Brain Power

Health Takes A Month

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I’m being a dutiful and safe adult and getting my shots. I’ve had my pneumonia one, Prevnar 13, and the two Shingrix ones, for shingles. Next up is my tetanus booster, and I’m seriously wondering: do I hafta‽ I will get it, but I need a few weeks of my health back first.

Brain injury and drugs don’t mix well. Medications don’t work like they’re supposed to when the neurons are damaged. Makes sense, actually. How can broken neurons respond normally to medication changing brain chemistry? Well, the same seems to hold true for vaccines in my single-subject study of one — me.

I’d anticipated I’d be tired and would take a month to get back my energy. And I am getting better more and more each day after the Shingrix booster (which was in the last week of March). But I didn’t anticipate all the effing side effects. Thinking back on it, those, too, make sense because we know brain injury causes an inflammatory immune response, which I touched on in my book Concussion Is Brain Injury: Treating the Neurons and Me. The Shingrix vaccine is very effective because it causes a strong immune response. As a result, I suffered a regression in my strength, my emotional regulation, my stamina, my thermoregulation, my cognitive functioning (reading, memory, problem solving all went downhill and are returning now), and my writing disappeared for a month. Made it kind of hard to blog or even get on Twitter when the latter made me so dizzy, I wanted to barf.

I very much needed homecare, just like I did after eye surgery. But physicians remain so uninformed about brain injury that they assume that something that doesn’t necessitate homecare in the usual patient shouldn’t in one with brain injury. Not true.

I’m coming out the other side. And this awful month has made me fear getting another vaccine. But the threat of shingles in the eyes is worse. Tetanus with what it does to you is more terrifying. And I’ve had pneumonia enough times to choose month-long Prevnar 13 effects of fatigue and emotional dysregulation over pneumonia’s life-threatening gift of days and days of it being hard to breathe to point of scary and then a month to recover and function again.

Brain Health

BIST ABI Acceptance Series, Week Two, A Review

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This month, the Brain Injury Society Of Toronto is holding a series of four information sessions about acquired brain injury (ABI) acceptance, adjustment, strategies, and resources. I attended the second one on acceptance, presented by Dr. Bojana Budisin, Neuropsychologist and Dr. Liesel-Ann Meusel, Neuropsychologist, of Lad and Associates in Toronto.The topic was “Learning Strategies for Adjustment and Acceptance – addressing the topic of grief, acceptance and adjustment.” The turnout was much higher than expected, probably for the same reason my posts on grief receive more views than any other of my posts on Psychology Today: Grief is a topic rarely addressed in our rehab and most therapists don’t seem to know how to treat the extraordinary grief of brain injury.

Acceptance over and under grief. Text image.

They began by asking for definitions of acceptance and printing them in large easily-seen capital letters on a giant piece of paper stuck to the wall. There was no shortage of suggestions.

  • Reality as it is
  • No criticism
  • Satisfied with where you are
  • No self-judgement
  • Not judgemental
  • Work with me
  • Respect decisions
  • Respect
  • Loving and liking yourself as you are now
  • Life changes
  • Reduction of anger
  • Letting go
  • Tolerance
  • Not imposed
  • Working with what you have
  • Open to change

It’s interesting that, although the presenters were wanting to focus on our acceptance of ourselves and our brain injury, the word equally raises the traumatic experience of others not accepting nor respecting us.

Budisin and Meusel then showed their word cloud divided into positive definitions and ones associated with negative connotations (in square brackets below):

  • Letting go
  • Consenting to
  • Letting be
  • Opening up
  • [Capitulating]
  • Giving permission
  • Stopping the fight
  • [Acquiescing]
  • [Approval]
  • [Giving up]
  • Giving permission
  • Make space for
  • Allowing
  • Adjustment
  • Make peace with
  • Assent

Acceptance is not saying we give up and stay where we are. Let’s learn to be with those awful emotions as they are so that we can shift our energy to more productive activities.

They emphasized that this session was about dealing with what we can control: ourselves. There are two problems with that concept as it relates to people with brain injury. After ABI and because of the injury, more for some than others, depending on the areas injured, we can’t control ourselves. Can you control a short circuit through willpower or behavioural means? Same idea with misfiring or not firing neurons. When neurons fire randomly, it’s important to treat them neurophysiologically so that they begin to resync again, to regenerate, and in that way, we can regain control bit by bit. The other problem, as one participant noted, is that others impose their anxieties on us. We’re fine on our own pottering about at our own pace and within our lack of abilities, but when in the presence of people who don’t know how to treat ABI, or how to react to our injury-affected meins, they get all anxious. Then we do. It’s been a long time since I was badly affected by this imposition, and I wish back then I’d known others experienced being buffetted around by others anxieties and judgements, too.

