The advantages of brain injury (Say what?)

Since my fate seems to be living with some fairly serious brain problems, I have been searching lately for the bright side of this apparently grim future I face. Some might find this attitude pathologically optimistic, but what the heck! If you can’t change it, why not go in search of the bright side?

First of all, I feel so just plain lucky to be living in this beautiful place with my loving little family, who understand endlessly my occasional forgetfulness, confusion and regular fatigue. My pup Rasta is especially sympathetic as he’s pushing 13 himself and can’t hear, can barely see or smell. He spends most of his days either sleeping or looking for a warm lap.

I have always run my mind a hundred miles an hour as a general rule, but not now. I tend to get busy early in the morning and wear out around ten or eleven. Then, for a change, I can be patient with myself… sometimes. I can settle down and meditate restfully for a while because I really cannot do anything else. I can now shut off my mind easier and just cruise mentally. I’m slowly learning my limits and now I try to only focus on one thing at a time.

Only so much brain space means less worrying and a lot less fear of death. Why? Because I have experienced hours of unconsciousness at this point and it isn’t such a bad thing. My mind simply shuts down with too much stimulation, and that limit is easy to reach. I have always enjoyed one-on-one conversations in my past, now that’s about all I can tolerate or enjoy. I enjoy focusing fully on others, just for shorter periods of time. After a nice talk with a friend, I love spacing out alone and contemplating our conversation. In fact I enjoy contemplating everything more.

I notice some of my senses are now heightened. My love of music, colors, and tastes are much more intense. I guess this is a function of where my head injuries were. Mine have been equal opportunity injuries both on the back and the sides of my brain.

Again I come back to one of my favorite quotes about the changes we may go through as we age:

“…we all know how this ends, so rushing through life is senseless. As our inner life grows ever more luminous, the chatter of the speed-and-greed world slowly fades, leaving us with greater peace, tranquility, quiet and contentment.” — Arthur Rosenfeld

American drinking: Do you drink to feel good, or to take the edge off of feeling bad?

“From 1999 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States doubled, to more than 70,000 a year—making alcohol one of the leading drivers of the decline in American life expectancy…” — “Alcohol-related deaths increasing in the United Statesby the National Institutes of Health, January 2020

“The damage done by alcohol is profound: impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up.” — “Drinking Too Much in America” in The Atlantic

I was raised by two serious alcohol drinkers. I have always wondered if my Mom’s tendency to drink to deal with her anxiety and depression led to breast cancer at an early age. Her brother died of alcoholism. I admit it, after watching my parents drink so much, I developed an aversion to that level of intoxication. I have never found it attractive or funny, perhaps partially because I don’t get drunk, I just fall asleep.

As a part of my counseling training, we spent time learning about alcoholism and addiction. At the first meeting I raised my hand and said, “I only have one question. I cannot get drunk, I fall asleep instead. Why is that?” There I learned exactly how genetic alcohol addiction is. Certain genetic groups can tolerate far higher levels of alcohol and therefore can drink more to achieve intoxication. The normal response to alcohol, which is a depressant, is tiredness and sleep.

Yes, I know. Some of us now us THC products to deal with anxiety and depression. I am one of them, and I see no reason to argue about which is better for you. But I would argue that THC kills a lot less Americans than alcohol, and yet drinking is also one of our favorite topics to joke about. To me, alcohol addiction is not funny. It’s deadly to both the alcoholic and those around them, especially on the highway.

Studying addiction and counseling was my first choice as a new college kid at Colorado College. But then the discussion always comes up, do you have to be a addict to help addicts? I still have no answer to that one except to say few of us aren’t addicted to something, even if it’s sugar, salt or something else. That’s how our brains work.

This fascinating article looks at why we drink as an evolutionary adaptation to stress, and why American drinking has increased quite a bit, especially since 9/11: The Atlantic: “Drinking Too Much In America”

What is happening with Mom?

Be the most ethical, the most responsible, the most authentic you can be with every breath you take, because you are cutting a path into tomorrow that others will follow.” — Ken Wilber

I remember when our class met up in the mountains above Boulder at Ken Wilber’s amazing home built into the stones at the top of a flatiron, while I was at the Naropa Institute studying Transpersonal Psychology. I felt a real connection with his mind & perspective on life.

My siblings and I are now dealing with my mother’s slow descent into dementia in the most ethical, responsible and authentic way we can. As many of you know, this can be quite the challenge, further complicated by my Mom’s refusal to get tested by a neurologist. We see memory problems every time we see her, like asking the same questions over and over again, questions like “What time are we meeting?” Or “Am I supposed to bring anything?” She has always been a great cook, but not so much anymore. In fact she usually cannot remember what she had to eat today and prefers eating ice cream all evening. (I know, who wouldn’t?)

