Getting the Gunk Out – Again and Again

Here’s your memory training image for the day (sorry I have forgotten to include these in the past days)

memory training image
Study this image for a few minutes, then read the post below… and then draw it afterwards.
Get that gunk out of the gears

So, I’m starting my new job tomorrow, taking it easy today, catching up on my rest, and not going too crazy with everything. I had some errands I intended to run, but I went to bed, instead.

Just as well. Those errands can wait.

I’m pretty excited about my new role, and I can’t wait to find out how it’s going to go.

I got myself some really nice, fresh food for dinner, and I’ll start cooking that up in a little bit. I need to get my things together — make sure I have clean socks, as well as a formal suit to wear. It’s my first day. I want to look my best. I’m sure it will prove to be a lot less formal than I’m dressing for, but I’ll just take off my jacket. Roll up my sleeves.

Problem solved.

I’m trying to drink a lot of water, so I’m clear for tomorrow. The last few weeks were pretty action-packed, and I need to settle my system. Yesterday I ended up being pretty busy and active, which wasn’t my ideal. I really wanted to have yesterday off, but that’s not what happened. Oh, well. That’s what Sunday’s for, right?

I spent a lot of time, this afternoon, relaxing and stretching and breathing. I did that after my nap, while I was lying in my warm bed, feeling comfortable and easy. I am having more trouble with my upper back, shoulders, neck, and trapezius muscle. I’m really stiff and sore, and not feeling great. All that lifting and moving yesterday didn’t help. Oh, well. I stretched, rolled on a tennis ball to work out the knots, and I “breathed into it ” as my chiropractor tells me to do. In the end, I felt better than when I started, but it’s still tight and painful to move at times.

The main thing for me is to work on clearing out the stress sludge from my last job. Let by-gones be by-gones, and also help my body clear out the biochemical leftovers from all the ridiculous dramas and conflicts that people seemed to dream up to keep themselves entertained. It’s not a small thing, clearing out the sludge. We have to do it, in today’s world, because nobody else will do it for us. We live in very stressful times (especially as the new political season picks up), and our systems are deluged with all kinds of conflict and strife and perceived threats.

If we allow it to build up and stay there, it takes a toll. It puts additional stress on our systems, and it drags us down. I dunno about you, but I don’t need anything else dragging me down. Especially if I know how to clear it out.

So, I’m breathing – steady as she goes – count of 5 in… count of 5 out… nice and even, relaxing all the while. It balances my autonomic nervous system and gets me out of fight-flight mode. It backs down the stress response and makes it possible for me to clear my head, so I can think properly.

This is important. This is critical. I know how to do this, and I must do it. It’s no longer optional for me. Not just some interesting thing to try out, here and there, but a discipline I need to regularly do.

Like the image memory exercises.

Both help. In different ways. They really help.

 

 

And now, get your pencil and paper and draw the image you just looked at above. No peeking. It’s important to see where you come up short. If you succeed each and every time, you’ve learned nothing. Good luck.

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The worst thing about trauma

It hits at all levels

Just a tip — if you have a weak stomach, don’t Google “trauma” and look at the images. I just did, and I regret it.

Anyway… I’m writing this ahead of time and scheduling it to publish while I’m way. By the time you’re reading this, I’ll probably be on the road, off to collect the rest of the crap from the smashed vehicle my spouse was in. Again, I am so grateful things didn’t turn out worse.

Still, it’s a sh*tty way to spend my day off. Especially when I was in such need of downtime, having been really sick all last week.

So much for that.

To be quite honest, the hardest part about the whole thing was that everyone had to emotionally process everything. They had to call their friends, talk to everybody they met about it, recount the experience, get sympathy from people, have an “emotional release”… and do it all over again. And all the while, the friend’s smartphone kept going off and dinging with every text that would come in, setting off the most irritating set of ringtones I’ve ever heard, and not giving me a moment’s rest. Driving a long distance on very little sleep, having that smartphone go off every 15 seconds was nerve-wracking, to say the least. It was startling and jarring, and no sooner would they settle down from one emotional conversation with someone, than someone else would call them, and they’d launch into their hysterics all over again.

Oh. My. God.

I am so tired. I went to bed when I got home last night — about 6 p.m. And I slept till 4:30 this morning. It felt great to get 10-1/2 hours of sleep, and I have a massage later today, which will be fantastic. I also need to drive back out to the tow yard, halfway across the state, to pick up the rest of the equipment in the trashed vehicle, so it’s not a total loss. I just need to work today, to move and go about my business, work around the house, call the insurance company, and take action, without constant processing going on.

Please. I need a break.

