From head to toe – it’s all connected

It’s ALL connected

I’m figuring out this back/shoulder pain mystery.

Turns out, it’s not just my lower back that’s throwing off my upper back and shoulder. It’s my hips and legs, as well.

I stretch at night to relax, and my left leg and hip have been extremely tight. It’s been this way for a while. I usually don’t think much of it, but the other night, when I was stretching, I spent some extra time loosening up my left hip and hamstrings, and lo and behold, my upper back “let go”.

Deep Muscles of the Back
This full color stock medical exhibit illustrates the deep muscles of the back and spine. The following structures are labeled: semispinalis capitis, spinalis, cervicis, spinalis thoracis, rotares, splenius capitis, longissimus cervicis, iliocostalis cervicis, iliocostalis thoracis, longissimus thoracis, iliocostalis lumborum

It actually makes sense — looking at the deep muscles of the back, you can see how they run from shoulder to pelvis, and while they don’t appear to be exactly what’s been paining me (localized between the shoulder blade and my spine), it’s all connected, so if they’re pulling down, they’ll be pulling off the other superficial muscles that are connected to them.

It also makes sense from a where-did-this-come-from point of view. When I drive (and I’ve been driving a lot, over the past few weeks), I usually keep my left leg bent, and I use it to stabilize myself while I’m turning. That’s great, but it also shortens the muscles in my left leg — especially in the front. So, those shortened muscles pull on my pelvic bone, which pulls the deep muscles, which pull on the surface muscles.

And I’ve got persistent back pain that won’t seem to go away.

Now I’m pretty sure I know what’s causing it. Stretching helps. All the time.

The key is to not let it get a hold of me, but to keep myself strong and limber on a regular basis.

So, that mystery’s dealt with.

Now, to start my Monday.

Onward…

Ups, downs, and everything in between

I’m feeling considerably better today… getting some sleep makes all the difference in the world. I have been pretty exhausted by the end of each day, and two nights ago, I got about 8 hours of sleep, which is always welcome. Last night I got about 7 hours, which is good, too.

Sure beats 5-1/2 hours, that’s for sure.

So, I have the day ahead of me. I just finished my workout with weights, and my arms and back are tired. That’s good. I need to push myself, physically. I haven’t done that for quite some time, for some reason. Just up on my head a lot, I guess.

But now that’s changed, and I’m on the good foot. Does this mean, though, that I will never have a down day, or I will never get sucked into a dark place?

Oh, no. The dark and the light go together. It’s just when one gets the upper hand and takes over the show, that things become a problem. If I can just let myself be, and let the feelings come and then pass, so much the better.

I’m still feeling pretty positive about my job. I am treating it like a form of rehab — no, not exactly rehab… more like a stepping stone to something greater. What that “greater” is, I will eventually find out, but I’m on a trajectory UP — with a few downs thrown in for good measure.

The project management work I’m doing now really suits me, and it’s the kind of work I realize I should have been doing for quite some time. I’ve long been frustrated by the way others managed projects, but for some reason, it never occurred to me to take on that role, myself. Of course, being a project manager is a little difficult if you don’t feel comfortable dealing with people or managing situations. It’s taken me a number of years to get past the conviction that I couldn’t talk to people, and I wasn’t any good at connecting with others. That’s not true at all, I see now (thanks to working with a neuropsych on a regular basis for the past 5 years). And now I can do my work.

The beauty part is, that old dread about my skills becoming obsolete is a complete non-issue now. Looking back, I realize that I was under constant pressure to keep up… keep up… keep up. Back in the day, that anxiety and pressure fueled me, but it took a toll. It felt like it was making me smarter and sharper, but the long-term effects of that kind of pressure were not good for my brain.

Looking back on my life, considering all the head injuries I’ve had, I’ve spent an awful lot of time in stressful jobs — because they were stressful. That fueled me — or so I thought. It was a constant source of adrenaline and pump. The thing is, ultimately, your brain pays the price for constant stress, and even though you feel sharper in the moment, you’re actually impairing your brain’s ability to learn new things and reason through more complicated issues.

