What our denial is costing us

It’s not like we can’t see the signs

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Crash Reel, lately, especially thinking about the parents of Kevin Pearce and how they handled his accident and brain injury and recovery. One of the things that stands out in sharp relief for me is how silent his mother is, as she watches her son suffer and struggle. When he’s sitting with the doctor, telling him about how he thinks he should just go out and start snowboarding again… when he announces at a family dinner that he’s looking forward to getting back on the snow… his mother is silent. Sitting quietly in pain, having aged a great deal over the past year, and not speaking up on camera to set him straight.

I know it’s heresy to be critical of parents — especially those who have children who are struggling with a disability or recovery of some kind. It is a parent’s worst nightmare to see their beloved child injured so horribly, even killed. At the same time, parents are one of the most available lines of defense against action sports TBI, and when they don’t step in to stop dangerous behavior, I really feel for the kids who end up suffering as a result.

The kids literally do not know better. Their brains have not properly developed enough to be able to make good decisions. And parents who just leave all the decisions up to them may actually be inviting danger and disaster into their families.

On the other hand, no parent can own or control their child forever, and accidents do happen, no matter what sport you play. Even if you’re not playing a sport, accidents happen. TBI happens. No amount of good parenting will erase that chance 100%.

There are many other pieces to the TBI puzzle, especially when action sports are considered. There’s the X-Games atmosphere of daredevil stunts, the constant push to exceed your (and others’) limits, the steady pump of adrenaline that makes us feel alive — and makes some of us feel like we’re human again.

That adrenaline pump, the flow of dopamine when you accomplish something fantastic, the numbing of pain that all the fight-flight stress hormones make possible… it’s not just an addiction, which people simply dismiss. For some of us, it’s a non-negotiable part of who we are, and without it we are just shells of who we know ourselves to be.

I spent the last week deliberately resting, and man, at some times it was hell. Boring. Dull. Dampened. Blah. Booooorrrrinnnngggg.  I knew I needed to rest. I knew I needed to catch up on my sleep, and it was all good, when I finally got to a place where I actually felt rested. But that persistent sense of being so dull and dim and low-level was extremely difficult to take. And I’m not even an extreme sports athlete.

Imagine how it must feel for someone to go from the thrill and elation of successfully completing a difficult ride down the slopes… to being laid up, forced to rest and recuperate and “take it easy”. Yeah, sheer hell.

It’s the denial of this part of our lives that is the most dangerous, I think. Because we deny that we need that rush, the challenges that test our limits in real life, we don’t get the stimulation we genuinely need, and we live lives that are far less … alive … than they should be. We try to reduce danger at every turn, avoiding uncomfortable situations and everyday challenges, in hopes of having some sense of security. But in the process, we starve our systems of the important challenges and tests that make us more of who we are. We stunt our growth, and we know it harms us. But we are still so convinced that somehow, some way, we can be safe and secure.

In a way, our hunger for safety and security is the worst thing we could possibly indulge. It makes us less than who we could be, and it denies us the necessary genuine risk that fine-tunes our systems and makes us better at being who we are.

But we can’t be deprived forever. As I said, part of us knows the constant risk avoidance is not doing us any favors. So, we seek out artificial challenges that we think we can control ourselves — like extreme sports, velocity sports, collision sports. The worst is when we ask others to vicariously seek out those challenges for us — NFL football players, extreme athletes, and all sorts of danger-seekers we reward with adulation and praise for doing things we could never do ourselves — and which might actually permanently maim or kill them, right before our voyeuristic eyes.

We need action. We need excitement. We need risk. There’s no point in denying it. Our brains and bodies are finely tuned to handle risk and excitement, and if we can’t get it in a healthy way, we will get it in an unhealthy way.

So why not exercise and develop that part of ourselves — safely?

When I say “safely”, I mean without putting our lives and limbs in direct danger — within the context of our everyday lives, taking on challenges that others so frequently flee. Countless “dangerous” situations present themselves to us each day, which we could pursue, and make our lives better in the process. Things like

  • Speaking up and telling the truth about what’s going on around us.
  • Refusing to play along when a bully shows up and demands that you join in their “game” of ridiculing or bullying others.
  • Taking a long, hard look at yourself and admitting what’s really there — and taking steps to address the things you’re not so happy about.
  • Following your dreams, once and for all, and damn the torpedoes or what anyone else has to say about it.