Now, I know that I do a lot of talking, myself. And I have to consider my own approach to talking things through and processing everything. I like to think that I process and move on. That I speak my peace and then make necessary changes to ensure those things don’t happen out of my negligence or stupidity or lack of preparation. It’s one thing to go through difficult times. It’s another, to never shut up about it, and “get stuck” in the whole experience, because you want others to feel sorry for you.

If I ever sound like the friend who kept replaying that experience… somebody tell me to shut the hell up. I am truly sorry, if I ever put any of you through that.

Truly, I am.

The crux of it for me, really, is that when we experience trauma, our bodies are put into shock, and on a physical level, we get primed for startle and hyper-alertness. Our bodies are trying to protect us, and they think they have to keep being alert. But they don’t. Our minds pick up on our body’s hyper-alert state, and they get tricked into thinking that they need to be hyper-alert, too… rehashing the experience, so they can “learn” what the situation looked like, to avoid it in the future.

The thing is, for some situations — like a punk in a fast car being an asshole — you cannot predict and anticipate it, so all the “learning” you are doing is just sucking up your energy that could be spent on healing from the whole hellish experience. And rather than making you safer, you’re re-traumatizing yourself and making everything that much worse.

That’s my argument with people who insist on telling everyone about their awful childhood experiences with abusive parents/uncles/siblings/caretakers, etc. It doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t solve anything, it just keeps spreading the trauma around to everyone who had nothing to do with it, and who don’t deserve to be sucked into what was a truly horrific experience.

Trauma needs to be handled in other ways, not talking. It’s a physiological experience, and it needs to be dealt with on the physical level. The body takes over the mind — hijacks your executive functioning — and you have to get it all to settle down, before things in your mind can calm down.

That means resting and eating right and moving. You cannot heal without some sort of movement. You just can’t. You’ve got to get out of your head and get your ass up out of the chair/bed, and really move it. Because if you don’t, your body is going have a backlog of stress chemicals that convince it that it needs to be on HIGH ALERT, and you will keep reliving your shitty experience as though it were still true.

Okay, enough of my rant. It’s time for me to do something constructive with this energy. Time to move.

Time to go juggle. And get on with my day.

Onward.

 

So much for my weekend off

Where’s my damn’ car?

Well, it was a nice thought. I had three days to work on my projects and pretty much unwind, catch up with myself, and sleep… get healthy, etc.

That was the plan, anyway.

Then my spouse got into a really bad car accident on Saturday afternoon, and I had to drive out to a country hospital to meet them and the business associate they were traveling with. The hospital was really old-fashioned – like something out of the 1950s, and the ER physician was about as dynamic as a brick. I’m not sure that he did a thorough job checking out my spouse, who hit their head on the door frame. They said they just had a bump on their head, and they didn’t have a headache. My spouse kept trying to charm the doctor, while he was doing the examination, which can’t have made his job any easier. I didn’t know what to do, other than keep them from lying to the doctor outright. They’re terrified of doctors, and they were completely freaked out by the whole experience. So, there was only so much I could actually do.

My spouse and their friend had their doubts about driving — road conditions were not good, and visibility was poor. But they had committed to the trip, and their destination had good weather, so they thought it would be fine, once they got out there. None of us factored in the weather between our home and their destination. Ultimately, thought,the real problem was no so much the road conditions — rather, the poor judgment and behavior of the person who caused the wreck.

They were not hurt badly, but they had to go to the hospital to be evaluated, and then because of their states of mind and body, they couldn’t get back in a car and drive home. So, we spent Sunday hanging out at a chilly little country motel, wrapped in coats and blankets, trying to stay warm, eating Sunday brunch, finding the tow yard where the car was, collecting their personal items, trying to fit them all into my little hatchback (with three people in it), and getting everyone home safely … from quite a ways away.

They are both truly lucky to be as healthy as they are. They’re lucky to be alive. They both could have easily been killed, if they’d been in a smaller car, or there had been more traffic on the road they were on. For that I am truly grateful. There are a lot of things to be thankful for in this. The car may be totaled, but I kind of hated that car, anyway. It was too big for my spouse — or just about anyone — to handle safely. Especially in low visibility. Or where the space is tight. They felt safe in it, but that’s a grand illusion.

I have no idea where or how we’re going to replace the vehicle, but I’ll figure something out. I just got some money from an estate settlement from a relative who died within the past year, and I was going to use that money to fix the house. But it looks like it may go to either fixing this car or buying a new (to me) one.

My insurance company already hates me, because I’ve filed claims for damage to the house that was actually my fault, rather than an accident. I didn’t realize you can’t file a claim if it’s your fault, or if you didn’t call a repair person to look at it before. I thought you could file your claim and then have the repair person come. I guess it’s the other way around. And now I look like an insurance fraudster. Nice.