Not many people know that — they think that the pump is all they need. But while we’re sorting through new situations and adapting to them, we also need to step back and let our brains and bodies integrate all the new information — your brain and body literally need to digest it all, just like you would a really big meal. If you’re running around in a state of mental indigestion, it doesn’t feel very good. And your life can’t change as positively and as effectively as it otherwise could.

It has taken me years for this reality to sink in. I’ve known it — intellectually — for a long time, but in practice, I haven’t been able to put it into action. I’ve stayed with the high-stress, high-pressure situations that made me feel sharper and kept a steady stream of stress hormones in my system. While I was in the midst of it, it felt normal. It felt natural. But now that I’m out of all that, I realize just how big a toll it took on me. It literally dulled me, made me feel worse, and dragged me down. And all the while I thought I was so alive…

This is a huge issue with me, and I feel like I need to recover from that long haul of stress and strain, so I can move into the next phase of my life. I just had a birthday, and in less than a year, I’ll be 50. It feels like there’s this imaginary line in the sand that I’ve moved across, and I need to gear up for the next half of my life — with all my faculties as intact as can be.

And I’ve been worried about the job situation, thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to hang in there. Justifiably so. Technology and programming and all sorts of esoteric details about how code works, are the kinds of things you need to constantly keep up with. But that doesn’t need to worry me, because I’m now in project management  — which is the kind of work that draws on the skills of many people, not just you. It’s also the kind of work where you can actually get better as you get older and more experienced. It’s not like the frantic rush of being a programmer, where you have to constantly keep your technical chops up to snuff, with the pressure to do your one specific job in a way that will never fail. What hell that was… I can see that now.

At this point in my life, I’m on a path that offers me some real long-term employment security. Good project managers are in very high demand, and the work really suits me, thanks to my background in design and authoring and programming. I can speak the language of just about everyone I talk to, and I enjoy working with them as much as they enjoy working with me.

Of course, I’ve been on the job about six weeks, so it’s early, yet. But I’ve known within weeks, in the past, if a job situation wasn’t going to be that great… and I have none of that sense right now. People at work are moving on, and there’s some turnover (because we’re going to be moving offices in the fall — closer to my home, actually). But the people who are moving on are folks I don’t actually “click” with, so it’s no biggie for me. I haven’t worked with them long enough for it to matter to me personally that they’re leaving.

So, it’s another day. Each day is a new opportunity to find out something new about myself and the world I’m in. I’ll have my ups and I’ll have my downs, but ultimately I’ll still have me.

And that’s pretty cool.

Onward.

Committing to failure – on a regular basis

Good to be back

With the long weekend, I have had time to rest up and pay attention to things that normally sneak by me in the course of my busy life. I’m getting back the energy I had lost to that horrible commute to and from that horrible job, and I’m noticing things that I let slide for about three years.

My level of physical fitness (or lack thereof) is front-and-center with me, these days, as I am wearing lighter clothing and noticing how weak and spindly my arms and legs have gotten. I’ve also been having a lot of back and hip pain, which partly came from those years of driving so much each day, and partly came from poor posture — which came out of the commute, I’m sure.

Also, my level of cognitive fitness is getting my attention. I have made huge strides, over the past several years, however I’m not quite where I’d like to be. I still have issues with feeling foggy and slow — much moreso than I am comfortable with. And while I have been reading more and making more sense of things, and my ability to respond to ideas and comments by people has improved by leaps and bounds, since I started juggling and also having my butter-coffee each morning… my brain still feels foggy and slow, and I need to address that.

I know what has helped me in the past, on both counts — exercise. It’s one thing to want to keep fit so I can have a longer life.  I do, absolutely. At the same time, I want to get fit, so I can have a higher quality life, here and now. In the past, I have exercised deliberately and regularly, and I really benefited from it. Back in 2010, I read about how exercise helps the body AND the brain, and I developed a morning routine that was satisfying and also challenging.

Then it became regular – routine – and it got boring. So I stopped.

And ever since I’ve been on a downward slide. The slide didn’t start right away – it probably took me about a year to see the benefits erode. But for the past couple of years, I’ve really felt like I’ve been declining. Back to being fuzzy and dull — not sharp, like I used to feel.

