Good gone bad in a hurry

Bummer… and things were going so well

So, last night I was fixing supper, and I messed something up. My spouse was in the kitchen with me, and they started saying things that sounded critical to me, like they can do better than me. I got really agitated and frustrated, and I had a bit of a blow-up at them. I was really angry over them finding fault with what I was doing and comparing their own performance to mine. It was a double put-down. 1) I screwed up, 2) they can do so much better than me.

It really pissed me off, and I got so angry, and then they went into their usual behavioral “repertoire” of acting like I was a bad person for getting angry and yelling — like I was threatening them and being abusive. Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord… I was upset and trying to express myself, and all they could do was make me look like I was the one at fault, and my anger was a threat to them.

I got pretty angry — not over the top, throwing-things angry, but so frustrated and agitated that I almost couldn’t see. And then POP, something in my head felt like it snapped, and I had this sensation of my brain locking up and slowing down to a crawl. It was like someone cracked open a smelling salts capsule — but it had the exact opposite effect. I instantly felt dull and numb, with my face numb and tingling, and my hands tingling. I could physically feel it in my head. I turned into an instant idiot — it was hard for me to understand what was being said, and I couldn’t put words together. My head felt like it had filled up with cotton, and I was suddenly so dull.

I didn’t think it was a stroke, because I haven’t been impaired on one side of my body or the other — and I stuck out my tongue to see if it bent from one side or the other, and it didn’t.

Then again, according to the National Stroke Association, here are the signs of stroke:

Stroke symptoms include:
  • SUDDEN numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg – especially on one side of the body.
  • SUDDEN confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
  • SUDDEN trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • SUDDEN trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • SUDDEN severe headache with no known cause.

So, maybe it was one. I don’t know. One side of my body wasn’t weaker than the other, which is what I usually associate with stroke. I have a meeting with my neuropsych this afternoon, so I’ll check with them. I’m hesitant, because I don’t want trouble from all this. Plus, it has happened to me before — about 3 weeks ago after a meeting when I got really upset with the behavior of some of the folks in the meeting. It was very similar to that time — I felt something “pop” in my head, and I turned into an instant idiot — couldn’t put words together, had trouble speaking, felt slow, and had a low-grade headache.

This time I didn’t get nearly as angry. But the feeling was the same, and now I’m dense and dull and I’m having trouble putting words together. Three weeks ago, it passed. And it didn’t seem like a big enough deal to investigate. It was not much worse than other “episodes” I’ve had in the past, and when I tried to investigate them before, nobody seemed to think they were that big of a deal, and I felt like an idiot for even bringing them up.

I know I’m supposed to go to the ER as soon as I suspect I’m having a stroke, but how would that work, exactly? I can’t miss work, because then I don’t get paid. And my mortgage won’t wait. I’m the only one who’s supporting my household, and if I’m out of work, we’re all pretty much screwed.

I started to get a headache after a while, last night, and I took some Advil, but it didn’t really help. I still have that headache in the front and top of my head, and also towards the back where I hit my head on Saturday.

Seizure? Stroke? Whatever. I’m sounding a little nonchalant about this, I guess, but my feeling is that this kind of stuff has happened with me so often over the years, it’s just one more thing. And even if I did have a stroke, I know how to fix my brain, and manage my issues, so I’m not all that worried. Hell, even if I do become really hampered by my brain, I know how to live my life in a way that brings me happiness and joy. I know how to bounce back and keep going, so I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing.

