It’s been a pretty interesting week. I’ve gotten too little sleep, but I’ve been doing more than usual. Maybe that goes hand in hand — the times when I am more tired are the times when I am more inclined to push myself. And vice versa. I’ve been having some conversations with my neuropsych about this, and they are a strong believer in the ability of the trained mind to overcome impulses like not taking care of yourself or not being mindful and deliberate about things.
I suppose I agree with them to a certain extent. I do believe that the mind can overcome a lot of hurdles and obstacles. But I also know there is something else that drives me, other than my trained mind. There’s something else pushes me to take action in ways that I wouldn’t, if I were NOT stressed and tired — and if I were NOT so drawn to stress and fatigue. It’s like there’s a part of me that actually craves those things, and that part of me has a way of putting the kaibosh on some of my best-laid plans.
Logically, I know that being overly stressed and worn out is not the best way to get things done. I know I have a lot to do, and I know I need to take special care of myself so that I have the energy and the attention span and the calmness to get things done. I am well aware that I need to take care of myself, and yet I don’t. I know, logically, that if I stay up later than I should, I’ll be too tired in the morning to be 100% effective. I know, logically, that if I push myself too hard, I can become irritable and aggressive and start missing important details about my work and life. I know from plenty of experience that it’s no good for me to disregard my health and welfare.
But I still do it.
I get over-tired, I get turned around, I end up having my weekends fried, because I’m too tired to A) do all the things I want to do, or B) enjoy myself… or both. I make poor choices about what to eat, how to handle my time, how to interact with people. I end up impaired — for no good reason at all.
And it really puzzles me. This, to me, is one of the biggest challenges of my life, I and I’m convinced it’s directly tied to my TBIs/concussions/head injuries. There’s something about my thought process, over the years, that’s gotten pretty messed up, but it’s not a purely logical thing. It’s not even a cognitive thing, I think. I really believe it has more to do with the physical effects of my traumatic brain injuries – the metabolic changes that took place. The way my physical body handles energy and keeps things going, has been changed a little bit by each successive concussion/mtbi, and that physical alteration has reached into many parts of my life, including cognitive and behavioral ones.
Here’s how I understand it breaking down (and I apologize if I’ve gone on about this before and it’s all old news to you) — mild traumatic brain injury often results in a constant restlessness and agitation, which is either related to (or is a cause/result of) fatigue. Fatigue causes the brain to work less well — fogginess and slowness and a general feeling of “not quite being all there” results. This is a really shitty way to feel (sorry for the language), and I friggin’ hate feeling that way. I feel like crap when I’m “low” and I’d do just about anything to overcome it. So, I do — I push myself in ways that trigger an adrenaline rush and get my system all hopped up on stress hormones. I sleep less and take on more things to do. I procrastinate and don’t actively manage the things I’m doing. I do things that will sharpen my attention — or at least makes me feel like my attention is sharpened — and those things are often detrimental or edgy or risky.
It’s my version of extreme living — my everyday version of extreme sports. I push the envelope. Push myself harder. Set tougher deadlines. Take on more projects. Get completely overwhelmed, and love it — until I get in a jam and find myself behind the 8-ball and just barely able to pull myself out from behind it.
And I know I’m not alone in this. Now, I’m not saying that everyone who procrastinates and pushes the envelope and willingly becomes sleep-deprived is neurologically “impacted”. But I do believe that my own difficulties with staying on track with my sleep and activities can be mapped directly to my TBIs. And I’m sure I’m not the only one out there.
Which leads me to think about all the people out there — including student athletes — who are concussed or brain injured and have difficulty staying on track with recovery and/or activities and behaviors that are healthy and geared towards their recovery. It leads me to think about all the athletes who have gotten dinged and aren’t feeling quite with it, but throw themselves back in the game with an even more intense fervor. Recently, I read a blog post by a former football player over at The Concussion Blog, who returned to play right away after his first concussion, and then ended up in the hospital when he was concussed again — and again. He attributed his determination to get back in the game to pride, which I agree with — in part. There’s something more basic, almost primal, at work, too, that plays a role. The other part of it is an internal engine that gets fired up after you’re concussed… that propels you forward and amps up whatever you’re feeling 2000%, till it becomes this irresistable force that neither you nor anyone without sufficient power and influence (and the proper education) can resist. It intensifies your emotion, it consumes you with the drive to use that emotion, and it does not relent on its own. Somebody has to stop it — preferably a coach or a trainer, rather than an EMT.
Personally, I think this young man was fortunate to have not been more seriously injured by his second and third concussions. Second Impact Syndrome can kill. But the bottom line is, plenty of damage was done. His football career was at an end, even before it got a chance to really get started. Who knows what might have happened, had he stayed healthy throughout high school and gone on to play in college?
