One Potato, Two Potato… A Tale of a Temper Flare

It was such a small thing. It was no big deal. So, I dropped the potato on the floor. So it slipped out of my hand and got away from me. I didn’t really need to flip out and slam the potato peelings into the trash can and curse a blue streak. I didn’t need to startle my partner and frighten them with the intensity of my reaction.

But from the way I lashed out after I dropped the potato, you’d think it was a huge deal. My temper flare was totally out of proportion to what happened, and I was totally unable to stop it. And that’s what drives me crazy.

Once again, I have overreacted extremely to a seemingly minor annoyance, turning a proverbial molehill into a mountain — no, a volcano. My partner is steering clear of me for a while, till I simmer down. My blood is pounding in my ears, I’m sweating like I’ve just run a hundred yard dash, and my head is spinning with the sudden crash of waves of unexpected emotion on my once-staid interior. Dinner might turn out okay, but the evening is pretty much ruined.

And I am humiliated.

It started out so simply. I had a long day at work, and I was looking forward to just chilling out, making my signature dish for supper — meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green peas. I don’t have the biggest cooking repertoire, and my partner usually does the cooking, but for some reason I make a killer meatloaf. After the long day I’ve had — no, a long week — tonight I need some serious comfort food.

I had intended to take off early and get home at a decent hour, but I got tied up at work with some last-minute things I needed to take care of. Running later than expected, I called my partner to say I was running behind, then did some shopping on my way. I picked up the 93% lean ground beef, egs and milk, and some extra celery, then waded through late-rush-hour traffic, and finally got home. Not bothering to change out of my work clothes, I rolled up my sleeves, chopped and mixed and patted together a pink loaf of beefy joy that would soon enough brown to perfection. I was running behind where I had hoped I’d be, but in another hour and a half, all would be well.

While the meatloaf was cooking, I turned my attention to the potatoes, and I suddenly remembered I’d intended to pick up some fresh spuds at the grocery store. A sudden flare of irritation rose in me, but as I picked through the potatoes we did have on hand, I found enough that were still in good enough shape to eat. As I rinsed them under cold water and shaved off their skins, I was having trouble hanging onto them. I could tell I was pretty tired from the day. The oblong shapes were slippery in my hands and I had to really concentrate at keeping hold of them, when I didn’t have rough potato skin to grip for traction. The peeling knife was slippery in my hands, too, and I struggled a bit with carving out the eyes and removing skin from tight crevices and wrinkles in the flesh.

As I turned away from the sink with one of the skinless tubers in my hand, suddenly it jumped from my grip. I tried to catch it as I felt it slide from between my fingers, but it escaped and landed with a thud on the linoleum and skittered away from me, as though it had a will of its own.

In an instant, my whole system was flooded with a sudden cascade of intense emotion. I could feel the blood rise in me, an adrenaline cocktail of volatile biochemicals boiling up at a moment’s notice, and I saw red for a split second. I felt something vicious in me coil and uncork like a thunderclap, and all I wanted to do was stab that fucking potato with the peeler I was wielding. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself stab it viciously, without hesitation or remorse, till it lay in shredded fragments before me.

“FUCK!” I fumed. “GODDAMN IT TO FUCKING HELL. MOTHERFUCKING PIECE OF SHIT! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!” I cursed the tuber. The unnamed thing that had coiled and unsprung inside me started to thrash, like a wild animal caged and prodded with an electrical probe. My gut churned with fierce lust for vengeance, and my head suddenly cleared of everything but a cold, cold drive to annihilate. Reaching for the nearest thing, I snatched up a handful of potato peelings from the sink and slammed them into the nearby trash can. Some of the peels slipped from between my fingers, and I pounced on them like a ravenous predator. I dropped to my knees — work clothes and all — and with tightly closed fist, I pounded them on the floor, as the inside of my head roared with rage. “STAY THERE, YOU GODDAMNED COCKSUCKING PIECE OF SHIT,” I hissed at the inert piece of vegetable peel. “DON’T FUCKING MOVE.

The potato peel obliged me and lay still on the floor in front of me. The inside of my head howled with frustration and rage, and I snatched up the offending object and threw it violently in the trash atop the rest of the peelings. My breath was heavy and ragged, and my torso was tracked with rivulets of sweat that descended from my chest and armpits to my belt. The whole kitchen seemed to shift and sway before me, and the overhead light became unbearably bright.

Behind me, I heard a sound, and my partner appeared in the doorway.

“Are you alright?” they asked, as I picked myself up off the floor and crossed the room to pick up the potato that had slipped from my grasp.

“I’m fine,” I muttered, as I snatched up the maverick spud and turned back to the sink to rinse it off. The rage that had torn through me just moments before suddenly receded with the presence of another person in the room. The part of me that knew that losing my grip on this slippery vegetable didn’t warrant the firestorm I’d unleashed perked up and pulled me back from the brimstone brink of my outrage.

I felt my partner’s eyes on me, but I couldn’t make eye contact. Their gaze followed me back to the sink, with an all-too-familiar sense of apprehension and defensiveness. This was not the first time I’d blown up after a long day at work, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be the last. I could feel the recrimination in their eyes — What are you getting so upset about? Why did you freak out over just dropping the potato? What’s wrong with you? Why are you so … violent? I knew all the questions, but I didn’t know the answer. All I knew was, I had been overcome by a wave of emotional overreaction that — once again — had blindsided me and reduced me to a big baby — pitching a fit over some stupid little thing and making me look like a raving maniac. For nothing.

