One of the biggest problems I’ve had, related to my TBIs, has been my temper. I can’t tell you how many times it’s gotten away from me and really made life difficult for people around me, and — as a result — for me, as well. I’ve lost jobs because of my temper — which, in these tough times is a real problem. I’ve alienated friends, too — and considering how difficult it is for me to attract and keep friends, I really can’t afford to do that. I’ve hurt the feelings (and really scared) my family members many, many times, and I have to live with that for the rest of my life.
Not only is it very painful for me to lose control of my tongue and say things I know are hurtful to others, but it’s also really tough to be increasingly marginalized by people around you, because of your short fuse. On top of that, my brain doesn’t always realize it’s losing its temper, and I end up often reaping what I unconsciously sow… finding out later that my behavior was volatile and unacceptable, and I didn’t even fully realize it.
Now, interestingly, recent research has uncovered a connection between losing your cool and dementia. Google has something like 145 stories on it (See especially Staying Calm ‘Prevents Dementia’ at BBC News and Dementia Rarer in Calm, Outgoing People at WebMD.) Given this research, and also the fact that dementia runs in my family, it really raises a red flag from me, and it points out even more clearly how keeping calm and not losing my cool will not only help me stay “socially viable” but it will also help keep me from losing my mind.
Here are my personal guidelines for managing my temper:
#1: It is Never Okay to hurt another person because of my temper. I don’t care if it’s accidental or if I can “justify” it in my mind. It’s never, ever okay for me to hurt another person because I can’t keep my cool. The world has enough unavoidable pain and suffering in it, without me adding to the overall amount. No matter how upset I may be, no matter how justified I may think I am, I do not give myself permission to just run around saying and doing hurtful things because of my temper.
#2: Whatever I make wrong, I have to make right. I am only human, and I tend to slip up. But when I do slip up and do/say things that are hurtful to others, I have to make an effort to make it right. I don’t care if I choke on the crow I’m eating. I don’t care how humbling it may be. I have to make right what I’ve done wrong. Either through apologizing, or making it up to the person I’ve hurt, or both.
#3: No matter how right I think I am, chances are I’m wrong, so I may actually not have a basis for blowing up. This is probably one of the most challenging things for me to accept — the fact that my brain is broken, and it may be telling me the wrong things, so I might not actually have a good reason to get upset. But if I forget this, I can end up on one of these “righteous anger” crusades that makes me impossible to work/live with. It’s just no good. And later, when I realize what I’ve done, I feel like such an idiot. It’s just not worth it to me, to go down a road that I’ll regret for a long time, just because I lost sight of the fact that I could be (am probably) wrong.
#4: When I feel myself getting so upset that I cannot keep myself in check, I have to just remove myself from the situation. I’ve been in too many really volatile situations where I’ve lost my head and loosed my tongue and ended up on the business end of life’s cattle prod as a result. I have blown up at co-workers, only to have them turn on me and engineer my layoff… I have blown up at family members, and I spent years afterwards subjected to their passive-aggressive victim revenge. That doesn’t make what they did/do right. It just points out that I need to stop my “downward slide” if at all possible, and if I can’t, I need to just step away and not engage with them anymore. Pick up the conversation later, when I’m cooler. But while I’m still hot, just step away.
#5: When it comes to police, it’s best to keep my mouth shut. I’ve come very close to some intense confrontations with police officers, because I didn’t understand what was going on, and/or I misinterpreted their signals — and they misinterpreted mine. If ever there was a time for me to keep my friggin’ mouth shut, that would be it. There’s nothing like looking back and realizing you came this close to being busted over saying/doing something really stupid, to adjust your perspective. I’ve learned to really chill, when I see a uniform approaching. And to make an extra effort to be polite and as brief as possible. I just can’t afford to get arrested and have a record. Not when I have a family to support.
#6: Don’t get too tired. Or, if I am fatigued, slow the heck down. My thinking gets very foggy, when I’m fatigued. My judgment is off, and my temper tends to flare. I have to be very vigilant about my fatigue level. And when I’m tired — and I know it — I need to take things very slowly and be a lot more systematic about how I do things. If I’m tired, I can’t deviate from my routine. If I do, I tend to get confused and then my fuse gets shorter. And I don’t do well at determining which things matter and which don’t. It just gets messy. And if I’m tired AND hungry, well, then, all bets are off.
