I read the first sentence: “An island is 2 miles due north of its closest point along a straight shoreline.” Oh God! What the hell does that mean? “Closest point along…blah blah blah”

There was no way I could figure this out. About to panic, I took adeep breath. What if I drew a picture? An island—I could do that. “2 miles due north of its closest… blah blah blah...” Clearly this wasn’t going to work. Another deep breath. I decided to skip ahead, perhaps that would give me a clue. Ah! “a straight shoreline.” I could draw a straight shoreline. I reread that part. Oh, the island is north of the shoreline. I adjusted the drawing—shoreline on the bottom, island above it. Oh, 2 miles above it.

Once I drew the picture, step by step I figured out how to translate it into variables and equations. Solving it was a piece of cake.

Before the brain surgeries, I would have flown through the problem, thinking it through in real time, sketching the picture quickly while incorporating the variables into the picture. The surgeries robbed me of that speed.

People I met socially usually reacted to my being a mathematician with “You must be really smart.” In the past, I accepted it as my due. Now, I equated my inability to think as fast as I used to with loss of intelligence, an integral part of who I was. I now felt like an impostor.

My neuropsychologist explained that though I lost speed of processing, my brain power was in tact. He added that I probably wouldn’t fully regain speed, but it would improve. In time I did regain speed. But I felt it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t back to who I wanted to be.

As I progressed in my healing, I came to understand that I was not the same person I used to be and I never would be. I learned that my new norm was actually better than the old. Not only were the losses accompanied by gains, but in fact, the gains far outweighed the losses. My life became fuller, much richer. But still, the memory of the old me lurked in the recesses of my mind, occasionally resurfacing whenever the bloody brain lashed out at me, and I lamented my cognitive deficits.

Before the onset of the bloody brain, a friend told me that I got much more done than most people. When she asked how I did it, I had no answer for her—it was all I knew. I assumed that everyone got as much done. And now, I wonder at the old me. How did I manage it all?

Recently, I watched a video where the narrator suggested that instead of worrying about societal norms about our looks, what we wear, and what we do, we should take the time to look in the mirror and tell ourselves that we are enough.

The word “enough” brought back my writing coach’s advice. “Set yourself goals for the day. Make sure the list is within reach. And at the end of the day, tell yourself the whatever you manage to get done is enough.” She referred to this strategy as conditions of enoughness.

Now, at the end of the day, when frustration threatens, I think back to her words. And it helps, most of the time.

As I watched the video, it occurred to me that I could apply conditions of enoughness not only to a list of tasks. I could implement them to myself, as a person, the new me.

I am enough, thinking speed, bloody brain and all.

Spring Writing

I feel lost. I know what I want to write about. I’ve written bits and pieces. But it won’t gel. I’ve tried stepping back to take a break, to gain a better perspective.


What is this story about?

Normally, all it takes is a shower. I stand under the shower head, water streaming down my body, my thoughts meandering, reviewing aspects of an essay I am writing. And by the time I dry myself, I’ve figure it out. Occasionally, I have to repeat the process the next day.

When I wrote about my daughter’s struggles to pass her driving test, I thought my essay was about just that—a story about Sarah’s first driving test. But though amusing, as I’d meant it to be, it fell flat. It just didn’t quite work, it felt as if there was something missing. It came to me while I was in the shower—the story was about my tumultuous relationship with my teenage daughter. Once dressed, I sat at my computer and the words flowed onto the screen.

Over the past couple of months, my writing has felt off. I couldn’t settle into it. No matter what I wrote about. I’ve tried all the tricks of the trade, backing off for a while and coming back to it, thinking in terms of what I’m not writing about, musing about it in the shower—nothing.

Something was wrong, very wrong. But what? Why? Had something in my circumstances changed?

It was mid semester—I was tired much of the time and headaches frequently plagued me, but that was not unusual. The Spring was always tougher than the Fall semester. But in the past, I’d managed to write under similar circumstance.

Was I even more tired than usual? The semester was winding down, which was always tough. But that never bothered me to this extent. Or was it?

My lousy memory often got in the way of me trying to figure this sort of thing out. When life with the bloody brain gets difficult, a worse headache than usual, crippling fatigue that gets in the way of my daily activities, I frequently have trouble figuring out triggers and trying to compare it to struggles in the past.

Usually, when that happens, I turn to my friends Joyce and Cindy—I speak to them daily. Perhaps they could help.

Cindy’s reacted with an emphatic, “Duh!”

She reminded me of my emergency trip to Israel. It was a real killer. It took me even longer than usual to recover from it.

