Lisa, who lives in suburban Chicago, suffered a traumatic brain injury and acquired epilepsy in a 2008 car accident. For the previous two decades, she had worked in newspaper editing in Florida, North Carolina and Illinois. She and husband Ted have a daughter, Megan, of Chicago. Post-TBI, Lisa became certified as a yoga instructor and now volunteers teaching yoga at a women's shelter and a veterans center.
Howdy, folks! I just got my electrodes unglued after spending a few days looking (and possibly acting) like Gollum of “Lord of the Rings.”
This week was my annual at-home EEG. I still have what I call “invisible” seizures, even though they’re not the convulsive kind, and only very rarely do I get an “aura,” the feeling that one might be coming on. Even those sensations, I’m told, could be anxiety attacks.
ANXIETY??? WHAT’S THERE TO BE ANXIOUS ABOUT THESE DAYS???!!!
Ahem. Anyway, this time I was monitored around the clock by video, so that any time something weird showed up in my brain waves, my neurologist would be able to match it with my facial expression, especially my eyes. I also kept a log of my activities. (I figured that “writing in my log of activities” didn’t count as an activity.)
I had to limit myself to areas where the camera could see, so during the day we kept the tripod-supported device on the kitchen table, rotating it as necessary. In the evenings it would be in the living room, showing the folks at Neurotech that we eat dinner on the couch in front of the TV. Then up it would go to watch me read and sleep. Bathrooms were off-limits, camera-wise.
Michael, a former Army medic who works for the home EEG-monitoring company Neurotech, got my head hooked up. As he expertly performed my “reverse makeover,” I couldn’t help but notice the awesome eagle tattoo on his forearm. He’d served in Afghanistan and is still in the Reserves.
We talked about the vets I’d met as a volunteer yoga instructor at the local Veterans Center — from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I also told him about how my dad joined the Navy in World War II even though he was underage and now keeps his own awesome (anchor) tats covered with his sleeves.
It turns out both Michael and I had taken only a bit of piano lessons long ago and mostly liked to teach ourselves. I have a stash of songs deep in my brain that my fingers know how to play with only a little practice, but sight-reading is a challenge.
He taught me the correct finger positions for playing a C scale with the left and right hands simultaneously. Elementary stuff, but I’m still working on it, as well as other scales. He also taught me some chord progressions that have led to aha! moments for me musically in the past couple of days.
So thank you, Michael of Neurotech, for your service to the country and also to my brain.
Singing country crooner Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in the shower probably isn’t the best way to perk yourself up when you’re feeling out of sorts, especially if the fear that you are crazy is what has you “feelin’ so blue.” Still, I love that song, and I love singing, so …
The problem was the song wouldn’t get out of my head.
So I turned to my own personal channel-changer: my brain. “This song is depressing,” I thought at it. “Give me a better one.” (Music works like that for me.)
Immediately, I heard a familiar quick-chiming guitar riff.
I don’t remember anything about the 2008 car crash we now call “The Accident“—and only much later did my husband realize why a medic, calling for him to meet us at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago as I was being loaded into a helicopter, urged him to hurry.
It was to give him a chance to say goodbye.
When I awoke in the hospital a week later with a broken body and a traumatic brain injury, no one knew if I’d ever be the same. After a month, I still couldn’t retain short-term memories. I’d recognized my husband and daughter right away (but how had she gotten older?). No problem recalling Dad or my many siblings either, but I kept asking if Mom was still alive. She’d died of cancer in 2007.
Such is the sometimes amusing, sometimes emotionally wrenching and always baffling world of the TBI patient. According to brainline.org, a TBI is “a blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the function of the brain.” Such injuries affect 1.7 million people a year (and cause 52,000 deaths) in the United States alone.
In my case, the diagnosis was “moderate” TBI. Among other scary things I’ve found in trying to review the data my husband has summarized into a 3-inch-thick binder over the years, this diagnosis had to do with my rating on the Glasgow Coma Scale (not so good, apparently), my initial decerebrate posture”–a rigid body position with legs straight, toes down and neck arched–and seizures. I also read about “my months of physical and cognitive therapy and my “residual neuro-cognitive problems,” depression, hampered mobility and trouble with “activities of daily living.” As much as I resisted it, we arranged for a home-care assistant.
