Remembering past adventures…

“Life seems random when you’re young, the wish to travel the result of impulse and curiosity. Meandering is not the exception but the rule. But when you’re older you begin to see that a lifetime has a distinct plot.” -Paul Theroux

The view from my bed this morning…

Because of my recent new brain injury, I don’t go out a lot. My balance is not good, and my mind wanders quite a bit, never staying on any topic for very long. But the 50th Anniversary edition of Travel & Leisure magazine arrived here this week, helping me focus for a while on the many amazing adventures I have experienced throughout my life.

First I came to an article entitled “50 Trips That Stood The Test of Time.” Since I have been a lifetime sojourner, I wondered which places they would choose as somehow timeless. I was surprised to see how many of these places I visited before they became popular with tourists, places like Beijing, Shanghai, Banff, Bangkok, The Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Hong Kong long before China took over, Hawaii, Japan, Venice and even Aspen Colorado.

To this list I would add two of my favorite places in China, Xian and Guilin in the south. I will never forget a boat trip I took up the Li River to see the Karst Cliffs around Guilin in the early 1980s. It was a difficult but memorable trip on what I called “The People’s Ferry” up the Pearl River from Guangzhou to Wuzhou in 1984, a trip I learned about in the book China Off The Beaten Trail back then. When we got off the small ferry, the locals crowded around us to stare. I was a little bit afraid, but then a couple PRC government tourist followers stepped up to make certain we made our next connection on the bus to Guilin. At that time Wuzhou was quite a rough and backward looking place, like a town made of mud, and many there had never seen a Westerner before.

I also remember taking the train up through Malaysia from Singapore to Bangkok in the early 1980s. I clearly remember our stay at a very old, frightfully British hotel in Kuala Lumpur, one that has most certainly been torn down by now. The parts I remember are quite curious. I remember the unusual pewter table settings, soup before every dinner, and the old-fashioned Chinese waiters who stood nearby at all times in case we needed something. I remember the sweet tea on the train, filled with evaporated milk, and the vast areas of deforestation along the way, attributable to the expanding rubber industry at that time. But my most favorite and well-remembered place was the island of Penang, a true jewel just off the coast of Malaysia. In 1980 it was not touristy at all. I loved the multicultural feel of everything from the religions to the food! One gigantic curried prawn still sticks firmly in my memory 🙂 Penang is right up there with Venice, two of my favorite places EVER.

That quote at the beginning of this piece comes from a series of reminisces from the before mentioned magazine where well-known writers describe “The Places That Changed Us.” One thing I know for sure, every place I have been changed me. Every place I have lived or just hung out for a day or two, every person I met along the way whether friendly or not, every sight, smell or sound changes us to be more open and accepting of how others choose to interact in their world.

Poinsettia trees in Thailand!

By “winning” a free trip to live in Bangkok in 1973, I was permanently changed. I had never lived in the tropics before or immersed myself in south Asian culture. Everything was new and different to me, starting with the Poinsettia trees outside my door! When I returned to Colorado College a few months later, I found it impossible to describe the totality of my experience to fellow students, telling them that it was a bit like going to the moon. I then switched my college major to Asian studies and pursued my goal until the beauty of that dream died a painful death in my late 20s.

But I have absolutely no regrets about any of my adventures, not even those that ended up being bad for my health. Live and learn! That is all we can do.

My life now: The post-concussion dizzies

I’ve been taking some time away from my online life lately. Recently, 12 weeks since my latest serious concussion, I suffer with disorientation and extreme dizziness, not unlike that horrible feeling when the world is spinning around because you drank too much. (I only drank that much once in my life, Chinese Mao Tai, 150 proof, it’s a long story…) This of course is complicated by my hypoxia and need to be on oxygen all of the time. All in all I am the classic dizzy dame lately, LOL.

I have always prided myself on my nibble mind. Not so much now. These days slow and steady wins the race, with lots of brain rest in between. Needless to say, this is not how I pictured myself in my mid-60s. How embarrassing and difficult to embrace. But like everything else I have faced in my life, I try everyday to learn something from this present state of mind. I find I am mostly learning and re-learning compassion for all of us who suffer with physical and mental pain. Recently I saw a program about Christopher Reeve, one of my personal heroes. He said one of the most difficult parts of his accident and injury was to accept that this was his life now. Extreme limitations in abilities and a gigantic change in self-image can be devastating, I know this on a personal level. Now I know I will never go ice skating again or even run or hike or any of the things I did my whole life. Sometimes I wake and find I’ve been dreaming about running or skating really fast.

My thoughts naturally turn to my bucket list, but even arranging an easy vacation like a cruise may not be possible because of my need for constant supplemental oxygen and my apparent natural vertigo at this point. Did you know only certain types of oxygen machines are allowed on airplanes? Who knew? There are still a number of places I would still like to see, but can I? I would so like to travel more. Our first trip this year will be to sea-level to see how well I can breathe there.

Then, of course, the old “Why is this happening to me?” questions arise. I know exactly how useless these questions are. Everyone at some point in their life must wonder this. Sometimes the medical explanations are adequate, but in my case my pulmonologist and I are both stymied. It just is what it is, and life goes on within you and without you.

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?

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!