Deborah Brandon, PhD – Brain Blogger http://brainblogger.com Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Mon, 08 Jan 2018 16:30:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.1 Safety Nets: Travel After Brain Injury http://brainblogger.com/2017/12/29/safety-nets-travel-after-brain-injury/ http://brainblogger.com/2017/12/29/safety-nets-travel-after-brain-injury/#respond Fri, 29 Dec 2017 16:30:21 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=23235 There’s so much out there that beckons—family, friends, ethnic textiles, and, more recently, the writers’ world. I am compelled to answer the call—all the calls! I reject the invalid role that my bloody brain repeatedly tries to thrust on me.

In order to live a full life, I’ve had to learn to set up safety nets wherever I go.

Before the brain injury, I had no difficulty living a fast-paced life. I combined a full-time job with a variety of extra curricular activities including time-consuming hobbies, such as weaving and dragon boating. Travel was an integral part of my life, with trips to conferences, workshops, and with family and friends at home and abroad.

Now, in the wake of my injury, I can’t do nearly as much. Tasks that in my past life were a matter of course, such as grocery shopping and driving, deplete my resources. Travel now drains me, especially when it involves flying. Contending with the high volumes of sensory input streaming in at airports and in flight wears me out.

I’ve had to learn to apply coping mechanisms and compensation techniques to function with my damaged brain. Though pacing myself to prevent debilitating fatigue would seem easy to apply, for me, it is one of the hardest adjustments I’ve had to implement. When I travel, it’s especially difficult.

When I’m outside my home territory, having less control over the agenda hampers any attempts to slow down. Also, I don’t want people to worry. I don’t want to call attention to myself. I don’t want to miss out, and I don’t want to slow others down.

Another obstacle in my way is that future events, including possible sources of trouble, now mean less to me. As far as I’m concerned, much of the future is abstract. It’s as if the wiring between cause and effect, between my notion of past and future, is faulty.

Trips often don’t seem real until I actually land at the destination. As a result, planning and preparations don’t make sense. I usually pack for an upcoming trip at the last moment, and when I finally get to it, I have to force myself to do it. In my mind, there’s no good reason for me to undertake a task that now feels so overwhelming in its complexity. Since the injury, poor organizational skills and the difficulties in managing high volumes of data—figuring out what I need to pack, how to arrange it in my luggage, what bags should I take—are daunting.

In time, as I healed, I became better able to manage my bloody brain. I learned to set myself a list of unbreakable rules that help me prepare for trips. A side effect of my brain injury, a strong OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) streak, has a surprising benefit: I have a list of basics I need to pack that I follow religiously, plus a set way to organize items in my suitcase.

My rules also include arranging for safety nets.

I knew the trip to visit my family in Israel would be grueling. I knew better than to trust my own judgment. If I hoped to convince my bloody brain to cooperate, I needed someone to watch out for me, to keep me out of trouble.

Before the trip to Israel, I spoke to my sister about my anxiety. She understood and empathized—she’s walked in my shoes. She too has cavernous angiomas that have bled. Like me, she is often tempted to outpace herself. But unlike me she is assertive, and when all hell breaks loose with her bloody brain, she knows to take it easy and to rest despite outside pressure. I, on the other hand, have trouble protecting myself, no matter how bad shape I’m in.

During the trip, she shielded me from ambitious plans from well-meaning family and friends who wanted me to participate in activities that would drain my resources. And she also shielded me from myself; I was excited to spend time with my family, not wanting to cause concern, reluctant to disappoint, and too willing to go along with the crowd.

Unfortunately, the safety nets don’t always work. Some of the changes that the bloody brain brought about get in the way. I am more emotionally volatile now, and often, my emotions drive me instead of reason. In addition, my impaired memory and poor grasp of the connection between cause and effect often results in me downplaying potential difficulties.

During my first couple of days in Israel, I didn’t listen to my sister’s advice. I was sure I knew better and that I would be fine. Even after the bloody brain lashed out at me with a crippling headache, I felt that she was being overprotective. I did finally listen to her—not because I fully agreed with her, but because I didn’t want to upset her.

As my brain rewired post-injury, my memory and my ability to make connections improved. As my self-awareness grew and I became more in-tune with myself and the bloody brain, planning ahead was easier.

But even now, more than a decade since the surgeries, when I realize that common sense says, “wait a bit, take a break, don’t do so much,” there is still a niggling little voice inside me telling me that it’s not really necessary. I still overstretch myself, though nowhere near as much as I used to. I’m doing better now, I’ll be fine.

Now, where did I put that safety net?

Image via ijmaki/Pixabay.

