Walls

I’m writing a lot about the pool this month because I miss not being able to swim laps. I spoke with someone in the locker room at the Y this week who told me it’s been three years since she has been able to exercise fully. That helped put my situation in perspective, although I’m still impatient. The surgeon couldn’t tell me how much use of it would return. This morning in my water aerobics class, I had to use a flotation belt to avoid putting stress on my hand which I HATED. (I did swish my hand through the water to try and strengthen it, though.)
boy swimming
I love this picture of a boy swimming underwater next to a fish. It’s important for adults to stay in touch with the child inside for it reminds us not to take life so seriously. I think this is much easier when people have children or are around children often because children’s personalities are contagious. I’ve been neglecting the child deep inside but looking at this picture reminds me I need to let her out frequently. Swimming at the pool has always been one way I do this.

In Mark Ramsey’s sermon at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church this past Sunday he said, “People have always liked walls. The walls of race, of status, and of gender have exiled so many.” I thought about my own walls. In a sense, those of us with a brain injury are walled off from the rest of the world. After an injury, a person experiences many changes. Perhaps their speech is different, they cannot remember things as before or they must use a wheel chair.

A phrase that is common in the brain injury community is, “the new normal.” In my case, this means having to “rest my brain” frequently or being careful my schedule is not too booked which wasn’t true before. It means not having a full-time job like many other folks. However, after having a TBI for a while, this statement doesn’t seem apply to me very well, if it ever did. My personality and way of being is pretty much the same as it was before my injury even back in the late 90’s. (My injury was in 1996)

However I do have walls up around me. Often people don’t “get” my difficulties with brain injury. How many people forget someone’s name 200 times after seeing them at least that many times? How many people enter a building and then have no idea which way to turn when leaving it to go home? How many people with two master’s degrees cannot do a simple math problem? I used to get angry when folks would compare their memory or math difficulties to mine. I was a member of an exclusive club–even if I didn’t want to be a member of it. I LIKED having my walls up for it felt safe and I didn’t want to break them down. This isn’t the case now for I’ve discovered it is stifling and lonely, being behind them.

I used to get angry inside when someone compared their memory issues to mine. They might say, “Oh I know what you mean. I can’t remember names either.” Now, when someone makes a comparison, I often say, “While your experience certainly gives you an idea of how frustrated I get when I can’t remember someone’s name, with brain injury one can see someone every day and STILL not remember their name.” This helps break down the wall while educating them about brain injury. When I didn’t say anything I seethed inside which wasn’t helpful to a good relationship.

Brain Injury does put us in exile as do many other things. Alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce, the loss of a child – all of those things can cause us to be in exile. Like the little boy above, who looked deeply into the fish’s eyes and the fish returned his gaze, all of us need to break down our walls and be free.

If you have a brain injury do you sometimes feel you’re in exile?  What other ways are you in exile?

Being a mind reader

In his book A Lenten Hobo Honeymoon, Ed Hays tells a story about a traveler in the Missouri Ozarks who stopped at a general store, in front of which a hound dog sat howling its head off. The traveler asked a man standing outside the store, “Why’s that hound dog howling so much?” He replied, “Cause he’s a’ sitting on a thistle.” The traveler asked, “Well, why doesn’t he just sit somewhere else?” “Well, friend, “the man said, “its cause he’d rather howl.”

Sometimes I think I would rather howl then accept my life for what it is. I can’t seem to stop looking at other folks lives and wanting there’s instead of mine. I look at people younger than me and I think, “If only I had done that, I would be so much happier.” I tend to moan and groan instead of accepting and living with what I have. Hays refers to Lent as a soul garden. “In the garden of your soul, are the trees rich with fruit or are they barren?” Lent is a time to think about how my garden is growing.

utne articleIn the Jan-Feb. issue of Utne Reader there is an article by Robert Straus called “Mind over Misery.” In it, Strauss tells about Stanford psychiatrist David Burns and his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. I haven’t read it but Straus calls it, “one of the most successful psychotherapy books ever written … and 50,000 therapists have attended his training programs over the past 35 years.

What interested me was his emphasis on thought patterns or what therapists call “cognitive distortions.” I use all three distortions listed so I’ve decided to change my hobo map (see 3/18/14 “A Lenten Goal”) to work on these distortions. They are: 1. catastrophizing – expecting only the worst to happen. 2) Emotional reasoning – believing, for example, that if we feel stupid, then we must be stupid. 3) Mind reading – assuming that what we imagine other people are thinking is what they actually think. It probably isn’t realistic for me to work on all three, but the third one in particular seems possible.

I already had a little bit of practice when I swam laps at the pool this afternoon. I cannot use my hand yet since it still hurts so all I can do us practice my kick. The man who gave me swim lessons back in July told me not to use the flippers when I kick since it is cheating. However, my kick is still pretty weak so I end up moving very slowly without using them. One of the life guards also told me the same thing but she understood why I get frustrated and use them anyway.

This afternoon my swim teacher kept walking through the pool area and saw me cheating. I kept thinking, “Oh, he thinks I’m a terrible person because I’m cheating!” I kept asking myself, “Why does it matter what he thinks? I’m using the flippers because it is easier to kick with them and I haven’t swum laps since December so I need to get myself back in shape.” I also realized that he has a whole lot of things to think about and he’s probably not even thinking about me at all.

So this Lent as I ask, “How is my garden growing?” I’m going to try and get rid of some weeds. The first week is “mind reading.” This will be a tough one for me but it is a good one.

Do you do any work in the garden called Lent? How do you celebrate the journey towards Easter? I would love to hear your ideas.

