Well, my old therapist (OT) has now retired, and it’s time for me to get on with my life. OT helped me a tremendous amount, while I was dealing with the initial shock and dismay of the dawning realization that all has not been well in my life, in many respects… and head injuries had a lot to do with it. The availability of a living, breathing person who could sit with me while I talked my way through the ups and downs of the past couple of years was incredibly helpful. And I will miss OT keenly. I already do. My New Therapist (NT) is smart, highly educated, experienced, and apparently quite aware of the level of foolishness that can come from my mouth at times. OT has already talked me back from the edge of really ill-informed decisions/actions several times, and I’m the better for it.
Much as I do mourn the loss of OT — and it is a loss — I do want to get on with things, and stop spending so much time getting in touch with my emotions. I have logistical issues to address that can’t wait. And I need to work with someone who understands that, who understands my unique mental health profile in terms of physical injuries, rather than mental illness of some kind. There are actual structural issues going on with me that have mucked up my thinking and decision-making for a long time, and I need to get myself on a better track.
NT is helping me do that, as only a neuropsychologically oriented therapist can do. A regular “talk therapist” — no matter how kind-hearted and well-intentioned and psychologically experienced — will be limited in what they can offer me… unless they really understand the TBI aspects of mental health.
See, here’s the thing — after having gotten hit on the head a bunch of times as a kid, it seems to me that my development was altered by those head injuries. The thoughts and impressions I had, growing up, were skewed by my traumatized brain, and because I was reacting to and dealing with situations that weren’t actually “true” representations of what was going on, my social and emotional development got skewed, as well. I had such intense, precipitous reactions to so many things, when I was a kid… and that certainly must have shaped me in unique ways. I think it’s fair to say that when I was growing up, I was having a very different experience of childhood than my siblings and peers, so that shaped me in very different ways into my teen years and my adulthood. Which made me a different kind of person — a kind of person very few people understood that well. I’m not sure anybody did, to be honest. Including myself.
I suppose you could say I was developmentally delayed in some respects. But in others, I leaped ahead of everyone. Looking around me now, I can’t say that my different development has handicapped me. But it has skewed my perception and interpretation of reality — or, at least, my life experience. And because of that, approaching my emotional and mental health is a different matter than doing so with other people who grew up in regular ways with un-injured brains.
Working my way (slowly) through the Give Back Orlando ebook Self-Therapy for Head Injury I’m really struck by the talk about how an injured brain can get jammed in the “all-clear” position and not realize that it needs to go from autopilot to thoughtful/careful mode.
I quote from Chapter Two: Head-Injured Moments:
~Note: ( bold ) is mine~
Most of the head-injured moments happen at times when thoughtful/careful mode is needed but the damaged brain doesn’t see that. The most serious problem in TBI is the breakdown of the system that watches to see when thoughtful/careful mode is needed, when the automatic pilot needs to be shut off. After TBI, the brain misreads the situation, fails to see the need for thoughtful/careful mode, and instead stays on automatic pilot. That causes the person to say or do things impulsively, while feeling as if what he or she is saying and doing is perfectly correct. The behavior comes out wrong, but the survivor is left feeling confused about why everyone is getting upset. The reason why is that we are expected to shut off the quick-and-dirty autopilot mode when something important needs to get done properly. In ordinary life, only a slob, or a jerk, or a loser, or a person with a bad attitude–someone who doesn’t care enough to be sure to get it right–would use the quick-and-dirty method when the stakes are high. Consequently, employers, friends, and family end up getting annoyed and then outright angry with the survivor for being so careless. It may take months or even years, but eventually the people in the survivor’s life begin to give up on him/her because of this failure to use normal quality control, this failure to try hard enough to get things right that really matter. Even though the head-injured moments are rare, they have a huge impact over the months and years. And if you watch for them and write them down, you can start to learn how to fix them.
This is really big for me — the last part, especially. It’s big, because here is someone who clearly knows about the chief vexation of my life — my repeated experiences with screwing up without intending to or realizing I had, until after the damage was done… after the words were said or the job was mucked up or the story/joke was told wrong or the errand was forgotten. And the experience of having people just give up on me over time. Parents, teachers, bosses… all the folks along the way who had such high hopes for me, only to see me mess up, time and time again, for no apparent reason.
Laziness? Carelessness? Cluelessness? Who could say? All anyone knew was, I screwed stuff up. All I knew was, if I was given something to do, chances were, I’d mess it up royally the first time around… and have to work my way back like crazy, just to get back to an even keel.
The one thing I’ve had going for me, over the years, is my indomitable spirit. Nothing gets me down for long — not sure if it’s a superior character or the inability to maintain my focus on negativity for very long (There’s something to be said for being easily distracted — my attention can be pulled away from misery just as easily as it can be pulled away from a task I’ve just started, which is an added bonus.) I’ve always had this sense that, if I just kept going — and used whatever resources were given me — eventually, if I just stuck with it and didn’t quit, I would find a way through.
And it’s been true, for the most part. I still mess up… but I’m doing something about it. And the Give Back Orlando material is an amazing tool to help me take my recovery even further. (Please keep in mind, that I’m only two chapters into the Self-Therapy guide, so my opinion may change later.)
Anyway, back to the rewiring…
I’ve felt for some time, now, that traumatic brain injuries need not be final. Ever since I read Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself, I’ve been convinced that TBI is not the end of the story. Now certainly, some brain injuries are so severe and so thorough that there’s no turning back. But in countless cases, I believe that neuroplasticity (where the brain rewires itself or re-routes/re-maps certain functionality away from injured parts to healthier, more capable areas) can result in restored abilities. The abilities may not be the same, but they don’t have to be gone forever. Different parts of the brain can literally step in to pick up the slack for injured parts… those “parts” being somewhat diffuse and multidimensional in the brain’s own mysterious, inimitable way.