Joyce scoffed. “You’ve been stressing about your parents’ health, and worrying about your sister’s recovery. Then there’s Cindy—she hasn’t been doing well. And Sarah… And it is the spring semester. Need I say more?”

I mentioned my difficulties to Judy, my writing coach. “My writing is below par.”

She reminded me that my writing always suffered in the spring, and this spring was worse than usual with family issues. She suggested that I step back from writing about the tough stuff, and hold off on the larger projects. She encouraged me to stick with shorter pieces, blog posts. “What about your issues with writing during the spring semester?”

It was better, though still a struggle. I told myself that all would be well at the end of the semester—only two weeks to go.

Today is Wednesday. On Friday I gave my last lecture of the semester. Since then I’ve been experiencing headaches. There have been a few headache-free stretches, but there has not been a single headache-free day. And every day there’s been at least one stretch when I’ve been . From past experience, I know that full recovery from the stress and fatigue of the semester will take at least a couple of more days.

In the meantime, I’ll stick to shorter pieces. Like this one.

Battle of Opposits

Yes, I admit to using the five second rule—if a pretzel falls on the floor and I pick it up within five seconds, I deem it still edible. As long as the floor isn’t too horrifically dirty.

When I read my friend’s post about the five second rule, I was confused. What did the rule have to do with writing? It just didn’t make sense.

She spoke of the it as a way of being more productive. But I still couldn’t see the connection. Curious, I Googled it.

According to the publisher of Mel Robbins’ book, The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage,“is a self-help book based on a simple psychological tool that the author developed to motivate herself. Using a technique that involves counting down backwards from five to one, she gave herself the extra push she needed to complete dreaded tasks, become more productive, and live a more fulfilling life.”

The idea is that once the thought of taking on an activity (in her case related to writing) occurs to you, you have to begin it within five seconds.

I had to try it out. Working full time as a college professor, I chose a Saturday to test it. I tried to use it to force myself to get up within five seconds of waking up. It didn’t work—I was too comfy in my bed. I luxuriated under the covers for another half an hour before I managed to convince myself to get up.

Just as I was finishing brushing my teeth, I decided to open up my laptop to get ready to write my morning away. Within five seconds, acted on it, then returned to my room to take my meds and finish getting dressed. Within five seconds of completing the tasks, I was at my computer, writing.

An hour later, at a good place to take a break, my inner critic, Shoshana, tried to convince me it was time for a nap. I chided myself, and within five seconds, I was on to the next paragraph. This happened a couple of times, until I finished a first draft.

I was thrilled. What about if I decided to work on a second essay? It worked! From finishing the first draft, I moved on to send query emails about speaking engagements and book events.

The next item on my list gave me pause, to start grading a pile of essays. Though I felt motivated, the five second rule failed—common sense kicked in. I really had to listen to my body—I was exhausted. I absolutely had to lie down, or I’d pay a heavy price.

I’m a brain injury survivor. As a consequence I tire easily, and when I overdo things overwhelming fatigue sets in. And if I don’t take action, I suffer horrific headaches.

I came away from that day feeling good about myself. I’d been more productive than I’d been in a long time.

I was glad I found an effective way to thwart Shoshana’s attempts to sidetrack me—I was going to apply this rule every day.

Since then I found that the five second rule be counterproductive on occasion..

At the end of a productive day, I often find myself beyond exhausted, unable to function properly. I became incapable of performing the simplest of tasks, barely able to get to bed.


In addition, sometimes, as soon as I begin a task, the though of another task pops up, and another, then another. I become overwhelmed, and freeze—another symptom of my brain injury. Whenever too much data floods my inner circuitry, I lose orientation, and freeze—my mind becomes a blank.

I do have a remedy—I take a shower to soothe the beast—my mind clears, allowing me to make order out of the chaos, to set up a list of priorities, and pick out three doable tasks that will satisfy a sensible level productivity, my conditions of enoughness. And again, once I finish dressing, I’m off and running.

I learned about applying conditions of enoughness from my writing coach. The idea is to set a doable number of tasks to increase the chances of completing them. It is another tool to combat Shoshana, by not becoming overwhelmed and freezing.

I have learnt to adjust the five second rule in a way that works best for me. I even learned to work it into my issues with fatigue—every time I feel the early signs of exhaustion, I use the rule to take a nap.

I’ve also found that when the rule fails me, it actually increases my motivation and conviction to start the task, whether withing five seconds, five minutes, five hours, and rarely withing five days. I know I will get to it, and I always do.

The rule isn’t infallible, but it has definitely increased my level of productivity and helped me shut Shoshana up.