Finally, I looked through my husband’s transcription of my “seizure diary,” a combination of my thoughts and his descriptions of my seizures, some of which he’d captured on video so the doctors could witness them. This trip down “no-memory lane” was my attempt to figure out the year I started yoga (2011? 2012? I’m not so good with numbers anymore), but I couldn’t stop reading about my now-extremely rare episodes. This one, from March 2012, was from a night Ted was working late:
“I get ready for bed early, multitasking brushing my teeth on the john, when I hear my phone. … Feel a seizure coming on and lean forward. Next thing I remember, Ted’s home and he’s coming to bed. It’s hours later. I’d gotten myself cleaned up, into bed, lights out. (Discover a sore on outside of lip the next day, another inside–from my teeth. Also blood and toothpaste in my hair.)”
Today, as we approach our seven-year “Acci-versary,” it’s hard to identify with that version of myself, a newspaper editor forced to face a new reality. So much has changed—my physical recovery and return to fitness, new neurologists, the right medications, a deeper relationship with my husband … and yoga.
Ted (who’s become so knowledgeable that people think he’s a doctor) had urged me to try tai chi for its intense focus. I wanted something more athletic, so the instructor directed me to a yoga class taught by his wife, Lynda.
I now understand why Ted was drawn to tai chi as a therapy for me. In Dr. Norman Doige’s 2007 bestseller, “The Brain That Changes Itself,” the author discusses why people tend to become forgetful as they age. He explains that the nucleus basalis, a group of neurons in the brain, is designed to secrete acetylcholine, which helps form clear memories. Those neurons get neglected from a lack of mental stimulation, or from being “set in our ways.”
“Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system—new physical activities, challenging puzzles, new careers that require learning new skills,” neuroscientist Michael Merzenich says in the book. He also touts the brain benefits of learning a new language in adulthood (Sanskrit, anyone?) and getting “sensory input from our feet.“
Learning something new? Check. Focusing intensely? Check. Going barefoot? Check. Whatever, I was sold.
I began attending classes three times a week, jogging the mile to the community center since I no longer drove. It felt good to work my muscles in new ways and to see myself in the big mirror holding (what I considered) perfect poses. But soon something inside me began to change. I’d catch a glimpse of my face in that mirror, and I’d be grinning, not grimacing. I’d see a classmate’s pose and think, “You can do it!” instead of feeling self-conscious or competitive, my default modes. And after class, I’d feel calm.
These are not unusual effects of yoga and meditation—of “being in the present moment,” I’ve learned. Antoine Lutz, Ph.D., and Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison have studied Vipassana or “insight” meditation for years. According to Psychology Today (Dec. 12, 2012), they found that the practice improved emotional regulation and stress control even when their test subjects were not meditating. When the researchers trained a different group in “compassion meditation“—having them focus on loved ones and then wish them “well-being and freedom from suffering“—this group showed evidence of increased empathy. In the brain, that meant more activation in the right amygdala in response to images of human suffering.
In addition, the compassion group also showed reduced rates of depression, as measured by psychological tests. “Davidson and Lutz’s work suggests that through mindfulness training, people can develop skills that promote happiness and compassion,” Psychology Today says. “People are not just stuck at their respective set points. We can take advantage of the brain’s plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities.“
Which brings me to brain plasticity, otherwise known as neuroplasticity. I remember hearing a lot about this property of my noggin, even in the early days, when I didn’t quite know what Ted was talking about. What it means is the brain is capable of sort of stretching to accommodate more knowledge. Doige explains it much better in “The Brain That Changes Itself”:
“Clearly, when we learn, we increase what we know, but Merz’s claim,” he says, referring to Merzenich, “is that we can also change the very structure of the brain itself and increase its capacity to learn. Unlike a computer, the brain is constantly adapting.”
But the old “use-it-or-lose-it” principle is also at work here. “Merzinich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate and control plasticity to waste away,” Doige says.
“Intensive learning,” eh? I have a feeling my husband took that phrase to heart when he … encouraged? … suggested? … okay, pushed me to sign up for teacher training at Prairie Yoga in the neighboring suburb of Lisle in 2015. Sure, I loved my yoga classes at the community center. I adored Lynda’s warm, witty style, and I had made a group of wonderful friends, even if I couldn’t always put the right name with the right face (and still, to my embarrassment, sometimes call Jim “Steve” and Cathy “Cindy”).
