drawn I am to the practice of Zen… za-zen… sitting with my breath and taming my unruly mind.
Because in a classical sense, I have a warrior’s injuries. I’ve been attacked. I’ve been hurt in accidents when people ran into my car. I’ve fallen from heights while attempting some exploit. And my last injury in 2004 came from me being over-tired, pushing myself to “so my job” and not paying attention to my posture and position when I was in the midst of an important task. I was literally injured in the line of duty.
What’s more, the types of injuries I’ve sustained are the kinds of injuries warriors sustained, back before there were guns and cannons and laser beams. Back in the day, warriors fought hand-to-hand. Think Braveheart. Think Lakota raiding parties. Think Maginificent Seven. Once upon a time, when you went into battle, you had a sword and/or a spear and/or a shield. And you did what you could with what you had. Sure, there were often archers, but on the ground, you went up against a live person. And you got hit on the head a lot.
Think about it — when you’re going for the kill in a spot that’s the least protected, what’s often the easiest target? The head. The body has arms and legs and usually some sort of clothing or armor to protect it. But the head can be difficult to protect — you almost have to have it unprotected, so you can see and hear and smell and taste your way through the heat of battle. A lot of people take swings at your head, and maybe you duck and miss some, but you can also get clunked on the head by a glancing blow or a direct hit, and you have to keep going. You still have to keep standing, keep fighting, keep swinging.
When I think about it, that’s one of the things that TBI-induced stubbornness is good for — staying in the fight. The very thing that works against athletes when they’re concussed — that determination to get back in and keep going — is precisely the kind of quality a fighter needs in times of war. You can’t just sideline yourself, when you’re injured. Not if you’re in the thick of battle and you have no escape route at all. What are you supposed to do? Lie down and play dead? Meanwhile, your comrades in arms are battling on around you, possibly dying themselves, because you’re lying there taking a breather.
From where I’m sitting, TBI is a warrior’s injury. It’s not just a recent “signature wound” from the recent Iraq/Afghan wars. It’s been that way since the beginning of time. We probably lost sight of that with the advent of firearms and cannons and long-distance warfare, with soldiers sitting at consoles pressing buttons instead of grabbing a jagged knife and wading into the fray. But think back and imagine, if you will, how wars used to be fought. Take a trip to the library, if you’re unclear on the images. You’ll see what I mean.
Now, I’m sure there are folks who will say, “Having a car accident isn’t the same thing.” Or, “Getting clunked on the head by a piece of falling tile isn’t the same as getting knocked out in an IED blast in Kandahar Province.”
True enough. But keep in mind, the after-effects can be quite similar — and maddeningly so, because that car accident or the thing with the falling tile hardly seems significant enough to produce the kinds of complications that come afterwards — lost jobs, lost relationships, lost money, lost homes, lost self.
That being said, I believe that to effectively treat TBI and restore the aspects of our lives which have been disrupted/trashed, we need to treat the injury as a wound of our warrior lives. Maybe we were Type A personalities who were always on to go, who never took no for an answer, and managed to overcome any obstacle in our path… before the accident/attack. Maybe we were innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the car full of thugs pulled up and attacked us. Maybe we were just a little too tired and a little too distracted while we did something that demanded more than we had to offer. Whatever the disparate source(s) of our injury, the aftermath of each person (though every brain is different) shares so much in common with others, in terms of the quality of disruption and difficulty, it would be silly to overlook ways that other peoples and other cultures (especially in the past) developed to not only rehabilitate their injured, but also get them back in the game and let them rise in the world to positions of considerable wealth and power.
Like the Samurai.
Now, I’m not saying that wealth and power should be our exclusive goals. But the same approach that made excellence of the political sort possible in Japan, those many years ago, can be used to make excellence of any kind we choose possible in this time, in our present lives. Once upon a time, warriors got head-injured regularly. And some of them found a way to recover successfully and continue on in illustrious careers. They were the lords and barons and kings of the Western world. They were the Samurai of Japan. They were the warlords of countless lands in between. And many, if not all of them, had probably sustained multiple traumatic brain injuries over the course of their lives.
If that holds true (though I may certainly be mistaken in some respects, human as I am), and if we can find the path they followed to restore themselves to functionality, and there are vestiges of their codes and their disciplines still in place today, why can’t we use those same principles to effect the same sort of positive change in our lives?
Recovery from TBI is possible. People have been doing it for eons. Since the beginning of time. For me, they key is to know my warrior nature, and to respect it as such — and treat my wounds as I would treat any injury from battle: with discipline and focus and the determination to get back out there into the fray again… next time with more insight, more experience, and yes, more success.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought, lately, to my suboptimal tendency to procrastinate. I think “procrastinate” is actually a euphemism — I don’t just put things off. I simply don’t do them. I know there are things I need to get done. I know I need to do them. I know I need to do them sooner, rather than later.
I just don’t.