The five second rule rules.

Scars Revisited


“I was particularly riveted by the chapter on your scars. You suddenly went through this period when you had to see them.” Kit surmised that my journey was not only of healing, but also of acceptance. “Would you talk about that a little bit?”

As Kit spoke, as if on its own accord, my hand went up to the scar from my brain stem surgery. And as I started responding, I found myself running my index finger up and down the tail end of it, the part that lies below the hair line. And I realized that I still need to know that they’re there, I still need that validation.

Like many brain injury survivors, my disability is invisible. Many of us, if not all, at some point in our recovery encounter outsiders who suspect that we are over dramatizing, malingering, that in fact, we are back to “normal” but have embraced victimhood. Like many brain injury survivors, self-doubt is a constant companion. Perhaps I am an attention seeker, perhaps my symptoms aren’t quite as bad as I make them out to be. Am I just needy, whining, lowlife?

I’m one of the “lucky” ones, I have tangible evidence of my injury—the scars from my surgeries. Most brain injury survivors, many of them due to concussion, have no such evidence, no such validation. What do they do?

We were in the Boulder Book Store at a book signing for my book, But My Brain Had Other Ideas. It was during the Q&A session. I got a lot of questions and comments. Some of the comments caused me a bit of a twinge as I recalled the early days of recovery, the daily struggles, the darkness. All of the questions made me think.

Wendy, whose daughter had also undergone brain surgery, commented that brain injury survivors often do function like neuro-typicals, but what outsiders don’t see is what it takes out of survivors—after brain injury, the brain has to work harder to achieve what most people do without any side effects.

Her words resonated with me. By the end of a day at work, having functioned at a “normal” level, I’m completely drained—there’s a price to be paid. Recovering from the book event is still ongoing—exhaustion, rip roaring headaches, vertigo. Earlier today, I told a friend that I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

As I write this, I run my  finger up and down the tail end of my scar.

Kit was right. My journey was not only of healing, but also of acceptance.

The journey is ongoing.

Guided by the Fugawi

Sometimes a title for a book or essay smacks you in the face as you write it, or shortly after you complete it. But more often than not, you agonize over it for days, weeks, months, sometimes more.

I was writing a piece about how and why I started writing my memoir about recovery from brain injury: “But My Brain Had Other Ideas: A Memoir of Recovery from Brain Injury.”

Coming out of my third brain surgery, I was lost—nothing made sense. About to take my first step on a journey to recovery, I had no idea which way to go. I was an alien in a strange land, without a map or compass.

flickr--Ronni Macdolnald

flickr--Ronni Macdolnald

I searched high and low, through books and on the internet. I found plenty about brain injury, from crisis to short term recovery. Most were written by caregivers or medical professionals. Only a few mentioned long-term recovery, and that only in passing. I needed a guide from an insider, a survivor, for the years to come.

I decided to create my own compass—I decided to write a memoir.

And that’s what the piece was about—how I came to write my book.

My writing title for the piece was “Compass,” but it wouldn’t do for a final title. It was too… too boring? It just didn’t work. A friend suggested “Maps and Compasses,” which I didn’t like. But it did suggest a whole slew of other ideas, such as “Cartography 101,” “Navigating Without a Compass,” and “Mapping Without Landmarks.” But they all felt wrong.

At that point, my thoughts veered off path. Perhaps a pun: “Misguided.”

Finally, losing patience with myself, it came to me, “Guided by the Fugawi.”

I knew it wouldn’t work for the piece I’d written, but it was too good to waste.

So here it is.

Note: I case you’re curious about the name Fugawi, check out https://www.fugawi.com/fugawi

Inner Shift

I came away from this summer’s writing retreat feeling different, less disappointed in myself. I felt as if something clicked. But what?

Over the last six years or so, my writing coach/editor, Judy, has been running an annual writing retreat for several of her clients. We’re a small group, no more than half a dozen at a time, including Judy. Cindy, Kathy, Wendy, and I have become the nucleus, an inner circle of close friends. Sue used to be a part of the core group, but hasn’t participated in the last two workshops. Every summer we welcome one or two new participants. David one year, Amy another, and Marcie.

Elizabeth was Judy’s latest recruit, attending the last two times. A newcomer, not knowing the drill, she was anxious her first time. But this past summer, knowing what to expect, she was much more relaxed this past summer, she became part of our circle.

During the retreat, we get together every morning for an intense session, where Judy assigns us writing exercises to improve various aspects of our writing. I enjoy some of the exercises more than others. There are always one or two I find I have no love for, like the more visual activities, such as clustering exercise and map making. Though this time around I enjoyed them more than in the past.