As I ran water over the potato and I nearly lost my grip again, another smaller wave of anger welled up in me, but I held it back. I could feel my partner’s eyes still on me, watching to make sure I wasn’t going to get out of hand and break something. I’ve broken things in the past, slammed things, thrown things – the cracked dustpan that we keep in plain view in the kitchen is a constant reminder of how intensely my temper can flare, and how violently I can become as a result.They needed to make sure I wasn’t going to wreck anything in the kitchen.

Again.

I willed myself to act as though I were once more calm, and as I systematically went through the motions of cutting the last remaining potato into quarters, my partner’s wary curiosity was satisfied, and they disappeared again into the living room. Quiet… they were quiet in that way they get when they’re afraid of me and unsure about how the rest of the evening is going to go. I was quiet, too, willing my system to chill and not radiate the white heat of unprovoked rage that my partner can instinctively sense.

But though I seemed fine on the outside, inside part of me was still writhing. Still smarting. The crash of the rage felt like it had cracked something in me… as though a heavy anvil had fallen onto my foot, cracking and breaking bones… bones I needed so I could walk the rest of the way through my day. Something in me felt bruised and battered, but the hurt had come from inside my system, not outside me. And I had been defenseless against it. If the attack had come from someone or something beyond my own skin, I might have been able to defend myself. But this attack came from the inside, and it hurt as much as if I’d been jumped in an alley and beaten by thugs.

Yes, this attack had come from inside. From the depths of my being, the core of my character. At least that’s how it felt. I felt damaged and inept. Useless and beyond help. My insides felt sick and worried. All this drama over a little potato… All this rage over some stupid couple of minutes of me losing my grip… in more ways than one. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered “Why can’t I deal with something that simple? My partner doesn’t seem to have this problem. Why do I?

Keeping quiet, keeping to myself, I adjusted the setting of the burner beneath the boiling potatoes and headed upstairs to change my clothes. The best I could hope for, was that my meatloaf would redeem me, and that the food I was preparing would be more comfort for the one I loved, than my own self was, that night.

Snap! Anatomy of a TBI temper flare

If you’re a TBI survivor, you may be very familiar with the flares of temper that can sneak up on us unawares. It is very disconcerting, if you’re a pretty even-keel sort of person, or if you really don’t want to pitch a fit, but find yourself flying off the handle against your own will.

This has happened to me as long as I can remember — temper flares that come out of nowhere and decimate not only my relationships with people around me, but my self-esteem and self-confidence, as well.

I recently wrote a post called One Potato, Two Potato… that talks in greater detail about my experience of an intense temper flare that builds up over time.

I actually have identified a number of different kinds of flares I experience:

  1. Flares that originate inside me – and come up suddenly without any warning
  2. Flares that originate inside me, but percolate and develop over time, till I boil over. (That’s what One Potato, Two Potato… is about)
  3. Flares whose source originates very suddenly outside me – they’re knee-jerk reactions to external conditions that actively provoke me.
  4. Flares whose source comes from outside me that percolate slowly until I boil over.

There are other ones, as well, and I’m devoting a fair amount of my time, these days, to thinking about them. Of all the cognitive-behavioral issues I have, my temper flares are some of the most challenging. And since so many people reach this blog by searching for info on TBI and temper, I know I’m not the only one.

For the uninitiated, here’s a general description what happens in one of my TBI temper flares, how I deal with it, and how I pull out of it:

  1. I have a goal in mind — it can be as simple as picking up a pencil, or as complicated as making a three-course dinner.
  2. I turn my attention to the thing I want to do… think about doing it… think about not doing it… and then I decide to do it.
  3. I shift into gear — I reach for the pencil… or I start peeling vegetables for cooking.
  4. Suddenly, something stops me — I drop the pencil, or a potato slips out of my hand and skitters across the floor.
  5. A sudden wave of violent emotion sweeps through me, like a wildfire through dry California underbrush. My eyesight dims briefly, as my heart pounds and adrenaline floods through my veins. I want to strike out, lash out, hurt whatever is getting in my way. I curse the pencil… or I feel a sharp stab of rage directed at the potato. If I were able to kinesthetically direct energy at will — and if my temper had its way — the pencil or the potato would be a smoking little pile of ashes.
  6. In the back of my head, the calm, collected voice reminds me that it’s just a pencil or a potato, and that no one was harmed by this thing slipping out of my hand. I don’t need to strike out and harm anyone, just because I lost my grip.
  7. The part of me that doesn’t care for these temper flares is mortified at my intense reaction. It’s deeply ashamed that I would get so worked up over such a little thing. So what, if the pencil or the potato got away from me? What’s the big deal? The wild animal part of me that flared intensely is cowed and tries to defend its reaction, but when the logical, sensible, even-keeled part of me prevails in its reason, that little animal part of me slinks away to a corner to lick its wounds and chastise itself for being bad… again.
  8. In an attempt to de-escalate my just-add-water instantaneous rage, I pause and take a measured breath. I turn my focus back to the basics — the simple act of picking up the pencil… retrieving the potato from the other side of the kitchen. I focus on the most basic aspects of the moment, waiting till the rage subsides and I can get back to doing what I started out doing.
  9. If all goes well, I can continue with my task and not suffer too much at the hands of my self-recrimination. If things aren’t going well, like if I’m stressed or fatigued or scattered, I may throw something or curse or hit something or lash out… with the consequence of not achieving what I intended to achieve, and descending into a downward spiral of shame and blame and guilt and embarrassment. If I’m lucky, no one is around to see this. If I’m out of luck, someone I love and care for is nearby and is strongly impacted — and quite negatively so — by my sudden rage.

