Figuring out how to relax… and get on with things

The flood doesn’t have to last forever

I’m running a little late this morning. I was supposed to have an early phone call with a colleague on the other side of the world, this morning, but that was cancelled — partly because they told me they would be traveling at the end of this week, but I didn’t put it together that I should reschedule our meeting till when they got back.

No worries, though. They reminded me of it, and I’m rescheduling, so that’s fine.

In the past, I would have really given myself a hard time for not putting that together. I would have been unsparing and relentless in my self-criticism, and by the end of my internal tirade against myself, I would have reached the conclusion that I am good for nothing and I can’t do much of anything at all. It’s happened before, lots of times – especially at times when I’ve forgotten to reschedule meetings.

Today that didn’t happen.

If anything, I was relieved that I didn’t have to get on the call right after I woke up. I have had a couple of late-evening calls with colleagues, for the past couple of days, and I haven’t been able to get in bed before 11:00, or sleep past 7, which means I’m getting 6-7 hours of sleep, when I should be getting 8+. Oh, well. At least I’m not getting 4-5 hours, like I was last week.

I felt a bit foolish for a little bit, having spaced out on the schedule thing, then I just got on with my morning. I’ve had some time to check my personal email and make a list of things I need to get done today — and wonder of wonders, I don’t have anything scheduled for this evening, so I can take care of some things for one of the projects I’m working on.

There’s been an interesting change with me, lately. It happened around the time when I went to see my family and got out of my daily routine rut. There was a LOT of driving involved, I did NOT sleep very well, and the whole time was pretty uncomfortable for me in a lot of ways. But I handled myself extremely well, and as a result, no relationships were trashed or threatened, and there was no left-over biochemical sludge that I needed to clear out of my system.

Also, all during the trip, I was practicing the “90-second clearing” that helped me to regain my balance after upsetting or unsettling or anxiety-producing discussions or situations.

Basically this “90-second clearing” works this way:

  1. I pay attention to my stress level, my physical situation — am I stressed? Am I relaxed? Am I getting tense and uptight? When I think about a picture of how I’m feeling, do I see a crazy line chart that looks like a craggy mountain range, with the line going wildly up and down to extremes?
  2. If I am getting tense and uptight, I stop what I am doing and thinking, and I take a break for a minute and a half.  I stop the reaction to what’s happening. I stop the racing thoughts. I stop the escalation. I stop the fast breathing.
  3. Then I breathe slowly for about a minute and a half — sometimes I need less time — until I feel “level” again.  I think about what my state of mind and body looks like, and if I see a line that looks like a nice little wave, or gently rolling hills, I know I’m good.
  4. Then I can get back to doing what I was thinking and saying and doing before.
  5. Then I can relax.

By stopping the crazy escalation and bringing myself back to a point of biochemical equilibrium (many times during my vacation), I was able to keep my head from going nuts over passing things. It wasn’t about tamping down my experience and suppressing my feelings and reactions — it was about just letting it all come… and then letting it all go… and moving on.

I’ve continued to do it, too — with good results. In fact, I just did it this morning, when my spouse and I were having a heated discussion about something that wasn’t going right, and we were both getting pretty uptight and tweaked over the situation. It wasn’t something that either of us had done “wrong”, just something that was wrong that I needed to fix — and we were starting to get pretty bent out of shape about it.

I managed to stop and just breathe for a minute or so, and the calming effect on me also had a calming effect on my spouse. I could relax. So could both of us. Good stuff. And now I can get on with my day.

This is a big change with me. I mean, just the fact that I even know what it feels like to relax, is a change. Up until about 5-6 years ago, that never happened. I had no idea what relaxation really felt like, and I wasn’t interested in finding out. I just needed to be ON. I just needed to be UP. I just needed to be GO-GO-GO, all the live-long day. And frankly it was tearing the sh*t out of me and my life and my relationships. Especially after my TBI in 2004, when suddenly I was unable to keep it together and manage the GO-GO-GO in a sensible way.

Then I started doing “stress hardiness optimization” which is guided meditation for first responders and other people in high-stress conditions. I figured that applied to me pretty well — especially since I felt like I was always responding to emergencies in my life on a personal level. That trained me to physically relax, with progressive relaxation.

Mentally relaxing and being able to just let things go, however, still eluded me.

But over time, the more I’ve relaxed physically and the more capable I’ve become at understanding and managing my own “internal state”, the better I’ve become at being able to relax my mind as well as my body.

Ironically, one of the things that’s helped me to relax my mind, is coming to realize that no matter what the circumstances, I’ll be able to figure something out. It may not be perfect, it may not be what I want, but I’ll be able to deal. I’ll be able to manage myself and my situation. I’ll be able to handle things. The 90-second clearing is a huge piece of the puzzle that helps me incredibly.

First, it defines my internal state of anxiety and upset as a biochemical thing. It’s not that something is wrong with me, and I cannot handle things. It’s my body reacting to what’s going on, trying to help me rise to the occasion with a flood of biochemical stress hormones that are specifically designed to kick me into action. It’s a purely physical reaction.

Second, it’s all about recognizing that my body can be a little “behind the times” — and my mind / awareness can jump in to help it calm down. My fight-flight system (like everyone’s) is quick to react, but slow to back off — once engaged, my fight-flight system doesn’t want to let go. It wants to keep me safe. It keeps escalating, until the “danger” has passed, but it doesn’t always realize that a “danger” is not actually dangerous. So I have to help it do that. It’s not doing it by itself. It needs my awareness to help. Which I can do.

Third, it’s about exercising my mind in very basic ways — just paying attention to how I’m feeling, and doing very simple things to adjust. It’s not about some elaborate plan that will require tons of practice and has to be done just right. It’s about just noticing what’s going on with me, and doing something with it. Taking action. Working with my situation to turn it in a different direction — adding important ingredients — elements of balance and just plain feeling good, which is a new experience for me. Just plain feeling good… what a concept.

Last of all, it just works. Slow breathing for a minute and a half puts a halt to my downward slide and stops the escalation in its tracks. I’ve used it a number of times in a number of different situations, with excellent results. I can’t even begin to explain how great it feels to have the waves of anxiety and dread and fight-flight sludge back off — to feel them subside, leaving calm in their place. It’s like the flood waters of the Nile are receding, leaving fertile fields awaiting a new season of crops. And it leaves me feeling awake and confident and better than I did before.

Feeling tight and cramped and anxious and nervous and antagonistic feels like crap, I have to say.

Feeling loosened up and relaxed and strong and flexible and friendly feels pretty awesome.

90 seconds is all it takes, too (well, sometimes it takes longer, but not more than a few minutes). It “resets” me, “reboots” my brain. And it lets me get on with my life. Relaxed, confident, and with a lot more better ideas than I had just a few minutes before.

 

 

Good sense and balance

Keeping balanced – it matters

Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads out there — I hope this day finds you in good form and in a positive frame of mind. And if it doesn’t, I hope you can find some relief and find a way to enjoy yourself at least a little bit today. Father’s Day doesn’t last forever, but tomorrow is another day.

I’m a bit under the weather today. I’ve been feeling pretty down on myself after the meltdown on Friday, and yesterday was pretty much of a bust, because I was so wiped out and tired from everything that’s been going on, lately. Plus, I completely spaced on getting my dad a Father’s Day card, and by the time I remembered it, it was too late to buy it and the post office was closed. I must admit I’m dreading calling him up. He loves to talk, and I’m feeling pretty wiped out. Not sure I’m up for a discussion. I’ll need a nap before I do that.

