Funny again

It’s good to be back

I haven’t been funny in a long time. It’s been nearly ten years, in fact.

I used to be funny – cracking jokes and keeping the mood light, when things got too heavy. I brought that to every social situation, helping people see the humor in impossible situations, and helping everyone keep things in perspective.

Every since high school, when I started connecting with people around me, I could make people laugh. And they loved that. I was welcome in so many circles, precisely because I could make them laugh. And in many ways, how much I could get people laughing was a measure of how well I was connecting with the people around me. If I was on the “outs”, I couldn’t convey my unique sense of humor to others. But if I was connected with the people I was with, I could make them laugh.

It’s how I coped, it’s how I got through tough times. And I shared it with everyone. It was good.

After my fall in 2004, however, nothing was funny anymore. It was the strangest thing. All of a sudden, I couldn’t see the humor in anything, and I certainly had no interest in making anyone around me laugh. If someone tried to make me laugh, it was a toss-up if they’d succeed. A lot of times, they just infuriated me.

Over the past few years, I’ve been getting funnier again. At my last job, people laughed when I was around, but a lot of the time, they were laughing AT me, because we weren’t on the same wavelength, and they really truly thought I was weird. That was a result of differences in experience and orientation, I’m convinced. We had such different outlooks and life experiences, they just couldn’t relate to me, or believe half the things I said and did. So they laughed at me.

Fortunately, I didn’t take it all that seriously. After the first few months, I got used to it and was just glad that at least they weren’t total assholes to me.

But in this job, I’m actually making other people laugh. On my terms. Over things we all see and experience in common. That tells me that not only am I in synch with folks there, but I’m really, truly getting better — in my life and my brain. I’m actually funny. I’m cracking jokes that people “get”. I’m making sour-faced individuals laugh out loud — both in person and via email and IM. And over the phone.

It’s good to be able to do this again. It’s such a relief — it makes everything easier. And it’s not only something I do. It’s also something I AM. My sense of self has long been associated with my sense of humor. If I could make people laugh, I knew I was going to be okay. I knew the situations I was in were going to be okay. And like being able to read as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted, it was a marker about how “okay” I was — if I was the person I really, truly meant to be… if I was the person I wanted to be.

It’s been pretty grueling, going without so much of what used to make my life worth living. But gradually, it’s been coming back. Holy crap. It’s coming back. I’ve been testing it out over the past months, and yeah. It’s back.

One of the really good results of all this win-loss-win process, is that now that “gone” things are coming back, I appreciate them all the more. And I have a better understanding of their place in my life. Not being able to read before, makes me extra appreciative of being able to do it now. And being able to create and enjoy humor again, makes me realize just how valuable it was to me before — and it also makes me appreciate just how connected I actually had been to my peers, when I was younger. I always thought of myself as an outsider who wasn’t welcome, but in fact, I was someone who literally fit in with every crowd, in one way or another, and humor made that possible.

For decades, I thought of myself as an outsider who never fit in anywhere, but that was actually in accurate. I did fit in. I just didn’t realize it. And I missed out on the chance to have that experience for so many, many years. Why and how that happened, is another story — and it’s a mix of both the way I was brought up and the injuries that messed up my thinking and experience for so much of my life. But whatever the source, I really did miss out on so much…

Oh… I’m starting to get a little teary-eyed. I’m tired, and when I’m as worn out as I am, I’m more emotional. That will never do. I’ve got a long day ahead of me, and I don’t want to start out by getting emotionally overwrought. Or start out crying. That gives me a splitting headache and throws me off. I’m just not 100% after I cry, for some reason. So, I’m going to stop thinking about this right now and get my mind off it.

Bottom line is, things that I thought were gone for good… aren’t. It’s taken a long time for some of them to get back, and I still have a ways to go to restore some of the others. Maybe those things will come back, maybe they won’t.

But whatever does come back, I can appreciate it all the more.

That’s for sure.

Onward.

The only good reason to look back

The only time you should ever look back,
is to see how far you’ve come

An old college friend messaged me this morning to catch up. It was good to hear from them, and we had a good — but brief — chat. They were one of my closest friends in college, and they saw me go through an awful lot, thanks to my heavy drinking. They tried to reach out to me to help, a number of times, but I was pretty much of a goner, in those days.