Budisin and Meusel defined acceptance as, “. . . means allowing our thoughts and feelings to be as they are, regardless of whether they are pleasant and painful, opening up and making room for them, dropping the struggle with them and letting them come and go as they naturally do.”

They did an exercise demonstrating this principle. Imagine a ruminating thought and its accompanying feelings written on your palms. Now raise your palms to your eyes and hold them close. What can you see? Can you hear, attend, or see the people around you or talking to you? You’re probably more aware of your palms and what’s written on them. Your shoulders and neck are probably starting to hurt, too. This position mimics how dominant the ruminating thoughts and feelings are.

Now, lay your palms on your thighs, still imagining those thoughts and feelings are on them, and push down. And keep pushing. You’re probably starting to get tired. It’s like the exhaustion of pushing your thoughts and feelings away.

Now, rest your hands on your lap, palms up. This is letting the ruminating thoughts and feelings be. They exist. They’re there. But you’re not judging or pushing them away.

Some found this position anxiety provoking. It’s a position of vulnerability, of exposing your emotions to not just yourself but to others, too. And if there’s one thing people with ABI have learned is that we get judged and criticized and told our emotions are wrong — we’re not moving forward or getting over ourselves fast enough — or our emotions are lacking or inappropriate to the occasion. So exposing them is to invite judging. Who needs that‽

Holding one’s hands up is familiar and shielding, as well. Budisin and Meusel didn’t have much to say on this reaction. Their point was to show that letting be is more restful, and it should be. There’s that should word! I was told during rehab to not use the “should” word but perhaps “ought to” instead. Yet in dealing with emotions and grief after ABI, even though therapists are compassionate, we still get an awful lot of being told how to think and feel. Letting be should also apply to others so that we can let be safely.

This is partly why teaching people with ABI acceptance without including community takes years and why I come across people who look like they have it but the moment I trigger their real emotions, they’re pouring their pain out all over me. Not a problem, just rather unexpected and disorienting at the amount of unheard pain I’m suddenly being drowned in. When we’re taught that the only way we’ll be accepted is if we demonstrate acceptance, is it any wonder we learn to mask our true feelings? And then when someone comes along who’s willing to listen and believe, we let all of it out in one tidal wave of despair, pain, relief at being heard.

Budisin and Meusel’s second part of their acceptance definition was, “. . . gives us the skills to stop getting tangled up in our thoughts and feelings, to start thinking clearly and productively, to move forward with what is important to us.“

My very first thought was how does one untangle emotions when they’re being generated, or not generated at all, by injured neurons in a chaotic and disharmonious manner? Behaviour therapy like this is going to take forever without neurophysiological interventions. Even for people with simple anxiety, learning the skills is not easy. When after neuroplastic treatments, the brain is producing the brainwaves of relaxed, focused attention, then we have half a chance of learning and retaining the necessary skills. In conjunction with brain biofeedback or low-intensity light therapy and with the aid of audiovisual entrainment at the start of a learning-acceptance session, this kind of work would be healing and empowering to do.

A key point: our own concept of acceptance will at the end of the day differ from person to person. Accepting the non-acceptance by others is part of acceptance. Budisin emphasized that acceptance takes years and is not linear. It’s progression and regression.

Acceptance work is like dealing with quicksand. To survive it, you lie flat slowly and don’t fight the quicksand. It goes against every instinct. But by giving up fighting, you have more energy.

Suffering = pain x resistance.
Pain is physical or emotional.
Acceptance = taking away resistance.

I assume that means that suffering reduces down to:

Suffering = pain.

There are nine basic emotions for all humans across all cultures:

  • Love
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Curiosity
  • Joy
  • Shock (can be good or bad)
  • Guilt/Shame

These emotions can feed each other. A single emotion can be broken down further, depending upon one’s life. We live in a world that emphasizes happiness and positivity, but only three of the basic emotions are positive in normal human experience. We have to learn how to manage the six “negative” ones.

Budisin and Meusel asked: Why do we need them?

They answered: Each signals to us that this is something we care about.

Emotions are data or signal beacons to something we care about. Better to feel them and label them accurately so that we can better discern the precise cause of our feelings and more accurately take steps to move forward. I thought of how I needed my health care professionals to help relearn how to identify emotions when they began to return after well over a decade of being absent, and how difficult it was when they either didn’t or simply labelled them all as anger and frustration or my injured emotional centres as depression. Accurate identification is the only way one can (a) relearn how to identify emotions and (b) be heard. When psychiatrists take the easy route of labelling them all as solely depression or anger, we lose out.