A Lenten Goal

When I started using Hay’s book, “A Lenten Hobo Honeymoon” as a reflection book for Lent, in it was a piece of paper with my “Lenten Hobo map” from a previous year. Hays suggest one keep a list of goals for the season. Many of the suggested categories, such as “Fasting & Penances” and “Almsgiving”, were Catholic orientated but I still was able to select some goals.

As I looked at that map I was reminded how I seem to pick the same goals every year. For example I always want to work with my prayer life. I ask myself, “Here I am again trying to grow in the same area as last year. Won’t I ever learn?” However, I realize I’m always on a journey and probably will want to grow in similar areas each year and this is okay.

One of my areas for growth this year (and last year as well) is my tendency to worry about what people think of me. “So-and-so thinks I’m not very smart,” or “She thinks my singing vibrato is too wide.” A big one for me is, “He thinks I need to be working.” A therapist once asked me why it matters. They don’t live in my body and haven’t had my experiences so if they really have a concern, they can ask. Plus, they’re probably not even thinking about me at all!

Y poolYesterday while swimming at the Y, I had the opportunity to work on this goal. I had the entire lane to myself which isn’t always the case. Often I swim on one side while someone else swims on the other. If I have a lane completely alone, I try to do the kick I use for the breast stroke since it is pretty easy to use more than half a lane for it and I don’t like accidently kicking someone.

However yesterday I didn’t do this. Since I cannot use my right hand to swim right now because I’m still strengthening it from my December hand surgery, I am working only on my kicks. Another member asked if she could join me in my lane but she didn’t want to swim by the wall. I realized trying to do the frog kick by the wall would be impossible without slamming my leg into it so I hesitated before saying, “Do you think you could use another lane right now?” I could tell she was mad at me and she muttered something under her breath before walking to another lane.

I felt TERRIBLE. I know how hard it is to ask someone to join their lane and I hate doing it but I’ve learned that part of swimming laps at the Y means sharing the lane. In fact someone once told me “no” and I was a little perturbed. So of course I spent swimming my remaining laps worrying about what she thought of me.

When I got out of the pool, I had an opportunity to talk with her. She’s someone I see and talk to regularly at the Y so it was important to me. It turns out; she was having a horrible day. Her car broke down that week so she was borrowing one. Plus, her mother had fallen and was in the hospital. Apparently the mother had always taken care of her father which made her inability to do so, a real issue. She was stressed out, hadn’t been to the pool in days, and the first person she asked about sharing a lane didn’t want to share. She even told me she had said, “f*** you” under her breath which of course I hadn’t heard.

I’m so glad I spoke to her. It’s true. People usually do have too much on their mind to even think about me. Hopefully, as Lent continues I’ll realize this BEFORE I begin my worrying.

Hobo in the Wilderness

IMG_20140312_163307_684March 5 was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and I spent the day in bed with a horrible sore throat. In fact I was sick several days last week which was frustrating since Lent is my favorite time of the year. I had decided not to use one of Ed Hays’ devotional guides which I use every year. However, after attending Circle of Mercy on Sunday evening, I changed my mind. The worship service contained so many wilderness references and I saw a connection with the idea of journey present in Hays devotionals, so I pulled out one of his books, “The Hobo Honeymoon” to use this year.

For “Fat Tuesday” he writes, “While both the idea of a honeymoon and of being a hobo might seem inappropriate for the holy season of Lent, remember the words of the great patriarch Moses, who proudly declared, ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, and we were traveling vagabonds and vagrants who found our way to Egypt and lived there as aliens’ (Deuteronomy 26:5). Your spiritual ancestors were hobos, so rejoice in your proud heritage of traveling vagabonds as you begin these forty days.”
I’m not keen on the Honeymoon idea but I do like the concept of a wanderer. Hays points out that wanderers were put into three classes: tramps, bums and hobos. A hobo was a migratory laborer who took on various odd jobs. During Lent, one becomes a Lenten pilgrim on a road of reform and renewal.

At Circle of Mercy this past Sunday, Nancy Sehested preached on the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11. I especially like that she used Clarence Jordan’s adaption of the passage. Instead of calling the devil, “the tempter” Jordan calls him, “the confuser.” She suggests the “tempter” moved in at the point of Jesus’ strength. “Jesus was tempted to do good. Make bread. Lead the Temple. Lead the nations.” Using Jordan’s description of the confuser she continued, “The confuser knows where we are strongest. That’s why it is so confusing. We are tempted not so much to do bad things. We are tempted to do good things with bad intent.”

While I know it isn’t exactly the same, her sermon pushed me to think about how my strengths have gotten confused. It seems I’m so aware of my weaknesses, I don’t even see my strengths. The Confuser encourages me to believe I don’t have any strengths for I often see only my weaknesses. A while ago, a therapist suggested I make a list of my losses as well as a list of words which describe the essence of who I am. Looking back on it, I see it is really a list of my strengths and weaknesses.

Sometimes it seems I spend a lot of time in the wilderness. I wonder, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t things ever be settled and consistent? Why do I spend so much time here?” Nancy pointed out Jesus never escaped the wilderness for it was always with him. This Lent, I’m going to be a Lenten hobo in the wilderness.

Nancy calls wilderness a gift. “It is a doorway into living out of a deeper truth. If we can stay in the pain, the emptiness, the confusion long enough, then maybe we can recognize that the only recognition we need is from God. Wilderness is a time to allow the pain to teach us.” I want to learn how Jesus lived in his wanderings as I journey this year towards Easter.