Keeping fit

Thanks, but no thanks

I got myself up at a decent hour this morning and did my morning routine — sitting and doing focused breathing for a count of 100, then riding the exercise bike for 15 minutes and doing some light dumbbell lifts. I forgot to do my leg lifts, which I do without holding onto anything so that I improve my balance (it’s working — my balance is 1000% better than it was about a year ago). But then when I was making notes on my morning routines over the past several days, I remembered it, so I got up and did my leg lifts.

About a year ago, I had to hold on tightly to the counter or the handle of the stove in the kitchen, in order to do my leg lifts. But after a couple of months, I thought I’d try it without. It was a little tricky, at first, and I had to build up to it, but now I’m able to do leg lifts in all directions — on both sides — without holding onto anything, and it feels pretty good. It’s gotta be good for me, if only for my self-esteem, which improves each time I’m able to handle it.

Some days, like when I’m sick, I’m not so coordinated, but today I managed. And it feels pretty good.

So, I’m back into a morning routine. It’s not necessarily a new year’s resolution, per se, but it is happening with the new year, so I guess that counts. The thing that counts even more, is that I started several days before 1/1/12, so I know it’s more than just a passing fad. It’s actually a really vital part of my upkeep. I lost sight of that — kind of took it for granted, got sick of it, whatever. But now I see again that it’s key and critical for me to keep at it. I’ve got to keep fit, or I pay a price.

Maybe not right away, but eventually. And I don’t relish the thought.

See, here’s the thing — over the past year or so, I have become increasingly aware of my own mortality. I had some health issues, about six months ago, that had me thinking I had less time on earth than I’d expected. And it put some kind of fear in me. But then the tests came back, and it looked like I was a-okay. Which is great. But behind it all, I still have this increasing awareness that I’m not going to live forever… that I literally don’t know how much time I have left to do what I need to do… that my days are numbered, like every other living thing on this planet.

And I’ve got to make the most of what I have, while I have it. I’ve got to be as fully functional as I can be, under any and all circumstances. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, it’s cold today, so I’m not going to go outside and do my chores.” It’s not enough to say, “Oh, it’s too hot today, so I’m going to stay inside and keep cool instead of taking care of business.” It’s not okay to make excuses for behavior and inaction, based on external conditions, because when I do, I essentially make myself a slave to those conditions, and I don’t live in total freedom.

I make myself a captive — and then I bitch and complain about how I’m in prison.

Please. What bullsh*t, if you’ll excuse the language.

Now, here’s the thing, though — there are conditions which make this kind of thinking possible — even probable. And those conditions actually precede conscious thought. I’m talking about the condition your body’s in — the condition my body’s in. When the body is not fit, when it’s not well cared-for, and it’s in a weakened state, then it drags down the brain, which then drags down the mind before the mind can realize it. Brain and body are intricately intertwined, and when they “conspire” together against the mind, then you’ve got a great recipe for trouble.

Example: A few years back, around the time when I was first realizing the issues with my TBIs, I was paying close attention to what was going on with me. And I mean really close attention — I was writing everything down, and making notes on countless little details. And in the process of recording my daily experiences, I realized that I had some pretty significant balance issues. And those issues were totally screwing with my head — and my entire life. I was so busy trying to keep upright, so busy trying to keep from falling over or falling down stairs, and I was in such a constant fight-flight-hyper-adrenaline state, that I didn’t have any energy left to pay attention to the other things in my life — like how I talked to my spouse, like how I went about my daily business, like how I interacted with the world beyond my unbalanced state.

And it was totally screwing with my life. Seriously. And I never even realized it, until I stepped back and took a look at the whole of it, as well as the minute details, and realized, “Holy crap, I’ve got major problems with balance, and it’s totally screwing up my life.”

So, I took some action. I cut out dairy, for one thing, which I’d been meaning to do for a long time, since milk always made me feel like crap after I drank it (but for some reason, I kept drinking it?) And believe it or not, after a few weeks of clearing the stuff out of my system, a ton of problems got resolved — simply because my balance wasn’t thrown off, and I wasn’t constantly putting my attention in to keeping upright and keeping focused on what was in front of me.

I’m sure it sounds way too simple and easy to explain away, this example, but think about it — with my history of concussion, I’ve got some limitations on my cognitive resources — I’ve also got a slower processing speed than I might otherwise have. I’ve got constraints on what I’ve got to work with, and at the same time, with that crazy reaction to milk and the resulting balance issues, I had even LESS to work with, because so much of my already limited resources were being tied up in handling keeping upright. Freaky and seemingly unlikely, but that’s what my experience was.

