T started us off. She remembered previous professional advice that she probably could develop certain capabilities. She didn’t follow that advice partly because her partner felt that she was unable to do some of these things. She said that she’s discovered that she can do things that she thought she was no longer able to do because of her brain injury. She is currently reassessing her potential. She asked: “How much more can I do with practice? How do I know how far I can increase my capacity?”
She also had various negative feelings about herself because she might have been further on if she had experimented and pushed herself more. I said that this is a central question in everyone’s life – it’s as important for people with or without brain injuries. People often react negatively to this question. They say to themselves, “If only I had done X – I would have been so much better off – I’m guilty, angry with myself, embarrassed or whatever.” However, I described a study where people in their 70’s were asked to live their lives as if they were in their 50’s. They dressed as they did then, and all modern conveniences were removed. They were assessed physically and mentally before the experiment started. After 2 weeks, their physical and mental test scores increased significantly. When people retire, they and others tend to say things like, “I/you have worked hard all your life. I/you deserve a rest. I/you should take things easy.” Alongside that, loss of work enables us to take our foot off the gas. We know that inactivity deconditions us physically and mentally. So, there are a lot of older people that are gently disabling themselves. Are they terrible people or don’t we all sometimes accept limits that are entirely unnecessary? Isn’t the most productive stance one where we are sceptical when we or others tell us confidently that we can’t do X or Y?
Brain injury is no different, there’s lots of evidence that people with brain injuries typically disable themselves. It’s not a crime. It’s very hard to push yourself, especially in the face of a profound sense of loss for what the person had before and repeated failures. Also, it is sometimes helpful to accept that we can’t do X or Y – for example, there are definitely some things we can’t do no matter how much we try. Nevertheless, if we often stop trying to do something that we can do, deconditioning is the result. We never know how far we can push things. Nor do we ever know when it is most productive to stop pushing in one direction and to start pushing in another direction. Though we never know, we can experiment in the confident knowledge that we will be able to improve things one way or another if we persist and keep trying different things. We (whether or not we have a brain injury) also never know how far we can progress in any particular direction. I’ve met tons of people that have moved a million miles from their starting position in the first weeks of a brain injury. I’ve met people that have continued to move forward many years after their injury. The danger signal occurs when people get into a rut and defend their rut by saying things like, “I know myself. I know what I can and can’t do. Don’t suggest I can’t do X. I know my own mind.” The truth is there is so very much that we don’t know. It’s scary and disconcerting … but we can also view it as intriguing, exciting and self-affirming.
Returning to T’s particular situation, T condemns herself for not pushing herself (an she probably blames her ex-partner a bit). However, everyone limits themselves partly out of unawareness and partly to avoid the emotional, physical and/or mental effort of pushing to reach for an uncertain goal. The benefits of pushing dawn on us at various times. Realising the costs of not pushing is one of the main motivators behind the decision to push. I, personally, could never blame T for taking the 10 or more years to discover that she can do more than she thought, and then to decide to experiment. Some people make that discovery after 20 or more years and some never discover it. Our discoveries about life depend hugely on our circumstances – they depend on hearing the right information at a time when we a ready to hear it and when it is presented in a way that makes sense to us. Blaming ourselves for situational factors largely outside our control only slows us down – calling ourselves stupid (and worse) makes us feel incompetent and reduces our confidence that we can move forward. It also wastes a lot of emotional energy that can be more productively deployed on our goal of moving forward etc.
T could see that blaming herself doesn’t help her to achieve what she wants to achieve. However, she has such a strong habit of blaming herself. So, she and P are going to just notice how often she blames herself at meal times. When she or P notices that she has just blamed herself, she is to rephrase her comment more positively and respectfully. It was suggested that she considers what supportive thing she would say to someone that has done the same thing that she has just condemned herself for.
L said that she had also had a very strong habit of blaming herself when she found she was unable to do something because of her subarachnoid haemorrhage. She said that she is finding that meditation is enabling her to understand what is going on when she blames herself. She has been reasonably successful in using that understanding to substantially reduce her self-criticism. I have to say that that’s a considerable achievement. I’m pretty sure that I would blame myself if I were to sustain a brain injury. The fact that virtually everyone does beat themselves up in this way is testimony to how compelling and powerful that tendency is. So, curbing it is no easy feat. Curbing it is achievable – I’ve seen lots of people who, like L, have been able to substantially reduce it. I doubt if many have eliminated it – everyone does it to some extent. It’s actually, on balance, helpful in some situations if it motivates us to move forward in some way. Nevertheless, too much of it is toxic+++.
R agreed that the people around you can stop you doing things or can press you to do things that you really don’t want or need to do. He finds that his family advise him to do things. He said that he spends a lot of time thinking without doing – perhaps that’s partly his family’s motivation for pushing – they know that becoming more active will improve the quality of R’s life. However, R has to experiment by doing various things – experimenting is the only way to find out. R has made progress in this respect – all credit to him. He became much more active for most of last year. However, he developed a health condition around the turn of the year. This focused his attention on his health. This focus included undue interrogation of bodily sensations for signs of serious physical illness. He knows he needs to focus attention outward on doing things in the world rather than inward on the state of his body and health. In order to become more engaged and active, he will start a degree course in a couple of weeks and he now has a support worker.
D and J talked in the previous meeting about his distressing disturbed sleep pattern. They didn’t know if there was anything they could do about it. They didn’t know whether participating in our meetings would be helpful or not. However, their minds were open, and they gave it a go. Their experimental trial of sharing their situation in a search for answers bore fruit. We suggested possible ways of changing their sleeping routine. They put them into practice and D’s been sleeping much better. An open mind and willingness to experiment maximises the quality of our lives – whether or not we have a brain injury.
The next meeting will be at 1.15pm on Monday 8th October 2018 in Llewellyn Hall, Swansea Road, SA4 9AQ (Take the Gorseinon exit from Junction 47 of the M4, turn first left at the next roundabout, and Llewellyn Hall is almost on the immediate left, next to the church).