Out of the Broom Closet

The new movie I Feel Pretty starring Amy Schumer is about a woman who, after a head injury, wakes up the next morning with arguably, a major personality change. As someone who lives with a traumatic brain injury I find this a comical and somewhat accurate premise for a movie, based on my own experience. I could say that I hit my head and became a radically different person, and from the outside that may appear true, but my injury was more nuanced, I think.

I hit my head and as a result, I started living as the whole person I was all along. My brain injury didn’t change who I was, it just prevented me from hiding who I am.

A recent episode of the Invisibilia podcast explored the idea of living between two worlds. The individuals featured in the episode talk about living in a gray area between two identities, and this got me thinking about my own identity.

I am a writer who teaches composition and critical thinking at a university level.

But I am also a psychic/intuitive who offers readings, energy healing, and space clearing.

In my own perspective, these aspects of myself are on opposite ends of a spectrum that I might label “academic” and “woo woo.” When I teach composition, I often call into question the very beliefs I hold personally. And yet when I am using my psychic gifts, I attempt to ignore my rational mind that would question or even criticize what I do.

Because of the obvious clash between these personas, I’ve kept them separate, for the most part.

Spoiler: it’s not working.

I find that when people in my “writing” circles discover that I’m an intuitive, they become my clients, and vice versa. I often find myself working with people who come to me for spiritual advice and then they admit that they have a secret passion for writing. Or, I’ll assign my students to write a research paper and one of them will ask if they can perform a survey of research on metaphysics.

This blending of my worlds is happening in my personal practices, too. Until recently, my writing came about through a crafted/academic approach. Lately, I can’t seem to put down any words unless they’re coming from a more mindful, heart-centered, even spiritual place. I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s such a link between spirituality and art, but for whatever reason, it hadn’t clicked for me until I read this blog post I came across on the The Traveling WitchS.L. Bear writes,

“Just as an artist uses intent, deep focus, and ritual to create a work of art, a witch uses intent, deep focus, and ritual to work a spell.”

Here was my revelation. I had heard similar things before, but the idea of applying my spirituality to my art as a process rang true. I had spent years learning how to write using my brain, but now I’m coming to understand how to write using my heart.

Process, I think, influences the product too, and this shift in my creative method is reflected in my current work. I’m drafting my second novel and this manuscript contains overarching occult themes. It’s not that my earlier work didn’t reflect on aspects of myself, but they were older versions of me, and versions that didn’t touch my deep (and current) passions.

So, for many reasons, it seemed time to “come out of the broom closet,” if not for the sake of acknowledging these disparate aspects of myself, and connecting the dots for anyone who’s been following my Facebook feed lately, but for my own sake, for the opportunity to practice authenticity, and to let all of my varied interests influence one another.

Despite this proclamation, this raising of my “freak flag” up the flagpole, I recognize that I am a work in progress. For practical reasons, I will still toggle between these personas, but I expect that there will be more blending of my two worlds from now on (especially as I continue to work on this particular novel).

If this is the first you’re hearing about one or the other of my personas, or you had heard a little bit and want to know more, my spiritual work is available through my website ashtreeharmony.com and my writing is available at ashleykwarren.com. Both sites have an option to subscribe to my blog or email newsletter.

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A Review of At Home Remedies for a TBI

I’m happy to share that I’ve almost graduated from my various therapies/doctor appointments associated with the traumatic brain injury I sustained last December. Now that I am venturing more fully into the world of self care, I thought I’d post a review of some of the strategies I use for coping with lingering symptoms. Though this may be most helpful for other people who suffer from a TBI, specifically for those whose TBI was mild-moderate like mine, these tools can make any brain happy.

Meditation

Pros: Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of meditation, and organizations like the Love Your Brain Foundation are making it even easier for brain injury survivors to begin/maintain a practice. For someone whose ability to concentrate has been compromised, a practice that helps you do just that seems like a “no brainer.” (Note: I wish I could blame my brain injury for my bad puns). For me, taking the time to breathe and sit still in a quiet environment can feel like a trip to the spa if I’m having a day where sensory stimulation is overwhelming.

Cons: I don’t know if other brain injury survivors have experienced this, (please leave your stories in the comments below!) but when I meditate it gives me a headache. When I drop down into that blissful state of deep awareness, a familiar sensation I had experienced before the injury, I can feel my brain straining. It feels like the morning after an all-nighter mixed with a mild migraine. Once, when I meditated long enough (longer than 15 minutes) the headache grew and grew until it finally released and my mind felt clear.

Conclusion: Meditation is most beneficial when I do it often and for long periods of time. When I drop in for only a few minutes at a time it’s difficult to get past the brain discomfort. My guess is that meditating often and building up to long periods of time is exactly what many meditation teachers would recommend.