But this accident was not my spouse’s fault, and it’s a legitimate claim. Basically, a young kid driving a fast car got “adventurous” on a very narrow road and caused 13 cars to pile up. 7 of them had to be towed (including ours), and a whole bunch of people went to the hospital, including my spouse and their friend/business associate.

And I spent Saturday evening and all day Sunday dealing with the fallout.

I know I’m rambling here. I’m tired and still out of sorts. It’s going to be a few weeks, till this settles down, I’m sure. I just have to keep on — steady on — and take care of myself. Keep balanced. Just deal with it.

Well, anyway, it’s time to take a break. This whole thing has got me thinking a lot about trauma and how to deal with it. I’ve already written a whole long rant about it — I’m going to split it into another section and publish it later. For now, I’m going to focus on being grateful that things didn’t turn out worse.

Because they really could have.

TBI Recovery: Getting used to the highs and lows – Part 2

For many, many years, I have swung from one extreme to the other — from euphoria to panic to depression — with intermittent periods of balanced moderation, where I caught my breath before going back into the fray. I’ve long sought out work situations which were crazy and stressful and stupidly health-endangering (which passed for “challenging” in the job-spin-speak of the tech world), because I needed that constant pump to keep myself going. TBI can slow down your processing speed and make you feel like you’re half asleep, so those stressful times passed for “wakefulness” and made me feel more alive.

In hindsight, I realize that I was pretty much a ticking time bomb and that it was only a matter of time before I hurt myself badly enough to be ejected from the “everyday world”. I have had multiple mild TBIs over the course of the years (at least 9 that I can recall — and there have probably been more that I can’t remember). So, the effects have been cumulative, and sure enough, back in 2004, I had another fall that eventually put me out of commission.

The past years have been about weaning myself off that need for drama and stupidity. I’ve become increasingly aware of how much damage it does to me, and I’ve been acclimating myself to the idea that I don’t actually need it all, like I used to think I did.

Now I feel like I’m in a good and centered space, where I don’t have to have it, but at the same time, I do need challenge. And even moreso, I need to be able to respond to challenging situations with a level head and a clear mind.

Looking back at my life when it was still dictated by after-effects of all those TBIs, I see how much my life was comprised of reactions. Just reactions. Not measured responses that were determined by me, according to what was best and right at the moment — but knee-jerk reactions dictated by fear, anxiety, panic, external circumstances, and others’ expectations. That’s no way to live. Surely, there must be a better way.

So, I’ve been headed down that road, of late, looking for ways to live better, live more fully, and to have the kind of life I want to have.  I think about the things that hold me back, the things that I have done that have held me back, and the habits of thought that have prevented me from moving forward. And it becomes more and more apparent to me, as I think about it, that no outside circumstances have been The Culprits in my limitations, rather it’s been my own reaction and my own experience and my own choices that have held me back.

Now, certainly, things like getting clunked on the head a bunch of times, being hounded and bullied in school, being mistreated by both my parents and teachers alike, and being raised without much money in a household turned upside-down by a drug addict sibling and their associates, certainly didn’t help. But those things didn’t keep me from doing the things I could have done to help myself. It was the patterns of thought in my mind that held me back — as well as the biochemical reactions to circumstances which short-circuited my choices and actions.

All those years, I certainly did take a beating. But plenty of people take beatings and get up and go back at it, like nothing ever happened. Not everyone interprets setbacks as signs of permanent disability. Granted, I wasn’t surrounded by people who were positive, pro-active thinkers who knew how to free their minds. But at any given point, I did indeed have the capacity to pick myself up and keep going, but the thoughts in my mind and the biochemical sludge in my system short-circuited a lot of the good that could have happened.

My constant biochemical state of intense fight-flight (which was made more intense by what I thought was happening — and never adequately questioned) made it all but impossible for me to imagine all that I was capable of doing, and over the years, and after all the injuries — especially the last one — my possible world became smaller and smaller and smaller, and I made myself less and less capable, in my own mind, of truly following my dreams.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Over the years I have done some Big Things, and I have had some big accomplishments that have gotten me awards and recognition. But these were all substitutes for what I really wanted to be doing. My One Big Dream that I had since I was seven years old, never “panned out”, and year after year, my resolution to do something about it drifted farther and farther from my reach.  Until I just about gave up on it.

These days, things are very different for me, and I realize just how much biochemistry has to do with what’s held me back. And at the same time, it both absolves me of prior blame, and it also offers me the opportunity to change things.

Because now I understand how those things work. I understand how TBI has prompted me to take risks over the years and keep myself in a constant state of stress. I also understand what a toll that has taken on my life over the years, and I’m now resolved to do something about it.

