Just being grateful solves a lot

I’ve been struggling a bit, lately, with some resentments and frustrations. Starting a new job and feeling like I’m new all over again has been a little tough. I want to know what I’m doing. I want to have expertise. But I have to go through the process of doing that. And after being alive and learning so many lessons for around 50 years, now, there’s a part of me that feels like I *should* know more than I do.

I know I need to learn in my current position. I need to learn who the people are, how to use the technical tools, how to navigate the political landscape, and so on.

I just get tired, I guess. I’ve been having some long days, lately, and things at work have been quite frantic, with a deadline suddenly looming, where none was just a week ago. It’s been a bit of a fire drill, to tell you the truth, and it’s taking a lot out of me.

I am also going to be traveling this weekend, so that means I have to do more to get ready. Sigh. At least I slept till 6:30 this morning, instead of waking up at 5:30.

Of course, I didn’t get to bed till after 11:00. Oh, well. At least I got about 7 hours of sleep. That’s better than I’ve been doing regularly, for quite some time.

So, the good part is, I’ve gotten some sleep. And another good part is, this seems like a company I can be productive and happy at, for the long run. It doesn’t feel like a contract, right now. It feels like the beginning of a permanent spot, and for the first time in years, I’m happy for that. I did feel that way, to some extent, at the last company I worked at… until they moved the office farther away, mixed up the organization, and screwed everything up.

I actually do miss my old friends from there — I’ve really been feeling that, lately. But I don’t miss the company. I’m just so glad to be done with them.

Anyway, back to the present. I’ve realized that with all my struggles and difficulties — feeling tired and disoriented and harried and a bit stressed over adjusting, not to mention a bit of political drama (already… it only took me 2 weeks to screw up) — the one thing that helps the most is gratitude. Sleep helps a bit, but it can wear off. Fatigue or restedness are not things I can will into or out-of existence.

Gratitude, on the other hand, is something I do have control over. I can change my frame of mind and change my attitude, and reach a place where I am really, truly grateful for everything I have around me. I look for the good, and I look for the benefits to the situations I’m in, and it really turns around my outlook and mood. In my darkest times, making a list of all the things I’m grateful for — especially good things that are buried in the midst of tough situations — brightens my outlook and lifts me up out of my funk.

Things at work right now are pretty challenging. I have a bunch of things on my plate that I need to sort out, and it doesn’t feel like I have the time or updated ability to do them properly. But they are big opportunities. So, today I’m starting out with gratitude and focusing on the things I can do, the lessons I can learn, and I’m concentrating on the positive things that will come out of it.

People at work are starting to warm up to me. And I’m learning the lay of the land. So, things are looking up. I just can’t let myself fall into a funk over stuff that’s transitory. The sources of stress and strain right now — the unfamiliarity, the uncertainty, the lack of connection with people — will all sort themselves out over time. I just can’t let the tone for my work be set by that temporary state. Not when a better permanent state is just around the corner.

I never know when things will turn around. So, I’ve got to keep steady and positive. And look to the brighter tomorrow. For so many good things that haven’t even come to me yet, I am truly grateful.

 

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Focusing on better things

Lose some... and win some too
Lose some… and WIN some too

This is my last week at the hell job I’ve been stuck in for the past four years. In so many ways, it has tested me. That’s not a bad thing, and maybe I needed to be tested in a lot of those ways.

But I’m done with that particular gauntlet now, and I’m ready to move on.

Before I go, though, I need to do what I can to really remember the good that has happened to me as a result of working there. That job gave me stability and a sense of continuity with the people around me (if not with the company as a whole) that was a good foundation for me.

I did an awful lot of recovering there — getting on my feet logistically… and socially, too. The environment is highly social, so I was really forced to connect with people in ways I had never done before, and on a scale much wider and deeper than I ever needed to before.

