It’s not about living less. It’s about living “what else?”

Three ways to choose from

In the course of my life, I’ve run up against a whole variety of “interesting” complications that apparently came from my multiple Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries/concussions. And there have been times when I have been intensely tempted to just give up. Throw in the towel. Declare defeat. Get used to the idea that I’m disabled. Get used to the idea that there are lots of things I just can’t do anymore — like get enough sleep at night, understand conversations, control my temper, interact with friends and loved ones without pain and discomfort.

I figured, I’d have to adjust to it all, just like I adjusted to the tinnitus that used to drive me crazy when I was in high school. I used to sit in my room, crouched down in a fetal position, and hold my hands over my ears, praying that the ringing would stop. I would hit my head with my hands, shake my head, try holding my breath — try anything — to make it stop. It was driving me nuts, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I remember the day when I just quit trying to fix it. I quit trying to make it stop. I had been on the edge over that crap for weeks on end, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it through. Then I decided that if this was how it was going to be, it was how it was going to be, and I quit making myself nuts, trying to change it. I just accepted it. I wasn’t happy about it, but I just accepted it as something that was going to be part of my life.

I knew it wasn’t going to be there ALL the time, however — the constant ringing in my ears wasn’t maddening ALL the time. There were times when it bothered me less. And that was the thing I had to keep in mind. But the ringing just wasn’t going away, so I let it be.

And I turned my attention to other things. I learned to block it out, to focus my attention on what else  was going on in my life. I figured — and I remember having this thought, one afternoon — that there was more to life than this ringing, and if I just turned my energies and attention to everything else in my life and made it that much more interesting and engaging than the tinnitus, that could save me.

And save me, it did. It didn’t stop the tinnitus, but it gave me reason to look above and beyond. It gave me cause to seek out what else there was in my life, besides this infernal ringing.

So, I guess I did accept the tinnitus on a certain level. But I didn’t accept the limitations it placed on me. I didn’t let it stop me, and I didn’t let it drive me mad. I just decided to quit focusing on it and use my energy on other things.

I reached a compromise with my situation (that inescapable ringing) and my own desires (to be free of the tinnitus), and I found a “Third Way” to go.

The First Way was to fight it with all my might.

The Second Way was to just give up and tell myself there was no hope for me.

The Third Way was to see that Fighting and Giving Up were both no use to me, and my time and energy was better spent focusing on other activities in life that didn’t make tinnitus the center of my attention. I could let the tinnitus be a part of the background, a part of my overall story. But wasn’t the thing that Defined me and set limits on me. It was just there. Not good, not bad, just there.

And that’s when I started getting the part of my life back that had been tied up in the first two Ways of approaching my injury.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been presented with many such choices, and time and time again, I have learned the wisdom of this Third Way. Although I’m sure I’ve read about this approach in some book somewhere, this approach has really emerged (and stuck) out of personal experience — it just works. The other two Ways don’t.

When I make my difficulties the central theme of my life, I cheat myself of the chance to experience life in all its fullness, its richness, all its potential and possibilities. Now, staying stuck in the fight can be tempting. As can giving in to “defeat” and giving up trying. But the Third Way offers something completely different — and far more interesting — that lets me actually live my life. And when I am focused on living my life, the obstacles and difficulties that used to be front and center, have far less power over me. It’s not that they’ve gone away 100%. Far from it. But they aren’t the sole focus of my life and my energy. And I can really, truly live.

One concussion, two concussions, three concussions, four…

I had a meeting with my neuropsych last week, when we talked about my concussive history. I had read the article by Malcom Gladwell in the New Yorker called Offensive Play, and I had some questions about how my past might have made me more susceptible to tbi, later in life.

I was wondering aloud if my rough-and-tumble childhood (when falling and hitting my head and getting up and getting back in the game ASAP were regular parts of play), might have brought me lots of subconcussive events, like so many impacts on the football field. I checked in with my neuropsych, and they had me recap from the top, all the head injuries I could recall. My recollection and understanding of them was considerably better than it was, just six months ago. What came out of it was the determination that I’d had enough genuine concussions to do a fair amount of damage to myself. Forget about subconcussive events; the concussive events sufficed to cause plenty of problems, on their own.