It would be easy to say it was just the drinking, but it was so much more. I really believe that the multiple concussions I had in high school had a lot to do with my attitude problems and inability to keep focused and clear about my priorities. I was not accustomed to making good decisions about the people I hung around with — in high school, I faded to the background, when the after-effects of several concussions and a whole lot of rough-housing and heavy partying took over my life.

So, by the time I got to college and I was away from the structures and restrictions of my youth, I was ready to just “let go” — and that’s exactly what I did. It only took me a year to get into real trouble, and this college friend of mine has been saying repeatedly over the past year or so that we’ve been back in touch, that they wish they had been a better friend to me. I am assuming that means they thought they could somehow save me from myself and my inner demons. Or maybe at least advocate for me better, when the police got involved, and a nasty-ass judge who favored local townspeople over ne’er-do-well college kids started making life difficult for me.

Looking back, I don’t think that there’s much of anything they could have done for me. I had too much I needed to work through, and I transferred out of that school after two years there. The next stop I made was a better solution, academically, but again I got into trouble — drinking too much, falling down drunk a lot, doing more of the same as I was before, but this time, much worse. And I isolated like crazy, which didn’t help me any.

I wonder sometimes… if I had been able to reach out for help earlier, if I had allowed others to help me (instead of pushing them away like I did), would things have turned out differently for me? It is really hard to say. Even if they had been able to be a friend to me, I doubt I could have let it all in. I was too much at odds with myself and everyone/everything around me, to really allow much to penetrate this hard head of mine. Combining a succession of mild traumatic brain injuries with drinking, was a really bad idea, but — like so many others — I did it. And it did me no good. At. All.

In any case, it’s all water under the bridge, and the experiences I have had, have made me who I am. The best reason to look back on all of it, is to see how far I have truly come, to look back on the flood waters and rapids I have navigated in my past and to be genuinely grateful that I am alive today. It didn’t have to turn out that way. I have found myself in the midst of human traffickers, drug dealers, violent criminals, and all manner of thieves, cheats, and liars, over the course of my life. The fact that I am living a good life today, with a marriage of 20+ years and a home and a favorable employment situation, is really something to celebrate, rather than regret because it’s not something else.

I’ve been grappling with that a lot, lately — regret over my past, and things not turning out better than they did. So many of my professional peers, including folks 10-15 years younger than me — are farther along and doing more with their lives. They have much better prospects than I, or so it seems. Job-wise, I do feel like I’ve been held back by my situation… until I really think about it and realize how other people with the same type of history as I are living.

I have friends who have been through similar circumstances to my own, and none of them are even close to the quality of life I have. They came from similar circumstances, but they made different choices, and now — as far as I can tell — they are in decline, while I am on the ascent. I don’t want to get caught up in making anyone better or worse than anyone else, because who can tell what is in the mind and heart of another. And yet I can’t help comparing my situation to others’.

I guess that means I’m human.

Anyway, it’s fall, and that means it’s a time of reflection and recapping the past year. I always feel like this is the end of the year, with Halloween being a sort of turning point leading into the new year. It’s a cellular thing, I guess. Growing up in farm country, Halloween was the time when everything was ready to be cut down and turned over, and the nights were obviously longer than ever, so it really felt like The End. Thanksgiving, to me, feels like the start of the year, with a kickoff celebration of what’s to come.  This time of year, with the falling leaves and shortening days, prompts me to look back on the past months to do a kind of inventory of where I’ve been and how far I’ve progressed.

I have to say, for all the challenges of the past 12 months, I have made significant progress. I’ve managed to extricate my mind from the hold of my current employer, and I have managed to stick it out long enough to not look like a flake, by leaving my employer in two years’ time. I have made some real progress in my work, achieving some pretty impressive feats – even if the cost was high. I’ve also had some real revelations about myself and where I want to fit in the world, and I’ve made some real strides with regard to my eating and exercising. I’ve become more active — all across the board — and that’s a really good thing.

