Living with an mTBI is peaceful.
No, my life falling apart, failing to meet others or my own expectations, wondering if I’ll ever be able to work full time again… no, that crap isn’t peaceful. But when the world is too much and my mind is fatigued and overwhelmed, there is a certain peacefulness that prevails. It is like I am alone in an large, empty room. No one else there, nothing else is going on. All I can do is focus, more or less successfully, on what is happening in the moment.
Take, for example, this moment: I am chopping swiss chard.
Stay focused! That’s a big knife. Chop. Chop. Chop. Careful! Chop. Chop. Chop. Chop. What am I doing? Oh right, the chard needs to be cut before it’s steamed. Chop. Chop. What’s that noise? [wander out of the kitchen into the living room] Oh, it’s just the cat playing with a toy. Hmmm… I’m tired and I know that couch is comfortable. [sit down on the couch, stare out the window thinking nothing]. I should stay hydrated, where’s my glass of water? It’s not by the couch. [search house for glass, wander into the kitchen again]. Oh right, I need to steam the chard. Chop. Chop. Chop. Chop. [put the chard in the steamer, make sure the stove is on] Hmmm… I want to read a book. [almost leave the kitchen] No! Wait! I can’t leave the kitchen with the stove on. [stand by the stove, looking at the pot]. Waiting… Waiting… Oh, these dishes need doing [start washing dishes]. What’s that noise? Oh right, I was steaming chard. [turn off stove, remove lid and check chard]. Yum. That’s healthy and full of vitamin A. [Stare blankly at the chard for about 30 seconds]. Right. I need a plate. Which plate size is right [look between my options for 15 or 20 seconds, then grab a plate. Stare at chard again]. Right, I need a fork to get it out. [grab fork, put a heap of chard on my plate, butter it]. I should sit down while I eat [sit down in dining room]. Eating. Eating. Yum. Eating. A little bitter this week. Eating. Eating.
And that, my friends, is my thought process while making and eating some chard. What I wrote is really what I think during that process – nothing else. I’m not thinking about the weather, or my finances, or the present I’m going to get my lady for her birthday – all of my mental energy is focused on the task at hand. There is a certain simplicity about that, a certain peacefulness.
I know I’m feeling better because things aren’t quite so peaceful anymore.
I finally got a root canal last Tuesday. Yuck. But it took away the – literally – mind numbing pain.
Let me throw in here the irritating part of having to pay the $1400 fee out of pocket… because Delta Dental said I didn’t have dental insurance. What?!? One of the beautiful things about my now ex-job is that I can keep my health and dental insurance since I am disabled. There should have been absolutely no lapse in service. Turns out the Retirement office hadn’t processed my paperwork because Payroll still showed I had 0.11 hours (aka 1/10th of an hour) of annual leave on the books. Until that’s paid out, they can’t do anything. Called Payroll, she didn’t know what the heck I was talking about because she didn’t see anything on the books. She’ll look into it and get back to me. Regardless, it wasn’t going to be resolved in time to show me as covered for my root canal. And I couldn’t take another week or two of pain while they figured it out. I will be retroactively covered from the beginning of the month, so I should get something – maybe half – of that back from Delta Dental in the next month or two. I hope.
Anyway, back to our story. Having the debilitating pain stop and then stopping the every-4-to-6-hours of ibuprofen or acetaminophen that I’ve been taking for the last month+ meant that this past Saturday, I woke up feeling kinda like myself. What does that mean quantifiably? It’s hard to put my finger on. My brain is working just a bit better. I am more in my body, more “present” in this reality. I can think a step or two further. And the commentary started in my brain again.
You know what I’m talking about – Buddhists often call it the monkey mind.
I envision our heads filled with monkeys jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. It’s that voice in your head that continually analyzes every little thing, trying to use logic and strategy to solve problems you didn’t really notice before. A little of that is nice, useful even. But the monkey mind grinds on and on and on and won’t shut up.
Evolutionarily, I understand some of the monkey mind’s purpose. First, as herd animals, it is important to have the capacity to analyze others reactions, motivations, expected future actions. To understand one’s place in the hierarchy and where others stand and how to climb that ladder. That’s good survival in a the group stuff. Also, in general, I think the monkey mind causes basic discontent:
- Yes, I have this apple in my hand but Fred over there has three apples, and he didn’t work nearly as hard for them! I deserve to have what Fred has.
- Those people are obviously judging me and think I’m nothing. See, they did/said/looked/acted like x/y/z and that proves it. I’m going to show them.
That sort of monkey mind thinking is very good at motivating external action. I have to get that promotion. I need a nice car and I’ll work hard to get it. I’ll prove myself by climbing that tall mountain. I can see how, evolutionarily, individual with that sort of thinking might have out competed those without it. It all makes perfect sense. The monkey mind is simply part of being human.
But it’s irritating. Really. After being in a large quiet mental space alone, now there are other voices, thoughts in the background picking up current problems and past experiences and poking at them. The voices are pretty quiet; they aren’t overwhelming or particularly hard to ignore. I expect they’ll get stronger and louder as my mind heals. Hopefully by that point I’ll have the mental focus to meditate them into manageability.
On the plus side, I know the return of my monkey mind means I am healing, that I am getting better. There are so many pieces of myself to gather and put back together again. As I recover from this brain injury, I never really know when another piece of myself will show up. I welcome all of my pieces, all of myself, all of my odds and ends, both pleasing and annoying. Including, now and forever, my monkey mind.