Stumbling onto a Living Assist

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The Shine of a New Vehicle

I have been learning to live with an ABI (acquired brain injury) as a result of a motor vehicle collision. That happened a little over 4 years ago.

Initially, one of the key challenges was driving or simply being a passenger in a motor vehicle. I eventually was diagnosed with PTSD symptomology related the collision. Being in a car for a period of time would put me into sensory overload. It wasn’t that I was hesitant to get into a car. It was the toll the low level stress or anxiety that would build each time a vehicle would approach. The bigger the vehicle the greater the effect. Whether I’m the passenger or the driver the results would be similar. Being on a divided highway helped to mitigate some of the effects.

Initially I could not tolerate any trip  over 30 km. Gradually I could manage longer trips by taking a break every 100 km. It meant having to plan each trip carefully. Not to mention that taking trips took much longer than pre-accident.

Noting Progress

Gradually the out of town weekend trips to family became less demanding. In the first couple years I would spend two to four days to recover. I would be reasonably recovered in time for the trip home. Gradually I would not need as long a recovery time once I reached my destination. At times, if the weather cooperated I would complete the last part of a trip by biking the rest of the way. The invigorating exercise of biking the last 40 or 50 km would reset my body by clearing enough of the stress build up to allow me to visit rather than taking a nap as soon as I arrived. (Needless to say the biking strategy doesn’t work too well in the winter months.)

I have also done some solo trips out of town. I would work out an alternate plan if I could not complete the trip. One time I under estimated my level of endurance without an alternate plan. I had to arrange for someone to come and get me as I was unable to drive home or could do it at too great a risk.

Some More Progress

A little over a year ago I did a number of longer trips with very encouraging results. I was still taking a break every 100 km or so but was arriving at my destination with much less sensory loading. This was very encouraging. I did not notice the change at first. Then again  I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. Sometimes a challenging situation goes unexpectedly well. Other times it goes in the opposite direction.

A Noticeable Improvement

About a year ago I did a trip with a few brief stops, and then joined other family members for a restaurant meal. (Restaurants, even if they are not busy at the time, have their challenges for me, particularly the ordering process. Too many choices and then trying to focus while a waitress recites the specials for the day.

Later that day it dawned on me that the combination of the drive and the restaurant experience had resulted in minimal neural fatigue. That caused me to take a look at what had changed in my environment. I realized the biggest change had been in my driving environment. The trip to our family usually involves driving through a metropolitan area of over 6 million people, which had also been the case on this particular day.

Driving Assists

The more that is at stake the greater the fatigue. When it comes to driving one does not want to make an error. The consequences could be life altering. So the need to remain focused while driving is paramount.

With the new car we purchased about a year ago, it included a feature called pre-collision. When the cruise control is activated the pre-collision feature can also be engaged. With the pre-collision engaged the car automatically adjusts to the flow of traffic up to the speed limit that I have preset. Moving through stop and go traffic is very effectively handled by the car.

Without the pre-collision there are just too many things to stay focused on.  Watching for  the vehicle ahead of me. Responding with the right amount of braking and acceleration to maintain a safe gap. In stop and go traffic this can quickly become too demanding. (There is a reason why a high percentage of collisions happen each day during the morning and evening  commute.) With the pre-collision I still need to keep a close eye on things, particularly watching out for vehicles that suddenly cut in front of me. The pre-collision system doesn’t respond quick enough when someone cuts too close in front of me.

The pre-collision removes one of the biggest components that causes me neural fatigue while driving. At the same time it reduces the risk of an accident. This reduced risk was borne out by the car insurance quotes I received when I took delivery of the new car.

A Safer Car

The car we took off the road was a 15 year old Elantra without collision coverage. We insured a brand new car with the same coverage plus collision. The cost was a couple of dollars cheaper to insure the new car with the extra coverage. (All other factors such as geographic area, claims record, number of demerit points etc were unchanged.) I was pleasantly surprised because I had definitely expected to pay a slightly higher premium.

If the question was put to me, “Are you a proponent of ‘self driving’ cars?” my answer would be a clear “no”. I think there are issues when choices are taken away from the driver due to automation. (Think of the Boeing 737 Max 8.)

The driving assist that was a standard part of our new car purchase has improved my quality of life. A benefit that I had never considered but have warmly welcomed.

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Sounds Puzzling

A successful experience sometimes happens when it is least expected.

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Puzzling rings

It’s not often that a pleasant surprise surfaces. Especially when it defies my usual ABI (acquired brain injury) response. Sunday’s are usually my most challenging day of the week. As a result I have learned to be mindful of how my body responds to the different parts of my routine.