With regard to the part I want to play in the world, after re-connecting with some old friends and co-workers, I’ve realized that I really did get sidetracked by the whole career thing. For the past three years, I’ve been living under the belief that by applying myself and working hard and showing real results and good progress and transforming the way my job is done, I can be a valued team player who has real career prospects. The first year in my job, that was pretty much true. The thing that held me back, was me. I didn’t put myself forward enough and I didn’t leverage the connections I had, to move forward. For the past two years, my prospects have shrunk and shriveled, and now it’s pretty clear that no matter how well I do my job, if I don’t say the right things to the right people at the right time, I’ll be perpetually marginalized and relegated to the “average 80%” pool of employees at this mega-corporation. Just a number.

Looking back, there’s part of me that regrets not pushing harder for the career advancement thing. But with a week’s vacation behind me, I realize now that it would not have worked, because that’s just not how I want to organize my life. I don’t want to be a high-flying hot-shot at work, to the point where it takes over my life and is my identity. I don’t want to give myself 100% to that path, because there is so much else I want to do with myself, and there is so much else I need to experience, beyond the realm of that whole career business.

If I had wanted to push for promotions and move up in the corporate world, I would have done it. If I had wanted to advance professionally and take it all to the next level, I would have gotten it done. But the fact of the matter is, I am deeply distrustful of that whole world, and more than anything, I want freedom and balance and the ability to move at will about the world. I’m more interested in questions, than answers, and I want to be free from any licensing agency or professional association that could impose its standards on me and shut down my voice. I would much rather hold down a day job for the structure and society, and then be free to do my own thing in my own hours.

And given that for the past three years, I’ve been in a job that has required me to be available pretty much anytime, any day, moving back to a 9-to-5 job will probably feel like a breeze. It will give me time to research TBI and to write. It will give me time to build out the library of resources I’m compiling for mild TBI understanding and recovery. It will give me time to do what I really want to do —  freely read and write and think and talk the way I see fit and am drawn to do, without the intrusion of those who crave power and influence in the world.

And that, to me, is progress. Realizing and remembering – yet again – where I am going, and why… that’s the best sign of growth and strength that I could ever get.

Looking back, there are many things that could have gone differently and could have been “better”. There’s also a lot of stuff that could have turned out a whole lot worse. All in all, it’s been a wild ride — and here I am, on down the road, with a whole lot of experience under my belt, that makes it all worth it.

Way.

So, onward we go. Looking back to see how very far I’ve come. And yes, it is very, very far.

 

No one has a clue how hard this is for me

Even I don’t, sometimes.

Seriously. I walk through my days, going about my regular business, living my life, interacting with people, doing what I do, making mistakes, making it right… working (hard) to keep up. And I do manage to keep up. Most of the time.

At least, that’s how it looks on the outside. I’ve learned, over years, to present in a certain way… to project a certain image… to do a passable job of fitting in, by mirroring the mannerisms and “social pacing” of people around me. And it works. I had to figure it out by trial-and-error, but I did eventually figure it out.

In my early childhood, when I was first learning about how to live outside my parents’ house — in school, especially — I had a very hard time fitting into my surroundings. My early grade-school years were rocky and rough, and I went through a lot of bullying and teasing and marginalization. I also had a very, very hard time dealing with academic requirements. I could pretty much get by, but it was — again — trial and error. I remember working so very, very hard to make my teachers happy… without fully understanding why they were asking me to learn certain things and complete certain lessons.

I think part of the problem was that, despite having a hard time keeping up with what was going on around me, I was ahead of the kids around me, subject-wise. I grew up in a family that valued education and spent a lot of time exploring the world of ideas. My parents were — and still are — very well read, and my grandparents were experts in their fields. I was well accustomed to sitting around talking about complex subjects… more comfortable doing that, in fact, than spending time playing with the kids around me.

And it was awkward. Very awkward for everyone. At least, I think it was. I didn’t understand my peers very well, and they didn’t seem to understand me at all. Or maybe my perceptions were skewed because of my TBIs — poor judgment, slowed information processing, and misperception of the actions and/or intentions of others are all hallmarks of TBI. Maybe everyone was fine with me; I just wasn’t fine with them (or myself).

Anyway, I don’t want to harp on all my difficulties. Let’s just say my childhood was somewhat challenging.