In the past, I had a routine of lifting relatively light weights for 10 reps of a set sequence of exercises. 10 arm raises to the front, 10 arm raises to the back, 10 press-ups, 10 flys, 10 rows, 10 biceps curls, 10 triceps extensions… It was all very predictable and measurable, and it felt good. It helped my brain as well as my body. And I felt very sharp, indeed.

However, I did it every single day, and there were days when I used heavier weights, and I did not rest afterwards to give my body a chance to catch up. So, I overtrained. And it wasn’t much fun anymore.

I needed to give myself time to catch up, but I frankly overdid it on the “rest”  — and now, after several years of resting, I am pretty much a lump, and it’s not only draining my energy but also my self-esteem, as well.

I used to be in terrific shape — not Ah-nold Schwarzenegger shape, but more of a “swimmer physique”, and I was able to do just about anything physical I set my mind to. Now it’s very different, and the concept of myself as being physically capable has really eroded.

So, I’m doing something about it.

I have made a pact with myself to remedy this by working out on a regular basis and pushing myself to failure each time. Pushing to failure really strains your muscles, it creates micro-tears in the tissue, which then rebuild later to make you even stronger. At first, it’s tough and painful, but eventually the body rebuilds (if you give it a chance) and you end up stronger than ever.

I won’t exercise every single morning, but I will do it at least 3 – 4 times a week. I will go to failure each time, and I will not exercise the same muscle group two times in a row, to give my body time to rebuild and restore. I’ve doubled the weight I was using before, and I’m doing fewer reps, which feels good.

Half an hour of vigorous exercise in the morning, 3-4 times a week, is what I’m setting my goal at. I’m going to go to failure — gradually working my way up, and concentrating on specific muscle groups each time. I’m going to keep my caloric intake the same, and cut down on the carbs (yet again — the 4th of July weekend, with its chips and potato salad are killer). I’ve kind of gone off the reservation on keeping to my diet, eating coconut or almond milk ice cream with abandon (it’s almost as good as dairy ice cream), and chowing down on chips and popcorn while watching t.v. at night.

I’m also back to doing intermittent fasting (IF) — I did that on Friday, until I broke my fast at 7 p.m. with hamburgers, potato salad, and chips. And I’m going to do it once a week, to get myself trained to not be so driven by food. Each time I do IF, it gets easier for me, so I need to keep at it. Going without food for 18 hours, one day a week is not going to kill me. If anything, it’s going to make me stronger in mind and body.

I’m feeling really positive about all this. And I want to keep that positive mood going.

I did this new workout routine this morning, going to failure on my biceps and shoulders. I might have done things a little differently — and I will next time. But for today it feels fantastic. My arms were tired after I was done, and I could feel the effects. And then the good energy set in. I notice that when I really wear myself out with exercise, it may make me feel terrible for a while, but then the good energy kicks in, and it lasts a long time. It also helps me sleep.

I have no idea why I quit exercising like that. Maybe I was afraid the headaches would come back, and I might have a stroke or some other injury. Or maybe I just didn’t feel like having a headache all day. So far, my head isn’t feeling too bad. It’s a little tight, but it’s not pounding. And that’s pretty cool.

Anyway, speaking of energy, I’ve got to run and take care of some things before my weekend is over. I have removed an afternoon-long commitment from my calendar, so that takes the pressure off… and it leaves me more room to move at my own pace, while getting a whole lot of things done.

Yep. Onward.

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…

Stretching for more

April first. Surprise. I have a noontime appointment scheduled with my neuropsych today to follow up on some things we didn’t get a chance to talk about on Tuesday. I’ve got the time, so why not use it? Except that the weather is bad. And I’ve got things I’d like to do with the three hours it would take me to drive in, consult, and then drive home. Like sleep. Seems to me, sleep might actually help me more than driving through bad weather, sitting and talking, and then driving back.

It might shake me out of my funk. I have to admit, I’m not very good at vacations. I like my schedule, my routine. It has been good, getting out of the schedule-driven mainstream for a week, but I’m ready to get back into work. I’m ready go back to my job, my office, my roster of duties. I don’t quite feel like myself, when I’m off my schedule. I have more time, but I get less done.