She complains of boredom and loneliness since Dad died last March, and we worry about her being alone and falling, so we are now in the midst of trying to convince her to move into an assisted living situation, one where she will be around other people (she lives alone now), be fed good meals, and have access to lots of different kinds of activities with others.

It’s so hard to know when to start telling her what she needs for her own happiness & safety… 

Mom fears her future. Who wouldn’t in her circumstance? But we are slowly realizing that we will now need to make some decisions for her. That is tough as a kid whose Mom used to have all the answers. She mourns so many things, the loss of her past, the loss of her things that remind her of her past, the way her world is slowly shrinking around her. Amazingly, she’s still a great driver, something she has always loved. Going out to dinner is her favorite pastime. She just forgets that she’s not hungry until after she orders food…

We have no diagnosis, we just worry about her a lot. What have the rest of you done in this kind of circumstance?

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir on PBS

Writing is an extreme privilege but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone.” – Amy Tan

My fellow writers:

I hope none of you missed this incredibly personal and touching “American Experience” on PBS last night entitled, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir. This piece was so beautifully put together, combining Amy’s own photos from her past, her intimate recollections, with talks she has given about her stormy relationship with her mother. Words fail to describe the gorgeousness and truth to be found in this two hour special.

Her delicate storytelling and truth-telling is at once fierce and so very sensitive to the human condition we all face, especially that of women. I was glued to my seat from the very beginning and could not move. She is my hero! I feel like I now need to go and re-read all of her books and especially her new memoir, “Where the Past Begins” from 2017.

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir on PBS, premiere May 3rd 2021

What does a brain injury feel like?

In my last post I spoke of “enforced introspection.” Because of a few health concerns in the past few years, I have been living in a type of enforced introspection. I was reminded of this situation on Thursday with another accident and rude awakening. I went too long without my oxygen tube and passed out on the floor. This has happened a few times in the past few years.

What happens is not completely known to me, because I don’t remember anything when I regain consciousness. When I gathered my wits about me, I called for Mike, but he had just left for a while. I struggled to my feet eventually and got my oxygen. Wow, what a big bump I had on the back of my head! That’s the best indication I have of how hard I fell.

My health situation is complicated because I know the problem isn’t just an oxygen deficit. The combination of low oxygen and previous brain injuries, especially a traumatic brain injury in 2008 (brain bleed) make my consciousness level less dependable than what most others experience. This is my first life experience with a disability, and I would say I am not adjusting well. My but I can be so stubborn. My brain is not amused.

I have always been my own brand of unique and taken some pride in that, but this is a uniqueness I could do without… I now realize that previous brain injuries (TBI) have made me much more vulnerable to future ones!

The only thing interesting about this brain deficit is observing my varied levels of consciousness. For instance, right now, as I write this, I notice that the spelling part of my brain is not happy. I forget how to spell some of the simplest words, but as I keep trying, they come more easily. It all leaves me in a bit of a dream world, but in a good way. It doesn’t freak me out, because unconsciousness is not scary to me until I wake up and wonder what the hell happened?

I called my brother to tell him about my fall and he said, “What can you do about this?” As far as I can tell there is nothing to do except be sure to stay on oxygen all the time, but my spaced-out nature makes that more challenging than it sounds.

Stop trying? I’ll keep fighting until I can’t fight anymore!

Re-thinking your dreams

In the past year or so, in times of pandemic and forced introspection, those are the best times to re-think your dreams. I meet many down here in rural southern Colorado, who ended up here because in their 50s or 60s they spent some time reviewing their life, and decided that they were finished with cities.

I have found this place to be a magical alternative to city life.

My husband Mike had been dreaming about just such an existence for decades when we moved here in 2014. I was a bit further behind him in dreaming big enough. I couldn’t visualize it like he could. I worried about the isolation. I had never lived so far out of town in my past. It was a new experience for me. But it didn’t take me long to appreciate the morning silence, the birds, the plants, the beautiful weather, the snow…

Only certain types of people appreciate these qualities, mostly the quiet types who find it easy to entertain themselves with numerous avocations. I was never a big shopper. I didn’t go to bars or restaurants much. I have always found my own mind fairly entertaining with the assistance of books, movies, etc. And we are total weather watchers.

Watching the ever-changing clouds and weather over the Spanish Peaks is a lovely pastime.

So you see, the kind of people who move here and stay are very self-selected. They have chosen to check out of “normal” American life, where buying the next cool thing is their goal.

Not that we aren’t always re-thinking our dreams, and we know we have the freedom to follow new ones here.