All that started to change, however, when I started getting connected with kids who were several years older than me. My family had moved to a new area, and we had started attending a new church. That church did not have a very large concentration of kids exactly my age — they were either several years older than me or several years younger. My parents talked to the youth director and managed to get me “in” with the older kids in the young adult youth group.

I really wasn’t sure about it, when I started. I was painfully shy — no, shy isn’t the word for it. I was completely out of my depth. All the boys and girls — young men and young women, actually — who were part of the youth group seemed so with it, so together, so … grown up. They seemed like they knew what everyone was saying when they talked, and they seemed to know how to act around other people.

I was amazed. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to initiate conversations that weren’t about some academic matter, and I sure as hell didn’t know how to keep a conversation going. I was petrified, the first months I hung out with the other kids. But fortunately, some of the most popular kids in the “gang” at church were second cousins of mine, and they knew me from family reunions. So, I was “in” with the crowd, even when I couldn’t manage to put two words together.

It would be really easy for me to focus on how challenging those years were for me. But I’d rather focus on how much I gained from meeting those challenges head-on, and learning from them. Those several years with the older kids — I spent about 3 years among kids who were several years my senior — taught me volumes about how to make my way in the world. By watching them and seeing how they interacted with others, I was able to model my behavior on something positive — and types of behavior that obviously worked. I watched the kids who were clearly popular and having a great time being alive, and I mirrored their words and actions. I’m sure I looked a bit spastic, at times, tagging along and clumsily imitating everyone at the start, but eventually I learned how to smooth it all out and “deliver a seamless presentation” of the kinds of behavior I saw other people using — that worked well for them in social situations.

I could tell things worked, if people laughed at jokes. I could tell things worked for them, if other people smiled when they approached. I could tell things were “clicking” socially, if everyone was relaxed and enjoying each others’ company. It probably sounds pretty remedial and basic, but that’s how I learned. And I learned pretty quickly, too — so long as I could be a part of the group, but still be able to withdraw, now and then, when I got overwhelmed. Because I was with kids who were some years older than me, I was able to get “special dispensation” because I was younger. I was “just a kid” so I was allowed to mess up, now and then. Not all the time, but they tended to cut me some slack, which was helpful.

The fact that all this took place in a church environment, where there were very strict rules about how you did and did not behave was very helpful also. All the boys were well-behaved, and all the girls kept to very high standards of behavior. Even though a lot of us eventually left the church and went our own ways, far from organized religion, the fact that there were clear guidelines in place for us to follow made it pretty straightforward for me to figure out how I should — and should not — behave around others. The kids who were ahead of me modeled acceptable behavior, and I followed their example. I was part of a “gang” — but the gang was all good Christian kids, so I had the benefit of being in a group of pressuring peers who pressured me in directions that did not lead towards drugs, alcohol, petty crime, and teen sex.  (That pressure took place in the other “gangs” I ran with, several years later, in school and at jobs I held.)

During those early teen years in the church youth group, I learned how to integrate socially through the various activities we had — Sunday School, prayer meetings, weeknight services, organized youth group activities, like trips and outings, Bible quiz team, and countless other get-togethers that were organized by the youth leaders. They really did have a good program, I realize in retrospect, and I benefitted from it a lot. Being able to be around kids who were older than me gave me license to just be who and what I was — a little dorky, a little geeky, gangly and awkward and prone to say dumb things that were out of context — and be accepted, anyway, because I was young. I don’t remember being stigmatized, probably because it was generally expected that I was supposed to be different — but that was because of my age, not because I was a queer little brain-damaged freak who couldn’t fit in with my peer group.

What a relief it was, to be allowed to be different! I had been battling against my social surroundings for years, but that had gotten me nowhere. And I mean, nowhere. Standing out as being different (which was my “default setting”), had resulted in a lot of bullying, ridicule, and general hardship for me. It had also not helped my academic performance or my general ability to get by in the world. But being able to hang out with kids who were not only older than me and showed me how to behave, but being given some leeway with how I behaved, totally took the pressure off.