It kind of threw me off for a day or two, and I got pretty stressed out and ended up pushing myself too hard, and then melted down in the evening. Not good. It’s hard, to hear that you’re brain damaged. It’s not much fun, realizing — yet again — that you haven’t had “just” one concussion, but a slew of them. And considering that I’m in this new job where I have to perform at my best, it really got under my skin. It’s taken me a few days to catch up on my sleep and settle myself down, after the fact. But I’m getting there. My past hasn’t changed, nor has my history. I’m just reminded of it all over again…

All told, I’ve sustained about eight concussions (or concussive events) that I can remember. Possible signs of concussion (per the Mayo Clinic website) are:

  • Confusion
  • Amnesia
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Fatigue

Some symptoms of concussions are not apparent until hours or days later. They include:

  • Memory or concentration problems
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Depression

I experienced most of these (except for nausea and vomiting, and not so much slurred speech, that I can remember) during my childhood and teen years. Not surprising, considering that I had a number of falls and accidents and sports injuries over the course of my childhood.

It’s pretty wild, really, how those experiences of my childhood contributed to my difficulties in adulthood — especially around TBI. I’ve been in accidents with other people who had the same experience I did, but didn’t have nearly the after-effects that I suffered. For them, the incident was a minor annoyance. For me, it was a life-changing concussion. A head injury. TBI. Brain damage. Geeze…

Thinking back on the course of my life, beyond my experiences with the accidents that didn’t phaze others but totally knocked me for a loop, I can see how the after-effects like fatigue and sensitivity to light and noise, really contributed to my difficulties in life. It’s hard to be social and develop socially, when you can’t stand being around noisy peers (and who is as noisy as a gaggle of teens?). It’s hard to learn to forge friendships with girls — who always seemed so LOUD to me(!) — or hang with the guys — who were always making loud noises, like blowing things up and breaking stuff — when you can’t tolerate loudness.

And when you don’t have the stamina to stay out all night… It’s a wonder I did as well as I did, as a kid. Of course, I was always up for trying to keep up – I was always game. And I wanted so very, very badly to participate, to not get left behind, to be part of something… That kept me going. I was just lucky to have people around me who were kind-hearted and intelligent and tolerant of my faults and limitations.

Anyway, I did survive, and I did make it through the concussions of my childhood. I have even made it through the concussions of my adulthood.  And I’m still standing. I didn’t get any medical treatment for any of these events, and the most help I ever got was being pulled from the games where I was obviously worse off after my fall or the hard tackle, than I’d been before.

But one thing still bugs me, and it’s been on my mind. During my high school sports “career, ” I was a varsity letter-winning athlete who started winning awards my freshman year. I was a kick-ass runner, and I won lots of trophies. I also threw javelin in track, and by senior year, I was good enough to place first and win a blue ribbon in the Junior Olympics. Which is great! I still have the blue ribbon to prove it, complete with my distance and the date. But I have no recollection of actually being awarded the ribbon, and I barely remember the throw. I’m not even sure I can remember the event or the throw. It’s just not there. It’s gone. And it’s not coming back. Because it was probably never firmly etched in my memory to ever be retreivable.

I’ve never thought of myself as an amnesiac, but when it comes to my illustrious high school sports career, when I was a team captain and I led my teams to win after win, I have all these ribbons and medals and trophies, but almost no memory of having earned them.

Which really bums me out. What a loss that is. When I hear Bruce Springsteen’s song “Glory Days” I feel a tinge of jealousy that the guy he’s singing about can actually recall his glory days. I can’t. And that’s a loss I deeply feel, mourn… and resent. Seriously. It sucks.

This could seriously mess with my head. And sometimes it does. But on the “up” side, it might also possibly explain why I’ve been such a solid performer over the years, in so many areas, yet I can’t seem to get it into my head that I am a solid performer. My memory of having done the things I did, in the way I did them, is piecemeal at best, and utterly lacking at worst. So, even if I did do  well, how would I know it, months and years on down the line? How would I manage to form a concept of myself as successful and good and productive and inventive and trustworthy, if I have little or no recollection of having been that way in the past?

It’s a conundrum.

But I think I have an answer — keeping a journal. Keeping a record of my days, as they happen, and really getting into reliving my experiences, while they are still fresh in my mind. If I can sit down with myself at the end of a day or a week, and recap not only the events of the past hours and days, but also re-experience the successes and challenges I encountered, then I might be able to forge memories that will stay with me over time. If nothing else, at least I’ll be making a record for myself that I can look back to later. And I need to use colors to call out the good and the not-so-good, so I can easily refer back to the date and see where I had successes and failures along the way.

Most important, is my recording of successes. I’m so quick to second-guess myself and assume that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And when I think back to the times when I overcame significant difficulties, I often lose track of the memory before I get to the end of the sequence I followed to succeed.

But I cannot let that situation persist. I need a strategy and a practice to reclaim my life from the after-effects of way too many concussions. I’m sure there are others in life who have had it far worse than me, but some of my  most valuable and possibly most treasured experiences are lost to me for all time, because I have no recollection of them.

No wonder my parents often start a conversation with me with the sentence, “Do you remember ________?”