There’s something about everyone battling the same obstacles that brings a team together… though I think that it’s more effective to have actual obstacles, rather than artificial ones. Focus on the real enemy — the competition — rather than manufacturing artificial obstacles, such as an inefficient workspace, a long commute, difficult working conditions, inadequate budget, and a “lean” workforce that is so over-taxed, they don’t have time to actually enjoy the goodness of life.

But I’m skewing to the negative again.

Of course I’m doing it because I’m regretting having to leave. Or am I?

I know I’m regretting that I’m leaving my colleagues in a really tough spot. They have to do even more with even less, and it’s bothering me that they’re not getting the help they need. Then again, they’re all free to go as well. Anytime they like. Nobody is keeping them there, and they can leave, as well. It’s their choice. We all make our choices.

And in looking back at the last four years, I need to remember that — it was my choice to stay there, it was my choice to keep making a “go” of it. I could have thrown my full attention into developing the skills and abilities I needed to leave. It would have been slow going, but I could have done that and really made that the focus of my attention and energy.

But I didn’t. I chose to stick around. I chose to stay and make the best of it. And the opportunities that came my way… I said “no” to a lot of them. That was my choice. I had my reasons. I might not remember exactly what those reasons were, on down the line, but I have to trust myself that there really was a reason for staying.

Indeed, there was. And up until a month ago, plan as I might, there was not a good exit path open to me. I was actually committed to sticking out the summer with these folks — and possibly beyond — to get those major projects off the ground and to help with the usual summer rush work. The summer is an intense time at that company, because there are huge projects in the works that have a September deadline, and people all over the world have to pull together to make it happen. I have been sacrificing my summers for the past three years, to help make that happen, and I can’t say it’s been all that gratifying. It’s been good experience, which has paved the way to this new job. But it wasn’t much fun when it was happening.

Still, it served its purpose, and that’s what I have to believe about everything I’ve done at this company for the past four years. It’s all served a purpose, teaching me hard lessons, and paving the way to what’s next. For all the difficulties, I’ve become more resilient and resourceful. And for all the challenges, I’ve come to appreciate the good things in life all the more.

Before I started at this company, I just took certain things for granted — like technical expertise, adequate resources for critical positions, executive recognition of What Matters Most. And autonomy. I really took that for granted, because I’d been working in self-directed circumstances for over 20 years.

Seeing the other side of things, and realizing that no, things aren’t always organized in effective, efficient ways, has given me a new appreciation for those things — teamwork amongst team members… everyone pulling together as one. And now I value it so much more. Going on to this next job, I’m incredibly excited to be back in my “natural habitat” again — back amongst my professional peers who aren’t all making the same mistakes I made 15 years ago, and wondering “why did THAT happen?”

Oh, god…

Anyway, that’s rapidly disappearing into my rearview mirror. I’m sure there are things about the company I’m leaving, that I’ll really miss, later on. Or perhaps not at all. Who knows? All I know is, I’m moving on, and I have the whole world ahead of me. I have a new lease on life, and my other projects are picking up steam in a very big way. In another week, I won’t be glancing at the clock, dreading an hour-long commute. I won’t have to juggle my morning to schedule my drive to the office at a time that will strike a balance between minimizing my time in traffic and maximizing my productive time at work.

And I won’t have to hassle with that horrific open space plan.

Holy crap, those two things alone will make it more than worth the change.

Now I’m even more excited… and I’ll start getting ready for work in a few, to make one of my last drives into that office. I’m only going into the office one day this week, so this is #4… 3… 2… 1…

Time to get the game-face on and get into a good mindset. The past four years have seen tremendous growth for me, and I’ve come so far — in no small part because of my coworkers and the pressure they’ve put on me to integrate and socialize and be a real part of their team. They really have been a huge part of my life — my only social life, in fact. And I will miss them.

Well, some of them, anyway…

Regardless, in the next week, my primary purpose is to look for the good, find the good, see the opportunity, buckle down and finalize things that need finalizing. And do my best to tie up whatever loose ends I can, so I can leave my soon-to-be-former teammates with at least a fighting chance.