I am reminded of a number of things I need to do is stay vigilant about:

  1. Remember that my spouse is actually mentally ill. Their panic/anxiety disorder has wreaked havoc, and it is a genuine mental illness. They seem to believe that their anxiety is keeping them “safe” from whatever dangers may be out there, and the “help” they are getting from friends and their therapist seems to only reinforce their fears and their devotion to their “precautions”. They are so absolutely imprisoned by their fear about every conceivable thing on the planet, that anyone around them has to abide by their brittle rules or bear the brunt of their wrath. They feel safe when everything is going their way, but it’s absolutely smothering and restrictive for anyone who does not share their view.
  2. Underlying all this anxiety is a handful of neurological issues which are screwing with their thought process. It’s not something I can take personally, when they go off on me. I love and adore my spouse and would love to spend more time with them. Still, it’s really hard to be around them. The other thing that makes it all hard, is that I’m just about the only one who can spend any extended time around them — they’ve chased off just about everyone else with their anxious control. And they don’t understand why that is. Explaining won’t make any difference, because to them, their fears all make perfect sense — and it’s neurological. So there’s only so much explaining I can do.
  3. I need to take care of myself and get what I need for myself to stay strong. I was tired, last night, and I pushed myself too hard. I need to back off and take some time to myself, especially when I spend extended periods with my spouse. My spouse and I had gone for a drive earlier, yesterday before my outburst, and they are so anxiety-ridden about just about everything, that it’s very stressful to be around them. It’s like a never-ending drama — over huge dangers and threats which seem like they’re nothing to me. When I do the driving, they constantly boss me and yell at me about how I drive, where I should turn, what I should do. It’s a total friggin’ drain.
  4. I need to keep to a regularly active schedule. I was out of sorts already, last night before my outburst, because I was off my regular schedule. I also did not expend enough energy over the weekend and wear myself out physically. I need that. I need to keep active and tire myself out, so I don’t think too damn’ much.
  5. My spouses’ way of living is not healthy — for them or for anyone. They spend a lot of time sitting around thinking about shit that makes them crazy, and they end up pulling me into their undertow. When I am around them, they use me as a “sounding board” which just sucks me into their downward spiral. This is not good. I need to keep myself up and elevated and healthy and take regular breaks when I spend a lot of time around them.

Truthfully, I actually need to protect myself from the one person I love with all my heart. It’s kind of tough, but there it is. If I can think of it as protecting myself from the demons that are eating them alive, that’s a better way to look at it. But it’s still very painful to watch them on that downward spiral, and be helpless to do anything about it.

Having extra days off can be good, but they can be be bad, too.

I just have to keep all this in mind and take the best care of myself that I can.

My head hurts. I’m foggy and dull… and a little bit afraid of bringing up the episode last night with my neuropsych. I’m afraid of what might happen if they tell me to go to the hospital and get checked out. But at the same time, if I don’t get the help I need, then what?

On the bright side, I’ve got almost four months’ worth of pay stashed in the bank, so if I do have to take some time off, I can. My mortgage is taken care of for the next month, and I’ve got enough to at least keep going, if I need to take some time.

Ideally, it won’t come to that. But when I think it through, the fact is, I can afford to take a week (even a month) off work, if I have to. I could even go to part-time for the short term, and we’d be okay for at least three or four months.

Anyway, speaking of work, I’ve got to get going. My fingers aren’t typing very well, and I’m fortunate to work with folks who have never seen me at my peak, so they have no idea just how impaired I am, right now. I’ll just get through the day, talk to my neuropsych, and try to keep as clear as possible, so I can make the right decisions and do the right things.

Main thing is to keep chilled out and cool. I’m really bummed out that I couldn’t even make it through a weekend with my spouse without yelling and getting upset. We were doing so well… that is, I was doing so well. They were doing really shitty. But all I can control is myself. So, I have to take care of what I can control — myself — as much as humanly possible.

Screw it. Onward.

Advertisements

Help where we can find it

You just have to keep looking till you find what will help

I’ve always been a very independent person. I think I’ve had to become this way, because I had so little help when I was younger. I had a lot of problems, when I was a kid, and everybody around me thought that I was either fine (and faking it), or I was just being lazy.

That’s a hell of a thing to put on a kid, but it happens.

It happens all the time.

And it happened to me.

Not to cry over spilt milk, I have been literally forced to become independent from a very early age, which I believe has also primed me for an excellent TBI recovery. Getting a mild traumatic brain injury was no fun, back in 2004, and all the concussions / TBIs I had earlier in my life certainly did not help.

