Friday, April 30, 2010

Turn It Around

A lot of people attempt suicide. In fact, someone commits suicide every 17 minutes in the US. A male is 4 times more likely to succeed than a female. What a thing to be better at! Poisoning is the 2nd most successful method overall, but is by far the method of choice for women.

Many people who use poison, get their stomachs pumped and go back to trying to cope and putting their lives back together with little lasting evidence. Because too much time had elapsed from when I took the pills from the time I got to the hospital, my stomach was not pumped. Over 90 pills - mostly brain drugs: sleeping pills, tranquilizers, antidepressants (ironic, huh?), some Tylenol, extra strength mind you, and other assorted chemicals went all the way through my system.

At the hospital, at some point, they quit even monitoring me so I am told. My fever went over 107, and my mother had to literally pitch a fit to get me a cooling blanket. (Eternally grateful, Mom) I was on a respirator. My heart stopped three times, and I had seizures for hours. I know that if I had not been in such good physical shape, I would not have survived. My Mother actually witnessed staff going back and filling in my medical charts.

I was seething mad about this for a long time. Yes, I had tried to kill myself. I was messed up but, once I got to the hospital, they had a responsibility to do everything to help me and, at the very least, do their jobs. There was a time when I wanted vengeance and to sue the crap outta that hospital.

In the past couple of years instead of pursuing a lawsuit I have chosen to put my energy into getting better and healing. Even if I did sue and win, would it really change anything? I'd have more money, but I'd still talk funny. I would have expended my resources towards something negative instead of bettering myself and my situation.

I have come to have compassion for the nurses and doctors on duty that night. It was a full moon and a busy ER. Gurneys lined the hallways. I choose to believe that the hospital personnel had finite resources and thought I was going to die. Therefore, they made the logical and understandable decision to put their efforts into people who had better odds. I can only imagine the "holy shit!" look on their faces when they realized I was going to pull through.

I have found that you can take any situation and put some distance between yourself and it emotionally and look at it objectively. I didn't say this was easy. It takes some effort and practice, but it can be done.

Over time, with repetition, because of neuroplasticity, this actually becomes the default in your brain. However, you do have to consciously make a disciplined effort at first. Reinforcing these pathways and activating this loop in your brain permanently rewires your brain.

Byron Katie has a process she calls The Work that teaches you exactly how to do this. You can take any situation and stop your struggling and anguish. According to Katie and many philosophies, all suffering is caused by our own thoughts and judgments about what happens, not by what actually happens. The goal is to change your thoughts. The Work consists of four questions and a turn around. The questions are:

- Is it true?

- Can you absolutely know that it's true?

- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

- Who would you be without the thought?

After you've analyzed your situation with the four questions, you turn it around. Each turn around is an opportunity to experience the opposite of your original statement and see what you and the person you've judged have in common. She says the turnarounds are the prescriptions for happiness. For example:

"The hospital workers should have done more to help me" turns around to:
- The hospital workers should not have done more to help me. They had to make a judgment call here.
- I should have done more to help myself before ever getting to the hospital.

This exercise can help to alleviate your anger and suffering about any situation and give you a new perspective. You can find a full explanation of The Work and even worksheets at Give it a try about some situation in your life and turn it around.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Seeing Thunder and Hearing Lightening

Whaaat? It was largely accepted until fairly recently that the human adult brain, was essentially fixed. This was illustrated in full color diagrams confidently mapping the regions and structures responsible for say moving the left pinkie or for processing the feelings of biting the tongue. Ouch! It was believed that every bit of neural real estate was zoned and assigned a specific function. So, it had to be true, right?

Wrong! Much research in recent decades has proven this to just not be the case. Many scientific studies have confirmed that the brain is plastic meaning it is not fixed, not static, and not hard wired. It is malleable, dynamic and capable of physical change all throughout adulthood.

I like to think of our brain like play dough. We are holding this blob in our hands and can shape it however we choose. We sculpt our brain with our environment, our experiences, the demands we place on it repeatedly, and, basically, the lives we lead every day. Works both ways - good and bad.

Plasticity was demonstrated early on in an experiment with ferrets, who have identical wiring to the auditory cortex and visual cortex as humans except for one important factor, the timing. Human basic wiring exists at birth. Ferrets grow this circuit after birth. Scientist interrupted this pathway in the ferrets with some very careful brain surgery so that nerves from the eye grew into the auditory cortex. The ferrets were then trained to respond to sounds and lights. The ferrets "heard" the lights with parts of the brain that would normally process sound.

In a later experiment, sighted adults were blindfolded all day, every day for 5 days. They spent their time learning Braille and performing various tactile and auditory activities. Their brains were scanned before and at the end of the experiment. Beforehand, their auditory cortex showed normal activity upon hearing sound. Their visual cortex lit up when seeing as expected, and their somatosensory cortex buzzed appropriately when fingering Braille symbols.