The day is waiting. Onward.

whats the difference between a concussion and actual brain damage?

Why you should wear a helmet!
Why you should wear a helmet!

This question was asked recently in a search engine, and the person who asked it ended up here on this blog. A lot of people have been searching for concussion information, some worried about brain damage…. and worried about becoming stupid as a result of their concussion.

Concussion, while technically a brain injury, can vary in its severity, as well as the outcome. You just can’t say, from one person to the next, whether or not a person sustains lasting and significant brain damage as a result of a concussion. Some people heal relatively quickly and show no signs of injury after the fact. Others heal more slowly and experience some changes, but get back to their lives without huge impact. Still others struggle for a long time after their injury and have considerable difficulties well into their future.

It’s very individual, and it’s also very unpredictable. That’s what makes concussion and brain injury so frustrating — and interesting at the same time.

The thing is, you have to factor in neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to shift and change and “remap” itself. Contrary to what we’ve been told for many, many years, the brain actually does change, and damage can be overcome. There are numerous stories about people who overcome serious neurological problems to live incredible lives. The book The Brain that Changes Itself (click here to buy it) is a great example of how the fact of neuroplasticity can trump the impact of neurological problems — some of them acquired.

See, here’s the thing for me — even in the face of concussion, even in the face of brain damage, the fact of the matter is that you can overcome a huge amount of difficulty by proper management of outcomes. Over at The Concussion Blog, they talk about that a lot — the problem isn’t concussion (it happens), the problem is managing it when it happens. It’s the same with any brain injury, I think. Brain injuries happen. TBI happens. Sh*t happens. We often have no control whatever over that.

What we DO have control over, is how we respond to it. And when we respond with educating ourselves and coming up with smart and common-sense responses to the issues, rather than running in circles, or running in fear, we improve our chances of a positive outcome dramatically.

Think about it, folks — concussions and traumatic brain injuries have been happening since the beginning of time. And yes, we’re still here. We’re still pluggin’ right along. We don’t have to curl up in a ball and give up. We don’t have to say, “Oh, I’m brain damaged – that’s it, then. I’ll just have to give up on ever having a normal life.” … or “Oh, you’ve had a TBI, and that’s it – you’re f’ed up and you’ll never change.”  Both of these statements are based on fear and ignorance, and a real lack of knowledge about what the human spirit is capable of doing.

The human spirit is capable of so much, and so long as we have that — and an earnest desire to improve and work towards something positive — we still have hope.

Ultimately, the difference between concussion and brain damage might not matter so terribly much. Of course, severity plays a role. But attitude has a lot to do with it, too. Both of them (regardless of severity) can be sidelining, if you decide that they mean you’ve got problems that will never go away, and the challenges are more than you can take. If you decide that all hope is lost, and it’s pointless to pursue any sort of recovery, that you need to just accept your “new self” as you are and not reach for something bigger and better, and you refuse to adopt different ways of reaching the goals that matter so much to you, then ultimately there probably isn’t that much difference between concussion and brain damage. The effects can be similar, if not the same. A lot of it depends on how you approach it.

Now, I’m not saying that concussion and brain injury are laughing matters, or you can just shine them on and pretend they never happened. Brain injury introduces permanent structural changes to your brain… and concussion can, too. The thing is, the brain is an awfully big place with a whole lot of potential for change. And if we just give up, we never give ourselves (and our loved ones) the opportunity to learn and grow and adapt and have all the life that is possible for us and them.

Brain injury changes a lot. Concussion can change a lot, too (see The Biography of a Teenage Concussion for more discussion of that – it’s a new blog I just discovered recently). But if we stay flexible and focused, we can do a tremendous amount to overcome whatever new challenges stand in our way.

whats the difference between a concussion and actual brain damage? Sometimes, it’s all about the attitude.

