What REALLY happened

Storms happen

Just a quick note before I head out the door to work — I had a somewhat rough weekend, feeling sick and out of it, after my meltdown on Friday. I really felt like I’d screwed up, and I didn’t know how to make it better or what to do to fix it. I knew that I’d been over-tired, that I’d been stressed, that I’d really had a hard time handling everything, and that the next time I needed to do a better job of managing my time and my energy — and come up with an alternate plan, in case the first one doesn’t work out (d’oh).

Yesterday, though, while I was doing some work around the yard, I was giving this all a lot of thought, wondering what the hell would have possessed me to say and do the things I did. It made no sense. I know better. I have better sense. I am capable of better things than that, and I know it. I tried to do better. I really did. I almost pulled it together a bunch of times, but I could not let it go. And it tore the sh*t out of both my spouse and me.

So, why didn’t I do better? Why did I end up getting hijacked by those emotions and carried away to the abyss? Seriously, the things I was “up against” were minor, compared to other more serious things I’ve faced with more agility and control. So, why was I in such terrible form on Friday?

It occurred to me that the thing that got hold of me was not psychological. It was not mental. It was not a problem with my thinking. After all, on Friday while I was having that meltdown, there were periods when I was completely calm and lucid and at peace — then BAM! — everything changed in an instant, and I was off to the races again. The only explanation that fits, is that it was an actual neurophysiological reaction — a physical thing that got sparked by something that actually precedes rational thought in my mind. Of course, I could not defend against it, because it got hold of me before my mind could get a hold on it. And that has the hallmarks of an over-activated fight-flight response written all over it.

That is, it was not a problem with my thinking, per se, it was a problem with my body. The whole drama was based on a purely physical response. It was not a psychological drama that I created, it was a physical phenomenon — a physiologically rooted set of behaviors that kick into action way before any kind of logically calm and mindful activity could take place. In fact, it was based on a system of response that is hard-wired into me (into all of us, actually) to save me from being burned up in a fire or carried away in a tsunami. When things seem dangerous (and my body is primed to be hyper-alert to danger), like they did on Friday when things weren’t working out the way I wanted them to and I was really uptight over not having enough time to rest, my fight-flight kicks in big-time. And then look out.

Like on Friday.

Oh – I’m running out of time. Gotta go.

More on this later.

One last thought for the day: 50 bucks says that before the end of the decade, people are going to have a friggin’ clue about the role the autonomic nervous system plays in not only trauma and PTSD, but problems with TBI healing and recovery, panic-anxiety, anger management, various behavioral syndromes, ADD/ADHD, self-injuring behaviors, mental illnesses of many kinds, as well as autistic spectrum disorders… and they are going to actively incorporate physiological therapies (including regular well-designed exercise) into the mix that target specific physical elements that need to be strong and balanced, in order to get your act together. Less drugs, more exercise and attention to the body. Better health overall.

And fewer meltdowns. At least for me. (And not before the end of this decade for me 😉

‘Cause seriously folks, it’s all connected.

More on the Polyvagal Theory (pdf) later. It helps explain what really happened on Friday.

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Cleaning up and cleaning out

Okay, it’s officially been spring, now, for a couple of weeks, and that spring cleaning bug I’ve been hearing about (but which has rarely bitten me in the past) has clamped down hard on my behind.

So, I’m getting my ass in gear and making some changes.

I’ve started ditching piles of old magazines that have been seriously taking up space. I swept out dead leaves and winter dust from the garage. I have been working on my lawn, getting the old dead grass and fallen limbs up. And I am also going through my files, removing everything that means nothing to me anymore, and just dumping it. Or, in the case of things that others might use, I’m stashing them in one of the many boxes I have around my workspace. There’s a whole lot of crap I don’t care about anymore. Not really, when I really stop to think about it.

I just don’t care. And I’m not making space for it anymore. It’s not paying me rent, after all.

I’m also clearing off one of my work tables in my office, filing the old bills and papers and tossing out stuff I know I don’t need.

It’s amazing, how much genuine crap I have had around me for so long.

In all fairness, that cacaphony brings variety and interest to my life. A lot of stuff I’m just rearranging because I know myself well enough to tell that some of it I’m going to be looking for, sooner or later. But I’m also doing really well with moving crap out of the way — out of sight, out of mind — if it’s not directly related to what I’m doing with my life today… what I want to do with my life today.