Those are just a few examples of the real risks in life, and those are the ones that get lost in the shuffle. I’ve been seeing a lot of trailers for the “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” movie, lately, and just from what I’ve seen, it seems like old Walter is doing just what I’ve described — replacing the challenges and dangers and risks of everyday life with extreme situations that give him that necessary pump of adrenaline and dopamine that makes him fully human. Fortunately or unfortunately, I suspect the movie concludes with him coming out safe and sound, with no TBIs or other disasters ripping his life apart. Yet more denial? {sigh}

The Walter Mitty story seems not so far removed from the story of sheltered kids taking up extreme sports to supply their brains and bodies with the biochemical pump they need to develop properly. Of course — full disclosure — I haven’t seen the movie yet, so it may turn out to be a good one. I do know the original story behind the movie, so I can speak to it a bit. I’ll have to check out the movie for sure — but on DVD later. I’m not going into a movie theater filled with people who are talking and texting and coughing all over me.

Anyway, that’s my little discourse on denial and its role in producing one TBI after another. We are all culpable, when it comes to cases like Kevin Pearce

  • those who let him take up extreme sports,
  • those who encouraged him,
  • those who rewarded him,
  • those who profited from him,
  • those who continue to urge him back on the slopes to do yet more dangerous stunts,
  • and those who sit by quietly not speaking up when the danger is so apparent, so obvious.

The crazy thing is, this keeps happening every single day, and yet we sit by silently and say and do nothing about it.

Makes no sense. I think we all need to get our heads examined.

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For skiing and snowboarding, helmets are not saving lives

There is a great article over at the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/01/sports/on-slopes-rise-in-helmet-use-but-no-decline-in-brain-injuries.html) about how helmet use is not lowering brain injuries or fatalities:

Ski Helmet Use Isn’t Reducing Brain Injuries

Michael Schumacher in 2005. Schumacher was wearing a helmet when he was injured recently.

By KELLEY McMILLAN

Published: December 31, 2013

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — The fact that Michael Schumacher was wearing a helmet when he sustained a life-threatening head injury while skiing in France on Sunday probably did not come as a surprise to experts who have charted the increasing presence of helmets on slopes and halfpipes in recent years. The fact that the helmet did not prevent Schumacher’s injury probably did not surprise them, either.

Schumacher, the most successful Formula One driver in history, sustained a traumatic brain injury when he fell and hit his head on a rock while navigating an off-piste, or ungroomed, area at a resort in Méribel, France. Although he was wearing a helmet, he sustained injuries that have left him fighting for his life in a hospital in Grenoble, France.

Schumacher’s injury also focused attention on an unsettling trend. Although skiers and snowboarders in the United States are wearing helmets more than ever — 70 percent of all participants, nearly triple the number from 2003 — there has been no reduction in the number of snow-sports-related fatalities or brain injuries in the country, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

Experts ascribe that seemingly implausible correlation to the inability of helmets to prevent serious head injuries like Schumacher’s and to the fact that more skiers and snowboarders are engaging in risky behaviors: skiing faster, jumping higher and going out of bounds.

“The equipment we have now allows us to do things we really couldn’t do before, and people’s pushing limits has sort of surpassed people’s ability to control themselves,” said Chris Davenport, a professional big-mountain skier.

Read the rest of the article here

And again, we come across examples of how risk-taking behavior takes over and trumps reason. With better equipment, people take more risks — like football players who treat their protective gear like armor to protect them as they turn their bodies — including their heads — into weapons.

Additionally, the article says:

In fact, some studies indicate that the number of snow-sports-related head injuries has increased. A 2012 study at the Western Michigan University School of Medicine on head injuries among skiers and snowboarders in the United States found that the number of head injuries increased 60 percent in a seven-year period, from 9,308 in 2004 to 14,947 in 2010, even as helmet use increased by an almost identical percentage over the same period. A March 2013 study by the University of Washington concluded that the number of snow-sports-related head injuries among youths and adolescents increased 250 percent from 1996 to 2010.

So, dangerous sports continue to be dangerous, and may become even moreso, when the participants are “assured” that they will be protected from injury by a helmet.

But a helmet won’t protect your brain from smashing against the inside of your skull, and that’s where the real injury takes place. It’s inside – where the sharp bone impacts the soft brain… as well as deep within the brain where axons are twisted and sheared and torn, like roads being torn up by a twister or a flash flood.

The Crash Reel has a lot of people talking about TBI and snowboarding. Whether people are listening — and changing their behavior — is anyone’s guess.

Even more questionable, is whether people are actually asking the right questions about what makes this kind of risk-taking seem so attractive to people. They’re not always taking seriously the real need for a reward in life — and the rewards that dopamine and the adrenaline rush offer, can be “just what the doctor ordered” for someone who struggles with attentional issues, low dopamine levels, confusion, alienation, and a general sense of not really fitting into a larger community.

As long as risk-taking that can get you seriously injured is the only option offered to folks who need those neurotransmitters to feel whole and alive, you’re going to continue to see this sort of thing.

And helmets aren’t going to make a whole hell of a lot of difference. If anything, they can make things worse.