Still and all, it’s been good to get out of the frantic go-go-go of the daily grind. Working in technology sets a grueling pace, which is promoted by people of a distinctly darwinian bent, who think that the better you are, the faster you’ll go. Hm. Not sure about that. Seems like speed is its own justification, at times. They just want to feel like they’re doing something. They just want to feel like they’re making progress.

Hm.

Anyway, the weather is letting up, but I think I’m going to cancel my appointment. I have a standing appointment on Tuesdays, and I’ll be closer to the neuropsych’s office on Tuesday than I am today. Time savings. Life savings. I just don’t want to wear myself out even more than I already am. Didn’t get my nap yesterday. Got busy running around in the evening. Also didn’t get things done that I need to get done.

At three years into my active recovery, I’m finding that I need to make some substantial changes to how I go about living my life. Discovering that mild traumatic brain injury was the cause of many of my difficulties throughout the course of my life was amazingly freeing and totally unexpected. It set me loose in the world, the way few other things have. It gave me a framework to understand myself and my own personal situation, and it gave me a route to follow to address specific issues I had in a systematic, common sense way, rather than the scatter-shot trials and errors of my life to that point.

Discovering the root cause of my issues gave me the means to address them. And address them, I have. Now that I’ve made all this progress, a different approach is called for. It’s about using the tools I have and the knowledge I’ve gained, to take things beyond the basic survival tactics I’ve employed for the past three years. The basics are pretty much in place — being, my understanding of my history and how it’s affected me — and I have the tools to address my issues, like fatigue, irritability, anger, aggression, and memory issues.

With these in place, it doesn’t make sense for me to keep subsisting at a fundamental level, “just happy to be alive”. Sure, I’m VERY happy to be alive. Don’t get me wrong. But I don’t want to fall into the rut that some acquaintances of mine are stuck in. They’re my “recovery friends” on the mend from histories of violence, abuse, addiction, and other things that strike at the core of who we are and what we think we’re all about. They literally tell me, “I’m lucky to just be functioning at a basic level,” and they mean it. But from where I’m sitting, it seems to me they’re capable of a whole lot more than that. They’re just not taking that chance. They’re not testing their own limits. They’re sitting in their stuff, feeling sorry for themselves or telling themselves they’re really badly off… when they’re really no worse positioned in the world than most of the other non-recovery-focused people I know and work with.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t dismiss their troubles and their issues. Lord knows, I’ve got my fair share — we all do. But that’s the point — we all have our issues, and nobody goes through life without some measure of pain and suffering. Even the richest and most entitled people in the world experience excruciating pain — which must actually be worse than being in pain as a “normal” person. It must be awful to suffer, when you’re well aware that all of life is arranged around you to minimize, even prevent, any sort of pain at all.

But who can say why or how or for what we experience what we do? Lessons, I suppose. Just a lot of lessons.

Which is where I find myself now, on the last day of my official vacation. I’ve had a lot of time to think and ponder and examine my life, and while I’ve come away with a pretty good sense of being in a far better place than I was three years ago, something is missing. Something more. Maybe it’s in my nature, being the sort of person who is always looking for what’s next and what else is out there. Maybe I’m just naturally inclined to push the envelope. Bottom line is, I need more challenge. I need more living. I need more life. I need to get beyond this immediate situation of mine and look to the future, with my tools and strategies as a good foundation for moving forward.

More life. Different life. I’ve been spending more time stretching, the past few days, and I’m realizing that I probably need to shift my daily routine away from straight weight training and more to strength-building yoga. Lifting weights is great, but it also shortens the muscles (when you build bulk), and that may be contributing to my pain. Also the tightening causes me to tense up. I’ve been tense for a long, long time, and I need to find a different way of living in the world.

I have to say, I feel much better when I stretch. I steered clear of yoga for many years, because it was painful for me to do the stretches and hold the poses. But I’m at a point now where I’ve done enough stretching on my own to get past that excruciating pain. Stretching on my own, taking it easy, and being focused on my own movement (rather than a roomful of people) has been good. And I really need to do more of it — in a different way… in my own way.