Budisin and Meusel used an iceberg analogy for emotions.

Iceberg

Anger often is like an iceberg. Others see our anger, the part of the iceberg that’s above the ocean. But so much more is underneath it, and that’s the primary, raw emotions that’s driving the anger. Those are the emotions we, all of us, need to listen to, the part of the iceberg that’s below the ocean surface. Anger is more complex than just anger.

What is anger?

Anger: protective nature. One feels energized and stronger. A bit out of control. Flight and fight. With anger, you can defend yourself and others around you. Ready to protect the raw, vulnerable emotions that’s driving it. Those raw emotions are often sadness, being hurt, being tricked, helpless, embarrassed, annoyed. If you remove the anger, you expose the vulnerable emotions. Those are the signal emotions. And those are the ones you want to acknowledge and work with. That’s why open palms creates anxiety as it reveals the vulnerable under-the-ocean iceberg.

But when health care professionals — especially psychiatrists who are the only ones covered by medicare and thus affordable — would rather avoid us or not deal with our issues or farm us out to “experts” who know just as little, how do you state your need? How do you safely show the signal emotions? How can you get them to hear us?

Budisin and Meusel moved on to grief.

Grief

Recognizing grief is complex because of the overlap with ABI and PTSD. That’s when we get the feeling of dealing with so much. That’s why therapists start chipping away at something so that they can reduce the overall load we’re carrying. Having a good conceptualization and understanding of what’s going on is important, and hopefully health care professionals will recognize that and tease out what is what. To do that, they’ll work in stages, eg, to get rid of acute symptoms then after that they’ll start addressing grief.

Phases of Grief
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Disorganization
  • Despair
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The aim of grief work is to process through the stages so as to reach acceptance but rarely is the process linear. It goes back and forth. Lasts for years.

Even at the end, acceptance can be partial and fluctuate.

Denial. Immediately after loss of self. I’m fine, and I can go back to normal life.

Anger. Frustration because of injustice and loss. Why me? What did I do wrong?

Bargain. What if I implement x then I can improve. Or if I just push through, things will resolve.

Disorganization. Trying to implement strategies leads to disorganization. Confusion. Who will I be? Exponential if also have injury-related confusion.

Despair. Loss of hope. Things will never get better. No change.

Depression. Like above.

Acceptance. Things are as they are. Accepting pieces of it.

A complication is a person goes through this process as a new self in order to become a new new self.

Acceptance involves developing skills that help you avoid getting all tangled up and carried away by painful thoughts. I notice I’m having the thought that x. This noticing creates a bit of distance. Also you can write it down to create distance. When you get tangled up, you get strong emotional reactions.

Thoughts are not always as true as they feel. We see things as we are not as they are.

Weather Report

One idea Budisin talked about is to learn to sit with painful feelings and notice them like we notice the weather. Do a personal weather report to validate them and then focus on the present. Am I sunny or is there a storm raging inside or is it in between? Rainy with sun? But don’t think too much about this report. Simply summon the report, notice it, and let it be. They wrote in their handout:

“By sitting with uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings and sensations and letting them be as they are, you’ll come to find that they will invariably pass on their own, in time.”

Palms in lap.

The only practical idea I heard on how to grieve was in a question they briefly posed: Have you commemorated aspects of yourself before ABI? They didn’t expand on it nor spoke about how they do that with clients.

I didn’t stay until the end because the session went over time and I had to leave at its scheduled end. I was also quite tired. There was a lot to take in plus I was taking notes. The part I missed was a 15-minute video TED talk they showed.

The next day I began to have flashbacks to my insurance battle and the many, many ways kind-meaning therapists didn’t hear me when I had no emotions. I survived those awful, awful years because my affect was off, as I wrote in my book Concussion Is Brain Injury: Treating the Neurons and Me. Suddenly, the week of the info session, all the emotions a normal person would have had when I was fighting on six fronts (my ex, my family, my insurance company, the tort claim, my friends, and my injury plus trying to find treatments that actually worked to heal) barrelled in to my consciousness, sucking all the oxygen out of my life. They’ve waned this week in the face of having to deal with my schedule being disrupted and having to adjust to another new routine. Just another week in the life of a person with brain injury when they have only the minimum or don’t have at all the medical, community care, social, and emotional support they need.