In order to do so, I need to get a grip on my autonomic fight-flight response, which is what I’ve been doing, slowly but surely. I am now moving into the next stage, where I am testing myself a bit, here and there, to get myself familiar with how it feels to be on the verge of panic, and then walk myself back from the edge with the tools I have. I’m stressing myself just a little bit, here and there, to inoculate myself against the stresses. Some call it “exposure therapy”, and maybe that’s what it is. Having read about exposure therapy, it strikes me as more intense than what I’m doing. I don’t want to force myself into a seemingly dangerous situation and then have to sweat it out. No thanks.

What I am doing is similar to doing interval weight training — I’m doing “stress intervals” — intentionally stressing myself for a short while, then backing off and taking a good break. I know I’m going to push myself hard — and I also know I’m going to let up. So, there’s not that impending sense of doom that comes when I can’t see an end in sight. I know there’s going to be an end, so I can push myself — sometimes pretty hard — and not get freaked out about it.

This gets me used to the highs and lows. And it helps me feel more comfortable with the sensation of those highs and lows.

See, that’s the thing – it’s not the highs and lows that get me. It’s my internal reaction to those highs and lows — the physical sensations of high energy or low energy trigger a dumb-ass (and extreme) reaction from me that sets certain behaviors in motion and put me into a certain mindset. Some examples:

  • I get back from a long and grueling trip to see both sides of my family, and I decide that I’m a worthless piece of crap who will never amount to anything. I’m physically and mentally and emotionally exhausted from a temporary situation, yet for some reason I’m convinced that I’m permanently damaged beyond repair. Accordingly, I slack off on my work and do nothing productive with myself for days, even weeks.
  • I work too hard and sleep too little, and I end up having a full-on blow-out/meltdown that fries my brain with a flood of raging emotions. Afterwards, I am exhausted, and it takes several days for the biochemical load to clear from my system. All during that time, I feel stupid and numb and dull and once again am convinced that I’m permanently damaged beyond repair.
  • I am incredibly excited about something that’s happening in my life. The sensation of all that adrenaline pumping through my system feels an awful lot like danger — it feels just like it used to feel when I was being hunted down by the kids who bullied me in grade school. Consequently, I stop doing what I need to do, to make progress with my goals. I also look for other things to work on that are less “stressful”, and my project falls behind.

All of the above are problematic, but it’s the last one that’s the burner. It’s the thing that’s kept me back, time and time again, and it’s the one I need to really focus on addressing.

So, to that end, I’m deliberately putting myself in exciting and tiring situations, getting used to how they feel while telling myself that this is just a feeling, not an indication of what’s really going on. And then I take a break. I have all but cut wheat and cheap carbs out of my diet to reduce the “junk load” from my system — which in itself is a little stressful, but has great benefits. I’m also doing things like taking cool showers to get my stress response jump-started for just a few minutes in the morning, and I’ve changed up my morning routine a little bit to heighten my attention.

And all the while, I’m using the techniques I’ve learned for balancing out my ANS and keeping the fight-flight response within a manageable, non-tyrannical range. I do it both — stress and relax. Intermittently. Not constantly, because that would be counter-productive, but at intervals.

I have to say it feels incredible. It’s tiring, at first, and taking cool showers instead of hot, is definitely an adjustment. But it’s really helping.

TBI Recovery: Getting used to the highs and lows – Part 1

One of the things I’ve been actively doing, over the past months, is getting use to the highs and the lows that are just outside my comfort zone. I’ve struggled a great deal with panic and anxiety over the decades, which I believe has been connected to a hefty dose of post-traumatic stress (or PTS). The classic symptoms of “disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal” have been a regular part of my life for as long as I can remember. The strange thing is, my flashbacks and numbness have been related to events that many others would not consider that stressful — making a fool of myself in front of other people, having bad choices of words, doing stupid things, making poor decisions that got me in hot water with authorities (including the police), and so on.

I’ve been flashing back on things that others would consider “just embarrassing” for a long, long time, and I’ve been intensely stressed out over it, avoiding situations, and on edge (that is, ON EDGE) for as long as I can remember.

Until, that is a couple of years ago, when I really started to come out of my TBI fog and things started to fit together for me, better and better, like they never had before. To be clear, I didn’t just magically come out of my fog for no apparent reason. I did the following, which all helped:

  • Got myself on a daily schedule of doing specific things at specific times in specific ways, so I didn’t spend a lot of mental energy figuring out how to do things. This allowed me to develop the objective, observable 100% certainty that I could get myself up and cleaned up and dressed and out the door each morning in a predictably good way. It took the pressure off my mornings and let me relax about the details — because I didn’t have to think about them. At all.
  • Exercised on a regular basis. For several years running, I got up and lifted weights and did some light cardio, the first thing in the morning before breakfast, each and every day. I never wavered from that. It was my morning routine, part of what I Just Did, and the jump start to my brain and body made me feel worlds better than I had in a long, long time.
  • Started cooking more complicated meals. I have been the main cook in my household ever since my spouse got very ill about six years ago, and it made a great deal of difference in both our health. I got into a bit of a rut, and ended up making the same things over and over. When I started cooking more complicated meals, it pushed me to work on my timing as well as my sequencing. And it make our diet more varied, which was good.
  • I learned to relax. This took some doing, but with some guided imagery tapes that I combined with rest/nap time, I have slowly but surely acquired the ability to relax. And for the first time, I know how good it feels to do that. Up until a few years ago, that was not the case.
  • I started sitting za-zen (my own version of it) and doing conscious breathing. My version of za-zen involves just sitting and breathing, sometimes a short while, sometimes longer. I have come across a number of pieces of scientific literature talking about how this helps to balance out the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and get you out of fight-flight. It helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and get you back to a place where you’re not tossed about by every wind that comes along.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve changed how I do things — some of the things, like regular exercise and za-zen, I stopped after a while. I guess I just got bored with them and felt like they were keeping me from doing other things I needed to do. I also let them get rote and boring, and they stopped being any kind of a challenge. I need to be challenged, or I can’t keep my interest piqued. It’s a shortcoming of mine, I know, but that’s how I am.

Currently, I’m back at the regular exercise. All I have to do is look at my skinny little forearms (typing isn’t nearly enough exercise for them) and look at myself in the mirror to realize that I need to do something about this sad state of affairs. Also, my endurance is way down for doing chores outside, which is not good, either.

I’m also taking a za-zen type of practice into my everyday life, using it in my 90-second clearing approach to really take the edge off my everyday experience. I haven’t completely abandoned it. I just needed a new way of using it in ways that got me going in my life, instead of taking me away from life — as sitting za-zen will do.

As for the exercise, after laying off for a long (too long) while, I’m doing more strengthening in actual movements that I do on a daily basis — not the isolated types of movements that focus on a specific muscle group and are useful for bodybuilders. I’m building overall strength, not just specific muscles.

I’m continuing to do my rest/relaxation thing, stepping away from work during my lunch hours to listen to guided imagery and relax — sometimes sleep, too.

And these several pieces are important for what I’m doing now, which is pushing myself a little beyond my routine to challenge myself and keep things interesting. I’m training myself to handle my highs and my lows, and not let them get to me.

To be continued…

Is post-traumatic stress contagious?

What goes around...

I’ve been thinking a lot about pts (post-traumatic stress) lately. Especially in conjunction with traumatic brain injury, which I’ve said a number of times is an ongoing traumatic experience, and not only at the time of the initial injury.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the effect my TBIs have had on the people around me, and I can definitely see how my own trauma led to their trauma, too. The jumpiness that people who love and/or care for someone who has experienced TBI, is a common thing — and I think it’s directly related to their own traumatic stress.

‘Cause traumatic stress is, in fact, contagious. (And so I’ve answered my question.)

From the ever-handy Wikipedia:

(PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma.[1][2][3] This event may involve the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one’s own or someone else’s physical, sexual, or psychological integrity,[1] overwhelming the individual’s ability to cope.

Think about it… Someone sees someone they love and care for experiencing this traumatic experience, and they themselves are traumatized. And when the person who experiences TBI is a close part of that person’s life, then their injury can in fact represent a threat to their “physical, sexual, or psychological integrity, overwhelming the individual’s ability to cope.”

When you’re in the midst of your post-injury haze, and things are starting to fall apart — whether or not you know why it is or what to possibly do about it — you can say and do things that seriously threaten the people around you. It can threaten them on physical levels — like when your temper becomes violent and unpredictable. It can threaten them sexually — like if you lose all desire to have sex, or you become more sexually assertive. It can threaten them psychologically — like when you’re not acting like the person they know, and your behavior is so bizarre and unpredictable that they start to feel like they’re losing their mind and they doubt their own sanity.

Yes, post-traumatic stress — especially with TBI — is definitely contagious.

And that seems to me to be one of the missed pieces in TBI recovery — addressing the PTS of caretakers and partners of TBI survivors. It doesn’t even need to be moderate or severe TBI. I think mild TBI makes for an even likelier candidate for PTS, because it’s so insidious and can sneak up on you in subtle ways that make you — more than anything — feel like your psychological state is threatened.

Everybody feels like they’re going crazy, and when you don’t understand the underlying causes of it, well then, you’re totally screwed.

Until you get help.

This is where I can see some trauma therapy really helping — for the caregivers and partners and family members of TBI survivors. You get a really good trauma therapist who can work with those “TBI satellite participants”, and you help them sort things out, help them come to terms with their own individual trauma, and you get them on their feet, realizing that they are safe, that they are okay, and that they can deal with everything that comes up.