Until much later. When it’s almost too late. Then, on the verge of calamity, I throw myself into a full-on drive to make it happen. And I do. It’s very exciting, and when I’m done, it’s very gratifying. But it’s exhausting. And it’s no way to live.
Case in point:
I have a number of things I need to do on a weekly/monthly basis:
Bag up the trash and take it to the transfer station.
Mow the lawn.
Order meds for my pet when they are running low, so they don’t get violently ill.
Pay certain bills, so the utilities stay on and I can still talk on my cell phone.
My life is no different from others’ in these respects. Some things just need to be done, and nobody else is going to do it for me. I know I need to do these things. I understand the importance of doing them. Yet, week after week and month after month, I consistently don’t do them. It makes no logical sense. It’s counter-productive and problematic, and I each week/month I promise myself I’m going to do things differently the next time.
But I don’t. Once again I let things slide. The phone gets turned off. The pet needs to go on half-doses till the next order comes in. The trash sits in the garage, piled up in the garbage cans waiting for me to haul it away. And the lawn gets wild and high all over again.
Then, when all seems just about lost, I kick into high gear, I set about doing the things I’m supposed to, and I do them extremely well, extremely efficiently, and with an ease that belies my days/weeks of procrastination and makes me look like a jerk/loser/slacker for not having just done it all up front, when things were still relatively normal.
I’ve spent a ton of time feeling bad about this tendency to allow myself to drift into the danger zone, trying to “whip myself into shape” and failing all over again. Not understanding why, not fathoming why I slack so terribly, when I know full well that I need to do this stuff, and I am perfectly capable of doing it. Does this, in fact, make me a total loser? Some might say yes, and I often agree.
But I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, lately, stepping back from the self-recrimination and agitation and anger (from myself and my spouse). And I think I’ve figured out why it is that A) I don’t do things right away, and B) why I can do all those things so very well, when I finally kick into gear.
Essentially, for me, it seems to boil down to an issue of Tonic Arousal —
Tonic arousal refers to relatively slow changes of base-level arousal. For example, the daily cycle of sleep and wakefulness represent changes of tonic arousal. Stimulants (such as caffeine) or depressants (such as alcohol) also produce notable changes in tonic arousal — changes that may last several hours. The most important factor affecting tonic arousal is the diurnal cycle of wakefulness and sleep.
Tonic arousal is your general level of wakefulness. It affects attention, learning, and level of irritability. And it’s affected by sleep disruptions. Also, it’s very commonly affected by TBI. It’s related to brain stem formation and its connection to the frontal lobes, and given that the brain stem is so frequently damaged in TBI, tonic arousal issues often go hand-in-hand with head injury.
I (and many other people) tend to use phasic arousal to offset the dull effect of chronically low tonic arousal. We seek out excitement to perk ourselves up. We watch shows and videos that “bring us to life” with phasic arousal and get us out of our doldrums. We drink coffee and other concentrated caffeine drinks, we eat lots of “cheap” carbs and sweets, that get us going.
In addition to this, alarm coming from problems that emerge in my life can also have the same effect as a strong cup of coffee or an apple turnover. The sudden rush of stress hormones (as one of my friends once said) “is fun!” It feels good to be immediately alert and engaged. It feels good to be sharp. It also feels wonderful to have all that extraneous crap blocked out, and to be totally focused on only the main THREAT at hand. Being suddenly on alert over something I completely forgot to do, 10 minutes before the deadlines, brings me back “online” in a way that no caffeine or carbohydrate can.
That gets me started. It gets me to begin what I need to begin. It gets me to begin what I needed to have begun two weeks ago, but “never got around to it.” It overrides my procrastination, my anxiety, my fears, my phobias, and sets me in motion. When it works well, it puts me on the fast-track to success. Of course, it can also send me hurtling head-first into a great cosmic face-plant in the snowy slopes of life. But at least it gets me jump-started.
After giving this a lot of thought, and examining my behavior over the course of my lifetime (especially over the past years), I’ve come to the conclusion that I use the alarm states created by procrastination to perk myself up and get going on things that need to be done. Essentially, I use procrastination and the stress hormone biochemical cascade from the relative dangers of me not doing important tasks in a timely manner, to wake myself up and raise my overall arousal level.
It’s not very healthy, overall, but it works. And it works to my detriment, as often as not.
Below is a picture of what I tend to do. The red line represents the level I’d like to be at, to really feel like “myself” and be at my peak best (which I really need to feel like a real human being). The brown line at the bottom represents my tonic arousal, or my general level of wakefulness and arousal. The blue line in the middle represents my phasic arousal — the intermittent, transient level of wakefulness and arousal that I experience in response to specific events/stimuli.
Here’s how this works:
I start out with a task (shown in the boring gray stars). My overall tonic arousal (shown at the bottom in brown) is low, blah, and I’m just not feeling like doing much of anything. I’m not feeling very good about myself… not feeling like I’m “me”.