Ear Plugs

Pros: Many people with TBI’s talk about how after their injury, loud sounds or noises actually hurt them. Just last week I was in a horse barn with small birds that had taken root in the rafters. The acoustics amplified the chirping birds and I had to stick my fingers in my ears like a child at a parade near a fire truck siren. When I left the house that morning I wouldn’t have thought I needed ear plugs for a few birds. Ear plugs are cheap and do wonders for limiting how much sound enters the brain.

Cons: Wearing earplugs for long periods of time may lead to missing other, less invasive sounds, or sounds that might be important. Also, my ears tend to itch if I wear them for too long. Prolonged wear can also lead to various ear problems.

Conclusion: I try to assume that any situation could require earplugs and keep a few pairs in my pocket/wallet/purse. I also try to wear the earplugs for as short a time as possible to avoid irritation/itching.

Sunglasses

Pros: Who doesn’t want to look like a movie star? In all seriousness, I didn’t think much about how much light I was exposed to in an average day until my TBI. Carrying sunglasses everywhere (like earplugs) has made things like trips to the grocery store tolerable.

Cons: Since the injury I haven’t really been able to wear contact lenses (too uncomfortable), so I often find myself switching between glasses and sunglasses every time I enter a building. I suppose the practical thing would be to get a pair that changes color with my environment, but honestly, I don’t like the way those kinds of glasses look on me.

Conclusion: I embrace my inner movie star while practicing mindfulness as I take an extra thirty seconds to switch glasses in the lobby of every building I frequent. It gives me a minute to take a deep breath before I enter what is usually a stimulating and overwhelming environment.

Coloring

Pros: It’s trendy, it’s fun, and it’s good for you. Like meditation, coloring can help with focus and concentration, and for the restless it can feel like you’re “doing” something. Coloring is also an activity that can be done with friends because the activity limits sensory overload and fatigue as opposed to other social activities like going out to eat.

Cons: For the TBI patient like myself who has difficulty with small motor movements, coloring can feel frustrating. Holding a pen and moving it back and forth in controlled strokes is hard. I’m not against doing things that are hard for the sake of building new neural pathways, in fact, I think it’s very important. But when everything feels hard, from sending an email to walking around without bumping into walls, something that is supposed to be fun that isn’t is just disappointing.

Conclusion: Coloring may be great for others but for me it reminds me that I have shortcomings, and I don’t want to be in that head space.

Naps

Pros: I loved taking naps before the TBI and now the relief I feel when sinking down into my memory foam mattress and pillow is never ending. Sleep is one of the most important things you can do to help your brain heal. If I have a “crash” day, when I’ve pushed too hard and everything shuts down from my speech to my ambulation, napping is just about the only thing that can make me function again.

Cons: Feeling like I need a nap in the middle of every afternoon limits my ability to schedule the few activities that I do engage in, not to mention things like having a full time job. Some of the bliss that accompanies napping has dissipated too, now that napping has become a priority instead of a treat.

Conclusion: They may be inconvenient at times but because of their importance naps are here to stay.

Exercise

Pros: I used to be a fitness instructor so I am well aware of of the need for regular exercise and its benefits. After the injury my exercise routine shifted dramatically in that it is more frequent and much less intense. I practice 10-20 minutes of yoga in the morning and go for a 15 minute walk in the middle of the day and another 30-40 minute walk in the evening. Though there are times when I can feel my left side going numb or I start to stutter, both from fatigue, when I’m done exercising I can feel my mood has lifted.

Cons: Without the stamina to practice more intense forms of exercise (and I’m not talking long-distance running, I’m talking 20 minutes on a stationary bike more than one day a week), I feel like I have to spend a lot of time exercising to get minimal benefit.

Conclusion: I love the mood-lifting/head-clearing effect of long walks. Like meditation, I’ll have to work my way up in duration and intensity.

 

WINNER, BEST AT HOME REMEDY FOR A BRAIN INJURY: It’s a tie between exercise and naps.

Farewell to the Movies

I went to a movie for the first (and probably last) time since I sustained a TBI. I have been feeling better in a lot of ways and the return to normalcy has almost been insipid. Until I stepped through the theater doors I had almost forgotten the various ways I’ve altered my life to accommodate my various needs.

On the other side of the double doors a screen just feet short of IMAX proportions loomed. Images flashed in bright colors. I wished I’d brought my sunglasses. By the time the previews started the theater shook with sound. I couldn’t discriminate between background music and sound effects. It was so loud I started to have a panic attack.