Health

Cold Feet, Ice Creeping Upwards

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As regular readers may know, like too many people with brain injury, I have thermoregulation issues. That means I’ve run too hot for over a decade. (I write about possible reasons why in my book Concussion Is Brain Injury.) But I haven’t talked about my cold feet and the strange phenomenon of being far too hot in my torso and head and far too cold in my feet and legs. My acupuncturist used to rebalance the heat so I was properly warm head to toe. The treatment never lasted too long, and back I’d go to being hot and cold in the same body.

I didn’t do much for my cold feet because it was the heat that posed the danger to me and sent me to the ER back in 2007. But the heat has cooled down year after year to closer to normal levels with the neuroplastic treatments I’ve been receiving. So I’ve been noticing more the cold in my feet and legs. For the last little while, the cold has worsened in my feet; nightly it begins to creep up my calves to my knees. I feel like I’m slowly turning into ice from the bottom up. It’s always way worse at night (at the opposite end of the night as the heat was).

The laser therapy clinic I go to has recently retained a new doctor, and he decided we should rule out blocked or spastic arteries being the cause. I heard nothing then suddenly I was given 24-hours notice to go to the vascular lab at the hospital I have traumatic memories of. Unbelievably, the lab was on the same floor as the behavioural cardiologist I went to for a few visits in one of those utterly futile attempts to do something about my heart (hence, one source of grief). I also didn’t know how I was going to navigate this hospital, which is normally a zoo, with my new vision. My brain still demands help remapping all first-time-since-the-surgery venues. Sigh. And indoor spaces with people moving in all different directions and sound bouncing loudly off surfaces makes it harder than outdoor spaces.

But no matter, I asked for help at the info desk. Getting a brain injury means you’d better get used to asking for help over and over and expecting you’ll have to negotiate for it, too, almost every time and forging into protracted negotiation that’ll come with a price when people say no. But I digress.

I received help and even better, the place was like a morgue. I have no idea how I lucked out! It made navigating the space infinitely easier. The weird thing is that the place seemed a lot smaller than before my eye surgery. It’s like having true binocular vision has shrunk spaces and even devices like my iPhone in my perception.

The vascular lab takes your blood pressure super quick in your arms, legs, ankles. An ultrasound wand is faster than regular blood pressure equipment! Then the technician begins to sound your arteries with ultrasound to produce colour pictures of your blood flow with the grey landscape of your arteries and surrounding tissues. Blue for 24 cm/s; red for -24 cm/s. Every artery she found, she’d listen to the blood flow. Hearing the strong beating whoosh whoosh of my blood pumping through my abdominal aorta, arteries extending into my thighs, arteries behind my knees, was pretty sweet. The strength lessened on my ankles and the arteries in my feet were very difficult to find. Ultrasound needs fat to bounce off to create a picture of the arteries, and feet don’t have fat up top (or at least mine don’t). No beat. Ten percent of the population apparently has no discernible pulse in their feet. Welcome to the ten, Shireen! Even the beat from a couple of points on my ankles sounded like it came from far off and was high pitched unlike the arteries at the other end of my legs. Their beat was deep, like a bass or baritone.

What did this all mean? I have “absolutely gorgeous arteries.” My arteries aren’t the reason for the cold in my feet and creeping up my legs.

Since the low-intensity light therapy (laser therapy) over the bottom part of the spine warms up my feet and keeps the ice from creeping up at night, the nerves coming out of the spine there were probably affected. The lap belt would’ve cinched after the first impact in the car crash. It would’ve stayed cinched during the next two impacts, pressing into my body. Peachy. Cranial nerves stretched, reducing my saliva, increasing risk of cavities sans me knowing because no one thought to look nor monitor. And looks like same with spinal nerves where the lap belt was and no one thought to look nor go over the possible sequelae and what I should do about them, like wear socks to bed. I’d never had to before so didn’t think about it until I heard of someone doing that a couple years ago.

And now today, I have a light therapy home unit I can use to keep my feet warmer and a clinic to go to where they can help me deal with these perplexing issues. Brain injury doesn’t arrive alone. It comes with friends who need treatment, too.

Brain Health

Eighteen Years, Eleven Months, Three Weeks

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flic.kr/p/2bcpboE

When I first met a person who’d lived with brain injury for twenty years, it seemed so far into the future for me. I could barely comprehend living with brain injury that long. I expected to be fully recovered by that point, myself. Roll eyes here. I was working hard on improving my health, pursuing treatments I could afford, and with the help of a therapist from Community Care Access Centre (CCAC), increasing my functionality more and more.