So, I’ve gotten in the habit of just making do. I’ve been fortunate to find a neuropsych I can work with, who has helped me a lot. I’m not sure what would have become of me over the past years, if I had not found them. Maybe I would have figured things out for myself. I know I was in the process of figuring a lot of things out, when I first met them, and I have been the “driver” behind most of my initiatives in getting my life together — most of the time, our sessions consist of me just talking about what I’ve done with my life, lately, and what steps I’ve taken to remedy issues I have.

The thing that’s helped me tremendously, is having someone who is NOT mentally ill, being a sounding board for me. I have spent an awful long time — most of my life — around mentally ill people and folks who are pretty determined to prove that there is something wrong with them, they’re deficient, they are damaged, etc., etc.  So, I have not actually had a lot of really positive role models, as a kid or as an adult. Especially when it comes to TBI.

First, there is so much denial about what TBI really involves, the degree to which it affects your judgment and thinking abilities, and how pervasive it is.

Second, everybody’s TBI is different, and one person’s extreme challenges may be no big deal for someone else — who has another set of challenges, entirely.

Third, a lot more people are walking around suffering from TBI after-effects, than most of us know, so the thinking is generally clouded, out in the world.

Fourth, even the people who can help us, often can’t — because we don’t have access to them, we don’t know who or where they are, and insurance won’t cover us.

So, it’s really up to us to sort things out and figure out what to do and where to go. It’s unfortunate that we have to go it alone… but that’s where support forums like the Psychcentral TBI/Concussion forum (click here to visit) come in handy.

I have to make my own progress, which I am doing. I’ve been working on my juggling, which is going well. It is helping me learn to focus more and not get distracted, and also keep my concentration in the absolute present. I started with one ball, which I tossed back and forth from one hand to the other. Then I added a second ball, which I have been tossing in different ways. The important thing is not how many balls I am juggling – it is how long I can focus, and how well I can recover, when I drop one of the balls — or both. I’m learning to juggle, not for the sake of juggling, but for what it teaches me.

It’s helping me with my coordination, my attention, and my emotional responses. I’ll write more later about this, because it is seriously good therapy for TBI, and I think everyone should do it. There’s no reason not to.

I’ve also been doing some Dual N-Back practice. The site I found yesterday with the Silverlight plugin doesn’t work for me anymore. For some reason, the plugin has permanently crashed, and it won’t work for me. So, I downloaded an app that I installed on my laptop – http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/ – and that is working for me much better. It keeps track of my scores, which are sort of crappy — I’m in the 36.5% range. I’ve gone as high as 57% and as low as 25%, but I’m in the lower range more often.

It’s something to work towards. I’m just starting it, after all, and these things take time.

Again, it’s something to keep me engaged and learning… Something to repair the issues of my past.

That’s so important to me. Because I feel like I have a ton of lost time to make up, and there is so much I want to do in my life, still. Like so many TBI survivors, I have a sense of many “holes” in my life – gaps in my memory, gaps in my personality, gaps in my social life… gaps everywhere. And I need to fill those gaps with something positive and constructive… and rebuild a life that meets my own specifications, not everyone else’s — or the specifications of people who tell me I need to settle for less.

I’m not doing that “settling thing”.

No how. No way.

Onward

 

 

TBI Recovery – like life on the high seas

Avast there…

I’ve heard it said that it takes about seven years of recovery for a person to start feeling “like themself” again after traumatic brain injury. That sounds about right to me. And now that I’ve been at it (actively) since 2007, I’m coming up on seven years — next year.

What a long, strange trip it’s been. From nearly losing everything, to sabotaging job after job, to watching my friends go away, to the relationship/marriage troubles and health issues, to slowly building myself back… it has been a trip. But it’s finally starting to feel like things are stabilizing for me.