We almost left the theater but, thankfully, the actual movie was quieter. To be fair, I expected some sensory overload. I mean, we did elect to see Captain America: Civil War. But as I sat there, I began to wonder–was I really more sensitive to the movie-going experience or had something changed?

A cursory google search suggests I’m not the first person to have an issue with noise at the theater. I think what fascinated me more was thinking about why movies are louder, brighter and more visually stimulating–are we really in need of these extreme sensory experiences to feel stimulated?

According to industry guru Randy Thom, the answer is no. In an article for FilmSound.org her writes:

The problem seems to me to be an aesthetic one, not a technical one. If I as a sound editor or mixer am presented with thirty solid minutes of visuals involving gunfire, vehicle chases, screaming people, explosions, etc., what am I supposed to do? Play it all quietly in deep reverb as if it were a dream?

Badly designed films are unrelentingly loud. Badly designed films don’t take advantage of dynamic range. They are as silly as a newspaper would be if it were printed entirely in capital letters. Great roller coaster rides last a few minutes (not thirty), and set up each fast moment with a slow one. They bring you back to where you started, but with a new perspective. Film makers who resort to screaming at the audience continuously for two reels are desperate film makers grasping at straws.

One of the rationales (excuses) one often hears for designing long film sequences with non-stop in-your-face action is that the so-called “MTV generation” demands it.

Wrong. Young people today demand what they always have: something worth spending their time on, something interesting.

I couldn’t agree more. On a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour where they discussed Captain America, these sentiments were echoed when they addressed the simple yet compelling tension created by characters arguing. I don’t know about you but I experience various sympathetic nervous system reactions during an argument, not unlike the ones film makers are trying to create when they blow up buildings and choreograph impossible car chases. My mirror cells were firing during this argument–my blood pressure rose, my skin was hot–and the experience was very satisfying (it seems law dramas figured this out a long time ago). It makes me think the movie industry is trying too hard to capture my attention.

And yet, the interesting movies, the ones often lacking fight scenes and special effects, I’m not compelled to watch in a theater. I can’t justify the expense, and my sweatpants are too damn comfortable.

I admire movie-makers. I’m married to one. I appreciate the countless hours that go into making a film. But I think from now on I’ll be appreciating movies from my modest and delightfully muted TV screen.

Things I’ve Learned After My Fourth Concussion

Brains
“Brains” by Neil Conway via Flickr

On December 28th of 2009 I stepped on what I thought was a puddle. It was a good, confident, I’m-ready-for-this-day-even-though-it’s-six-in-the-morning-and-winter, step. And then I slipped on the “puddle” and fell down (the puddle was ice). And I’ve probably been falling down, one way or another, ever since.

I tried to go to work that morning. I walked in and my co-worker said rather unabashedly, “You look terrible,” and asked what happened. I responded with “I hit my head,” even though it felt like what had happened was so much more significant than that. “I hit my head” makes it seem like I opened the cupboard door on my forehead, or I misjudged the ceiling when I got out of my car. “I hit my head” is something you say right before you erupt into giggles at a sleepover. It’s cartoon characters with jackhammers or unbelievable Hollywood stunts.

If I could have, I would have said something like, “There’s been an earthquake. In my brain. 8.0 on the Richter scale at least.”

I was diagnosed with a moderate concussion and told to take the week off from work. I went home, but I’ll admit that I still did some work. When my brain recovered a few weeks later I marveled at my perseverance–I could read a novel and not remember what happened at the top of the page by the time I got to the bottom, but I could turn in my TPS reports on time, or whatever it was that I thought was so important.

Six years later I understand that what I thought was perseverance was poor judgment.

My second and third concussions were unremarkable. For the second, I slipped on the ice again. For the third, I fainted and hit my head on the way down (we don’t know why I fainted and no, I wasn’t pregnant…). These concussions were unremarkable in that they were mild. The effects were tolerable for the most part, and I was back to my old self within a little over a week.

The fourth concussion was stupid. Dumb luck. The kind of situation that makes you think, really? She’s having this much trouble because of that?

My dog hit me. Like a boxer, he reared up and clocked me right under the chin. Uppercut. I didn’t even fall down. And yet, this injury has tipped the scales of my life in ways that have completely knocked me over.

I have post-concussion syndrome. It’s been over a month since the accident and I still experience dizzy spells, an inability to concentrate (I’ve started calling this “brain squeeze”), stuttering, fatigue, and balance problems. Like my first concussion, I’ve had to turn in “TPS reports” and I’ve made the deadlines. But every time I do my body retaliates. With enough of these moments I’ve come to accept that “returning to my old self” might not happen for a long(er) time, or that maybe my old self was not the kind of self I should return to. (Four concussions, she must not be very bright.)

