Back in the saddle again… and again… and again…

binary code - lines of 0s and 1s
Slowly but surely, my ability to learn to code has returned

That old Aerosmith song is playing in my mind, this morning. I’ve been working on my programming skills, over the past week, and amazingly enough, I’m actually able to make sense of things.

This is a huge change, compared to where I was 10 years ago.ย  Even 5 years ago, I had real struggles with maintaining my attention long enough on anything to learn it. I would get so tired, cognitively, that I couldn’t continue with my learning. And I’d just drop it. I’d learn a bit, then I’d just wander off and forget I’d even started learning something.

Memory is a weird thing, sometimes. I can be so immersed in something… then I’ll get distracted and go do something else, and I’ll completely forget that I was working on anything else.

This is something I definitely need to work on. Because it happens to me at work, as well as at play. I lose track of projects I’m working on, at my day-job. And then I fall behind, and it’s a problem. I get turned around and end up behind the 8-ball, which is a terrible situation to be in for me.

I want to stay on top of things and keep current. But somehow I always get lost in the shuffle. I get distracted. I get tired. My brain starts to shut down on me, even while I’m on auto-pilot, just getting through my days by rote repetition.

So, since I know about this, I need to do something about this.

That goes for my job situation, as well as my own personal situation. In my current job, I need to keep up with what I’ve got going on, so I can just get it done and move on. I don’t want to be with this company past the end of the year. I just want to get out of there, and I need to make a career change back to doing programming again. I’ve come to realize that dealing with people all day in a capacity as a project/program manager is NOT for me. It’s been a good experience, but it’s not for me. I need a break from people and their messed-up emotions. I really want to work with machines. They’re very clear. And they don’t play head-games with me.

Plus, I can listen to music all day if I’m coding. I can’t do that, if I’m doing the people-thing. I need to work in a space where I can see immediate results of what I do. I’ve missed being a developer, and I realize now — once and for all — that this is what I’m meant to do. Not manage shit. Not run projects and programs. Screw that. I just want to build things. Make things happen. Forget the rest. I know where I belong, and it’s not in the position where I’m at now.

So, I’m using my time and frustration wisely. I’m building stuff in my free time. I’m doing tutorials, watching instruction videos while I ride my exercise bike in the morning, I’m building stuff I’ve been wanting to build, but haven’t yet gotten around to it. I’ve got some great ideas, and now I just need to work my way through them. I have another 5-1/2 months till I plan to move on, so I’ll spend time each month working on the core skills I need, building cool stuff that I can show to others, and eventually get myself to place where I’m as confident of my abilities as I need to be, to move on.

There’s a lot going on with me that’s pretty exciting, and I’m looking forward to getting up and running in earnest. I’ll start putting my work out there, as it develops, and see what comes of it. It’s pretty fascinating, really, so this will be fun.

I could use a little fun, for a change.

And this time, I’m not letting myself get sidetracked by distractions. I’m on a mission.

Onward…

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So what if it’s awful? That will change. No doubt.

The past couple of weeks have been pretty rough for me. Oh, hell, the past few months have been intense. Family issues, relationship issues, work issues. The whole gamut. And I’ve been feeling like crap, for the most part.

Pretty awful.

So what? It will change. I will change it. And that change starts with me actively amping up my responses to the events of my life in ways that I choose, and that suit me best.

One of the life-changing developments of my life, in the past while, has been using my 90-second clearing to take the edge off my anxiety, anger, fear, adrenaline rush. I learned about how stopping and breathing slowly will stop the downward slide and it gives me a chance to let the stress biochemicals in my system clear out – replaced by ones that are better suited to thinking things through in a rational and adult manner, instead of like the crazy person I can quickly become when I’m pushed too far.

I’ve been doing this 90-second activity for a couple of weeks, now, and it’s pretty amazing. And it shows me — up close and personal — how even in my most frantic state, I can get myself back to some balance. I don’t have to teeter on the brink of madness. I can take a bunch of slow breaths, step back, and turn around and head in a completely different direction.

