Beyond ye olde comfort zone

So, yesterday was interesting. I ended up not having to help a friend with the event they were dj’ing, but I did have to dog-sit for one of their buddies. And it turned out okay, actually. I got a few hours of my life back, and I also got to hang out with a pretty cool dog. I went for a couple of walks throughout the evening, and I even got 4-5 hours of good solid work done on this project.

The crazy thing is, I actually was able to start work on my project, once I got past the hangup about not being in my usual comfort zone, where I have hours and hours of uninterrupted time to work. I had this dog to take care of. I had to take it for a couple of walks (then wash off the dust and possible poison ivy each time we got back). I also had to make sure it wasn’t digging in the trash, which this dog loves to do. I was definitely not un-interrupted last night, and I had to keep an eye on things in ways that I usually don’t.

And yet, it didn’t stop me from making real progress. It was an added factor to deal with, but I dealt with it and it turned out fine.

I also slept like a rock last night — must have been all that walking, especially the midnight walk on an amazingly bright night. I think that “super moon” is happening this weekend, and outside at midnight, even with the overcast sky, there was a glow that lit things up like I haven’t seen in a long time.

I also haven’t been out walking at night in a long time. The last time I was actually outside walking around was several years ago, when the neighbor’s dog kept circling their perimeter going crazy crying and whining and barking like there was some wild beast out there. Turns out, there was — we have some large-ish, potentially dangerous predators in the woods of this area, and one of those creatures had been wandering into our neck o’ things, coming after the neighbors’ chickens. After the neighbors got rid of their chickens, they went away, but for a while it was a little dicey going out at night. I found out the easy way — shone my flashlight into a clearing in the woods, and saw two bright eyes looking back at me, more than a foot above the ground.

Definitely not a possum. I backed away slowly and went back inside. We haven’t heard tell of any of these creatures around, lately, but for some reason, I just stopped going out for night-time walks.

Last night was different, though. The dog had to be walked. He’d been drinking water all evening, and nature called. Plus, he was all rested from sleeping for hours, so he needed to be worn out so I could get some sleep. Beautiful walk on a beautiful night, and not terribly much traffic. Anyway, you can see people coming, so you just step off to the side, signal you’re there with your flashlight, and then move along when they’ve passed. In some ways, it’s actually safer than the daytime, when you can’t always see them coming.

Oddly, the mosquitoes didn’t make me crazy. Normally, they do, but I was so relaxed yesterday evening, it was crazy. Just so relaxed and feeling great — even though I was short on time, and my hours of working on the project ultimately turned out to be a bust because I had gone down a wrong path of thinking, and I’d persisted in this wrong path for hours. The only thing I really achieved last night, was figuring out what NOT to do. But in the end, that’s fine, because I needed to figure that out, anyway. Better to make the mistakes now, than later. I don’t have a lot of time later.

One of the things I was figuring out last night is a program I need to use to complete this project. I have been terribly resistant to figuring it out and learning the system, for some reason. I’m blocked, and I don’t know why. That little voice in my head that tells me, “You can’t” has been working overtime — in every single aspect of this learning task. It tells me:

  • I can’t find the time to work on this.
  • I can’t figure out how to work all the features.
  • I can’t find all the different pieces I need to put together.
  • I can’t learn the advanced functionality.
  • I won’t be able to change the things I need to change.
  • I can’t come up with a decent end-product.
  • I can’t hold my own, and I will be treated like a fool and an idiot when people see the product of my hard work.

Yes, this voice has been very busy — like so many mosquitoes buzzing around my head, distracting me and annoying me and stinging me.

Last night, though, I finally buckled down and dove into the starting parts of learning this process, and once I got going, I wasn’t bothered by that voice and all its little BS messages that are designed to just get me to stop what I’m doing and take a break and give myself a hiatus from… living my life.

The mechanics of this are fascinating. This voice-thing seems to get “triggered” by a biochemical state — a combination of excitement and anxiety and uncertainty, which my mind apparently interprets as DANGER – RUN AWAY!!! When that particular mix of emotions ramps up, my mind seems to shut off and immediately starts looking for the nearest escape route. It’s like my mind thinks I’m in a fighter jet that’s headed right for the side of a mountain, and it hits the eject button, getting me out of “harm’s” way.

The only thing is, I’m not actually in any danger. There is no threat — either immediate or distant. It’s just a feeling I have that comes from the circumstances around me, that my mind decides means something that is simply not true.

My neuropsych loves to tell me that it’s a psychological thing, being connected to how I think about things and what I decide things mean. Personally, I think there’s something to that — and yet the whole process happens way before any psychology has a chance to engage. It’s a physiological thing to me, mainly, which hijacks my abilities to reason and see clearly. My mind doesn’t even have time to interpret what’s going on, but my body jumps into action immediatamente. No time to think – just react. Get the hell out! Go! – Go! – Go!

So, what’s making a different to me in this? What’s helping me get past it?

Well, first, really practicing being cool is helping. Just staying impassive in situations that test me, watching what is happening, and really working at keeping my cool — no matter what.  I decide how I want to be in situations that test me, and I treat them like tests… like training… to help me learn to be cool. It doesn’t always work — like with that meltdown a couple of days ago — but when I am in my right mind, it can work.

Stopping the escalation is an important part for me — it’s critical, really. Taking a break and allowing all the biochemical drama to subside, is such an important step with me. It gives me back control over my life and my experiences in life, and it lets me just be myself, instead of a collection of mindless reactions to what’s happening around me. When I escalate just because I’m all fired up, I stop being myself. I start being a reaction. I don’t want to be a biochemical concoction. I want to be a human being. I want to be me.

