Fine when I get there

In praise of stillness
Peace be with you.

So, I’m back from my trip to see my family. My grandparent has not yet passed away, and I got to say good-bye to them while they still recognized me, so that is a real blessing.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that. It’s deeply personal, and I don’t have words to express everything I’m feeling.

What I will talk about, is how things turned around once I was there. It can be so difficult for me to get going with new undertakings — including making a sudden trip to go see my family during an emergency. And it was so difficult for me to let to of the reins on my projects at work, so other could step in and pick up the slack during the final days before these deadlines. It’s a tough one, to A) of all get my head around everything that is going on, put it in some semblance of order, and B) communicate what needs to be done to people who are helping. I’ll head into work early tomorrow to get a jump on the week.

I’ve got some additional work to do today, connecting with my siblings about the situation and next steps. And resting up from the trip. It was pretty grueling — a lot of driving, a lot of dealing with people’s “stuff”, a lot of food that bears no resemblance to what I choose to eat on a daily basis. It’s the world I left behind… and I left it for a reason. So going back to deal with folks when they are arguably at their worst, and I am certainly not at my best… that’s a real learning experience.

But in the end, that’s what it all is — it is all a learning experience, and as long as I continue to look at it that way, there can’t be anything wrong (or even right) about what I’m choosing, what I’m doing, what I’m going through. So long as I keep going and continue to learn and grow, what can be wrong?

It’s the giving up that’s wrong. It’s the quitting that’s wrong. And now that I have tools and skills built up from the past years of active TBI recovery, I don’t have to quit anymore. Once upon a time, that’s almost all I did — start, and then quit.

Not now. Not anymore.

So, today being Sunday, it’s a day of Rest. Thank God we moved our clocks back, so I get an extra hour today. Good timing. I got a bunch of chores done last week before we left, so I wouldn’t have to worry about them when I got back, so my day is all clear of any regular requirements  — except getting dinner. I’ll need to go get that. But I need to get out in the day, so no biggie.

The main thing, is to really take good care of myself today. Countless times, when I have pushed myself to overcome challenges, I’ve worn myself out and ended up really shredding my most important relationships with the aftermath — when all has settled down, and I’m starting to get some strength back and I’m not just on autopilot, my system backfires, and I end up flipping out over every little thing, saying things I can’t take back, and basically being a terror to everyone around me.

I do NOT want that to happen to me over the next week. It’s going to be grueling, with work being extremely pressurized over deadlines for the next two weeks, and some pretty significant projects that are coming down to the wire.

So, I’m going to do the following to make my life easier and improve my chances of success:

  • Make lists, so I don’t have to think about things.
  • Pace myself – keep an eye on my schedule, give myself extra time to do complicated things, and jettison some of the pointless “recreational” things I don’t need to bother with.
  • Get plenty of rest – sleep when I can and take frequent breaks.
  • Get more exercise – to keep the lymph moving and loosen up my stiff, painful, creaky bones, after all that driving and sitting.
  • Drink plenty of water – practically flood my system, in fact. Flush it out and get the junk moving through and OUT.
  • Do the things I know are good for me, and avoid the things I know are bad for me. Enough said.

So, I have a plan. After I finish my coffee and check my email, I’m going back to bed. I’ll get up this afternoon to check in with my parents and talk to my siblings. I really need to pace myself, today — and all this week and beyond. It’s bad enough when sad things happen, but mismanaging myself just makes matters worse.

The main thing is, keeping my head on straight and not getting all freaked out over anxiety and fear about what I may or may not do properly. The most difficult part of the trip down, was all the uncertainty, and not knowing if I’d be able to handle myself well, in the face of death and sadness and tragedy. But once I was in the midst of everything, I was actually fine. The added demands really pushed me to step up — and step up, I did.

The most significant danger is actually not when things are getting tough — it’s before, and then after. Before, I am anxious and have no idea what’s to come, exactly. After, I am dog-tired and am short on impulse control and emotional management abilities. In the thick of things, I’m actually fine. It’s getting there — and out again in one piece — that’s the problem.

On the bright side, it’s a really nice fall day, overcast and moody and perfect for resting and relaxing and reflecting. I’m back in my own home, sleeping in my own bed, and I get an extra hour to rest today. I think I’m going to do some reading… pull out some of the books I haven’t had a chance to read, poke around a bit… and just settle in for a long day of good rest.

I really am very fortunate.

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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.

