I know I’ve billed this blog as “the lighter side of brain injury,” but sometimes I worry that I’m giving TBI a good name. Living with brain trauma isn’t as much fun as my posts may have been making it sound.
So let me be clear (as the politicians say): A lot of the time, it sucks. And I’m one of the very, very lucky ones.
It’s just that it’s in my nature to play down the negative and see the humor in things. (Thank God my sense of humor didn’t get lost in the car crash with my recent memories, mathematical ability, spacial and directional sense, etc.)
So, what was I writing about? Oh, yes, the sucky side of brain injury. Well, dang it. So many TBI patients have it so much worse. I’ve seen the blogs. I’ve read the articles. My neurologist considers me a miracle. I am. Shut up, brain.
I’ll try this again. Today I didn’t wake up until almost 12:30 p.m., and I felt like what I recall being hungover feels like. Well, of course. Yesterday I had allowed my senses to get overloaded. After yoga, a group of us had met for lunch to celebrate a classmate who’s finishing up rehab from a quadruple bypass he had in November. Our yoga class is like a big family, and we were all eager to welcome him back into the fold.
But the restaurant was a sports bar. Loud music, numerous screens showing sports events, and multiple conversations with multiple groups of friends proved to be too much. I had a good time, but to survive I took two breaks and kind of zoned out for awhile (on purpose).
So I was bummed out today after finally having my cereal, coffee and newspapers (plus social media, of course). By then it was midafternoon.
Just then, I heard the little clicking sound on my phone that meant I’d gotten a text. It was my “little” brother. (He’s 42!) “Just wanted to say hi. It occurred to me that I may not have told you I’ve been keeping up with your blog. Well, now I have.”
It started as a Facebook joke. One of our backyard birdfeeders hangs from atop a pole, and a squirrel kept climbing up and helping himself to the for-birds-only goodies. … At least I assume it was a he. … And the same one.
Gah!!! Even as I type this I see squirrel butt!!!
Ahem. … This time, I’m restraining myself.
You see, my war against squirreldom might have gone a bit too far yesterday.
I’d gotten into the habit of dashing out the back door whenever I’d see one of those interlopers and shaking my fist, a la Grandpa Simpson. That did the trick, though it sometimes scared off the birds as well. All bets were off during the polar vortex, when I didn’t so much as get near an outer wall of the house. My husband, who has no fear of negative double-digit wind chills, kept the feeders stocked during those dangerous days.
But with warmer weather, I found I could merely open a window and holler at the critters to go away. (I’m using the verb “holler” on purpose here, because I might as well have yelled, “Go on, git!”)
I didn’t truly lose it, though, until yesterday, when I was trying to capture a cat’s-eye view of the birds but couldn’t because the evil squirrel kept scaring them away and stealing their food. (In hindsight, I guess it’s not the height of mental stability to waste time photographing your cat watching birds with the goal of sending a photo text to your husband at work with the lyrics: “My LaLa brings all the birds to the yard/ And they’re like, ‘It’s better than yours’/ Damn right, it’s better than yours/ I can teach you, but I’d have to charge.”)
I didn’t get the photo, but I did send the lyrics. He loves that cat.
But something he said last night did give me pause. I told him how I’d finally had it with that squirrel and run out the door brandishing a wooden spoon at him. He laughed but said, “You’re gonna end up on somebody’s YouTube.”
No, thanks. I guess I’m really only playing to an audience of me. I really do have lowered inhibition because of my brain injury, but sometimes I feel I use that characteristic for fun and for others’ amusement. It’s true that I’ve gotten miraculously better over the past 10 years since a car crash left me with traumatic brain injury and epilepsy. But as my husband (and my neurologist, my shrink, etc.) will attest, I still break down when things go wrong.
Case in point: Last week, it was too cold for me to walk home from yoga, as I usually do, so I was hurrying to catch a ride. In the shuffle I realized I couldn’t find my phone. Friends and staff helped me look through the gym and yoga studio as I became increasingly panicked. I had tried a quick retracing of my steps through the studio, but by then a Zumba class with pounding music was in full force. (Part of my disability is heightened sensitivity to sound.) As my friend Ginnie bravely reentered the studio and found the phone kicked under a chair, a man who works at the desk hugged me. Derrick. I have trouble with names, but that’s one I’ll never forget.
Every day that I’ve been back to the gym, not one person there will allow me to be embarrassed.
So, to completely misquote the movie “Airplane!” “I am serious, and do call me Squirrely.”
Our 25-year-old daughter looked tan but tired when we picked her up at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on Sunday. She’d been on a two-week adventure in the Far East with friends and had spent the previous 36 hours traveling back.
While she was exploring Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, her cat had been exploring the far corners of our house. Frank is … how should I put this? … excitable. He’s known to be downright hostile to people he doesn’t like, meaning anyone but his mommy, and especially to my husband. (I won’t go into detail here about the bite that swelled Ted’s finger and led to a course of antibiotics–or at least any more detail than that.)
There was also the matter of our own house pet, LaLa (short for Olive), a skittish longhair cat that cuddles only with Ted and me, and only when she feels like it. Frank is her sworn enemy. On shorter visits, she’d hiss at his every approach, whether he was pouncing at her or sidling up to try to take a sniff.