I ramp up my mindfulness once I enter my church. Being mindful includes monitoring how my body is responding; the cognitive demands, the emotional loading and the acoustics of the space. I typically  make it through a couple of songs. Occasionally I am pleased to make it part way into a third song. However, pushing it beyond the second song often results in my needing more recovery time, meaning I miss most of the rest of the worship time.

A Pleasant Surprise

I recently attended a worship service out of town that included a praise band with a full contingent of musical instruments; two guitars, a violin, a bass, a drum set and two vocalists.

While I was looking for a place to sit that would allow me to exit inconspicuously I had a growing awareness of the praise band. It wasn’t the particular song even though it was a familiar tune. It wasn’t the volume even though they were not holding back. I became keenly aware that the sound waves weren’t bombarding me. It wasn’t pushing me into a guarded stance. Instead, the music was gently embracing me, allowing the melody wash over me. My body remained relaxed. The music was slowly drawing me in.

For how long?

As much as I was enjoying the surprising experience, I couldn’t help being somewhat wary. It seemed wonderful to be embraced at the outset. My mindfulness was heightened because I didn’t want to be taken. I was wary of being entrapped by the gentle embrace only to find out it was trouble in disguise.

As the fourth song was belted out with full musical accompaniment I still sensed no hint of betrayal. By the sixth song I was willing to concede that there would be no betrayal.

Design

I did not crash. How was it possible? If it was the acoustics I have to give credit to the architects who designed the worship space. The acoustics were working for me rather than creating dissonance in my body. I wondered whether the lack of reverberation was enough to prevent the scale from tipping into the negative zone. It felt like the hard edges of the sound was being absorbed as the music traveled outward. It was wonderful to feel embraced rather than attacked.

Every enclosed space is designed to deal with sound vibrations and resonance differently. There are the sound vibrations that a person can hear and there are those that are outside of a person’s range of hearing. There are sounds which the ear picks up and there are sounds which the body absorbs. What is outside a person’s range of hearing, I believe, can still affect a person. Having noticed a different quality to the sound as soon as I entered the sanctuary, makes me think that the sound vibrations outside of my range hearing have a subtle but profound and cumulative affect on me.

Back home

It’s two weeks later and I was barely one song into the worship service in my home church when I realized I was approaching the limit of my tolerance. My eyes were starting to tear up and I found myself humming (not the music that was playing). I walked out and gave myself twenty minutes in a quiet place and then ten minutes walking outdoors.

I returned to the worship area but left 15 minutes later as I was still struggling. By this time extreme fatigue washed over me. I had no energy to visit with anyone in the fellowship hall following the worship service. I went and sat in the car waiting for a ride home.

A two kilometer hike in the afternoon did not improve my condition. Not till mid evening did the neural fatigue finally clear.

Detective work in action

How could two different soundscapes have such drastically different effects on me? That’s one mystery that begs an answer.

Two weeks ago I had a successful experience. It was an unexpected surprise because of several factors:

  • I was in an unfamiliar place (cognitive loading)
  • I had attended a major social event the night before (emotional loading)
  • I had traveled several hours by car the day before (PTS symptomology)
  • I was away from home over night (loss of routine)

I had hoped my most recent experience in my home church would show a slight improvement given my recent success. There are several factors that should have helped make it a positive experience:

  • I had an uneventful day the day before (no residual sensory loading)
  • I hadn’t traveled (no lingering PTS symptomology)
  • I was in a familiar place (anticipated routines)

There are factors that are not as apparent. For example being in a familiar place, I know the back story of many of the people – their joys and losses. Two areas of emotional sensitivity that has a way of ramping up my sensory loading.

Increased complexity

Uncovering the reasons for the contrast between the two experiences requires considering various factors. To name a few:

  • My emotional loading of the previous couple days
  • The cognitive demands of the previous day or two
  • How well I’ve slept
  • What stress factors I’m dealing with (stress being one of my key triggers)
  • How recently I’ve had a ‘red zone’ experience

Wrap up

There is one thing that I have come to expect. There is invariably a level of unpredictability to how most active environments will affect me. I can manage an activity or an environment successfully several times and then the next time find myself crash.

I can prepare myself for a significant event. That means relaxing and making a point of not pushing the boundaries of what I am capable of doing. In addition to that making sure I have minimized my sensory loading by avoiding activities or environments which cause me neural fatigue.

Despite my careful planning I am learning to accept the unexpected.