Which is good.

It puts things in a whole new light. Because now, not only do I know that I can get myself back to feeling human again, but that generalizes to other parts of my life, and I can see how things can change so quickly. For the better. Or, even if they don’t get better, at least I can feel better, and when I feel better, I think better, and things can be improved.

Maybe not overnight, but I can at least make a start…. or, to be more accurate, make another start.

Some days it feels like I’m starting from scratch every single day. It’s weird — and a little wonderful at the same time. I believe it has to do with my working memory issues. I just don’t retain things really close to the surface of my memory — I have to revisit over an extended period of time, preferably with someone in the room. That’s where my neuropsych has come in, for the past four years or so — they’re someone I have checked in with regularly, once a week, to review my progress and keep me on track.

Well, money is short these days, and my copay went up, so I can no longer afford to see them every single week. I’ve switched to every other week. This is — again — weird and wonderful. On the one hand, I feel like an important support for my life has been removed; on the other, I feel like this is an important step for me, to be able to be more independent and draw on my own resources. I cleared out a bunch of old papers from my bookshelves this morning, and I found a lot of notes from my past sessions, and it’s remarkable how much progress I have made. Seriously, I have come a very long way, and I need to give myself credit for that.

Reading those notes is a little disconcerting — I can see how diminished I was, how limited I was letting myself be. But it’s also encouraging, because I’m not that person anymore. Not by a long shot. I think about how hard things were for me, once upon a time, and how awful they were, and I can see how much things have changed. So that is good. And it is encouraging.

The tough times I’m having right now are partly “withdrawal” from my weekly sessions, which have been safety valve for me. I’m adjusting and adapting and coming up with my own ways of releasing pressure and getting my bearings. It’s not easy. It’s very painful and confusing and fear-inducing. But so what? This will change. With practice and concerted effort, it will change. The tough times are also due to some real difficulties I’m having with my environment — and I know it’s not just me. I know it’s not just my attitude. The situations I’m in really do suck — by design by forces driving towards short-term maximum profitability, with long-term detriment to everyone involved. I have been stuck in this short-term frantic hell-hole of a workplace for almost three years, now, and it’s time to go. It just sucks so awfully, and I am simply accepting that as how things are — with a view towards changing it in just a few months.

These are all adjustments. Difficult adjustments. Problems with integration and assimilation — which should be problems, because when sh*t is f*cked up, well… sh*t truly is f*cked up. And there is no logical reason a person should stay in that situation, try to adapt to it, make it feel better, etc. I’m invoking Kasimierz Dabrowski now, who was a Polish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi and Stalinist eras and developed his Theory of Positive Dis-Integration (the “-” is mine in “Dis-Integration” because without it, the word to me means “dissolution” or “falling apart” in an internal sense, which doesn’t mean anything good to me). This theory states that people with high personal development potential, who are able to develop their own identities independent of the crowd, will necessarily go through some dark nights of the soul, as they develop and realize that they really don’t fit in with the crowd, and indeed they should not.

This dark night that people experience is often diagnoses as a form of depression which should be treated – or it’s seen as a disease that has to be cured. Our standard-issue popular response to people who don’t fit in and don’t cotton to the pressures of the “normal” world, is to pathologize and/or medicate and/or institutionalize this state of mind, rather than working through it and seeing it as a sign that there is something more this person can — and should — be experiencing in their life.

That’s kind of where I’ve been for the past while — being keenly aware of how effed up things are around me, seeing the part that I’ve played in making all that possible — how I’ve enabled people to screw me over… how I’ve undercut myself with poor habits and lack of discipline… and most of all how I’ve numbed myself to the raw facts of things not being as they could be, simply by “changing my perspective” and looking at things from an angle that allowed me to make them all right, while ignoring the angles that showed that things were anything but right… and of course seeing how not managing my TBI symptoms and after-effects has made me a lot less effective and with-it than I could have been all along.