And when I handled the physical side of things — when I cut out the milk, and then later when I started exercising regularly to wake myself up and get my system moving — it helped my brain, which helped it get out of the way of my mind. So my mind could focus on getting my act together. And there you go. Much better now. Far from perfect, but that seems to be the deal here on planet earth, so I’ll take what I can get — and keep working with the rest of it.

Anyway, where was I…? Oh, yes — Freedom. Getting free of the chains and bars and shackles that I come up with for myself. Getting out from under my own self-imposed burdens. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, over the past few days. I’ve been laid up, being 75% sick, and I’ve been contemplating the ways in which I’ve made myself really miserable over the past months and years. It’s an art, you know, and I’m quite adept at it 😉 But now it’s time to move on and come up with something better, something that suits me and makes it possible for me to just get on with my life.

I was talking to a friend of mine a few weeks ago about how we invent all these ways to get ourselves “off the hook” and avoid hard situations. They were pretty rough-minded about it, maintaining that people do this because they are weak or lazy or they just don’t want to apply themselves. They had been through a self-development program, some years back, where they were trained to think of themselves and prone to slack — it was a pretty rough-minded program, which I have reservations about. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of compassion or objectivity around their assessments – or their approaches. It’s all very well and good to make these negative, judgmental statements about human nature. For some people it can be very motivating to judge yourself and be pretty rough on yourself. But it also triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which then shuts down half of your system, so you have fewer resources to make new choices.

It seems to me that rather than accusing yourself of being lazy or weak, you could think about your need to back off from life in more objective terms, as well as more holistic terms — and put the focus on staying fit, so that you can do what you need to do, in the best way possible. And keep the focus off you being somehow deficient or having a flawed character. There’s a fundamental disrespect for the human being in that rough-minded approach, which doesn’t seem consistent with my own observations.

If we consider that physical circumstances can give rise to states of mind, then “getting on yourself” with judgment — while it may charge you up with adrenaline and motivate you to do better — actually depletes your system, and you can be unconsciously undermining yourself in the process. But focusing on keeping fit, and putting the emphasis on tweaking the physical mechanisms for your life seems like a more productive approach, overall. At least, for those of us with concussion/TBI issues to deal with.

Ultimately, thinking about it more and more, it strikes me that TBI cognitive and behavioral issues quite often have a very physical foundation to them — we can experience metabolic changes, sleep disturbances, balance problems… a whole host of physical issues, which cut into our physical — and thus cognitive — reserves in a big way. I know that I was often very tired as a kid, and that brought out the worst in me, time and again. And I know that to this day, if I’m tired and I’m not feeling very physically capable, it does a number on my head.

So, Goal #1 for 2012 for me is to keep fit. To build my stamina up to where it used to be, and to keep it there. Build some muscle to support my frame. Lose the extra weight that is holding me down. And get myself to a place where I am feeling balanced and capable. I don’t have to get ripped and buff and all that — I just need to build up my body to where it can support itself and also support my brain and mind in doing what I need to do, each day.

It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it does need to be a regular part of my life. My life and my work deserve no less.

Give me exercise, or give me trouble

I woke up this morning feeling blah and groggy. After my very active weekend, this past Sat and Sun, I was feeling the burn yesterday, so I took it easy with the workout and spent the day in a relatively sedentary state. I didn’t want to push myself, but let myself rest and recuperate from all that activity — more activity than I’ve had, two days in a row, in quite some time.

Mistake! (And a most valuable lesson.) I felt pretty good all day, but by the time evening rolled around, I was feeling really down, depressed, worn out and used up. I also had a chiro adjustment, and I think the release of those points along my spine may have loosened up some old ‘stuff’.

I see a network chiropractor, who works with the meninges and points in the cranial and sacral areas. Not so much cracking and popping — mostly gentle pressure that frees up the cerebro-spinal fluid to flow more freely and help the brain connect better with the rest of the body. I highly recommend it, especially for folks with TBI or whiplash or some other head or neck or back injury. The difference it’s made has been amazing. But of course, there are sometimes occasions when the pent-up energy that’s released causes me to feel physically worse for a day or so, before things even out. It goes with the territory… and eventually it clears up as the whole system rights itself. But the initial experience can be emotionally and physically upsetting.