Hmm. At this point, I’m thinking I’d better back up and fill the reader in on the rest of my lingering … let’s say “peculiarities.”
Gail Denton, Ph.D., who suffered a mild TBI herself in a 1991 skating accident, discusses the issue in the book “Brain-Lash: Maximize Your Recovery From Mild Brain Injury,” which she calls “an outwardly invisible illness.” Although my case is moderate (in between mild and severe), I still appear normal … well, depending on what I’m wearing! See Exhibit A.
What people don’t see (unless they’re my husband) are the emotional fragility, the intense need for routine and especially the mental fogginess when it’s nearing time for my 10 to 12 hours of nightly sleep. In her book, Denton says TBI patients tend to get mentally fatigued because they lack the energy reserves that keep “normal” people from getting overwhelmed.
Denton also lists a number of deficits in the brain’s executive functioning that are so me:
• Processing speed. This is why, when new yoga cues are given, I often tilt my head quizzically and then just copy what my neighbor is doing.
• Attention span. Oh, look! My cat just woke up!
• Sensory overload. I don’t wear the dark glasses just to look like Mrs Cool. Also, big crowds, noise? I’m outta there.
• Word finding. That’s gotten much better, but … who did you say you were again?
• Disinhibition. Uh-oh. My childlike lack of decorum (“I’ll break into song at the grocery store if I want to!“) Also, see Exhibit B.
• Multitasking. Gah! Go, away, cat, I’m trying to write a thesis.
• Follow-through. Oh, I’ll write that one later …
• Sense of humor. Ha! See above.
There. Now back to your regularly scheduled thesis.
Numerous other studies have pointed to the benefits of yoga and meditation for TBI patients. One that I found especially interesting was the yoga program for soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, GA. Dr. John Rigg, director of the TBI Clinic at the base, describes on NPR’s All Things Considered how a blast in combat can affect a soldier:
“What happens is that primitive animal instinct, which is located in the subcortical brain, becomes hyper-aroused. … The subcortical brain doesn’t understand geography and stays hyper-aroused. Their muscles are tightened up.”
But after a short time in yoga, he says, participants report better sleep, relaxed muscles and a better outlook.
“It’s an enlightening factor, even for people who don’t continue in yoga, to see that they can use breath and physical movement to actually change the way they feel.”
As if I didn’t know that! Still, I was one nervous yogini when I showed up for teacher training my first day.
Maybe I should have taken a look at the following recent study first: Harvard psychologist John Denninger and his colleagues divided their subjects, all of whom had reported high levels of stress, into three groups. One group was taught Kundalini yoga—which includes meditation, breathing exercises or pranayama, and the chanting of mantras in addition to physical yoga postures; the second only meditated; and the third listened to relaxation recordings. Based on questionnaires, brain scans and gene analyses of blood samples, the yoga group showed an increase in the expression of genes for energy metabolism and a decrease in the expression of genes for pain and stress, according to a November 2013 article by Bloomberg News.
One of Denninger’s colleagues on the study, Harvard physician Herbert Bensen, had literally written the book on stress relief in 1975. In “The Relaxation Response,” he called his work a “validation of age-old wisdom,” rather than a breakthrough, that presented “a simple version of Transcendental Meditation for people in the Western World.” The book, which has since been updated, shows methods of activating the parasympathetic nervous system when the “fight-or-flight” response kicks in. He calls two of the steps essential:
1. Focusing on a mantra or activity “to keep the mind from wandering.” (I can testify to this one. Yoga, meditation and walks in nature do quiet my mile-a-minute thought patterns.)
2. Having a “passive attitude.” (Working on it. Does passive-aggressive count? (I kid, I kid. See Exhibit C.
Brain injury and all, I was accepted into Prairie Yoga’s teacher training program with open arms, thanks in no small part to a recommendation from Lynda to studio owner Lori Gaspar. Lori trusted Lynda, a Prairie veteran who continues to teach and take classes there, so Lori added me to her own 200-hour trainee group. This was an Iyengar-based class, meaning the emphasis was on holding each yoga position precisely and for a long time, rather than “flowing” from pose to pose.
