The chance to make a difference, every single day

Yes
Yes

Death is never an easy thing to deal with, and losing someone — or something — that means a lot to you, is just plain hard. Grief has a timetable of its own, and even when you think you’re past it, it can come up again — days, months, years after the fact.

I’ve been thinking a lot about loss, this fall. I’m working on my book TBI S.O.S. – Restoring a Sense of Self after Traumatic Brain Injury, and I’ve been thinking about all the ways that TBI has taken something from me over the years… including my Sense of Self.

Now a dear relative has died, and I have the opportunity to look at how that loss is affecting me and many others, whose lives they touched. Looking back at their long life — over 100 years — so many people and situations came across their path. Lots of good situations, lots of hard situations. And the last thing you could say about their life, was that it was easy. The last thing you could say about their personality, was that it was easy-going. They had a hard life, and they developed the mettle to deal with it. They weren’t always fun to be around, and they could be mean-spirited and cruel. But in the end, they really had a positive impact on so many lives. So many, many lives.

No matter their shortcomings — and we all have them — they always stayed true to their commitment to make a positive change in the world. That’s what their life was really about — through teaching, volunteer work, and active service on many boards in their community. The number of people coming through their hospital room at the end, to say good-bye and thank them for their service, was amazing. So many people who gained because of their commitment.

And it occurs to me, looking back at this relative, who had so many obvious flaws, that if they can make a positive difference, then any of us can. And we should. We simply need to have the willingness and the energy to keep going. We need to have that commitment. Each of us, in our own way, has at least one gift we can offer and develop to benefit others. And each of us, when we reach out to the people around us in a spirit of genuine helpfulness, can do something positive in this world to make it a better place. We don’t have to be famous or rich or mathematical geniuses to forge ahead. We can find our own small ways to pitch in and help, and do it better in our own way than anyone else ever could.

In a way, the fact that my grandparent was a difficult person, makes their contribution all the more inspiring. They freely admitted that they had limitations, and I know that in their later years they regretted a lot of things they had done in their youth. But they kept going. They kept learning. They kept showing progress and changing with the times. They didn’t push people away because of their limitations — they engaged with them and they learned from them, as well as taught. And in the end, what really matters is the good they brought to the world.

Looking at their example, I can see so many parallels with my own life — struggling with limitations, overcoming them, finding new ones to deal with, and keeping on till I could see past the most recent obstacle and get a clearer view of the world around me. Each barrier, each obstacle has taken me higher — so long as I’ve engaged with it. And each time I’ve overcome, I’ve gotten a better view of where I stood and what my options were.

Brain injury has been a real blight on my life. It’s stolen many good years from me, and it nearly ruined me, 10 years ago. But through following the example of my grandparent, and just keeping going, I’ve gained so much more than I ever could have, otherwise. And for that, I am truly grateful.

We all have something to offer. We all have something to contribute. And that “something” will necessarily change over time. As we age, as we learn, as we grow, as we go through the changes in our lives, our bodies and brains and outlooks change, sometimes turning us into completely different people. The loss of a job, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a home, a sudden change in fortune – for good or for ill – can drastically alter us and our relationship to the world and others around us.

That doesn’t mean we stop being able to help and contribute. That doesn’t mean we stop being useful and needed. Sometimes we need to recalibrate and shift our attention… look around for new ways to be of service. But those ways are out there — if we keep steady and look for them, with an open heart and lots of humility.

Okay, I’m getting off my soapbox now. I’m in a pretty philosophical frame of mind, these days.

On Thursday night, I’ll be driving to my family again for the viewing and funeral. I’ll probably be “dark” during that time, with everything going on. Right now, I’m making my list of things I need to do ahead of time, getting things together systematically, so I can just pick up and go on Thursday after work. I need to do laundry, buy food for the road, collect my thoughts for a short eulogy I’ll be giving, and basically keep myself steady and rested for the next week.

These things are never easy, but I do have a heads-up about what’s to come, so this will be logistically easier than the last weekend, when it all sort of took me by surprise. I was ill-prepared, in some ways, but it all came out okay in the end, I guess.

The main thing to remember, is that I’m doing really well.  I have NOT melted down, since getting back, and I’m keeping steady and calm. I have a long day ahead of me, but that’s okay. At least I have a plan to follow, and I know how things are going to shake out.