{Pause to stretch}

Stretching… yes… in more ways than one. Physical stretching, as well as mental and professional stretching. I’ve had a lot of time this week to contemplate my work, why I do it, what it means to me. And I realize that the “career path” I’m on is less about climbing the ladder and more about having a quality experience… and sharing that experience with others It’s all very well and good for others to chase after the brass ring and climb over each other to reach the top, but that tends to be pretty debilitating for me. All that adrenaline pumping all the time — the constant go-go-go is all very well and good, but where does it eventually take you to? And once you get there, is that really where you want to be?

In the years before my last TBI, I was living that life. Fast and furious. Fiercely driven. I was a force to be reckoned with, and I was alternately feared and respected by my peers and highly valued by my employer. Then I fell, and it all fell apart. Then someone close to me died, and I sat and held their hand as they slowly slipped away from a life they had dearly loved and hated to leave. Then someone else close to me became seriously ill, and I was their caretaker for about a year. Three big hits in about three years. Even one of those would have been plenty to handle. But no, there had to be three.

Anyway… Coming out on the other side of it, now with three years of active rehab under my belt, I see how those experiences changed me, and how they have shaped my attitude towards life and my work. I know, having watched the young children and loving spouse of my loved-one who died all too young, that none of us has any guarantees in life. Even when the doctor gives you a clean bill of health and tells you to expect to see your kids graduate from college… they could be wrong. Even when you think you’ve got it all together, something as simple as a fall down the stairs can wipe out some of your most prized, cherished coping mechanisms. Even when you’re locked on target and think you’ve got your path figured out, serious illness can manifest and leave you feeling and acting like a six-year-old child, with all certainty erased.

And I realize — with the last week’s perspective — that no matter how hard I work, no matter how hard I push myself, it will never be enough. Not for me, anyway. And it will never be enough for the world. There will always be other things that need to be done, other endeavors to perfect. I also know for certain that the most important thing to me in my work is not the work itself, but the experiences I have in that work. That’s something that can’t be taken away. I need depth of experience. I need the kind of engagement and connection that makes memories for years to come. In the past, I have been so focused on getting things done, that I never stopped to fully experience what it is I was doing. I was so driven by results, that the process got lost along the way.

And that’s a shame. Because my memory is already iffy — why make it even worse?

Indeed.

The ironic thing is, when I take my focus off the delivery dates and bottom lines and pure results, and I focus on the core essentials — doing good work for the sake of doing it, and sharing the success with others to really create a working environment that, well, works — the results turn out even better, the bottom line is fed, and the actual results are longer-lived and more sustainable than ever. Getting the focus off the short-term, and putting it on the long-term, creates success not only in the present, but in the future as well. In the process of transcending the bottom line and delivery dates, those very things are fed. And it turns out better in the long run. For everyone. And I have real memories of live to look back on, later, not just a handful of deliveries and goals achieved.

Well, despite the weather, it is a beautiful day. I think I’ll step away from the computer now and have a good stretch.

Full-range motion… in slow motion

I’ve been changing up my morning exercise routine, over the past week, after realizing that the exercises I’ve been doing have not been strenghtening my whole system. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been doing “weight lifting” exercises, which isolate certain muscles. That’s how I was taught to lift, both when I was an active athlete and later in life when I hit the gym regularly.

In the process of isolating muscles, however, I’ve realized that I’ve produced a kind of “lop-sided” fitness which actually undermines my whole structure. If a handful of muscles are stronger than others, and they don’t have strength through their full range of motion, it actually makes it easier for me to injure myself and be in more pain. Because the stronger muscles will be taking over and pulling more weight, while the less strong ones — including my tendons and ligaments — will be unevenly stressed.

Not good.

Also, I’ve noticed that the weights I’ve been using, while not terribly heavy, have actually been stressing my joints. Part of the problem is form. I have a tendency to stoop, which is not good. I need to keep mindful of my alignment. But the thing that comes to mind — in no small part as a result of reading crossfit information which talks about how life is not a controlled situation, and you can never tell just how you’re going to be physically tested in life — is that doing simple movements with light weights should NOT be painful and stressful to me.

