Me and my seclusion

Ah, solitude…

An interesting thing has happened with me, since I changed jobs and have more time to myself at home now. I seem to have turned into a bit of a hermit.

Actually I’ve always been a hermit, only now I have the time to go back to it more than ever. I’ve been keeping to myself for the past three days, not doing more than I absolutely have to, and not going on social media much — other than finding WordPress blogs about TBI and concussion.

And it’s really, really nice.

I had struggled for years with feeling like there was too much hustle and bustle in my life, with my day job being the biggest time sink of my life, not leaving me much time to relax and take it easy. Since around the time of my mild TBI in 2004, when I was working just 20 minutes down the road from my place, most of my jobs had long commutes. I did have a contract position for a little over a year, in 2006-2007, and I had another job close to home in 2010-2011, but for most of the past ten years, I’ve had long commutes — an hour (plus) each way.

I had not realized, till lately, how much that has taken out of me. It wasn’t just the commuting that sucked, it was the fatigue. The constant fatigue and exhaustion. And it took such a toll on me.

The biggest casualty of that weariness and time sink, was my peace of mind. My seclusion. My quiet. Looking back on my life, I realize that until fairly recently, I just took for granted that it was going to take me at least an hour to get to work. Sometimes two. It was the price I paid for a good job.

The fact that I don’t feel that way is yet more evidence that my recovery is commencing — and that I’m in better cognitive condition now than ever before. I no longer rely on stress and strain to wake myself up and make myself more alert. I no longer just assume that having a good job comes with a high price tag. I’m not in the “no pain no gain” mentality, anymore, and that’s huge. Absolutely huge.

And it gives me hope. Because doing away with the habit of using stress-and-strain to wake myself up and make me more alert, means I’m inherently safer in the way I live my life. I cannot tell you how many times I have either gotten hurt… I have nearly gotten seriously hurt… or I made choices that could have put me in an early grave… because I needed the rush to wake myself up. Just on a very basic level, on a day-to-day basis, I used stress to numb my physical pain, to heighten my senses, to make me more alert, and to get myself going when I was feeling sluggish.

And I didn’t worry too much about not having a lot of time to myself. Because going-going-going and getting a ton of things done was so important just to my basic sense of well-being. Yeah, I valued my time alone, and I have gone for years being pretty much of a hermit in my own time. But there wasn’t this powerful devotion to seclusion.

Nor was there good discipline around using it well.

I had a lot of plans, I had a lot of hopes and dreams. I had a lot of ambitions. But none of them truly amounted to anything, because I did not apply myself on a regular basis. I did not use the time I had to make progress. I flitted from one idea to the next, thinking I was just being “free”. And now here I am, years — decades — on down the line, without much to show for all those dreams and ambitions.

I’ve been down on myself for having gotten to this point in my life without a whole lot to show for what I really want to be doing with myself. But that’s not going to change anything. It’s not a good use of time. Now I feel 1000% more focused on what I want to do with myself, what I want to do with my time and my energy. And the fact that I am no longer on constant edge, looking for the next adrenaline “bump” to get me past the pain and confusion I feel… well, that makes a huge difference.

I would not be here without my TBI recovery, and I am so grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way to get here.

It’s turned out to be an amazing day. And I have been taking time to chill out and relax. This is my third day “off” and I am enjoying it like nothing else. I have a few things I still need to take care of, but an overall sense of calm and “chill” has come over me, and I finally, finally, finally feel like I can truly relax.

I’m doing what I want to do — which is reading and writing and working on concepts and mental “constructs” that explain significant parts of the world to me. You might call it “thought experiments”. Or philosophy. But I haven’t been formally trained in philosophy, and when I read “the philosophers,” it just sounds like Woodstock jabbering away in a Peanuts cartoon.

What I’m doing is a more basic, fundamental approach to understanding the world, and it makes sense to me. It doesn’t rely on jargon and specialized terminology or catch-phrases to make its point. It’s just my breakdown of understanding about how things are put together, why they are the way they are, and what it means for me and others I know.

And it’s good. It feels like an actual vocation — a calling. And since I’m not getting any younger, I guess I consider this my legacy for future generations. Keeping things simple, and understanding the world in a clear and collected way. In a way, it’s the next logical extension for my recovery — challenging my mind to be calm, clear, and collected… and to eventually share what I have garnered. I still haven’t figured out how I’m going to share it, or with whom. For me, the main thing is the exercise, the work of it. The discipline. It feels good.

