I sigh in satisfaction at the tiny grass shoots emerging from the soil. I planted those. I added the compost and mixed it with the existing soil. I bought the bag of four types of grass seed that would survive regular foot traffic. I hand seeded the area, laying down a thick layer of seed, and then tamped it down to improve soil contact and secure the seed to the site. I watered it, carefully, completely, soaking the little seeds so they would germinate. And now, I have the beginning, the very beginning, of a new grassy area.
Me, I did that. And, if all goes well, by the fall the grassy area will be established and survive the winter. By next year, I hope to have an area of lawn I don’t have to think about, and that is simply part of our entry path. Another problem solved.
Satisfaction. I feel satisfaction from this success. Many steps taken. Lots of patience. Consistent attention. And I did it all, by myself. A project identified by me, planned by me, and accomplished by me.
Concrete tasks, like this grass growing project, are one of my favorite types of activity. I can do it myself, at my own speed, and it creates a real, physical change in the world that I can observe. Knowing I changed the world, even in such a small way, helps me know I am here, that I exist and that I matter. In the winter, I proved my worth to myself every day by crocheting and making a blanket (check out my blog about it here: My Granny Square Journey). Now, as my abilities increase and summer has arrived, I do small projects around my home.
Success. Completion. Competence. Feeling independent and “able”, when so little in my life makes me feel that way anymore. How priceless. And, how addictive. We humans have an ingrained tendency to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. It’s natural. It is, really, what any living being does. And, I have recently found myself pursing the pleasure of task completion to the exclusion of almost everything else in my life.
Tasks are so concrete, so real, with a beginning and an end. I find that concrete things, physical actions, are the easiest thing for me to hold on to since my mTBI. They stick in my brain better. While ideas or feelings or relationships change with every passing moment, and my ability to grasp and remember those things change with every hour – physical things stay physical things. Wash the dishes. Plant seeds. Get the mail. Those are simple, concrete tasks that make sense regardless of my mental acuity. Dishes are always dishes. The mail is always in the same place. Seeds always need to be put in the ground to grow. These concrete things don’t change. When so much of my perception of the world around me changes without warning, concrete actions provide a certain comfort and security.
I have struggled with tasks since my first mTBI in January 2014. Deeply, horribly, continually struggled. Fatigue and mental impairment meant I was unable to keep functioning in my life as a normal, independent adult. One that works for money, that manages her own affairs. Heck, one that can reliably drive a car. I tried to keep being that person, to push through – for years – and I very much failed, over and over again.
So it’s no wonder I feel so great when I succeed, when I complete a task now. And when accomplishing something concrete is such a challenge, and it is such a momentus occasion worthy of celebration when it happens, why wouldn’t I spend all my energy on making concrete things happen? I like to succeed as much as anyone. When there are so few ways I can make my mark on the world from this small fish bowl of post-mTBI life, why wouldn’t I make as many marks as possible?
Well, one reason is this – I have only so much energy, so each “spoon” of energy I spend on concrete tasks is a spoon of energy I don’t have for other things (for more on energy allocation, check out my post and video here: Energy Limitations from Chronic Fatigue – Explaining Brain Injury (VIDEO)). By choosing to tend a small patch of grass on our front walk, I choose not to spend that energy in other ways. Other ways that would fulfill me, that would help my loneliness and isolation, such as reaching out to other people. Socializing. Making friends. Connecting more deeply with friends I already have. Creating a community. Hooking into community that already exists. Basically, doing anything that involves another person in my life in a meaningful way, that is not Mary.
I am lonely, make no mistake. Deeply lonely. And, for whatever reason, texting or email just doesn’t hit the mark. They don’t help. Those things don’t feed that part of me that needs feeding. I’m not sure if that is my age or my post-mTBI non-electronic lifestyle, but there it is. So I need to talk to people to feel connected, in person or on the phone.
But that’s hard. That was hard for me before I was injured. Now, it’s triple hard. My abilities have changed. Things I was amazing or exceptional at before – such as concrete tasks that require consistent, independent work – I’m adequate and sometimes good at. Things that were a struggle for me or that I was just starting to master – such as making friends, connecting with other people, creating community – I slipped from adequate to abismal and incompetent.
To be fair to myself, it has only been in the last few months that I have been able to consistently follow conversations. Being mentally present takes a lot of energy. Earlier in my healing process, I was done in 5 minutes. Now, I can – sometimes – have a 30 minute conversation. On really good days, when I prepare and rest, I can chat for 45 minutes or an hour. Like, participate, stay present, really connect. All those things most people take for granted. I loved intimate, deep, long engaging conversations before I was injured. Now, I’m just happy to chat for 20 minutes. Imagine not being able to carry on a proper conversation for 3 1/2 years. Imagine how deeply lonely and isolated you’d be. Yah. That’s me.
Welcome to my life.
Yet, I take responsibility for it. I’m old enough to understand that some of it is self-imposed. Yes, my brain injury has made things more difficult. Impaired mental clarity, struggles with shifting my attention from one topic to another, inability to “hear” someone in a crowded room, fatigue that makes it all fuzz out – those realities make it more challenging. Yet, also, my pre-injury hangups are still there. My awkwardness, loner tendencies, shyness, and old instinctual patterns of mistrust and suspicion all make it hard for me to connect. Somehow, after all these years, I still don’t have a feel for what normal friendship looks like or how to make friends. I guess I missed those lessons in school, or deliberately skipped them.
So, it is much easier for my brain to groove alone the same paths it has for the last several mTBI years, and for years before that – focus on this task, and the next task, and the next. But, I know that isn’t good for me, or I guess I could say I am re-remembering that it isn’t good for me. Before I was injured, I had just started challenging myself to make friends, to evolve and grow in that direction. Brain injury nipped that activity in the bud, but I guess 3 1/2 years later it’s time to start giving it a real try again.
Even if I do tasks all the time, forever, there will always be more tasks. Always one more widget to tend to. Even when I had all the energy in the world, it was easy to find a reason this thing or that thing needed to be done before I could do x, y, z. My base tendency is to miss the forest of my life by focusing on the trees. It’s time to stop doing that. What is important – what makes a difference in the world – is connecting, writing, reaching out, and being part of something. I want to be part of something. A community. Of interesting people, who live interesting lives. That’s what I want. At least I have that clear in my mind now. With time, I will bring that reality into existence for myself. Somehow. Someway.