The secret about risk-taking

So, I searched Kevin Pearce on YouTube, and I came across this video of him in a video hangout promoting the release of The Crash Reel.

There are a bunch of folks on the video chat, including veterans, some other folks advocating for brain injured folks, and a fellow who’s been in the TBI rehab line of work for over 30 years. I only watched it for a little while, partly because I had a bunch of things to do yesterday. But the bigger reason I quit watching was  one thing in the video that kind of freaked me out:

Kevin Pearce is snowboarding again.

Now, I don’t know if he was cleared by his doctors, or how much snowboarding he’s doing — if he’s trying any of his old tricks, or if he’s just happy to be back on the snow and is taking it easy. I do know this — if I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t be able to NOT do the tricks, flips, spins, and all the acrobatic stuff for very long. Because doing those tricks has been a part of snowboarding for almost as long as it’s been around. And if you can’t do them, then what kind of snowboarder are you?

It made me a little sick, to be honest. Because I get the distinct impression that if he keeps it up, Kevin Pearce is not long for this world. He’s brain-injured. His brain has been permanently altered, and even though it is possible to build back a ton of functionality, and he’s looking worlds better than he did 3-1/2 years ago, there’s still got to be deficits in the areas of the brain that rule executive functioning and decision-making. That stuff can be rebuilt to some extent, I believe, but there will always be something different about how things used to be.

And when you get caught up in the moment, feeling great about yourself and where you’re at, not paying attention, maybe pushing the envelope a little bit, that’s when it becomes really easy to hurt yourself badly. Even a little fall — after a series of falls, including a major one that put you in a coma and forced you to learn to walk and talk again — can prove fatal.

The problem is, there’s no guarantee it will. The problem isn’t that there’s a chance it might not kill you. The problem is, you have no reason to believe with 100% certainty that it’s going to end your life. And when you’re caught up in the moment, feeling fine, feeling — let’s face it — invincible… that’s when things start to get interesting dangerous… even life-threatening. You have no reason to feel like you need to be careful. You have no reason to believe that anything bad is going to happen. You have no reason to believe that you can’t make that jump, that spin, that flip, and you have no reason to believe that you won’t land fine and be fine.

When you’re “in the zone” where you’re feeling really great, invincible, on top of your game, that’s when things can get the most dangerous with a TBI. And I feel pretty terrible for Kevin’s family, considering how elated he is to be on the snow again in the video chat, while not acknowledging that there’s any inherent danger in what he’s doing. He seems so happy just to be back… who would want to kill his buzz? Then again, who wants to see him kill himself?

Not to be a nervous nelly or anything. I just know what it’s like to be fed up with limitations, to want to push the envelope, and feel like yourself again… and end up getting set back, hurt, or worse.

I know what it’s like to crave those risks — not because I’m addicted to the high of doing it, but because it makes me feel like myself again. It makes me feel centered, whole, complete, totally in the moment, really alive. It makes all the static and the confusion and the frustration fade away into the background… none of that exists anymore, when I’m in a tight situation, and it’s such a relief to not have to THINK about anything, if even for just a few moments.

Taking risks is not necessarily about addiction to adrenaline. It’s not necessarily about having a death wish. It’s not necessarily about wanting to tempt fate and rebel against a tyrannical order. Taking risks can be more about just wanting to feel like yourself again, needing a break from all the difficulties of thinking things through, every single moment of every single day, and being physically hungry for the experience of just BEing part of something that’s bigger than you and gets you out of yourself and your head.

In a way, risk-taking could be seen as a sign of mental health — a needed pause from the pressures of EVERYTHING that gets you back into a sense of purpose and belonging and meaning in your life. People who don’t struggle daily with cognitive challenges like attention issues, dyslexia, and other neurological issues, cannot begin to imagine just how overwhelming and exhausting it is to have to THINK . THROUGH . EVERY . LITTLE . THING . EVERY . SINGLE . MOMENT . OF . EVERY . DAY. Unless you’re in it, you just can’t imagine how much it takes out of you and what a number it does to your sense of self.

Given that Kevin Pearce has struggled with dyslexia (according to The Crash Reel) and had difficulties in school, I can totally see how he’d end up where he is. And given how rough society is on people who can’t read and write and cogitate like the “norm” and isolates people who don’t function that way… and considering what a social guy he is, and how important his friends frends are, and how much snowboarding is a part of the world where he belongs, I’m not surprised he’s out there again.

He doesn’t have to have a death wish. He doesn’t have to need to take risks. He doesn’t have to be self-destructive. On the contrary, him getting out there is just him doing the thing that he feels will help him most — which could turn out to be the thing that does him in.

I just hope he stays safe, and that he’s got people around him who can help him dial it back, when everything in him is screaming to crank it way up… I hope he can find another way to feel like Kevin Pearce again.