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?

Aging makes me so angry!

I was finally ready yesterday to take an honest look at my feelings from my last visit to see my Mom in Denver. When we first arrived there, my brother went to take a nap because his lower back always hurts him. I sat down with my Mom and we had a lucid and serious discussion of many things. Even though it only went on for thirty minutes or so, she seemed completely there and asked a few truly revealing questions about my life, and I thought,

This is what I wish my relationship had always been with my Mom.”

It seemed relatively healthy and honest, but within just a few minutes she disappeared completely into remembering very little. The next few days were a confusion of her feeling anxious because she needed to ask every few minutes “What day is it?” and “What are we doing today?” I learned that she doesn’t eat well or take her pills on a regular schedule, etc.

How does that feel? I know it sounds irrational to say that aging makes me angry, but to watch someone I love slip away so very slowly, and to know that what I am losing is gone for good, is truly devastating. At first I felt angry, and as always, the sadness soon followed. My Mom will never be the Mom I remember from the past 65 years again. She is vanishing so slowly but permanently, and I can do nothing about that.

Neither one of my Mom’s parents lived as long as she has. Her Mom died in her mid-70s of cancer and her father lost it after that, dying at 81. I remember most my grandfather’s anger that his dutiful wife had abandoned him when he needed her most. He finally just gave up. So we really don’t know about dementia in her side of the family. She has outlived everyone in her family’s past.

Personally, I have experienced my share of “aging” in the past few years, where I have gone from a healthy 60 year old, who exercised regularly and never smoked, to someone on full-time oxygen. Yes, aging sucks! I have one gigantic constant reminder. Life on a tube is so frustrating. I guess I see now how so many of our elders end up angry and so sad all at once.

Life in the fast (and slow) lane

We just took a trip up to Denver for a few days, and I mean “a trip.” I never get used to the many changes that happen as we drive up there. As far as Pueblo, the highway is pretty mellow, but north of there we quickly get into “get the fuck out of my way” traffic. That’s how I differentiate city traffic from life down here. Suddenly everyone around me is in a gigantic hurry, swooping down on me and sitting on my bumper. This just doesn’t happen much down here, especially on the county dirt roads…

My Mom is doing OK in her senior patio home, although she misses Dad terribly. She says she’s lonely and a little depressed. I get so nervous when she drives in Denver. It’s beginning to be too much for her now. She’s looking forward to moving to assisted living after Covid restrictions lift. Soon I hope. Even going to the store is stressful and exhausting for her.

For me, being with my Mom is always a reminder of the environment and rules I grew up with, especially because she seems to think I’m still ten years old. Heaven forbid I might make some choice or decision on my own! Sometimes I really can’t believe that I’m 65. I’m sure she never believes it. We also have to remind her ever few minutes what day it is and what she’s doing today. It’s sad and yet she is quite comfortable with no real health issues besides a slow dementia.

Yes, it is difficult to see my Mom this way, and yet in her more coherent moments she sees that she has had a great life and appreciates that fact daily. She says she is ready to downsize her life and have others around to help all the time. Thank goodness she can choose and afford the help she needs.

How many parents miss out on knowing their adult children well?

This is what I’ve been thinking about lately…

I see now that my own parents never bothered to get to know me as an adult. Perhaps they thought mistakenly that they knew me as their child, even though they barely knew me through adolescence. And the sad part is, now it is too late.

I know now that my Dad, who died this past March, did not know me at all. He thought I was not-so-smart, a very bad planner and certainly not ambitious. As it turns out his idea of ambition and mine were just quite different. Most unfortunately, my Dad, the well-known Colorado botanist, never appreciated my interest and skill with native plants. Mike overheard him comment in….

… my beginner garden back in March of 2018, “This is just going to be a bunch of weeds!”

He thought I had no idea what a native plant was, or how to grow them. Little did he know that I was already planning with Mike the terraced hardscaping of this slanted slope, and what would grow best here in terms of water needs, critters, etc. Yes, a few of my experiments have not worked out, but overall…

I am quite proud of the product of Mike, John Carter and my own burgeoning efforts! (June 2019)

And as far as my other ambitions go, I have always refused to see myself as a loser. My brother John and I are the first Carter generation of what I now call “spiritual seekers.” Making lots of money and receiving accolades from many was never in the plan.

Finding eventual spiritual peace with Self, others & nature was the plan.

Mom and me in 1985

This past Christmas with my mother was a revelation to me. As she slowly recedes into dementia, I now see she will never “know” me either. I am still her “little Laura Lee,” her youngest daughter. She loves to look at pictures of us together when I was a baby, her last one.

This leaves me wondering how often it is that parents invest the time to truly know how their kids turned out. Is it a fear that their children didn’t turn out so well, that keeps them from asking? Are they afraid it will seem too intrusive, like an invasion of privacy? Or do they just prefer not knowing.

Please don’t assume that you already know your child completely and stifle your impulse to truly know them on a deeper level while you are still around. Don’t assume you know them intimately. Ask them open ended questions like:

“What are you searching for in your life? What means the most to you right now?”