After quitting side jobs and removing myself from unnecessary obligations, I feel like I’m faced with a blank slate. Even though I’m still having trouble remembering instructions given orally, or I get stuck enunciating words with lots of consonants, my brain is taking in new information. I’m altering my behaviors and trading unhealthy habits for healthier ones (I haven’t eaten a meal at my desk in weeks!). This is what I’ve learned as I recover from my fourth concussion.

The body is a wild, intelligent creature. 

I assume, though I can’t know for sure, that after the injury, when I don’t want to drink coffee, and beer tastes like Scope Mouthwash, it’s my body’s way of saying, “Don’t drink that shit, we’re trying to heal a brain, here.”

If I try to do anything that puts strain on my brain, my body just doesn’t cooperate. Dancing? It’s as if my feet, ankles, and knees are all disconnected from my hips. Typing? Too many words and my fingers just slow down, or stop.

I realize that my body was probably sending me messages like this even before the accident. I was just too distracted to pay attention.

Hard is not the same as bad. 

I quit my side job as a fitness instructor. I taught one class a week on Saturdays. I told myself I was “getting paid to work out” but really, it was just another job because, money(!), and I wasn’t getting especially healthier. I was just maintaining the same level of health I always had. And let’s face it, with my limbs not cooperating that would have been a mess of a fitness class.

That being said, I love my clients. They are wonderful, wonderful people. Choosing to give up this Saturday morning routine, teaching an hour of fitness to a group of women I truly enjoy, was very hard.

But after I made the decision, something happened. I wanted to exercise. I started doing 20 minutes of yoga every morning. I was inspired because it felt like something my body wanted (see lesson above). I had begun exercising in ways that matched my body’s actual abilities rather than what the fitness choreography demanded.

Letting go can mean letting in. 

After I quit the fitness job, I really started to look at my life and ask the question, “What else am I doing out of obligation?” I started saying no to people and to my surprise, they accepted it. No one yelled at me. No one pleaded or begged. I said no and they said okay.

And after I started saying no, new opportunities and hobbies showed up that made me want to say “yes.” I started listening to audiobooks. I can still enjoy a good story, and it’s easier on my brain than reading. After spending so much time recuperating at home I’ve taken pride in my living space. I picked up a few houseplants and (with help) I repainted the master bedroom. I started doing the kinds of things that crossed my mind, the things that made me think, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” when I was too busy doing something else.

Receiving help requires asking for help. 

This one may seem obvious (cut me some slack—I have a brain injury). I am an independent person. I like doing things on my own and I’d like to think that I’m reliable. With a brain injury, all my reliability seems to be flying out the window. I’d start working on something with a deadline and then I’d get so dizzy I couldn’t read the sentence I’d just typed.

I’m fortunate to have lots of really good, compassionate, warm people in my life, and after the accident many of them said, “Let me know how* I can help.” My usual response is, “Okay, thanks,” and then I struggle on my own, not wanting to bother anyone.

This struggle has reached a point where I can’t ignore my shortcomings. I have truly needed help. And so I have asked for help, and accepted the help I am given.

*It’s important to note that the best help can be given when you know exactly what you need. When I was able to say clearly, “I need you to read this draft of a grant application and give me feedback before I send it out,” that is exactly the help I received.

“Why does this keep happening?!” 

My most recent setback was a trip to the ER last week for what looked like symptoms of a stroke. Thankfully, all of my tests came back clear. As I lay in the hospital bed, waiting to be discharged, the doctor asked me if I had any questions. I did. And I asked.

“Why does this keep happening?!”

The poor doctor, not being a neurologist, didn’t have an answer, and the question I was really asking him was, how can I be having these neurological episodes if all my tests are coming back clear? But I think I was asking something else, too. I needed to ask the question out loud, and the doctor just happened to provide the opportune moment.

Why does this keep happening, to me? How can a person who doesn’t play contact sports, or rock climb, or work construction have four concussions?

I got my fourth concussion on December 27th, 2015, almost, to the day, six years after the first one. What kind of f@$#ed up coincidence is that?

I was talking to someone who also fell and got a concussion just two weeks after my most recent injury. She said, “It’s weird. So many things feel different now. I feel like I got the sense knocked into me.” And I knew exactly how she felt. It took the inability to use my brain to begin to use it wisely.

Post concussion syndrome isn’t permanent and many of the things I’m experiencing will resolve themselves, or have resolved in the month and a half since the accident. Maybe getting some sense knocked into me was about giving myself permission to start over. To have a second chance at being me. To learn how not to fall down, and more importantly, how to stand up.