Today I need to just chill. Normally I chill on Saturdays, and I did that some. But it’s hard for me to relax when I am stressed, and I was definitely stressed. Tired. Fatigued. Wiped out. Done.

It’s a fine line I have to walk — between activity and rest. I got up this morning feeling like total crap. Had a half-assed exercise session, went through the motions of my morning routine, and helped my spouse, who is not feeling well today, either. Getting out of my head — that’s important. And when I think about it, the thing that gets me the most and pulls me down the most, is when I get stuck inside my head. It’s just not good. I need to get out, get engaged, get active… and I need to also balance out my activities so that when the time comes, I’m actually able to enjoy myself and be really engaged with people and activities.

Part of it, of course, is physical — it’s tough to stay fully engaged when you’re physically exhausted. But a lot of it is mental, too. Being able to put aside my poor-me attitude, feeling sorry for myself, wallowing in self-pity because things aren’t working out the way I want them to… Please. I have ongoing issues with feeling sorry for myself, feeling neglected and dismissed, and not standing up for myself. Part of me thinks that people should magically be able to tell what I need, when I need it — including my spouse. But they only have as much information as I give them, and I’ve been focused on NOT drawing attention to myself for so long, that how would anyone know that I really need something? How would anyone know that something is really important to me, unless I tell them?

Clearly, I need to make some changes in how I interact with people. I have been hiding out, basically, making it my mission to put others first and do for them what they need done. That can be very fulfilling and satisfying — to lose yourself in service to others you love, and to live not for yourself but for the greater good. But there comes a time when things like adequate sleep and a regular schedule become paramount, and then you have to tend to your own needs — and educate others about how best to interact with you.

I heard it said once that “We train other people how to treat us,” and the more I think about it, the more true it seems. Yes, we train others how to treat us, and since I have been training my spouse and my employers and my coworkers to not worry about what I need, in the course of my daily life, small wonder that my own wishes are the last thing they think about when they are coming up with their plans.

Yes, more work to do… And it can be quite tiring. On the bright side, though, these difficulties are actually signs that things are changing for the better in my life. Up until a couple of years ago, I was so oblivious to how poorly people treated me — and how I sought out the company of people who treated me likd sh*t — that I unconsciously ended up in one bad situation after another. The employers who treated me like I was disposable, were the ones I actually sought out. And the ones who treated me well, I avoided like the plague. My “best friends” usually laughed at me and made fun of me and talked down to me. And my favorite activities were ones that really wore me out and stressed me to the point of breaking, over and over again.

I was a real “stress junkie” — but I wasn’t just getting a fix. I was actually trying to wake myself up, to get my brain to kick into gear, because if I didn’t have that stress in my life, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t follow what was going on around me. It wasn’t a case of poor self-esteem that caused it — my poor self-esteem came from my need to be in rough, tough, abusive situations. And that need was purely neurological, not psychological, stemming from poor “tonic arousal” that was the result of too many traumatic brain injuries.

And the thing that stopped me from getting the kind of help I needed with my relationships, my work, my situations in life, was the confusion between cause and effect, and the true nature of my danger/risk-seeking activities and my craving for really sh*tty interpersonal relationships. It’s not about me seeking out people who treat me like crap because I feel badly about myself due to others treating me poorly early in life, or whenever. It’s about me having a neurological and biochemical need to be challenged and pushed — and people who treat me poorly are really good at that, without even thinking about it. They’re quite good at it, actually, and so it works out well for all of us — They have someone to abuse, and I’m a willing and ready target.

But low self-esteem is not the CAUSE of this cycle. It’s a RESULT of it. To stop the cycle, I need to get to the cause. Here’s a picture of my conception of it.

How it all connects

And out of the end-result of the low self-esteem, feeling inadequate, being down on myself and feeling damaged, comes the impetus to seek out yet more stress and danger and risk — in relationships and work, etc.

So, there it is. I can see it clearly in front of me, and it makes total sense to me. Now, what to do about it? Having this knowledge is one thing. Putting it into action is another.

It all takes practice. It takes repetition, to turn the cycles around. It takes a series of little successes and lessons from failures, to make progress. The main thing for me, right now, is focusing on the fundamentals — getting adequate rest, and keeping up with my breathing and body scans, which help me to manage my stress and keep the fight-flight parts of my brain from flipping out over every little thing.

The problem on Friday was that I was tired. I was fried. I was also stressed from things going awry, over and over again. I was also pissed off that I wasn’t getting any help at all, and I felt really used and taken advantage of and manipulated, which in turn put me into even more of a fight-flight frame of mind/body. Now seeing how my weekend has been hosed, I have a chance today to restore some of what I lost over the past two days. I have to be really easy on myself and be grateful that I am able to see what’s going on with me — and be very grateful that I can get help tomorrow from my NP. I need to be able to trust myself, which I’m not feeling much like doing, right now, and I need to believe that I will be able to learn from my mistakes and missteps and come out stronger in the end.

Ultimately, I think the real answer to so much of this, is finding things that truly excite and interest me, and being able to pursue them. When I can replace the negative, draining stress with something that really picks me up and keeps me engaged in life and gets me out of my head, I find myself energized and really involved in my life and with others, in ways that the negative stress can never achieve.

Will I ever have no need for the negative stress? I’m not sure that will ever happen. But for now, I know about it, and for now I can do something about it. And so I shall.

Time to go back to bed. So I can call my Dad later.

Changing my stories

Just got back from an appointment with my neuropsych. Apparently, I’m still doing an excellent job of holding myself back in life, by interpreting things that go wrong, as things being wrong with me.

Apparently, that’s not necessarily the case, and I’ll be both more effective and happier in my life and work, if I quit making every failing about “my” isssues.

I need to start questioning my interpretations of the meanings of events and past experiences. Preferably in a different light than before.

Okay… how to do this…?

Hmmm….

I’ve decided not to fire my therapist… yet

Note: I unpublished this post from 2009, for some reason. But reading it again today, it still seems very important to mention. So, I’ve published it again.

I’ve been agonizing a bit over my therapist, lately. And it’s kept me up at night, which is not good. I had intended to come back from Thanksgiving and fire them, since I have not felt like they are totally supportive of my recovery, and in some ways, the innuendos that they toss my way.

They’ve said things like, “You may have to settle for making less money because of your issues,” when I was talking about my job challenges and how frustrated I am with the high tech industry and my future prospects. I was frustrated with my own difficulties, yes, but my frustration was also due to the changing industry and the flood of young guns who are showing up (not necessarily knowing what they’re doing) and snapping up jobs for lower rates, which is a problem for seasoned pros like myself.

I was telling them about trying to repair a relationship I have with someone who is 15 years older than me, and this therapist said “Well, they are getting older, so you can only expect so much of them.” As though this friend of mine were impaired, simply due to their age. And they weren’t going to get any better over time, which meant (in their mind), I had to just accept the flaws in the relationship and take what little I could get, not have high hopes, not have high expectations, not have high… anything.

Truly, that makes me crazy. I am 100% committed to my recovery, and restoring myself to the highest level of functioning that is humanly (even inhumanly) possible. I know the human species is built for amazing things. I’ve watched Cirque de Soleil, and once you see — really see — them, you realize that more is possible than you ever dreamed. I’ve hauled my ass out of some pretty tight spots in my life, some of which looked hopelessly dire.  I’ve had my ass spared from some pretty shocking fates, through total flukes, coincidence, apparent divine intervention, and the kindness of strangers. I’ve been homeless, and I’ve been in the top 10% of the world’s wealthy. I’ve  been bullied and feted. I’ve won blue ribbons, and I’ve defaulted and fouled out. I’ve experienced a fairly wide gamut of human experiences, and since I’m only in my 40s, I don’t expect to stop doing that anytime soon.