That’s what it was like for me, last night, after my adjustment. I got very emotional and, much to my chagrin, I started to cry. I took myself away and sat out on a hilltop, read a book, and watched the sun go down, then had a little bite to eat and went home to crash. I just felt terrible about myself, like I was so broken I wasn’t much use to anyone, especially myself, and all my failures and failings rose up like spectres on a late October night to haunt and taunt me.

My mood was actually dangerously low, and I was in a place where I was rapidly spiraling down-down-down to where nothing and no reason could reach me. The tears wouldn’t stop, and when my spouse asked me what was wrong, all I could say was that I felt like my life was a waste, all I was, was a wage slave, I wasn’t good for anything, and I had no future. I could see, so clearly, the things I once had going for me, and I could feel so vividly all the hopes I’d once had as a kid – I wanted to be a doctor or a large animal vet, and I wanted to do big things and travel the world – compared to the reality that eventually came to be. I just felt wasted and spent and good for nothing, and no amount of compassionate reason could talk me out of it.

Ugh. I hate when that happens. And I did the only thing I could — I went to bed at a decent hour. It was probably the smartest thing to do.

Fortunately, I managed to sleep pretty much through the night. I’ve been waking up drenched in sweat, lately. The weather is warmer, it’s true. But I think it’s also stress that’s doing it.

At least I have been able to get back to sleep — and sleep past 4:30 a.m., even with the sun rising earlier. Today, I managed to sleep till 6:30, wonder of wonders.

But this morning I got up and felt pretty wiped out. Going down in those “emotional valleys” often leaves me feeling hungover in the morning, and I had a heck of a hangover today. I dragged myself downstairs and put the kettle on, then figured, what the heck, I’ll just get on the exercise bike for a few minutes and warm up.

Well, once I got going, I started to feel better. I rode for 15 minutes, doing some conscious breathing at the same time. Then I stretched my creaky bones and decided to lift just a little. Maybe do some movements holding my weights. Nothing big, just a little weighted movement.

Well, once I got going with that, I started to feel much better. Just the simple movement, and the focus on my form really got me out of my funk. It took a few sets, but the more I did, the better I felt. And by the time all was said and done, I had gone through my entire workout — and then some — and I was feeling a LOT better.

I’m still feeling a little groggy and hungover from last night. I think the chiro adjustment “knocked some stuff loose” that needs to settle and/or move on through… like infection being moved out of my body by lymph. I’ve got a long history of physical problems, so moving them through and resolving them (or just learning to handle them more effectively) isn’t necessarily the easiest or simplest or most pain-free process. I’ve read about other TBI folks having excruciating pain just before something released with them, and they became a lot more functional. Bottom line, even if recovery is uncomfortable and challenging, it’s got to be done, so…

What I learned from all this, is quite valuable, the discomfort notwithstanding. As much as I may want to physically take it easy — for whatever reason — I do need to be active — more active than most people I know — and keep my system moving throughout the course of each day. I was way too sedentary yesterday, and I didn’t get up and MOVE much at all. And the energy I typically have seemed to get “stuck” and backfire on me.

Now, people around me love to tell me to “take it easy,” but when I do, I end up feeling really bad — physically and emotionally. I just have to move. Be active. And not take it quite as easy on myself as I’m tempted to — and others encourage me to.

I think that’s one of the sticky pieces about recovery/rehab. On the one hand, you don’t want to over-do it and your brain can really actively advocate for taking it easy and not pushing the envelope. But if you slack off, you can find yourself worse off than you were the day before. It’s a fine line, to be sure, balancing rest and recovery with activity and evolution. But for me, I’d rather err on the side of activity. For me, being wiped out from being physically tired is a lot easier to handle than being wiped out from being mentally tired. Yesterday was a mentally tired day — not necessarily because of too much activity, but because of too little.

Dangerously dizzy… but life won’t wait

I’ve been increasingly dizzy, the past few days. My left ear is squishy and has been making its presence felt. Pressure in my head, and fatigue… I haven’t had good sleep hygiene, for the past few weeks, and it’s catching up with me.

It’s a scary thing, because it’s so disruptive for my daily life. I have things to do and stuff to accomplish, but if I stand up too quickly or move too suddenly, the whole world starts to rush and spin and I get very sick on my stomach. It also makes me extremely irritable, so I snap out at every little thing, which makes me very difficult to deal with at times.