Something is lacking, here, and that is full-range fitness.

So, I’m expanding my exercises to incorporate full-range motion. Not just curls, but curls and stretches. Not just presses, but extensions, too. I have stopped limiting my movement to “the exercise” itself, and I’m completing the motion that I begin, to come full-circle.

It’s hard to explain in words, but basically, if I hold weights and stretch out my arms in one direction, I complete the full range of motion to bring the weight back – under very conscious control.

Instead of doing linear exercises:

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I’m doing full-spectrum exercises

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Another aspect of this, is that I move much more slowly than I am accustomed to. Slow movement has always made me NUTS — I can’t stand it! But you know what? I need the practice at impulse control. And I need the practice at mindfulness. I also need to build some really quality muscle, to support my joints. That is done quite well by slow lifting. Also, slow lifting cuts down on wear and tear on your joints. Between the mindfulness and the measured motion, by the time I’m done with my workout in the morning, I’ve gotten some good practice at paying very close attention to what I’m doing. And that sets the stage for the rest of my day.

This is a new thing for me, but it’s long overdue. And it not only represents a shift in my workout, but a shift in my approach to life, as well. Whatever I start, I complete. I don’t just go in one direction, I complete the circle. I also move much more slowly than before, where I can feel every motion, and I am mindful of every movement. It’s not just a change to my exercise routine. It’s actually a change to my way of relating to the rest of my life.

Speaking of the rest of my life, I’ve gotta run – I’ve got full-range activities to attend to.

As goes my workout, so goes my day

I’ve noticed something, recently, about the past several months of my life. For some reason, I tend to “get lost” in the course of my days. I start out knowing what I want to accomplish, and I get off to a good start. But then I get to the late morning/early afternoon, and I start to unravel. I lose my train of thought. I get distracted. I wander off — mentally and sometimes physically — and don’t stay focused on my work.

And my work product suffers.

After a number of months of doing this new job, I am realizing that I’m just not moving quickly enough on the tasks I have on my plate. And people are getting pissed off at me. Rightfully so. I’m overpromising and under-delivering. That’s never a good thing.

What to do? I’ve been taking the psychological approach, trying to figure out what goes on in my head that causes me to do the things I do… and not do the things I’m supposed to. I’ve always been keenly interested in searching for meaning… philosophical and all that. And I’ve had it in my head that if I can just figure out the motivation and underlying psychological reasons for why I do what I do, I can turn it all around.

Well… That works for me up to a certain point, but I still notice that even if I do understand the nature of my problems, that doesn’t mean I’m actually going to do anything about them. I have done a lot of really great work with my neuropsych around getting myself more functional and more engaged in my life. They’ve helped me tremendously. And I’ve had some real breakthroughs with regard to understanding myself better and not selling myself so short all the time.

I’ve come a really long way, in just a few years.

But there’s another piece of this puzzle that has been fitting into the picture behind the scenes. It’s a piece that I haven’t discussed at great length with my neuropsych, because it’s just something I do on a regular basis. It’s now part of my daily routine, and it is as essential and as habitual for me as eating my bowl of healthy cereal with rice milk along with my 1 cup of morning coffee.

That piece is my morning workout. Of all the things that have helped me overcome the cognitive/behavioral effects of TBI, I have to say that exercise is probably one of the most essential ones. Without it — without engaging the body and treating it well — all the psychological knowledge and remediation in the world is literally for naught.

I know this from many years’ experience, tho’ I’ve had to relearn it over the past six months. When I was a kid, I had tremendous difficulties in many areas. Socially, I was clumsy — I either talked too much or not at all, and when I got going, I couldn’t stop. I had issues with confabulation, to the point where most folks thought I was a pathological liar (as I was blithely believing/insisting that I knew what I was talking about!). I was aggressive with some, overly passive with others, and I had a lot of pain issues that kept me from having a lot of physical contact with others. I had trouble looking folks in the eye, and if it weren’t for the parallel imaginary world I created for myself (and participated in, when I was all alone in the woods), I wouldn’t have had any semblance of normal interactions with others — real or imagined — at all.