But we love our daughter, and she adores Frank, so of course we let him stay. It turned out to be an adventure for everyone. We kept in contact with her through daily text messages and photos—allowing us to see the sites and her to keep in contact with her “boy.”
As the days went by, the hostility between the two cats seemed to quiet—a little. Frank still got hissy with Ted but now seemed to want to be LaLa’s friend. Maybe Frank just didn’t understand that his mommy would be coming back and thought this new living arrangement was permanent. Then again, I could just be a crazy cat lady, assigning human emotions to animals.
But now that the ordeal is over, I can admit that the cat situation wasn’t the only thing troubling me during that two-week period. My husband and my shrink both tried to pooh-pooh my fears, but my daughter’s trip coincided with the government shutdown, and I’d read that flights to the East Coast might be disrupted. The shutdown officially ended just before our daughter was due to start flying home, but a day or two after she made it back, there were cancellations at O’Hare.
So, as long as there isn’t another shutdown, her three traveling companions–who’d planned to stay an extra two weeks–will be fine, right? I’m now sitting at my desk, taking deep breaths, watching the birds eating from the feeders across our snowy, frozen lawn, and saying a silent prayer. For those who’d like to know how kooky I really am, here’s a fun fact: My heart chakra just filled up. In other words, my heart is going out to them. It’s going out to us all. Then again, I could just be going stir crazy from being stuck in the house during the polar vortex.
Which brings me back to my daughter, who flew from a region with temperatures in the 90s to … Oh, geez, I can’t even remember what Sunday felt like. Cold, anyway. I loaned her my parka. But in another stroke of … luck? of whatever it was that kept me from dying 10 years ago and finding out that brain injury can be fun when it’s not awful? … she got here before the worst of the polar vortex.
The reality of a polar vortex.
Some fictional fun.
Not to brag, but today (Thursday, Jan. 31), Chicago tied Milwaukee’s low of minus 23. The wind chill in Milwaukee made it feel like negative 40, while our city felt like negative 41. Plus, we live in the western suburbs, so my phone tells me it was much worse.
For the time being, our daughter is staying with us while working from home. Her office, like my husband’s and many in the area, have put on-site operations on hold. We’re all grateful to those who are out there keeping the rest of us safe.
By the way, did you hear they’ve been setting the railroad tracks on fire to keep the trains running? Also, to keep homeless people from people from freezing to death, Chicago city buses were dispatched to serve as moving shelters. This is some serious winter.
So our story has a happy ending–our daughter safe with us and reunited with her cat, our warring pets seeming to have come to a sort of detente, my fears turned into so much empathy for a cat who’s kind of a jerk but misses his mommy desperately that I helped broker the peace(ish)? Okay, I’m probably projecting here. Right now I’m happily housebound.
… which is how I would have ended this story, if my husband hadn’t informed me this morning that Frank has escalated his attacks on him.
My husband recently reminded me of a comment I used to make in the early post-TBI years when I’d get overwhelmed by visual or mental stimulation: “My brain is full.” The cure was usually a nap.
Now, 10 years after the car crash, my brain seems to have quite the hearty appetite. I’ve been taking heaping helpings of anything to do with language, yoga, music, current events–you name it. … Well, not piracy. So I guess I am kind of a picky eater, if we’re going to keep going with this metaphor. Yes, we are. It’s fun!
The problem is I tend to binge on activities that fill my brain with information, know-how and/or joy, rather than sticking with the balanced mental diet I’d be on if I consistently made to-do lists and to-did everything on them, as I keep telling me shrink I’m gonna.
Metaphor all gone. (Burp.)
Just today, I continued a recent obsession I’ve had with learning to sing my favorite song from the musical “Hamilton.” It’s “You’ll Be Back,” sung by King George III to the American colonists. Until recently I thought I had the magical ability to recall every note and lyric of every song I’d ever heard, including commercial jingles from products I don’t remember.*
Turns out that’s only true for songs from before the accident. So I practiced, practiced, practiced–at the piano, on the couch, in the shower. I still don’t have the song memorized, but I’ve loved every minute of trying to make that sucker stick in my head. Even the melody is complex. Also, as part of my online search for the lyrics, I found an app that teaches the chords of the song. So the next step was to learn how to play chords on the piano–F, G, D, etc. Somehow my brief childhood piano training didn’t include learning chords, so I’d just been noodling around, playing what sounded right with the melody.
So that was this afternoon’s delicious candy. (Sorry, the metaphor’s back.)
Earlier in the week, I had gorged on finding ways to make yoga accessible for one of the veterans I teach at the local VA on Thursday nights. His limited mobility meant I needed to come up with alternate poses and use yoga blocks and other equipment, including standing “push-ups” done at the wall to build arm strength. So focused was I on my task that I forgot to eat. (No metaphor, just a growly belly, which I then filled with actual food.)
It seems that my mostly recovered life (10 to 12 hours of sleep a night, plus all the medications I can swallow) has become a sort of banquet, and my plate’s not big enough.
