For the past 14 years, I’ve been living a reasonably productive life with a brain injury. All things considered, I’ve done pretty well except for one big stumbling block. Some of the most fundamental problems I faced early on just won’t go away. Isn’t it enough already? After coming so far, I’d expect to have gotten over them by now. Maybe I’m not trying hard enough.
I could give you plenty of examples, but I’ll get right to the heart of the matter. Early in rehab, when I was asked a question, my response may have started on topic, but I was quickly distracted by another thought and changed direction. That only lasted until my next distraction, which sent me off on another tangent, then another, until I was so far from the original subject I had no idea where I’d started, or where I was going.
The problem was, I just couldn’t get to the point. Sad to say, I still can’t. I was taught strategies to self-monitor: delay, breathe, and think before I speak. I try to catch myself before digressing, but it rarely works. At least by now, I know when I’m screwing up and stop before I get too far. That’s when I say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you,” or “What was I talking about?” It works in a conversation, but not when I’m writing my blog.
That’s a whole other story, although in many ways it’s the same. I start with an idea, the computer, and the determination to stay on task. However, once I write my first draft, the process starts to unravel. One rewrite after another and I’m headed down the rabbit hole. I go round in circles trying to figure out what I am really talking about. Sometimes I edit so much that I find myself back where I began. Other times I throw it all out and start something entirely different. The process can take weeks… and weeks.
The same issue messes me up in other ways. A few years ago I started churning out far too many ideas far too quickly—my mind was in overdrive. I came up with projects to raise brain injury awareness, programs to engage our brain injury community, and I don’t remember what else. Every one was a huge undertaking, each more exciting and urgent than the last. I dove into one after another—reaching out, making connections, but never following through. I was trying to save the world. Instead, I was digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole of my own making. I got frantic, overwhelmed, and felt like a failure. What is wrong with me? How could I forget everything I learned? Can’t I see where I’m headed? I guess not.
The thing is, I know I can’t do it all, but something inside compels me to try. Maybe it’s because, before brain injury, I had a lifetime of habits and a self-image I still can’t shake. I was an idea person, taking on everything that was thrown at me, and able to see it through. I rarely said “no” and always got a kick out of a good job done well.
I don’t yearn for my past or hate my present. I know I have limits and try hard to work within them. So why do I continue to pile things on and say ‘Yes’ to anyone asking for help, or stay up until 1:00 a.m. working? Is it perseveration or disinhibition? Am I trying to sabotage myself? Who knows. But maybe… just maybe I do it because I need a purpose, because it makes me feel good about myself, productive, searching for the kick of a good job done well.
I’m sure all these problems are manifestations of the same executive function glitch. If so, I should stop beating myself up. My brain injury’s not going anywhere, so I know I’ll always have to be vigilant, especially in the moment. I also know that I’m still making progress, and I am getting a deeper understanding of my vulnerabilities and triggers. I must be on the right track.
I practice strategies, try to pay attention, and give myself a thumbs-up when I do. Although I still can’t say “no” to someone needing help, I can stop myself from going overboard (most of the time). Writing is really the toughest nut to crack. It’s so satisfying when I get it right, hear good feedback, or when someone’s been touched by my words. For me, that’s success—having done what I set out to do. But meanwhile, the process to get there is demoralizing and incredibly frustrating. I just hope I’ll figure it out eventually.
I think it still feels as if I’ve lost what I used to be most proud of. I want it back and can’t stop myself from reaching for the ring, as if my pre-injury abilities were still at my beck and call. So, I have to adjust what it is I’m reaching for. I won’t lower my standards, but I can change my expectations.
Slowly, I’m getting used to setting goals I can meet and taking as much pride in my accomplishments as I always did. Frustration boils over at times, but when I get it right, I can see it for what it is—a good job done well. I just want to remember that going around in circles is my reality, one I have to live with and work on every day. And that changing how I approach challenges and define success is the only way I’ll be able to reconcile my “before” and my “after” and let go of that sense of loss.
Her blog, A Brain Injury Life, addresses the challenges and progress that are part of living with brain injury. To follow the blog go to www.abraininjuryiife.com. Laurie can be reached by email: email@example.com