Then I started to grow up — physically leaping ahead of my peers (endocrine issues from multiple TBIs, perhaps? who knows), and I started to play sports in high school. The regular workouts were very, very good for me. And the structure of the team play probably did more to teach me to interact with others, than any amount of therapy could. My coaches trained me to persevere, to look them in the eye when I talked to them, and to be smart about my races and my events.  They never treated me like I was defective — they treated me like an athlete-in-training, which I was. And when I fell short and didn’t perform up to my level, they walked me through the game/race/event, and taught me to think through what I could do differently to perform better next time — because they were always certain I could do better next time.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of sports in my “rehabilitation” during high school. Of course, it didn’t help that I had a couple of concussions while playing football and soccer, but what long-term benefit I gained from sports has helped me deal with the long-term effects of my history of head trauma.

But most of all — even more than the life skills and attitude adjustments — the purely physical aspects of sport had an amazing effect on me and my function. When I was engaged in team sports, regularly active and challenged physically, I felt so much more… like myself. I had a center. I had a sense of who I was and what was important to me. Practicing and competing and training all kept me fit and oxygenated, and they kept my energy from getting too crazy. The physical exercise actually gave my constant restlessness something to do with itself. In fact, if anything, that constant restlessness (that comes so often with TBI) was an asset, when it came to sports. It kept me going — provided I had something to do with it… as in, exercise.

After years and years of not being engaged in athletic activities, I’m once again back at it. Each day, first thing in the morning — usually before I do anything else — I ride my exercise bike, then stretch, then lift light weights. I also feed the cat and plan my day and boil water for my coffee in the meantime. All told, the routine I follow takes 45-60 minutes of each morning.

Now, I used to balk at the idea of even spending 15 minutes stretching, before I got on with my day. As far as I was concerned, that was too much time to spend. I didn’t have that kind of time to spend on riding the friggin’ exercise bike! I told myself. I need to do something really useful with my time!

Well, as I soon found out, exercising turned out to be the MOST useful use of my time I could imagine. Not only did it actually wake me up — which was something I could never, ever do on my own before… I would pretty  much be sleepwalking till 11 a.m. or so.  But it also really chilled out my whole system for the rest of the day.

Suddenly, I could function like a regular human being. I wasn’t a raging maniac at the end of each day. I could hold civil conversations with my spouse.  I could focus my attention on what they were telling me. And if I started to get lost, all of a sudden, I had the presence of mind to write down my questions and make notes about what they were telling me. And when they were doing things that were jeopardizing our relationship (like hanging around with another disgruntled married person who was into “extra-curricular” activities), I could sit them down and explain to them why doing this was a detriment to our marriage, and they really needed to rethink their relationship with this person, if they wanted our relationship to continue. I was also able to get my head around what I’d been doing to push my spouse away from me, and understand what it was I needed to do to change the course of my behavior.

A year ago, that would have been next to impossible. Even six months ago, it would have been a huge stretch. Because I was out of shape, I was foggy and fuzzy and dull, and there probably wasn’t nearly enough oxygen getting through my system on a regular basis.

I think it’s safe to say that regular exercise has turned my life around. Not the three-times-a-week trip to the gym, but daily, regular, regimented exercise, which is specifically geared to waking me up and getting my body engaged in interacting with the world. As a direct result of working out each morning, I’ve been able to keep relatively afloat at work, as well as chill things out at home. Even more importantly, when things have gotten very tight and tough — particularly with money and uncertainty about the future — being physically well has enabled me to keep a level head. It’s strengthened me in more than just physical ways.

Okay, now that I’ve established that exercise has changed my life for the better, and I’ve gotten into a routine, it’s time for me to change things up a little more. I need to change my exercise for the better. I’ve been noticing that the kind of workout I have in the morning is a pretty good predictor for what kind of day I’m going to have. Thinking back, I can see how I’ve spent a lot of time just going through the motions of working out. I haven’t really pushed myself, I haven’t really paced myself. I have my 20 minutes of pedaling at a so-so rate… then I stretch a bit… then I do my rounds of light weights in the same order every day.