I was finally able to relax, socially. And I was able to learn. I was able to pattern my demeanor after the most socially successful members of the youth group — the guys and gals who were the most capable, the most popular, the smartest, the most respected-by-adults. I’m sure I looked kind of dense, stumbling and bumbling my way after them. But you know what? No matter how dorky I looked around the older kids, when I was around my own peer group, those behaviors and mannerisms made me look a lot more mature than I felt. I didn’t need to understand exactly why someone would say certain things (like social pleasantries) or do certain things (like strike up a conversation with people you’ve never met before in your life). I only needed to understand how they did it, and that it worked for them… and perfect my impressions of the most socially successful people I knew.

Granted, my “performance” wasn’t always perfect, and there were a lot of false moves over the years that got me in trouble with older kids and teachers and other authority figures, but you know what? By practicing and practicing and practicing some more… observing carefully when others did things that made them look good… by rehearsing the “role” I wanted to play in the world in the privacy of my own bedroom, out in the woods where I could have some alone-time… by constantly checking and re-checking the results of what I’d done, learning my lessons and “taking my lumps” as I went, I was able to build a really compelling and convincing repertoire of social graces that have stood me in good staid.

Okay, so my parents were probably pretty concerned throughout the course of my life, when I’d spend hours just talking to myself. And I’m sure they’ve often wondered about me walking around having animated, in-depth conversations about topics I’m passionate about… with no one in particular. To this day, I still have extended animated converstions with myself when I’m alone or in the car driving. I do it — and have always done it — to work on my vocal pacing, my delivery, my presentation. I have a role to play in the world, and I know well enough (inside my own woolly head) how hard it can be for me to keep my act together. I get lost all too quickly, so I need to keep my composure skills up, and “running the lines” my life does it for me. This “regular life” stuff doesn’t come easily to me, so I have to work at it, work at it, work at it some more. All the time, whenever I get a chance.

Fortunately, I enjoy it, and when I’m having intense, protracted discussions with myself, pretending to talk to another person — breaking now and then to let “them” get a word in — I’m usually going on about something that captures and holds my interest. So it’s not work as much as it is effortful play. And it pays off.

In countless ways. Can I just tell you, the best validation of my efforts has been all these people telling me, over the course of the past year or so, that they never would have guessed I had a head injury, let alone half a dozen. It never would have occurred to them that I was anything less than perfectly normal. On the outside, then, my presentation is intact. And all my hard work has paid off. The countless hours I’ve spent analyzing my interactions with the world, checking and double-checking the results of my relating to others… the untold time I’ve spent carefully tweaking my demeanor during the course of converstaions… the tricks I’ve picked up about how to interact effectively with others… it’s all paid off. Big time.

Now there are some days, of course, when I feel a lot more like a fraud than I feel functional. I feel like I’m just walking through my days playing a role that has nothing to do with me. I’m sure a lot of people feel that way — especially as they age and start to examine their lives. But with me, it’s especially pronounced, because there are many, many times I say and do things without even thinking about them which don’t sound anything like me, or what interests me, or what I care about. There are times when I’ll get to the end of a conversation or a complex interaction with someone and realize that I have no idea what just happened — I wasn’t even personally involved in the interaction. I didn’t even say what I meant or thought or felt. I just mirrored that other person, without even knowing what I was mirroring. They thought for sure that I agreed with them wholeheartedly and was validating their point of view by repeating it back to them, but I was really just saying and doing the bare minimum to get in and out of the conversation without getting too turned around.

Indeed, this is the great pitfall of this approach, socially successful as it may be: that I can get swept up in a chain of events that I don’t agree with, don’t care about, don’t even want to participate in… because the action is moving a lot faster than my little brain is, and I’ve unconsciously mirrored everyone so well, that they enlisted my help and swept me into their grand designs without my ever consciously assenting to it. And they think that because I’m able to mirror them so well, I’ve consciously chosen the path they’re taking because I’m as totally into it as they are… But I haven’t deliberately chosen.  And I’m not totally into it. I’m totally into nothing more than just participating and navigating the situation successfully enough to not be found out as a head-injured dimwit.

