One of the things I’m really looking forward to, in the coming weeks, is being able to get back on track with my life. I haven’t said much about it, but the job search and interview process really disrupted my daily schedule, including my sleeping patterns and my ability to take care of basic tasks that are part-and-parcel of my daily life.
I’ve let some things slip, since I’ve been job-hunting and position negotiating, and I’m looking forward to things settling in, so I can get back to my sleep and my studies. I’ve been meaning to delve more deeply into the different symptoms and issues that come along with TBI, but I’ve been so focused on my basic survival, I haven’t had much energy left for that.
I have also been meaning to finish my paper (which has by now become book-length), A Perilous Relief, which is about the physiological bases of risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior. I personally believe that a lot of risky and dangerous activity has a physiological foundation — in my case, anyway. It’s been my experience that when I’m participating in high-stakes pastimes or pushing the envelope with risky types of behaviors, I just feel better. I feel awake. I feel alive. I feel calm and collected and a whole lot more centered, than when I’m just moseying along, taking my time, going about my everyday life. When I’m pushing the envelope, I feel human. And I need to feel human, so I tend to push myself.
The problem is, all that pushing comes with a cost. You can’t continue to amp up your system, revving your sympathetic nervous system, day in and day out, without some physical effect. Eventually the autonomic nervous system is going to get stuck in high gear, and the continuous effects of stress, cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine, and all those other stress hormones that — in small doses — feel divine, are going to tear the crap out of your nervous system and essentially cause your body to “forget” how to ratchet it back and slow down.
You can’t drive 95 mph forever. You’re going to have to stop and refuel, sometime or other. And you’re going to have to change your oil and get your engine tuned up. Getting jammed in sympathetic nervous system overload is like keeping the pedal to the metal with no thought of refueling, oil changes, or tune-ups. Any vehicle will start to break down after too much prolonged use without some sort of repair. Witness the irritability, the agitation, the rage, the emotional volatility, the temper tantrums, the meltdowns, the snapping out, the roller-coaster of moods, the exhaustion that’s barely staved off by yet another cup of coffee. It just can’t go on indefinitely.
Unfortunately, I tend to think I can. A lot of folks do, actually. Especially these days when the “new busy” (i.e., never being without your mobile phone and being constantly connected to “what’s next”) is touted as a good thing and lauded as a condition that everyone should desire. We all want to participate, to be a part-of, to have a hand in the excitement that is modern life. Mobile technologies bring us into the midst of the action in an instant, and ever-expanding social networks keep us connected with people we had never thought cared about us (and vice-versa). All around us, there’s constant movement. And we like it. I like it. It feels good, to be included in life, to be popular, to be connected. It makes us feel vital and needed and useful.
But in extremes, it is utterly distracting, even exhausting. And that’s where I find myself, now. I’ve been so caught up in my job situation, so immersed in it, that I’ve let a lot of things around me slide. Things I need to do every day, to keep healthy and happy and with-it. (In fairness to myself, I have been exercising each morning, which has been a huge help.) Now the job situation is settled, I’m in my final week at my current job, tying up loose ends, and I can turn my attention back to the regular business of my everyday life.
Again, I find myself striving to find the fascination in it. I will find it, but it takes effort. And with my initiation issues — I just can’t seem to get started — it’s like trying to get a rocket off the ground, sometimes. I read somewhere that it takes 90% of the fuel to get a rocket out of the earth’s gravity pull. That’s how I’m feeling, these days. But at least I’m not alone in my inertia — many, many rockets have the same problem.
So, I’m moving forward. Bit by bit. Piece by piece. And it feels, well, oddly normal. You have to understand — since I got a handle on the concepts of A Perilous Relief, I’ve been actively working with my parasympathetic nervous system, to chill out my nerves, and the results have been pretty amazing. I’m actually able to relax, which is a new experience for me. Understand, I was a very tightly wound kid, when I was little, with a host of strange mannerisms that ran the gamut from talking a mile a minute, to rubbing the silky lining of my blanket till I wore a hole in it, to banging my head on the wall beside my bed, to rolling myself up in a blanket from head to toe so tightly that no light or sound or anything could get in, to picking at myself till I bled. I was a mass of jangled nerves, with a pronounced startle response, intense sensitivities (tactile and hearing, especially, though smell and taste have never been my strong suits), and I would blow up at the drop of a hat.
So much of it, I realize now, was my nerves. My family lived in a borderline part of town in a small city, where there was lots of racial violence during the late 60’s and early 70’s. And being bused across town to a massive holding pen for thousands of K-2 children, through some pretty rough neighborhoods didn’t help. I was constantly on edge, constantly alert, constantly on the lookout for who was going to come after me next. So, from an early age, my autonomic nervous system has been skewed towards the sympathetic fight-flight-freeze end of the spectrum. And with all the drama in my life over the years, there hasn’t been much opportunity for me to cultivate that other side — the parasympathetic, rest-and-relax-and-digest part.
Looking back, I see that my predisposition to fight-flight responses, and my craving for situations that challenged me on the nervous system level, has contributed a lot to my behavior and choices. If I’d been aware of what I was doing, I could have seen time and again how I was making choices that put me into an intensified, hyper-alert, jazzed-up state which actually made me feel better, with all those stress hormones. And I can see how my lack of knowledge about the other side of things — the parasympathetic repair of the jangled system — kept me from doing things that could chill me out. I can also see how not knowing that I needed my system to be ON caused me to make choices that were clumsy attempts at heightening my arousal and clarity — and their clumsiness led to a lot of mis-steps, confusion, drama, and additional brain injuries.
Nowadays, now that I know that my system is inclined to be sluggish, due to my repeated TBI’s (slower processing and less “tonic arousal” — which is the relatively slowly changing metabolic/physical readiness to act or respond to the world around us), I know that I literally need to jazz myself up in some way, in order to be fully engaged with the world around me. Traumatic brain injury has a way of mucking with your metabolism and your tonic arousal, and I’ve had a number of brain injuries, so based on that and the results of my neuropsychological testing, I have a pretty clear understanding of my need for an extra “pump” to get through my days.
And knowing this, I can make conscious, deliberate choices about how I do that. I have a bunch of choices:
- I can seek out pharmaceuticals to wake me up (my doctor has mentioned them, but I’m very wary of a drug “solution”).
- I can drink a bunch of coffee, which will get me all wired and fry my system.
- I can watch what I eat and make sure I don’t consume a lot of “cheap” carbs, like muffins and cupcakes and sweetened drinks, and make sure my body has a steady supply of real energy coming from complex carbs like fruits and vegetables and whole-grain breads.
- I can get up earlier and exercise first thing before I do anything else.
- I can make sure I get enough sleep.
- I can do some or all or none of the above.
It’s my choice. And therein lies the power.
Getting back on track after the excitement and pressure and stress of lining up this new job is proving to be a challenge in itself. There’s none of the fear-for-my-life adrenaline rush to keep me on my toes, there’s none of the intense anxiety over my existential uncertainty to flood my brain with pain-numbing, sense-centering hormones. There’s not the same immediacy and sense of crisis that I had before, which kept me alert and fully engaged. Now I need to center in and get down to work and have that be okay, in the absence of the biochemical always-at-the-ready cocktail that bathed my brain for the past few months.
I’ll need to find a way to replace that. I’ll need to find a way to balance out my desire to drive, with my need to rest and rejuvenate. Exercise is one way. Also, getting fully engaged in my daily life is another. Being “on” by choice, rather than by gut reaction, takes a lot of practice. But I’ve got time. And I’ve got ample opportunity to do just that — practice.
Onward. The world is waiting.