Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Brain Blip...

Growing up, I got good grades in every subject. I enjoyed English, Math, Science, languages; all of it. I was consistently streamed into Enriched classes to keep from getting bored. Through my teens though, my brain blipped. I have talked about the emotional difficulties this caused; the panic attacks, the suicidal depressions, but I haven't talked much about what happened to me cognitively. Reading Jill Bolte Taylor's journey through stroke has reminded me what that time of my life was like. And to some degree, still is.

I imagine it happened gradually, but from Grade 10 to the end of High School, my cognitive function declined. Previously I had been able to write long essays defending a point of view. I had been able to design and carry out science experiments. I had been able to carry out complex mathematical operations with ease. I was on the debate team, the Math team, the Geopardy team (a geography club); I was the editor of the school newspaper and the chair of the Writer's Club. And slowly, I watched it all change.

I struggled with the ability to articulate my thoughts. I had difficulty integrating new Math concepts, so much so that I dropped out of Grade 12 Math class. I tried it again the next semester and once again, my brain could not process the concepts. They may as well have been written in a foreign language. I gravitated towards Humanities classes where the focus was on discussion of ideas rather than on concrete concepts. I'm not sure I could have graduated otherwise.

In addition, my sensory system went haywire. Everything got turned up really loud, but at the same time, seemed to all blend together. I remember retreating for days into silence, often into sleep, to shut out the sensory world. Light, temperature, smells, sound, touch; it was all too much. I recall getting very agitated by the smells of dinner cooking in the kitchen. It assaulted my senses so severely that I felt threatened by it, like it would consume me. Imagine being trapped in your senses with no where to go.

In the course of those teen years I felt like I'd gone from A+ dynamo to learning-disabled putz. Some days, I could barely carry on a coherent conversation with people. I peered out from a body/brain that no longer seemed to represent who I was. Perhaps that was my first conscious realization that I didn't know who I was. Without my brain power to define me, what was left?

There's this point in Jill's description of her stroke that had me in tears. It reminded me of those teen years and gives me some language to describe what that experience was like for me.

From My Stroke of Insight, page 78-79:

"Imagine, if you will, what it would be like to have each of your natural faculties systematically peeled away from your consciousness. First, imagine you lose your ability to make sense of sound coming in through your ears. You are not deaf, you simply hear all sounds as chaos and noise. Second, remove your ability to see the defined forms of any objects in your space. You are not blind, you simply cannot see three-dimensionally, or identify color. You have no ability to track an object in motion or distinguish clear boundaries between objects. In addition, common smells become so amplified that they overwhelm you, making it difficult for you to catch your breath."

The brain is a vast place. I wish sometimes I'd had an MRI or a SPECT scan done at that time of my life. I always wonder what it would have shown. And I wonder now how I can best rehabilitate my brain, as it still has profound challenges 17 years later, which have become even more apparent to me on leaving the jw's, perhaps because I have no illusions to distract me from the reality of my functioning or lack thereof. I spent so much energy just holding on for the next life, hoping that God would correct whatever it was that had gone awry in my brain/body. Now, it's up to me. And it's scary as hell.

tall penguin

11 comments:

Cranky Ol' Lady said...

Oh, my! That's a scary story. I'm trying to imagine what that was like. So, all this is even scarier for you than for those of us with a history of just normally muddled up teenage angst, which makes you even more courageous in my eyes.

Welcome to reality testing. No matter how bad it gets, it has to be better than the jw thing.

I laughed so hard at your squirrel story. Thank you.

tall penguin said...

Thanks col. I'll imagine a hug from your words. I feel so alone with all of this sometimes. No matter how many friends we have, we're the only ones in our heads, living life through our eyes.

"Welcome to reality testing. No matter how bad it gets, it has to be better than the jw thing."

Yes, it is. At least, for the most part, there isn't more trauma being added to my plate on a daily basis. Now I just have to find somewhere to put all the rest of it. That's the journey.

The squirrel story made me laugh too, although I cursed that fuzzy bastard when I had to get something else for dinner last night. I was SO looking forward to that avocado!

Joshua Zucker said...

Wow. That's a moving story indeed. Should be required reading for all teachers of learning-disabled kids, too.

And, you've just written another page of your book! Congratulations.

matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
matt said...

I want to find out what caused this, it seems linked to a number of things on your mind right now. Mind if I get analytical? :)

What if nothing was wrong with you? What if you finally had your fill of knowledge, unconsciously? What if the only problem was that you had a social image to maintain. A status quo to fill.

I know this feeling well. That's what the meetings were to me. A social image I had to maintain. But when I realized I was supposed to be looked up to. That's not what I wanted at all, I didn't want to be something I had to continue being. An unchanging label that I had inadvertently become.