I loved it! I got to do challenging poses and make close friends. Still, the written homework was hard at first, and it wasn’t easy for my unpracticed brain to retain what I was learning about body alignment, hands-on adjustment, anatomy, yoga history and philosophy, Sanskrit and … oh, geez, other stuff. Then there was that scary new technology on my phone—the Uber app—that I had to master since I don’t live anywhere near jogging distance of Prairie.
I also faced my fear of failure during the weeks my two group partners and I fretted over the free public class we were assigned to “sequence” and teach. (A weird aside: Remember those executive brain functions I listed that take a hit after TBI? One I left out is Sequencing. So maybe yoga helps with that too, since our class went just fine.)
And now, back to science. In other brain-positive research, a 2013 study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston compared MRI scans of cognitively impaired people after an eight-week program of yoga, meditation and mindfulness with those of similar patients who had gotten standard care. According to the April-May 2015 edition of Neurology Now, the program group showed better connectivity in the hippocampus, which is related to learning and memory. (Score! The hippocampus is where most of my damage is!)
And then there’s this, from the June 2015 edition of the medical journal Disability and Rehabilitation: An eight-week mixed-methods case study in which yoga teachers worked individually with TBI patients showed a 36 percent improvement in balance (a biggie for me; I still struggle with those types of poses). Other benefits, as measured by physical assessments and interviews, were confidence, lower-extremity strength and endurance.
Said one patient: “I mean, it’s rocked my world. It’s changed my life—I mean, all the different aspects. I mean, physically, emotionally, mentally—it’s given me, you know, my life back.”
Physically, emotionally, mentally. … I know, right? But for me there’s more.
In “BrainLash,” Denton concludes with what she calls a “take-it-or-leave-it” chapter that “introduces the concept of an increased or newly installed skill known as extrasensory awareness. It is a potential product acquired with brain injury. It serves your pleasure.”
So I guess this is what I’d call the “take-it-or-leave-it” part of my thesis. It’s hard to describe, but I feel a new sense of connectedness now. Things happen because they’re supposed to happen; everything works out. If The Accident made me who I am today, I’m glad. I like myself better now. I think this awareness came several years later, when I was no longer in “survival” mode, going from seizure to seizure, so maybe my brain had a chance to heal somewhat.
The feeling grew when I started yoga—and exploded when I learned to meditate. In fact, shortly after a three-day seminar on the topic at Prairie by visiting teacher Nicolai Bachman that, honestly, did not hold my interest, I became aware of a strange phenomenon. When I closed my eyes, I could “see” what looked like an open eye at about the bridge of my nose. Being an idiot, I mentioned this to a classmate, figuring it was some bizarre “neurological thingy” from my old TBI. She said something like, “Whoa, that’s really advanced.” So I did some reading (in my own Teacher Training Manual, for gosh sakes) and concluded that I was seeing that famed “Third Eye” that lets you “see from a deeper place” and “trust your own intuition.”
While it’s not “like I have ESPN or something” (to reference one of my daughter’s favorite movies from high school, “Mean Girls”; See Exhibit D. I do get little intuitions. For example, long after I’d finished the previous paragraph, I got a mental tug telling me I’d misspelled “Nicolai.” I looked it up, and sure enough I’d added an H. Also, if I ever need inspiration, I just close my eyes. (How do you think I’m getting through the writing process?)
Mostly, though, this Third Eye brings me comfort. Says Denton in “BrainLash“: “You may experience an increased interest in spiritual matters … for which you had no interest. This may be a general awakening to a higher power.”
That has certainly been the case for me. I was raised in a church-going family, but at a young age I found religious doctrine illogical. The idea of God didn’t make sense to me, though I wasn’t about to admit this to my parents. Decades later, though, I had an epiphany, but it’s unclear exactly when. My husband says I found God a few years ago, after The Accident but before meditation—and very shortly before a recurrence of severe seizures that led to an episode of post-ictal psychosis (think “The Exorcist”) for which I was hospitalized for a month.
(No, that “Exorcist” line was a joke, but Ted says I got spooky-religious and was even convinced at one point that a male orderly was God.)
