Thanks for a great birthday

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A double chocolate cake instead of the traditional carrot cake with cream cheese icing.
I was bombarded by birthday wishes from all corners: cards, phone calls, Facebook, text messages and visits from both friends and relatives. Birthday wishes this year have been particularly appreciated. Let me explain.

A year ago I was still coming to terms with a brain injury and actively focusing on recovery. It was only four months after my acquired brain injury. At that time I understood that healing takes time. I wasn’t surprised that healing was progressing slowly. However, a year later it feels like it’s taking too long. It feels like the world is passing me by.

A year later and things feel worse. The challenge is greater. Not because things are digressing. Actually, the opposite is true. Because I’m experiencing healing the result is a growing gap between what I want to do and what I can do. Call it the ‘frustration gap’. Even though I can do more than I could do a year ago, that’s not what is most noticeable. At this time, my eagerness to do more accentuates my limitations. I’m willing to endure a certain level of pain or

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Vintage John Deere 165 with hydrostatic drive

discomfort just to be involved in an activity. I’ve become accustomed to living with a certain amount of discomfort. It’s become a given.

Following my injury, my mantra was, “Use it or Lose it”. This approach was supported by the neurologist who worked with me last summer. She told me there is a growing body of evidence that supports that approach. Recovery takes work. In my estimation, that method beats sitting around waiting for it to happen.

However, a new point of reference has been imposed on me. A different professional is guiding me. It’s a different time. It’s time to take a different approach. I now need to live with a different set of rules

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Dandelions are great in the right place.

The change comes with having an occupational therapist (OT) take charge. It’s no longer my decision to push ahead with the mantra of “Use it or Lose it.” I must no longer engage in an activity till my body signals that I have reached a reasonable limit. Invariably the signal meant, I’ve gone beyond my limit. The signal actually meant, I’m pushing the limit beyond what is helpful. Now I’ve been instructed to stop for a break before my body sends me a warning signal. My imposed mantra is, “Avoid the ‘red light”. As a result it feels like my endurance has been reduced. It’s like my abilities are more restricted.

Following the guidance of the OT means I have some extra work ahead of me. I need to track every type of activity I do. That means making a list of different activities; be it cycling, driving, hoeing, planting, mowing the lawn, reading, writing, helping a neighbour with a chore, washing dishes, worshipping, visiting, playing cards etc.  For each activity I need to determine how long I can do it without hitting the “red light”. That means planning a break at the proper intervals. If the intervals for a break were the same for each activity that would just be too simple.

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Looks like a ‘call two’ hand!

Avoiding the ‘red light’ is putting extra demands on my ability to remember. That means when I’m mowing the lawn, I must remember to take a break after 40 minutes. But when I’m mowing I don’t think about taking a break, I think about making the lawn look great. To help me stop on time I figured out a failsafe reminder. Put only enough gasoline in the mower so that it stalls after about 40 minutes.

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Trek touring bike

Stopping activities before I get the ‘red light’ is harder than it seems. For example, how far should I drive before I stop for a break? Well, it depends on whether the driving involves going through Toronto. It depends on how heavy the traffic is. It depends on how many visual distractions there are along the road. Taking a break then requires a place that is not busy. An En Route stop along the 401 hardly fits the bill. Too close to highway noise. Too much commotion in the food court. So a bit of advance planning is required.

Stopping an activity before getting a ‘red light’ can be interesting when visiting. Actually, it’s quite simple. I would just walk away from the visitors or just walk out of the room. That’s fine if I’m not visiting alone. The length of the visit before needing a break will depend on how many people are in the room. The noise level in the room. The number of different conversations that are happening at the same time. Even the time of day makes a difference.

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The hoe was a gift from my mother-in-law

Stopping an activity before getting a ‘red light’ can really vary while gardening. Considering how strenuous the activity is, how much lifting, how much bending down, the amount of planning or attention to detail is needed, even how hot or sunny the day is, are just some of the factors to consider.

Stopping an activity before getting a ‘red light’ has very different variables while cycling. The first thing I’ve learned is not try setting any personal speed or endurance records. The additional variables includes the number of hills and the steepness, the temperature the strength of a headwind, the volume of traffic and familiarity with the route.

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Seldom by Dawn Rae Downton

Needless to say, the high number of birthday wishes were a real boost to my morale. Thanks so much. The quick acknowledgements on Facebook was significant. It was like someone popping their head in the door for two seconds to say hi. It’s great. It’s encouraging. It’s a sense of not feeling abandoned. A big thank you!

P.S. If you still want to send me birthday wishes… it’s never too late.

What Time Did You Say It Is?

He didn’t recall doing a heavy workout the day before.

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16″ Ash Log


A fictional account that portrays some of the nuances of living with acquired brain injury.

The first sensation that registered as he awoke was a slight chill on his right arm. He rolled over so his right arm would absorb the warmth of the mattress. He decided that the woodstove needed to be stoked. Or maybe the woodstove had been stoked but the heat had not reached the far end of the house. Kevin rolled over to check the time. Having slept almost 8 hours he decided he was ready to get up.

There was still time to say goodbye to his daughter before she left. He had told her last night he would be awake to see her off. He rolled onto his side and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.  The attempt to stand up sent a shock through his body. With great effort he leaned forward. He concentrated on shifting his weight by bringing one hand down onto the bedrail to help steady himself. This took some of the strain off his back. With a bit of extra effort he was able to straighten his back. He felt like he was recovering from a weight lifting competition. His back complained as he raised himself to standing position. He stood briefly without moving, making sure his balance was steady.

Kevin was puzzled. He didn’t recall doing a heavy workout the day before. It was two days ago when he had loaded the six foot slabs of ash. Yesterday he had sat around visiting with family members who were over for the weekend. It had been an enjoyable and relaxing day. There was no denying, right now his body simply refused to cooperate. In fact it refused to do anything without concerted effort.