Now, I’ve noticed that if I have built up a lot of momentum around Step 2, my rage response is much more intense, than if I proceed with measured pace, taking things one at a time. I also need to be careful not to indulge every reaction that comes to mind.

It’s helpful if I can sit back and just observe myself, not participate 100% in the whole unfolding drama. But observation doesn’t always work. Especially if I’m tired.

Over the coming weeks (early 2009), I’ll be writing more on this. It may be helpful to others who are dealing with the challenges of TBI temper flares… with greater or lesser success. In fact, some folks have said that what I’ve written so far, is very helpful to them, so it’s my hope that I can help more.

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Temper Guidelines Post TBI

One of the biggest problems I’ve had, related to my TBIs, has been my temper. I can’t tell you how many times it’s gotten away from me and really made life difficult for people around me, and — as a result — for me, as well. I’ve lost jobs because of my temper — which, in these tough times is a real problem. I’ve alienated friends, too — and considering how difficult it is for me to attract and keep friends, I really can’t afford to do that. I’ve hurt the feelings (and really scared) my family members many, many times, and I have to live with that for the rest of my life.

Not only is it very painful for me to lose control of my tongue and say things I know are hurtful to others, but it’s also really tough to be increasingly marginalized by people around you, because of your short fuse. On top of that, my brain doesn’t always realize it’s losing its temper, and I end up often reaping what I unconsciously sow… finding out later that my behavior was volatile and unacceptable, and I didn’t even fully realize it.

Now, interestingly, recent research has uncovered a connection between losing your cool and dementia. Google has something like 145 stories on it (See especially Staying Calm ‘Prevents Dementia’ at BBC News and Dementia Rarer in Calm, Outgoing People at WebMD.) Given this research, and also the fact that dementia runs in my family, it really raises a red flag from me, and it points out even more clearly how keeping calm and not losing my cool will not only help me stay “socially viable” but it will also help keep me from losing my mind.

Here are my personal guidelines for managing my temper:

#1: It is Never Okay to hurt another person because of my temper. I don’t care if it’s accidental or if I can “justify” it in my mind. It’s never, ever okay for me to hurt another person because I can’t keep my cool. The world has enough unavoidable pain and suffering in it, without me adding to the overall amount. No matter how upset I may be, no matter how justified I may think I am, I do not give myself permission to just run around saying and doing hurtful things because of my temper.

#2: Whatever I make wrong, I have to make right. I am only human, and I tend to slip up. But when I do slip up and do/say things that are hurtful to others, I have to make an effort to make it right. I don’t care if I choke on the crow I’m eating. I don’t care how humbling it may be. I have to make right what I’ve done wrong. Either through apologizing, or making it up to the person I’ve hurt, or both.

#3: No matter how right I think I am, chances are I’m wrong, so I may actually not have a basis for blowing up. This is probably one of the most challenging things for me to accept — the fact that my brain is broken, and it may be telling me the wrong things, so I might not actually have a good reason to get upset. But if I forget this, I can end up on one of these “righteous anger” crusades that makes me impossible to work/live with. It’s just no good. And later, when I realize what I’ve done, I feel like such an idiot. It’s just not worth it to me, to go down a road that I’ll regret for a long time, just because I lost sight of the fact that I could be (am probably) wrong.

#4: When I feel myself getting so upset that I cannot keep myself in check, I have to just remove myself from the situation. I’ve been in too many really volatile situations where I’ve lost my head and loosed my tongue and ended up on the business end of life’s cattle prod as a result. I have blown up at co-workers, only to have them turn on me and engineer my layoff… I have blown up at family members, and I spent years afterwards subjected to their passive-aggressive victim revenge. That doesn’t make what they did/do right. It just points out that I need to stop my “downward slide” if at all possible, and if I can’t, I need to just step away and not engage with them anymore. Pick up the conversation later, when I’m cooler. But while I’m still hot, just step away.

#5: When it comes to police, it’s best to keep my mouth shut. I’ve come very close to some intense confrontations with police officers, because I didn’t understand what was going on, and/or I misinterpreted their signals — and they misinterpreted mine. If ever there was a time for me to keep my friggin’ mouth shut, that would be it. There’s nothing like looking back and realizing you came this close to being busted over saying/doing something really stupid, to adjust your perspective. I’ve learned to really chill, when I see a uniform approaching. And to make an extra effort to be polite and as brief as possible. I just can’t afford to get arrested and have a record. Not when I have a family to support.

#6: Don’t get too tired. Or, if I am fatigued, slow the heck down. My thinking gets very foggy, when I’m fatigued. My judgment is off, and my temper tends to flare. I have to be very vigilant about my fatigue level. And when I’m tired — and I know it — I need to take things very slowly and be a lot more systematic about how I do things. If I’m tired, I can’t deviate from my routine. If I do, I tend to get confused and then my fuse gets shorter. And I don’t do well at determining which things matter and which don’t. It just gets messy. And if I’m tired AND hungry, well, then, all bets are off.

#7: Don’t get too hungry. Sometimes, when I’m under stress, I will not have any appetite at all. I just have no interest in food, and I’ll skip meals. That’s not good. I can become hypoglycemic, and then my temper flares. I need to keep my blood sugar pretty constant, and keep my system stable, so I don’t get overwrought over little things and make everyone around me nuts, including myself. When my blood sugar is low, my thinking gets foggy, and I get agitated. It’s not good. So, even if I’m not hungry, I make the effort to eat regularly and make sure I don’t eat a lot of junk food. If I’m still hungry, an hour or two after I’ve eaten well, I have a glass of water, which can cut that sense of being hungry. I really try to keep on a regular eating schedule, no matter how little I want to eat. I often find, also, that starting to eat makes me hungry.