For this therapist to tell me what is and is not possible, what I should or should not expect from life, is not only out of line, but flat out wrong.

Yes, it drives me crazy. The problem is, it drives me crazy in retrospect. ‘Cause I’m having trouble keeping up. The conversations we have tend to take on a life of their own and really speed up, to where I’m flying by the seat of my pants, trying to at least appear like I know what I’m talking about. I have been quite nervous with this shrink from the start. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s that they have these multiple degrees, and they carry themself like God’s gift. Maybe it’s that they’re very well-connected and I’m intimidated by their influence and power. Whatever the reason, when I’m in session, I get nervous. And I think they do, too, because they know I work for a very big and powerful company that is an imposing monolith in the region where we live. Yes, I suspect they’re quite nervous with me, too, and we both set each other off, so the conversations we have tend to jump around and pick up speed, and things get said that I can’t react to in the moment, ’cause I’m back on the last thought, trying to sort out what they meant when they said “_____”

Keeping up has always been a challenge for me, but all those successive challenges have been building up to critical mass. They’ve said a lot of things to me, and I’ve just nodded and uh-huh‘ed my way through the conversation, and then later realized what they said and what I really thought about it. And then, time after time, I’ve gotten upset and tweaked, because I haven’t been able to stand up for myself and set the record straight.

It drives me crazy, not being able to speak up at the instant something is not quite right. And it’s something I need to deal with.

Which is why I’m not firing them… right away.

What I really need to do, is get some practice standing up for myself and working with conversations in a common-sense way. My processing speed is slower than one would expect. That’s been well-established with testing. I also have difficulties understanding what I’m hearing. That also showed up on my neuropsych evaluation. And I have a long history of holding back and not engaging in conversations with people, because I’m trying to figure out in my head what just happened… but my head is not cooperating.

What I really need to do, is develop my skill at having these kinds of conversations, and mastering them in the moment, when they are causing me problems. Not run away right away, but stick with it, and see if I can sort things out — be very, very honest about what I’m thinking, ask for clarification, stop the action periodically to see if I’m following correctly, and not let this therapist make me feel less-than, because I’ve sustained a bunch of concussions over the course of my life.

This is very important practice. Handling conversation is a skill I must learn – even at this “late” date. Because this sort of muck-up doesn’t just happen with them, and it doesn’t just mess me up in therapy. It has messed me up at home, in the past, but I’ve been doing a lot better with it, since my spouse and I have been approaching our discussions and exchanges with my post-concussive state in the backs of our minds. It sometimes messes me up at work, too — the saving grace with work is that I interact with people on a daily basis, and I can check in with people again after the fact, and get clarification. And use email to get it in writing. And check with others to make sure I’ve got things straight in my head.

But not every exchange I have with people manageable with email and foll0w-ups and a deep understanding of my neurological issues. I have the whole outside world I have to deal with, and I need to deal with it well and effectively.

So, I will not be firing my therapist right away. I need to learn to deal with them more directly, to have conversations with them that are not one-sided, but are full conversations — (putting the “con-” which means “with” in “conversation”). I need to get with the conversations we’re having and participate. Even if it means slowing things down and feeling dense in the process. If I can get away from feeling stupid about not following at lightning speed… if I can figure out a different way of thinking about my processing speed being slowed down… if I can find another way of framing my interactive needs… that would be helpful.

Because the way I’m framing it now:

“You’re stupid to be this slow, so you’d better keep up, even if it’s at the cost of not following exactly. And by all means, never let them see that you’re struggling. You have your pride, after all.”

Well, that’s just not working.

Truly, I really don’t have the time to waste on relationships that undermine me. But this pattern with this therapist is part of a larger pattern I need to address. I need to practice having conversations with people that involve me, as well as them. And I need to slow down the pace, so I can have a fully involved exchange, not some mad dash to the finish line. What I really crave is quality of life. To be involved in my own life. To not just put on a good appearance, but also have a full experience — good, bad, or otherwise.

It’s all very well and good, if I look like I’m fine. But if I’m not fully present in the moment, when I’m looking the part, then the life I’m leading is not fully mine. It’s everybody else’s but mine.

Building my cognitive-behavioral exoskeleton

MTBI can do a lot of damage, in terms of shredding your existing skills and long-accustomed habits. It can really undermine your thinking and judgment, so that you never even realize you need to do things differently than you did before. And it requires that you force your brain (and sometimes body) to push harder and harder, even when every indication around (and inside) you is saying, “Let up… let up…”

This can be very confounding. I encounter — all the time — people who are keen on “taking it easy” and doing things “with ease and grace”. They think this is a sign of superior evolution. They think this is a sign of superior character, as though it means they are more “plugged in with the Universe”. They don’t want to have to expend the effort to get things done. They want Spirit/YHWH/God/Creator to do it for them. They don’t want to take a chance and extend themselves, because they are convinced that a Higher Power is more capable than they, and they believe they should just “get out of the way” and let that Higher Power take charge of their lives.

That may be fine for them, but that mindset drives me nuts. First of all, it absolves them of any responsibility for their actions. If things mess up, they can say it was “God’s will” or part of a “higher plan”. If things get really messed up, they can say they just need to be more “in tune with Spirit”.  I have a bunch of friends who are convinced that they are “channels” for Divine Inspiration, and that’s how they should live… just floating along on a tide of holy impulse. And their lives are a shambles. Objectively speaking, they are constantly marinating in a brine of their individual dramas and traumas. It’s just one thing after another, and all the while, they keep expecting Spirit/YHWH/God/Creator to fix all the messes they’ve helped create.

It’s very frustrating to watch this willful disregard of basic cause and effect, but I suppose everybody’s got their stuff.

Now, it’s one thing, if these people (some of whom are very dear to me) are content to live their lives that way, but when they expect me to do the same — and they judge me as being less “evolved” if I do things differently — it’s a little too much to take, sometimes. I don’t do well with living my life from a distance. I don’t do well with telling myself that I’m just floating along on the divine breeze, waiting for some wonderful opportunity to arise to save me from my own creations. I need to be involved in my own life. I need to be invested. I need to put some effort into my life. I need the exertion. It’s good for my spirit. It’s good for my morale. And it bolsters my self-esteem, as well.

Anyway, even if I wanted to just float along, I couldn’t. I’d sink like a rock. I’m not being hard on myself — this is my observation from years of experience. I can’t just ramble about, taking things as they come. I need structure and discipline to keep on track, to keep out of trouble, to keep my head on straight. I can’t just be open to inspiration and follow whatever impulse comes to mind. My mind is full of countless impulses, every hour of every day, and if I followed each and every one, I’d be so far out in left field, I’d never find my way back. I have had sufficient damage done to the fragile connections in my cerebral matter, that the routes that neural information takes have been permanently re-routed into the darkest woods and jungles of my brain. All those injuries over the years didn’t just wash out a few bridges — they blew them up. And they slashed and burned the jungle all around, and dug huge trenches across the neural byways I “should” be able to access.

As my diagnostic neuropsych says, “I am not neurologically intact.”

So that kind of disqualifies me for just winging it in my life. I tried for years to “go with the flow”, and I ended up flit-flitting about like a dried oak leaf on the wild October wind. I got nowhere. I can’t live like that, and I know it for sure, now that I’m intentionally trying to get myself in some kind of order. My brain is different. It has been formed differently than others. It has been formed differently than it was supposed to.