The only religious awakening I do remember was a gradual one, when the peace of meditation became a way to connect with the Universe, with God.
Or maybe I’m nuts. But my shrink assures me I’m not.
“Your participation in yoga helped you to shift to a level of being more peaceful inside,” says psychologist Joseph Keegan of Naperville, with whom I’ve worked for I forget how many years now. “Prior to that, you were at more of a frenetic pace—anxious, pensive. Yoga provided you with a sense of equanimity and altered your sense of interconnection with the world.“
He says yoga “opened up a door to a sense of spirituality” and even points out that my habit of picking up litter and recycling as I walk home “reflects that you feel you have a place in the universe.”
But my progress hasn’t all been because of yoga. Not giving a thought to the possibility that he might screw up my thesis, Keegan attributes some of my improvements in cognition and memory to playing the piano. (Actually, it’s an electronic keyboard; I just keep it on “grand piano” setting so as not to sound like an ’80s “hair band” member.) Ted, knowing that learning piano, especially in adulthood, works wonders for the brain, had given it to me for Christmas one year.
“With your decision to play the keyboard, you moved on to challenge yourself with music—to challenge yourself in a positive way, a different cognitive way,” Keegan said. “And it gave you positive, resonating feedback.”
So I guess the point of all this is that yoga and meditation—plus music, nature, friends, family (especially a devoted, selfless spouse) and faith are the keys to coping with brain injury—and I’m living proof. Oh, and prescription drugs. And excellent doctors. (I highly recommend Dr. Elizabeth Gerard at Northwestern Memorial.)
… And did I mention the drugs?
One last note: Thank you to my teacher trainer, Lori, for rejecting my first thesis idea—autobiographical song parodies—because she wanted me to learn something from the process. All this research and writing was hard, but I see now that it was just what my brain needed. Just for fun, though, I’ll leave you with this:
My father, the 91-year-old co-owner of the very big Ace Hardware in my very small hometown, never forgets a birthday, including those of in-laws and grandchildren, but he often forgets to mail the card in time. When he does, he never fails to call and wish the recipient a happy birthday. On Saturday he called with greetings for my husband.
Dad asked if I’d received the note he’d sent me recently, along with a copy of an article that he found applicable to both of us–me as a brain injury victim and him as a nonagenarian. I hadn’t found it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t somewhere in the pile of mail on the kitchen table.
I dug around and soon found the business-size envelope addressed to me, in his familiar handwriting. The clipping was headlined “Fish More, Live Longer,” and it began with the observation that time seems to pass more quickly as we age, whereas kids seem to be forever impatient for things to hurry up and happen.
The theory is that children are constantly getting new mental images and experiences but that, as we age, “we lose this intensity of perception, and the world becomes a dreary and familiar place–so dreary and familiar that we stop paying attention to it.”
So lifelong learning and challenges are the key to keeping or regaining a healthy brain, as is taking time to “fish more” (or stop and smell the roses).
Dad and I are literally on the same page! Not only does he go to work at the store every day, he participates in numerous community activities and is locally famous for his garden and fish pond.
And about that note? The best part was the phrase “I think you and I have a lot in common.”
Besides paying me an enormous compliment, I think he was kinda-sorta suggesting a blog idea, so I was going to get right on that after the relaxing weekend I was having with my husband, whose birthday coincides with the long Fourth of July weekend.
But Saturday evening, as we were relaxing outside in the shade of the patio umbrella listening to music, a familiar classical piano piece came on, and so did a lightbulb in my head. “Hey, I think I used to play a simple version of that!”
Ted told me it was Beethoven’s Fur Elise. So I ran inside to try it out on my “piano” (electronic keyboard). Muscle memory didn’t work, but I quickly figured it out, scribbling down the notes (just letters) as I went. I asked him why my fingers didn’t remember the notes, as often happens with songs I’d learned in childhood. He said, “Maybe it was from that piano class you took in college.” What piano class??? (That’s brain injury for ya.)
Yeah, so apparently sometime after I met Ted junior year, I took a piano class. Before graduation I also managed to squeeze in History of Rock and Roll and History of the Beatles, which I do vividly remember.
