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.

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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

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“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.

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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?

 

Grrrrr...

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.

Self-Doubt

“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.

Flying High

From Morocco, to Hungary, then on to Japan. Next came China and India. From there I traveled to Estonia. My next trip was to Scotland, later to Panama and Thailand. Zimbabwe followed, and from there I went to the Philippines, then to Bhutan and Ghana.

Here I sit in the U.S. at my computer, yesterday my thoughts were on Ghana, today, I dream of Haiti.

I researched weaving in Morocco and the Philippines, and studied embroidery in Thailand and India. In Scotland, I learnt about kilt hose, and in Panama I found molas, the colorful reverse applique of the Kuna Indians.

When I mentioned a couple of my trips to a friend, he asked me when I got back. I laughed—I don’t travel in person. I wish I could.

I write articles about textile techniques from around the world. And now I’m working on a book, each chapter based on one of those articles. I have fabulous photos of the textiles. But I have none of the artisans at work. I want, I need such photos. For the book. For myself.

I wish I could travel as much as I do virtually. I would like to go to Morocco and hang out with some of the Berber rug weavers. If I could only watch the Jalq'a weavers of Bolivia in person, there's so much I want to ask them. To be able to get an up close look the double ikat weaving in Patan, India... I’d love to visit my friends in Bhutan, one of whom was a weaver to the king.

Marilyn shook her head. “But the altitude...”

But— But— I’ve wanted to go for so long. I was planning to go within the next few years. I hadn’t thought of the altitude. That ruled out Ayacucho and Cusco in Peru as well, both places I wish I could explore, where I have friends.

I was in the highlands of Guatemala when I suffered my acute brain bleeds. According to many members of the Angioma Alliance, high altitudes can trigger bleeds. Some members won’t travel by plane for fear of hemorrhaging.

I refuse to give up on traveling. It’s an important part of my life. I fly to visit friends and family in Israel at least once a year. Colorado is another of my regular destinations. A few months ago, I was in New Mexico. My brother lives in Massachusetts. I’m long past due a trip to England. And Iceland sounds good, as does Laos, and Ghana, and New Zealand, and, and...

Yes there’s a danger of a bleed, and travel is beyond exhausting fatigue exacerbated my deficits. But…

Maybe I won’t go to Peru, and hold off on Bhutan. But I will go back to Santa Fe in February, and Israel in March, and Iceland… sometime. I just have to watch myself, to pick and choose.

Most of the time I'm fine about giving up on my dreams of travel, but whenever I work on one of my textile articles, I feel a brief twinge. Then I remember the shemagh (or keffiya) that Ghofran brought me from Saudi Arabia, the piece of Assisi embroidery that Matteo found for me in Italy, and the gorgeous shawl Poonam sent me from India. And I realize, that really I'm very lucky. When I travel vicariously through friends and family, I feel fulfilled, especially when I know they've been thinking of me. I can feel the goofy smile on my face as I listen to them recount their adventures as they searched for the glorious textile they just presented to me.

There's something about a thoughtful gift from a good friend accompanied by a story that counteracts all the twinges in the world.

Flap-Happy

I couldn't contain my joy—jumping up and down, flapping my hands, squealing. I caught sight of myself in the mirror—I looked like a happy T-Rex.

I did the T-Rex dance when I received notification in the mail that one of my hand woven pieces got accepted into the yardage exhibit for Convergence 2008 (an international weaving conference held every two years in North America). I flapped when Daniel got into the college of his choice, and when Sarah surprised me with a present.

I danced when was when I finished my first complete draft of my book “The Bloody Brain,” and a couple of years later, when I signed a contract with a literary agent. And again, a few weeks ago when a publishing company accepted my book proposal for the now-titled “But my Brain Had Other Ideas” manuscript.

I did my T-Rex imitation when a long-awaited book arrived in the mail and when I saw the first mock-up of my book on textile techniques. I flapped when an international TA told me that he passed the English test, and right after I pressed the submit button for the grant proposal I'd been fretting over for far too long.

When I received the contract for the bloody brain book, my heart skipped a beat. But I did not allow myself to flap. I still needed to work my way through the “hereto”s, “parties, and “hereby”s before I could sign it—Ugh. But after I signed it, I flapped and flapped.

A few days ago, my hands flapped furiously once again--I received a contract in the mail from a (different) publisher for the textile techniques book.

Woohoo!