Probably the hardest thing to stomach has been realizing how I’ve made things harder for myself, by zoning out in a state of bliss that blocks out any pain or discomfort. I’ve been able to put myself in a state of bliss — total physical, mental, spiritual ecstasy — for many years, now, and I’ve been using that to dull the pain that comes from my everyday life. I also know how to direct my focus to one thing — and one thing only — effectively blinding myself to the troubles at hand. Because I’ve been able to do this — total focus and ecstasy without drugs — I’ve been able to keep myself from falling apart. But I’ve also been keeping myself from coming in full contact with my life and seeing clearly what needs to change.

I’ve been in a lot of pain for a long time, and I’ve managed to find a way to get my own relief. At the same time, that ability to cut the pain and block it all out has held me back from making the kind of progress I really need to make.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do think that things have been so intense and potentially overwhelming that I have HAD to block them out and dull them. I fall apart over little things way to easily, and I have to stay functional. It’s been useful. And I do think that after the years of teetering on the brink of collapse, post-TBI, I needed to normalize and get to stable footing, which is where I am now.

So, in a way, this pain and discomfort is a good thing. It’s a sign that I’m ready to head to the next level and do some more great work, refashion my life, and do away with the things that keep me from living the life of my design. When I can sense the pain, I can take action and move away from it, thus living up to my potential. But when I cannot sense pain, well, I’m destined to be stuck with it for as long as I can tolerate it. Intolerance is a good thing, no matter how awful it feels.

Yeah, I’m intensely discontent and I’m in pain. Good on me. It’s a positive sign that I’m alive and ready to do something different with my life. Do doubt.

Onward.

Sometimes it helps to make a bit of a mess

I spilled water yesterday morning, while I was making my coffee. Twice. Oh, well. It was easily cleaned up. And when I did wipe it up, I also cleaned the counter, which had the odd spot and speck on it.

After the small pond had been sopped up, the whole counter was cleaner, and so was that corner of the kitchen.

I worked most of the day yesterday. Catching up with things I’d fallen behind on. I got an early start and worked through the evening, till late. I took a nap around 4 pm and then got up and go at it again.

It may sound like a lot to do, but it’s actually really relaxing. I actually got to sort out all the things I couldn’t get to during the week, for sheer lack of time.

I love my job. I really do. And it loves me — so much, that I’ve got this never-ending stream of things I love to do… that I need to do. It’s kind of a drag, having so much to do, that you can’t enjoy the things you’re taking care of, but that’s kind of where I’m at. Not much time to relax and recoup. Management has some odd (and fairly uninformed) ideas about what makes people effective. They seem to think that constant change and shifting priorities are exciting.

If you consider adrenal exhaustion exciting, then I suppose it is.

Anyway, I did get a lot done, and I got to do it at my own pace — thoughtfully, mindfully, with an eye on the larger picture. Good stuff. When all was said and done, I didn’t feel like I’d been working — just doing my thing and enjoying it.

I’ve got a new sleeping approach that’s working pretty well for me — not worrying about getting a full 8 hours (and stressing about it, if I don’t), but taking intermittent naps, and pacing myself with time-outs that let me deeply relax. I’ve also found some stretches and pressure points in my neck and lower back that seem to be like “switches” that put me into an incredible state of full-body relaxation when I do them. It’s pretty amazing. I do progressive relaxation at times, working from my toes to my head… but these stretches and points are like an instant shot of relaxation.

Amazing.

Another amazing thing is that I’ve realized that it’s not so much the lack of sleep that wrecks me, as it is stressing about lack of sleep. Getting all tense and uptight just wears me out even more. Of course, it’s not optimal to be running around on 6 hours of sleep each day — and running at a pretty fast pace, too, I might add. But I find that if I don’t stress over it, and I incorporate things like regular stretches throughout the day, as well as naps when I can get them, I can stay in a pretty good space.