But stuff needs to get done. And all of a sudden, there’s an alarm(!) (shown in the yellow bursts) when I realize that if I don’t get going, I’m screwed. Body goes on alert. Stress hormones start to pump. And I kick into gear. My phasic arousal jumps way up, to about where I’d like to be all the time. All of a sudden, extraneous distractions like hunger and thirst and irritations from the neighbor’s barking dog are blocked out, and I’m fully focused on the task at hand. I’m ON, and I feel like myself, I feel capable, I feel competent. I feel human.
And I get the job done. Sometimes in record time.
However, after the alarm has passed, my phasic arousal starts to drop again, and I end up down where my basic tonic arousal is. Bummer. Eventually, another task shows up, which I don’t respond to very well, because my tonic and phasic arousal levels are way down. I might also be pretty tired from the burst of energy — or, worse, my sleeping schedule might be totally hosed by my burst, and my overall arousal is lower than it could be.
Ack! It’s terrible. I feel awful. I feel blah. I don’t feel like myself. I feel boring and drab and useless. Until another crisis comes along. Then I feel great – energized, and useful and needed.
But the crisis takes it out of me, and I end up down again, before very long. Plus, the people around me who depend on me to be steady and consistent and reliable are starting to get a little peeved with me. If this happens enough, even if I eventually get my work/tasks/jobs done, the drama and delays and uncertainty that others feel at my erratic behavior takes a toll on my working (and living) relationships.
And so it goes… The rollercoaster of drama-fed effectiveness. It’s not the most efficient way of doing things, though it’s effective according to some criteria. People get tired of me not being as steady as I once was. And I find myself having to make up for past infractions on a regular basis – which is in itself a source of stress and focusing biochemical “pump”. Again, it helps focus me, but not forever. It wears me — and others — out. Worse-case, I set myself up for an anxiety attack or a full-blown panic attack. My autonomic nervous system can only take so much.
Like I said, it’s not rare for people to do this. Tons of people do it, according to my neuropsych. In fact, if you look around, you can probably find thousands of examples on large scales and small, of how people use this strategy — TBI or no. (I believe that PTSD sufferers and trauma survivors may be prone to this “strategy” since prolonged effects of trauma tend to dampen down the nervous system.)
But it’s no way to live. I need to do better. I want to do better.
Now that I’ve figured this out, I need to figure out a way to work around this. It’s no good for me to be on this perpetual roller coaster of drama/doldrums. It’s way too exhausting, and I don’t want to do it anymore. I need to develop tools to spot the danger zone ahead of time, before it starts to take too much out of me. I need to train myself to develop habits that keep me healthy and off that roller-coaster.
My primary purpose, these days, is twofold:
Identify times and places where I am dull and low and not getting started on things, and I’m in danger of falling back on the “cheap” high of crisis to get me through life, and
Find ways to avoid/address those scenarios in a proactive, productive way.
I need to watch out for the following things:
Being over-tired. That screws with your tonic arousal, especially. And when I am over-tired, I am even more prone to push myself and over-do my activity levels, just to feel human.
Dodging tasks without thinking about them, because I’m not taking the time to consider what I’m doing and why. Avoiding tasks for no apparent reason is a great way to get myself into trouble and get totally backed up — and stressed.
Diving head-first into things without stopping to think about them first. This is a great way to mess things up, and introduce even more phasic-arousal-producing “energy” that sends me up to a high, yes, but ultimately throws me even more out of whack.
And once I’ve identified these problem areas, I can do the following:
Get some sleep. Get to bed earlier than usual. And keep myself from staying up so late. If I’m overtired in the middle of the day on the weekends, I can stop doing what I’m doing and take a break. Or I can step away from what I’m doing, do some conscious relaxing for 15 minutes or so.
Stop and think about what I’m not doing — and why. I find that when I take a long look at what I’m avoiding, I can get past the unconscious avoidance tendency. A lot of times, I run away from doing things just because I don’t feel like I have the energy to do them.
Get some energy. For real. Going for a brisk walk, doing some jumping jacks, or even some stretching, often does wonders for me. A small cup of coffee can help, too, but I have to be careful I don’t drink it too late in the day (never after 3 p.m.), or it will screw up my sleep schedule.
Steer clear of cheap and easy energy. Stay away from the vending machine at work. Stay away from the snacks and treats and cheap carbs that spike my energy, but then let me down terribly afterwards.
Stop and think about what I’m about to do. Pause for a moment to make sure it makes sense. And be open to the idea of not doing it at all. Not everything I feel compelled to do — like go to the library and check out more books before I’ve finished reading the ones I already have — makes sense. I have to really check myself at times, and when I do, I rarely regret it.
It’s all a process of course. It’s a never-ending exploration of what works and what doesn’t. I keep learning, all the time, about my limits and capabilities, which can be as discouraging as it is encouraging. The important thing is that I don’t quit, that I don’t give up on myself, and that I keep refining my approach.