Anyway… onward.

Hard-wired for success, failure, and everything in between?

We all have some sort of resilience within - I have to believe that
We all have some sort of resilience within – I have to believe that

I had an interesting discussion with my counselor last night. To be truthful, this individual has been very helpful to me, but they also have some severe limitations — such as their outlook on life. I was discussing resilience yesterday, asking aloud why it is that I’ve had so many situations where I had the bottom fall out from under me, yet I bounced back… when so many other people have less awful things happen, but they never fully recover.

Why is that? I think it’s a valid question that needs to be explored more fully.

My counselor told me that, after all they had seen while working for the state social services department for many years, they believed that some people are hard-wired for resilience. Some people had terrible things happen to them, and they recovered, while others did not. And they were just built that way.

Thinking about that, it’s probably one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard. And it’s definitely “old school”, harking back to the days when people believed that you had what you had in terms of luck and life and cognitive ability, and that was that. Pretty antiquated, if you ask me. Of course, I wasn’t going to argue with someone who was working “in the system” for decades and is over 70 years old, and they have their perspective — their story — and they’re sticking with it.

I just can’t get on board.

See, I don’t think that’s true at all. I believe that people can change — they change all the time. And the people who are “stuck” have as much of a chance of getting “UNstuck” as the next person. Of course, there are going to be extreme cases, where dynamite wouldn’t dislodge them from their misfortunate mindset. But the vast majority of people have an inborn — IN-BORN — capacity to change.

Hell, we change all the time. We change our minds about things. We learn new things. We get bored by some things and drop them, and we get excited by other things and jump in feet-first. We make friends, we lose friends, we change jobs, we move around. We are in a constant state of flux and change at all times in our lives; we just normally don’t think about it, because change is really a regular part of our lives.

And then there’s the unanticipated change, that blindsides us and doesn’t make any sense to us in the grand scheme of how we understand our lives and ourselves.That takes some work, to get back. Sometimes we make it, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we end up turning into someone we don’t recognize. But we do change. We can’t help it.

TBI is the kind of change that takes us by surprise. Nobody can probably EVER anticipate the changes that happen when the brain is rattled, shaken, and reshaped in subtle, miniscule ways. Recovery from that kind of hit is different from just about any other kind of change, because the very thing that’s the central controller has been impacted. Certainly, with cancer and chemo-brain and other kinds of injuries and illnesses which impact the brain as well as the body and spirit, you’ve got that brain stuff in the mix as well. The thing is, with TBI — especially with mild TBI — it’s so damn’ hard to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to do it, and understand what’s going on.

The thing that probably makes it different from other types of illness, is the hidden aspects. Absolutely, there are many people who are struggling with hidden illnesses, yet with TBI you’ve got the perfect storm of disconnects between where you’re hurt, how others perceive you, and how you can heal.

And yet, we can heal. I’m healing. I have my setbacks, my bad brain days, my times of going a little bit nuts over things that are bothering me in the back of my mind. But I’m healing. And overall, my situation is vastly improved over where I was, just a few years ago. Make no mistake, it’s taken constant work. It’s been exhausting. There are no “days off” in this process, but at the same time, quality recovery is practically impossible without some sort of rest and recuperation. It’s a balance.

And I wonder what it is that has made my recovery so much more… effective… than probably anyone would have guessed or anticipated. I know my neuropsych is kind of amazed at the recovery I’ve made, and how … functional… I am in my world. I’m engaged. I’m social. I’m involved. I’m out of debt for the first time in over 20 years. (I’m also usually exhausted, but that’s the price you pay, Oh, well. At least I’ve learned how to build it back up.)

I also wonder how it is that I’m able to bounce back from extremely dark times, and rebuild the way I do. Money problems. Marital problems. Health problems. Exhaustion. Work difficulties. Losses of friends and loved ones. Dark nights of the soul, when it seems nothing will ever get better, and I’m seriously wondering how much longer I have to keep on living. Ultimately, this all passes. And I’ve found that the more quickly I engage the darkness on its own terms, just letting myself feel as badly as I do, just letting things get as bad as they can, the more quickly I can bounce out of my sh*tass state of mind.