When I tense up and get all tight, it actually drains more energy from me. Even with 8 hours of sleep, if I’m stressed and tight, I feel/do worse, than if I have 6 hours and relax into the day.

Mindfulness, too — I have to stay mindful and present and pay attention to what I’m doing. If I get 9 hours of sleep but am just driving myself mindlessly through the day, things have a way of getting completely screwed up. In fact, there’s something challenging about being fully rested. I get so amped up, I tend to overdo it.

Well, it’s all an adventure and an experiment. I got a lot done over the weekend, which makes me really happy. And I found some techniques for instant relaxation, which makes me even happier. I never thought it was possible to feel this good about such mundane things. But I do.

๐Ÿ™‚

Back in the game

Source: stephenhanafin

Okay, I’m back. It’s been a pretty rocky ride, the past several months, with the new job and my spouse going through a lot of personal stuff. Money has been a problem (it still is), and we’re living closer to the edge than we’d like. But I finally feel like I’m starting to settle in.

The business trip I was on, during the early part of this week was a positive and productive experience for me. Truly. We had a company meeting at a great hotel in a nearby city, and despite my reservations, I feel like I did extremely well.

Before going, I was really nervous about not being able to hold my own. There were people there from all over the country, whom I’d heard about, but had never met. There were people there from overseas, as well, and I was concerned about making a poor impression by not knowing the proper manners. I was especially worried about “going off the reservation” and running my mouth and saying stupid things, the way I tend to, when I’m tired and stressed and feeling on the spot.

But I only had a few instances of poor impulse control in conversations. And when I realized I was doing it, I managed to catch myself, stop myself before I went on, and really focused on paying close attention to what others were saying.

There were a couple of times where I was standing off by myself, feeling like an outsider, while everyone else who knew each other were gathered around, talking about familiar things. But fortunately, there were a number of people there who were also new, so I wasn’t the only one. And I also found people approaching me to talk about common projects at work, which was a relief.

All in all, I handled myself extremely well. I didn’t stay stuck in the insecurities that came up, but managed to shift my attention to other things — or just got moving, going for a walk or going to the fitness center, even taking a dip in the pool. I did reasonably well with the food – drank a little more coffee than I should have, and also ate more carbs than I should have. But I can always bump up my exercise to make up for it (which I did this morning).

This is good. I did really well. And what’s coming out of it is a ton of great working relationships with colleagues across the country and also overseas. This is important — so very, very important for me. I had truly believed that I was never going to be able to participate at this level. Truly.

I’m realizing now that with each TBI I’ve sustained over the years, I’ve adjusted down my expectations of what I could do, and what I was capable of doing. The auto accident in 1987, which left me unable to understand the heavy accents of some people for some time, and plunged me into a heavy round of excessive drinking, got me thinking that I have trouble with accents — which is not the case anymore. But there’s a part of me that thinks this is still true.

The accident I had in 1996 which took away my ability to read with understanding for a number of days, got me thinking that I have trouble reading and I will always have trouble reading. It’s true — when I am tired and stressed, my reading comprehension goes way down, and there are many times when I don’t realize till later that what I “read” isn’t what was on the page. But that’s not always the case, and I’m getting better.

The fall in 2004, which turned me into a raging maniac with no patience and a tendency to strike out at things (not people) around me and an almost insane drive to fake my way through everything, had me convinced that in order to succeed in life, I need to adjust down my expectations and not extend myself too much, because if I push myself too hard, bad things happen. I lose jobs. I become almost impossible to live with. I lose money. Bad things happen. And I’m not fit for human interaction.

But after the past few days, I can see clear evidence that this is just not true. When I take care of myself and I pay attention to what’s going on, and I don’t overextend myself to the point of exhaustion… and I carry myself with confidence and reach out to other people, Good Things Happen.

Which is quite exciting.