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Planing ash using a draw knife

How to get himself dressed? How to get his first leg into his black jeans? With his right hand on the edge of the dresser, his left hand holding the jeans by the waistband, he lifted his right leg, while making every effort to not lose his balance. The second leg was a bit easier to maneuver. He knew he could command his body to respond. Albeit rather slowly. But there was no need to rush. Putting on his shirt was easier. While it was hard to reach his arm back to get his hand into the sleeve, it was easy to keep his balance. He had gone to bed with his socks on so that was one less thing to deal with. At least he didn’t have to take on the challenge of sitting down and folding himself double to reach his feet.

After having put on his jeans and shirt Kevin shuffled toward the bedroom door. He groped his way through the fog that clouded his vision. The brain fog had become a familiar and annoying feeling. He assumed he was awake enough to begin the day. As he walked into the living room he muttered a good morning to his daughter.  He wasn’t even sure she heard him. He was taken aback by the effort it took to speak two words. His body protested that simple gesture. He wasn’t sure she had even heard his greeting. Glancing out the window overlooking the backyard he noticed that Angela had clipped a leash on Franklin and taken him out so he could relieve himself.

Kevin walked into the kitchen and noticed the remnants of last night’s wine and snacks. By the time he reached the kitchen he felt like he had covered two kilometers.  It shouldn’t take this much effort to cross the house. What to do next. Making breakfast or setting the table for the others would take more energy than he could muster. Or maybe just make a pot of tea.

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Splitting ash using rockwood wedges

It didn’t take long to make his decision. He shuffled back to the bedroom. The walk back felt like slogging through ankle deep mud. Every muscle in his body rebelled. His head was still in a fog. He hoped he wouldn’t meet anyone as he made his way back to the bedroom. Before he was even half way to the bedroom he was in tears. The effort to get back was just too much. He hardly registered the sense of relief at having made it to the bedroom door. He stepped into the room. He gave the door a slow motion body check to close it. He didn’t notice it was left slightly ajar. He didn’t have the energy to turn around and see if it had closed.

He slumped down onto the bed, landing on top of the blankets. He made no attempt to even pull the blankets back so he could cover himself. As he lay down his body succumbed to the relief. Within the solitude of his bedroom, he broke down in sobs. There was no stopping the tremors that moved through his body. He had no energy to hold himself together. He was disappointed in himself. He was disappointed in not being able to see is daughter off. He didn’t have the energy to initiate anything constructive.

Eight hours of sleep last night. That should be enough to rest his body. The eight hours of sleep was definitely not enough to bring respite to his brain. He remembered having several vivid dreams but the details evaporated as he woke up. The previous two days had been crowded with a high level of engagement, conversations, changes in routine, excitement, the expressions of love and support, and more. The heightened level of activity of family members visiting for the weekend was more than his brain could process.

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Improvised sap collecting

After lying down for twenty minutes Kevin mustered enough energy to get up off the bed. Some of the fatigue had seeped out of him. He decided it was best to head straight outside. It meant delaying breakfast. Not a good idea. Being outside would be calming and provide some healing. The wind in the trees, the gnawing sounds of the squirrels chewing on walnuts, the mating call of the cardinal, the distant bark of a dog would gradually settle his brain. The subdued sounds of the outdoors meant less for his brain to filter. These sounds were fine. These sounds were in the right place. They belonged. These sounds were sounds of life, sounds of harmony. Things were good.

When Kevin headed outside he took Franklin with him. Franklin was always eager for a walk. He loved the excitement of exploring the linger scents of a mouse, a vole, a rabbit or some unknown animal. The longer the walk the better. Walking Franklin brought with it familiarity, a relaxed pace, the satisfaction of pleasing someone else. Since he had Franklin on a leash Kevin decided to head into the bush and check how the sap was running. Checking the two dozen taps meant more time for Franklin to enjoy the outdoors. Being outside was better than sitting down indoors. Walking was a good way to channel the restlessness that accompanied his fatigue.

After checking on the sap he decided to work on the ash logs that he had harvested two days before. He wanted to split a three inch slabs into two thinner slabs. He had laid out the sharpened axe head, the ironwood wedges, the splitting axe and the froe along with a crudely made ironwood mallet. Splitting the slabs required methodical work. It was satisfying work. Done carefully, the results would be better. Splitting logs should not be rushed. The grain needed time to separate. He would move slowly but that was good because that match the rhythm of his brain. With a bit of planning the slab should split into two useful planks. As he worked he sensed his brain sending clearer signals to his legs. To his arms. To the different parts of the body. The muscles starting to respond quicker, his coordination began to improve, fatigue gradually subsided. There was no one asking questions. He had no need to explain what he was doing. He only talked when he wanted to give a word of praise or encouragement to Franklin.

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Splitting ash with a froe

Kevin appreciated and enjoyed the time by himself. He savoured physical activity that was somewhat repetitive, that had a rhythm to it. Something more or less predictable. This space being familiar there were fewer demands on his brain. Fewer impressions to sort out. He didn’t need to work overtime, filtering sounds, filtering emotions, filtering impressions or making adjustments. Focusing on one thing reduced the amount of sensory input bombarding him. He knew he needed a day or more to clear the overload brought on by the activities of the past two days.

Something predictable yet unexpected happens when Kevin’s need for a slower pace meets the rapid pace, rapid change, the saturation of activity overloading his senses. He couldn’t absorb the accelerated sensations that bombard hime. Even though he enjoys being part of the faster pace, even though he enjoys the vitality of visiting with his family he cannot absorb the jolts, the G forces that accompany the break from predictable routines.

Kevin’s journal entry that day read, “Had a slow start to my day.”