#7: Don’t get too hungry. Sometimes, when I’m under stress, I will not have any appetite at all. I just have no interest in food, and I’ll skip meals. That’s not good. I can become hypoglycemic, and then my temper flares. I need to keep my blood sugar pretty constant, and keep my system stable, so I don’t get overwrought over little things and make everyone around me nuts, including myself. When my blood sugar is low, my thinking gets foggy, and I get agitated. It’s not good. So, even if I’m not hungry, I make the effort to eat regularly and make sure I don’t eat a lot of junk food. If I’m still hungry, an hour or two after I’ve eaten well, I have a glass of water, which can cut that sense of being hungry. I really try to keep on a regular eating schedule, no matter how little I want to eat. I often find, also, that starting to eat makes me hungry.
#8: Talk it out — either with someone else, or just with myself. I’m the first to admit that I’m really bad at this. I’m not good at broaching sensitive subjects, and I’m not good at talking about my feelings with other people. I’m not even good at talking about them with myself. I actually spend a fair amount of time doing “self-talk” — in the car while I’m driving to/from work… in the shower, when I’m getting ready for the day… even when I’m making my breakfast or cleaning up at the end of the day. I find that even when I’m not able to really articulate things well with other people, if I’m with a good friend who knows me and my silent signals, they can often coax out of me what’s up. And when I do talk about what’s up with me, I feel better. Like I said, I’m really bad at this, but I’m working at it. Because I have to.
#9: Don’t be stupid by moving too fast. Okay, so I’m head-injured. So what? I still have the basic ability to tell the difference between a smart thing to say and stupid thing. Well, most of the time, anyway. The problem arises, when I move too quickly and don’t look before I leap, or consider what I’m about to say before it gets out into the world. Given time, I can often determine if something is a wise thing to say, or not. But if I’m moving too fast and just “firing at will,” I can get into trouble really quick. This is a particular hazard when I’m actually feeling well… feeling energized… feeling cocky and spunky. I can get turned around, even when I’m feeling good, and suddenly lose it. Because I’ve been moving too fast. And I haven’t been thinking things through before I say/do them. Ironically, the times when I think I’m feeling best are sometimes the times when I’m quite fatigued, but I don’t realize it. It’s that stress-induced analgesia factor again — I’m so pumped up, just trying to move through life when I’m dog-tired, that I don’t even realize how tired I am, and my fatigue can catch up to me. I find that paying close attention to what I’m doing, and slowing down, and not saying/doing things when I’m MOST convinced they are great things to say/do, helps keep me out of a lot of hot water.
#10: Don’t overestimate my ability to deal with stressful situations. Dude, I’m like totally brain-injured. My life, as successful as it appears on the surface, has hallmarks of multiple mild tbi’s all through it. I can never forget that. My brain is broken. I have found ways to compensate and live with my difficulties, but I’m still diminished, compared to where I was 5… 10… 15… 20 years ago… and especially compared to where I could be, if I hadn’t gotten hit on the head so often. As much as I hate and resent the fact, it still is true that I have deficits, and they are often even better-hidden from me than they are from others. Adventures in anosognosia… So, I have to stay humble, stay realistic, stay honest. And not overestimate my capacity for stress. Stress is a killer. It kicks the crap out of me. It wears me down and turns me into someone I do not particularly like. I can never forget that my brain is different, since those injuries, and I can’t take anything for granted. On the one hand, this sucks royally, but on the other hand, it makes me intensely grateful for the times when I am okay, and things are going well.
So, there are my Top 10 Guidelines for surviving my temper-related deficits. I don’t always adhere to them as well as I should, and some of them are constant struggles. But if I can be moderately consistent with them, I find my temper is more easily controlled, and I’m a much better person. I’m also easier to live with, work with, play with, be around.
It’s not much fun, having to constantly play by these rules, but it sure beats the alternative — constant roller coasters of temper flares and jags and violent confrontations.
I’d rather live by the rules and stay out of trouble, than run wild and free and end up persona non grata — or worse, behind bars.