*Last night my husband for some reason mentioned the 1970s doll Baby Alive, and I immediately started singing: “Baby Alive, soft and sweet. She can drink; she can eat.” For more, See “Back To Where I Once Belonged” on this blog.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything for this blog, so apologies to my throngs of followers. (Cue maniacal laughter and pointing. … Okay, let’s continue.) When I started, it was easy to tap out a post a week, especially since I’d had a backlog of pieces done before a friend with technology know-how taught me how to get the blog up and running.
Doing that required shifting my strict but expanding schedule of not working, getting lots of sleep, reading newspapers and books, walking in nature, taking and volunteer-teaching yoga classes, and making sure I kept up my pretend musical career. That last one just meant I needed to run through the repertoire of songs I’d figured out how to play on my electric keyboard while singing to an audience of one cat.
Well, that lifestyle, plus the neurological drugs that keep this 10-year brain-injury survivor (WOOT WOOT!) seizure-free, got shaken up again this fall as my husband and I devoted ourselves to politics. A young U.S. House candidate once considered the longest of long shots now seemed to have a chance, and even though she wasn’t in our district, we gladly volunteered.
By his calculations (my numerical sense is kaput now) we canvassed nine times in four weeks, for about 500 doorbells rung. And that’s not even counting the 65 houses we visited on Election Day to ensure the vote got out. After a long nap, it was off to the candidate’s Returns Watch party, which turned into a victory party and kept me up way past my bedtime.
Exhilaration plus exhaustion equals zzzzzzzzzzzzz.
But by Thursday evening I was recovered enough to teach yoga to my veterans (yes, I call them “my veterans”) at the local VA. A neighbor was kind enough to drive me and my multiple bags of yoga equipment, since I’m no longer a driver myself. Because the building is sort of tucked away in a hidden plaza, and because it was too dark to see street signs, we got a bit lost… and I freaked.
It was a quiet freak-out, as freak-outs go, and my friend remained unaware and cheerful. I just kind of whimpered and then suggested we stop and get our bearings, though I don’t have bearings anymore. How many times have I been to this place and I still can’t direct anyone to it? I asked if she could turn off the talk radio, because I can’t filter out background noise anymore.
I’ve also come to depend on other people’s sense of direction or their car’s voice thingy that tells them where to turn. (Yes, I realize I should know the name of that thingy, but…why?)
When we arrived–in plenty of time, by the way–I told her that she had just seen the brain-injured side of me, the side my friends and neighbors rarely see. She was more than understanding. She gave me a hug and we talked for a few minutes more before she helped me in with my yoga blocks, straps and towels (in lieu of proper yoga blankets).
The class itself, for all my brain drama, was a joy. Confidentiality precludes me from giving details about the participants, who also come to the center for counseling. Let’s just say that I came with a plan for the session and ended up tailoring it to their needs. So it goes in all yoga classes.
At the end, the instructor typically closes the class with a few words of wisdom. This time, I hadn’t thought of what to say and admitted as much to my students. One of the regulars (it won’t be breaching confidentiality to say we’re both Libras) offered this: “We should always try to keep our lives in balance.”
… is NOT what the dentist performing a delicate procedure on my choppers said this morning. Instead, he told me to alert him if I needed more local anesthetic during the extraction of an upper front tooth and insertion of a temporary one. I didn’t.
My “before” dental X-ray and possible Halloween mask. Too scary?
Thanks to silent meditation and a high pain tolerance on my part, and skilled dentistry on his, I got through it all just fine.
It helped that my husband had arranged to work from home today and came with me to the appointment. He spoke with the dentist beforehand, getting answers to questions that I hadn’t been able to on my own. And when the dentist kept referring to my husband as “doctor,” well, we just let that slide. (Ted’s in communications, but he’s so knowledgeable about brain injury that he’s often mistaken for an MD.)
While I was in the chair, I put all my meditation techniques to use. I did relaxation breathing, focusing my exhales on the area of discomfort to make it recede, and even–WEIRD ALERT–silently doing chants that correspond with the cakras (pronounced CHA-kras), or energy centers of the body.
That’s why I didn’t need more anesthetic. There was pain, but I made it go away.
That’s the blog inspiration I got while sitting in the dentist’s chair. You see, I’d started my morning, as always, with cereal, coffee, news … and angst. This is a painful period in our country’s history, but I believe we can overcome the pain.
I’ll see you at the voting booth.
“Now spit, and go to the front desk for your follow-up appointment.”
I’ve spent the past week feeling a little overwhelmed by the response to an article that ran in the Aurora Beacon News, part of the Chicago Tribune Media Group. The local Fire Department alerted the newspaper that my husband and I would be bringing dinner to the crew at Station 8 on the 10th anniversary of the night I was nearly killed in a car accident.
I owe my life to their efforts and those of countless other people.
For years after my initial recovery, we said we’d celebrate the 10-year mark with a big party in the backyard, inviting all those who have helped us—doctors, EMTs, the pharmacist, neighbors, friends, family, etc., etc. But as September 2018 approached, it became clear that there were far too many people to whom we felt gratitude. Continue reading “Ten Years and Counting”→