Eighteen years, eleven months, and three weeks after my injury, I’ve lost the CCAC help due to government cutting back on health care for brain injury to pay for administrators. I’ve suddenly regained reading comprehension and am practicing most days to keep progressing back to my old reading ability (one of my health care providers doesn’t think that’s possible). I’ve lost all the gains I made in my functionality — I’m still hanging on by sheer willpower to writing a novel every November. And I’m trying hard to keep up Psychology Today blogging even while I can’t remain consistent in writing here or on my political blog. I’m facing the horribly unbelievable fact that I won’t have fully recovered by twenty years. The grief is real.

Brain Health

Visualizing and Verbalizing Four Paragraphs with Lindamood-Bell

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Yesterday, at the start of week . . . uh, what week are we on . . . oh right, five, I read a four-paragraph story during my reading comprehension retraining with Lindamood-Bell Australia, but we didn’t finish the full Visualizing and Verbalizing process. Today we did.

After the clinician read a grade level seven Whole Paragraph, I began reading a four-paragraph story in hour one. I got to the end of the third paragraph when it was break time. I inhaled some sugary treat, and the clinician decided we would finish the four-paragraph story. Fine with me!

The sugar moved my by-then sluggish neurons to read the fourth paragraph then finish the whole process of first visualizing the story in blocks and then verbalizing the entirety of it, including giving the main idea and answering questions about the story.

All told, the four-paragraph story took me about one and one-quarter hours to get through.

Since we still had time left in hour two after completing the four-paragraph story, the clinician read a Whole Paragraph story, and I have a word summary of it. Then time was up, and I was outta there . . . well, logging out as quickly as I could move and click my mouse.

We began the first hour with me having to recall the four-paragraph story we read yesterday. I did okay, if you count remembering from the middle on then remembering bits and pieces of the first two paragraphs and recalling them out loud out of sequence, okay. I got the details right because I could see the pictures in my head. Visualizing really does facilitate recall! But since this is the first time my recall was out of sequence, clearly we’re starting to challenge my most injured neuronal networks and areas.

Like yesterday, I have a bit of a concentration headache, and my entire head feels wrapped in cotton wool. I’m dying for bedtime, but sleep isn’t guaranteed as sleepy and tired as I am. I have the feeling that this intensive cognitive work somehow revs up my brain so that it’s tired yet cannot sleep until enough time has passed for the neurons to return to their usual working level.

Brain Power

Paragraphs in Lockstep, Restoring Reading Comprehension After Brain Injury with Lindamood-Bell

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Working the neurons, changing pathways in the brain, fills every cell in my body with white noise. Fatigue while learning how to comprehend written text is spreading into the rest of my life.

“Where do you want to meet next time?”

“Uh . . .”

“What part of the city do you want to do next?”

“Uhhhh . . .”

“Why don’t we touch base closer to the time and discuss it then?”

“OK,” I agree, dying for a nap. Or coffee.

Normally, I know what streets, buildings, areas I need to do next in my work with my CNIB orientation mobility trainer. But with the Lindamood-Bell Visualizing and Verbalizing program sucking every oxygen and glucose molecule out of every brain cell, every muscle cell, I got nothing left to answer simple questions.

As always, I find it remarkable how much a sweet something — not tooth-sucking sickly sweet but flavourful with sugar — can revive me.

Why am I surprised?

The brain runs on glucose, one of the constituents of sugar. Glucose refuels the brain’s energy packs.

I’m almost halfway through restoring my reading by developing my ability to create imagery while reading.

Early this week, the sound of the plane rattling in the story I was reading popped into my mental imagery. When I told the Director of the Lindamood-Bell Australia Centre, he was very excited. Very. This was a sign of automaticity, he explained. Not only did it pop into my head without any conscious thought on my part, it was also a second sense to add to the visual sense that we began with.

They’re changing up the program again. At least this time, it’s a balance of easing off with keeping the accelerator on.

Each hour begins with me straining to recall what stories I read the day before (or occasionally at the start of the second hour, the hour before) and then giving a word summary based on my recalled pictures of that story. I can usually recall one story, but a second story for the second hour takes effort. Yesterday, total blank. But once my clinician prompted me with the words “alligator turtle,” the pictures of that story began to flow back into my consciousness and I was able to recall most of the details. Sweet!

After that, either I or they read a Whole Paragraph followed by one or two Paragraph by Paragraph, either two or three paragraphs long.

The change up is that the grade level of Whole Paragraph has been dropped back down from grade level 9/10 to level 5 to be on par or one level above Paragraph by Paragraph.