Writing Hand.jpg

Until this past year, after the second day, my brain was reluctant to cooperate with me, sometimes fully shutting down, no matter how hard I tried to keep up with the group’s pace. At various points, I found myself zoning out, incapable of following Judy’s instructions and lessons.

But this summer was different. This year, though extremely tired three days into the retreat, suffering a horrendous headache during the third day, the bloody brain allowed me to keep up throughout the workshop, except during one of the activities. However hard I tried, I just couldn’t drag myself from the void back to my surroundings.

The rest of the time, I was very much part of the pack—I felt more present, as if there was an inner shift in my mind, as if some piece of a puzzle clicked into place. Thinking back, I realized that I’ve been better grounded in my writing experience during over the past few months.

I experienced several epiphanies during my time at the retreat. Sitting down to write whenever the muse struck me was accessible—I didn’t need to wait until a decent chunk of time came my way. It was okay to write on a whim, a few minutes here and there—a quick haiku, a paragraph, a brief stream of consciousness. I also finally accepted the fact that even when I was on a roll in my writing, there came a point where I had to quit—if I wrote too far into the night, I wasn’t be able to sleep.

Unlike in previous retreats, I was able relax and have fun with my writing—the anxiety over being judged was no more. Though it was nice when my writing evoked reactions such as laughter, visualization, or reflection. I was thrilled when I actually managed to cause utter disgust, as I had hoped.

I’m not sure what changed.

I know I wasn’t better rested than in past retreats—because of a ridiculously packed couple of months prior to the workshop, I was in worse shape coming into it than usual.

Was I further along in my healing, better able to manage my deficits? Had my ability to pace myself become more effective? Was my growth as a writer more evident? Was I more comfortable in my own skin?



I started my day sitting outside in the shade, typing on my laptop, working on an essay about one of my experiences in the Old City in Jerusalem.

It was a lovely morning. The skies infinite, the temperature gentle, a mere hint of the heat to come.

As my fingers danced on the keyboard, I occasionally smiled. Like all my times roaming through the souk in the Arab Quarter, it was a fond memory.

And then disaster struck—somehow, I clicked on something that changed the display. Instead of my usual single-page view, I now found myself facing a two-page view. Assuming this was a minor glitch, easily rectified, I clicked on the View button on the toolbar. I tried Format and then Tools, anything that included the words options or display, but nothing looked promising.

Still calm, I decided to search for a solution on the internet. I discovered that I needed to search for Page Preview. But the only thing I found was how to get a double-page display, on an older version of LibreOffice. This was the first time the LibreOffice help site failed to help—I started becoming agitated.

I wasn’t sure what prompted me to check another document I’d been working on—when I clicked on it, I found that it too had changed its display style. I tried a completely unrelated document, from a different folder. It too was modified. After taking a few deep breaths, I turned back to Google—no matter what I tried, Page Display, Page Preview, Single-Page Preview, nothing helpful showed up.

Now, I was frustrated. I contacted my friend, Judy, to whom I had turned to in the past when my word processor misbehaved. I didn’t have to wait long for her response.

I followed her instructions, which quickly led to a dead end—we were using different versions of LibreOffice. Frustration started transitioning into anger. And when I tried her next suggestion, I had to pause to force myself to unclench my fists so I could continue in my attempts to correct the wrong.

That’s when I realized that really, working with a two-page layout wouldn’t be the end of the world. I could certainly continue writing and deal with the issue later. But almost as soon as the thought popped into my head, I squashed it. No! I wasn’t going to let this stupid program beat me!

I checked my email again—Judy had come up with another idea. I’d already tried it, to no. Now I clenched my jaw as my anger escalated.

My state of mind won over reason—I started clicking on buttons and icons, not quite randomly, not quite violently— It worked!

Finally, only one page showed up on the display. Why—How—

Instead of rejoicing or feeling relieved, now I felt like punching something and/or slamming doors.

Wait! What was going on? I shouldn’t have been this upset. Frustrated, yes. But once I resolved the issue, I should have been fine. My negative emotions shouldn’t be lingering like this.

I wondered whether this was bloody brain related rage—that wouldn’t be good news. I hadn’t experienced that kind of anger in a few years. Yes, I’d been pushing myself too hard lately. And yes, I’d become more fragile, more easily prone to sensory overload, exhausted too much of the day, but still… rage?

I shrugged it off, there was no point in worrying about the reason. It was more important to try to clam down, at least I was better equipped to manage my moods than I used to be.

I took a few deep breaths. Writing! That’d help—I’d write about it.