I can’t change that. But I can change how I do things. I can change how I think about things. I can change by facing up to basic facts. As in:

  • My thinking process is not a fluid one, anymore. In fact, I’m not sure it ever was — for real, that is. I’ve consistently found that when I’ve been the most certain about things, was the time when I needed most to double-check.
  • If I don’t extend myself to get where I’m going, I can end up sidelining myself with one minor failure after another. One by one, the screw-ups add up, and I end up just giving up, out of exhaustion and/or ex-/implosion… and I can end up even farther behind than when I started.
  • It’s like nothing internal is working the way it’s supposed to, and the standard-issue ways of thinking and doing just don’t seem to hold up.
  • My brain is different from other folks. It just is. It doesn’t have to be a BAD thing. It just is.

On bad days, it’s pretty easy for me to get down on myself. I feel broken and damaged and useless, some days — usually when I’m overtired and haven’t been taking care of myself. But on good days, I can see past all that wretchedness and just get on with it.

Part of my getting on with it is thinking about how we MTBI survivors can compensate for our difficulties… how we create and use tools to get ourselves back on track — and stay there. There are lots of people who have this kind of injury, and some of them/us figure out what tools work best for us, and we make a point of using them. These exterior tools act as supports (or substitutes) for our weakened internal systems. We use planners and notebooks and stickie notes. We use self-assessment forms and how-to books and motivational materials. We use prayer and reflection ane meditation and journaling. We use exercise and brain games. We use crossword puzzles and little daily challenges we come up with by ourselves.

Some of us — and I’m one such person — use our lives as our rehab. Not all of us can afford rehab (in terms of time or money), and not all of us can even get access to it (seeing as our injuries tend to be subtle and the folks who actually know what to do about them are few and far between). But we have one thing we can use to learn and live and learn some more — life. The school of hard knocks.

I use everything I encounter to further my recovery. I have to. I don’t want to be homeless. I don’t want to be stuck in underemployment. I don’t want to fade away to nothing. And that’s what could easily happen, if I let up. My friends who are into “ease and grace” don’t get this. But then, they’re embroiled in their own dramas, so they don’t really see what’s going on with me. Even my therapist encourages me to “take it easy” a lot more than I’m comfortable doing. (They’ve only known me for about seven months, so they don’t have a full appreciation of all the crap I have to deal with, so I’ll cut them a break.)

It stands to reason that others can’t tell what difficulties I have. After all, I’ve made it my personal mission to not let my injuries A) show to others, B) impact my ability to function in the present, and C) hold me back from my dreams. I may be unrealistic, and I may be just dreaming, but I’m going to hold to that, no matter what. I can’t let this stop me. None of it – the series of falls, the car accidents, the sports concussions, the attack… None of it is going to stop me, if I have anything to say about it. I just have to keep at it, till I find a way to work through/past/around my issues.

And to do that, I use tools. I keep notes. I write in my journal. I blog. I have even been able to read with comprehension for extended periods, lately, which was beyond my reach for a number of years. I keep lists of things I need to do. I come up with ways of jogging my memory. I play games that improve my thinking. I focus on doing good work, and doing well at the good work I’m involved in. I bring a tremendous amount of mindfulness to the things I care about, and I’m constantly looking for ways to improve. To someone with less restlessness and less nervous energy, it would be an exhausting prospect to life this way. But I have a seemingly endless stream of energy that emanates from a simmering sense of panic, and a constantly restless mind, so  I have to do something with it.

Some might recommend medication to take the edge off. But that, dear reader, would probably land me in hot water. Without my edge, I fade away to a blob of ineffectual whatever-ness.

I build myself tools. I use spreadsheets to track my progress. I downloaded the (free and incredibly helpful) Getting Things Done Wiki and installed it on my laptop to track my projects and make sure I don’t forget what I’m supposed to be working on. I have even built myself a little daily activity tracking tool that I use to see if any of my issues are getting in my way. It not only lets me track my issues, but it also helps me learn the database technologies I need to know for my professional work.

I am constantly thinking about where I’m at, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it. I am rarely at rest, and when I am, it is for the express purpose of regaining my strength so I can go back at my issues with all my might and deal directly with them. I am at times not the most organized with my self-rehab, but I’m making progress. And I track what I’m doing, to make sure I’m not getting too far afield. And I check in with my neuropsychs on a weekly basis.

I also use external props to keep me in line. I build exercise and nutrition into my daily routine, so I have no choice but do do them — if I break my routine, I’m lost. The anxiety level is just too high. I commit myself to meetings that require me to be in a certain place at a certain time, so I have to keep on schedule. I work a 9-5 job that forces me to be on-time and deliver what I promise. I surround myself with people who have very high standards, and I hold myself to them. As I go about my daily activities, I do it with the orientation of recovery. Rehabilitation. Life is full of rehab opportunities, if you take the time — and make the point — to notice.

In many ways, my external tool-making and structure-seeking is like being a hermit crab finding and using shells cast off by other creatures for their survival. I don’t have the kind of inner resources I’d like to keep myself on track, and I don’t have the innate ability/desire to adhere to the kinds of standards I know are essential for regular adult functioning. I’ve been trying, since I was a little kid, to be the kind of person I want to be, and it’s rarely turned out well when I was running on my own steam.

So, I put myself in external situations and engage in the kinds of activities that require me to stay on track and adhere to the kinds of standards I aspire to. I seek out the company of people who are where I want to be — or are on the same track that I want to be on. And I “make like them” — I do my utmost to match them, their behaviors, their activities. And it works. I do a damned good impression of the person I want to be — even when deep down inside, I’m having a hell of a time adhering to my own standards.

The gap between who I want to be/what I want to do with my life, and how I actually am and what I actually accomplish is, at times, a vast chasm. I have so many weak spots that feel utterly intractable — and I need to do something about them. So, I use the outside world to provide the impetus and stimulation I require to be the person I know I can be, and to accomplish the things I long to do. I use the supports I can get, and I use whatever tools I have on hand. I fashion the world around me in a way that supports my vision of who I can be and what I can accomplish in my life. and I just keep going, layering on more and more experiential “shellack” that supports my hopes and dreams and vision.

Dear reader, if you only knew how different my fondest hopes and most brightly burning dreams have been from my actual reality throughout the course of my 4 decades-plus on this earth, you would weep for days, maybe weeks. But this is not the time to cry. Not when I have within my reach the means by which to put myself on the track I long for. Not when I have the resolve to take my life to the next level. Not when I have — at long last — the information I need to understand my limitations and my cognitive-behavioral makeup. Not when I have the drive and desire to live life to the fullest, to love and grow and learn and … and …

But enough — the day is waiting, and I have things I must get done.

Peace, out

BB

MTBI and mental health

I’ve been thinking a lot about how TBI (especially MBTI) can either masquerade as mental illness… or lead to it. Not being a psychotherapist, I can’t speak to the intimate details of what makes a person mentally ill, but being a multiple MTBI survivor, I can speak to my own experiences.

In my recent post The Disordered Life and the Need for Psychotherapy, I talked a bit about how my past therapy experience was perhaps not the most effective for me — or the most appropriate. And now I’m starting to think that maybe it did me more harm than good, in some respects. That constant plumbing the depths of my soul, looking for things to explore… well, that frankly wasn’t often a very productive experience. I’d end up in tears, 24 hours later, and I’d be turned around for days, confused about things and off-balance in my life.

Here are some more thoughts regarding the mention over at Get Real Results. Their text is in bold, mine is plain.

Many people who enter traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy do so because they are dissatisfied with their lives.