And I know it is helping my brain.

Speaking of helping my brain, I’ve started juggling again. I took a break from it for a few weeks, then I picked it up again, and I am actually better at it than I was before. I was afraid I might lose my ability, but my brain’s new wiring seems to have settled in and solidified, and it feels good.

It’s all part of my recovery. It’s all related. I’m at a place now where I am actually — really, truly — enjoying my life, and my efforts now are focused on deepening my ability to do that. I have been struggling for so long, battling so much, getting hurt and having to recover… getting hurt and having to recover… dealing with my and others’ health issues… dealing with the upheavals of life… and always feeling like I was playing catch-up.

I don’t feel that way anymore. If anything, I feel like I actually know how to handle things — and that I WILL be able to handle them, come what may.  It’s a far cry from how I have felt for many, many years — probably ever. And I am enjoying myself immensely.

So, it’s back to my solitude. I am working on some ideas that have been on my mind, lately. They emerged out of conversations I’ve had with people over years and years and years, so who can say what my influences have been? Everything, I guess.

But anyway, enough talk. I hope you can find some time to enjoy yourself today.

And Happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there.

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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

A Perilous Relief: Bliss From Within – The Glory of Endogenous Opioids

For better or for worse, I tend to have pretty high stress levels. It comes from an eventful past, as well as a busy present, and the intense drive to realize my deepest desires for my future. Certainly, it’s not much fun having to constantly “quality control” my thoughts and my actions, so I don’t get myself in trouble over post-traumatic stress that has nothing to do with what’s really going on around me. I certainly don’t want my energy and attention to get pulled down by old stuff that still makes me jump when an unidentified figure appears out of the corner of my eye. And it’s no fun “melting down”

But being highly stressed isn’t as bad as it might sound. In fact, there is a side to my typically high levels of stress that feeds me. And I love it. After years of being down on myself for being “over-stressed,” I’ve come to terms with that shadow side of myself. And I’ve learned to love my stress.

Here’s why:

In addition to these classic “fight-or-flight” responses to get you going, the little almond-shaped gland in the brain, the amygdala, triggers the brain to release endogenous opioids (opium-like chemicals that originate in your own system) which help your system function adequately in high-demand situations.

These endogenous opioids are a built-in part of our naturally functioning system and they are ever-available in varying quantities. Endogenous literally means “from inside”. And endogenous opioids are magic opium-like potions our systems create on their own (it’s been discovered that the human body actually produces morphine in small amounts). Yes, Virginia, there is a way to get high on your own steam, as the biochemicals our brains produce are of the same type as the illegal, intensely addictive stuff you can buy in a plastic baggie from some sleaze who will take sex as payment for the goods instead of money. They’re just a little different, so they match our body chemistry better. And they aren’t usually available to our bodies through our brains in the intense concentrations that leave overdosed junkies dead on the street.

In particular, these internal substances can have a hypoalgesic or analgesic (pain reducing) effect on the body, which helps you deal instinctively with whatever threat is in front of you, without having to deal with pain, as well. I’ve read that endogenous opioids serve to suppress the “lick response” in injured animals, so they can escape. (An animal, when injured, will instinctively stop to lick itself and tend to its wounds, but if it’s been injured by a predator this instinctual response makes it easy prey for its hungry attacker. By suppressing the pain – and the lick response – this natural impulse lets the animal ignore its wounds and focus on escaping to live to see another day.)

The same holds true with us humans. Imagine how short-lived we would be in crisis situations, if we were distracted by pain and other heightened sensations. We’d be too busy going “Ow! Ow! Ow!” and checking to see what bone we broke or what piece of flesh we tore, to get out of the way of the oncoming rockslide, tidal wave, or speeding bus, or haul ourselves out a burning car and run to safety before the gas tank explodes. The adrenaline rush and sudden biochemical cascade of pain-numbing opioids makes it possible for us to do important things like rescue each other, even when the rescuer is injured… to pull ourselves from danger, even if we’ve been hurt… and do things that would be utterly impossible, if we had to deal – for real — with intense pain. Endogenous opioids may well have been what let that tech guy save himself from dying on an ill-fated hike through the California wilderness by hacking his arm off below the elbow with a pocket knife.