The idea is that through Whole Paragraph, I will learn how to create concept imagery of more and more complex, dense, and abstract language. And through Paragraph by Paragraph, I will learn how to create concept imagery for longer and longer passages of text and develop greater stamina during reading. They want to keep the former at a level or two higher than the latter. And they want to increase the levels of both in lockstep with each other. I guess they wanted to give me a bit of a break by starting a new book of stories using this approach at level 5.

Brain Health

Reading after Brain Injury: Making the Decision to Try Restoring It Again

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Why creep when feel impulse to soarSo after stressing and dithering and talking and talking with my health care team, I’ve taken the plunge and will soon restart my efforts to take back my reading from my brain injury.I wrote previously about a recent comprehensive reading assessment with Lindamood-Bell, a US company devoted to training/restoring reading and math to students and adults, and I also wrote about my results. They confirmed my experience with trying to read long-form materials or even material as short as tweets when I’m tired. I was introduced to the concepts of dual coding theory and reading comprehension through concept imagery. And I learnt more and more about how they would restore my reading comprehension using their Visualizing and Verbalizing Program that they recommended. To be honest, I’m still absorbing it all. But I cannot wait to start. I need my reading back in time for NaNoWriMo; so in my usual brain-injured way, I’ll just roll with it while my brain learns, forgets, remembers some bits, processes, absorbs more info, struggles to integrate, comprehends a bit more, and finally catches up with my actions.After discussing it with my neurodoc*, I’ve decided to contract for 80 hours. It’s the minimum required. Even though 120 hours was Lindamood-Bell’s recommendation to regain my ability to read philosophy textbooks and comes with a 5% discount, I can’t afford it. Or rather the financial pressure of having a large upfront cost would stress out my brain so much, it would probably fight against the instruction. I can always extend it if I need more than 80 hours, but I’m hoping I won’t have to. (Heck, I can’t even afford 80 hours, don’t know where else I can get the money from once the line of credit runs out, tell myself that’s what credit cards are for, and my teeth grit at the thought of carrying a balance on them. But the soul cost of not pursuing this opportunity to get back a core part of who I am is worse than the financial cost, even though organizing it and managing preparation for starting Visualizing and Verbalizing has shot up my busy brain — ruminations that come with brain injury like a hamster shot full of steroids racing on his wheel.)I’m not going to rely just on hope though to make those 80 hours behave like 120. I’m going to use my audiovisual entrainment device to perk up my brain and enhance relaxed, focused attention so that I can respond as optimally as I can to the instruction. I’m also working with the ADD Centre to see if my brain biofeedback protocols can be tweaked to facilitate the neuronal regrowth we want. We’ll be keeping the gamma brainwave biofeedback for sure since it supports my whole brain and “grounds me.”My neurodoc and I had a brief, candid discussion about my coffee purchases. If I cut down on the treats, I can afford the increased cost of upgrading to faster broadband. My current basic broadband is too slow for online instruction with Lindamood-Bell, especially as I’ll be working with their Australia centre. Wow, geographic distance does make a diff. What was OK during assessment with their Minnesota centre was not so hot with the Australia centre with its many moments of video stuttering and audio distortions. But it did the job of discussing my options and getting all my questions answered at once instead of the painfully frustrating slowness via email, with the 14-hour time zone difference slowing it even further.With faster broadband comes another cost: a VDSL modem. Really, you think all you have to take into account is the hourly instruction rate; the next thing you know, all sorts of costs are raising their hands, going count me in, too! Maybe somehow I’ll pay it all off in a couple or four years. I’ve been down this road before. For the last couple of years, it’s been nice not carrying debt in order to pay for my medical expenses in universal-health-care Canada. But I guess that vacation is over. Sigh. By the way, others with brain injury who require medical care not covered by their provincial health care pay for it by credit card. Imagine being on ODSP, living in social housing, and having to pay hundreds of dollars or over a thousand per month for medical expenses‽ Naturally, credit cards get maxed out. Canada’s universal health care is pathetic and impoverishes desperate people even more than being unable to work does. But I digress. If all goes well, I’ll be starting July 8th. Yes, a Sunday. The only time I’m reliably available five days in a row for two hours per day is at night. Lindamood-Bell centres close at 5:00pm in the summer (North America), so that’s why I’m doing it with Australia (winter hours). Their office hours coincide with my night hours. Try to wrap your head around not only a different time but a different date! The contract shows me starting July 9th, their Monday, while for me it’s July 8th! Needless to say, our emails have been full of “your time” and “my time”s!Now that everything is almost in place to start — fingers crossed no more hiccups — I’m counting down the days. But I should probably rest — and rest some more while I can.