I got into therapy, because I was having an incredibly difficult time dealing with being a caregiver for a family member who had developed disabling health problems. They had been going slowly but steadily downhill for a while, their health problems worsening without being really addressed. They frankly refused to see a doctor for their problems. They wouldn’t even admit that there was a problem. I had tried to soldier through with them, stick with them, no matter what, and be loyal and helpful and stabilizing. But ultimately, they ended up in the hospital, where they were properly diagnosed and put on a recovery regimen. They were unable to do much of anything for themself, so I took time off from work and helped them get back on their feet. During that time, I was the only caregiver for them, and due to circumstances that are way too complicated to go into here, I couldn’t ask friends of family for help. Only a few were available to me, and then in a very limited capacity. Basically, I was holding the fort down for the two of us, and I was getting increasingly frayed… and incapable of dealing with the situation in a productive manner. My temper got shorter and shorter and increasingly explosive, I was melting down (in private), occassionally self-injuring to relieve the internal pressure, and becoming more and more PTSD-y. It was just not good. I was getting worse by the week, and it was starting to get dicey for the person I was supposed to be caring for. I knew I was supposed to be doing better than I was, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so fragile and inept and having such a terrible time of things. A friend pushed for me to get into therapy, and they found me a seasoned therapist they thought would be a good match. I decided to give it a try.

Their dissatisfaction may be due to being unsure of themselves, goals that are not clear, inability to accomplish what they want, unsatisfying relationships, anger or fear, or they are depressed.

I really didn’t know what was going on with me. I was having a hell of a time understanding what the doctors were telling me, remembering the info I was getting, and if I hadn’t had us all on a very strict schedule each day, with extra attention paid to nutrition and exercise and the most  basic of needs, we all probably would have spun wildly out of control. Friends who knew about what was  going on would would ask me what I needed, but I had no idea. They would try to talk to me about the situation and give me some support, but I coudn’t seem to access anything useful to tell them. I could discuss high-level things like medical research. I could talk about basic stuff like eating plans. But when it came to regular human interaction and talking about what was going on with me, I was at a complete and total loss. People would ask me what I needed from them, and I couldn’t answer. I literally didn’t know. All I knew was, I was locked on target to keep everyone in the household going, and keep my care-take-ee on the road to recovery.

Hoping to find out what was going on, I went into therapy. I really didn’t know what to expect. I had tried therapy years before, and it ended badly. What I did know was that I was wearing thin, I was melting down, I was not holding up well, and I didn’t know why. I needed someone to help me figure it out — and hopefully address it.

Psychotherapy offers them a chance to explore their feelings and past, uncover and resolve the conflicts that interfere with their lives, vent their frustrations, and get on with their lives.

Oh, yes… the exploration of the past… My therapist was really into that. They wanted to know what my parents were like, what they’d done that was awful, what my childhood environment was like, etc. Granted, my early childhood was not easy — I didn’t see much of my parents in my early years, I was in childcare during most of my waking hours, and when I did see my parents in the evenings or on the weekends, they were busy working around the house or they were occupied with concerns other than me. And the times when I did interact with them, I often had troubles. We would start out pretty good, then eventually things would go south, and I’d end up melting down or being disciplined for something I’d done. I had a lot of sensory issues when I was a kid — touch felt like pain a lot of times, and I had a hard time hearing and understanding what people were saying to me — so the “easy” times were a bit more complicated than one might expect.

Anyway, my therapist apparently had a lot of interesting material to work with, ’cause my childhood as I reported it was such a tangled mess. And my teen years and early adulthood weren’t much more straightforward.  Let’s just say I’ve had an eventful life. A non-standard life. A unique experience. I often got the feeling, during our sessions, that they were trying to uncover something really awful that would explain why I was such a wreck.

I have to say, I wasn’t always comfortable with that dynamic. It seemed to me that they were making some assumptions that just didn’t “sit right” with me. Looking back honestly and truthfully — and I’m not afraid to look at bad things that have happened, to me (even though I’m not usually comfortable talking about them with others) — I just couldn’t find any evidence of the kinds of abuse that are usually associated with intense PTSD. Sure, there’s that whole “repressed memory” thing, but I’m sorry, I just wasn’t feeling it. My diagnostic neuropsychologist concurred (on their own steam) that the difficulties I face are not psychological in origin, rather TBI-related, and even before I started the neuropsych testing, I had a strong, undeniable sense that the problems I was having with keeping up with everything around me were NOT just about stress, were not just about an unhappy childhood, were NOT based in psychological problems, but had some other origin. And I had to figure out what that was.

I suspect that hard-core psychiatric/psychological “team members” are going to turn their noses up at this, but you have to understand — I have spent 30-some years specializing in exploring the innermost recesses of my psyche. I’ve got countless journals filled with self-exploration to prove it. I’ve peered into dark corners on a daily basis for decades, and I’m not afraid to confront my demons. Seriously. I’m not. And when I took a long, hard look at the chronology of my childhood and teen years and early adulthood… and up to the present time… and I compared it with the chronology of my regular-functioning siblings… and I compared how I wanted (and tried) to  behave and experience life against how things actually turned out, well it was pretty damned clear to me that there was more than psychology at work.

There had to be a logistical, systemic issue at hand that hadn’t been identified or dealt with. My difficulties stemmed — it was pretty clear to me — NOT from things that were “done to me” but rather how I interpreted and experienced the events of my life. My siblings had gone through many of the same things I had — some of them had gone through much worse — and yet they presented as (and were/are) perfectly normal. Ironically, my siblings are — in the estimation of people who know both me and them — a lot less “together” than I am. But they are/were a whole lot more functional in the most basic ways — particularly socially. They knew how to identify and communicate to others what was going on with them and what they needed in tight spots.

I, on the other hand, had my act together in many ways that they never have, and was a super achiever with a good head on my shoulders in many respects, but in others, I was just a train wreck. I had always had a hell of a time figuring out where I stood in relation to the world around me, what I was feeling, what I was thinking, and what I needed from others. And while the experiences I’d had as a kid were not unlike what others went through, I took everything incredibly hard and couldn’t deal with much of anything. Change was all but impossible for me to stomach. I took any alteration — expected or unexpected — very, very hard. Some changes I took so hard, I apparently blocked them out from my memory, and I only know about them from my parents. Social interactions were pretty much a lost cause with me. Indeed,tending to the most basic things in life were next to impossible… like following conversations, being able to follow through with the easiest of tasks, playing simple schoolyard games like kickball and four-square, interacting with others, and keeping my act together without melting down or going off on wild hyperactive sprees. I was alternately aggressive and emotionally hypersensitive, and I spent a whole lot of my childhood and youth being extremely angry and bitter, and acting out in various ways.

Now, plenty of mental health professionals could probably come up with some workable explanations for all of this, and they’d probably be right. I’m sure plenty of people would have difficulty with what I experienced. My siblings still struggle with the aftermath of similar experiences. But not to the degree that I did/do. In fact, it was the degree of my difficulties that tipped me off that there was something more going on with me. When I took an honest, truthful look at my life experiences, and I compared the outcomes with other comparable individuals, I could very plainly detect a significant difference in degree that — I’m sorry — can’t be explained as trauma or post traumatic stress or even the changing times I grew up in. There was something more going on, which complicated things then. And it was continuing to complicate things for me in the present.

Unfortunately, although many head injured persons fit the above description and thus get sent into traditional analytic or psychodynamic therapy — they often get worse, not better, to everyone’s dismay.