It’s also important that I understand there is a physiological/neurological basis for these kinds of behaviors, and what I’m doing is actually an ingenious short-term solution for potentially debilitating levels of low tonic arousal. It’s not a character defect or a sign that there is something desperately wrong with me. Ultimately, it’s me trying to take care of myself and feel like a real person again. But I have to understand the limitations of the overall approach, and use it judiciously so I don’t overtax my system and do more harm than good.
Obviously, nobody’s perfect. But if I keep paying attention to myself, I can teach myself to be more effective at being the person I am meant to be.
I’m making good progress reading Mindsight by Daniel Siegel. I’ve been reading in the mornings while I ride the exercise bike, as well as sometimes in the evening. It feels good to be reading again — I’ve realized that the main thing that makes it so hard to read, is being constantly distracted by stray thoughts.
With all due respect to my association-driven brain and the tons of (sometimes useless) knowledge I’ve crammed into all those nooks and crannies — and there are a lot of them, if you ever examine a brain closely — the main challenge with my reading is having mind seize on an idea and think, “Hey – that reminds me of _______!” and runs off in a different direction, making connections with other ideas and information I have. And I get left in the dust, the book unread and what parts I’ve read not being fully grasped.
But the Mindsight reading is going well. And I’ve gotten some really great ideas from it. The main gist of the book, that I can tell, is that intently focusing the attention on something for extended periods of time helps to build connective fibers in the prefrontal cortex — the place where planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior, originate and are managed. Mindful awareness can strengthen the physical structures that make these things possible, and add more skill to one’s practice of them. The activities of the prefrontal cortex are where I have huge issues:
It is responsible for the executive functions, which include mediating conflicting thoughts (uh-oh), making choices between right and wrong or good and bad (it’s not that I WANT to choose wrong, I just tend to have trouble distinguishing my choices), predicting future events (what will happen if I press this button?), and governing social control — such as suppressing emotional or sexual urges (sexual urges I can manage — it’s the emotional ones that get me). The prefrontal cortex is the brain center most strongly implicated in qualities like sentience, human general intelligence, and personality. (That could be why some people think I’m an idiot and treat me like one, or treat me like I’m not anyone at all. Or maybe they’re just assholes? That’s entirely possible.)
Anyway, I can really use some help with my prefrontal cortex, and I’m hoping Mindsight will do me some good.
In the book, Siegel talks about how practicing Mindsight helped that kid with the problems with outbursts — dysregulation, I believe folks call it. It helped him get a grip, handle himself better, and have an overall better view of himself in the process.
Another important piece of this kid’s treatment was exercise. He combined exercise with mindfulness work, and he used going for a run as a way to take the edge off his temper and issues. Sounds like a plan.
Hearing about this kid’s problems made me think there was more to his situation than just being a teenager. I latched onto the idea that this kid may have sustained some sort of head trauma when he was around 13. I know it’s all conjecture, but if there was some brain injury involved, then the fact that he could overcome his crying jags and his raging outbursts with this mindful awareness practice and exercise (and nutrition – let’s not forget that), then it really give me hope for myself. What’s more, it is also consistent with my own experience in the past few weeks.
I’ve been practicing Mindsight, myself, in hopes of strengthening the parts of myself that seem to be particularly challenged. In addition to doing my morning workouts, I have started doing breathing mindfulness practices each day. While I’m still in bed, I breathe deeply 45 times (the number of years I’ve been alive), really concentrating on the breath. It’s interesting how I tend to wander and “get lost” in the course of this practice. I also tend to get tense and hyperventilate, if I’m not careful. But I’m working on it, and it’s getting easier over time. And after doing this for the past 2 weeks, I’m starting to get the hang of it.
Perhaps most significant, it’s helping me get out of bed in the morning, since I do it before I get up. I had been having a terrible time just getting out of bed — I’d lie there for30… 45… 60 minutes (sometimes longer), before I actually got up. Doing this breathing work helps me wake up more quickly, and for some reason, I actually want to get up. Magic.
Anyway, over the course of the past week or so, I have been noticing how I don’t get as upset over “triggers” like I used to. It’s really wild. Things that used to just set me off into a freakish rage, sometimes now just happen. I notice them, but I don’t react to them immediately. They just occur. I don’t jump into judging them, or making them into bad things, or deciding that they demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m a total friggin’ loser. They just happen. And I have an extra few minutes to decide what I’m going to do in response.
Case in point:
This morning I woke up at 4:00 a.m. I had gotten to bed at 11:30 p.m. last night. Now, 4-1/2 hours is not my idea of a good night’s sleep, especially when I’m at a real deficit lately, and I was pretty upset about being awake. I lay in bed for half an hour, trying to get myself, to relax, getting more and more agitated and upset. And I started to worry about money. I start a new job on Monday that’s going to pay me less each paycheck (though the benefits and total value of the position is far greater than the job I just left), so I’m concerned about my money situation.
My head got hold of that, and it started to churn. I started to make up all these mental spreadsheets and calculations of how much money I was going to have each month, and how to stretch what I had. I tried to put a better light on things, telling myself this was something I needed to figure out, but I was getting really agitated and tweaked over it.