We’ll never know. Just as I’ll never know what might have become of me, had I not sustained all those concussions/TBIs over the course of my life and been driven by a sort of madness to let my wandering emotions direct my life. I told myself I was an explorer, an adventurer. I told myself I was living my life. But I was really bouncing from one distraction to another, one heady experience to another. Job changes. Friendships won and lost. Moving from apartment to apartment, back and forth across the country, and overseas as well. Getting in and out of trouble. Pushing the envelope, having run-ins with police and other authority figures. There was something that told me that this was all part of life, that it was all part of me being “more alive” — but it was the same kind of impulse that had me picking myself up off the ground, after falling hard and being a little woozy and wobbly afterwards, and hurling myself back in the game, throughout many a sports competition in my youth.
It was pride – absolutely. It was a desire to compete – totally. It was a burning need to be part of a team, part of what was going on, part of life. But the volume of my pride and desire and need was pumped up so loud by my neurological situation, that it deafened me to everything else — including common sense and a sense of perspective.
Now, granted, that drive and desire has served me well over the years. My eagerness to be part of a team, to contribute, to be a part of what was going on, has helped me be quite successful in my own way, and it’s brought me a good living. The problem was, I had a lot less modulation than I needed. My control panel had a bunch of On-Off switches — I was either ON or I was OFF — and there weren’t a lot of volume controls. The lack of modulation sent me to extremes countless times, and that’s cost me a lot, in terms of long-term employment prospects and just my ability to advance in a career.
For years, I spent an awful lot of time bouncing from job to job, all the while telling myself that I had good reason. But the simple fact was, I didn’t have the wherewithall to stick with it. Because the volatility got to be too much, and I just couldn’t tolerate the build-up of pressure (not to mention keeping track of all the crap I’d overcommitted to).
Had I not been so volatile, so prone to racing off on flights of fancy that gripped me again and again, I might have become a doctor. Or a lawyer. Or an esteemed researcher with tons of degrees and distinctions to my name (which is what I wanted to do, when I was younger). I might have become a fantastically wealthy serial entrepreneur who ends up funding much-needed health research. Who can say? All I know is, the decision-making process that tends to take over my mind and derail common sense, has definitely been altered, thanks to a series of mild traumatic brain injuries.
Now, I’m not one to sit around and boo-hoo my sad fate. I believe that we make our own fates, and we have a lot more power to change the way our world is, than we often guess. But it is good for me to step back and look at what I’ve had to contend with over the years, to keep it green, keep it real with me. I can’t afford to dismiss this undercurrent of agitation and restlessness that steadily undermines my health and well-being and thought process. I can’t afford to ignore it, as it washes out the foundation of my life.
It’s a problem. It needs to be dealt with.
Speaking of problems, the wind of the past few days has apparently taken out my phone line. I thought for sure it was going to go out two days ago, but it wasn’t till last night that it went down. I need to go check the box on the outside of the house to see if it’s a house-related problem or a network-related problem. I called the telephone company and got the steps I need to take. I’ve had my breakfast, now I need a shower, then I’ll suit up and go out into the cold to see if I can get a dial tone.
This is not the sort of thing I need to put off. I have to return some calls from yesterday, and some of my relatives have been trying to contact me about an upcoming wedding I’m supposed to attend in June. So, I’ll gather my supplies — a screwdriver and a phone with a cord attached and the instructions — and head out to see what the deal is.
This is one of those projects that’s easy for me to stay on track with. It’s a relatively short process, going out and checking the box. And the steps for how to do it were laid out very clearly by the telephone company. I have been involved in multiple phone calls around this, in the past 24 hours, so there’s a feedback mechanism to keep me on track. And it’s important I have a phone line open, because there are important things going on. The project is limited in scope, has a feedback loop, and it’s a priority. So, I stay on track.
Not so, with so many other undertakings I pursue. Not only am I susceptible to distraction, but my brain infuses those distractions with such fervor tha I’m convinced they are necessities, instead of distractions. Just over the past few days, when I’ve been working on these other projects of mine, I’ve gotten swept up in a handful of other distractions that are huge projects in and of themselves, and will demand a lot of time to follow through with them. They’re NOT the sorts of things I can add to my plate right now, but sure enough, as I was writing down the steps for the three new projects I have in the works, they came roaring to the forefront, as though they couldn’t wait. More distraction. But infused with a passion and a drive that made them seem like The Real Deal.
That, to me, is the biggest drawback/danger of TBI — the infusion of passion into distractions and poor choices, that makes them look like viable activities. True, it’s not necessarily life-endangering, but it has kept me from following through on the things that meant most to me, at times, effectively arresting my development in ways that – ultimately – have endangered parts of my life. It’s been a constant battle, to keep things in perspective and push back the rising tide of supposed “necessity” so that I can just get things done. I’m sure that distractability is not unique to TBI, but the compulsion to fixate on it and get pulled off in a completely Wrong direction (thinking that it’s Right) adds a whole new dimension to the distractability and thought process.
TBI adds a whole new dimension to basic human shortcomings. Things like:
- Intense emotion.
- Rigid, literal thinking.
- Diminished risk assessment.
- And more.
The trick, for me, is remembering this. At the times when I am most susceptible — when I’m tired or stressed or agitated or turned around or all of the above — those are the times when I’m most likely to get waylaid by this stuff. If I don’t, I run the risk of getting swept up in something far bigger and badder than myself. I run the risk of running myself down… then having to drag myself back up, all over again.