When I say “things” I mean internal things. Not external things. Learning to live with TBI is like going to sea and learning to walk across the deck of a ship that’s rolling through all sorts of seas. Between the sensory issues, the focusing issues, the distraction problems, the mood swings, the irrational and literal and rigid thinking issues… if it’s not one thing, it’s another, and just getting used to the idea that this is just how things are, has been a battle in itself.

But that’s the deal. This is how things are. And there’s no sense in trying to tamp it all down and get things to chill, because no sooner does one wave pass, than another comes along.

Walking across the deck… yeah. That’s about the best metaphor I can think of. And it puts me in the mood to read some seafaring adventure stories – Captains Courageous, Treasure Island, Two Years Before The Mast… stories I remember from when I was younger, that I really loved and enjoyed. It kinda puts me in the mood to tie knots with heavy rope… 🙂

And that’s one thing that the seafaring metaphor does for me — it raises dealing with TBI issues from a hindrance and an inconvenience and a problem, to being just part of what I have to deal with on the “high seas” of life. Rather than turning the issues into problems and vexations, it turns my ability to deal with them into strengths and abilities that I didn’t have before. I’ve been deep sea fishing a few times, and I know from personal experience that “sea legs” don’t just happen overnight. It takes time. You have to learn to roll with it. I’ve never been out to sea long enough for this to “take” with me, but I would imagine that I could learn to do just about anything, given the opportunity and time.

And opportunity and time are just what I have, with regard to this stuff.

Today, I’m pretty dizzy and off-balance. I’m also having trouble keeping focused on one thing at a time. I’m working from home today, giving myself one more day to recoup before I go back into the office, and I still don’t have my full strength back. No surprises there – I was flat on my back for a week, and this won’t fix itself overnight. I just feel “off” today — spacey and tired and weakened. I’ll see how it goes, with getting my work done. And I’ll see how it goes, taking frequent breaks to just get my head settled again.

It’s not so very different from some days when I wake up after days and weeks of not getting enough sleep, and I have to work at my peak level. It’s not so very different from some days when I’m off balance and foggy for no reason that I can tell at all. It’s not so very different from dealing with the light and noise sensitivities, the headaches, the malaise… it’s not very different from that at all. And the emotional impact it has — the frustration, the short temper, the anger, the temper flashes from a very short fuse — that’s very similar, as well.

It’s all part of life on the high seas.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say all this, years on down the line after my latest concussion injury in 2004. At the very start, when nothing made sense and I was dealing with so many, many issues that I didn’t recognize and didn’t realize were a problem, the whole business made me sick. Literally. Like being out at sea for the first time, I was in a constant state of nausea and disequilibrium. I felt stupid, I felt like an idiot, and I felt so incredibly defective because I couldn’t regulate my emotions or my behavior. Everything was falling apart around me, and I didn’t know why. And not knowing made it even worse. Not knowing that I didn’t know…  that was the worst thing of all.

So many times, I look at the stats for this blog and I see people searching for “concussion now I’m dumb” or “does concussion make you stupid”. And I remember so well what it was like to feel so stupid, all of a sudden, and not know why nothing was working for me anymore. I seriously didn’t have a clue. I knew I had hit my head. I knew I had gotten hurt. But I had no idea the effects could be as big and impactful as they turned out to be. I thought it would all clear up in a matter of a few days.

How wrong I was.

What I didn’t realize was that each time my head bounced off those stairs, connections in my brain got twisted and frayed, possibly even severed. What I didn’t realize was that those connections had taken a lifetime to put in place, and now that they were disrupted, I was going to need to practice and practice and practice, rehearse and rehearse and rehearse… doing many of the things I used to do so easily, but now had to learn to do in a slightly different way. I almost wish that the differences had been obvious — things like walking and talking. But it was really the little things, like learning and managing emotions and remembering details, that had been disrupted. And those disruptions were even more upsetting, because they weren’t something that others could see or often even detect. The only one who could tell a real difference was me… And inside, I was a torn-up mess.