It’s one way that therapists can occupy themselves — while acknowledging that talk therapy probably isn’t the best thing for someone who is neurologically compromised. Everybody gets their place, but talk therapy and TBI can be a recipe for disaster, which can create even more trauma after the fact.

The more I think about it, the more surprised/dismayed I am that more sensible approaches to TBI and PTS haven’t been developed. There seems to be a sort of territorial overlap between the two, that doesn’t need to exist. Traumatic Brain Injury comes with a full compliment of neurological issues that can be as physiological as psychological. And those issues can — and often do — lead to traumatic stress. That traumatic stress then compromises the cognitive processes of TBI survivors, thus short-circuiting their recovery in the period after the initial injury… which then compromises their long-term prospects for restoration of their quality of life. I really believe the trauma piece is why TBI survivors — especially “mild” traumatic brain injury survivors — have poor long-term outcome prognoses.

There’s the trauma overlap that biochemically shorts out the adaptive nature of the brain, so the brain doesn’t get a chance to adapt in the ways it needs to, in order to effect actual recovery.

And countless people are suffering needlessly, because psychotherapists and neuropsychologists and neurologists are all battling over their respective territories, causing needless pain and suffering as a result.

But if people could put their own individual needs and wants aside and collaborate in a meaningful and respectful and productive way, who knows how many people could be helped?

Who knows? It’s maddening to think about all the suffering that’s taking place, because therapists are saying “You don’t have TBI/brain damage, you’re experiencing trauma,” and neurology folks are saying, “You don’t have trauma, you’ve had a TBI.” The two are inextricably interconnected, but nobody seems to have either the courage or the insight or the will to team up and come up with a common-sense approach that can mitigate both.

Simply put:

  • TBI leads to disrupted neurological function
  • Disrupted neurological function leads unanticipated changes in thought and behavior
  • Unanticipated changes in thought and behavior leads to trauma
  • Trauma biochemically prevents neurological adaptiveness.
  • Lack of adaptiveness feeds into yet more trauma.
  • And the cycle continues.

Each “arm” of the therapeutic/rehab community could easily find a complimentary place where they could constructively collaborate with each other.

But they’re so accustomed to marking off and defending their territory, that they fail to live up to their full potential. And countless people suffer as a result. AND they decide that it’s “impossible to recover” from TBI. What a terrible, inhumane thing to tell people. That they are irreparably damaged and have no hope of true recovery. Please.

The solution? Well, our “experts” could start talking to each other and start collaborating on a win-win situation for everyone.

Or those of us who have been neglected and abandoned and misguided by the therapy/rehab establishment can take matters into our own hands and address the most fundamental underlying basis for our ongoing issues — constant fight-flight sympathetic activity in our autonomic nervous system, which feeds the traumatic stress dysfunction and short-circuits our ability to recover and rehabilitate.

In a way it might just be possible for TBI survivors to take their recovery into their own hands — especially mild TBI sufferers. And the therapists and neuro people might be put out of a job. Because I suspect that countless people who have been sitting in therapy for years and years actually have underlying neurological issues that no amount of talking will fix — it only makes it worse and perpetuates the therapeutic relationship — and ongoing billing for the therapist and the insurance companies.

If we just got some exercise and learned to balance our nervous systems with slow, steady breathing, and we ate decent food at regular intervals, how much less “therapy” would we need? (There are always those who need to have someone to talk to just to check in regularly, but I’m talking critically about psychotherapists who insist on digging around and raking up all the muck inside you to “release it for healing”. All that stirring up will do a neurologically compromised individual more harm than good, trust me.)

Anyway, it’s a beautiful day and I’ve got a lot on my plate before the weekend is up. If only the weekends were three days instead of two. I feel like I’m just getting started, but I’ve got less than 12 hours till I start working again.

Oh, well. I guess the main thing is that we see where there are opportunities for positive change — stemming from seeing where things are not working as well as they could. If we can piece things together and understand the origins of post-traumatic stress and how it affects the people around us, we might be able to do something about it.

But as long as we keep separate and alienated and territorial, the suffering will continue.

And that’s a damn’ shame.

Connections between pain and PTSD

The past couple of weeks have been crazy for me, and it’s taken somewhat of a toll. I’ve been busy with work, busy with other activities, busy, busy, and more busy. I also did some traveling for about a week to out-of-state relatives, for a big family get-together. In and of itself, it was a great time. But the change in my schedule, the long hours of driving — over 30 hours, all told, in the car — not being able to get enough sleep, and the change in food choices (how do they eat that stuff?) all threw me off, big-time.