#8: Talk it out — either with someone else, or just with myself. I’m the first to admit that I’m really bad at this. I’m not good at broaching sensitive subjects, and I’m not good at talking about my feelings with other people. I’m not even good at talking about them with myself. I actually spend a fair amount of time doing “self-talk” — in the car while I’m driving to/from work… in the shower, when I’m getting ready for the day… even when I’m making my breakfast or cleaning up at the end of the day. I find that even when I’m not able to really articulate things well with other people, if I’m with a good friend who knows me and my silent signals, they can often coax out of me what’s up. And when I do talk about what’s up with me, I feel better. Like I said, I’m really bad at this, but I’m working at it. Because I have to.

#9: Don’t be stupid by moving too fast. Okay, so I’m head-injured. So what? I still have the basic ability to tell the difference between a smart thing to say and stupid thing. Well, most of the time, anyway. The problem arises, when I move too quickly and don’t look before I leap, or consider what I’m about to say before it gets out into the world. Given time, I can often determine if something is a wise thing to say, or not. But if I’m moving too fast and just “firing at will,” I can get into trouble really quick. This is a particular hazard when I’m actually feeling well… feeling energized… feeling cocky and spunky. I can get turned around, even when I’m feeling good, and suddenly lose it. Because I’ve been moving too fast. And I haven’t been thinking things through before I say/do them. Ironically, the times when I think I’m feeling best are sometimes the times when I’m quite fatigued, but I don’t realize it. It’s that stress-induced analgesia factor again — I’m so pumped up, just trying to move through life when I’m dog-tired, that I don’t even realize how tired I am, and my fatigue can catch up to me. I find that paying close attention to what I’m doing, and slowing down, and not saying/doing things when I’m MOST convinced they are great things to say/do, helps keep me out of a lot of hot water.

#10: Don’t overestimate my ability to deal with stressful situations. Dude, I’m like totally brain-injured. My life, as successful as it appears on the surface, has hallmarks of multiple mild tbi’s all through it. I can never forget that. My brain is broken. I have found ways to compensate and live with my difficulties, but I’m still diminished, compared to where I was 5… 10… 15… 20 years ago… and especially compared to where I could be, if I hadn’t gotten hit on the head so often. As much as I hate and resent the fact, it still is true that I have deficits, and they are often even better-hidden from me than they are from others. Adventures in anosognosia… So, I have to stay humble, stay realistic, stay honest. And not overestimate my capacity for stress. Stress is a killer. It kicks the crap out of me. It wears me down and turns me into someone I do not particularly like. I can never forget that my brain is different, since those injuries, and I can’t take anything for granted. On the one hand, this sucks royally, but on the other hand, it makes me intensely grateful for the times when I am okay, and things are going well.

So, there are my Top 10 Guidelines for surviving my temper-related deficits. I don’t always adhere to them as well as I should, and some of them are constant struggles. But if I can be moderately consistent with them, I find my temper is more easily controlled, and I’m a much better person. I’m also easier to live with, work with, play with, be around.

It’s not much fun, having to constantly play by these rules, but it sure beats the alternative — constant roller coasters of temper flares and jags and violent confrontations.

I’d rather live by the rules and stay out of trouble, than run wild and free and end up persona non grata — or worse, behind bars.

How I deal with the source(s) of my temper issues

Over Thanksgiving, I was telling someone for the first time about my mTBIs, and they asked how I figured out it was a neurological thing, and not just me having a bad day.

I rattled off “cognitive problems” and “memory issues” and “tinnitus” and “constant headaches” as examples. One of the folks who was traveling with me, who has known me for nearly 20 years said, once and for all, “Rage — it was the rage.”

I was abashed to admit it then, and I still am, but it’s true. The sudden violent rages – the yelling, smashing things, going off on people, becoming infuriated over very minor things, rolling along at a full boil, completely unable to stop my downward plunge into the blackest and most aggressive of moods… It’s always been rough for everyone — myself and everyone around me — to weather my tirades. But dealing with the aftermath — mending the broken ties, or having to say goodbye to people I hurt beyond repair, or having to look people in the face after I’d roasted them over the blazing fire of my temper — the aftermath has been at times even harder and more trying to deal with, than the events, themselves.

I can identify a number of sources of my temper flares:

  1. Fatigue – not getting enough sleep makes me think slower, and when I’m not processing quickly enough, my frustration level goes up, while my ability to monitor and manage myself goes down.
  2. Not eating properly – being hungry makes me mad quicker, and eating junk food stresses my body and makes me even more volatile than usual.
  3. Being/feeling alone – I feel assailed and overwhelmed and put-upon, when I’m alone (either for real, or perceived)… I often feel like I can’t keep up, and I’m going to pay for it.
  4. Not preparing adequately for stresses that I know are coming down the pike – not only does this open me up to the increased stress of the unfamiliar, but I also tend to beat myself up for not being better prepared, which just throws gas on the fire of my temper.
  5. Self-recrimination/blame – being hard on myself makes me even more aggressive and short-tempered with others, while cutting myself some slack eases my attitude towards others.

Ironically (or perhaps not), what is best for others, is when I take care of myself. When I’m in a good place and I’m happy with who I am and my place in the world, I tend to go easy on others, have patience, do well. But when I’m hard on myself, everyone around me pays – big time.