A lot of this work is about priorities. And realizing that I cannot — and will not — ever do everything I want to do. I’m making choices. I moved a whole truckload of stuff off my hard drive over the past two days, and now I feel a lot less harried. It feels strange, to see so few choices of things to work on, but it’s also a good change. I figure, if something is truly important, I’ll dig it up and work on it later.

But for now, I’ve chosen just a few things to work on, instead of having a whole smorgasbord of choices to pick from. That, quite frankly, was driving me crazy.

I still have a ways to go, mind you, but I’m a lot better off now than I was, just six hours ago.

I’m better off now, than I was just six days ago, actually. I have been reading a lot, lately, about how when you exercise you need to change up your workouts, so you don’t get bored and/or plateau, and find yourself unable to make progress. I kept coming across people saying this, and I always dismissed them — bah! — because I do love my routine, and I have gotten really comfortable with my 20 minutes of riding, 5 minutes of rest, 10 minutes of stretching, 5 minutes of rest, and 15 minutes of lifting. It’s predictable and I don’t have to work hard to get my head around it, each morning.

But then I had some early-morning commitments that left me half the time to work out. And then I overslept one day, and I had to rush off to work without working out. So, I shifted my routine, and lo and behold, it really energized me and gave me this edge I’d been missing, but wasn’t able to identify missing.

All of a sudden, my workouts have a new immediacy, and I’ve been changing them around a bit from day to day — changing the weights, changing the reps I do, changing the duration, and the intensity. Yesterday I did a high-intensity workout that launched me into the day. And today, I backed off and did lighter movement — almost not a workout at all. And you know what? I feel great! My morning workouts have taken on new life that brought me back from a slight doze I’d been drifting into.

My spouse has noticed a difference. They tell me I’m more present and with it and I have more energy, which feels true.

Also, I’ve dropped a few pounds, after being stuck at a constant weight a few pounds above where I want to be.

Change, change, more change…

This whole spring thing feels like a big ball of change. Unpredictable and fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. Just kind of going from thing to thing, calling the shots myself, and sorting everything out as I go. Of course, it’s pretty disorienting for me to be calling the shots myself and stepping up to take care of various and sundry matters in my life and my work. I used to be a pretty accomplished order-taker and I took all my direction from others. But now, I’m the one in the driver’s seat, and it’s pretty exciting. I guess.

My neuropsych has been trying to explain to me that this is how other people live and this is how my life is supposed to be, but it feels unusual and unfamiliar. I guess I took on a lot of crap that people put on me all through my childhood, and I never gave myself the chance to have a truly self-directing life of my own. I’ve been selling myself short for an awful long time — and plenty of people have been more than happy to call the shots for me and tell me what I’m supposed to do. Marketers. Bosses. Salesmen. Doctors. Lawyers. Other professionals. Family. Friends. Just about everybody I’ve met has been more than happy to step in and “help” me make decisions that favored them a lot more than me. “Oh, and that’ll be $49.95, while you’re at it. We take Visa, Mastercard, Discover, AmEx, and feel free to write us a check, so long as your phone number is on it and we can see your license.”

Now that’s changing. And I have to admit, it’s uncomfortable for me. I know it shouldn’t be. That’s just how things are supposed to be/feel when you grow up, right? Well, maybe I never really grew up in some ways. Maybe I got “stuck” in some places and got comfortable with how it felt to be stuck. I didn’t get all worked up over people running my life for me, ’cause it freed me up to do other things like read and research and dabble and fiddle and tinker. I just let the rest of the world set the pace, and I did what I could to keep up, thinking that I was supposed to keep up.

After all, everyone else was doing it, so I guessed I should, too. Everywhere I looked, it seemed like that was the thing to do. So, I did it along with everyone else.

Hmmm… Well, anyway, it’s all experience. And these are good lessons.

The biggest lesson I’m getting out of this is that a whole lot of my arrested development has probably been based on anxiety — not daring to step out, because those internal signals would fire off like crazy Warning, Will Robinson! Danger! Danger! and I would back off of whatever I was doing, unable to think for myself, the rational part of my brain shutting down, unable to function… just glad to have someone else step in and tell me what to do, and how.

Ever since I started doing this conscious breathing, however, I’ve been able to get some distance from the anxiety. Calm it down. Chill out the fried SNS and let the PNS kick in. Take a few deep breaths, count the breath, pay very close attention to something other than the anxious drama going on inside my head… realize that it is just anxious drama, in the first place, and talk myself back from the edge…

There’s a fair amount of literature about anxiety after tbi, and there is a fair amount said about prescriptions and whatnot. But I’d much rather breathe deeply, gather my energy, and then attack the problem that has me cornered (or is trying to corner me).

