Well, that was interesting… good times, bad times, good lessons

winter frost tree downThis is the story of my last three days. Snowstorm. Trees down. Wires down. Not much going on, other than winter. Storms. Electricity out. No heat, no running water, no television, not much connection with the rest of the world.

Living on battery power, using the mobile phone to contact the rest of the world. Staying close to the fireplace, keeping the fire going all night long, finding different ways to get meals and keep occupied. Waiting for the power to be restored. Hearing one thing, then another, then another.

Waiting, just waiting. Watching the snow fall. Moving it off the driveway. Off the roof. Off the back deck and stairs. Lots of snow. Half a meter’s worth. 18″ worth. Heavy, thick, packed snow.

And now I feel it. In my back, my legs, my arms, my shoulders. Bruises all over my legs, where I slammed against the snowblower. Cold. It was cold. And the all-over ache that comes after hours and hours of being tensed against the cold. Countless trips up and down the stairs to get more wood for the fire.

All in all, it wasn’t terrible, being out of power for two days. Longer than that, and it would have been a problem. We would have gone to a hotel, because my spouse can’t afford to get sick, and they’re more susceptible to cold than I am. We came this close to going to a hotel, then decided against it — the place we called said there were a lot of families checking in, because they lost power, too. And having a lot of kids running and screaming (’cause that’s what kids do, when they’re cooped up, let’s face it)… well, that wasn’t the most restful option.

Better to stay in our own space and try our best to stay warm and dry. Wait it out. Gather around the fire. Rest. Wrap ourselves in blankets and relax. Wait it out. Just wait.

And we did. Power was restored 3 hours sooner than they said it would be, and that was fine. In the bargain, I scored some major points at work for continuing on through with my work, despite having no electricity or heat or running water. I managed to logon to my work by connecting through my phone and then sitting in my running car to keep the power going to it, so I could complete some must-do tasks.

And now I have a reputation for being that much more of a can-do person, with total commitment to getting the job done. So, something useful came of it. Which is fine.

So it goes. I handled this storm considerably better than I handled others in the past. I kept my cool. I kept focused. I wasn’t a total jerk to my spouse. And I came out of it ahead of the game. I’m wiped out and would love to sleep for 12 hours, but I’m also keenly aware of how much good it did me to really move. And not spend all my time in front of a computer, like I’ve been doing for the last however many years.

It was good to have the enforced break. Away from the constant hum of machines, away from the low-level buzz of non-stop electricity. Listening to the wind. Getting out in the snow. Just living a very basic life, and being profoundly grateful for everything I have.

Now it’s time to go get some supper. The refrigerator isn’t smelling all that great. It stayed cold, but not cold enough. So, off I go to replenish it. And get something really good for dinner tonight. Something filling, substantial… and hot.

Just as it should be.

Onward.

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Just for today – every day

This is how it can be – click the image to see the big picture

Something magical happens when I quit worrying about everything before and after Right-Here-Right-Now.

I get to focus on what’s in front of me, and just concentrate my energy on that.

It simplifies things.

It relieves my taxed brain of all the what-ifs.

It makes it possible for me to put every single bit of my attention on the activity at hand, and give it my all.

And that’s a really good thing.

One of the drawbacks of mild TBI is that it can really screw with your attention. It makes you susceptible to distraction. It tires out your brain, which makes you even more susceptible to distraction.

Think about it — there are pathways in your brain that have been all messed up, like roads that got washed out during flooding, or a small town Main Street that got completely wiped out by a tornado. Your brain isn’t gone, but the usual ways of information getting around, are disrupted, sometimes wrecked. And you have to find your way through.

That takes energy. And it can be frustrating. It takes creativity and constant adjustment. And that takes even more energy. It takes self-discipline and self-knowledge to manage your moods and behavior, and not many of us have that in abundance, after our brains are injured.

Me included.

But if I can focus just on what’s in front of me, and not get pulled off in a million different directions, well then… things work much better.

And I can pick my way through the rubble, move it out of the way, and eventually build up paths that take me where I want to go. Over and over, it needs to be done. And it can get exhausting and daunting to do it. But you’ve gotta keep the faith, and keep looking at the signs of progress along the way.

Even the littlest ones.

Focusing on today, the immediate moment, enjoying the good little things, and finding ways I can address the bad little things… that’s the ticket.

At least for today it is.