Now, these endogenous opioids are truly wonderful things. Among them are Endorphin, Enkephalin, and Dynorphin. More research keeps trickling in about these substances — and others like them. It seems implausible that we could know so little about these important biochemicals until recently, but some of these have only been identified and studied since the mid-1990’s. And by the time I write (and you read) this, much more will probably be known about these substances, and how they interact with our sensitive systems.

It’s my understanding that the reason that artificial opiates work is because they are so much like the opioids we produce in our own bodies. Like a copy of a master key fitting into a lock, artificial/man-made opiates “open the same doors” that our own bodies normally have closed… and then open, when properly prompted by our biochemical “keys”. If you consider how strongly heroin and morphine can affect the human system, and if you consider that the only reason they work is ‘cause they mimic the qualities of opioids we already have in our own brains/brains, you can begin to understand just how powerful our own biochemical systems intrinsically are.

Yes, these endogenous opioids have the same sort of effect on us as opiates. They cut pain. They give us a euphoric feeling. They help clear our minds. They do amazing things to make life worth living. Lenny Bruce, the heroin addict, said of his addiction, “… it’s like kissing God.” If you consider that endogenous opioids can work the magic of relieving/inhibiting pain, imparting euphoria, and making us think better, it explains how human beings can sometimes perform at super-human levels irrespective of pain, danger, stress, or other normally stymieing influences (like, for example, the voice in their head urging them (in vain) to keep a low profile).

These magic potentialities we have in our brains have recently been getting more “air time” from scientists like Irving Biederman, who studies perceptual and cognitive pleasure. According to Dr. Biederman, we’re not only wired to survive — we’re wired to enjoy ourselves in the process. A lot. Things like learning new things, encountering novel situations, looking at innovative art, “tickle” the parts of our brains that release endogenous opioids into our systems.

So, under the worst and the best of circumstances, endogenous opioids are about as close to a gift from God as you can get. Not only do they buffer our bodies from the ill effects of extreme duress, but they also reward certain kinds of behavior (learning, in particular) with a pure shot of unbridled joy.

Kind of makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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More evidence of analgesic stress in my life

A quick note before I head off for my day…

One of the big, unmentioned pieces of the past few weeks has been the pain I’ve been in. My body has been really aching a lot — and I did a bunch of yard work last weekend, which threw me out of whack. My shoulders are giving me trouble, and my knees were acting up, too, which kind of sets me off.

Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I had real problems with chronic, debilitating pain. It just seemed to come out of nowhere. I didn’t connect it with the car accident I’d had in late 1987, but now it seems like the two were more than co-incidental.

I was never able to get help for that condition, and I spent years trying (in vain) to find a treatment that worked. Ultimately, the only thing that has helped me has been getting plenty of rest, taking hot baths, and keeping my stress level down.

But when I’m flaring up, as I have been for the past few weeks, it starts to drive me. I start to get increasingly anxious about it and I don’t do well with managing myself and my situations. I feel absolutely driven – propelled – through life, with sudden flashes of interest in things that don’t normally catch my attention. I feel compelled to pack each day full of as much interesting stuff as I can find. And I push myself beyond my means.

When I push myself hard, I feel better. I really do. Physically, I feel better… mentally, I feel clearer… and my self-esteem isn’t in the crapper. I feel like I can function, for once. The pain is gone. The anxiety subsides. I have an outlet for all my energy, and the stress I put myself under has a strongly analgesic effect on me.

I’m writing about this in greater detail in A Perilous Relief, and the past few weeks have been a great illustration of my underlying premise — namely, that risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior isn’t just a psychological compulsion. There are actually physical reasons for why people test their limits in extreme and sometimes dangerous ways, and those physical reasons are just as valid and vital as the psychological ones.

They’re also intimately connected — the psychological and physiological reasons for risk-taking/danger-seeking behavior. And in my own personal, daily experience, they feed each other… and soothe each other, too.

The stress I’ve been under has been taking a toll on me. But I’ve been compelled to push even harder. Why?

Because it cuts the pain.

I may need to find another job…

This is really bumming me out. It just sucks. In another few weeks, I may be looking for another job, uprooting myself from the place I’ve been at for the past eight months, and transitioning into another company, position, and whole new group of people to figure out.