The only thing that really saves me, is being totally focused on what I’m doing, and not moving much while I’m doing it. Working at the computer is a perfect solution for me, because I have to sit up straight and stay focused on the screen in front of me.

The only problem is, it’s Saturday… a few days before I take off on my marathon trip to see family… and I have a whole lot to get done. Dizziness puts me in more danger of falling or having an accident. If I’m not careful, I can get in a lot of trouble. The last thing I need this holiday season is another concussion — most of my adulthood injuries have coincided with holidays, when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off and wasn’t paying proper attention. I was fatigued and disoriented… and I fell or had a car accident. Not good.

Yes,  I need to be very, very careful, in everything I do.

I think a big part of the problem I’m having right now is the impending holiday rush. The prospect of driving through several states to see multiple families, over the course of nearly a week is making me a little nervous, and that’s setting off my schedule and my focus.

I have been doing really well with keeping to my daily exercise, which helps.  I just finished my morning workout, in fact, and I feel noticeably better than I did before it. I worked up a sweat and got my heart pumping, which in turn moved the lymph through my system to clear out the grunge. I love lymph. So basic, so essential, so useful. Without it, I’d be in a heap of trouble, and I count my blessings that I don’t have lymph drainag problems, like folks with edema do.

Anyway, I’m feeling better, and I have a full day ahead of me. But I’m pacing myself. And I’ve blocked off time this afternoon to sleep. I haven’t had a good afternoon nap in weeks, and it’s taking its toll. If I don’t nap at least once over the weekend, it catches up with me — and that’s what’s been happening.

And now I’m really dizzy, with a lot of stuff to do, and I regret doing chores last Sunday, instead of taking my nap. I had three solid hours to myself, to use as I pleased, and I frittered away the time on futzing around and doing little chores that took longer than I expected.

Ah, well,  so it goes. At least I’m aware of my dizziness, so I can accommodate it and work with it. When I’m really, really dizzy, I find that keeping my posture ramrod straight and moving very slowly and deliberately helps tremendously. Also, if I sleep a lot and drink plenty of fluids and avoid sugar, that helps, too. I’ve taken medicine for vertigo, but it didn’t help a bit. Anyway, it turns out the medicine is really just for nausea that results from vertigo, not the vertigo itself — at least that’s what the PCP I had at the time told me. Come to think of it, they could have been wrong. They were a bit of an idiot, by average standards. (And it was a scary six months in my life, when they were my primary doctor.)

But now I’ve got a pretty good PCP, and I trust them a whole lot more than the last several I went to. Trusting your doctor is good. It simplifies a lot of things, in many ways, not least of which is the office visit experience.

But more on that later. Right now, I need to stay focused on my dizziness.

Tracking back over the past week, as it’s gotten steadily worse, I have been looking for what I’ve been doing differently that has contributed to this. The one thing that I’ve been doing regularly, that is very different from before, is that I’ve been eating pieces of chocolate to keep myself going. Not just chocolate, mind you, but those little Dove chocolates with peanut butter in the middle. I thought that the peanut butter would give them more staying power, but what I’ve noticed over the past week is how much sugar is in those little puppies.

Zoinks! Who eats this stuff regularly?! They’re dangerous! Sure, they give me a little pick-me-up when I need it — like driving home late from work when it’s very dark, I’m very tired, and I’m having a hard time seeing. But I’m finding that when I eat one, I crave another one about 10 minutes later — like I spike, and then I crash and am worse off than before, so I need another “little” piece of candy to keep me going… and my system gets totally fried by all the sudden, extreme ups and downs.

Which contributes to my fatigue… and apparently my dizziness.

Not good.

So, while I’m doing my errands today, I’m going to remove the chocolates from my car — just throw them out — drink more water, eat more fruit, and be very, very careful when I’m out and about.

The last thing I need is another accident or fall.

One concussion, two concussions, three concussions, four…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a conundrum.

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

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

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

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

The Magic of “Analgesic Stress”

Clearly, the human body is built to survive. And the mechanisms that kick in to save our asses are as built-in as breathing heavily after a sprint or sex, as instinctual as brushing shaggy hair out of our faces when we encounter someone or something we need to see more clearly.

What’s more, the survival mechanisms we employ to escape imminent physical doom are also important parts of less extreme, yet equally vital physiological and psychological survival strategies. Physical responses to mortal danger don’t have to originate only from physical situations, like a mother grizzly discovering you standing between her and her cubs. They can just as easily — and probably, in today’s world readily — arise from psychological ones, such as a sneaking suspicion that your boss is going to fire you at the one-on-one meeting they just scheduled, or the surprise discovery of your spouse in bed with the neighbor.

