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After TBI – Like living in another country, but not

Posted Dec 09 2012 11:30am

How the world used to look

So, I’m back from my business trip, and I’m happy to report that everything went extremely well. Not only did I travel alone to a country where English was not the first language, but I managed to do some kick-ass presentations and had some really awesome feedback. Half the time, I was almost frozen with anxiety and did NOT want to go through with interacting with people (or even leaving my hotel)… but I took a deep breath and just dove in.

And it turned out great. Better than I could have imagined. I was expecting, at best, a friendly welcome and polite tolerance. But all the welcomes were warm, the people were (for the most part) more than polite – they really reached out and made an effort to make a place for me. I got to participate in their company party and a few meetings, and I had some good conversations with people.

What’s more, I really kept my act together. That was the most challenging piece of it, and it was where I put the most attention – which paid off. I packed very carefully and only took things I was sure I was going to need — even then, I could have gotten away with half as many socks, because I could have washed them out and dried them with no problem. I also could have gotten away with fewer t-shirts. I rarely had time to wear anything other than work clothes — it was work all day and then into the night — or there were parties or meetings that ran late. So, next time I know I can do with much less.

What I noticed during this time, was that I was doing things in ways that don’t just help me when I am traveling. They help me whenever I’m going about my everyday life. And the things that I did while I was traveling – if I can manage to do them on a regular basis – can help me navigate not only a foreign country, but also my every day life.

I think I’ve talked before about how sustaining a TBI and having parts of your life disappear, can be like moving to a different country. Not just visiting, but permanently going. Language may not sound the same. Light and sound might affect you differently. Temperature and foods and seasons and customs my suddenly seem strange and foreign. And all the time, you can find yourself a stranger in your homeland at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways.

It really is like moving to a different country – emigrating from the norm, if you will – when you live with TBI. Even if most things seem familiar, there’s some sense of the unfamiliar that comes up, time and time again – and when you least expect it.

So, you end up being a little bit on guard, much of the time — if not a lot on guard, most of the time. I think especially if you don’t really understand how much things have changed for you, and you don’t understand how different things can be after TBI, it makes things even worse. You go about your business, thinking that you’re still living in the same country where you grew up, with the same expressions, the same customs, the same sensibilities as before… but you’re not. And you run up against all these expressions you don’t understand, the foreign customs, the sensibilities that are now so different from what you expected… and nobody else really expects to be different for you, either.

That’s probably the hardest aspect of this — you’ve changed, but nobody else has. And the ways you’ve changed aren’t immediately apparent. While I was traveling, it was like that – I blend in pretty well with “the locals” — I don’t really look like a “typical American”, and I do my best to fit in as best as possible, partly because I don’t want to make myself into an easy target for thieves and cheats, and partly because it’s more fun that way. And every now and then, people would start talking to me in very heavy local accents, and I’d just stand there and shake my head… and they were surprised that I wasn’t able to understand.

With TBI it’s like that, but rather than shrugging their shoulders and trying again in a different language or a different way of expressing and communicating, people who don’t know about my TBI issues tend to get a little pissed off, as though I’ve gone out of my way to make them feel insecure and unsettled. And I’m often surprised – yet again – that I didn’t “get it” the first time around.

In that way, I find it easier to deal with people in different countries, because there’s the understanding that we won’t always immediately understand each other, so we have to work a little bit harder. I think it’s that way with just about anybody — people are notoriously inaccurate in estimating how well they’re doing something or how well they’re communicating/understanding… so a lot of misunderstandings happen “when they’re not supposed to” and steps generally aren’t taken to fix that. But with different languages and different customs and different people who understand there may be issues, that can actually go easier.

Because the expectations are different. And everybody knows they have to work a little bit harder. So, we do. And when things get messed up, it’s not the fault of one particular person, rather the context in which we’re all working and communicating. And unlike TBI, when things go right, it’s seen as a very good thing, not something to be taken for granted. When things go smoothly in cross-cultural dynamics, everyone is relieved, because there’s no innate expectation that they will – possible disaster averted. A good thing.

With TBI, as most of us who have had one (or more) know, it’s just the opposite.

Which is why it was such a relief to go overseas for a week. It was stressful and challenging and intimidating, and it could have gone badly in a bunch of situations. But it didn’t. It went well. And when things started to get dicey — like when my memory failed me while I was trying to find my way back to the subway to get back to my hotel where I was meeting colleagues for dinner — I just stayed cool and calm. And I asked for directions, rather than staying the course (as I usually do) and getting hopelessly lost.

I did a lot of things differently from normal, this past week. And some of those things I’m going to start doing in my everyday life here, because they helped so much.

Being better organized is the first thing. Just putting books and papers back where they belong, after I use them. And not just tossing important things around – keeping my workspaces clean and cleaning up after myself. Getting organized – yes. In little bits and pieces, rather than leaving everything for the Big Hurrah, when all will be set to rights in one massive swoop.

And keeping from getting distracted and pulled off into a million different directions. When I’m not working (and sometimes when I am working), I tend to let myself just wander around, doing this and that and whatever… and then I end up spending a lot of energy on nothing at all, just getting tired out. But with some organization (it’s a theme), and focus on what I want to do most, I can keep my days in order and not end up overwhelming myself with all sorts of details I need to sort out for no apparent reason, other than I just got lazy and didn’t pay any attention to what I was supposed to be doing.

Seriously, my life could have quickly become very chaotic, this past week, if I had let myself just toss things around, like receipts I need to submit for reimbursement and presentation materials. But I kept everything very well organized in my laptop bag, so I wan’t left rummaging through all sorts of crap. I did a good job of deciding what NOT to take (although I did lug some more papers with me than I needed, and that added to weight and also complexity). And I did a good job of not assuming that I’d figure things out in the morning. I took care of sorting things out the night before, and in the morning, I didn’t have to redesign my life from scratch when I was getting ready for my day.

Yes, these are all things I can do to improve my life here at home. And I’ve started doing little things, here and there — like completely unpacking my bag last night, as soon as I got home from the airport. Everything I own needs to have a place were it “lives” so I can have some structure and not have to renegotiate everything when I go through my everyday. Taking care of things up-front lets me relax later – which is a new thing for me. In the past, it kept me on my toes, to have to constantly shuffle and figure out what was next. But that’s a waste of time. And I don’t need to do that anymore, since I have other and better ways of helping my attention and focus, other than stress.

One of the better ways I have, is getting some exercise, which I’m going to do now. I spent 18 hours traveling yesterday and I’m a bit jet-lagged even after 10 hours of good sleep, so I’m going to have a good drink of fresh water (didn’t have much of that where I went) and then go out for a long walk in the woods… and really soak up this experience of being back at home.

Home again… back to this other country.

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