*My neurodoc and I have been working things out for about a month now since I fired him and then discovered my brain injury grief, including for losing my reading and the long soul-destroying struggle to get it back, was more than I could handle on my own. However, I wasn’t about to continue the way we had been with him pushing his wrong goals on to me. I figured out a paradigm shift to force him to pursue my goals and only my goals. Sometimes doctors don’t know best. Since he got the message, things have been slowly improving. It helps that we’re learning that he has to explain things better not just assume I’m following his miles-a-minute thinking. He’s also realizing that given my severe abandonment issues, he needs to be more obviously supportive. I’m crossing my fingers, but I think I can say we’ve turned the corner. Trying to find good, appropriate psychiatric or psychological care for managing brain injury life is not easy. Ontario doesn’t cover psychologists for people with brain injury. And too many psychiatrists, who are covered since they’re physicians, treat it with a medication-only approach. Wholly inappropriate and, I might say, injurious. So I appreciate mine learning to do better.

Brain Power

Reading Evaluation Results for Comprehension Issues After Concussion

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I wrote last time about my reading evaluation. This post is on my results. When you have a brain injury and rehab tells you that you can’t read anymore, you assume that they’ve done a thorough assessment and analysis of your reading cognition.

You’d assume wrong.

Reaction

In 2005, five years after I was told I wasn’t reading the ubiquitous mass paperback in my hand, I had a qEEG done, which told me the neurophysiological basis for why I had so much difficulty reading. The first week of June 2018, I underwent three hours of testing over two days that assessed my auditory, visual, and language foundations of reading; my fluency; my comprehension; and my concept imagery.

Reading illustration of how we read

Huh? Yeah, I’m still learning these too. They match with my experience, but they introduce concepts that I haven’t heard of before or only knew about from a different perspective. I learnt more about where my reading difficulties lie.

My very first thought was: why did I not have these tests done during rehab in 2000? Why did the medical system not assess all my cognitions with full, appropriate qEEGs and these kinds of reading, writing, and math tests?

If I had been properly assessed, not just given a neuropsychological test people with high intelligence can ace, injury or no injury, I would have had a complete picture and been given a precise scientific and medical explanation of why I couldn’t read anymore, not just a general statement of you can’t read.

I also don’t even know how to process the fact that when I asked my neuropsychiatrist for help with reading that the reading expert he consulted pointed to the aphasia website and didn’t tell him that I should have all these tests done, the ones I’ve just undergone. It’s been bad enough I had to wait twelve years for a reading “expert” advice, but to have not known about these tests for a further six years because the medical and “reading research” community are so intellectually lazy is beyond egregious. I’m pissed. And upset. And filled with hope that finally I’ll get my book time back.

I’m still processing my results.

Results

It’s difficult to explain what one is only just starting to grasp. Lindamood-Bell who conducted the evaluation, normed all results to my age and gender.

  1. My reading rate is too slow. I’m in the 16th percentile. That means 84 percent of women my age read faster than me. I believe this rate is about double what it was in 2001. Wow! Some progress!! sarcasm
  2. My foundations are solid. These are the ability to hear phonemes, the sound parts that make up words. The ability to recognize and pronounce high-frequency words. The ability to figure out an unknown word within the context of known words.
  3. I rely on my vast knowledge bank and familiarity with language to prop up my comprehension. When I cannot see a word but only hear it and I have to pick out an illustration that best represents the word, I cannot rely on my ability to decode a word from its roots to figure out what it means. And so I don’t do so well. Based on results from standard vocabulary tests, I drop about ten percentile points, maybe a bit more, when given the same vocabulary test when heard, not seen, and using pictures instead of words to “define” the word spoken to me.
  4. My accuracy in reading words is very high.
  5. Fluency is rate plus accuracy. So my fluency is not at the level that my reading foundations indicate it should be. (Slow reader.)
  6. When I can rely on my knowledge bank and ability to decode words, my comprehension is good. When I read new or lengthy material even text at grade six level, where I can’t rely on my knowledge of content and language, my comprehension drops a lot.
  7. Concept imagery is the ability to conceive a word, sentence, or idea as a whole in a kind of picture. I don’t have it. It’s sort of, uh, depressing . . . more than that . . . grievous and devastating to see one rated as having a mental age of 14.5 or 13.5 years in these tests after eighteen years of rehab, active treatments, and passive home treatments. On the other hand, they confirm I’m not imagining my reading problems. I have real difficulty despite the fact that I’m “articulate” and can read words no problem.