Then, all of a sudden, I realized what was happening — I was awake before I wanted to be, I was anxious about having left my last job, and I was not on the same schedule today that I normally am on Fridays. I was off-kilter, and that was making me anxious, and my energy was trying to find an outlet.
The moment I realized that, my agitation started to subside, and I felt myself looking at my behavior like I was at a distance from it. I could see that it was just my body getting wired and getting my brain in on the action. And I could see that I had choices about what I did with the energy.
I decided to make a different choice — to direct that wave of energy towards doing some deep breathing and progressive relaxation. I also realized that the windows were open in my bedroom, and the birds singing outside were really loud. So, I closed the windows, put in my earplugs, lay back down, and did my progressive relaxation, starting at my toes and working my way up to the top of my head. I hadn’t even gotten past mid-thigh when I was back to sleep.
And I slept through — up to 5 minutes before I was supposed to run out to my chiro appointment. I didn’t get a chance to work out and stretch and get myself woken up before I left for the chiro, but I was also able to navigate that, instead of getting all tweaked about it and flipping out with myself. I just got up, washed off, threw on some clothes, and went to my appointment. Then I came home did my workout, read my book, had my breakfast, and got on with the morning.
Simple enough, right? It sounds like it, but up until a few months ago, it was a real challenge for me. Up until a few weeks ago, even. This mindful awareness practice, this “mindsight” stuff actually seems to be working for me — and this after only a few weeks of doing it every day. I do make a point of doing it every day, just like my workouts/warmups. It’s become part of my daily routine, and it helps me get on with my life, not postpone it. That’s a good thing. It’s a really good thing.
So, even if that kid in the Mindsight book was just dealing with being a teenager (rather than having sustained a mild TBI), for me the practice is working. I feel a lot more chilled out, a lot more present, and a lot less driven by events that happen to me. I know it probably sounds implausible, for it to have an effect so soon, but I hear others have had the same experience.
The great thing is, I don’t have to go to an ashram or a retreat center or sign up for some special class to do this. I can read a book, watch/study videos of Dan Siegel talking about this on YouTube, and practice it myself. I know about the vagus nerve and how it helps with relaxation. I know about the parasympathetic nervous system and how it helps tone my overall nervous system, so I’m not so tweaked and fried and hair-trigger-happy over every little thing. I know some background neurology and psychology stuff, so that helps me get my head around this.
But the proof is really in the pudding. I can “know” all I like about this mindful awareness practice, but does it really work?
So far, for me, it does. I recommend others try it, too.
Oh, man – was that ever a close call… I have been juggling money, the past few weeks, making sure that I’ve got enough in my main account to cover the online billpay expenses. Online billpay is awesome, but when you have more than one account and more than a handful of people you have to pay money to, it can get a little nerve-wracking. Especially when the pay dates are staggered.
Hmm… Staggering. Oh, sorry for the wordplay (it’s my last day at my old job today and I’m a little punchy).
Anyway, the other day, I had to move cash from one bank account to the other. One of the problems is that my ATM card for the cash-full account no longer honors the PIN number the bank mailed to me. An ATM “ate” my card a few weeks back, telling me my PIN was wrong, and I had to jump through hoops to get it back. I haven’t gotten around to fixing that. Plus, the amount I needed to take out of the cash-full account to put into the cash-challenged account was more than you can withdraw at an ATM.
I had to go to a branch and get an envelope full of cash. First thing, before I did anything else. I had to do cash, so the deposit would be instantaneous, and we wouldn’t have the problem of those pesky overdraft fees (which really add up!).
My plan was to get the money at the start of the day, then go to the bank in the afternoon, since a branch for the bank for the cash-challenged account is just across the street from where I work. I figured it would be a simple thing — right?
Well… Phase I — getting the money out — got delayed because I forgot that I needed to do a bank run, and I left later for work. Then I remembered on my way in, and I took the detour to the bank. I started out a bit behind. Then my day got busy, I had a Very Big meeting late in the day (6:00), and I got so caught up in preparing for that meeting, I completely forgot about the cash deposit until 6:25 p.m. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but all the bank branches in my neck o’ the woods close at 5:00. It appeared that I was totally screwed.
Hmmm. What to do? I had this intense rush of adrenaline (and probably glucose, since the liver pumps it out big-time when you’re in “ON” mode), and I started to panic. Then I thought – WAIT. What Else Can I Do Besides Panic?
I went online quick, pulled up my bank’s website and scanned through it for signs of any branches that were open later than 5. I couldn’t see any, and there were too many choices to sort through. So, I picked up the phone and called them. The service rep guy on the other line told me that there were some supermarket branches open till 7:00. GREAT. Rather than have him look them up, I went back online — thank you Google Maps — and found a supermarket branch that was in a sorta-kinda familiar location.