After just 5 days of being blind folded, their "visual" cortex became active when doing all these things. The "seeing" brain was now hearing and feeling. Even though it had spent all its years up until that point handling visual input, with no signals coming from the eyes at all, the brain reorganized itself to utilize the newly dormant areas for other functions - sort of like an industrious developer seizing some prime vacant piece of land and capitalizing on it.

This same amazing ability is the cause of phantom limb. People who have lost a limb experience a brain reorganization. The part of the brain that formerly received input from the missing limb is taken over by neighbors on the homunculus. Because the face and the hand are side by side, it has been documented that someone missing a hand actually learned where to scratch on their face to satisfy an itch on the missing hand.

Phantom pain has been shown to be caused in most cases by that being the last signal the brain received from the lost limb. In a confused loop, the brain processes this sensation endlessly. This phenomenon has miraculously been alleviated by utilizing neuroplasticity and tricking the brain and interrupting this cycle with mirrors which visually replace the lost limb and change the signals to the brain.

There is a catch to neuroplasticity. It only occurs when a person is paying attention and focusing on the input whether it be intentional or not. Hence with directed consciousness, a person has the ability to change their brain. Unfortunately, this is more often done unconsciously by most people.

The science of neuroplasticity is very new. It's limits are unknown. It opens up a world of possibilities. In a very personal sense, each individual has the power to change their life. On a broader scale, the same brains that now practice prejudice, hatred and warfare have the potential to be kinder, more compassionate and less aggressive. It can happen one brain at a time.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Alone.... but not lonely

For the past three years since my brain injury, for the first time ever in my life, I have been alone...completely alone. No kids. No man. Nada.

Pets don't count, do they? The number of cats has grown abnormally high over the years...six....and one dog. BTW - I think the "crazy, cat lady" has a certain charm.

After I tried to commit suicide, my ex-husband sued me for custody of the kids. He won, and then promptly moved out of state with them. It certainly was in the best interest of the kids at the time, and, while I do not think it was his intent at all, it was what was absolutely best for me too.

My boyfriend of three years had taken himself out of the picture rather unexpectedly for me at least. That was part of what prompted my suicide attempt. I was planning on a future with him whether he was with me or not. I had it all worked out nicely in my head.

So, here I was all alone. Even pretty seriously brain injured, my first instinct was to struggle against it and fill up the time and space with people, with TV, with emails to my kids...just general busy-ness. I slept a lot because my condition required it...I couldn't NOT sleep...but, also, because when I was asleep I did not have to think or feel or be alone. I considered getting a room mate.

I remember seeing the geese at the lake near my house. Ever noticed how geese always seem to be in pairs? Boy, I sure did, and I was jealous of them! It made me mad. I thought, "Why do they get to have a mate??...even if he does honk annoyingly as hell and poop green slime all over the place."

Over time, I grew to appreciate and even like my solitude. Being alone has been vital to my healing both physically and emotionally. I just barely had enough mental energy to exist and function at first. There were not enough reserves to worry about what others thought and to "perform," which I had perfected to the level of an art up until that point of my life.

I pretty much isolated myself and withdrew from everyone and everything. I could not be around people for any length of time. It mentally exhausted me. Still does somewhat. This gave me the opportunity to put my energy into myself. I had nothing else to do. Something I have never really done - ever. A man or the kids had always been at the top of the list. I was somewhere down near the bottom after the dog.

Being alone also forced me to grow up, finally, in my mid forties. About time, huh? I had to decide who I was without hiding behind the roles I played in life or by trying to be what I thought some man wanted me to be. All that was gone. So, I had to determine what was left and who I was then.

In her book "Why People Don't Heal and How They Can," Caroline Myss says that the fear of being alone lies at the core of many people's inability to heal. Not healing allows people to lean on others for assistance and play on their guilt to keep them around. There is a certain power over others in not healing.

Being alone has allowed me to heal, become self sufficient and learn to like my own company. You know what? I am pretty cool to be around! It has allowed me to eat whenever I feel like it, play my music as loud as I want, and walk around with zit cream on my face. However, I can't say that it has done much for my table manners.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Gimme a break!

"You deserve a break today...So, get up and get away to McDonald's." Remember that? I know you youngsters don't. I agree with the first part, but the second part, not so much. You do deserve a break. I deserve a break. We all deserve a break, dammit!

This practice has to first originate with ourselves, to ourselves. I used to be terrible at this. I was my own worst critic although I have had some pretty enthusiastic cheerleaders over the years from which I could always draw fresh material. I do take responsibility for willingly playing the starring role. However, my brain injury has taught me how to be kind and compassionate with myself and others.