OMG – I wish to hell I’d read this a year ago. It explains so much. Lemme tell you, it’s no friggin’ fun sitting there, week after week, sometimes twice a week, trying “like crazy” to figure out what’s amiss, and why… to be following the standard protocol of plumbing the depths, trying to come up with examples of past distress, trying to identify what’s going on with you… doing what you think (and are told) is the right thing to do, therapeutically… only to be an emotional wreck for days afterwards. And be getting worse, not better.

That’s what happened to me. I wasn’t becoming more centered and together.  I wasn’t better able to cope with the stresses of my life. I was actually having a harder and harder time of it. And I was starting to doubt myself at every turn. I was starting to doubt my judgment, my ability to cope, my sanity. I would sit there for that 50 minutes or so, trying to come up with some examples of what I was feeling or what I had experienced, only to come up empty-handed — and feeling pretty stupid in the process.  I would try to figure out what I was feeling, how I was impacted by such-and-such an experience, what others and said or done that upset me… and try to feel my feelings in general.

Therapy was supposed to help me make sense of things, and in some ways, it did help to have someone to talk to. But it helped me most when I was just talking about my life and not processing it all in a psychotherapeutic context. When I tried to “therapize” my experience, I just ended up feeling stupid and incompetent and beset by all sorts of self-doubt. I often couldn’t follow what my therapist was saying to me, and I could react quickly enough to get them to slow down. I would rush through my sessions with them, just saying out loud what I thought should be said, rather than letting on that I wasn’t following and I wasn’t  articulating what I wanted to articulate. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t put into words what was going on with me — and in fact, I couldn’t figure out what was going on with me — that I spent an awful lot of time spewing stuff that wasn’t necessarily accurate or reflective of where I was coming from. I had always had such a hard time interacting with people — especially in spoken conversation — I just couldn’t deal with the talk-therapy scene in a really authentic way.

I knew this on some level, though I couldn’t yet put my finger on it, and it made feel like a total fraud and a loser — both because I couldn’t seem to do better in our interactions, and because I didn’t know how to ‘fess up … and do something about it.

As a result, a lot of the problems I was having became even worse, and I started to blow up and melt down and make really stupid choices over and over and over again. I went through three or four jobs in the time I was in traditional talk-therapy, and I was stressing to the point of having spells/episodes that looked a whole lot like seizures of some sort.

Not good.

This happens because the disorder in their lives reflects not primarily underlying psychological conflicts, but the damage to their brains that has resulted in cognitive and executive dysfunctions.

Amen to that. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I was screwing up, left and right. I was getting in touch with my feelings, I was feeling them. I was talking about my difficulties. I was releasing old hurts. I was doing what was supposed to be done — or so I thought — but my life was still on a collision course with… well, me. I was making all sorts of bad decisions, and my therapist gave me room to “explore” them as I wished. The only thing was, the decisions put me on a really bad path to some serious professional peril — and I wish they’d spoken up and corrected some of the shitty thought processes that were in play. I wish they’d challenged my thinking on a bunch of subjects. I might not have made the choices I did, and done the stupid-ass things I thought were such good ideas at the time, if they’d just questioned me more closely … with the understanding that my brain tends to misfire at critical times. I was cognitively and executively dysfunctional in some pretty significant ways, but they approached my difficulties from an emotional point of view, rather than a logistical one. They seemed to think that if I just had a better sense of self, and if I overcame my low self-esteem, I would be able to get my life back on track.

Uh…. NOT. Self-esteem has nothing to do with any of it. Nor lacking sense of self. It’s basic system issues that plague me. If anything, my sense of self is my strongest suit, and my self-esteem is for the most part quite intact. But all of my self-regard is useless, if my brain is misfiring and giving me wrong bits of information about what I should do with all that self-esteem and identity stuff.

This has gotten me in trouble more times than I care to think about. I swear… I’ll be feeling really strong and good about how I can do anything I put my mind to… but I won’t realize that fatigue is getting the best of me, and I’m missing cues and clues about what’s going on in the world around me. And I’ll screw up the job I’ve started — like a spreadsheet of numbers I’ve collected, or a piece of programming code I’ve written. I won’t muck up because I don’t feel good about myself, but because I didn’t take the time to walk through the steps of the job I’m doing… and I’ll screw it all up, miscalculating and end up with the wrong answer entirely. Broken program. Wrong numbers. Messed-up results — not because I lack self-esteem, but because my form was crappy.

Low self-esteem wasn’t the source of so many of my problems. MTBI was. Low self-esteem was an effect of the underlying problems — not a cause.

My old therapist also seemed to think that if I looked too closely at the ways in which I was deficient, it would take a toll on my self-esteem. If I explored the details of my screw-ups, I’d get down on myself and lose ground, psychologically. Untrue, untrue, untrue. It was in NOT looking at how I was screwing up, that I got into trouble, because I could never correct my mistakes so I’d do better the next time.  They spent a whole lot of time trying to reassure me that “I could do it”, without empowering me to actually do it in the way I needed to. Actually, I couldn’t do it — at least, not without help. There’s no shame in that, but the way they went about things, they actually made me feel as though there was.

Their lives are disordered because their brains are disordered.

Uh, yah. And acting like I was cognitively and excutively intact, was a huge mistake. For them, and for me. I guess I just didn’t grasp the extent of my difficulties, nor did they. They seemed to think that my lack of initiative stemmed from emotionally based depression, rather than a physical slowing of the brain processes… that my difficulties socially came from low self-esteem, rather than a long history of mucked-up relationships that stemmed from behavioral issues that began around the time of my first TBI and got worse with every successive one. My life, while full and whole and complete and highly functional in some ways, was in a total shambles in others.  It seems to me that that should have raised a flag of some sort — why does someone who is such a top performer and peak achiever in significant ways, also show such profound deficits in others? It’s not emotional in nature and origin. It’s neurological.

“Talking things out” does not solve the problem and may worsen it.

Which it did for me. Talking just made everything worse — it was all talk, no action, and if I talked about my difficulties, their main approach was to reassure me that I was an okay person (which I already knew!) rather than encourage me to deal with the logistics.

This is because traditional therapy removes structure and encourages the spontaneous expression of whatever thoughts and feelings seem most important.

Yet another contributing factor. OMG — can I tell you how many sessions I just rambled on and on without any particular direction? It may have seemed like giving my emotions free rein was a good idea, but they clearly didn’t know how capricious my brain can be around thoughts and feelings. Without structure and purpose, all that cognitive energy just went flying all over the place, leaving me even more confused than before, in many ways. Which did not support my mental health.

Such a process is guaranteed to lead to further disorganization and confusion in a person whose major problem is structuring and organizing the thinking processes, while trying to keep surges of emotion from washing everything away entirely.

Amen to that. Now I can see why my present therapist, who is a neuropsych by training, is constantly steering me away from the emotional exploration I became accustomed to. This new therapist (NT) takes a totally different approach from my Old Therapist (OT), and I have to admit it confused me at first and made me angry and disoriented. I was accustomed to therapy being about venting and “releasing”, but NT was focusing on logistics. And steering me away from overly emotional responses to every little thing (which had been encouraged by OT before).

When individual “therapy” is a successful adjunct to a rehabilitation program, it is a structuring, supportive, problem-solving approach.

And so it is — this new approach with NT is so much more helpful to me. And to everyone around me. My family members have commented that I’m doing a whole lot better, now that I’m seeing NT, and I can tell a huge difference. NT is very supportive, but they don’t let me get away with crappy cognitive processes, and they make me stop and think things through before I take action I’m talking about. They’ve already “talked me back from the edge” of doing something really stupid, a number of times. And this in only a few months. Plus, they’ve talked me through some wrong assumptions and bad information I was working off of, for nearly 20 years. They are talking me through thought processes that have been deeply flawed — yet rote — for decades, now. And I’m revising my perceptions in the process.

