My neuropsych is out of town for a couple of weeks, so I’m fending for myself. I had a kind of rough weekend, capped off with a meltdown over some real concerns over my spouse’s self-care habits (such as they are).
What I had hoped to convey was, “You have to take care of yourself, or you might as well be leaving me – it’s not healthy to live the way you do, and I care about you too much to be comfortable watching you live like this.”
What actually came out was, “I can’t believe you are doing this shit all over again! Didn’t you learn the first time? Do you really want to cut your life short and have it be friggin’ miserable, because you can’t be bothered to actually take care of your own health?!”
Clearly, they’re different messages, and the second one is a far less effective one, because it just triggers all their fears and anxieties about death, and they end up terrified and on edge and not wanting to be anywhere around me. I got home from work late last night, and they promptly left the house to “run an errand”. Yeah, I got the message. Whatever.
Really, people, it’s not that complicated to take care of yourself. It’s also not that complicated to recover from concussion/mild TBI. Granted, there are complexities in the brain and the human psyche that complicate things terribly, but when you break it down into its different pieces, and when you have the orientation that the human brain and the human system work on simple cause-and-effect… and the brain is constantly rewiring itself along the lines that we choose to rewire it… it simplifies things even more.
So, why is it so friggin’ hard to make lasting changes in our lives? Why is it so incredibly difficult to recovery from mild TBI/concussion? Why are the long-term outcomes so disheartening, and why are so many of us – each and every day – struggling with things that could be so easily dealt with? Why do we not do the things we know are good for us, and do the things we know are bad for us? Furthermore, why do we do things that are obviously BAD for us, thinking that they are somehow good? I don’t get it.
I think the thing is, we don’t do what we do because of logic. We do what we do based on how things feel. We “go with our gut” when we should really be using our heads. And we can easily and quickly talk ourselves out of doing the exact thing we should be doing, with some lame-ass excuse that doesn’t even look good on paper. We can justify anything — hell, we DO justify anything — just… ’cause. And in the end, we do tremendous damage to our bodies and minds and hearts and spirits, for reasons we cannot detect.
There is so much needless suffering in the world, it’s not even funny. And yet we just accept it as “the way things are” and go on doing what we do that screws us up, day in and day out.
Looking at people who are close to me who choose to do things that are just unbelievably unhealthy, the one common theme that unites them all, is that they’re all trying to ease the pain. The pain of a difficult childhood. The pain of dashed dreams. The pain of lost love. The pain of disappointment and hurt (both incidental and deliberately inflicted by others). So much of what’s done by the unhealthiest people I know is about easing their pain… rewarding them for just getting through the day… making them feel normal and whole again, if only for just an hour. They spend countless hours in front of the television, snacking… or on the computer (again, snacking)… or sleeping… or distracting themselves from their discomfort with gossip or chatting with friends or playing games of one sort or another.
And yet, very, very seldom, do I see these people actually taking regular steps to overcome the behaviors and habits that cause them pain in the first place. They are in a lot of pain over pulled muscles and they can’t move much… but they don’t actually do things for themselves that will heal those muscles and strengthen them when they’re feeling better. They have diabetes and high blood pressure, but they ease the pain of anxiety over their health by sitting around and snacking till 3 a.m. They have problems with their eyes, which need to rest to heal, but they push themselves even harder and just put drops in their eyes when things become intolerable. They have problems at home, and they can’t stand their relatives, but they still go along with their spouse on trips to visit those problem family members and they give into whatever their in-laws ask.
Some small changes could go a long way to making things easier for these people, but they don’t seem particularly interested in making those changes. Somehow, it is easier to just keep doing what they’ve done, even though it’s made their lives more difficult and even dangerous. And when I talk to them about making changes and keeping on with it, they agree that they would like to, but it “just never seems to happen.”
Hm. Okay, then. Here might be one of the issues — seeing life as something that “just happens” rather than being something that we direct, each and every day, with our thoughts and behaviors and choices. The belief that life “just happens” to you seems to go hand-in-hand with a history of victimization as a kid — at least among the folks I know. Those I know who make the most hair-raising choices about their lives and do the least for themselves, were abused as kids in one way or another, and they openly state that they’re lucky just to get through the day. They see themselves as incredibly unable to actually make changes in their lives — change is what happens to them, it’s not what they make for themselves.