When TBI help is not helping

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about how I never got any diagnosis, rehab or therapy help for my MTBI’s (until the past year or so), and how that has affected my life. I’ve been seeing a therapist who is a neuropsychologist, as well as a diagnostic neuropsychologist who has helped me understand a great deal more about how my TBIs have affected not only my brain by the rest of my life, as well. And it’s great to be getting this help — and to be able to talk to friends and family members about my TBIs in ways that are helpful and actually informed.

But I have to wonder if maybe one of the reasons I’ve been able to function as well as I have (in certain ways) is because I’ve gotten next to no “TBI help” from people in my life. Nobody ever recognized (as far as I could tell) that being knocked out, falling down stairs, and/or being hit on the head a bunch of times, could have as big an impact on my cognitive and behavioral expressions as it did. Nobody ever approached me as someone with special needs who needed special attention, and whose needs should be accommodated.

To be clear, I had a lot of problems when I was a kid. The falls and sports concussions and the attack that knocked me out when I was eight appear to have skewed my behavior to the extreme, and I was pretty tough to handle at times. But all through my childhood, difficult as it was, I was never cognizant of having “problems”. I thought it was everyone else who had the problems, not me. I didn’t perceive myself as being different — in part because my parents never treated me like I was different, just difficult… in part because I think my perception was so anosognosic (I had no clue that I had no clue what was going on) that I couldn’t self-assess and self-regulate at all.

Granted, it’s no fun growing up being told that you’re lazy and a bad seed and that you’re just not trying hard enough.  It’s no fun having all the authority figures in your life yell at you, make fun of you, chastise you in public, discipline you, and generally hound you to do things you have a really hard time doing (if you can do them at all). But all the messages from my childhood that I internalized that took a toll on my self-esteem, as an adult, I can nowadays reason my way past them and reverse their impact simply by understanding that they just weren’t true.

Now, if I had grown up with the belief that I was damaged, broken, deficient… and that there was nothing to be done about it, other than compensate and make concessions and get special treatment from the powers that be, I think that might have taken an even greater toll on me. Because it would have been true. Irrefutable. Definitive. Sort of. I could totally see myself falling into this state of resignation over my broken brain and just never having any hope of building a real life for myself. I might have given up and become even more marginal than I was — not because the rest of the world didn’t understand me and my mind was having trouble wrapping itself around its difficulties, but because my spirit would have probably been broken, and I would have ushered myself to the margins and just been glad for what little I could get from life… hiding in the corner and sneaking out when no one was looking to gather crumbs that fell off the proverbial table.

I think, too, never having an explanation for why everything was so damned difficult for me all the time, actually helped me. It didn’t give me a reason to quit trying. All around me, throughout my life, people with expectations were giving up on me. Parents. Teachers. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Neighbors. Cousins. Just about anyone who had expectations of me had them dashed in short order. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t seem to get it right. But I didn’t have a reason to stop trying. I was never told, “You’ve been injured — permanently — so why bother?” I was never “reassured” that it was okay to fail. I was encouraged to go easy by some people who lost faith in me, but I never gave up on myself, and I never lost faith that somehow, some way, I would figure out how to get done what I set out to do.

I just wasn’t giving up. I didn’t have any tools given to me, that I can recall, other than try-try-again, and I had to come up with a lot of systems of my own, but I did try-try-again and I did come up with systems. And somehow, some way, I did manage to build a pretty impressive life — and resume — in the process.  It’s been a long, tough row to hoe, and I’ve been knocked down more often than I care to think about, without people offering me a hand up. But you know what? I can bounce. That’s what I do. I bounce. I’m like one of those Weebles. I wobble, but I don’t fall down — permanently. Sure, my self-esteem is for crap, a lot of times, and I automatically disqualify myself from activities I messed up as a kid, which I could probably do now that I’m grown. But I’ve figured out how to keep moving, keep progressing, keep advancing… even in the total, utter absence of self-esteeem.