Of course, years on down the line, I can look back with some perspective and understand what was going on. But at the time, before I learned all I have in the past 6-7 years, I had no perspective. I had no information. And I was going nowhere fast. No, correction — I was going somewhere fast — down, down, down. I’m just lucky that I noticed something was wrong before I went over the edge and lost everything.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I am. Not everyone manages to get it as quickly as I did. A whole lot of people struggle in silence and tell themselves to just push on through… never getting the help they need. And that’s a terrible, awful waste. Not everyone understands that the high seas they are on, are going to always be there… that once you’re on the TBI / PCS  ship, you’re not getting off. You may have some calm days, you may have some serene days, but you’ll also have fog and shoals and doldrums… and the storms will always come up again — you can bank on that.

Not everyone is stuck for all time with post-concussive issues, and thank God for that. But for those of us who are, probably the best thing to do is just settle into the daily routine of sailing the high seas… get your sea legs… and get ready for adventure. You never know, you might just come across some treasure, along the way.

Ahoy….

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

Choices, choices…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid is as stupid does – for now

Huh?

Looking at my blog stats, it appears that a lot of people are concerned that concussions make people dumber. “do concussions make you dumber” is one of the top searches of all time, following a number of searches about tbi and mental illness.

On the surface, it would seem that concussion makes you dumber. You end up doing things that are genuinely dense, and no logic can explain it, other than that you must be incredibly stupid. I can’t help but think about my own experiences in the first months (and years) after my most recent TBI. I did some seriously dumb things — like tangling with police during routine/minor traffic stops, walking around in the woods at the beginning of deer hunting season with no camouflage on, saying and doing things that no one in their right mind would do…

Yeah, it would appear that concussions do make you dumber. If stupid is as stupid does, then I was a real idiot. For a while.

The thing is, it doesn’t last. At least, it doesn’t have to. There’s a lot that can be solved with having presence of mind, physical fitness, and really focusing your energy. The three might seem unrelated, but they’re closely connected.

Presence of mind happens best, when you are rested and able to concentrate.

Being rested and able to concentrate happens best, when you are physically fit and you’re taking care of yourself.

And becoming physically fit is a lot about focusing your energy on that goal, and sticking with it.

The three all feed each other, and the more fit you become, the more balanced your nervous system becomes (so you’re not always in fight-flight mode, and your system isn’t constantly shorting out, thanks to all that adrenaline and floods of stress hormones). The more balanced your nervous system becomes, the better able you are to control your emotions and not let the anger/rage/impulsiveness run away with you. The better able you are to control your behavior and your outbursts the better able you are to concentrate on what’s in front of you and not get side-tracked by every little distraction.

It’s all connected. So you see, there is a solution for post-concussive stupidity.

I have found it really helpful to keep this in mind, when I am having one of those non-brain days. When I’m just coming up with all sorts of really stupid ideas — and acting on them — at least I can remember to do something about it.

Like focus in on paying attention. Like getting some rest or some food (good food, that is), and maybe stepping away to catch my breath and block out all the swirling crap that’s running around in my head. Like just remembering that post-concussive stupidity is an intermittent and often transient condition that can be addressed with actual strategies — that I can do.

So, I do it. I keep it simple, when I can. And things have gotten better. I haven’t done anything really stupid in about six months, but now that I’ve said that, you never know what can happen.

Main thing is to keep present and focused on what’s in front of me. That’s what works best for me. That, and remembering that this moment will never, ever come again, so I better make the most of it. That usually snaps me out of my fog and brings me back to front and center. I’m not saying it will work for everyone, but the principles are common across the condition of post-TBI brain-lapses.

Fatigue is a big problem post-TBI/concussion.

Fatigue impacts brain function and focus.

Poor physical fitness and poor diet fuel fatigue.

Impaired brain function can result in certifiable denseness.

Learning to restore focus and get some energy going again can help reduce denseness.

All these things can pass and improve with time — so, stupid is as stupid does. But it doesn’t need to “do stupid” forever. There are ways to get past it… but at some level you’ve got to accept the fact that you will, now and then, do things that other people think are idiotic — but are really just part of your neurological landscape.