It can be a problem. Especially when I try to slow down the action long enough to say, “Hey – I need a while to think this through before I get involved.” Slowing things down is terribly difficult for me, in the first place, because I tend to be highly impulsive and get swept up into the energy of things. I also hate feeling as slow as I am, and I hate feeling so friggin’ retarded — as in the literal meaning “to be delayed”, which is exactly what I am at times. I have developed an elaborate and effective cover/compensatory strategy for my limitations, and I like how I feel when I’m “under cover”. I like feeling whole and hale and hearty and fast and smooth and with it. I like feeling complete and well-integrated. But when I “buy my cover” and forget that it’s just that — well, things can break down pretty quickly.

I suppose it’s all a balancing act.  There’s no way I’m going to just dispense with my compensatory behaviors — why should I? Everyone needs a little cover, now and then, and plenty of people say “yes-yes-yes” while they’re trying to buy time to think things through on their own, in the privacy of their own heads. But I don’t want to fool myself into thinking that everything is perfectly alright, since I can present well, articulate, keep my act together in very controlled circumstances. I don’t want to fall into the habit of thinking that because I can function very well in a highly structured environment where I’m literally just mimicking people around me and able to perform well as a result, than I can duplicate that same level of effectiveness out on my own.

I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work. I once thought that my on-the-job skills at my highly routinized, heavily project-managed 9-to-5 position at an established corporation would translate into the same level of effectiveness and success when I started my own company. But I was wrong, and that experiment ended very, very badly. I’m still picking up the pieces.

I once thought that because I saw other people conducting workshops and I understood the form and structure of them, that I could duplicate their efforts and do just as well. What happened was, I got 10 minutes into the workshop and lost control of the “flow” and ended up riding a wild bucking bronco of a workshop where everyone talked out of turn and wouldn’t stay on-topic — very similar to what happens inside my head when I’m tired and overwhelmed.

I once thought that because I had worked in financial services for many years, and I had a burning interest in financial planning, that I could and should become a financial planner. But I ended up enrolling in a program for a bunch of money and then was unable to even finish two of the six courses. I was also unable to get more than a C grade in the two tests I took. And I had no idea why! As so many times in my past, I actually forgot about the program for a while and wandered off to do other things… and it didn’t fully sink in that I was supposed to be working on it until I got a notice that I had all of six… then three months left to complete the 18-month course. It slipped my mind, for the most part… and I couldn’t finish the program. What could — and should — have been a simple matter for me turned out to be a whole lot more complicated than I thought it would be. And I was a whole lot less up to the task, than I had assumed.

I once thought that because I had worked with many different kinds of lawyers for many years, that I could read and analyze and understand important legal documents for my family, but I ended up really turned around and confused, and if it weren’t for the fact that I had a good lawyer waiting in the wings, I could have really screwed things up.

The wild thing was — I had gotten myself into all these messes at the urging of others around me. Others who were so very, very sure that I could handle myself perfectly well, that I was perfectly capable, that I was perfectly equipped to deal with all of this… who had no idea at the time (as I) that there were some serious neurological impairments holding me back. There weren’t a lot, but there were enough.

And as a result, I have danced on the edge of disaster repeatedly throughout the course of my adulthood — and I’m still running into instances where I overestimate my capabilities. They’re less and less pronounced, and I’m getting more acclimated to “quality controlling” my assumptions, but the risk still exists that I might overreach and not realize I need to take special care to compensate for my limits.

I suspect that these may be good examples of anosognosic hazard — having lacking self-awareness get in the way of living your life. I know that they’re good examples of how buying my own cover can get me into trouble.

The thing is, I don’t feel like being disabled, I don’t feel like being head-injured, I don’t feel like making special exceptions for myself. But when I don’t at least consider that my broken brain may be complicating my life needlessly… getting me into trouble, yet again… well, the feeling of being in hot water is far worse than the feeling of tending to my relatively few special needs.

I really, really hate having to consider how difficult some things are for me. I detest having to bumble and fumble and stumble my way through situations until I figure out how to handle them. I cannot stand having trouble with sequential steps and not being able to remember stuff that “should” come easily to me. Most of all, I hate the idea of revealing to others how hard I have to work to do the most basic of things, like getting up and going through my routine each morning, and actually getting to work on time. It’s embarrassing, it’s disconcerting, it’s a total downer. But that’s how it is.

And even if I don’t show it to everyone else, it’s important that I not lose sight of it inside my own head.

‘Cause you can’t fix something, if you don’t know it’s broken.