Surprisingly (compared to what I hear said all the time), you don’t actually require ironclad self-esteem to get stuff done in the world. In some ways, having severe self-doubts and low self-regard can keep you honest and working hard.

Now, I would imagine that TBI folks who receive formal rehab and are given tools to use to get by in life may have a more pronounced sense of ability because they receive guidance and training and rehab therapy that is meant to reassure them that they can do what they set out to do, and is designed to return them to functionality. And when they bump up against the upper limits of their capabilities, it may come as a surprise. I think that would be even more upsetting for me than not realizing you have problems, and encountering problems, time after time. I think that would eventually take a huge toll on my spirit. I would think, I’ve been shown strategies and given tools. Why aren’t they working? What’s wrong with me? Am I really that messed up? Why am I not getting better?

I wouldn’t know exactly what it’s like, because I’ve never had real rehab or occupational/speech therapy. But if I were getting rehab therapy, I would probably be inclined to push the envelope of my abilities, and I’d probably fall flat or run out of steam over and over and over again — and be really pissed off that things got mucked up. I should be rehabbed, right? That’s just me. I don’t know if others experience that, as well, but knowing myself and my tendencies, that’s probably where I’d be.

Another thing that I think might happen with people who get rehab and whose friends and families know about their head injury, is that they get moral support and encouragement from their various relationships, but when they muck up, they get that subtle (and often unarticulated) message that it’s okay for them to be less functional than they’d like to be, ’cause they’re brain-injured. So, they shouldn’t feel so bad about it. And maybe they shouldn’t try so hard… maybe they should just accept themselves as they are and settle into the kind of life that has been given them, rather than the kind of life they want to create.

I notice that happening in my immediate circle, where people close to me who know about my head injuries are trying to be loving and gentle, but they end up.. well, “emasculating” me in the process of my “journey towards wholeness”. I mean, it’s all very well and good for them to care enough about me to reassure me that I’m still a good person who has value, but it’s not helpful for me for them to downplay the importance of trying to do my best. It’s not helpful for me to have expectations lowered, and accept failure as a given. I’m still a work in progress, and there’s no telling how far I can go in life, given the right tools, the right approach, the right form, the right level of effort. But all too often, my circle of supportive friends and family seem to settle for accepting me as I am, which also includes accepting my screw-ups as being okay.

I wish they wouldn’t do that. I’ve got to have a talk with them about what I would like them to do.

For me, so much of doing well in life is not so much about innate ability, as it is about spirit and determination to develop what ability I have into something more. I think that’s something people lose sight of — especially later in life when full-grown adults (like me — I’ve got a birthday coming up, and I’m getting closer to 50 than 40 — when did that happen?) — are starting to wind down a lot of their activities and/or they’re accustomed to working with a set of abilities that they’ve honed over the years, but haven’t really worked at keeping up. And they figure they can just draw on what they’ve accumulated in the past.

For me, no matter how old I am or how much older I’m getting (and I’m damned lucky to be getting older, lest I forget how many close calls I’ve had in the past), I am not in a position where I can just slack off and accept things for what they are. If the rest of the world wants to retire and fade away, I’m not going to stop them. If the rest of my peers are going to quit improving and honing their abilities and making as much as they can of what talents and interests they have, I’m not going to stand in their way. But for me, I have to keep moving, keep improving, keep at it. And I have to not take any of my “innate” abilities for granted.

Doing that is inviting disaster.

That being said, I really think people need to be reminded that none of us has any guarantees in life, and freedom is never free. It’s entirely up to us, what we choose to do with our talents and interests and abilities, as well as our injuries and setbacks. Just because you have experienced an injury does not mean you’re any less able to improve than anyone else. Or that you are entitled to work any less hard. If anything, you have to work harder — but remember, that hard work can really pay off. No, there are no guarantees, and you may end up expending a lot of effort for what seems like a relatively small pay-off, but if you take delight in the discipline of the work itself, and you get something out of just having at it with all your might, then the outcome — while important — does not become the be-all-to-end-all.

