Appreciating Cognitive Improvement after mTBI (The Swiss Chard Affair)

Summer has finally arrived in Vermont!  The sun is shining, temperatures are regularly in the 70s and above, and green is bursting from ever corner of the land.  Happily, gardening is in full swing, too.  Our tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers are all growing strongly, and I harvested my first swiss chard this past weekend.

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One of two basketfuls of chard this weekend.  My favorite green – Yum!

Chard is one of my favorite crops.  Not only is it tasty and good for me, it reminds me of my childhood.  My mom is a gardener, too.  And while spinach didn’t grow well where I grew up, swiss chard grew quickly and produced enough to feed our family of five on a regular basis.

Last year, Mary and I tried something new.  We bought a small, used freezer off Front Porch Forum for $50, and began putting aside our extra garden produce to enjoy in the winter. Winter is long here – a solid 6 months – and having a small taste of summer each week helps keeps our spirits up.

Freezing is so much easier than canning.  SO MUCH easier.  There is a minimal amount of processing beforehand to stop the aging process, then you pop stuff into a container and freeze it.  Done.  It is also a great way to preserve prepared items like pesto or tomato sauce.  Instead of dealing with the boil bath canning process, just pop it in a quart jar, put the lid on, and freeze it.  Brilliant.  Perfect for a household where one person is chronically overextended and the other is chronically fatigued.

Last year, I managed to put aside 14 squares of chard.  Each square is made from a gallon-sized ziploc bag full of chard that is blanched and frozen.  The square conveniently fit into our steamer, and is enough for four servings.

In 2016, putting aside chard was one of the things I “did”.  It was one of those big tasks that I centered my day around, that I had to set aside everything else to make happen.  I  could count on being exhausted and foggy afterwards.  I remember the blanching process being hectic – multiple things going on at once, and not being able to keep up.  I remember feeling overwhelmed.  I remember the multiple burns and scalds.  I remember, in short, that it was quite challenging.

Incidently, I always processed the chard when I was home alone (I don’t remember this, Mary told me).  That meant Mary didn’t see how I struggled.  And I didn’t talk about it.  For me, having to tell someone about my difficulties often feels worse than having the difficulty in the first place.  And, honestly, I couldn’t explain why prepping the chard was so difficult.  I couldn’t point to a single action that was a problem, or a particular issue I was having.  I didn’t understand myself why it was so difficult – how could I explain it to someone else?

That’s the brain injury challenge, isn’t it?  Explaining why something doesn’t make sense, or is difficult, when I myself don’t know why it is that way.  There is no reason, there is nothing wrong – my brain just doesn’t frikkin work.  The only way the problem can be solved is if you use your healthy brain, determine the logical steps necessary, and tell me.  Then write them down.  Then help me step by step through the process.  About thirty times.  Then I’ll probably be okay to do it on my own.  But maybe not.  You’ll need to check on me regularly to make sure I haven’t forgotten, lost the list, or otherwise gone off track.

But I digress.

Luckily, things change.  A year stands between who I am now and who I was last year, freezing chard.  I often only realize how impaired I am after the moment has passed, after some time has allowed me to heal, and then I return to the same task again.

My improvement shone clearly this past weekend as I prepped chard for freezing.  The plants had been generous, and I had five gallon-sized bags full of chard.  Mary and I would only eat one this week, so I decided to freeze the other four.

Here I will step in with one of the benefits of brain injury.  I remember, and also don’t remember, how I do something.  Although I remember the general sense of how to blanch and freeze chard, I don’t have the process I used last year enblazened on my brain as “the only right and logical way to do things”.  In fact, when I do a task, it feels like the first time.  That’s part of why it takes me a bit longer – I have to decide how I will do something each time I do it, it isn’t immediately available from my memory.

So, the 2017 swiss chard prep and freezing.  The process is simple, really.  Chop the chard, put it in a cloth bag.  Place that bag in boiling water for 1-3 minutes (this is what blanching means).  Remove from the hot water, cool quickly.  Squeeze out excess water, place in a container and freeze. Done.

What a difference a year makes. What a difference.

Last year, I decided it would be most efficient to use two cloth bags.  I’d planned to prepare one while the other was boiling, then place that one in to boil while I cooled the first.  So efficient, so multitasky.  So completely, utterly impossible with a brain injury.

Clearly, in 2016 I was still making plans based on who I use to be.  I was making plans based on an efficiency and attention to detail that I haven’t had for about 3 1/2 years now.  How ridiculous.  I can’t keep track of two things at once.  Period.  And I definitely definitely can’t keep track of two things when there is pressure or a timeline.  That just isn’t possible for me.

Still, after a year, it isn’t possible for me.  But I know that now, and that makes all the difference.  I change my expectations.  I make different choices.  Instead of somehow trying to be efficient by moving two bags through a process synchonically, I only process one bag.  I can only keep track of one thing at a time, so I only try to do one thing at a time.  The end.

And it works.  The process went smoothly and efficiently.  Maybe it took me 30 minutes or so to process the four bags of chard.  Most importantly, I felt in control during the whole process.  By reducing what I was trying to keep track of to one item, I was able to keep track of said item and succeed.  Setting yourself up for success.  I recommend it.

As part of my expectation of efficiency last year, I also kept two pots of water boiling at the same time.  Why?  I’m not really sure.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense.  But that’s what I did.  Another reality of brain injury – doing things in a way that don’t make that much sense to a logical or mentally whole person.  This year, I realized I only needed one pot of boiling water, so that’s what I prepared.

Another reason I felt so rushed last year is the pressure I felt to get chard into the boiling water.  Ahhhh – the water is boiling!  I need to get something into it!  Immediately!

But, again, looking at it with the mental capacity I have now… that makes no sense.  I am in control of the pot of boiling water.  It is not in control of me.  After I remove the bag of blanched chard to cool, I can turn off the burner and shift the pot off the burner, so it stops boiling.  In five minutes, when I want it boiling again, I can just put it back on the burner and turn it on.  Simple.

But, of course, it isn’t with a brain injury.  I wasn’t able to mentally assess the situation and problem solve that little issue.  It was simply outside my ability to figure out I could turn off the burner if it bothered me that it was at a rolling boil.  Outside of my cognitive ability one year ago.  Possible, now.  Yay me.

One other minor adjustment had to be made.  I ran out of the container I usually use to freeze the chard to form – I only had two instead of four.  Last year, that would have been a serious road block.  My solution might have been I could only process two blocks of chard at a time.  Now, with my improved mental capacity, it only took me a few minutes of staring at our other plastic containers to figure out I could use another container and get the same result.  Again, duh.  And, again, impossible when impaired.

This year’s Swiss Chard Affair is a clear sign of my continuing healing.  That feels good.  At the same time, it is rather appalling to realized how impaired I was.  I expect I will be as appalled next year about how I do some task this year.  I can only hope to continue to heal.

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The Queendom freezer is already filling with 2017 goodies.  Top shelf is garlic scape pesto, basil pesto, and some chopped scapes.  Middle shelf is my four containers of chard.  Yay!

 

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