A part of my cleaning up my act and cleaning out the crap, is a new high-intensity approach to things.  I’ve known (and said) for years that I like to sit back and examine a situation before I fly into it. But in the past years, I’ve stopped launching myself into the challenge before me. I would get stuck in the “regarde” position and never get around to going on the offensive. It’s like I would get distracted and forget to go after what I wanted.

But I also played the “I’m planning my approach” card a bit too often. And I got caught up in planning everything out way too much. Some people like to be systematic and steady and take their time, and logically, that appeals to me. I do like my routine, and I like to be studied about things. But at times — like with my workouts — I need to change things up a bit, stray from my plodding pace, and just take on what comes up with full-force, full frontal attack.

‘Cuz you know what — when I do take things on, full force, full frontal, totally exposed and vulnerable to all the terrible stuff that I imagine could happen to me, and I come out on the other side (relatively) unscathed, it’s a huge rush for me. It’s like bungee jumping, without having to find a bridge high enough and a harness strong enough. It’s like driving 120mph down a desert highway at 2 a.m. with your headlights off. It’s a rush. A thrill. Who knew real life could be so exciting?

Yep, when I overcome — or just disregard — my fear of the “worst” (that thing being the chance that things won’t turn out the way I want/expect them to, and that I’ll have to get my head around the new version of reality… and I might fail) and I step up to whatever is in front of me, and I take that on with all my might, I come away feeling like I’m superhuman. When I fly in the face of the ogre slobbering and growling outside my cave, and I either beat it to smithereens or outrun it to the river or realize it’s not an ogre — it’s a German shepherd puppy, I feel like I can do anything. Because I probably can. Within reason, anyway.

I’m sure this sounds pretty run-of-the-mill to some folks. Most folks I know are capable of taking on the crap they can’t avoid. They may not like it, and they may resent and detest it, but they still do it… whereas I have tended to rationalize avoiding it, and I built fairly elaborate ruses around why I didn’t do such-and-such, like everyone around me did and expected me to. But this “approach” approach is new for me. It’s consciously new. There have been plenty of times when I’ve done it in the past, but it was unconscious. And in the past 5 years, I haven’t done a whole lot of taking-on that I could/should have.

In fact, I’ve used “planning” as a poor excuse for not doing what I needed to do. I got so busy thinking everything through ahead of time, that I never realized I was just covering for my anxiety. It wasn’t prudence, most of the time. It was fear. That, and my tendency to get stuck in a constant groove and go over and over and over and over the same point(s) again and again and again. Between the anxiety and the perseveration, I was toast. No, there was nothing particularly noble about that, though I told myself plenty of times it was. And I wasted a whole lot of time fretting over details, details, details… For what? Jeeze. For what?

Anxiety and fear and borderline panic and a non-stop determination to cross every “t” and dot every “i” before commencing to get a thing done, that’s what.

No more. I’ve got a new way of doing things, and I’m doing them.

Thank god it’s changing, is all I can say. It’s like roto-rooter for the spirit. Yaaaah baby.

Building my cognitive-behavioral exoskeleton

MTBI can do a lot of damage, in terms of shredding your existing skills and long-accustomed habits. It can really undermine your thinking and judgment, so that you never even realize you need to do things differently than you did before. And it requires that you force your brain (and sometimes body) to push harder and harder, even when every indication around (and inside) you is saying, “Let up… let up…”

This can be very confounding. I encounter — all the time — people who are keen on “taking it easy” and doing things “with ease and grace”. They think this is a sign of superior evolution. They think this is a sign of superior character, as though it means they are more “plugged in with the Universe”. They don’t want to have to expend the effort to get things done. They want Spirit/YHWH/God/Creator to do it for them. They don’t want to take a chance and extend themselves, because they are convinced that a Higher Power is more capable than they, and they believe they should just “get out of the way” and let that Higher Power take charge of their lives.

That may be fine for them, but that mindset drives me nuts. First of all, it absolves them of any responsibility for their actions. If things mess up, they can say it was “God’s will” or part of a “higher plan”. If things get really messed up, they can say they just need to be more “in tune with Spirit”.  I have a bunch of friends who are convinced that they are “channels” for Divine Inspiration, and that’s how they should live… just floating along on a tide of holy impulse. And their lives are a shambles. Objectively speaking, they are constantly marinating in a brine of their individual dramas and traumas. It’s just one thing after another, and all the while, they keep expecting Spirit/YHWH/God/Creator to fix all the messes they’ve helped create.