When I posted about the musical memory/non-memory on Facebook, along with a photo of my musical-ish scribbles, one of my friends replied with a cartoon clip of Shroeder playing the opening of Fur Elise in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Hmmm, I says to myself, maybe I was just imitating Shroeder.
The next day, I sat down at the “piano” bench again. I’ll let Facebook tell it: “ON SECOND THOUGHT: Yesterday’s musical epiphany didn’t sound quite right when I tried to play my scribbles today, so I had another go. Still don’t know if I learned “Fur Elise in an unremembered college class or from Schroeder of the Peanuts. Either way, it was a good brain exercise.”
But then … a thought: What if this came from the songbook that came with my keyboard, which I received years after my TBI? I’m no good at sight-reading, and it’s hard to make recent memories stick, so maybe I labored over this thing and then put the book in a drawer and forgot it?
I looked through my songbooks and, yes, there was a version of Fur Elise. Rats!
So it’s still a musical mystery, but there’s something else here–something that ties together the note from my dad and the notes spinning (happily) in my head. The connection came, as connections often do, during a moment of quiet contemplation. I often find these moments, as Dad does, in nature.
Such moments also come during prayer or meditation. Today’s epiphany came at the end of yoga class, during savasana, a time when we lie on our backs with our eyes closed and our bodies and minds completely relaxed.
A song began playing in my head: Fur Elise! And suddenly I knew how the two competing topics would become one. My musicality came from my late mother’s side of the family. I can close my eyes and see her smiling and singing in church. Yes, I’m glad I inherited my dad’s energy and zest for life, and I’m also glad that my mother put music in my heart.
My husband likes to tell me something when I’m feeling down–not just down-in-the-dumps down, but “I’m a brain-injured dumb-dumb, and I can’t cope with this and this and this and whatever anymore” down.
You can probably guess by the title of this piece what his message is. “You’re tougher than you know,” he always says, and I always end up feeling better. Then we always end up laughing about an incident during my hospitalization after The Accident more than a decade ago, during a time when I was in and out of consciousness and mostly out of coherence. A former high school band mate who’d gone on to become a professional musician had apparently told my sister at one point that I had perfect pitch. In the hospital I became convinced this saxophonist had called me a “perfect b—-!” During the years that followed, that silly misunderstanding morphed into my husband’s belief that I am “one tough b—-” (meant as a compliment, of course), and he’s almost made me believe it.
But yesterday, from beginning to almost the end, was a true test of my tough b—-ery.
So I wake up, resolved not to hoof it to the Community Center gym as I usually do because I was nursing a twisted ankle. With coffee in hand and a pillow propping up my foot, I was reading the newspaper when a call came from the Veterans Center, where I was due to teach my next yoga class in a week.
The social worker there greeted me in a cheery voice and said she wanted to let me know who was expected at tonight’s class. (You might recall from the previous paragraph that the next class wasn’t for a week.) Oops. After my initial panic, I told her I’d be happy to teach.
The truth is, the center had been having trouble getting participants to commit to coming to yoga. For the most part, they come for counseling, so getting even a small turnout to my classes has been a challenge. I understand that. It’s just that I’ve spent many a stressful Tuesday and/or Wednesday trying to reach the right contact person at the short-staffed, overworked office.
And I’ve been known to obsess over the yoga sequences I plan, revising or completely redoing them up to the last minute.
And I don’t drive, so I coordinate with a neighbor to take me to the center. That arrangement went off without a hitch … until yesterday. She hadn’t come to pick me up, so I lugged my equipment to her door and rang the bell. … Nothing. So I tried her cell phone, leaving a message that we must’ve gotten our wires crossed about the date (the class used to be on Thursdays) and that I would get another ride. (She called me after I’d gotten to the vet center–oops, spoiler alert–apologizing profusely for having fallen asleep. No worries, Pat!)
And it was raining. And I’m not good with Plan B’s.
But then I pulled up the hood of my raincoat, walked back across the street and called my next-door neighbor, Ian. (Ringing doorbells is so last century.) He just needed five minutes for his little boy to finish his dinner, and he’d be right over, with his son in tow. So I got to know a neighbor I’d only spoken with in passing and made it to the Veterans Center in time.