Engaging Anyway

September 14, 2012

Vacation is treating me well, I have to say. The weather is gorgeous, the condo is great, and the beach was amazing last night. We got here late – off to a delayed start, no surprises there — but we had some time to get something to eat and then crash on the beach. We must have slept for at least an hour. I was exhausted, and I could barely keep my eyes open. I have been pushing really hard at work for a number of weeks – and I got sick in the meantime, too – so small wonder that I’m shaking-tired, my stomach is in knots, and I look like I have permanent dark circles under my eyes.

I’m hoping this coming week will change that up a bit. Just being able to rest will be great… though with a spouse who suffers from intense panic-anxiety, it’s constant work to keep stabilized and even-keeled. All the drama about little things… things not being placed in the right way, things not being done in the right sequence… it’s surprising what some folks get hung up on. Oh, well. I think it’s biochemical – no logically thinking person would get this bent out of shape about how a towel is hung in the bathroom.

I’m on vacation, after all.

So, we’re having some friends come to visit later today – one of the friends is very much like me – even-keeled and very “grounding”, as they say. Another one is like my spouse – always on hyper-alert, very uptight about every little thing, and always looking for something that’s WRONG that they can take on and fight over. The third friend, I’ve only met once, by my spouse knows them, and they seem cool. We’re going to hang out and just chill for a few days. That’s the plan, anyway.

Last night I had an interesting conversation with the strung-out friend over some housing issues they’re having. They’ve been having trouble finding a place to live for a couple of years, and they’ve been bouncing around, here and there, living out of their truck (they have a big-ass pickup with a cap on it that they have a bed and all their earthly belongings in) and looking around for other options. They’ve had a bunch of opportunities come up, but they keep deciding that’s not good enough. They say if so-and-so offers them something, then they’ll have to offer something in return, and they don’t want to get into that. Yada-yada-yada. And winter is coming. There’s not a lot of time to screw around.

This person seems to think that they can hold out indefinitely and the perfect thing is going to come up. I’m going to have a talk with them when they come around this weekend. They have got to quit acting like they’ve got all the time in the world. Because they don’t. They seem to think that “the universe” – whatever that is – is going to provide for their every need perfectly. They keep talking about “the universe” like it’s a benevolent parent who wants to make sure they’re taken care of and all set.

News flash — “the universe” (at least, the one that I live in) doesn’t work that way. It’s all very nice and wonderful to think so, but from what I’ve seen, you’ve got to get involved in your own life and take responsibility for your own decisions and do what you can when you can – not wait around for some invisible Force to step in and save you from everything. Interestingly, this friend was treated really badly as a kid – they were beaten and shuttled around between family members and foster homes and probably have a history of tbi in the mix. (When I say “interestingly” it’s not to make light of their hardship – I think it’s just an important piece of the puzzle they are.) They’re also dyslexic and have a really hard time reading. And they’ve got major ADHD. Those are some more pieces of the puzzle.

The puzzle that they are seems to be living in some fantasy world – like maybe they did when things got so rough for them as kids and they had nowhere to hide but in their own mind. They seem to be all hung up on the idea that something outside of them needs to come and save them – that they can’t figure things out for themself. I think that’s a big piece of it – they don’t seem to want to figure things out. Because it might get messed up as it does so many times. And then, no matter how hard they try, they will be back at square one.

Now, in the midst of all of this, the place where I see them needing the most help – and not always asking for or using it – is with communicating with people. I think they’ve got huge problems following what others are saying, they have a hard time comprehending, they jump around a lot, and by the end of the conversation, they have wandered off in different directions and are in a different cognitive “neighborhood” than when they started out. It looks and sounds so familiar to me – like I’m looking at myself, from the time before I got help for my TBI issues. It’s crazy – all the faking it through, all the bravado, all the halting interactions, the jumping around, the inability to hold conversations and make real decisions… it sounds eerily familiar. It reminds me so much of how I was before. Really, truly.

And I wonder how I got past all that. Because I really was locked into that for years and years. For over 40 years, actually. That’s a long time to be locked away in that prison of non-comprehension and confusion.

The way I got past all of it, when I think about it, was doing the exact opposite of what I was used to doing – I started reaching out to others and engaging. I started extending myself and taking a chance at sounding stupid, so that I could have actual conversations with people. To be perfectly honest, I had gone most of my life without having actual conversations with anybody – it was just nodding my head, repeating back to people what they’d said to me, and pretending I got it, when I was actually losing much of what they’d said to me, in the past few minutes. It got me by, but it was a really shitty way of living. And it only helped others, not me. In fact, it didn’t help others, either, because they were talking to a ghost. They were talking to someone who didn’t even exist.