There’s a whole lot to this concept of neuroplasticity — more than I have time and space (and available memory) to fill in here. But the bottom line is, the brain is capable of rewiring itself. And when you sustain a TBI, whether it’s mild or moderate or severe, rewiring is necessary, in order to regain functionality. If the brain doesn’t get rewired, if it doesn’t heal, if it doesn’t evolve and shift to rise to the demands of life outside the skull, then you’ve got problems.
And when you’ve had a TBI, you often don’t even realize that there are problems to be dealt with.
So, you end up spending an awful lot of time wondering why people are mad at you, why your life is all turned around, and where all the money in the bank got to.
I’ve been in that type of situation more than I care to admit. And I still have a lot of territory to cover. It’s a bit daunting at times, because the skewed interpretations of “reality” began with me at a pretty young age, and I have been intermittently (and unpredictably) misreading signals for a very long time. But the point is, now I know there could be — and probably are — issues with my perception that need to be ironed out. I now know that my brain needs to be retrained. Remapped. Rewired. It’s been getting rearranged, on and off, for over 35 years, now, and I still have a ways go to before the wiring is “up to code.”
Now, I know that this “job” of living my life is never-ending. But I like to think of it as a Herculean, rather than Sisyphean, effort. Hercules was the guy who completed his 12 tasks and cashed in. Sisyphus was the guy who kept rolling that boulder up and down the hill, over and over, for ever and ever, no sooner getting it to the top, than it rolled back down. At times, I’ve felt like Sisyphus, but that’s been a feeling, not a fact. In truth, my Herculean efforts — fighting monsters and hauling heavy loads and plowing fields and whatnot — have paid off a great deal. And for all my screw-ups, I have had a lot of successes.
That’s what I need to remember at times, when everything seems to be going to hell, and I’m sitting around feeling sorry for myself. Woe is me… my therapist has left me… woe is me… I’m getting confused and turned around at work… woe is me… I’m exhausted and can’t seem to sleep through the night… woe is me… Yada yada yada…
This life is a work in progress — emphasis first on work, then on progress. But it is both. I am no stranger to hard work, and I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. I’m also not afraid to look at my demons and dance with them. I’m not going to let them lead me on the dance floor — this dance is more modern and interpretive than a tango or walz. But it is a dance, no less. And I need to not get my heart set on sitting on the sidelines while the best that life has to offer passes me by.
Certainly, there is a lot of work to do. But might it not be possible to have a good time, while I’m working? I grew up in an area where there was a lot of farming… a lot of work. People just did what they had to, and you didn’t bitch and moan about the loads you carried. Everyone just assumed that life was full of heavy lifting and hard lessons, and nobody mooned and boo-hoo’ed and wailed and gnashed their teeth about it. Life = Work. That was the deal, and if you didn’t like it, well tough nuggies.
Consequently, people went out of their way to figure out how to make that working way of life into something rewarding and uplifting and fulfilling. There was family and church and good food and community activities and service. There was reward in doing good work and in a job well-done. People didn’t try to get out of doing things — they found ways to make doing things more enjoyable. By turning on the radio. By singing. By coming up with games to play while finishing a job. By contemplating some idea. Or just by getting into the business at hand and immersing themselves in it 100%.
In a way, I miss that orientation in life. The area where I now live is full of great people, but a lot of them are well-to-do and spoiled and unaccustomed to hard work. They somehow think they’re exempt from exerting themselves. In fact, much of this country seems to be like that. People are so accustomed to convenience and customization, they just assume that all the world is going to modify itself to meet their specifications. They’ve had hardship in life. They’ve suffered. People have been unkind to them or hurt them — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally — and they deserve a reward or a “break”. And I find myself sometimes slipping into that frame of mind, too — because I’ve had unfortunate things happen to me, I should be somehow compensated. I should have an easier schedule. I should get accommodations from loved-ones. I shouldn’t have to work my ass off to do basic things that come easily to others. I should… I should…
But that’s crap, and I know it. I’m a worker, at heart. I grew up working, and I feel most fulfilled when I’ve gotten to the end of a day with all my tasks completed and something to show for them. I don’t shy away from hard work — I embrace it and seek it out. If I hadn’t been head-injured so many times over the course of my life, I might have an easier time of making the most of my abilities, but that’s not how things turned out, and it’s counterproductive to focus on that what-if. What-is interests me a whole lot more — what I can do, what I can do about my situation, what I can do to improve, what I can do to salvage and redeem the aspects of myself that really struggle at times.
I’m a worker, plain and simple. And I feel best when I’m not shying away from the challenges that present themselves to me. Everybody has some burden they must carry — whether obvious or hidden. I’m not exception, and I haven’t been singled out by a vindictive universe or a punishing Higher Power as punishment for some “sin” I committed in the past. So, I have it hard at times. So what? Who doesn’t?
I guess the main thing about all this, is figuring out not how to avoid difficulty and challenge, but how to make difficulty and challenge work for me. How to have fun with it. How to be uplifted by it, not dragged down. For me, it’s all about transcendence. It’s not like I’ve got all the time in the world to waste. I do have a lot of issues. I have a lot of pain, I have a lot of confusion, I have a lot of frustrations and anxiety, and I’m at a big cross-roads in my life with no idea which way to turn.
But I’m still here.
A friend in their 70s said to me recently, “Don’t forget to have fun, while you can. Life passes so quickly…” It’s true.
Note to self: Today, have fun! No matter what.