It’s very frustrating to watch this willful disregard of basic cause and effect, but I suppose everybody’s got their stuff.

Now, it’s one thing, if these people (some of whom are very dear to me) are content to live their lives that way, but when they expect me to do the same — and they judge me as being less “evolved” if I do things differently — it’s a little too much to take, sometimes. I don’t do well with living my life from a distance. I don’t do well with telling myself that I’m just floating along on the divine breeze, waiting for some wonderful opportunity to arise to save me from my own creations. I need to be involved in my own life. I need to be invested. I need to put some effort into my life. I need the exertion. It’s good for my spirit. It’s good for my morale. And it bolsters my self-esteem, as well.

Anyway, even if I wanted to just float along, I couldn’t. I’d sink like a rock. I’m not being hard on myself — this is my observation from years of experience. I can’t just ramble about, taking things as they come. I need structure and discipline to keep on track, to keep out of trouble, to keep my head on straight. I can’t just be open to inspiration and follow whatever impulse comes to mind. My mind is full of countless impulses, every hour of every day, and if I followed each and every one, I’d be so far out in left field, I’d never find my way back. I have had sufficient damage done to the fragile connections in my cerebral matter, that the routes that neural information takes have been permanently re-routed into the darkest woods and jungles of my brain. All those injuries over the years didn’t just wash out a few bridges — they blew them up. And they slashed and burned the jungle all around, and dug huge trenches across the neural byways I “should” be able to access.

As my diagnostic neuropsych says, “I am not neurologically intact.”

So that kind of disqualifies me for just winging it in my life. I tried for years to “go with the flow”, and I ended up flit-flitting about like a dried oak leaf on the wild October wind. I got nowhere. I can’t live like that, and I know it for sure, now that I’m intentionally trying to get myself in some kind of order. My brain is different. It has been formed differently than others. It has been formed differently than it was supposed to.

I can’t change that. But I can change how I do things. I can change how I think about things. I can change by facing up to basic facts. As in:

  • My thinking process is not a fluid one, anymore. In fact, I’m not sure it ever was — for real, that is. I’ve consistently found that when I’ve been the most certain about things, was the time when I needed most to double-check.
  • If I don’t extend myself to get where I’m going, I can end up sidelining myself with one minor failure after another. One by one, the screw-ups add up, and I end up just giving up, out of exhaustion and/or ex-/implosion… and I can end up even farther behind than when I started.
  • It’s like nothing internal is working the way it’s supposed to, and the standard-issue ways of thinking and doing just don’t seem to hold up.
  • My brain is different from other folks. It just is. It doesn’t have to be a BAD thing. It just is.

On bad days, it’s pretty easy for me to get down on myself. I feel broken and damaged and useless, some days — usually when I’m overtired and haven’t been taking care of myself. But on good days, I can see past all that wretchedness and just get on with it.

Part of my getting on with it is thinking about how we MTBI survivors can compensate for our difficulties… how we create and use tools to get ourselves back on track — and stay there. There are lots of people who have this kind of injury, and some of them/us figure out what tools work best for us, and we make a point of using them. These exterior tools act as supports (or substitutes) for our weakened internal systems. We use planners and notebooks and stickie notes. We use self-assessment forms and how-to books and motivational materials. We use prayer and reflection ane meditation and journaling. We use exercise and brain games. We use crossword puzzles and little daily challenges we come up with by ourselves.

Some of us — and I’m one such person — use our lives as our rehab. Not all of us can afford rehab (in terms of time or money), and not all of us can even get access to it (seeing as our injuries tend to be subtle and the folks who actually know what to do about them are few and far between). But we have one thing we can use to learn and live and learn some more — life. The school of hard knocks.

I use everything I encounter to further my recovery. I have to. I don’t want to be homeless. I don’t want to be stuck in underemployment. I don’t want to fade away to nothing. And that’s what could easily happen, if I let up. My friends who are into “ease and grace” don’t get this. But then, they’re embroiled in their own dramas, so they don’t really see what’s going on with me. Even my therapist encourages me to “take it easy” a lot more than I’m comfortable doing. (They’ve only known me for about seven months, so they don’t have a full appreciation of all the crap I have to deal with, so I’ll cut them a break.)