In order to trigger the biochemical cascade of fight-flight-fright, our brains don’t have to be presented with cut-and-dried physical reasons to pump our systems full of glucose, adrenaline, cortisol, etc. The juices can start flooding our systems over perceived threats, as well. And those threats can be just as existentially distressing if they’re job-related or relationship-related, as threats that involve our physical being.

If something truly threatening to any aspect of your survival is registering, your brain doesn’t particularly care whether it’s a charging bear or a discharging boss. It doesn’t matter if the grizzly is coming at you with a roar, or your spouse is coming with a scream. A threat is a threat, and the part of our brains that differentiates between different sorts of threats is offline, at the time we’re reacting to something wretched happening to us. Sure, the refined, discriminatory, gray-area-friendly parts of our brains are still there, but they are waiting till after the excitement has died down, before they start to tell the difference between a purely physical fight-flight-fright scenario and one that’s all about our emotions or our self-worth or our hopes for the future. The problem is, in the interim, while the sensible part of our brains is “down,” the survival-based part of our brains is flooding our bodies with all sorts of biochemical franticness that both hops us up and dulls us down, that pumps us full of energy, while shutting down the very systems that can regulate the rest of our delicately balanced systems.

So, where does that leave us, if we’ve experienced tons of traumatic stress over the course of our lives? Where does that leave us, if we’ve been stressed and over-taxed and put-upon in very intense ways over a long term? Chances are, it dopes us up with a pretty compelling case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that modern version of “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” or “nervous exhaustion” that clouds our judgment and heightens our reactivity.

And the more it happens, well, the more it happens. If you get sucked into a cycle of intense trauma response often enough, your reactions become so sensitized that your experience doesn’t need to be extreme to trigger a heightened stress respose. I’m no neuroscientist, and I’m not a formally trained psychologist, but it’s my understanding that if you’re put through enough trauma over the course of your life, your body can get in the habit of switching on those stress hormones at a moment’s notice, just to get you through the day. You don’t even need to be in severe mortal danger, for the action to take effect. It can just look/feel/seem like severe mortal danger to the body, and the mechanisms that prevent disaster will spring into action.

That’s where PTSD really digs in and becomes more persistent, more pronounced, more likely to take over. Which cycles around to exacerbate not only its own instantaneous reactiveness, but also its after-effects. And they aren’t pretty. PTSD’s symptoms can include (in no particular order, and in a bunch of different combinations):

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
  • Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)
  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

Avoidance and emotional numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
  • Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

Increased arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled

Other common symptoms

  • Anger and irritability
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Feeling alienated and alone
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain

Which can all conspire to make you feel like you’re either losing your mind, or you’re not fit to live in the world, or everyone is out to get you, or you just can’t make it through the day, or all of the above. And more. I’ve had a pretty eventful life, myself, thanks at least in part to the after-effects of multiple traumatic brain injuries, so I’ve got my fair share of trauma in my past. And post-traumatic stress. And full-blown PTSD.

My brain’s biochemical reactivity has, in many cases, worked very much against me. And I freely admit that I haven’t done nearly enough tending of my parasympathetic nervous system to decompress and regain my balance on a regular basis. But where my brain has often worked against me in stressful times, it has also worked for me, thanks to stress. And the things that have worked for me are those handy endogenous opioids I talked about in my last section.

Remember, the biochemical/hormonal stress response in humans doesn’t care what the stimuli are that are freaking out the brain. All it knows is that it’s freaking out, and it needs to supply the right magic cocktail of hormonal juices, so that the taxed system can function adequately in the face of mortal danger. Even in the absence of lions and tigers and bears and horrific natural disasters, in our modern world, endogenous opioids kick in to numb us to our pain, suppress responses that would keep us from fleeing to safety, and keep us bright and alert on some level — and they can save our asses just as much as they did our Grendel-fleeing ancestors’. At least that’s my experience.

And this is not something we can necessarily stop, once it gets started. We are literally hard-wired to have these biochemicals kick into gear when we’re in danger, we’re uber-stressed, and when we’re in pain. Whether the stress is from a charging bear or an angry boss chewing us a new one in a performance review… whether we’re in danger of losing a limb or losing our job (and our house and our car and all the stuff we owe money on)… whether we’re in pain from lacerations to our legs or sleep-deprived, repetitive-stress-fried joint agony… our bodies are still sending signals via stress hormones (our messengers to/from the gods) and our instinctively hard-wired brains are going to get a shot of numbing sweetness that takes our mind off our ills and lets us live to see another day.