That’s just huge. And it’s something that I, as an MTBI survivor, need desperately. I need to be stopped and questioned and challenged. Even if it makes me uncomfortable and mad. I need to be forced to think things through in a careful and deliberate way, not just fly into situations thinking I can do everything on reflex. I can’t. I’m not sure I ever could. But this is the first I’m realizing it fully.

But at least I’m realizing it now. So I can actually do something about it. And make some real progress!

This does not mean that head injured persons cannot have mild or severe psychological problems that either result directly from, or exist (usually existed) separately from the results of their injury.

In my case, I would say that a fair number of my psych issues have stemmed from my long history of screwing up due to MTBI problems. There’s only so many false starts and cock-ups you can commit, until you start to be convinced you’re an idiot and don’t deserve a full and fulfilling life. There’s only so many relationships you can blow away, before you start to think you’re unfit for society. And having people make fun of you and bully you and ostrasize you and tell you you’re lazy and stupid and slow and whatnot also takes a toll.

I’m not complaining and I’m not crying boo-hoo.

I’m just saying…

They can, and often do. It does mean, however, that the traditional psychodynamic approach seldom offers the head-injured person relief from their disordered life.

Yes to this. To get relief from my disordered life, I need specific coping strategies and tools in my “toolbox”. After I’ve stopped making a mess of everything I touch, I can start to rebuild my self-esteem. But not before then.

The psychotherapist who specializes in brain injury must have an appreciation of the impact of brain damage on the patient’s capacity to benefit from the process of therapy.

Which my OT didn’t, I don’t think. At least, I don’t think they understood just how deeply I’d been impacted by a lifetime of injuries and the resulting effects.

Rehabilitation professionals should seek out such specialists if their clients require psychotherapy.

And clients should do the same.

I’m really hoping that this post has offered some food for thought to therapists and clients alike. It’s just so important, and there are so many critical considerations to go into this.

If TBI isn’t considered fully in therapy, the process itself can wreak havoc in an already disordered life… making things worse in the process. Folks may disagree with what I’ve said above, but that’s just my own experience and perception.

Therapy should be helpful. I think we can all agree on that.


A Perilous Relief – Conventional Wisdom About Risk-Taking/Danger-Seeking Behavior

Risk-taking or danger-seeking behavior, especially in teenagers or at-risk individuals, has intrigued, worried, and frustrated scientists and mental health professionals for aeons — perhaps as long as humans have walked the earth, and there were friends, family and/or hunting party members to be concerned about the welfare of “crazy bastards” who took more risks than most.

In the past, actions like walking up to a mastodon and launching your spear at it point-blank, scaling the face of El Capitan without ropes, or putting every penny you own on the line for a long-shot bet or a chancy investment, were equated with a sort of “death wish” or the desire to do self-injury. Such behavior was (for good reason) considered illogical, even pathological. That professional view has changed, but some residue of it remains, culturally speaking.

I’ve also heard risk-taking behavior explained as a form of self-sabotage or a kind of self-abuse, based in an individual’s general lack of understanding about (and/or desire to flee) deep-seated emotional issues. Surely, the person who races funny cars in their off-hours must be running from something. Smokers and heavy drinkers who cannot help but be well-aware of the dangers of their habits must be in denial. And surfers who court their own destruction in 30-foot waves above razor-sharp volcanic rocks that are just beneath the surface of the boiling sea certainly must have “unresolved issues.”

On the other hand, I’ve heard danger-seeking described as a form of self-aggrandizement, as a way to prove one’s evolutionary superiority over social/biological competitors. Whether it’s competing in freestyle skiing… or “playing chicken” in speeding cars on a pitch black night… or jumping from skyscrapers with a parachute, you’re essentially “showing off” to “get girls” or prove to the world that you’re the superior specimen. And dude, on a certain level, it tends to work.

At a basic, physiological level, I’ve heard risk-taking described as a form of addiction to adrenaline highs, which arises from the brain’s continued experience of adrenaline rushes in the face of extreme danger. It’s a conditioned activity, I’m told — one that arises from the complex biochemical cascade of stress hormones and bodily “cowboying up” which happens over and over and over again… until the body, mind, and spirit just can’t live without the high.

Now, I myself, have a history of danger-seeking and risk-taking behavior, in both my personal and professional life. I’m not one for extreme sports; in fact, few things entice me less than bungee jumping or skydiving. The idea of stock car racing appeals to me… until I calculate the likelihood of getting into a fiery crash, whereupon my enthusiasm dissipates considerably. But in my own unique way(s), I have courted danger and taken risks that others considered foolhardy, and I have done so with gusto and glee. In some cases, the chances I took worked out well for me, resulting in either professional and personal financial advancement or the increased esteem of my peers — or both. In other cases, I narrowly escaped possible disaster, and I was lucky to get out of the situation(s) in one piece. In still other cases, I fell flat on my face — sometimes hard — and lost a great deal in the process.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents


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A Perilous Relief – Introduction

Risk-taking or danger-seeking behavior has been a puzzle of human experience for generations. Certain individuals repeatedly tempt fate with foolhardy and clearly risky behaviors. They make seemingly rash choices that endanger everything they hold most dear, including life and limb, friends and family, and future prospects for survival. But why?

Explanations by scientists and mental health professionals have often been psychological in nature, and recently with increased understanding of genetics and neuro-chemical processes, additional biological explanations have emerged.

While these new developments shed new light and add more facets and texture to our understanding of why some people actively choose to endanger their own survival, it’s my belief that yet another oft-ignored aspect of human experience plays into the risk-taking behavior equation: namely, painful sensory overwhelm. Further, it is my own belief (and experience, based on personal practice) that the use of “analgesic fear” can be used to control and manage pain and other sorts of sensory overwhelm.

Drawing on my own life experiences with chronic pain, sensory overwhelm, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, fear, and verifiable threats to my personal/professional survival, in this paper I will illustrate how I have repeatedly used risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior as a way to not only minimize my own physical/mental/emotional experiences of pain and sensory overload, but also optimize my personal and professional performance in the process.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents


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A New Paper – A Perilous Relief

I’ve been head-down for the past several days, working on a paper called “A Perilous ReliefOn the physiological foundation(s) of risk-taking / danger-seeking behavior“. It’s an offshoot of my recent readings about how fear and anxiety have different effects on the body (especially on pain), how self-induced stress can have an analgesic effect, and how this research of mine can explain some pretty puzzling and problematic behaviors I exhibited over the past couple of weeks. I think I’m onto something here — if only for my own edification.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the paper, as I complete them. I wrote about 50 pages, in the past several days (I probably should have gone for a walk on Sunday, but I got to writing, and I got carried away). Eventually, when the work is finished, I’ll make it available for download and/or in print format. I will probably charge something for it, in hopes of getting some financial support for this blog and my research. It’s an ongoing project, but I’m hoping to have it finished within the next few weeks.