The directions looked a little tricky, but I jotted notes down, did my damnedest to commit the visual map to memory, and ran for my car — which was parked about half a mile away at the “cheap parking lot”. Boy, am I ever glad I work out every morning and I work on my stamina. I couldn’t run the whole way, but I did manage to do some pretty intense intervals. By the time I got to my car, I was dripping with sweat, and my whole body was pulsing with all the magical stress hormones that cut pain, focus your attention, block out hunger or any other extraneous sensations, and basically get you where you’re going.
I had 20 minutes to find a place that Google maps said was 17 minutes away — and get there in time to deposit my money to cover my payments.
Challenge. To say the least.
Traffic, predictably, was not cooperating, and I was losing time. I was literally teetering between desperate determination and abject despair. I started making up a Plan B contingency plan… what to tell my spouse about having forgotten such a simple yet essential task… how to cover the overdraft fees… all that. But I stopped the thinking before it got hold of me. I couldn’t spare the rumination. I had to just keep going.
As I got closer, I realized that I’d either overshot the first turn I’d written down, or there were streets on the map I hadn’t seen. Nothing looked like what I’d written down. In another time and another place — years before — I would have despaired, given up, and run off to spend some of the cash on something that would make me feel better. Years ago, I would have just gone off and gotten drunk or stoned. But it’s been decades since I’ve touched any controlled substance or a drop of alcohol, so that wasn’t an option. The only option was success.
So, I pulled over and asked a lady walking by if she should tell me where this grocery store was. At first, she ignored me, but I think I was sufficiently desperate that she took pity on me. She stood in the middle of the street and gave me directions, which sounded a lot more confusing than the map, but I went with it. I was losing time rapidly. It was 6:55, and I was still blocks away from this store.
I just kept going.
God only knows how I found the place — it was over a bridge and behind a wall, and no rational explanation can account for how I found it. But I did. I pulled up in front of the store at 6:59, grabbed my wallet, and ran inside.
Alas — the bank area was dark, and the tellers were all counting their money for the day.
“No — you’re closed?!” I panted.
“We’re closed,” said a little man who looked like he was pissed he had to work till 7.
“Can’t someone just help me?” I said, trying not to sound too desperate, and focusing all my energy on staying calm and not breaking down like I do sometimes.
“Sorry,” he shrugged.
I started to turn away, then I turned back to give it one last try. I had come so far so quickly, I couldn’t just give up and walk away. “Can someone just give me 30 seconds?” I asked. “I have cash, and I need to put money in my account to cover my online payments. It’ll just take a second…”
“I can help you,” said a woman who was tapping keys on a calculator. With one hand, she slapped a deposit slip on the counter. I scribbled in my numbers, handed her the cash, and in 3o seconds — literally — it was done.
I’d made it.
Hardly believing my luck, I headed for my car in a daze. Then I realized I was famished and thirsty (when the fight-or-flight impulse subsides and your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, that’s very common), so I decided to get a snack. I walked through the store in a sweaty daze, looking for something I could eat that wouldn’t fry my system. I settled on raspberry lemonade and an energy bar. I also picked up some stuff for my breakfast. As I was headed for the check-out, I looked up and saw the bank tellers still working, and I had the idea of going over and giving that unhelpful little bastard a piece of my mind. But after thinking about what might occur as a result — nothing good, that I could imagine — I decided to just let it go. Steer clear of the bank, and let everyone get on with their evening.
The bottom line was, I had made it, I’d gotten help, and I wasn’t going to have to explain my screw-up to my angry spouse AND pay a bunch of overdraft fees in the morning. Life was good. I could let it go at that.
This little adventure highlights something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, lately – the difference between anxiety and fear, including the biochemical differences between the two.
Fear is an immediate alarm reaction to present threat, characterized by feelings to escape and accompanied by specific physiological changes.
Anxiety is a future-oriented emotion characterized by anticipation of potential threats.
Fear mobilizes a person to take action – the commonly known “fight or flight” response.
Anxiety leads to scanning of the environment and body, resulting in increased sensory inputs
The “place” where I was the other day was definitely one of fear, rather than anxiety. It was immediate, alarming, and I was reacting to a present threat. I wasn’t all caught up in future-oriented imaginings — the threat was right in front of me. I had to get to the bank. NOW.
It mobilized me to take action — fighting the circumstances of limited time and fleeing from work to the bank as fast as humanly possible. I also kept “fighting” when I got to the bank — not fighting with anyone, but fighting the circumstances I was in. I didn’t give up, till the deed was done, and I wasn’t going to quit until I had some resolution. Even if it was a bad one, I wasn’t going to just walk away from completion.
In this case, fear really saved my ass. That biochemical fight-or-flight drive pushed me, kept me focused, blocked out all sorts of extraneous issues, and it helped me achieve the seemingly impossible — finding a bank that was open till 7 in an unfamiliar neighborhood, getting there, and actually depositing my cash where it needed to go. I did get critical help along the way, and for that I am grateful. Another thing the fear helped me with, was overcoming my reluctance to ask strangers for directions or help. I’m notorious for not asking directions. I want to do it all myself. But this time, I made an exception, and am I ever glad I did.