And so a heightened stress response becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a self-perpetuating loop of spontaneous over-reaction that not only jacks us up, but chills us out, as well. It’s like having an existential smoke — nicotine has the dual effect of first stimulating the system, then chilling it out (which is what makes it more addictive than heroin, I’ve been told). Getting that rush of adrenaline, feeling the mind clear, sensing the body coil and prepare to pounce or flee… and then getting that soothing rush of endorphins… It’s hard to beat that, when it comes to being fully functional.

And it does make me fully functional. In more ways than one. The net result of our inborn neuro-biochemical survival/support system is the heightened ability to respond to immediate threats, reduced pain experience, and clearer, more focused thinking. And when I am in a state of extreme agitation and sensitivity, the effect on me is like the effect of clicking the button on a morphine pump for someone who has recently come out of surgery.

Indeed, I have to say that the same survival mechanisms that let me haul my ass out of mortal danger, also enable me to function at a “normal”level in my day-to-day life. This is probably going to sound crazy to some people, even mentally ill to others, but there’s a logistical reason I find my ass in a sling, time and time again — an inborn, ingrained need, even dependency, on stress hormones to function adequately in the world, and actually feel like a normal person.

Putting myself in the direct line of danger — whether by cultivating friendships with people who are innately hostile towards me, seeking out work with employers whose environment seems custom-tailored to trashing my work-life balance, or taking on too much work at a time when my body is sorely in need of rest and rejuvenation — triggers that magic biochemical cascade of endogenous opioids, and suddenly everything is better. It’s not only BETTER, it’s just better. Normal. Regular. Boring. Standard-issue. Uneventful. Drab. Blah.

This probably sounds odd, but normal, uneventful, rote life is something I really need to work at. Whether due to my head injuries or just my nature, I seem to be hard-wired for excitement. And that tends to get in the way of living my life — especially around other people and when I’m at work. Plus, I have a raft of physical/sensory issues that really get in the way and keep me from getting on with it in a productive and steady way. I don’t need my experience to be over-the-top better, just normal. Just regular. Just standard-issue, run-of-the mill… the way everyone else’s life seems to be, and the way I wish my life were.

And analgesic stress lets me do just that.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

Finally got eight hours of sleep…

Okay, so I succumbed. I took something last night to let me sleep through the night. I am not a big fan of sleeping pills, but Benadryl allergy and sinus does it for me. I did wake up once overnight, but I was able to get back to sleep, which is huge for me.

I also got a three-hour nap in, yesterday, which is no small matter.

I get to the point, sometimes, where I’m so tired I literally cannot rest. My nerves are all a-jangle, and I wake up with my heart pounding so hard I feel like it’s going to jump out of my chest.

It helps, if I listen to Belleruth Naparstek’s “Stress Hardiness Optimization” CD — the last two cuts on the CD for relaxation and restful sleep. I put on my headphones, set the volume fairly low, and let myself just listen and relax… and I usually can get to sleep.

Unless I’m over-tired, which I’ve been for a few weeks, now.

This morning, my mouth tastes funky with that after-Benadryl chemical taste. And I’m still a little out of it. But I slept till 7:00 this morning, which is a real change form the past couple of weeks of waking up at 3:30… 4:30… 5:00 and not being able to get back to sleep.

I’ll try again tonight to sleep without some help, but if it comes down to it, I may take something again.

All I know is, I need to sleep.

Getting up early…

I’ve been having some issues with waking up early, again. I’ve been waking up at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Sometimes on the same day, sometimes in the same week. If I can sleep till 7:00, it’s a miracle. 5:00 a.m. seems to be the magic hour, these days. I’ll wake up and lie there, hoping I’ll go back to sleep… then after half an hour of just lying there, I’ll decide to just get up and get moving – do something constructive with my time and energy, other than ruminating.

It helps to move. And then later, if I manage things properly, I can have a nap. Which helps.

I think the stress of finding work hasn’t helped. I find that I get “beside myself” with concern over making ends meet, and then I have trouble relaxing… and staying asleep.

But any kind of stress will do it. Health issues, logistics, you name it. It can and will wake me up. And unless I can get my head around a solution and a plan for later, I’ll be UP.

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