Body practice for brain improvement

I’ve added a new piece to my morning/evening routines — when I am about to brush my teeth, I pull my toothbrush out of the holder and toss it from hand to hand. Sometimes I flip it around and try to catch it. Sometimes I can, sometimes I miss… drop it, and have to wash it thoroughly before I brush my teeth.

But I have noticed my hand-eye coordination improving. And my response times improve, as well. Also, I have noticed that I have been able to catch things that I start to drop more easily than ever before.

Like silverware falling out of my hands and headed for the floor — I have caught them several times.

Like a travel mug full of coffee that tipped over, and I was able to right before it spilled all over the place.

There have been a number of situations where my eye-hand coordination is definitely better than I can remember it being for a while – perhaps if ever. I was very active as a kid and played a lot of ball games, but I was a little spastic and had trouble coordinating my movements.

And I was convinced I could not juggle, because I was so “dorky”. I was convinced I was a lot of things (not all of them flattering) because of my coordination problems. My issues were probably a lot less than I believed they were, but because they didn’t match what I was expecting, I considered them terrible.

And I kept myself from doing a lot of things, because I figured, “Well, that’s just how I am, and I have to live with less as a result.”

Sad – pretty much of a waste.

Now things are different. Now I’m not convinced that anything I believe about myself is actually true. I’m questioning it. Trying new things. And discovering more things about myself than I ever did before.

Juggling helps me. Even just tossing around a pen is beneficial.  How?

  1. It improves my eye-hand coordination. I am getting better at catching things I toss from one hand to another. And when I spin the thing(s) I toss, it challenges me. I have dropped a lot of things, but I am getting better.
  2. It improves my self-control. When I drop things, I typically get very upset and start to blow up (inside mostly, sometimes outside). This is very disruptive. Knowing that I am practicing keeps it chilled out for me. Tossing a non-essential object, dropping it, and then practicing self-control and not flying off the handle, is helping me in my everyday life, when things go wrong unexpectedly.
  3. It improves my sustained attention. I can focus for longer and longer periods of time. I notice that I drop things when my attention wanders. Focusing on the object I’m tossing from hand to hand for a few minutes… then a few more minutes… then a few more minutes… is helping me to stay focused longer.
  4. It teaches me to block out distractions.  This is different from sustaining my attention. It’s one thing to lengthen the amount of time I can focus single-mindedly on something. It’s another thing to know how to block out sudden distractions that pop up into my field of view, or come to mind. Most of my distractions actually come from inside my head. I’ll start thinking about something else… and then I’m toast. I drop what I’m trying to catch. Or I toss something in the wrong direction. Practicing tossing things from one side to another — and most of all practicing not getting my attention pulled away — has actually helped me a great deal.

Recently, a reader posted a comment:

I saw a documentary on the brain and neuroplasticity and heard that juggling tennis balls can improve executive function.
I think it worked:
It only took the (uninjured) guy in the movie one practice session to be able to juggle several tennis balls.
It took about 2 months for me to be able to consistently juggle one ball.
I could only do a few minutes once or twice a week because it used so much of my brain energy.
After a few weeks I noticed my thinking seemed faster and switching between tasks was easier. There was also a measurable jump in my typing and reading speeds.

Now aprox 3 months later; I still do a few minutes, two times a week, but can use 2 balls. I just tested my typing speed again and it is aprox. twice as fast it was when I started the juggling exercise.

It’s worth a try: low cost, no side effects. Be aware that it took lots of patience and really used up a lot of brain enery when I started (so plan accordingly), but it got easier.

This is WAY cool. As they said, it is low cost and has no side effects — other than improvement in important areas.

It also takes a lot of brain energy at the start — I can also attest to that, because when I started tossing my toothbrush from hand to hand, first thing in the morning, I dropped it a lot, and spent a lot of time rinsing it off. (Why did I used my toothbrush? Because tossing something important raised the stakes and forced me to pay close attention.) It was very challenging when I started, to tell the truth.

But bringing in a tennis ball has expanded this — and it’s something I can do just about anywhere, just about anytime. In fact, I sometimes take a break at work to go to a quiet room and toss a tennis ball around. I may just add another ball to it and practice juggling.

Now, it’s all very well and good to learn how to juggle. It’s fun. It aids neuroplasticity. And it will be an accomplishment, if I ever manage it.

But the real benefit is not the juggling ability alone. It’s the psychological, experiential, and behavioral benefit I get from it.

Having better eye-hand coordination can reduce the number of “clumsiness events” in my life that not only drive me crazy but make me feel stupid and dim.