In a big way, I feel like I’m hitting a reset button in my life. My spouse is, too. They’re addressing some really long-standing issues from childhood which have been holding them back in a very big way. It’s like, we’ve both been going through a truckload of crap, that we can only go through on our own… all the while sharing space in a common house with a (somewhat) common schedule.

The good thing about this is that we can both cut each other some slack. We both “get” that we’re going through some heavy stuff, so we need to go easy at times. It doesn’t always work, and both of us tend to get wrapped up in our crap and forget about being generous and giving a damn about what goes on outside our heads. But things are working themselves out. I’m having the experiences I need to have, and they’re getting the help they need.

All in all, it’s good. And for the first time in a long time — perhaps ever — I can honestly say I feel like I’m truly getting back in the game.

Exercises in frailty

… and humanity, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about what I’ve recorded here in this blog over the past few years. It hasn’t always been pretty, it hasn’t always been very smart, and in places — looking back — it’s been downright embarrassing.

But it’s been human.

Honest, too.

We’re all just trying to figure things out. This is my way of doing it, within the context of my injuries.

We all have those — injuries. And we all have our burdens.

I heard it said recently that by the time you get to a certain age, if you’ve lived your life as a regular person, you’re bound to be a survivor of something.

Indeed.

Onward.

Working TBI issues one at a time

Traumatic Brain Injury issues do not have to sideline you and disqualify you from a productive and satisfying life. There is a way to address your own particular issues, even if your issues are unlike those you hear others talking about. Despite multiple TBIs, starting in early childhood, I have been dealing with recurring concussion/head injury issues regularly and very successfully for years. I have not received any formal rehabilitation, until about a year ago. It’s helping immensely, but I wasn’t “dead in the water” before I connected with my neuropsych. Through trial and error and a whole lot of hard work and practice, I’ve figured out how to make it in the world, TBIs and all.

For me, successful recovery is more about your method and techniques, than it is about treating a specific symptom. Everybody’s symptoms are different. What we have in common is the nature of our injuries — our brains have been hurt, and they don’t behave the way they used to, anymore. It’s confusing and frustrating and overwhelming, and it is really tempting to give up.

A lot of time, I hear people who have been affected by TBI (both survivors and friends/family members) say that when it comes to dealing with TBI, they just don’t know where to start. So, they settle for less of a life than they should/could have.

It’s true – it is hard to know where to start. The brain affects every single aspect of our experience, cognitively, behaviorally, physically… you name it, the brain is involved. And when the brain is injured, then you’ve got problems.

Without a doubt.

What I have found particularly helpful is a daily practice that is sort of along the lines of Give Back Orlando’s approach. It’s not always easy, and it can be time-consuming, but without it, I’d be sunk. Here’s how I handle my issues and manage my life:

  1. Each day, I write down the things I want to accomplish. The things I want to do. The things that will make my life worth living. I write it all down in a list format on the blank side of a piece of 8-1/2×11 scrap paper (I’ve got tons of that), and I put checkboxes beside each item. I also write down the times I want to get them done, if time is important (like an appointment or a deadline). I mark the most important ones with yellow highlighter, so I don’t miss them.
  2. I take this list with me as I go through my day. I use it to keep myself on track and remember what I am supposed to be doing.
  3. If/when I accomplish something, I put a check-mark in the checkbox I drew beside the item and I make a note about why it worked out (like “I was focused” or “I HAD to get this done”).
  4. If I did not accomplish something on my list, or it got totally screwed up, I put an X in the checkbox and I make a note about why it got screwed up (like “I was too tired,” or “I ran out of time because I was impulsively doing other things”).
  5. Either during the day or later on, I take different colored highlighters and mark the checkboxes of the things I got done with green. I mark the checkboxes of the things that got messed up with pink (I hate pink). And I mark the checkboxes of the things that didn’t happen through no fault or doing of my own with orange.
  6. At the end of the day — or on the morning of the following day, if I am too tired the night before — I sit down with the list and look at how I did. I make notes on the paper about what caused me to mess up. I think about what my day was like and I think about how I could have done things differently.
  7. I also make a point of learning about the parts of the brain that manage those things I have trouble with, and throughout the course of my days, I exercise those parts by doing those things in enjoyable ways, so the affected parts work better when I’m doing necessary things I’m not that keen about. For example, I have had a lot of trouble reading and comprehending what I read, since my last accident in 2004. To get myself back on track, I practice reading things I really enjoy and get my blood pumping — like action adventure thrillers and magazine articles about things that fascinate me, and books about current subjects that others are talking about. Malcom Gladwell is a great one to read, because he’s a great storyteller, and so many people have read his best-selling books. I can discuss what I’ve read from him with just about anyone, and they (unknowingly) help me remember and process what I’ve read. The trick with this, is to make sure I don’t wear myself out. I can tire myself out quickly by being too consumed by activities that fascinate me, and when I’m tired, it introduces a whole other set of complications.
  8. When I am putting together my list of activities for the next day, I make a point of referring to my lists from the past days, seeing what was derailing me, and figuring out coping strategies for how to handle my new set of activities. Failure is not an option for me, and some things MUST be done well, or they should not be done at all.

It’s an ongoing process, and it’s become part of my everyday routine. It is extra work, but oh, how it pays off!

It has taken me some time to get this system together in a way that works for me. Give Back Orlando’s approach is excellent, but I needed to tweak some things for my own purposes. I need to be a bit less rigid with how I manage my time, than they appear to be — I understand the need for holding to a schedule, but I have to be more flexible, because that is how my daily professional life goes — it’s a stream of constant interruptions that keep me on my toes. Having my list nearby all the time helps. I also put it into my computer at work, so I am tracking my progress throughout the day.

I am also more expansive than Give Back Orlando with my explanations for why things messed up. Fatigue and exhaustion factor in very strongly for me, as does anxiety, so I focus on them pretty intently.

But no matter what the differences between me and GBO, the approach is more or less the same — decide how you want to live your life, and then figure out what issues are keeping you from accomplishing what you want to accomplish. Address those issues on a case-by-case basis, watch for emerging patterns. Learn about the things that are holding you back. And never, ever, every give up working at achieving what you want to achieve.

(Speaking of Malcom Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” he talks about how you need to do something for 10,000 hours in order to get really good. Regardless of innate talent, people who do what they do for 10,000 hours are consistently better than people who practice/do less. So, it looks like true success is really a matter of time. I’ve got time — it’s one thing I do have!)

If you do your daily planning and analysis and remediation regularly and with intention, and you believe that you are capable of change in your life, I truly believe that (no matter what anybody else has to say) you can overcome the cognitive-behavioral and physical pitfalls of traumatic brain injury. You do not have to abandon your hopes and dreams and settle for less in your life.

You just have to figure out what you want to do, be determined to do it, and work your ass off to get there.

The joy of messing around

Every morning I get up and get on the exercise bike and ride for about 20 minutes. While I ride, I start to wake up… and as I wake up, I think about the day ahead of me.

As I think about my day ahead of me, I make notes on a clipboard I always have with me on the bike. I save all the one-sided scrap paper that results from work I do — old taxes that needed to be re-run through the tax software and reprinted for filing… old projects that I started, along the way, then abandoned, once I realized there was way too much work for just one person to do, and I wasn’t up to finding more people to help me get the work done… old drafts of essays and articles and stories I wrote that never went anywhere, because I realized that I was writing them for myself, not really for anyone else…

My clipboard, needless to say, has a never-ending supply of scrap paper to fill it.

As I pedal on the bike, I think about my day and write down the things that matter most to me. It’s so important for me to do this — it involves me in my day — in my life — as soon as I’m up. And it gets me involved during the exercise that brings me to full living, breathing life. As I am becoming physically involved in my dayย  (through the exercise), I am becoming mentally, emotionally, even spiritually involved in my day, as well. And it is good.