It doesn’t make me happy. And I hate being in this situation, but I have to do what I have to do.

Basically, the place where I’m working now wants me to go to full-time permanent, and my boss say’s they’re under pressure to convert people from contractors to perm. Either that, or get rid of the contractors (which would include me). Now, I have to take that with a grain of salt, because my boss has been known to “shade” the truth to push forward their own agenda(s), so who knows exactly what they’re being told. Bottom line is, they’re pushing to get me to convert to permanent, and it’s really uncomfortable for me. It’s terrible on a number of different levels.

First off, they’re trying to low-ball me. They converted other folks in my group to perm, and those folks are actually very weak and easy to push around, so they agreed to take less money than they could reasonably demand. Part of the problem with these folks is that they’re not the most dedicated workers, they spend a fair amount of time hanging out and doing things other than working, and they are also easily bullied — perhaps in part because they know they’re slacking and they don’t want to rock the boat.

I, on the other hand, am a workaholic, and it is rare that I’m ever not working. I was working on my stuff till 10:00 last night — in part because I love what I do, in part because I need to pace myself over the course of my day and break up my work into smaller, more manageable pieces.

But my boss doesn’t see it that way. All they see are dollar signs, so when my two slacker co-workers took less money, they set a precedent that I’m stuck with — and the bitch of it is, one of the slackers is higher up than me, organizationally, so my boss has to offer me less, which is just awful.

Second of all, no matter how well prepared and how skilled I am, the fact remains that change freaks me out. Completely. I can’t even begin to say, just how stressful it is for me. When I was younger, and before I had sustained all these head injuries (I’ve had at least three over the course of my working life, on top of the 4+ I had when I was a kid, and my ability to handle change has decreased with each one), I could shift between different tasks and different jobs and not worry about it. But now I’m having a really hard time with even the idea of change. It’s making me very, very nervous, very, very uncomfortable… it’s keeping me up at night, and waking me up early… it’s agitating me and putting me into a cycle of fatigue-driven poor decision-making patterns that are worrying me. I want to believe I can handle this, and part of me believes that I can. But the rest of me is extremely uncomfortable with uprooting myself from my routine and hauling myself off to another gig with another bunch of people, another whole opportunity to make an ass of myself, and yet more chances to alienate and irritate people who don’t really know me without meaning to.

Third, my resume has some spotty stuff on it that makes me suspect, so it undermines my confidence and ‘smooth’ presentation at interviews. Over the past 2-3 years, since I was ejected from my Good Job with that Big Company, I’ve had a bunch of different jobs, some of which went south because I couldn’t keep it together. The stress of the jobs, my poor decision-making (which was largely a result of my stress-induced analgesia/soothing-seeking cycle, where I would semi-intentionally put myself  into a highly stressed state, day after day and week after week and month after month, just to feel normal and functional), and the cumulative effects of stress on my system took their toll, and I crashed and burned and didn’t handle my exits very well. I can still smell the bridges burning, in fact, and it’s tough to think about how badly I screwed up those  jobs, not only in terms of leaving, but in terms of having taken them in the first place. They weren’t good fits for me from the start, but did I listen to myself? Oh, no! I was much too hungry for the stress and strain of bad decisions. So, now I have to explain myself to folks, if I go back out into the world. And God forbid, if they contact those people…

Fourth, if I go, then my insurance is probably going to have to change. That means I have to wrap up all my testing pronto and I have to make sure my insurance company is properly billed and all that, before I go.  It puts tremendous pressure on me to finish up something that I don’t want to rush. And it also screws up my partner’s health situation, because they have ongoing health insurance needs that are covered by insurance I have through my present agency, which is telling me there are no jobs out there — which I know for certain is not the case, because the job boards are full to bursting with work I can do. This whole insurance thing is a real problem. It’s not something that the federal government may be able to fix — a whole lot of money would go a long way towards solving it for me, but who knows if/how/when that’s going to happen?