Being able to catch a tipping cup of coffee — that I can’t afford to spill — is a huge boost to myself-confidence. And it also spares me the internal storms of anger, range, frustration, and self-recrimination. It’s also good for my self-image, which can use a lot of help.

Being in better contact with the world around me, and having a more fluid interaction with my physical environment can offset the effects of my dizziness and the times when I am “off” — for one reason or another. Developing my coordination, my muscle memory, my ability to skillfully adapt to sudden changes in my environment… it’s all good, and it only helps me.

Overall, the strangely wonderful side-effects of tossing objects from one hand to another are helping me feel better about myself, feel like less of a klutz, and make me more relaxed and at-ease with the world around me.

And that’s a good thing.

So, onward…

 

 

Keeping calm in the storm

Keeping focused on the path ahead

So, things have been interesting at work. Just about everyone is all worked up in some sort of uproar, because the organization is changing, people are not certain where they fit, and some people are afraid of losing their jobs.

The company is closing one of its satellite offices, where one of my colleagues works, so we’re going to have to figure out what to do if they take the severance package instead of moving closer to the home office. Frankly, we’d all prefer if they took the package, because they’re not very good at their job and they cause more problems than they solve.

I’m in “solution mode”, these days — with myself and everyone around me. People are really worked up, and they tend to look to me for some semblance of stability and perspective. I have the perspective of having been through this — a lot — in the past. In the 10+ years I worked in financial services, it was like this.

All. The. Time.

So, I know what it’s like, I know how to handle myself on the emotional roller coaster, and I know what it feels like to be going through it for the first time, whereas some of my coworkers don’t. Everyone handles it in a different way, of course, with even the “newbies” handling some things more skillfully than more seasoned folks. In part, it may be because they have no point of reference and/or they aren’t far enough along in their lives to have much to lose from a reversal of fortune. Or they may just have a better handle on their emotions.

Anyway, it’s interesting. I’m riding the wave and just going for it, taking advantage of the opportunities that arise, and doing my best by them… and keeping a level head through it all. I’m reporting to someone new again — someone even younger and less experienced than my former boss (oh, irony). The difference with this person is, we have a strong friendship, as well as a good working relationship, and I have been a really staunch supporter of them, even before we were realigned in our reporting structure.

Where they are in the reporting structure does not change my relationship with them. It may change things for them — I’m sure it will, as they move more into management — but for me, the importance of treating them well and with respect, still stands regardless of where they are in the organization. The other nice thing about having a good working relationship with them, is that I can speak frankly and openly and help steer them away from some potentially tragic situations.

If they let me. They’ll need to trust me, first. I think they do, pretty much, but that can change in an instant. I am well aware of that. So, I need to tread lightly and continue to keep positive and always look for the up-side of things. That’s my new mission and goal — to keep positive and pro-active in the midst of confusion and chaos, so that I can not only keep my own wits about me, but also be of use to others as well.

So far, it has been working out well. I have had a number of meetings with folks, and the ones where I am positive and pro-active and decisive, are the ones that go very well. They’re actually exhausting, though. It’s surprisingly hard work to keep disciplined and focused… especially when so many people around you are getting depressed and down and defeated.

Ugh.

Well, I’m not responsible for their well-being or their state of mind. We’re all responsible for our own attitude and perspectives. And so often, it’s a matter of choice. I think sometimes it’s a question of character. But that can change. I know that in the past, I have really gotten beaten up by circumstances, because I let them get to me, and my head was not in the right place. Now, after years of suffering and pain, I’m at a place where I have more perspective. It’s taken a long time to get here, but it’s feeling like I’ve got it now.

At least for today, anyway.

Next week might be a totally different thing. But I’m guessing it won’t. Because now I’m in a job that is considerably more challenging for me, than it’s been for the past years. It’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve been able to function at this level without losing it. My TBI in 2004, and the couple of years leading up to my accident, really did a number on me with job stress and pressures. It has not been easy. But with a lot of hard work and help from folks who have given me good perspective (not to mention my neuropsych, who has been pretty much of a lifeline for me), I’ve finally come around.

Maybe I would have come around on my own… that’s possible. But I have to give credit and thanks where it’s due.

I’m feeling better today than yesterday, though I am wiped out and feel like I’ve been beaten with a stick all week. This transition work is extremely taxing for me, and I’m working harder than probably anybody knows. Even harder than I know… I’m just “in it” — taking things as they come, and see(k)ing solutions where problems exist. And it’s demanding a lot of me — probably more than has been demanded of me in several years.