What makes that possible? What lets me do that? Is it just how I’m hard-wired? Is it just how I’m built?

I find it hard to believe that I’m just built that way, because in years past, I have been so down, so low, so desperately depressed, nothing could drag me out. For so many years in my childhood, youth, and adulthood, I was in an extremely low state of mind. And looking back at who I was, once upon a time, nobody — but nobody — would believe it was the same person.

And if the people around me were looking forward to right now, probably nobody would believe that I’m the same person that I once was.

Some say it’s all about character. I say, character can be learned. It can be taught. It can be modeled. And the fact that I’ve had so many positive role models in my life, whom I really respected and looked up to, I believe has had a huge impact on me and my life.

I wish I could write more about this, but I’m running out of steam.

Bottom line is, I don’t believe for a minute that people are truly hard-wired to be one way or another. We change. We change all the time. It’s how we’re built and what we do naturally. We just have to figure out how to change in directions that help us, rather than make us (and everyone around us) miserable.

Well, the day is waiting. It’s my last day at the old office, and it’s going to be a good one.

I don’t just know it will be — I’m going to make it that way.

Staying ahead of the game

Gotta stay sharp… get a jump on the day

Learning lessons as I go… it’s no good for me to start early-early at work, where there are people around who want to talk about this, that, and the other thing. It’s better if I start my workday at home, and prepare for the day here. If I have to make early morning calls with people, it’s best that I do it from home, rather than the office. That way I’m not distracted, and I can think.

It’s hard to think at the office.

And that really threw me off on Monday, which made it a terrible day I had to recover from. I also had a blowup with my spouse on Monday night, which could have turned out badly. When I’m in a bad space, they love to goad me and push me and keep firing questions at me and demand that I pay attention to them. It’s like they can sense when I’m vulnerable and struggling, and they want to see how far they can stretch me. They just push and push and push, needling and goading and provoking me, because something in them just craves that intensity at the end of the day.

It wakes them up. It’s familiar to them, because of their childhood family history. No evening is complete without a heated argument, when they’re feeling dull and out of it. I know they love the fight for the fight’s sake, because the minute I stop dealing with them and just walk away, they stop what they’re doing. They stop the provocation, they stop the needling, they stop the questions, the pushing, the prodding. And they start bargaining to get me to come back and sit down, have some nice dinner, etc.

It’s almost like my spouse is not even there, when that happens. Something in their brain switches on, and the person they are switches off. It’s become worse, in the past years, and now (thanks to help I’m getting from a counselor and my neuropsych), I can see it for what it is — just some weird-ass neurochemical/biological impulse they have to FIGHT. If I step away or just stop the progression, it’s like magic. They turn into someone completely different.

It really does a number on me. In the aftermath of my meltdowns, my spouse is so calm. They almost seem like they just had a cigarette or a beer — they’re very relaxed. Meanwhile, I’m a friggin’ mess, I feel like crap, and I have to build back my self-confidence again. They get the upper hand. They get to recreate the dynamics of the past. And the old cycle is in place. I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing, so it’s up to me to stop it, myself.

And I stopped myself on Monday night before I got too bent out of shape. I could tell I was getting to the point where I wanted to throw something or hit something (or someone). So, I backed off. I just slammed on the brakes and walked away from the situation. When I walk away, my spouse starts to behave properly again.

So, I’ll have to start doing that, anytime I feel that “rise” starting to come up with me. I’m just walking away to let them calm down and stop provoking me.

Yesterday was better. I took my early calls at home, I got into the office after rush hour traffic, and I had a pretty productive day. It was like pulling teeth at the end of the day, but I got things done, exhaustion and all.

One thing that’s throwing me off is a new coworker who has really been annoying the crap out of me. I’m supposed to be their “buddy” and train them and bring them along in the organization, and they’re not making my job any easier. This individual has a ton of qualifications, certifications, and degrees. They were a teacher in the past, and they like to show off how much they know about ancient history and roleplaying games. They also like to get into a lot of heady discussions about intellectual things, but they don’t have a ton of depth, and some of the things I know a lot about, they’ve never even heard of.