I managed to keep it together and not completely blow-out/melt down during the trip, or immediately afterwards, which often happens when I travel to this particular branch of the family tree. But the past few weeks have been packed full of crazy-busy-ness that I now realize has been a pretty concerted effort to dull the pain of the trip.

I’m not talking about emotional pain… though it’s never easy to spend time as an outsider, when everyone else is connecting and having a wonderful time being together — I’m the oddest bird in the family, and between my difficulties in keeping up with what’s going on around me and my narrow and intense interests that aren’t run-of-the-mill, people often don’t know what to do with me.

What I’m talking about is physical pain.

Yes, physical pain — the kind that burns, that aches, that throbs, that stings. The kind that makes my clothing hurt me, that rakes my legs when my pants rub against them… the kind that makes me jump whenever someone touches me… the kind that sends a shock wave of smacking ache to the marrow of my bones when my spouse puts their hand on my forearm… the kind that keeps me from sleeping, because I can’t stand the feel of sheets on me, but I also can’t stand the feel of air-conditioning blowing across my skin… the kind htat gets worse when I am stressed or tired or upset or all of the above… the kind that I often don’t even know is there until someone makes contact with me, and I jump, and they feel like they’ve done something to hurt me. They have. They didn’t mean to, and they would never do it on purpose. But they hurt me.

It’s not just the emotional pain of family visits that gest me. It’s the physical pain, as well.

Here’s the deal — for as long as I can remember, I have had issues with a whole slew of sensory problems, the most disruptive of which was body-wide pain. I can remember, ever since I was a little kid, feeling like I was being hit, when people would just reach out to touch me in very innocent, social, appropriate ways. I would shrink back from them, and they would often take offense or get angry with me for “rejecting” them. It sorta kinda messes with your head, when the people who love you the most cause you intense pain when they try to show their affection for you. And it tends to muck up your relationship with them, when you can’t accept their (appropriate) affection, but they don’t understand why.

To tell the truth, I didn’t even understand why. It’s hard to explain, unless you’ve been there, but the experience of painful touch is such a visceral, physical thing, it sometimes doesn’t translate into words. It’s just there. You can’t describe it, you can’t even really pinpoint it. Sometimes you have no idea it’s there, until someone makes contact with you. Then, all you know is, it hurts, and you pull away to avoid it, so you can just get on with your life.

And you do things to avoid/mitigate it. You steer clear of expressive people. You avoid demonstrative friends. You always keep more than arms’ length away from other people, just in case they reach out to you. You spend time with people who either don’t like you or couldn’t care less about you, because the chances of them touching you is small to none — and it’s easier to be around those types of people, than the friendly ones who like to make contact.

These things are done on a subconscious, instinctive level, and sometimes they don’t even register with you when you’re doing them. Like pulling away from people when they come close. Like shrinking back from a hug someone is trying to give you. Like jerking away quickly when someone touches you accidentally.

And depending on how sudden or shocking the pain is, it can trigger a whole cascade of other sensations/symptoms/reactions that look a whole lot like PTSD.

Over at Helpguide.org, I found this list of symptoms

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event — memories of past painful contact tend to show up suddenly
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again) — yes, it does feel like it’s happening all over again
  • Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things) — sometimes nightmares do follow an extremely painful episode, tho’ that’s rare
  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma — yes, it is intensely distressing to be reminded of it, it just sends me in a downward spiral
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating) — my heart sometimes starts pounding, I tense up, and I feel sick to my stomach, when people touch me, sometimes

PTSD symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma — I tend to avoid physical human contact of any kind; women frighten me, because they tend to be so tactile, and it’s literally too painful at times, to interact with them
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma — I tend to block out the particulars of painful experiences. All I know is, it’s hurt me before, like it’s doing now
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general — Why should I get involved, if it’s just going to hurt like the dickens?
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb — Oh, yes… ’nuff said.
  • Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career) — how precisely am I supposed to live fully, if the experience of basic human interactions promises me pain?

PTSD symptoms of increased arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep — could have something to do with my insomnia?
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger — yet one more contributing factor
  • Difficulty concentrating — it’s tough to concentrate, when you’re on high alert. Especially if you’re working with tactile people.
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”) — someone might be approaching…
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled — but of course

Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Anger and irritability — not being able to establish comfortable human contact makes me nuts and pisses me off
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame — why can’t I just be normal like everyone else and tolerate a hand on my shoulder?
  • Substance abuse — been there. Thank heavens that’s behind me.
  • Depression and hopelessness — my occasional visitors
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings — once upon a time, occasional visitors. Now, very rarely.
  • Feeling alienated and alone — not just feeling… BEING alienated and alone
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal — it’s hard to not feel that way, when everyone around you might possibly cause you pain
  • Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain — the first two, yes. The third, not so much

So there we have it — PTSD arising from chronic body-wide pain. Painful touch. There’s even a word for it — Allodynia (meaning “other pain”) — a painful response to a usually non-painful (innocuous) stimulus. I haven’t been formally diagnosed. That would require that I talk about it to my doctor. And talking about it out loud to anyone has never really been an option for me, except for with my last therapist who is long gone by now. It’s just too painful. Emotionally and physically.