The yoga class, as always, was a joy! When I told the class that I’d have missed the morning phone call if I’d gone to the gym as planned, one of the veterans said it must have been meant to be. I think he’s right.
The overworked social worker had offered to drive me home, but my husband made it back from work in time to pick me up. I told him his words had gotten me through what for me was a hard day.
Check out the view from my cat’s bedroom window this morning. (Don’t ask.) Upon closer inspection (see pic below), I confirmed that, in fact, a duck and not a goose was sitting on my neighbor’s rooftop. The mallard stayed there soaking up the sun for quite a while … but soon enough, I heard him quacking into the distance to start his day. I wish I could say the same for myself (except for the quacking), but I got distracted by my brain-injury blog and hampered by my own brain’s inability to handle technology. I don’t know where my feathered friend was headed, but I imagine he was seeking better real estate.
On Sunday afternoon, I made a new friend. Nothing super-weird about that … except I’d already made acquaintance with a tree behind her house and fenced yard — and in fact had done yoga poses and meditated in front of it numerous times over the past few months.
This tree, you see, has been giving me inspiration on my walk-jogs along the paved path where our neighborhood borders the local forest preserve. From its branches the homeowner had hung thin strips of wood painted with what I thought of as mantras, such as “Hope,” “Believe” and “Be Kind.” You know, all that New-Age-y crap I like.
In all the time I’d passed by the tree, I’d never seen a resident of the home and imagined him/her to be a wise guru type, or at the very least a fellow yoga junkie.
Well, Sunday as I approached the tree, a woman in hiking boots was just coming out the back gate holding a leash attached to a big, friendly dog that looked eager to get going. (Of course, I already knew this dog from said yoga/meditation sessions. He’d sat quietly nearby–calmed, I’d imagined.)
I complimented her on the tree, and she was delighted that I found the hanging “affirmations,” as she called them, so meaningful but said she hadn’t noticed me behind her house before. (Probably a good thing.) Other passersby have also enjoyed the daily dose of positivity, she told me.
Some of the phrases come from Scripture; others, either she or her husband came up with. (I could have sworn I’d once seen an “Om” dangling from one of those branches! Well, that’s brain injury for ya.) What surprised me most was that the wood strips themselves were repurposed sections of old window blinds. Nice!
No, strike that. What surprised me most was that my new friend had planted a sickly stump of a treelet years ago and hadn’t expected much. She still has to cut back a dying branch each year, but that tree, which she dubbed Stumpy, has flourished, at least enough to hold our neighborhood’s affirmations.
I had been planning to continue on the paved path to its end and then turn around and head home, but she invited me to join her and her dog on her muddy trek through the woods. These woods, in their drier days and my not-so-seizure-prone days, had been my running grounds.
The woods also contain paths to my old friend Rocky, the boulder atop the high hill overlooking the lake. (See “Rocky” on this blog.) I used to run the mile from home to the hill (by way of another paved path) and keep running until I got up to Rocky, where I’d sit and catch my breath and the view before walking home and heading to the office.
On Sunday, as we sloshed through the mud and tried to strategically avoid giant puddles, we talked about our lives, our families, our stories. Wonderful, messy nature. Her dog, my cat. The need to share feelings and the necessity of solitude.
We hiked uphill to Rocky, had a seat and took in the view. Just as I had already met the tree I now knew as Stumpy, she’d been a longtime friend of Rocky’s. There was even a time when someone wrote affirmations on it, she said.
Conversation continued on the way back. When I mentioned that my family would be seeing “Hamilton” soon, she said she’d loved it and that, weirdly enough, she had finally had time to listen to the entire soundtrack a couple of days ago. I had just made it through the whole thing (though not for the first time) the previous day.
Eventually, we made our way out of the forest and onto the paved path. We exchanged text info, and she took a selfie–which I’m still waiting for, by the way. I’ll only use it if she wants to be in this blog post (and not just to prove I’m not writing about an imaginary friend). I returned to my house, she to hers.
The thing is, I had’t planned to go outside at all that day. Rain was threatening, and I was in a blah spell that I couldn’t shake. My husband knows the outdoors perks me up, no matter what the weather, so he suggested I take a walk. I’m sure he wasn’t trying to get rid of me.
It wasn’t at all what I expected, but it was just what I needed.
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.