One of the nice things about using a clipboard filled with scrap paper for planning, is that I don’t have to worry about making a mistake or messing up. My handwriting has become progressively worse over the years (it seemed to take a nosedive, after each of my accidents), and trying to read my scrawl can be a real challenge. Especially when it’s written during pedaling as fast as I can ๐Ÿ˜‰ย  Seeing my cryptic scrawl on a sheet of paper in front of me can be a bit daunting. And when I try to write on a sheet of good notebook paper — or worse, a nicely bound journal — it’s very discouraging to see how bad my handwriting is, compared to how it used to be.

And I don’t want to write anything down. It just reminds me of my impairments.

My clipboard, on the other hand, is my “sandbox” where I can scrawl and mess up and write scraggly notes about this and that, and not worry about messing up something that’s nice. Growing up, I was always messing up nice things. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so we had to take care of what we had. That didn’t leave a lot of room for just messing around with writing and drawing and experimenting. Experimenting takes a certain amount of money, it takes a certain amount of existential largesse, a kind of reckless abandon, a ton of tolerance for “waste” … and that’s something my family just never had. So, I got in the habit, early on, of being careful. Of taking baby steps. Of not asking too much and not demanding too much and not taking too many risks.

That childhood experience colored the rest of my life, and when I climb on my bike, first thing in the morning, clipboard in hand, it follows me. It compels me to use scrap paper to scribble my ideas on. It warns me not to make too much ofย  a mess of my paper. It hovers over me, intruding on my mind and spirit.

Pain in my ass.

Anyway, I’ve found a way around that by using all the scrap paper I can find to write down my notes. And then, later on when I am really planning out my day, I transfer my scribbled notes into my computer, in a daily planner that is much more structured and much more neat. Typing up my notes gets me thinking about them in a different way, and it lets me organize my thoughts, so I can get on with the day without needing to hassle over the fine details of when I’m going to do things. Just figuring out how I’m going to do them, is enough of a challenge, thank you very much.

It’s really, really important to me, to be able to “mess around” first thing in the morning. It frees me up to think creatively, out of the box, on my own terms and at my own pace. It frees me up to experiment with ideas and make “mistakes” as much as I like. It gives me a ton of leeway and takes the pressure off. While I’m exercising, pedaling away, I can let my mind roam — let the proverbial wild little dog in the back of my head off the leash and let it run around the park to get its exercise before it straps on the pack to work the rest of the day. Plus, it gives me really fertile ground to dream from. Structure is very freeing for me… but so is a little lack thereof.

It’s all good.

The year after the Berlin Wall came down

1990 was a big year for me. It let me see what was possible.

It was the year after the Berlin Wall came down. And the fall of the wall made all the difference in the world.

[picapp src=”2/b/9/7/Germany_To_Mark_6c63.jpg?adImageId=7420051&imageId=6401834″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /] It was so ironic… and so unexpected to me. I had lived in western Europe (before the wall fell) in the mid 1980’s, and if there was one virtually undisputable, unassailable “fact” of life, it was that the East and West were permanently divided. Germany would never reunite. Both sides distrusted and disliked each other far too much to ever get together again. After all, they had a wall right through the heart of their nation.

So, when I heard that the Wall was coming down, I was flabbergasted. I could hardly conceive of it. How was it possible?! It wasn’t! What was going on?! How could this be?!

I puzzled and puzzled over it for days and weeks and months… hardly able to get my head around it. But in the end, there it was — the Berlin Wall had fallen. Germany was reuniting. It was the end of an old order that had utterly failed to live up to its dread promise.

And I began to think. In the last weeks of 1989, when my life was in a shambles, and I was more keenly aware, with each passing day, how skewed my path had become… in those final weeks of that year, as I contemplated the fall of the wall, I began to seriously question the other “absolutes” of my life that I — and everyone around me treated like divinely ordained directives.