So hang in there. Not to worry. This stuff — with the proper approach and steady practice — can be sorted out.

Just keep trying. Just keep going. Focus in. Pay attention to the NOW, because it’s not going to be NOW forever. And you never know what can happen next.

i have a tbi and i am tired of being stupid

Just feeling broken tonight...

Somebody searched on that yesterday, and found their way to this blog.

Can I just say, it seems like a LOT of people are doing that, lately… So many people with TBI feeling dumb, and saying so.

I’ve been feeling pretty dumb, myself, lately. I know I’m not a complete idiot, but I have been feeling dense, not quite with it, sort of stupid, on and off a lot, over the past weeks. I try to talk myself out of it, but it only goes so far. I know I’m tired, and that has a lot to do with it, but I still feel… off. Can’t seem to get right.

And yes, I have to say I agree with the person who found their way here the other day…

I also have a tbi and i am tired of being stupid

It’s so weird. I have all these coping mechanisms, I have all these tools I’ve learned to use, I have some regular support, and I know a lot about TBI and what it can do. But I still feel stupid. Dumb. Dense. And I don’t see it changing. There’s a part of me that always feels like I’ve lost parts of who I used to be, and I can’t seem to get them back. All I know is, they used to be there, and now I can’t find them anywhere.

Oh, well. What can I do? I guess I just have to keep finding out, each day, who else is “in here”. And see how far I can go with that.

But I still really resent the loss of those parts of myself, the loss of the sense that I’m a “real” person, and the loss of confidence that I’ll ever get back what has since shattered.

What’s done is done. Too bad. But geez, what I wouldn’t give to just have a sense of being 100% again. Just once.

You tell yourself often enough that you’re stupid…

And you can take yourself from this:

We all start from here

To this:

... and some of us end up here

Especially in the case of concussion or TBI, if you keep firing the same neurons that say Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!, you can eventually train your brain to act the way you expect.

Neurons that fire together, wire together. So be careful about what you wire, each day.

Letting the stupid stuff pass

Gotta give your brain a chance to catch up.

Lately, I’ve been pondering TBI-based stupidity. You know the deal — when you do all sorts of really stupid and ill-advised things after a head injury. Things like insisting on going back in the game after a concussion and getting injured all over again. Things like taking unnecessary risks… picking fights with cops… staying up till all hours, eating junk food… saying ill-advised things to your significant other… doing dumb things that other people notice and ridicule you over… getting words and ideas all jumbled around without realizing it, and then announcing your supreme denseness to the world…

All that and more. What a great way to make yourself out to be an idiot.

But see, here’s the thing — “stupid is as stupid does” sure enough, but with TBI, stupid tends to pass. The frayed synaptic connections may not ever get put back together, as originally done, but the brain is amazingly plastic — that means, it changes and grows and molds itself around new experiences, new thoughts, new ways. The brain changes. The brain changes itself. And it changes to match the things that we really focus on. If we focus intently on being idiots, then even if we aren’t, we can subtly turn ourselves in that direction. If we focus intently on being good people who are doing our best, despite our human limitations, we can turn ourselves in a completely different direction.

When it comes to remapping the neural pathways of our brains, in many ways, the outcome is up to us. Oh, sure, we may have lasting attention and working memory deficits (I sure do), and we may have problems with balance and words and coordination (raises hand). But those things can change — and they can change much for better, if we are not totally focused on having suddenly turned into blazing idiots.

See, here’s the thing — it’s been said that “neurons that fire together wire together” and it’s very true. When we focus on certain things over and over and over again, our brains become physically habituated to paying attention to those things. We are literally creating the wiring that identifies and fixates on and acquires skill at doing those things. The first time you do anything — like riding a bike or criticizing yourself — it can be a little difficult. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You get used to it, you learn how to do it better. Your brain adjusts physically to acquire that skill. The more practice you give your brain doing those things, the better it does them — and the more it WANTS to do them. Because it likes doing what it can do well and easily.