It stands to reason that others can’t tell what difficulties I have. After all, I’ve made it my personal mission to not let my injuries A) show to others, B) impact my ability to function in the present, and C) hold me back from my dreams. I may be unrealistic, and I may be just dreaming, but I’m going to hold to that, no matter what. I can’t let this stop me. None of it – the series of falls, the car accidents, the sports concussions, the attack… None of it is going to stop me, if I have anything to say about it. I just have to keep at it, till I find a way to work through/past/around my issues.

And to do that, I use tools. I keep notes. I write in my journal. I blog. I have even been able to read with comprehension for extended periods, lately, which was beyond my reach for a number of years. I keep lists of things I need to do. I come up with ways of jogging my memory. I play games that improve my thinking. I focus on doing good work, and doing well at the good work I’m involved in. I bring a tremendous amount of mindfulness to the things I care about, and I’m constantly looking for ways to improve. To someone with less restlessness and less nervous energy, it would be an exhausting prospect to life this way. But I have a seemingly endless stream of energy that emanates from a simmering sense of panic, and a constantly restless mind, so  I have to do something with it.

Some might recommend medication to take the edge off. But that, dear reader, would probably land me in hot water. Without my edge, I fade away to a blob of ineffectual whatever-ness.

I build myself tools. I use spreadsheets to track my progress. I downloaded the (free and incredibly helpful) Getting Things Done Wiki and installed it on my laptop to track my projects and make sure I don’t forget what I’m supposed to be working on. I have even built myself a little daily activity tracking tool that I use to see if any of my issues are getting in my way. It not only lets me track my issues, but it also helps me learn the database technologies I need to know for my professional work.

I am constantly thinking about where I’m at, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it. I am rarely at rest, and when I am, it is for the express purpose of regaining my strength so I can go back at my issues with all my might and deal directly with them. I am at times not the most organized with my self-rehab, but I’m making progress. And I track what I’m doing, to make sure I’m not getting too far afield. And I check in with my neuropsychs on a weekly basis.

I also use external props to keep me in line. I build exercise and nutrition into my daily routine, so I have no choice but do do them — if I break my routine, I’m lost. The anxiety level is just too high. I commit myself to meetings that require me to be in a certain place at a certain time, so I have to keep on schedule. I work a 9-5 job that forces me to be on-time and deliver what I promise. I surround myself with people who have very high standards, and I hold myself to them. As I go about my daily activities, I do it with the orientation of recovery. Rehabilitation. Life is full of rehab opportunities, if you take the time — and make the point — to notice.

In many ways, my external tool-making and structure-seeking is like being a hermit crab finding and using shells cast off by other creatures for their survival. I don’t have the kind of inner resources I’d like to keep myself on track, and I don’t have the innate ability/desire to adhere to the kinds of standards I know are essential for regular adult functioning. I’ve been trying, since I was a little kid, to be the kind of person I want to be, and it’s rarely turned out well when I was running on my own steam.

So, I put myself in external situations and engage in the kinds of activities that require me to stay on track and adhere to the kinds of standards I aspire to. I seek out the company of people who are where I want to be — or are on the same track that I want to be on. And I “make like them” — I do my utmost to match them, their behaviors, their activities. And it works. I do a damned good impression of the person I want to be — even when deep down inside, I’m having a hell of a time adhering to my own standards.

The gap between who I want to be/what I want to do with my life, and how I actually am and what I actually accomplish is, at times, a vast chasm. I have so many weak spots that feel utterly intractable — and I need to do something about them. So, I use the outside world to provide the impetus and stimulation I require to be the person I know I can be, and to accomplish the things I long to do. I use the supports I can get, and I use whatever tools I have on hand. I fashion the world around me in a way that supports my vision of who I can be and what I can accomplish in my life. and I just keep going, layering on more and more experiential “shellack” that supports my hopes and dreams and vision.

Dear reader, if you only knew how different my fondest hopes and most brightly burning dreams have been from my actual reality throughout the course of my 4 decades-plus on this earth, you would weep for days, maybe weeks. But this is not the time to cry. Not when I have within my reach the means by which to put myself on the track I long for. Not when I have the resolve to take my life to the next level. Not when I have — at long last — the information I need to understand my limitations and my cognitive-behavioral makeup. Not when I have the drive and desire to live life to the fullest, to love and grow and learn and … and …

But enough — the day is waiting, and I have things I must get done.

Peace, out

BB