So, I:

  1. Make a point of getting enough sleep. Sometimes I work from home, so I can nap mid-day.
  2. Plan my meals and eat well-rounded meals and avoid junk food like the plague it is. I also stay away from sugar, which whacks me out.
  3. Reach out for help, either by contacting a friend/relative, or going online and either researching or participating in forums to help others and get help.
  4. Plan my days and weeks and months ahead of time. I can’t tell the future, but I do know that if I’ve got a lot of appointments in one week, I’m likely to be more tired along the way, so I try to schedule in some down-time. If I’m traveling or visiting family, I try to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the trips. And if I have a busy week coming up, I try to “choreograph” my time as best I can, so I can dance my way through, instead of bumbling about, bumping into everything that gets in my way.
  5. Go easy on myself, make lists of things I do right, make lists of things I’m grateful for, remember how far I’ve come and how much I’ve accomplished in my life. Even if some of the things don’t seem like big deals to others, they may be to me, so I try to claim every small victory I can.

TBI and temper often go hand-in-hand, but if I know my stressors and I am aware of how my life is shaping up, I can often head off problems at the pass.

Most of all, I try to keep an open heart and a clear head and seek to help others whenever I can. Seeing that others have troubles, too, and seeing that I can help them, not only makes me feel grateful for all I have and makes me grateful for what I can do, but it also gets me out of my head… which can be a very dangerous place to be trapped.

Better today… of pain and ptsd

Well, I got to bed by 10:00 last night, and I was able to sleep through till 6:30 or so, which is an improvement over what I’d been able to do over the last weeks.

I’ve been kept up by anxiety over what my neuropsych evaluation is going to reveal — that’s coming up this week — me being terribly afraid that I had given wrong information or I just couldn’t think my way through certain things… I’ve been second-guessing myself for days and days, wondering if I answered as accurately as possible… of if maybe I’m more crazy than head-injured… or that my head injuries have led to some sort of mental illness that’s invisible to me because of my anosognosia… or maybe I’m just on this wild goose-chase that will end up being all for nothing.

I try to be level-headed and logical about this and remind myself that my neurpsych has been doing this for many years, and they have certainly seen worse cases than me. But still, not being able to be a full participant in the process and being a subject of examination and enquiry… well, that makes me uncomfortable, and even if I do trust the doctor. I just don’t know what to expect, and I cannot manage my wild rang of emotions, if I don’t know what I’m managing for.

Fortunately, I do feel better this a.m. — not so much pain, not so much tenderness. I got a bit of a massage yesterday p.m., and it really, really helped. Even if it was painful at times — I don’t care. Short-term pain for long-term benefits. I’ll take the pain in the short-term, if it will help me feel this much better in the a.m.

I still have discomfort when I move – especially in my hips and lower back. And my elbows are still sore. And my thighs are still tender. But I can push up my sleeves, so they’re not chafing my wrists, and my body isn’t screaming so loud I can’t hear myself think.

I tried the Arnica yesterday. i can’t say I noticed an immediate effect, but I’m going to keep trying it — 4 tablets dissolved under my tongue 4 times a day, for a few days. I’m going to take it again after I finish my cup of coffee. (I’ve heard that you have to be careful taking homeopathic remedies when you’re eating or drinking. It’s my understanding that the remedy needs to be the only think you can taste… or I could be wrong.) I’m not off caffeine entirely — that would be too much. But I am cutting back. I only had one cup yesterday, which I think helped me sleep.

This arnica experiment is definitely going to be totally screwed up by my other changes I’m making. In a “real” test, the only thing I would change would be taking the arnica, not getting more sleep or changing my diet or getting more exercise. But dude, I’m in pain, and I need it to stop, so I can get on with my life.

Thinking about the role that pain has played in my life, I think there’s a definite trauma aspect to it. I have friends who specialize in treating trauma, both in medical and psychological environments, and they talk a lot about it. They also love to tell me I’m a “trauma survivor” — having had a whole bunch of accidents that left me progressively more impaired, as the years went on, along with the social, interpersonal, and physical after-effects of my impairments that haven’t helped me get by in the world.

And since I have a history of trauma — physical, as well as psychological — I have to admit I do show signs of PTSD.

Over at Wikipedia — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder — I found this (note: my comments are in italics):

The diagnostic criteria for PTSD, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (Text Revision) (DSM-IV-TR), may be summarized as:[1]

A. Exposure to a traumatic event – multiple head injuries over the years, along with other accidents and fights/clashes with people that threatened my safety
B. Persistent reexperience (e.g. flashbacks, nightmares) – I’ve had lots of them over the years… where do I begin?
C. Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma (e.g. inability to talk about things even related to the experience, avoidance of things and discussions that trigger flashbacks and reexperiencing symptoms fear of losing control) – some things I just will not talk about… you can pump me for details till the cows come home, but I’m not talking about certain things that have happened to me, unless I can know that it’s not going to ruin my life, if I do
D. Persistent symptoms of increased arousal (e.g. difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger and hypervigilance) – well, yuh, I’ve had more restless nights and being jolted awake at 3 a.m. with my heart racing and my body soaked in sweat… than I care to think about
E. Duration of symptoms more than 1 month – try months and months… sometimes years later, after the initial event is over
F. Significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (e.g. problems with work and relationships.) – just ask my friends, family, and co-workers… just ask my 17 former employers

Notably, criterion A (the “stressor”) consists of two parts, both of which must apply for a diagnosis of PTSD. The first (A1) requires that “the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.” The second (A2) requires that “the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.” The DSM-IV-TR criterion differs substantially from the previous DSM-III-R stressor criterion, which specified the traumatic event should be of a type that would cause “significant symptoms of distress in almost anyone,” and that the event was “outside the range of usual human experience.” Since the introduction of DSM-IV, the number of possible PTSD traumas has increased and one study suggests that the increase is around 50%.[48] Various scales exist to measure the severity and frequency of PTSD symptoms.[49][50]

Now, this is all pretty thick stuff for me to get into. Personally, I don’t feel like I can take on much more to process, other than just dealing with my own pain… but I have to say, the pain is worse, when I’m feeling the after-effects of some past trauma. When I’m dealing with people who have really physically hurt me in the past — like adults who used to really knock me around — or I’m interacting with people whom I have hurt in the past because of my bad behavior and poor social integration.