So, you become a self-fulfilling prophecy, walking around in the world, looking for opportunities to do the things you are most comfortable doing. And if beating yourself up over being stupid is something you do well, you’re going to unconsciously look for chances to do that. Because it’s so easy. And so many other things are so very, very hard… We like easy. Our brains like easy. The seek it out, whether it’s good for us or not.

Now, I’m not saying that we intentionally mess ourselves up. This is an unconscious process that just happens naturally. It’s just how we’re built. And we have to put some effort into keeping it from happening. But we can do exactly that. And have good results.

Right after TBI, things can start to get really mucked up, and you can end up wondering WTF?! all day, every single day. Or maybe the little mess-ups come irregularly, and they catch you by surprise. Still, there’s the WTF factor. You can spend a lot of time trying to figure out why things went wrong, and try to fix those things. And then, when you can’t see the real reason for them — because your brain has been banged up and is not reasoning properly about these things, to begin with — you can end up just reaching the conclusion that you’re stupid, you’re an idiot, you’re a waste of space, and that’s that.

End of story, right?

Well, not exactly. See, if neurons that fire together wire together, then it’s just as possible for you to re-wire your brain in a positive direction. And you do that by NOT getting caught up in the stupid stuff. Some of it, even if it seems totally justified, you have to let pass.

Because if you don’t, you can get all worked up, all riled, all adrenaline-pumped, all fight-flight. And what do we know about fight-flight? It cuts down on our ability to reason in a level-headed, complex way. That is, our systems — pumped up on all the stress hormones — selectively pay attention to only part of the stimuli we’re receiving. “Non-essential” details — gray areas, nuances, subtle distinctions in ideas, all get lost along the way. Our systems are telling us they don’t matter. Only the most obvious ‘facts’ matter — and those ‘facts’ often include the belief that we are stupid, idiotic, retarded, whatever.

So, here’s the thing — if you’re going to re-wire your brain, you have to give your body the resources it needs to do this. And you do this by taming the fire-breathing dragons in your mind. You need to cut down on the stress and the anger and the anxiety and the frantic crazy over-doing of everything that’s a lot like Grendel coming out of his cave and cooking you to a crisp. You need to not turn your synapses into toast, everytime something gets messed up. ‘Cause trust me, things do get messed up a lot after TBI. You just can’t let it get to you, so that your synapses are building up big connections that spell out STUPID!.

You need to be able to rest. You need to be able to think. You need to be able to do new things — or do old things a different way. And you can’t do that, if you’re stuck in a fiery, narrow-minded loop telling yourself that you’re an idiot. You’re going to be strengthening connections in your brain that weren’t strong before, and you need to have plenty of options about what connections to strengthen. You have to get a little creative with how you live your life — find new solutions and new ways of doing things… and if you’re all wired on adrenaline, you literally don’t have access to those new neural pathways. When that happens, you’re cutting yourself and your recovery off at the knees, because your system is looking for the easiest, most basic, most obvious options available to it — usually the belief that you’re dense.

Think of it like this — you’re driving to work in the morning in rush hour traffic. All of a sudden, you come around a bend, and the morning sun hits you right in your eyes. BAM!!! You can’t focus. You’re blinded for a few moments. You know that you’re in rush hour traffic, and you don’t want to get in an accident. So, you have to slow down, take your foot off the gas, look away from the sun, and let your eyes adjust, so you can make out the movements of your fellow commuters, as well as watch out for any pedestrians or wildlife that might cross your path.

Problems that come up after TBI can be just like that morning sun — blinding and panic-inducing. And in order to get where you’re going, you have to look away from the problems, adjust your vision to other aspects of your life, and then pay close attention to what’s there, so you can get where you’re going without a lot of trouble and pain.

So, look away from the “sun” of your TBI-induced issues, and give yourself a chance to catch up with yourself. You have a lot of work to do, and you’re really best served by accessing as much of your synaptic connections as you can — not getting mired in the swamp of logistical issues.