Of course, until I realized that I could actually chill out the process and stop the madness, that was well nigh impossible. But realizing that I can do this — that I can stop the escalation and let the biochemistry settle down before it bursts into flames, has made all the difference in the world. It’s been revolutionary, really. It’s like I’ve turned this page, and nothing can get to me — provided I am rested and am paying attention to what’s happening around me.

And when it comes to paying attention, one of the things that has helped me a whole lot, is something that wouldn’t seem that big of a deal — paying attention to my breath and relaxing. Relaxing cuts down on my stress levels, which takes the edge off my sensitivities, which can be extremely distracting. In fact, I would have to say that my sensitivities to light and sound — which get much worse when I am stressed / tired / pressured — are a huge source of distraction to me. And they set up a feedback loop that’s a little like putting a microphone in front of a speaker — not good.

Stress makes me more sensitive. Sensitivities distract me and make it harder to attend to what’s going on . When I cannot attend as well, I cannot monitor my internal state as well, which often results in me not realizing that I’m getting more and more stressed, and I’m about to blow…

But when I can take the pressure off and just relax and settle into what’s happening in front of me, with the people who are with me, things get a lot better. And I get a lot better. Because I can pay attention to what’s going on with me, instead of the flurry of activity all around me that is distracting and pressuring and bothersome and so often ends up in a meltdown — whether it’s internal or external.

And when I can manage that, I can get beyond my former comfort zone – and have every zone be a comfort zone. This was unheard-of, just a few years ago. And I suffered for years and years as a result. But now things are turning around. And it’s good.

So, anyway, that’s the deal for today. I slept till 8:30 this morning. Unheard-of in recent history. Must be all that walking yesterday. Note to self: go for more walks today.

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I’m not necessarily slower – I just have more to think about

Choices, choices…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about concussion/tbi making you “dumber” – slower, etc. When I had my neuropsychological exam, it became painfully clear that my processing speed was slower than expected. And it really bummed me out for quite some time. Plus, once I was aware that this was happening, it seemed like I couldn’t do anything without being painfully aware that it was taking me a little longer to process things than I (and others) expected it to. For some reason, everybody just expected that I’d be able to respond immediately to their questions or comments or conversation starters. But it just wasn’t happening.

After thinking about this from a bunch of different angles, I had a bit of a revelation this morning. It was something I’ve thought about before (and maybe I’ve written about it before – I can’t remember), but this morning it really made a whole lot of sense:

It’s not that I’m necessarily slower or dumber than I “should” be — or than I used to be. The thing is, after my TBI(s), I became so much more sensitive to a lot of different stimuli, and my brain has to work harder to sort through a larger amount of input, than before. It’s like the injury/-ies put holes in the filters that are usually there, allowing in a whole lot more input and information — sensory, like light and sound and (sometimes) smells and touch/feeling — and all that has to be factored in. It’s like my brain has to work harder to shut those things out, and since concussion/TBI has a way of activating your sympathetic nervous system fight-flight activity, you’re even more alert to all the stimuli around you…. constantly scanning and checking things out and sensing for danger, where it may or may not exist.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this.Maybe someone else can confirm/affirm this for me?

Think about it – say you give someone a deck of cards to shuffle and sort. Then you give someone else two decks to shuffle and sort, while they’re having a conversation with someone and an important piece of news is playing on the t.v. behind them. If the two people race to get done with their shuffling and sorting, the person with the two decks of cards are is going to take longer — because they have more to sort through, in the first place. And they have these other distractions going on around them.

That’s what it’s like after concussion/TBI – so of course I’m going to seem “slower” than others — when in fact, my brain is actually working harder, and perhaps even more efficiently than others, because it has so damned much stuff to sort through.

I think this can also explain why folks after TBI have the same IQ level as before, only now their processing speed is slower. I’d like to challenge the idea that processing speed is actually slower, in fact. Because regular measures probably don’t factor in the distractions and added sensitivities that have to be filtered and processed. Heck, if you look at the sum total of all the activity, it could be that post-TBI, your processing speed actually increases — but your brain is so busy trying to sort things out and re-categorize them and figure out what it all means (all over again) and re-learn the old past familiar things… not to mention battle against the rising dismay that things “don’t work like they should” and the wondering “what the hell is wrong with me?!” … that the end result and net effect looks like you’re stupid and slow and not keeping up.

That’s my theory, anyway. Although it’s almost purely anecdotal, it’s consistent with my experience, so I’ll have to go with that.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that we go through these things that actually make us stronger and more active, but people who don’t understand and don’t share our experience (including researchers and doctors and therapists and other certified experts), will label us as “weaker” and “less active” and “stupid”… all because they just don’t get it, and they can’t see why they should change their opinions.

I’m not sure what it will take to change this, but for the time being I feel pretty good in my own changing understanding, and it’s giving me some relief from that nagging sense of being stupid and slow and (excuse the expression) retarded.

Anyway, it’s a beautiful day, it’s Memorial Day — so, here’s a big THANK YOU to all who have served, and are serving, and to all who have paid the ultimate price out of love and service and duty. I probably wouldn’t be sitting on my back porch watching the dragonflies making their rounds this morning, if you didn’t do what you do. So, again, thank you.

But enough of the talk. It’s time to get into my day and enjoy myself with friends and family. Here’s hoping you can too.