When I started working with my neuropsych, however, that really started to change. To be completely accurate, a lot of the “work” we did each week was just sitting and talking – me saying stuff that probably sounded like I was half insane, and them sitting there just listening and responding to me like I had good sense. They didn’t call me on the crazy stuff I came up with; they just let me talk. And eventually I built up some skills in having a conversation with another person that I could actually participate in. I learned how to engage.

And what a difference it made. I can’t even begin to say. Between those weekly conversations and my regular blogging, I gradually learned how to put thoughts together in a relatively coherent way that had something to do with reality, rather than some fantasy concoction in my head – some fantastical interpretation of what was really happening and what it all meant.

Crazy. I mean, it was just nuts, the way I used to live. It had nothing to do with actual reality – it was all about my own internal interpretations of what was happening and what people were saying to me.

And that’s exactly where I see this friend of ours living. That’s the “cognitive neighborhood” where they live. And it’s where my spouse lives, as well, with their anxiety-driven interpretations of how everything that’s out of place, everything that isn’t perfectly to design, is a sign of imminent danger — and it needs to be fought against and overcome right away – right now – no hesitation – just strike hard and fast – and rule with shock and awe. It holds you back, it stops you from interacting with the world. It keeps you from engaging with your life, and it keeps all the best ideas from showing up and becoming reality.

That’s what happens inside our heads. We all do it. We all get pulled into that, at some point or another. And all the while, the chance at having a peaceful, happy life is draining away, as our anxiety and interpretations of What’s Happening pull the plug out of the tub of our presence of mind.

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you can probably guess what I’m going to suggest next – that these are issues with the Autonomic Nervous System – the constant activation of fight-flight that keeps us on edge and keeps us from being present, even intelligent, in our daily lives. It’s our histories of trauma, our mass of experiences with being beaten, abused, violated in some way, neglected, mistreated, dismissed, and generally treated like ever-loving CRAP that puts us in that state of mind, and keeps us there indefinitely, when our lives are filled with drama that we cannot control.

It’s when we grow up that we get the chance to control the drama – or at least manage it. But if we’re so accustomed to (and comfortable with) the drama that we feel out of place or we feel like strangers to ourselves if it’s not around, then we end up re-creating it, over and over and over again, and we keep ourselves stuck in that place where we cannot think on our own and act, only react. We end up in that place where we are our own worst enemies – even when we think we’re being our best friends.

And there you have it. At least, that’s my neat little sum-up of how it works. In the case of this friend, I can totally see it. They’re so strung out on anxious drama, that they can’t even think. All they can do is find reasons to doubt every option they have – and poke holes in it. Till their whole life looks like a loosely woven wicker basket they’re trying to use to carry water.

Huh.

People sure are funny… Except it’s not funny when your life is hanging in the balance and you don’t have a clear view to how to get the hell out. Which is where this friend is, right about now. So, maybe I’ll get to talk to them, maybe I won’t. I’m going to try. Because winter’s coming, and they have GOT to get their shit together. They can’t keep living like this, living in some fantasy world about how things will be so great, if the impossible happens. Life is full of contradictions and hard choices. We always have to make trade-offs and we always have to deal with things that are less than perfect, and anything but ideal. The way I’ve found to deal with all of these, is to step up to life and really engage with it – get involved, don’t hold back, just get in there. I can’t afford to think about what other people think of me. It’s just not worth my time and energy. Anyway, people are so self-obsessed that they probably don’t notice half the stuff that I do, and if they do notice it, they probably have a completely different interpretation of what it means and what it’s about.

So, I’ve just gotta engage, no matter what. I’ve just gotta keep going, and make it all work. Just keep at it, never give up, never give in to the fears and hesitations. Acknowledge them yes, but keep moving forward.

The past two years have done wonders for helping me get me to that place. I’m not perfect at it, and I’m still learning, but I’m a hell of a lot better now than I was just a few years ago. A lifetime of holding back and not being able to stand on my own, make my own decisions, speak my own mind, and have actual conversations with people, is gradually giving way to something else, something different, something new.

And I’ve got to keep on keeping on. I’ve got to keep moving forward. I really feel like I need to talk to this friend and let them know A) they’re not alone – I know exactly what it’s like, and B) I have discovered some tools that have helped me a whole lot, and might actually help them, too. They have to know they are not alone. I used to operate like they operate – every single day of my life. And they have to know that I figured out a way to live that works for me. With the help of a handful of people who know how to not make fun of me, how to not beat me down, how to not treat me like shit, I have come a long way. If anything, I hope that I can get this friend to trust that I’ll be able to do the same for them.

Winter is coming. There’s no time to wait. Life wants us to engage with it. So, let’s engage.