And last but not least, I just don’t want to go looking for another job! After eight months, I’m just now getting settled into my current job, and now they have to go and churn things up by trying to convert me — for less money than I deserve, or can reasonably expect to earn, even in today’s market. I want to settle in and take care of myself, do my TBI rehabilitation, let down my guard for just one minute, and focus on restoring the parts of me that are broken. I need a serious break. And I mean a serious break. I’ve been going and pushing and striving for so long, I’ve forgotten there is anything else in the world, and I was just starting to realize there’s more to life than constantly pushing, constantly going, constantly trying to make up for lost time, lost chances, lost hopes. I want to just have my daily routine, get up and go to work, come home and contemplate my life, be with my beloved, have a nice dinner, spend my weekends hiking in the woods and reading good books and getting together with friends. I don’t want to be — yet again — plunged into the chaos of adjusting to a new place, new people, new routines, new rules. It’s so confusing and stressful for me, and then it sets me off in a downward spiral of problems, problems, and more problems. It’s just so hard, and I don’t want to have to do it!

But if I have to, I will. It won’t be the first time I’ve had to really drive myself to do the right thing, when the right thing was the last thing I wanted to do.

A Perilous Relief : Because Extreme Duress Makes Me Feel Better

Thinking back over the course of my life, to all those times when I pushed myself, stretched myself, and in some cases really punished myself to get to a goal, I can see discernable patterns in my behavior:

  • I am presented with a variety of choices about people and activities and jobs.
  • Some of the choices are positive, pleasant, benign.
  • Other choices are more challenging, distasteful, and carry the threat of some ultimate negative consequence.
  • I know I have positive, pro-active options available to me, but time and again — against my better judgment and experience — I choose the lesser of the options and plunge myself into yet more chaos.
  • Sometimes things go well, and I reap the rewards for overcoming the challenge.
  • But other times, I burn out, flame out, crash and burst into a veritable brilliant fireball that can be seen for miles.
  • Friends, family, coworkers all scratch their heads and puzzle at my poor decision-making, my risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior that endangers my professional reputation and my social and financial viability.

I’ve been puzzling and puzzling over these patterns of mine for the longest time, trying to figure out why I’ve apparently been unable to learn from my past mistakes… always thinking, this time will be different… but it never is — it actually gets worse. Given my life experience, my intimate knowledge of my limits, and my determined commitment to self-care and peak performance, there is no way I should be doing these kinds of things and making these kinds of “mistakes” over and over. I’m not an idiot. I know better. I’m not mentally ill (from all indications 😉 and I always start out with the best of intentions.

What’s the attraction of danger? What’s the allure of risk? I’m not the kind of person who seeks out thrills and chills — I hate suspense movies and I shudder at the thought of skydiving or rock climbing — even with ropes. What’s wrong with me, that I continuously put my own professional and social well-being on the line, time after time? Am I addicted to adrenaline? Am I hopelessly brain-damaged, thanks to my multiple tbi’s? Is there some fundamental flaw in me that seeks out its own destruction, time after time, and wants to secretly destroy all the progress I’ve made over the years?

What about emotional issues? You might ask… I ask myself the same thing, at times. I have been known to keep busy-busy-busy to keep my mind off painful or uncomfortable thoughts. But I have dealt with a lot of my personal issues that used to get in the way, and it’s been years since I genuinely wanted to run from myself. I’m healthy. I’m happy. I don’t do drugs or drink alcohol. I am not running willy-nilly from old ghosts like I used to, and I’ve dealt with many emotional and psychological aspects of my past in a productive and definitive way.

Well, then, what about being addicted to an adrenaline high?1 I’m not sure how that’s possible. I don’t crave thrills like skydiving and freestyle skiing. I’m not fond of courting danger – like some of my siblings do. The very idea of taking extreme chances makes my blood cool. I’m a homebody who likes a quiet life. I’d rather curl up with a good white paper on cutting-edge neurological research than go mountain biking in the Grand Canyon around sunset.

So, why the hell do I do these stupid-ass things, time and again? What is it — really — that makes me make such risky social and professional choices and screw up so dramatically on such a regular basis?

In stepping back from my personal perspective, looking at all the objective data about my life, and then thinking about not only the things that went wrong, but the things that went right while things were going wrong, I’ve realized I actually feel better when I’m under a lot of stress and strain. And the higher the intensity of my stress experience, the better I feel.