Their overall affect is a little bit arrogant, and while they do know a lot about some things, they don’t know nearly enough to act like they own the place. Actually, their personality would be best suited to teaching middle school or high school, where they will always be ahead of their students. It’s the adults around them, they can’t keep up with.

I feel sorry for them, a little. The rest of the group is not exactly welcoming, which is what I came up against when I first started. But this individual is getting increasingly insecure and posing like they’re an expert, which is causing them to become increasingly annoying. They’re trying like crazy to show that they already know how to do everything, but they’ve only been on the job two weeks. Meanwhile, the rest of the group, who are not at all intellectuals (or don’t fancy themselves to be), are getting irritated at the apparent arrogance.

All that training, all those certifications. All the degrees… And this new person can’t deal with people. Adults, anyway.

On the other hand, seeing them in action has been a learning experience. It’s reinforced a few ideas with me.

First, that I am so glad I did not go into an academic line of work. It’s so annoying to have to deal with people who are impressed with how smart they think they are. And all the pitter-patter about academic subjects that have nothing to do with anything current or applicable in everyday life… that’s annoying, too.

Second, despite my lack of certifications and qualifications, I can hold my own professionally. No problem. I’m the real deal, and I can get along with just about anybody, I can figure things out, make them right, and I can get the job done. And if I don’t know something, I come to it with beginner’s mind and start from the bottom-up. I tend to overstep and screw up — of course I do. That’s how I learn.

Third, if you want to succeed in life and work, you’ve got to be teachable. For the long run. In every conceivable situation. Not just in the classes you take, but in real life. Each and every day. Ask questions. Stay curious. Don’t get arrogant and think you have it all figured out, because every situation is different, and the people around you won’t appreciate your attitude.

Fourth, resilience matters. All the time. Under any and every circumstance. You’ve got to be able to bounce back — and that’s something I’ve learned how to do, time and time again. You always have another chance, if you give it to yourself.

So, those are the four lessons I’ve learned from dealing with this new person. It’s reinforced things I know about myself, and it’s actually making me feel better about my own abilities and skills. Even if they are a bit like a rock tied ’round my neck, and they’re slowing me down… and they may not last in the job, because our boss is getting irritated with them… at least I’m getting something out of it.

Let this be a lesson to me. Let it all be a lesson to me.

A little back-to-school info for concussed kids

Just found A School Administrator’s Guide to Academic Concussion Management

Check it out. Information like this is very  important. Because kids who get concussed — who have TBIs — need to be understood, not “disciplined” or punished because “they’re not trying hard enough”.

Heaven knows. I’ve been there. It’s no fun – for anyone.

A little knowledge can go a long way to making things better. For everyone.

Learning as pain/stress relief

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the article I read the other day about how the ‘Thirst For Knowledge’ may be a kind of opioid craving… thinking about how that has held true in my own life.

I have to say, it really rings true for me. And I while I was having dinner with a friend the other night, they were telling me how they’ve always loved to learn. They’ve just eaten up new information and they’ve always gotten a charge out of taking in new information and putting it to good use in their life.

Interestingly, they also have a lot of problems with chronic pain — low back pain, especially. The pain pretty much derailed their life for many years, keeping them from getting decent sleep, and probably taking a few years off their life. They are in their 50’s, but they look like they’re 10 years older. It could be that their biological age — due to their chronic pain problems — is just that.

I never would have guessed that they’ve got this pain thing, which they only started really talking about with me recently. They’re one of those people who seeks out all sorts of new and novel information, and they seem to have a genuine thirst for living large, when it comes to heady stuff. Sure, they have other issues, and when they get pissy, they’re no walk in the park, but the way I’ve always seen them, is more as a hungry mind than an aching body.

It’s funny — I rarely discuss my own pain with other people, too. I don’t really get into it — there doesn’t seem to be much point. It’s just depressing, to go into the details about how my shoulders and elbows and hips and knees and back are all on fire, screaming with pain, keeping me up at night, waking me up early… and there’s precious little I can do about it. Even ibuprofin (which is the only anti-inflammatory, including prescription NSAIDs that I’ve used in the past) doesn’t always help. So, I just have to tough it out.