I’m up for it, though. So long as I can get some good rest, and I can acclimate to this new life.

Onward…

 

Right after concussion — Non-essential travel is discouraged

Time to take a break

I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between a concussion/ traumatic brain injury and natural disasters. And again, I’m thinking about the recent storms in the northeast, when there was a winter storm, complete with  warnings from government officials to stay home and keep off the roads … in October. Crazy.

Anyway, looking at the weather.com site, I saw that there was a notice about “Non-essential travel” being discouraged while the storm was in full-swing…. And I think afterwards, too.  It was probably to give all the trucks a chance to salt and sand the roads, as well as keep people from getting into accidents. Makes sense — this early in the year, I doubt people are ready for winter driving. These things take some practice. It takes time to acclimate.

And it got me to thinking about the initial period right after concussion, when you’re not supposed to do anything but rest and relax. It can be so maddening, being told to stay still. No television, radio, reading, no texting, no surfing the web, no playing video games. Nothing. Just that awful silence and the terrible not-knowing about what’s going on with you.

All you know is, your doctor told you that you have to take it easy, rest, and not do anything. For just how long, nobody knows. It’s one of those wait and see situations. It can be incredibly tough – especially for athletes who want nothing more than to be up and about and very active.

But what if we thought about it like this — after concussion, it’s like you just got hit with 31 inches of snow — in late October. Roads are closed. Trees are down. Wires are hanging off poles. Ice is on the tarmac. And the power has gone out. Inside your head, the chemical reactions of your brain — the potassium leaving the cells on impact, followed by an influx of energy-inhibiting calcium — the same sort of thing has happened. You’ve gotten hit with a biochemical “storm” that is inhibiting normal brain function, as surely as 31 inches of snow will inhibit regular travel on roads.

How long it takes to clear, is anybody’s guess. That’s what people in New England are finding out these days. Looks like some are still without power, a week after the storm. And dealing with the initial aftermath was a time-consuming and very frustrating period, as some of my Massachusetts friends have related. One family just got back in their house after six days of staying with friends. They had no way of knowing, from one day to the next, when they’d be able to go back. Roads were variable, nobody knew where all the trees and wires were down, and aside from turning off the water and shutting off the stove before they left, they had no way of knowing for sure if their house had weathered the storm alright, until they got back on Friday. Other neighbors had their power on, days prior. Others had more damage to their property, with trees and wires coming down all over the place. Some had generators and could stay on-site with a little heat and one light, while others also fled to friends and relatives elsewhere. It was different for everyone, and after things got back to “normal” there was a ton of work to do to clean up and get things back to working order.

It’s the same way with concussion. Each injury is different, and one person may have all sorts of connections fried, while another person can “get off” relatively easily, healing up quickly. The main thing is, you never know, from one person to the next. You just have to sit tight, chill, and trust that your brain is clearing out the calcium that seeped into the cells when the potassium exited, and that the cells in your brain are going to wake up again — or other cells will be recruited to take on more work of a different kind.

In order for things to get back to normal, you have to give your brain a fighting chance to clear things out. Like the trucks from the DPW clearing snow and spreading salt and sand. Like the trucks from the electric company that are fixing poles and reconnecting wires. Like the tree service folks who are clearing fallen limbs and trees and feeding them into the chipper, one quarter mile at a time. From town to town, from road to road, you can never tell what you’re going to find after a major storm. And the same is true, from brain to brain, from person to person, even from one part of the brain to the other. You just have to rest, let the internal functions clear out the calcium, stop the depression of those cells, and let them get things as restored as possible, before you start running around, turning on lights and playing games and watching television.

Of course, the recovery period can be variable from person to person. That, too, can make you crazy. And what’s more, the perception of recovery can vary as well, depending on a number of factors, including the individual’s ability to self-assess, their eagerness to get back into regular life, how attentive/observant the people around them are… a whole host of issues can play a role in shortening or lengthening that initial recovery period — for better or for worse.

The biggest danger, of course, comes from returning to regular life too soon…. like going out on the roads in the middle of the night before they’ve been cleared of snow and debris. Pushing yourself too hard, too fast, can put you on a collision course with another concussion. And anyone who’s been out in the middle of the night, driving on  narrow, nearly impassable roads when the snowplows are out can tell you what that’s like — not good.

So, if you’ve just had a concussion, give yourself — your body and your brain — a chance to recover and get back to normal. It can be frustrating to have everything come to a complete halt, but like an early storm that hits with unprecedented strength, sitting out for a while is an investment in your future, not a waste of time.