And the work itself becomes its own reward… As well as all the perks you get from building your character and inner strength while working your everloving ass off.

But it’s still work. And to do your best, you have to keep your spirits up. And to keep your spirits up, you need to not be constantly reminded that you’re less-than (’cause the doctor said so), or that you’re disabled (because the insurance company said so), or that you’re any less deserving of your place at the table in life. You need pep talks and coaxing of all kinds — gentle as well as matter-of-fact. You need supporters who support the person you can become, not just the person you appear to be at the moment. You need backers who are realistic and optimistic at the same time — not out of some pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna BS, but because they know for a fact that the human experience is a deep, deep mystery full of ups and downs and twists and turns and wrinkles and Burmese tiger traps, but what good is life, if you’re just going to sit on the sidelines and cry boo-hoo?

So, it’s hard. This is news?

Okay, okay… I understand the necessity of grasping limitations, but at some point, if you’re going to have a life, you have to grasp all the harder at the things you have going for you, the things that make you a viable human being, your positive qualities and strengths that enable you to see past your limitations… and even turn them around in your favor. No, I’m not really that pleased that I’m at an age when I “should” be able to settle into a comfortable routine and rest on laurels I started growing 25 years ago. No, I’m not thrilled that when my peers are being promoted into higher and higher positions and paying off their mortgages and starting to have grandchildren, I’m still struggling with the basics, like remembering whether or not I’ve shampooed my hair this morning. I’m not at all giddy about the prospect of having to keep lists of really simple crap I have to do for the rest of my born days, in order to get anything done. I would like to be able to kick back and enjoy myself after all these long, arduous years.

But y’know what? That’s not going to happen. Not if I want to have any kind of a life. And it does me no good to sit around boo-hoo’ing about it.

So, what’s the story I want to tell myself today about my life, to get me in gear and make peace with the hand(s) I’ve been dealt? I think about my ancestors, some of the first pioneers who were “sodbusters” in the Great Plains several generations ago. Okay, I don’t agree with them displacing the Native tribes on that land or tearing up the prairie grass that kept the topsoil from blowing away and ending up in the Mississippi, but there’s a quality to their experience and their characters that I need to access for my own purposes.

I come from pioneering stock. The hunger for the frontier is in my bones. My great-great grandparents didn’t cry and moan about having to trek to the outhouse in -40 degree weather and thigh-deep snow to relieve themselves, and they didn’t whine about having to clean up with rough corncobs and Sears catalogs. That’s just how it was. It was the price they paid for the chance to live on the frontier and make their mark and be free to do as they pleased.

They didn’t fuss and fret about tending to wounds without a doctor nearby. They didn’t wallow in self-pity when the grasshoppers devoured their whole harvest. They didn’t freak out when life didn’t work out the way they wanted. They buckled down and did something about it. Or they accepted what was, and they worked at dealing better with it all next time.

In this age of junk food, convenience stores, cheap furniture, easy access to worlds of information, trained professionals whose services are paid for by insurance, and more and more tools to figure out how to live your life, it can be all too easy to forget the element of struggle that life can bring with it. And the harsh reminders can be hard to take. But in the end, life lived thoroughly is often a tough, tough thing to handle, and not everyone is up to the job of urging us onto the high, perilous road that leads to True Success.

Whether they’re professionally trained or in our innermost intimate circles, the people who are trying to help us  might be doing us the biggest favor by not letting us fail gracefully, by not reminding us that we’re diminished, by not accepting our shortcomings as a matter of fact. It might be hard for them to be hard on us, and it might be hard for us to hear what they have to say, but sometimes you just have to bite down on that piece of rawhide, take a long slug of whiskey, and do your best to hold still while your buddy digs that piece of lead out of your arm, cleans it with that stinging sour mash, and ties it up so you can both ride on.