I lift in the same order every day, because that’s the only way I could remember what order to go in, before. I lifted 10 reps of 5 lb weights in alternating directions to strengthen opposing muscles. Bicep curls I followed with triceps extensions. Lifting forward was always followed by lifting backwards. I did really well at balancing it all out. And eventually I got to a place where I could remember the sequence of exercises without looking at my daily exercise sheet. That, in itself, is an accomplishment. Six months ago, I was struggling to remember what exercise I’d done only five minutes before, I and I was dependent on writing everything down. Now, I can go through the whole sequence and remember what I’ve done, so far. I can even stray from the strict routine and have all my exercises accomplished.

Wow. It sounds small and a little dimwittted, but that’s huge for me.

I can remember my morning exercise routine without props. Wow.

Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed is that now that I can remember my routine, I have a tendency to slack off. Go through the motions. Not give it all I’ve got. And it’s time to change it up. Because the days that I really skimp on my workout, are the days that just kind of lollygag along in this sort of blah sequence of what-ever events. I don’t have that spark I need. I don’t have that fire. I don’t have focus and determination. I’m just kind of there. Sure, I’m functional — a sight more functional than I was before — but I’m not really with it the way I’d like to be. I’d like to be more. I’d like to do more. I’d like to be able to go through my day with intention and determination and a sense of accomplishment… not just gratitude that “whew – I made it.”

I’m really feeling badly about my performance at work, actually. I want to do better. I need to do better. And I need to change how I do things. I am in a different kind of job than I have been in, for the past 15 years. There’s more responsibility and more serious thought and planning required, than I’ve ever had to do. There’s more potential for advancement, and more potential to screw up. And because it’s a higher-intensity job, I need to change my approach not only to my work, but also to my workouts. And my day.

And I have to do it in a way that works for me. I have attentional issues. I also have fatigue issues. Things that others find common-sense and workable do not work for me. The whole patiently working through one little step after another… making gradual progress… being steady and careful in a carefully modulated, time-and-energy-budgeted fashion… well, that just doesn’t work for me.

I can’t do the long-slow-march-to-the-ultimate-goal, like others promote. I can’t do the tortoise thing. I know that hares are looked down upon, and that fast-and-furious approaches are poo-poohed by many. But I have tried doing the tortoise thing, and as much as I’d like to make it work, it just doesn’t do it for me. I get too tired. I lose my place. I get disoriented and frustrated and stuck in a cycle of diminishing returns. I need something different. A different pace. Not a 10-mile run, but a series of sprints that are interspersed with ample rest and recuperation.

I need something more like a crossfit approach — high-intensity interval training that:

  • gets my full attention for a set amount of time
  • demands everything I have to give for that set amount of time
  • lets me see that I’ve accomplished something in that burst of intense energy
  • gives me time to take a break, look closely at what I’ve done, gather my strength back, and then fly at what’s next with all my might

This approach may seem extreme to some, but it’s actually a lot more useful to me, than the long, slow, plodding approach. Long, slow plodding puts a huge stress on me, and the repetitive nature of it, as well as the moderate pace, wears away at me. I have attentional issues. I need to be intently and fully focused on what is in front of me. I need to bring all my resources to bear on small pieces of effort… not pace myself over a long haul. The long haul just wears me out. It’s that friggin’ fatigue thing.

So, it’s time for me to get moving. First, I’ve got to get my shower — and I have a timer I use to make sure I don’t spend more than 10 minutes under the water, enticing as that can be. Then I’m off to the chiropractor to treat my central nervous system. Then I’ve got some errands to run, some chores to do… and then it’s time for my nap. I’m getting better at not loading up too much stuff to do, each day. I have fewer things, but I do more. I’m still working on being able to feel good about getting less than 20 things accomplished in a day, but I’m getting there.

I had a good workout this morning — I did intervals on the bike, and I did slow, full-range movement with my weights which really tested me at times. I have dispensed with the isolated exercises — they’re actually hurting my joints — and I’m doing full-range, real-life motions instead, to strengthen my body for what it really does, each day.

This is a good change. It feels strange and disorienting, but it makes total sense for me. And it’s good. Onward.