And I am, and I feel much better—no traces of anger left whatsoever.

But why on Earth did I react so strongly? A bad brain day?

Or just me being a twit?

The Inevitable

Sometimes it gets to me.

I can’t let it hold me back. I won’t let it hold me back. I want to live. I have to live. I refuse to give in.

But sometimes, I have no choice. Sometimes, the Bloody Brain leaves me floundering. I don’t mean headaches. I don’t mean poor balance. Or major meltdowns. Or any of the other more dramatic symptoms the Bloody Brain throws at me all too often.

I mean the more subtle symptoms, the world weariness, an overwhelming slow down that takes over my brain, my body. When I feel the need to, I try to push through it, knowing it’ll catch up with me eventually, melodramatically.

I am able now to postpone the inevitable now.

Seven years ago, in the early days, I had to succumb to the Bloody Brain as soon as it demanded it’s price. I had no choice, there was no bargaining with it, let alone fighting it. If I tried, it would lash out at me with full force.

Right now, I am pushing myself, hard. Writing to damp down the threat of tears, a signal that overload is imminent. I’ll push myself even harder for my job and for friendship. I’ll plaster a tired smile on my face, knowing it’ll quickly broaden and become genuine.

I’ll collapse soon enough, when I have time, when I’m ready.


“Am I not trying hard enough?”

“Am I being melodramatic? A hypochondriac?”

“Will I always be like this?”

“Will I be able to get back into the classroom?”

Those, and more questions, plagued me during my first year of recovery from my brain surgeries. Some of them continue to plague me. I still wonder whether I am over-dramatizing, whether my symptoms are real, brain injury related, or imagined. Am I truly suffering from sensory overload, or am I exaggeration? Is my balance really that bad? Or am I merely seeking attention?

Since my brain surgeries, self-doubt has become a part of who I am, though I hide it well. Apparently, it is a common phenomenon among brain injury survivors. Many of us, who used to be independent and self-confident prior to our injury, become filled with doubt.

In my case, and I’m sure among many others, questioning whether I am malingering, I tend to overdo it. I often run myself into the ground, not wanting to inconvenience others or cause concern. I don’t want outsiders to think that I am lazy, or that I am not pulling my weight.

During my first year of recovery, I wondered whether I’d always be as damaged as I was, whether I’d ever return to “normal.” In particular, I was concerned that I would never regain my independence. Would I ever be able to earn a living? At first, certain that I wouldn’t be able to return to teaching, I thought to search for an alternate career. But in time, as I healed, feeling a glimmer of hope, I started to relearn arithmetic, then college algebra, and finally calculus.

Reaching a point where I felt I was as ready as could be, I went back to work. In retrospect, I’m not sure I was ready—I probably could have used another year without teaching. During my first year back, I felt that I was a total disaster as a teacher—I was disorganized, I was easily distracted, my explanations were lacking, and I was completely drained after each lecture. But in time, my teaching improved. In fact, within a couple of years, I realized that I’d become a better teacher than I used to be before the brain bleeds.

Having had to relearn so much material, still having trouble with multi-step problems, I could better empathize with my students when they ran into difficulties with the material, and better able to address their issues. My teaching philosophy changed as well, instead on focusing on the material, I started focusing on the process, to help them hone their analytical thinking skills.

My life didn’t go back to “normal” in any sense of the word. Easily tired, I often suffer from debilitating fatigue. Headaches plague me, sometimes crippling me. And cognitively, I’m not the same, especially when I’m tired. I have trouble accessing vocabulary, I become easily distracted, and my thinking slows down. When exhausted, my brain sometimes switches off and my thinking comes to a halt—you can talk to me as much or as slow as you want, but I can’t absorb anything, let alone process it and respond accordingly.

I have missed a few meetings—I forgot about them, or the note I wrote to myself about it didn’t make sense, or marked the wrong time of day, or the wrong day, something the wrong week. Sometimes, to cancel appointments, because of crippling fatigue or a blinding headache. I

often have to forgo a much needed trip to the grocery store or the bank. Because of issues with epilepsy, I can no longer drive.

However, many of my difficulties have become mere inconveniences that I have to circumvent. In many ways, my life became fuller.

Better able to connect with people, my friendships have strengthened and I form deeper bonds. The environment in the classroom… is fabulous—I have so much more fun with my students. (Hence Fake Mustache Day and Balloon Day.)

I enjoy teaching so much more than I used to—I am much more passionate about it.

And then there’s writing—I can’t imagine my life without it. How did I live without it in the past?

I am more, not less, different, not deficient. Even though self-doubt is a frequent companion.