At first, I tried very hard to not act brain injured. Didn't work. With barely understandable speech and poor mental functioning, this was an exhausting effort, and I did not fool anyone although I was not even cognizant enough to know it for a while. I soon found that I could not even begin to keep this up, and allowed myself to be brain injured. This was the beginning of the crumbling of the wall that I had hid behind all my life, and the beginning of being authentic with myself and those around me.

I had to be very forgiving of myself when I drove around the neighborhood beside mine in a panic for thirty minutes because I couldn't find my way home. I had to be kind to myself when I threw my credit card at the cashier at the grocery store because my fine motor skills were lacking. Along the way I have learned to be gentle with myself and even laugh. Imagine that.

Thank goodness, I don't make anywhere near the blunders I used to, but, just this past week, I had a brain blip. I am doing some intensive neurofeedback called Brain State...more on that later....amazing stuff. I did 2 sessions a day for a week. When I went for my afternoon appointment on Tuesday the door was locked and no one was there. I figured they had gone to lunch. I sat outside the door reading a book for 30 minutes until they called me on my cell, and said "Did you forget your afternoon appointment?" I had turned in a different entrance and was at the building across the parking lot. Oops! In my defense, all the buildings are cookie cutter identical.

In the past, something like this would have mortified me and ruined the rest of my day as I replayed it over and over in my head kicking myself and calling myself not so nice names each time. Now, I chalk it up not only to the brain injury but to also to just being human and shrug and let it go. I actually can keep myself very amused at times.

I have often wished I had a big bandage on my head because, even early on, I looked "normal." I like to think hip and street smart even. Indulge me here. A (stupid and rude) person actually asked someone with me one time "How much has she had to drink?" At the airport alone once, I beeped when going through the metal detector. I had no idea why or what to do. The guy had to rather disgustedly explain it, in detail, to me until I took off my belt and put it in the little tray.

These experiences and this learning process with myself has allowed me to extend the same kind of compassion to others. It is so true that we never know what challenges someone is facing by their outward appearance. You just never know. My initial reaction may still be somewhat judgmental and assuming, but then I have learned to step back and look at the same scene through a filter of kindness. It is amazing how the view drastically changes. It also makes me aware of the many presumptions I make about something when I really have no idea.

Try it! Give yourself and the others in your life a break today and not the kind with cheese. We see things not as they are. We see them as we are.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The heart of the matter

While the males in our population have long been accused of having a second brain in their pants, every one of us has a brain in our chest as well as in our head.

Thoreau said "The intellect is powerless to express thought without the aid of the heart." Science is proving more and more that our experience of the world is first perceived by our heart, which thinks about it, responds accordingly and sends information to the brain for further processing.

Around 65% of the cells in the heart are neural cells, clustered in ganglia and connected to the neural network of the body through axon-dendrites just like in the brain. The heart is a specialized brain hooked into the central nervous system making and releasing its own neurotransmitters and with its own memory.

The neurons in the heart store memories. This is why when Grandpa gets a heart transplant from Julio Vasquez, he starts liking salsa afterward when he couldn't stand it before.

Wild, huh? This stuff completely blew me away and is from Stephen Harrod Buhner's book The Secret Teachings of Plants: In the Direct Perception of Nature.

These neural cells in the heart have a direct connection to the brain and are constantly chattering back and forth with the brain and the two, together, decide how to respond to incoming information. Neurons in the brain alter their behavior in accordance with the signals embedded in each heartbeat and send it to the central nervous system to make physiological and behavioral changes almost instantly.

The heart's ability to perceive meaning from the world even has a name: aisthesis which literally means "to breath in." It is that moment when the life force of one living organism communicates with and moves into another one. We live in a world that is alive with awareness and intelligence. It is up to us to acknowledge and allow this intimate exchange kind of like the Navi in Avatar plugged their tails into something to connect with it.

Even though we are trained out of using our heart as organs of perception early on, the skill still exists and can be developed. Think of seeing the Grand Canyon or any postcard worthy scene. There is a real, palpable reaction in the body as the energy, the power of the thing is felt.

The brain is an organic computer processing data and acting as a clearing station for central nervous system functioning. Unlike the heart, the brain is linear and to use it as the primary organ of perception reduces life analytically to a mechanical process with little meaning.

Because of my brain injury, I was forced to rely heavily on the perception and intelligence of my heart. I have learned to trust it and listen to it. You know what? It is much wiser than my brain ever was. Using this type of intelligence and perception, I truly feel connected and just know the right direction for me at each turn. I used to be hopelessly disconnected, lost, and did not have a clue. I was always looking externally to others and things to give me the answers here.

There is a great power and wisdom in the world around us. The challenge is to notice it, develop it, and invite it to play a bigger role in our lives. To begin to use the heart as an organ of perception and communication allows us as a species to become, once again, a respectful, integral part of the web of life of Earth and allows us as individuals to begin to live more fulfilled and authentic lives. The problem is our heart intelligence is in kindergarten while our mind intelligence has already graduated.