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In and Out of the Abyss: Depression After Brain Surgery http://brainblogger.com/2017/10/04/in-and-out-of-the-abyss-depression-after-brain-surgery/ http://brainblogger.com/2017/10/04/in-and-out-of-the-abyss-depression-after-brain-surgery/#respond Wed, 04 Oct 2017 15:25:22 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=22942 Once again I was on the phone to my friend, sobbing. She’d put up with my tears every day since I left the hospital. Two or three daily meltdowns were the norm.

Many of my tears were over things that would have merely irritated me before: misplaced scissors, dirty socks in the middle of the living room, a brief computer glitch.

I have cavernous angiomas, tangles of malformed blood vessels, scattered throughout my brain. Two of them—one larger than a golf ball in my right parietal lobe, and the other, smaller, in my brain stem—had bled, and I underwent brain surgeries to remove them.

The bleeds and surgeries led to side effects including loss of balance, vertigo, nystagmus, trouble with sensory overload, and a number of cognitive deficits. My emotions also seemed volatile. I expected that my emotions would settle down as my brain healed. They didn’t.

After putting up with about a month’s worth of meltdowns, my friend spoke up. “I think you need meds.”

I was shocked. The possibility of psychiatric medication had not occurred to me. The people I knew who needed it had major issues: a cousin whose mother had died when she was ten years old, a friend who had been suicidal, a student with bipolar disorder. I wasn’t depressed. I just got really upset too easily. I was just fragile, and, given what I’d been through, that was understandable.

I wasn’t in denial over my emotional state. Aware of my extreme vulnerability, I’d been proactive: I’d started seeing a psychotherapist regularly within days of my return home from the hospital. I had things under control.

I knew that brain injury can cause chemical imbalances, which can lead to clinical depression. In one account I read, a patient lamented not having gone on antidepressants sooner. Feeling fortunate that I wasn’t in that bad of shape, I sympathized with those who were.

I didn’t need meds.

Over the next few weeks, as the tears flowed more often and more freely, my friend grew more insistent. I continued to resist, explaining away my vulnerabilities. It was normal to grieve over losses. I blamed really bad days on my menstrual cycle.

But as the severity and frequency of my meltdowns increased, I had more trouble rationalizing.

I spiraled into the abyss and finally reached the bottom. I felt desolate. I knew I was a burden on everyone around me and that my life wasn’t much of a life. Suicide seemed logical, perhaps the only solution.

I kept my suicidal thoughts secret—I didn’t want my friend or my therapist to try to talk me out of it.
Weeks later, when I began to emerge from the abyss, I kept my silence because I felt ashamed, and later still, I added guilt to the shame—I had betrayed the trust of both my friend and my therapist.

I tried to rationalize my lie-by-omission: I told myself that I could never really take my life, that I didn’t have it in me.

But in some corner of my mind there must have been doubt mixed with the rationalization because a few days later I decided to discuss antidepressants with my therapist. She agreed with my friend: it was time to consider meds.

Until the brain bleeds, I was averse to pill popping. I took painkillers for my migraines and antibiotics for bacterial infections—no other medications. After the bleeds, I started taking blood-pressure meds (Verapamil) to cut back on the chances of another bleed and anti-seizure meds (Lamictal). I was concerned about messing with my body chemistry, and worried about drug interactions—I wanted to avoid medications that listed seizures as a possible side effect. Given my concerns, my therapist sent me to a psychiatrist who specialized in psychopharmaceuticals.

I wasn’t sure whether there was a viable solution within my comfort zone, but the answer turned out to be straightforward: the psychiatrist suggested simply increasing my daily dose of Lamictal. Anti-seizure meds not only prevent seizures; they also act as mood stabilizers and are often used to combat depression and bipolar disorder.

My psychiatrist conferred with my neurologist, who, concerned about adverse reactions to the Lamictal, was firm about capping my daily dose at 600 milligrams. My psychiatrist, determining that my depression was severe, decided to increase the dose directly from the 400 milligrams I was on to 600 milligrams, instead of ramping up in increments, which is the standard procedure.

I responded well to the increase. Feeling like myself once again, I realized just how badly off I’d been. Like my cousin, my student, and my friend, I too had major issues. Except that I really wasn’t like them—my issues were temporary. Once my brain healed, my depression would be over, and I’d be able to get off the meds.

It took a good four years and a couple of trial runs with lowered dosages before I managed to fully shrug off that piece of denial.

A decade later, I’m still on antidepressants, for good reason.

This depression isn’t “situational.” Good friends and therapy help me survive, but they aren’t enough. The bleeds and surgeries changed my neurochemistry. These changes are real, and they’re here to stay. The meds are here to stay, too.

Image via 5arah/Pixabay.

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