When I think back on being a kid, I remember a lot of pain, both from internal sources and from without. My pain issues date back to fairly early childhood – I was not a very limber kid, and I had a lot of difficulty doing things that other kids could just do, like touching toes and climbing and jumping and doing cartwheels and such. I had a lot of trouble with my balance, and I couldn’t do a somersault until I was about 5 or 6. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I do remember the day I did my first “real” somersault — I didn’t fall off to the side, but was actually able to just roll right over and keep my balance. When I tried to stretch and extend, like other kids could, it was very painful for me. But I kept trying, and I just forced myself to stretch and extend… until the pain was too much, and I had to stop… which was usually far short of where I wanted to be.

I wanted so much to participate, to take part, to be a part of what was going on. I hated being on the outside, not able to do what other kids could as easily as they could, so I pushed myself — very hard. There was a lot of pain, but that was just the price I paid for being able to be a part of what was going on.

The other source of pain was from the outside. I was raised by parents who didn’t know how to relate to me. I tended to get over-stressed and over-extended with all the stimuli going on around me (including the pain), and they tended to discipline me. Grab me. Jerk me around. Take hold of my arms and pull me to where I was supposed to be. It was excruciating, and it was shocking. My memories of childhood are full of instances where my mom would grab me out of the blue — I wasn’t following what was going on, and I didn’t understand what she wanted me to do, so she would yell and/or grab me and pull/push me to where I was supposed to be. With my sensitivities, it was like just being pounded out of the blue, time and time again. I could never prepare for it, I could never brace for it. And I didn’t really “get” why it was happening, a lot of the time.

I wasn’t able to explain my “bad” behavior to them, and they didn’t seem much interested in finding out if I was having problems, or if I was just a bad kid who needed discipline. I think, because of their religious orientation and the role that my very religious grandparents had in our lives, they “went with” the religious explanation that I was a “sinner” and that “sin” or the “devil” had taken hold in my life, so I needed to be disciplined to stop my acting out.

So, they did. I got called a lot of names, when I was little, because I couldn’t keep up cognitively or physically — spaz, space cadet, bugger, doofus, spastic… that was my dad. My mom preferred to call me pathetic or disgusting or asinine (asinine was her favorite). I was actually shielded from their wrath a lot, because I didn’t understand till I was 7 or 8 or 9 (?) that they were actually talking to/about me. I thought they were just saying what they were saying into the blue. It didn’t occur to me, till I had been in school for a few years, and other kids were calling me names, that my mom and dad were calling me names, too.

Actually, come to think of it, it didn’t occur to me that my mom was calling me names, till a few years ago. Somehow, being mistreated by my mother is a lot harder to take than being mistreated by my dad.

Even when they showed affection, my family’s hugs and touches were extremely painful. My family — for whatever reason — loves to give big, hard hugs, and it hurts like crazy when they do! I don’t know what it is that makes them think it’s okay to just throw their arms around someone and squeeze so hard… or maybe they can’t really feel it, themselves, so they have to have hard hugs and forceful contact, to even tell someone is there. My grandparents were hard huggers, and my mom was/is, too. She loves to reach out and grab people as a sign of affection, which is a double-whammy — I don’t want to shut her out, but I cannot take the force of her contact. Just over Thanksgiving, she was walking by me, and she reached out and grabbed my arm as a sign of affection. And when I was getting ready to drive home, with the weather being as rainy as it was, she got scared for my safety and she just threw herself at me and hugged me really hard, which really hurt.

I still haven’t figured out how to tell people that when they touch me, sometimes it feels like they’re pounding on me. It’s embarrassing, it’s troubling, and I dread people knowing just how much pain they’ve caused me. Being in pain is bad enough, but then “spreading it around” by telling others about it — and telling them there’s nothing they can really do, but keep their distance — is just awful. I’ve done it before, and it’s awful. Awful to be pushed out to the margins. Awful to be forced to push people away. Awful to have to hold them at arm’s length and never let them close, without pain.

Thinking about growing up in constant pain, raised by people who repeatedly hurt me terribly, is definitely not easy to take. I have to tell myself my parents weren’t fully aware of the effect that their behavior was having on me, and that if they’d known what it was like for me when they grabbed me or hugged me, they would not have done it. I have to tell myself that they had no idea, that they were innocent. Believing that my parents would intentionally harm me, is more than I can process right now.

But it’s probably worsening my pain, to hold back from that belief. Now that I’ve been away from them for a whole day, I’m starting to relax, and I’m starting to be able to adddress my pain. I think when I was in the midst of it all, I was so shut down that even if I’d been in terrible pain — which I may have been — I wasn’t aware of it. I was up in my head. I was too busy talking. I was too busy trying to stay out of arm’s reach of both my parents.