What this experience has taught me is that my body is wired to see me through. I’m designed to get the biochemical boost(s) I need, when I need them. I don’t need to be hesitant about engaging challenging situations. I can step up to them and see them through, rather than hanging back and thinking through every possible scenario, till I’ve talked myself into believing a situation is hopelessly complex and I’ll never be able to handle it.
It’s important to not get stuck up in my head, as I tend to do. My experience the other day showed me how doing that — being up in my head afternoon about the evening meeting — kept me from realizing I needed to go to the bank. I wasn’t paying full attention to my whole life. Yes, it’s important to have single-minded focus on important tasks, but I also needed to just open up my daily minder and pay intermittent attention to other things going on with me. I also needed to wake myself up — I had been lulled into this sort of cognitive doldrums by my incessant focus on this one event of the day. I needed more variety. I needed to wake myself up.
One thing’s for sure — I did wake up when I had to get the banking done. All my critical systems fired up again. I was back online. And how. The important thing for me to realize is that no matter how dull I may have been earlier in the day, I did indeed have the capacity to come back online. My pilot light had gone out — but the gas was still there. I just needed to light a spark to get myself back in the game.
And I did get back in the game. And then some. Another really important piece of this was that it also showed me that I have what it takes to overcome those kinds of difficulties. I may be somewhat “off” because I’m caught up in thinking about stuff. My pilot light may go out. But I have what it takes to light a spark again, and get myself fired up and kicked into gear. I may not trust my brain all the time, but I can trust my body. My autonomic nervous system is literally built for situations like this, and it’s always available to me, no matter what. So long as I take care of it, it will take care of me. With proper rest and nutrition and giving my sympathetic nervous system a break with my deep breathing (which I now do before I get up each morning) and relaxation (which I do before I go to sleep each night), my built-in regulatory system can rise to the challenges of my everyday life, and help me get where I’m going.
It may not always be pretty, and it may not always be easy, but I can do this thing called living my life. If I take care of my body, it will take care of me.
I’m taking a break today from my usual routine. I had a mixed day, yesterday, which started out excellent after my good evening on Friday. Saturday morning, I went to the chiro, ran some errands, and then headed home for a nap. All good.
It got hot, though, and that puts my spouse on edge – big time. We both have a bunch of things we’ve got going on, and not nearly enough time to take care of it all. Or so it seems. After I woke up from my nap, we had a bit of fireworks, as we were both feeling pressured and inadequate and totally behind the 8-ball.
Basically, what went down was that my spouse had some things they needed to get done. They had not planned well with their time (even though they knew that they needed to take care of these things — and they’ve known they had a deadline for weeks, now, but they waited till the last minute to do anything), and they suddenly wanted me to go out and run all sorts of errands for them, to pick up the slack.
My spouse has a lot of anxiety issues, and it’s quite soothing for them, when they get to boss me around. It’s kind of funny, actually. I can tell when they’re feeling antsy and insecure, because they give me a long list of things to do, and they complain constantly. But when they come up with all these things I “have” to do and they send me out to do them, they feel so much better. They also like getting me out of the house so they have the place to themself.
Yesterday, they were really nervous, so they came up with this long list of items they wanted me to take care of. I, however, had my whole afternoon planned out, to take care of some work things I need to finish up. I didn’t have time to go on an extended shopping trip. Besides, I’d already bought a bunch of things, earlier that day when I was out and about. I said “No, I’m not going shopping.”
Well, when I refused, you’d think the earth had shifted off its axis and everything was sliding into the oily Gulf of Mexico. I got my head chewed off, big-time. But you know what? I wasn’t going to take it, yesterday. So, I chewed back. I didn’t just tuck my tail between my legs and slink away, when they got nasty and obnoxious and started in with “that tone” that sounded like they considered me a form of life lower than slime, and who was I to question their infinitely wise judgment?
Okay, so you wanna play that way? Let’s throw down, then.
And I did. I stood my ground and didn’t just quit and leave. I said my piece and didn’t let them just run roughshod all over me. Throughout our relationship, my spouse has often talked to me like I was an idiot — like countless people have over the course of my life, and my parents did before everyone else. Same old same old. And I’m sick of it.
So, I told them that I was sick of them treating me like I’m brain damaged and saying that because I behaved one way in the past, that’s how I’m always going to behave. I told them I’m tired of feeling like I don’t exist in this marriage, that I’m tired of just taking orders from them and being treated like crap if I don’t just hop-to and do their every bidding. All the while they were looking at me like they hated my guts and they were completely disgusted that I had anything to say at all.
But I said my piece. I felt like a miserable little piece of you-know-what while I was doing it, but I did it anyway. I didn’t let them dismiss me, and I didn’t let them run the entire conversation. The whole experience felt… well, wrong… but I knew in my heart that it was right for me to stand up for myself. It was just an unfamiliar situation, with me using new skills that aren’t second-nature to me (yet), and that unfamiliarity was what was making me feel terrible.