I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I could extricate myself from the bad domestic situation I was in. I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I could do more with my life than I had, up to that point. I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I did NOT have to live as a dependent on another person who controlled all the money and time and activities and told me what I should and should not do with my life.ย  I began to think… to believe that radical, life-transforming change was indeed possible, and I didn’t need to accept “inevitable truths” about my life.

I began to hope.

And I began to change. Over the course of 1990, I changed my activities, I changed my friends, I changed my job. I changed my living arrangement, stepping out onto cold, cold inner city streets with just a duffel bag of clothes, and heading to the home of an acquaintance who’d offered me their couch, in case I needed to step away from that life. I had seen that the Germans had done the “impossible”… the “unthinkable”… and lived to not only tell the tale, but celebrate it, as well.

I changed. First, I changed my choices, then I changed my actions. Then I changed my exoectations, and the results of these changes started to show up. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but I’ve never been afraid of hard work, and I knew in my heart it was bound to pay off.

And it did.

I’m presently reading The Art of Possibility by Ben and Rosamund Zander.ย  I tried reading it, 3-4 years ago, but I found it hard to digest. I also found some of the content somewhat academic and mildly annoying. But I think I was too focused on the idea that I had to pick up every single point they were making, and that over-attention to too many details threw me off.

Now, I’m just sort of skimming my way through, letting my eye catch different pices. I may not “get” the whole message, but it’s a lot more enjoyable, this time around. And I’m actually reading, which is a huge thing.

Thinking back over my life, there are a whole lot of years I spent living with my own version of a Berlin Wall running through my heart. Not knowing why I was doing the things I was, why I couldn’t manage to complete things I started, not understanding why I was having so many difficulties, led me to section off pieces of my life from the view of others. I screwed up so many interpersonal interactions, I failed at so many different activities, and yes, I had such a hard time, on and off, finishing reading what I’d started — and understanding what I did manage to read — that I figured the only way to keep viable in the world was to hide those parts of me away. To wall them off and not let the rest of the world in. I was a mix of bravado and intermittently crescendo’ing anxiety, and there were large parts of me that others had no idea were there. How could they know? I had walled them off, because I didn’t understand that the difficulties I was having were because of my neurology, not because of my innate nature.

Now, 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down, I am again thinking about the aspects of my life that mimicked that wall. I am thinking about the parts of me that have made me (and others) nervous for a very, very long time. And I am thinking about how to (re)incorporate them into my life. Now that I understand the true nature of my issues, I can go about addressing them. Now that I know that my most persistent difficulties are NOT a result of a flawed character or “sin”, I can approach them as logistical challenges, as learning experiences, rather than sources of shame and disgrace.

When I do this — when I take down the wall and look at what’s behind it, with an eye that is both accepting and inquisitive… and critical in the most positive sense — I transform my difficulties from burdens to teachers. In the Give Back Orlando material, they talk about how your Head Injured Moments are like gold — full of value for study and examination and learning.

When I first read that, I thought they were crazy, but now I see that the difference between my difficulties being burdens or bonuses, is how I approach them. If I stand off at a distance and keep the wall up, they become threatening and ominous… dark shadows that threaten the very fiber of my existence. But if I engage with them, if I take down the wall and let in the light of day, and I eagerly accept them as teachers, instead of dread skeletons in my closet, they become the compost that feeds the garden of my life. They’re the stuff that makes up fertile ground for future growth — and many, many abundant harvests.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am deeply grateful for all that life has brought me. There has been plenty of pain and suffering, but there’s also been incredible joy and delight. And as I think back on the changes I went through, 20 years ago, I think about that Berlin Wall, how suddenly and unexpectedly it came down, and I think about how that sort of sudden, dramatic, positive, life-altering change can — and has — and will — take place in my own life.