I rarely notice until days after the fact, but when I am in the midst of family at holiday/Thanksgiving time, I hold as still as possible for long periods of time — both as an attempt to not draw attention to myself, and to keep myself from acting out when I get stressed. When I’m stressed, my brain stops working really fluidly, and I end up needing to take more time to explain myself. But when things are all wild and woolly, like at my parents’ place at Thanksgiving, I don’t have the time to fully explain myself, and I end up hurting people’s feelings from a poorly told joke, or an attempt to josh around with others, and then I start flashing back to all the other times I said/did things that people took the wrong way.

Yes, I hold very, very still during the holidays… both for my own protection and that of others.

And it probably doesn’t help my pain — because of my rigidity and my disconnection from my body.

And it doesn’t help my PTSD. Because I go back to that place where I’m on auto-pilot, where I’m just keeping my head down and keeping moving, where I’m just doing what’s in front of me, and not aware of whether or not I’m hungry or tired or anxious or stressed. And when I’m not aware, when I’m just soldiering through (as I do so well!), I tend to push myself even harder — do more stuff, take on more tasks, be more manic, be more forceful, be harder on myself and add more things to my to-do list — and that cuts in on my sleep, it cuts in on my rest, it cuts in on my physical well-being.

And I have pain. Lots of it. Tearing, ripping, screaming, shooting, chafing, burning, crazy-making pain.

So, in a way, the pain is like my barometer for how I’m doing, stress-wise. It tells me if old stuff is coming up that’s making me do things and make choices that aren’t healthy. It tells me if I’m falling back on old patterns, letting my fears and anxieties and old hurts stop me from living my life. It tells me if I’m tired — and it tells me that I’ve let myself get over-fatigued and ill-nourished.

It’s an objective measurement of how I’m doing psychologically and physically. And it gives me a great “excuse” (in my mind, when a simple reason won’t suffice) to step back and cut out all the shit I’ve got on my plate… focus in, take care of basics, talk over my issues with my therapist, and make sure I get plenty of rest. It tells me, loud and clear and in no uncertain terms, that I’m totally f’ed up, and I need to stop doing what I’ve been doing, and just take a break. Take care of myself. Have a long, hot shower. Take care of myself. Now.

Unless I do, I’m going to stay in pain. That’s just the way it is. And it’s my choice.

In a way, pain is my friend — but only because it’s my mortal enemy.

What happened in the field that day

Here’s what I remember:

I was about 8 years old and I was playing up at a field near my family’s house. I was with my younger sibling. The field lay right between two different neighborhoods, and we never went into the other neighborhood by ourselves. We rarely went there at all, period. We were playing about 50-100 feet from the entrance on our side of the field. The line of garages that flanked the alley on the other side of the field were behind us, and we were facing the direction that our one-way street went.

The field was bounded on the other side by a high (maybe 20-foot) chain link fence, and our side was the only “real” entrance to the area.

My sibling and I were there by ourselves for a little while, then two kids appeared on the other side of the field. They crawled under the bottom edge of the fence, slipping through a depression in the ground and looked over at us.

We looked over at them — I’m not sure if we called over to them and said hello. I’m not sure if we even acknowledged their presence.  I suspect we didn’t. The kids weren’t supposed to be there — they had crawled under a fence that was built to keep them out, after all. As I recall, we decided to mind our own business and keep playing.

The kids called over to us a couple of times, but we ignored them and just kept playing. Then they started yelling at us — calling us names. We didn’t respond, and after a while they started throwing rocks at us.

At first the rocks didn’t fall very close to us. It was a bright afternoon, and we wanted to play. We decided we were going to stay put. My sibling wanted to go home and pulled at me to go back home. But I said we needed to stay. Or maybe I just thought that, and my sibling just went along with me. Our dad was really into standing your ground and not backing down from your position, if you were threatened, and I wanted to make my dad proud of me and not give in to bullies. I remember the thought going through my head, that we needed to stand our ground and not just run away.

Several rocks fell closer and closer to us. I think the other kids threw 3 or 4 rocks before they got close. While they were throwing the rocks at us, I remember them laughing and urging each other to get closer. I remember focusing on just ignoring them and not being intimidated by them. It didn’t occur to me that I could be hurt — or maybe I didn’t care?

After a number of times of trying to hit us, they succeeded. I remember the distant feeling of a rock hitting my head — then everything went dark.

The next thing I remember, was looking up to see my sibling sitting beside me, crying. They hovered over me, tears streaming down their face, looking terrified.

I remember being really dazed and foggy as I came to. But I did finally know we needed to go home. The kids on the other side of the field were laughing and cheering that they’d hit me, and when we left the field they were jeering at us. I remember feeling like I’d failed, like I’d given in to being bullied, and I was really disappointed with myself.

I recall being wobbly and woozy on the way home, and my sibling was very upset and crying the whole way there. I was embarrassed by the display of emotion. I wanted to be stoic and take it like a grown-up. I didn’t want to be injured. I didn’t want to be woozy. I didn’t want to be wobbly. And I certainly didn’t want to cry.

When we got home, I remember my sibling telling our mom and dad what had happened. I was embarrassed that I’d been hurt and needed attention, and I was upset that I worried them. I remember Dad telling me to lie down on the couch, and he looked at my head — I don’t remember bleeding — but I recall that I did have a huge lump on my head.

The bump on my head was above my hairline, which made it difficult for my mom and dad to see where I was hurt. The bump was pretty prominent, and they got some ice to put on it, which hurt, because the edges of the ice cubes were hard and felt sharp. I really just wanted to not attract attention and not be fussed over. I just wanted the whole experience to go away, so  wouldn’t worry everyone. My sibling was so upset and crying, our mom had to take them out of the room and get them away from me.