I believe, based on my own observations about my life, that beyond the most obvious components in in my decision-making process, there’s something else at work. Something not cognitive, not emotional, not psychological, but something physical. Could it be that risk-taking / danger-seeking behavior meets a basic, fundamental physiological need in me which persists in spite of better judgment and deliberately broken bad habits? Could there be something about the experience of dangerous risk that – rather than boosting me into a super-human experience – supports me in having a normal human experience?

I’ve gradually come to realize (after untold hours of reflection and consideration and painstaking — and sometimes maddening — rehashing of patterns and details) that I need stress in order to function properly. I don’t seek it out in order to pump up an already fully functional system. I seek it out in order to bring a struggling system up to par, so I can participate normally in the world and have the kind of regular life that other people take for granted.

Not being in the same room with you, I can only guess at your reaction. But I suspect it’s one of skepticism and incredulity. Why on earth would someone need stress, in order to function? Why would they need to take risks and seek out danger, in order to live a normal life? Isn’t this a little… hyperbolic?

Since you’re not in the same room as me, and you aren’t privy to my personal experience, I’m not sure I can explain this exactly. But I’ll try…

1 Note: From where I’m sitting, using the common “addicted to thrills” metaphor implies that the high you’re getting is not necessarily something you need. It’s superfluous, it starts out as recreational, then you develop an irrational need for it, a destructive need for it. The terms “adrenaline junkie” and “addicted to thrills” carry pejorative connotations, as well, which I feel are not very helpful in understanding this phenomenon.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents


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A Perilous Relief – I Would Like to Think I Know How to Learn

I have a lot of reasons to avoid risk-taking behavior and danger-seeking activities. I have a very full adult life, and I have a lot of responsibility. That, alone, should be reason enough for me to stay out of trouble.

As I’ve said, I believe that risk-taking behavior should be a learned skill. I don’t necessarily think we need to banish it wholesale from the human experience, but we should be familiar enough with it that we can satisfy our own innate (and very human) need for thrills and chills without wrecking our lives. I like to think that I’m a living example of someone who’s managed to do a decent job of that. The above examples are all in my past, and I have learned a great many lessons from the ones that “went south” or almost did. One would expect that, after 43 adventurous years and plenty of opportunity to reflect on my mistakes, I’d learn a thing or two. And, for the most part, I have.

I’d better. I have a great many adult responsibilities, including providing for a household, paying a monthly mortgage, keeping current on bills, managing a full-time career, and acting as part-time executive producer of a nationally syndicated weekly broadcast. I also have a number of health issues I need to actively manage, and I have hobbies and interests which engage me deeply on a regular basis. To say that my life is full-filling would be an understatement.

My life is so full, and so filling, in fact, that I need to go to extraordinary lengths to maintain ordinary functionality. I have persistent issues with chronic pain. I have cognitive-behavioral issues that stem from multiple head injuries over the course of my life, which – if not actively managed – threaten the most basic aspects of my life, including my employability and my interpersonal viability. I am keenly aware of how easy it would be to screw things up with a careless word or a stupid action – and lose everything I’ve worked so hard to accomplish. I have a packed schedule, most days, and if I don’t keep myself well-fed, well-rested, well-cared-for, I can quickly (and seemingly without warning) slide into old patterns that alienate people around me, compromise my ability to do my daily job(s), even threaten my well-being and safety.

I know all too well I can’t take chances with my health, my mental hygiene, my emotional state. I can’t take risks with my body or mind or spirit. I stand to lose too much. I stand to lose everything. And I’ve worked too hard getting where I am, to just throw it all away. So, I pay attention to the world around me. I take notice of the clues life is sending me. I pick up on signals that most people can afford to ignore, but I cannot. I have no choice but to remain ultra-mindful… of just about everything. (It might sound exhausting, but it’s the price I pay for a highly sensitive system. And frankly, after a lifetime of working at it, the habit of intense attendance to a wide range of details has simply become a way of life.)

But despite lessons learned from my rough-and-tumble past, despite my present awareness of responsibilities, and despite my normally level-headed, even-keel nature that eschews overt risk like the plague, I am still prone, now and then, to a sort of danger-seeking behavior that frankly makes no sense. I know better than to make decisions and follow courses of action that jeopardize my physical safety and my ability to make a living. I know better than to push myself physically to the point of exhaustion. I know better than to go off my usual schedule, which is so vital for my everyday normal functioning.

But Why?

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents


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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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