Our subconscious and unconscious self will always be far more powerful than the conscious. The only way to break away the layers is to ask the questions that unlock them. I wonder if all the problems that you attributed to this were self-inflicted unconsciously to move you forward into a new direction? It seems to have literally closed off the left side of your brain so that you wouldn't even comprehend the senses (to a degree). This happens in war too, when soldiers are in a position where they no longer know what they are doing there. (if they ever did). They lose the use of their senses. War blindness -- Stress does this!

To maintain the Grade-A perfectionism can be a cause of great stress. But it only further harms you when you have to continually impress your superiors. What happens when what you aren't doing isn't enough for them? Why move faster for someone else? That's how work is, doing something efficient? Learn to do it faster and more efficient.
Surely Jill's stroke could have the same effects as you did. It's very interesting to consider, and in the end, I see one truth in all of this, that you both have brains. :)

I wonder if the MRI would have found anything abnormal, and honestly, I doubt it. What you may have needed instead was questions to be answered at the very foundation of your life. You are progressing in life, and I think we can help you find the questions needing to be asked, but ultimately only you can find the cause. :)
Scary or not, this is the noblest task to take, and I believe there is good to be done. I care, we care, but most importantly, you care, and that's what makes the difference in life. You want to know, and I believe you'll find it.

tall penguin said...

"And, you've just written another page of your book! Congratulations."

Thanks Joshua. Funny thing is as I was writing it, I realized that this post could easily become a whole chapter. That period of my life was scary and crazy (what period of my life hasn't been?!) and I kept a journal so I'm sure there's more to be written there.

tall penguin said...

"I want to find out what caused this, it seems linked to a number of things on your mind right now."

It's funny you say that because I had this epiphany a few months back and realized that understanding what happened during that period of my life is pivotal to my being able to move forward now. I'm trying to make sense of it.

"What if nothing was wrong with you? What if you finally had your fill of knowledge, unconsciously?"

I don't know if you read my blog entry entitled "Maybe?".

http://www.tallpenguin.com/2008/05/maybe.html

I talked about my school career and how at the end of things, the only conclusion I can come to is, maybe I was just bored. Maybe my left brain shut down because it was just overworked, while my right brain was screaming to be heard.

There was so little outlet for my creativity in High School. It was about the status quo. I think about how much I enjoyed Visual Art (even though I wasn't that good at it) and didn't continue it because there were other "academic" courses that were more important to my future.

If I'd known then how it was all going to turn out, I would've done more arts and music, gym even. Things I wasn't innately good at, but challenged me. I wish it would have been okay for me to get 70's or 80's in subjects that I was challenged by than the 90's I was bored with.

"I wonder if all the problems that you attributed to this were self-inflicted unconsciously to move you forward into a new direction? It seems to have literally closed off the left side of your brain so that you wouldn't even comprehend the senses (to a degree)."

In reading about stroke I was interested to find out that most strokes occur in the left brain. And I wonder if there's a possibly deeper metaphor here. Are we overstimulating our left brains to the point of overload, while our poor gestalt right brains are understimulated and in need of attention? Can we become an integrated, whole-brained world?

"I wonder if the MRI would have found anything abnormal, and honestly, I doubt it. What you may have needed instead was questions to be answered at the very foundation of your life."

You may be correct in this. Perhaps there would not have been enough "dysfunction" to have shown up on any scan, but the impact on my life was considerable. Questions in need of answers...story of my life.

I still feel complete panic when I am bored, or anticipate boredom. There is this feeling of being trapped in time, being somewhere I don't want to be.

Thank you Matt. I've known you for all of two minutes :) but you have brought some wonderful insights to my life.

hannabelle said...

Someone once told me that we actually use only 1% of our brain power and there's a vast 99% that we haven't been able to tap into yet.

This encourages me. :)

tall penguin said...

"Someone once told me that we actually use only 1% of our brain power and there's a vast 99% that we haven't been able to tap into yet."

This is a common myth by the way. There's no basis in science for this. Have a look here:

http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/tenper.html

What I think people want to believe by this is that we have so much potential for living and learning that is currently untapped. Knowing the neuroplasticity of the brain, I think we're always capable of more. And that encourages me too. :)

Flonkbob said...

Wow. I'm scared just thinking of this. My biggest fear (other than having to out-live my wife) is that I'll end up with some form of dementia and be trapped in my head like that.

I had severe ADHD when I was a kid, so I always felt lost in school, but I managed to do well somehow. When I think back to the way the world used to look to me it scares me. I was SO disabled and didn't even know it. Going back to that is a fearful thing.

tall penguin said...

"Going back to that is a fearful thing."

Yes, it is.

I'd be curious to hear how you managed with your ADHD and how it impacts your life now.