My parents called a friend of theirs who was a registered nurse, and she told them to get a flashlight and check my eyes for any dilation. I seem to remember something about them not being sure if my pupils were dilated or not, but in any case, they had me lie on my left side, facing the back of the couch, and put ice on the bump.

I remember I was so tired, and I wanted to sleep, but my dad made sure I stayed awake. I remember him looking in my eyes several times to see if I had a concussion, and both my parents discussed whether or not I should go to the hospital. If I remember correctly, my dad said he didn’t think I had a concussion, so they didn’t take me.

Things were very foggy for me, after that. And I recall not being allowed to play much, in the coming days.

It wasn’t long after that, that I noticed that the moon was double, when I looked up at it, at night. When I told my parents this, they were alarmed and took me to the eye doctor.

Wrong doctor, I think…

Temper, temper…

I’ve been checking my stats and seeing what search terms people are using to find this blog. “Temper” is a popular one. TBI and temper issues often go hand-in-hand… and for me, it’s been one of the biggest hurdles. I’ve lost jobs and burned bridges over temper outbursts. I’ve gotten into hot water all my life, because of my temper — starting with my parents, who really came down on me very hard for ‘not being able to control myself’.

If they had known that my falls and getting knocked out by that rock didn’t help matters, they might have been nicer to me. But they weren’t. And I was convinced all my life — till a year ago, when I realized that my multiple tbi’s had affected my cognition and behavior — that I was a BAD PERSON who wasn’t entirely fit to be around nice people.

You know what? I wasn’t BAD. I was INJURED.

That doesn’t excuse my behavior, of course, but it explains it. And knowing now that aggression, hostility, rage, temper outbursts, emotional volatility, and impulse control often go hand-in-hand with brain injury — be it mild or moderate or severe — helps me manage myself in ways that keep me and others safe from my outbursts.

So, what do I do about my temper (which has caused me to break many things, lash out, even physically assault people, to the point where I once had a restraining order against me)?

First, I remember that my tbi’s have affected my reasoning and the way my brain reacts to the world around me. I remember that there are mechanisms deep in my brain that react on a very primal level to perceived threats. There’s the amygdala, which is the fight-or-flight switch that seems to work in overdrive with me. And there’s the limbic system, which is about emotion. And then there’s the parts of the brain that control impulse, which are around the area where I got hit in the head (and knocked out briefly) with a rock, when I was eight. People used to believe that when kids’ brains were injured, they recovered better than adults, but now they’ve realized that if you injure a young brain, it affects how it develops for the rest of the child’s life.

So, I try to stay objective, and remember that my brain doesn’t work the way I really want it to.

Next, I try to stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system — the counterpart to the sympathetic nervous system — to chill everything out. The sympathetic nervous system, as I understand it, is the source of the fight-or-flight response that’s making me react so intensely and act out. So, to calm my system down, I need to trigger the parasympathetic system. I’ve been taught that deep breathing causes the lungs to expand, and when they press against the inside of the ribcage, it stimulates the parasympathetic system, so I try to breathe deeply and feel my lungs filling with air and pressing against my rib cage. Also, counting my breaths gets my mind off the turbulence and forces me to focus on something other than what’s pushing me over the edge.

I also rub my neck near the jugular vein — there’s a nerve in there called the vagus nerve that triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s a huge nerve that runs through our whole body — look it up online for more info, as there’s more to it than I can come up with at this point — and one of the treatments for epilepsy to keep people chilled out and reduce danger of seizures, is actually to surgically implant a vagus nerve stimulator in their body. I’m not keen on the idea of having something implanted in me. I’d rather just massage my neck on the right side — but gently, as I’ve heard stories from doctors and nurses about people knocking themselves out by massaging it too hard.

Bottom line: I actively try to stimulate the part of my nervous system that’s built to chill me out. We all have it. We can all use it. And I do.

If this doesn’t work, I try to get my mind off things by doing something. I take a walk. Or I work in my workshop. Or I write something. Or I draw something. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be active, and I need to really concentrate while I’m doing it, so I redirect that wild, primal energy/rage/agitation into something productive. Sometimes, I’ll clean my study, which gets to be a total wreck, at times.

I try to get my mind off things that were making me crazy, and do something  positive with my energy.

If all else fails, I remove myself from the situation, if I can, and take a breather. I physically exit the area, and I pull myself together. If I cannot stop the rush of temper with people I do NOT want to hurt (and I really don’t want to hurt anyone), I just walk away and gather myself. I give myself a talking-to. I don’t drive when I’m in that kind of a space, but if I can go into another room and close the door and have some quiet time in a darkened room, I do. I try to stop the cascade before I do/say things I cannot undo or take back.

I try to protect the ones I care about by removing my malfunctioning brain from their presence.

Most of all, I try to not judge myself and be too hard on myself. I’m a long-term multiple mild traumatic brain injury survivor, and the fact that I’m still here means I’ve done something right. I try to learn from my experiences and keep an eye out for things that may cause problems later. I make amends, whenever I can and should. And I do what I can to atone for the things I’ve done that hurt others — without my intending to or wanting to.

I have to remember that I am a good person, but my brain does not work as well as I want it to, and if I had total choice in the matter, I would definitely not do the things that my brain is prompting me to. This is not an excuse for bad behavior. It’s a warning to myself of what I have to pay even more attention to, so I can live the best life possible and, wherever and whenever possible, do no harm to others, but help in any way I can.

Not all of these approaches work 100% all of the time. And I don’t always have the presence of mind to do them when I should. But these things have worked for me and my extreme and volatile temper.

They might work for you, too.

Good luck!