How do you talk to people like that? When I say they’re “incredibly unable to make change” — I mean just that — it’s in-credible — not credible — not to be believed. It’s just flat-out untrue. We all make changes in our lives, each and every day. We just aren’t aware of it, either because the changes are slow coming or because we’re so used to doing certain things that result in certain results, that we just take those things for granted. Like turning the steering wheel of your car will move your vehicle in a completely different direction, some of the choices and actions we take in life are so ingrained that we don’t even really think about them.
But other choices and actions — some of which take less practice than steering a car, or are even simpler to do (it doesn’t take nearly as much eye-hand coordination to not dish up a third helping of that high-calorie, high-carb foodlike substance for your dinner at 10:00 at night) — seem so difficult… so impossible… that “it just can’t be done.”
And so we stay stuck.
Same thing with mild TBI/concussion recovery. I know I need sleep. I know I need at least 8 hours to be normal and human. I know I need to track my activities and behaviors, and I know I need to exercise on a daily basis. But do I? Not nearly as well as I could — and should. I operate on far less sleep each night, I don’t track my daily activities like I once did, and I don’t exercise each and every day. I am working on all these things, which are quite simple to do — but they’re also unbelievably hard to accomplish, each and every day.
Now, I know I’m human, and life is an experiment in imperfection, but there are some hard and fast guidelines that will obviously help me live my life to the fullest — and I haven’t been following them the way I should. I run out of steam. I lose motivation. I can’t seem to get inspired. And I fall short. Again and again. It’s pretty discouraging, actually, because I know what I know and I am determined to use that knowledge… and yet I don’t. Like my diabetic friends who just don’t take care of themselves, there are plenty of things I just don’t do — much to my detriment.
The weird thing is, I’m not a victim. I don’t perceive myself as one, and I don’t live that way. Or do I? All the world, it seems, is full of messages about how helpless we are, how hapless, how terribly victimized we — and others — are in the face of terrible events. Watching the news and/or other evening television, there seems to be a constant stream of messages about how helpless people are, and what a pity it is for everyone to have such bad luck. I see this on television dramas, as well as the news — someone tries to do something, then fails. Someone attempts to do something, but can’t. Due to circumstances beyond their control, sh*t gets eff’ed up. And they end up even farther back than when they started.
So why start, right?
It’s weird — it’s like there’s this concerted effort to educate us in very subtle ways about how it’s all quite futile, and the best we can expect or hope for is to be comfortable in the midst of our suffering. I grew up with folks who believed that this life was all about suffering and the best they could hope for was eternal reward for doing good on earth while they were here. There wasn’t much hope in that outlook. Nor is there a lot of hope in the movies and television shows that portray people making poor choices, getting into trouble, and just being lucky enough to extract themselves from near disaster. Nobody talks about how they might have avoided the situations entirely if they’d just thought things through. It’s all about overcoming adversity — even if the adversity was created by you.
Anyway, there’s a lot more to it, but I’m running a little behind schedule, so I need to wrap up. What makes us do the things we do? What makes us think the things we think? There is so much — so very, very much — that we can do to help ourselves, whether we’re dealing with TBI or not. And yet, so often, we don’t do it. We do something completely different, as though we had good sense. And then we wonder why things don’t work out.
Ultimately, I think it comes back to the body — our physical state — and the idea that many of our decisions actually happen prior to the emergence of conscious thought. Our bodies are primed for fight and flight — especially if we have a history of trauma or traumatic injury — and we rely on that state to get us through our days. We rely on it so much, that we create conditions that put us into a state of constant stress and strain, because this will give us the kind of energy we’re used to having and using to get by.
After being wrapped up in my job change drama-world for the past month or so, I’m coming back to the Polyvagal Theory information that I got so excited about a while back — then got distracted from, because my attention got pulled off in a million different directions, and somehow I felt I HAD to explore those different directions. The Polyvagal Theory says just what I have been suspecting for quite some time — that the thing that drives so much of our action and our decisions actually takes over before conscious thought, and it hijacks our decision-making process to serve its own individual needs.
With this understanding of cognitive hijacking, the question of why people do what they do (when doing that is obviously so bad for them – and might even kill them) makes a lot more sense. And it brings me back to my exploration of the Polyvagal Theory. Gotta get that focus back — it’s incredibly simple, and it totally makes sense. But it’s also unbelievably hard.