Cut yourself a break. Everybody does stupid stuff, now and then, TBI or no. Head injury or no head injury, in the end, we’re all human. Let yourself be that — and be all of it. Give your fight-flight system a break — and watch what happens.

Then and Now – TBI Issue Management

Almost year ago, I published a list of 84 ways TBI can make your life really interesting, which is a list of 84 different issues that can arise as a result of a traumatic brain injury. I pulled together the list from a number of different reputable sources — books, websites, papers — and sorted them by type, from behavioral to communication to mental to emotional, etc.

The list itself actually dates back to about 2008, when I put together a list of all the issues I’d been having that I needed to manage. I’ve been using this list for several years, now, to monitor and track the things that make my life more challenging, and it’s really helped a lot — sometimes, mainly because it just reminds me that I have these issues and I need to be mindful of them.

It’s tough to manage things that you can’t see, after all…

But with things in plain view, I was able to manage. At first, it was tough, but eventually I learned. It took a lot of work and a willingness to be honest about what was going on with me — like any self-improvement work, I suppose. Except in my case, instead of it being “all in my head/heart”, I had some underlying neurological issues that played into the whole picture.

In a way, having the underlying neurological issues was a relief. I had felt for the longest time (30+ years) like there was something wrong with ME, for how I behaved and the ways I handled the world around me. I thought I wasn’t trying hard enough. Or I was being lazy. Or stupid. Or I was deliberately sabotaging myself. As it turns out, I was dealing with neurological issues which in and of themselves weren’t terribly severe, but which combined to exacerbate each other to the point where I was practically disabled in some ways.

I had plenty of talent and plenty of smarts, but contrary to all appearances, I couldn’t seem to get my act together. I had told myself for years that I was “choosing” to not employ my talents fully, when in fact I was constantly undermined by distractability, fatigue, anxiety, constant restlessness, agitation, chronic pain, and sensory sensitivities (to light and sound) that derailed me in times when I needed to be at my best. I was on a constant roller coaster of up and down emotions, taking two steps forward, two steps sidewards, two steps back, three steps forward, and getting all turned around in the process. Anxiety, not intention, determined my life’s direction, and I can tell you, I was going nowhere fast.

Even in those times when I was feeling like I was getting somewhere, I sometimes got hurt again, and then I had the setback of yet another tbi to deal with.

All the while, there I was, thinking there was something wrong with ME… I was a loser, I was a waste of space, I was a charter member of underachiever’s anonymous. And that sense was probably just as debilitating as any of my neurological/physical issues.

I wasn’t doing myself any favors by being so down on myself.

But when I started learning about TBI and started tracking my issues in light of my neurological situation and background, things started to really come together. I was also amazingly fortunate to connect with a neuropsychologist who believed (as I did) that the problems I had were “fixable” and they’ve been working with me to help me think differently about myself and my abilities, and see my whole life, not only my tbi’s, as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Once I quit blaming myself and being ashamed of my issues, a lot of my troubles started to clear.

But it wasn’t until I took a close look at what was going on with me and got honest about the havoc it was wreaking in my life, that I was able to DO anything about it.

I could have gone on indefinitely, telling myself — and the world — that “That’s just the way I am – you got a problem with that?!” Being constantly defensive about my limitations and difficulties and pulling out all the stops to justify them and defend my “right” to be a screw-up. It’s how I’d been living for close to 40 years, so why stop now?

Well, watching everything you hold dear go to shit, and realizing that you’ve got no foundation (financial, professional, interpersonal) to support your life has a way of forcing you to get honest. That’s why I stopped all the B.S. in my head. Plus, I was really tired of feeling like crap all the time, constantly wondering why nothing ever worked out the way I wanted/expected it to.

Anyway, I guess the bottom line is, you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken. And getting past the idea that it was ME that was broken, rather than how my brain was working, was an important part of restoring my daily and long-term functionality.

Speaking of functionality, I’ve got errands to run. Have a good day, everyone. Stay strong.