I’d rather keep my own counsel and just live my life. Pain-free. Alone, but pain-free.

Being alone not only keeps me out of arms’ reach (literally) from people who may hurt me, but it also keeps emotional upheaval at a minimum. It’s hard to get worked into a state, when you don’t have much contact with people who affect you emotionally. I can block out all the politics and social drama pretty well. But the emotional connections I have with people… well, they’re trickier. So, I steer clear of them, by and large. And I steer clear of emotionally charged subjects with people — like avoiding talking about my chronic pain issues with my doctor.

It’s wild, how emotional distress can heighten physical pain. Emotional pain sets off an alarm state with me, and that alarm state unleases a whole avalanche of stress hormones and hypersensitive biochemical agents into my system. And the buildup of all the stuff that gets “stuck” in my system does not help me. Not one bit.

Over at Healthjourneys.com, Belleruth Naparstek quotes from her book Invisible Heroes and describes it well:

Chronic Pain Conditions
This constant activation of the alarm state leads to an accumulation of metabolic waste products in the muscle fibers, and the release of kinins and other chemical pain generators in the tissue, resulting in myofascial pain and the appearance of those seemingly intractable chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headache, TMJ and more.

And because these conditions are generated in the brain stem and the motor reflex centers in the spinal column, and routed through a perturbed, automatic, arousal circuitry, peripheral forms of treatment provide only temporary relief.  Constantly activated by everyday sensory cues, normal muscle movement and spontaneous memories, symptoms grow and become more and more entrenched over time.  In other words, this is one nasty gift from the kindled feedback loop that, if not interrupted, will just keep on giving.

Our epidemiology research has already shown us an astounding percentage of people with baffling chronic pain conditions and “functional” diseases that have no obvious causes, who have been found to have prior histories of severe trauma.  Probably if we could tease out the subset of traumatized people who experienced substantial dissociation during their trauma, and a truncated freeze response in the midst of it, we might find closer to one hundred percent suffering from posttraumatic stress.  Unfortunately for them, they are often assumed to be malingering or engaged in attention-seeking behavior for neurotic reasons, instead of suffering from a very serious, self perpetuating condition with a potentially worsening trajectory.

Included in this group of maligned and misunderstood patients would be scores of people suffering from pelvic and low back pain, orofacial and myofascial pain, genito-urinary and abdominal pain; interstitial cystitis; and the previously mentioned headache, fibromyalgia (FM), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD); irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and migraine.

And there it is — in part, anyway. The post over at Belleruth Naparstek’s blog asks Is There a Connection Between Fibromyalgia and Traumatic Stress? but it’s not just about Fibro, to me. It’s about the “and more” she mentions. It’s about the “whole lot more”.

So, what the hell can I do about this? I’m of the mind that the best reason to talk about anything difficult, is to figure out what to do about it to make it better. To reduce the quotient of human suffering in the world. That includes my suffering (I’m in the world, after all). What can I do about this pain business?

Well, first, I need to get back on my schedule. I need to get back to my sleeping routine, which I’ve been doing pretty well with. I need to get back to eating the right kinds of foods at the right times of day — and I’ve been doing that pretty well, too. I also need to exercise and do other things that will enable me to discharge some of the built-up stress from the trip. I tried explaining to my new therapist how disruptive that sort of travel is to me, but they didn’t seem to “get” the intensity of it, so I’m not getting much support there. Screw it. I’ll support myself. I’ve been having a lot of good long cries, in the privacy of my own company, over the past few days, and that seems to be helping me. I also need to get back to my regular work schedule and just get some stuff done. Being productive has a way of chilling me out nicely, so I’ll do that.

And drink plenty of water. Take some Advil before I go to sleep. Listen to the Healing Trauma CD from Belleruth Naparstek to deal with the PTSD. Have a good cry. And another. And another. And make sure I let loose in my own company, away from others who neither understand nor want to understand just how hard things are for me… and end up minimizing and negating and invalidating my feelings about what I really go through, and tell me I’m fine and I don’t have a problem and I shouldn’t worry about this stuff,  just because they either don’t have the emotional resources to hang with me, or they’d be too traumatized, themselves, if they knew what it’s really like to live in this body.

Most of all, I need to keep it simple. Count my blessings. Remember just much good there is, along with the bad. And remember, tomorrow is another day, and all things considered, I’m pretty lucky to be alive.