About “A Perilous Relief

This paper is a personal study in my own risk-taking and danger-seeking behaviors from a physiological standpoint. It explores my individual history of risky and dangerous choices not only as a way to pursue an “adrenaline high” or avoid emotional pain and dampen the effects of post-traumatic stress, but also as a highly effective way of coping with and mitigating my lifelong chronic pain and sensory issues and enabling me to function more effectively in the demanding world around me. It details:

  • select instances of my past and present personal/professional risk-taking (some of which had near-disastrous consequences),
    the often painful “sensory backdrop” which lay(s) the contextual foundation for my impaired choice-making,
  • the role that anxiety has played in the things I do and the choices I make and my overall physical experience,
  • how deliberately entering into fear-inducing, high-stakes situations not only cuts the pain that is my constant companion, but also helps me think better, perform better, be better... thus not only easing my discomfort but bolstering my self-esteem and enhancing my overall life, and
  • how continued cycles of anxiety–pain–fear–pain–anxiety–pain–fear–pain can create a feedback loop that systematically drains my personal resources and feeds into a downward spiral of diminishing returns, even as I am convinced that my performance is improving.

One of the important pieces of my own puzzle, is that I am a “high functioning” multiple mild traumatic brain injury survivor. Since the age of 7, through the past 35 years, I have sustained at least five (possibly more) head injuries which have had a noticeable impact on my physical, cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and social landscape. Nevertheless, neuropsychological testing has shown that I score around the 99th percentile of the WAIS-III verbal comprehension index. My intention is to use the heightened abilities I have been given to explore and explain the deep limitations I experience and describe my coping strategies and their outcomes, for the benefit of myself and others.

It is my hope that in reading this paper, individuals, health care providers, mental health practitioners, authority figures, and law enforcers of all kinds may come to a broader understanding and appreciation of why some of us take risks (and take them so frequently without apparent regard for our own well-being) and develop more productive ways of managing potentially damaging behaviors — behaviors which in fact provide experiences that are essential to the peak performance of certain highly sensitive individuals.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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Keep it simple. Or else…

I’m discovering an interesting phenomenon with this blog… that correlates with other facets of my eventful life:

The tendency to complicate things and overwhelm myself. I am naturally inclined to break things down into little tiny pieces and focus on those individual pieces so intently, that the sum total becomes vastly complex, and I get overwhelmed with all the detail.

For example, I started this blog with the simple intention of recording my daily experiences as an MTBI survivor. Just to tell about what it’s like, so others can see how it is to live with a broken brain that doesn’t do justice to their brilliant mind.

Pretty soon, I feeling like I wasn’t offering enough “quality content” and I got caught up in doing all sorts of research and reading and going off on tangents to try to better understand something I was writing about. Comprehension and deeper understanding are admirable goals. All good, right?

Not so much. Because after a while, I started to lose track of what I was trying to do/say. And I ended up getting down on myself for losing my way. My brain couldn’t keep up with my mind, and I ended up in a vicious loop of diminishing effectiveness.

I go through this process with planning. I do it with doing. I do it with everything, from understanding personal relationship issues to parking the car. I get all enthused and discombobulated and turned around and swamped and confused and upset and discouraged with myself, and it takes a toll on my self-esteem. But then I regroup and figure out how to move forward, by breaking down steps into little tiny pieces and doing each one properly. But I need to be able to discern what is a reasonable level of complexity to indulge.

Here’s how the loop goes, in linear terms:

  1. I decide on a simple goal (recording my daily TBI-related experiences)
  2. I start work on that goal
  3. I make good progress, right out of the gate (I posted a whole bunch of stuff and found good info to share)
  4. I start thinking about how I can take it to the next level (I looked at some of my past posts and thought about what more I needed to know/say about them)
  5. I identify a bunch of different tangents to explore (TBI experiences, returning Iraqi vets’ experiences, more details on symptoms, medical research, psychological research, all sorts of research…)
  6. I go off on a tangent and explore that (I start reading up on impaired self-assessment)
  7. I get pulled into reading about other tangents (I start reading up on sleep deprivation, PTSD, military policy, alternative cognitive rehabilitation, alternative healing, complimentary healing modalities… etc.)
  8. I take notes and make outlines of what I want to write (I outlined at least three separate pieces I want to work on and identified various projects that move me.
  9. I get all motivated and fly into action on a handful of these things (I created of my headache journal, with several versions available, not only as PDFs but as coil-bound books, as well)
  10. I think about everything else that needs to be done, and I get overwhelmed with all the work involved (promoting my projects is a full-time job in itself).
  11. I get swamped by the details (I have pages and pages of planning, all of it accurate, all of it necessary, all of it overwhelming).
  12. I get stopped. I can’t ask for help, because by the time I get to a place where I’m stopped, my brain has become so immersed and inundated and absorbed in the details, that articulating any of it to an outside party is just beyond my abilities (I can’t even begin to explain to someone how things are supposed to work — to do that, I’d have to start at the beginning, and that’s so far back, I can’t remember anymore where I started, exactly).
  13. I have to take a break and go off and do something else for a while (I start other projects that motivate me, often with a completely different focus and using a different part of my brain — like drawing or programming).
  14. I start into this same cycle with these new projects, eventually get stopped with them, and then end up with a backlog of all this stuff I’ve started, but haven’t finished (I don’t just have articles I haven’t written, I have headache journals I haven’t properly promoted, I have artwork I need to have scanned, I have hobbies I would like to pursue… none of which are taken to fruition)l.
  15. I look back on my list of things I intended to accomplish, and I feel horrible about it all. I get down on myself, get stressed, get angry, get frustrated, get cruel with my brain… all the while conveniently forgetting that my cerebrum was compromised several times, once upon a time, and I can’t realistically expect it to do everything. For that matter, I can’t expect anyone to do everything I set out to do. There’ s just not enough time in the day, and until I have a full staff or can find someone to help me — with whom I can communicate — I’m going to have to scale back what I’m doing. Big time.
  16. Then I need to take more time off to recap, regroup, reprioritize, and see what I can reasonably expect to get done, so I can feel good about my progress and not be stopped anymore (I take some serious time away, do some “light” reading and/or distract myself with working in the yard, till I feel better… then I pull out all my notes from projects I’ve started, I work down through their status, and I pick out the ones that are closest to being done — the “low-hanging fruit”.)
  17. When I’m all sorted out and my projects are prioritized again, I make my list of things I need to do to complete each one, and I make “punchlists” of items, so I have some guidelines to keep me on track (I collect all my notes in 3-ring binders of multiple sizes, and I keep the notes for individual projects grouped together).
  18. I then take things one at a time and walk through each item, till it gets done. True, being systematic and logical about things is a lot less invigorating than flying into action and “losing myself” in a task. But it actually allows me to make progress.
  19. I try to build in some sort of rewards system for myself, so that when I actually complete something (I have very important projects still going on, that have been start-stall-stop for years on end) I can celebrate… and relax. Take the pressure off. I’m still trying to figure out what those rewards are. Actually, making money is the reward I crave most. So, all my projects need to be money-makers, or I’m just not content.

I really need to be careful that I don’t overwhelm myself. When I do, everything stops. And I have to take a break and regroup. Which works on myself-esteem and makes me feel like I’m “behind”. I haven’t posted to this blog… I haven’t done my chores… I haven’t done this… I haven’t done that… The string of recriminations is just endless. And it works on my self-esteem, because I’m so deep into my work that I can’t see outside myself and I can’t perceive that I’m really in need of a break.

But I have to remind myself that when I take time off to regroup, I’m not actually “behind.” I’m just taking a breather. So I can return and get back in the saddle again. And I need to cut myself some slack.

So, that’s what I’m working on. Ideally, in the 19 steps above, I would really start around step 17 and plan everything out up front. The problem is, when I’m heavily planned and “project-managed”, I lose a lot of my drive and my motivation. I need to engage my heart and my spirit, not just my head. Getting the two together is a huge challenge. But once I figure it out (I’m still working on it), I suspect the sky will be the limit.