Of course, the fireworks weren’t the worst thing. The worst thing was the aftermath, when I proceeded to beat myself up for losing it. But in retrospect, some of the things that pushed me over the edge are “old stuff” from years gone by, when I would capitulate to every single demand, not ask any questions, just do as I was told. And it’s understandable that I would have a bad reaction to them.
Since I started out on my active mTBI recovery, the road has been a bit rocky. Understand, for years — decades, even — I was compliant and agreeable and went along with pretty much what anybody said. That was especially true of people who I thought cared about me. I trusted their judgment and their ideas more than my own — after all, if left to my own designs, I often got things completely screwed up. And I was game for just about anything that someone else suggested I should do — even things that I instinctively questioned.
I just gave in. Went along. Didn’t make a fuss when people called me names or talked to me like I was an idiot. My spouse has done that quite a bit over the course of our marriage. They would just flip out on me when I wasn’t following what they were saying, or if I messed things up, I was “pathetic” or “stupid”. I never spoke up in my own defense because I pretty much agreed with them. In fact, if anything, I had an even lower opinion of myself than they did.
But over the past few years, as I’ve learned about the true nature of my issues and how to deal with them, I’ve been less able to tolerate nasty behavior towards me. I’ve stopped just shutting down and blocking off unkind words as though they didn’t matter. Words do matter.
And over time, they take a toll. I never gave much thought to how people have treated me, until about three years ago. I just took it in stride as one of those things that makes life more challenging. I never wanted to let on that all the bad treatment was affecting me in any way, shape or form. But the truth is, it has — and not for the better. Indeed, the most hurtful thing for me yesterday wasn’t my spouse’s tone or the words or the general sense of being attacked. Yesterday, one of the things that made the fireworks so uncomfortable for me, was my thinking that I didn’t have a right to defend myself.
For anyone reading this who lives with or deals with a traumatic brain injury survivor, rest assured, although it might not look like we “get” the mean things you’re saying to/about us, we actually do. It might take a while to sink in, and we might not be able to defend ourselves in the moment, but there’s still no excuse for verbal abuse.
No matter who/what the target of your attack is, it’s still an attack. And it can be very hurtful.
The last part of yesterday was pretty rough for me. I felt terrible, really “hungover” from the emotional outburst, and I didn’t get anything done that I’d been planning to do. I felt terrible about missing the cues in my spouse’s tone and words that were setting me off. I felt awful about having stood my ground — crazy as it might seem. And I felt like I’d been the bad person. I also regretted some of the things I said, which were hurtful and just slipped out. Derailed. I hate that.
But when all was said and done, after I got another full night’s rest and spent some time meditating this morning, I got a lot more clear.
Basically, what I’ve realized is that the terrible feeling I get from these kinds of fireworks is more physiological than mental or emotional. I feel physically ill from the biochemical cascade of the stress hormones that flood my system when I’m on high alert like I was yesterday. I was really on high alert. Freaked out. Flipped out. Anxious. Angry. Assertive in unfamiliar ways. And yes, a little aggressive at times. My body bears the brunt of the experience, and the feeling I have after the fact is a biochemical one — it’s not actually a mental or emotional state. It’s a physical state. I realize this now.
It’s important that I realize this, because last night I didn’t. I let my body get the better of my brain, with me thinking that the bad feeling I had was an emotional one, or a mental one. I thought about that feeling in terms of coming from my broken brain – that I was having it because there was something wrong with me. But the fact of the matter is, I was having that bad feeling because my body was doing its job (protecting me from the “threat” to my schedule of yet more things to do and the attack from my spouse, when my time was already limited), but it was doing it a little too enthusiastically.
In fairness to my spouse, they’ve had some neurological issues, themself, and they were also not fully awake after their extended lie-in. They were on edge, under pressure, and feeling boxed in by life in general. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but at the end of the day they realized their part in things and they promised they were going to look at that and do better in the future.
So, there’s progress. I do believe them. There’s a lot of love between us, and we’ve been together for almost 20 years. Neither of us is going anywhere. We just need to work through this and not give up. We’ve been through worse.
And I need to cut myself a break, when I stand up for myself. It’s unfamiliar to me, and unfamiliar things make me uncomfortable and start that fight-flight biochemical cascade. It’s not a defect of my personality or character. It’s my body doing its job — and sometimes overdoing it.
In the end, what is really needed is just open communication and openness to the situations of others. To understand where they are coming from, and take the time to step back and be gentle with one another. To not let my sympathetic nervous system take over when things get a little dicey. Life is full of pressures for both of us, these days. We have some pretty significant money issues, and I’m starting a new job shortly. We have logistical issues, as my spouse expands their business and takes on new clients. We just have a lot going on, and we have to (re)learn how to let each other BE. Especially when things are heating up.
The last thing either of us wants to do, is tear each other to shreds, just because we’re tired and have a bunch of things we need to get done. It’s important to be bigger than that.