Being AWOL

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Snowbirds – Niagara-on-the-Lake

When guests are arriving or soon to arrive that’s when most households go into an “all hands on deck” mode. There never seems to be enough time, despite attempts at planning ahead, to get everything done.

That’s when I am the least helpful. I do most poorly when there are last minute jobs that need to get done. The lack of mental flexibility is one of my ABI challenges. That means dealing with a few simple requests quickly leads to neural fatigue.

Neural fatigue sets in because the brain is called on to change the trajectory it was on. Putting a halt to what I was doing and all the thought processes that are part of the activity takes neural energy. The so called wrapping my brain around the new activity is like having my brain activity level decelerate and accelerate, using up precious energy.

It’s not a question of the tasks being complicated. No. To do even a simple task puts the brain through several steps. First, the request needs to be acknowledged. If the request isn’t fully grasped then a question needs to be formulated to get clarification. Once the clarification is received it needs to be interpreted. If it is properly understood then a plan, even for very simple tasks, needs to be worked out. To execute the plan the ‘where’, ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the request needs to be worked out.

All the steps that a brain goes through when changing gears and taking on a new task happens seamlessly with most people. Most people don’t even notice it till they find themselves in a situation where they say, “Oh, this multi-tasking makes me tired.”

With an ABI the brain lacks the strength or endurance to change gears easily or seamlessly.

Limbic System

Why does the brain experience neural fatigue after only a few simple requests?

The nature of my limitations lies in the fact that my limbic system has been injured and so the neo-cortex is working extra hard to fill in.

For me the limbic system, which should be adept at rapidly changing activities, isn’t able to perform it’s normal functions. To give a simplified explanation, the limbic system has the following key functions:

The structures of the limbic system are involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limbic_system

Following up on requests to complete small tasks might not appear difficult at first glance. However, a different picture emerges when one realizes that the small task requires the following functions; motivation, learning, and memory, functions which the limbic system is designed to handle very efficiently.

When these functions are handed over to the neo-cortex, the brain function loses significant efficiency. When the neo-cortex takes on these functions it requires much more effort and the processing speed is much slower.

Analogy

Compare the change in brain function to a weight lifter being called on to stand in for a sprinter. A champion weight lifter will be struggling. Just as each athlete has a specialty so too each part of the brain has a specialty.

Just as an athlete can cross train and develop additional specialties so too can the brain. However, it takes time, effort and practice to take on new functions. Also, there needs to be a propensity for the activity. The ability for the brain to relearn is referred to as neuroplasticity.

Social settings

Many things happen during social settings, that my brain can’t process efficiently.  The social setting could be a dance, a birthday celebration, a wedding anniversary etc.. After several conversations I will find a quiet place to give my brain a rest. When there is a change in the activity I need time to adjust. When there’s live music I need to walk away more often. Most often ten minutes is enough to make a difference. On returning I will do a cursory overview and decide if I’m ready to join in.

This does break the continuity of the event for me. Often that is a minor inconvenience. Other times there is a sense of having missed something. Trying to get up to speed can contribute to neural fatigue. In those situations it’s helpful when someone fills me in on what happened while I stepped out. Though I don’t count on someone to fill me in.

I don’t always realize the source of the disconnect that is nagging at me and therefore not realize the need to ask someone to fill me in while I stepped away.

In the past year I have met several people who are very observant. These people know and recognize when I’m reaching my limits often before I’m aware of it myself. That brings with it a strong emotional sense of Wow! To have others looking out for me is heartwarming and in some ways beyond words.

When I’m around people who understand my limitations I don’t feel like I’m going AWOL. I have the assurance that I’m unofficially on an approved leave.

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Author: Jasper Hoogendam

After 36 years as an educator my career ended due to a TBI. Renewable energy as part of 'walking lightly on this earth' has been and continues to be my interest since my teen years. Since early 2015 I have been learning to live with ABI (Acquire Brain Injury). I don't want to let my ABI limit the goals I set for myself. I'm living with a different brain, not a lesser brain. In sharing my day to day successes and struggles, I am better able to understand how my life had changed and begin to accept the change. In sharing my experiences I'm hearing from caregivers and fellow ABI's. I'm encouraged when my experiences are helping others understand some of the complexity of living with ABI.

4 thoughts on “Being AWOL”

  1. You have explained it so very clearly. I imagine it is very important for you to know how the thinking must evolve step by step .You understand what’s happening. Elderly people with Alzheimer do not understand and then the fear and terror and anger manifest. I have the daytime fatigue too as a result of the heart medications I take. If I don’t get 2 hour afternoon nap I am ready for bed at 7 PM. I am not distressed by this. Shucks, it’s just a grampa nap.

    Like

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