In fact, I rarely devote much time to thinking about my pain when it’s around. It’s just always there. In the background. Nudging me, every now and then, when I step out of line. Twinging or stabbing or whatever. Headaches. Neck aches. Back aches. Joint aches. It never entirely goes away, and I try not to dwell on it, when it comes up. Very little seems to fix it, other than scaling back on my activities and trying to get more rest and steering clear of foods that I know don’t sit well with me.

Now, when I do think about it, it just makes matters worse. I start to notice it. I start to get bothered by it. I start to get crazed and anxious and frustrated and beside myself. It’s a little like being stalked — it’s always there, lurking in the background. Not directly assaulting me so violently that I cannot function, but always reminding me that it just might step up at any time and do just that. And that drives me nuts. Feeling like I cannot escape this shadow, this constant reminder, this ever-present phenomenon that refuses to respond to medication or management techniques or even diagnosis… As Charlie Brown would say, Aaaaaaaauuuuuggggghhhhh!

One of the reasons I realize I haven’t been doing my self-assessments lately is because there are a bunch of places where I track my pain.  And when I do the entire sheet and include my pain(s) in the assessment — rating its severity and impact on my life from 1-10, describing it and its impact, detailing what I am doing about it, and recording whether that worked or not — well, I can see how poorly my coping mechanisms work. And I get depressed. Really down. Just despondent.

So, I don’t self-assess. Which tells me that I need to come up with a different self-assessment approach — probably break out the different areas into separate pieces, and only focus on one type of issue at a time — the cognitive OR the behavioral OR the emotional OR the physical — not lump them all together in one place, which gets overwhelming.

But when I don’t self-assess, I get into trouble with my thinking and my behavior and my attitude. So I need to do something about this. Soon. Today, in fact.

And so, I shall.

But back to my main topic, which is about learning as a pain/stress reliever… No matter how badly my pain is, no matter how much stress I’m under, I find that learning things provides an almost other-worldly relief for me. I’ve been going through some very heavy job stuff, lately — in this economy, talk about stress — and I’ve sorely needed a break from all the intensity. I don’t want to lose my house. I don’t want to be out of work. I don’t want my health to go spiraling downhill, because I’ve taken on more than my body and mind can handle, and it all gets to me and sends me over the edge. Times like this, my PTSD and TBIs rear their ugly heads, and my thinking gets foggy, my reactions get “dumb”, and my whole system starts to go haywire. Which is about the last thing I need, when my home and my family and my future are on the line.

I need some serious stress relief, but I’ve been having a lot of trouble with being outside in the open — lots of anxiety comes up, and I start to freak out with the bombardment of all the stimuli, especially sounds, as my hearing has been hypersensitive to a point that’s starting to drive me nuts. So, I have to find something to do inside that not only takes my mind off my physical discomfort, but also provides serious relief.

That relief comes from learning. Learning new things I need to know for my job. Learning new things from the world wide web. Learning new things from friends. Learning new things from books and white papers. Learning new things that may not be all that practical, but really interest me and keep me engaged. Focusing my attention on things that fascinate me and that enlarge my store of available knowledge does something amazing for me… it cuts the pain. It not only takes my attention off it, but it seems to physically ease my suffering.

And that’s huge.

So, I’m learning everything I can, these days, about things that interest me. And I’m also learning how to pass what I learn along to other people. I come from a family of teachers — professors, elementary school teachers, Sunday school teachers, tutors, instructors. I also worked my way through what college I could manage to complete by tutoring folks in subjects that interested me. And I did a good job. I would probably be a teacher now, if I could have finished college, but that wasn’t in the cards. But I can do it now, in my own way, without the limitations of administrative types who are looking over my shoulder, breathing down my neck, saying, “You can’t say that to those kids!”

Online, in this blog, I can share and teach and instruct. And I’m figuring out new ways of getting information across. It’s my hope that I can do a better job of communicating the stuff that’s in my head to folks who can use it. ‘Cuz I’ve spent an awful lot of time figuring out how to be highly functional and “normal” as normal can be, despite a history of head trauma, chronic debilitating pain, not to mention considerable sensory issues that — when they’re at their worst — turn me into an automaton of sorts.

The information and experience has been invaluable to me, in just living my life. And others might find it useful, too. If I can use what I’ve learned to ease others’ pain — through the process of learning, as well as the experience of using what I relate — then my own difficulties have all been worth it.