As I understand how Lindamood-Bell conceives of reading, reading comprises decoding and comprehension. Decoding is done in the reading foundations aspect of reading. There are three parts to reading foundation: auditory, visual, and language.

“. . . thinking that reading is decoding a word but reading is being able to comprehend.” Nanci Bell

Auditory

The ability to hear phonemes, the sound parts that make up words.

Auditory processing illustration

Visual

The ability to recognize and pronounce high-frequency words. The ability to spell high-frequency words, that is, words that are used often in everyday reading. And the ability to image symbols, that is, letters or letter combinations.

Visual processing illustration

Language

Vocabulary. And the ability to figure out an unknown word within the context of known words.

Language processing illustration

Encompassing these three foundations of reading is comprehension.

“If there’s weak comprehension, … frequently teachers and parents don’t really know perhaps there’s weak comprehension. . . . If it’s really severe could be labelled hyperlexia there’s a gap between ability to read words and ability to comprehend. Or if it’s weak enough, it can fall into the label of autism.” Nanci Bell

Comprehension

Comprehension illustration

Lindamood-Bell uses Dual Coding Theory to explain how what we decode while reading — either text or listening to the words — is turned into comprehension by our brains. In dual coding theory, the symbols — words on text or words heard by the ears — the auditory, visual, and language parts of reading — are turned into non-verbal concepts that we can picture. A painting represents a thousand words and all. (Wikipedia notes it was a Canadian who posited this theory. Why is it then Americans, not the Canadian rehab centre I went to, that knows about and uses this theory to rehab reading?!!!!)

Dual coding theory illustration

As part of that theory, they posit that concept imagery is how we understand what we’re reading. When we read or listen, we create a picture in our mind of what we’re seeing or hearing.

Concept imagery illustration

Nanci Bell, co-founder of Lindamood-Bell, explains the comprehension and concept imagery side of reading in this video below. Note that what we often think of as reading issues, eg, dyslexia, occurs on the decoding side of the ledger. The comprehension side isn’t usually talked about. It usually doesn’t even have labels like the decoding side does. I personally don’t think labels are always useful, but in our current milieu where everything is labelled, a label gives credibility. I think that’s why when people with brain injury say they have trouble reading yet can read words and use some or a lot of their vocabulary, health care providers, family, and friends don’t believe us. But as Bell says, vocabulary is not comprehension.

Now comes the tough part.

Restoring Book Reading

Lindamood-Bell said: “we can restore your book reading.”

Pause.

“What’s so tough about that, Shireen?” you might ask.

This is like where I describe in my book how I met clinicians in 2005 who knew what I wanted — to heal my brain — and said they would help me do that and could. It’s so hard to describe in a blog post what it’s like to be neglected medically, your angst and desires dismissed, and told to accept diminished functionality for years and years and then be told you can be helped significantly — and then you find out the help was available at the time of your injury; it’s just that the people entrusted with your care didn’t know about it or “believe” in it and your loved ones never searched for you.

Once again, I’m being told the unbelievable, that what I’ve wanted for years is in fact doable. It feels untrue. I asked:

“When you say I’ll be able to read a book like I used to (before my brain injury), do you mean a book at the level of an Agatha Christie? A PD James? Neuroscience article? And/or philosophy of mind textbook?”

They answered:

“In creating your recommendations for instruction, the goal I had in mind was your ability to read and process literature at the level of your potential, and at the level that would support research and continued learning for your writing. Especially with the full recommendation of 120 hours, I picture your ability to access all of the examples you provided in your original question. Our instruction may start at a lower level, but over the daily and weekly sessions, you’ll see an increase in the amount of language (text) you are processing as well as the complexity.”

Basically it would look like an ascending ladder of difficulty.

Visualizing and verbalizing program illustration

They continued: “Since our vision for instruction will include increasing the volume of information you are processing, our goal is to decrease your fatigue, by systematically and consistently reinforcing independence with visualization for increasing lengths of language. Just like any foundational skill (ex: learning a new language, learning a new instrument) practice and continuous exercising of the skill, makes it more automatic. Instruction will stimulate and strengthen this process for you, but practice outside of sessions and beyond instruction, will also be key. You may still need to take breaks, but I anticipate the length of breaks and the frequency of breaks will diminish as you, on a daily basis, start reteaching your brain this visualization process.”

I’ve consulted with some of my health care team. They believe I will benefit, that I need this hope. There is some skepticism that reading books like I used to is achievable; but no matter what, given all the brain work I’ve done, how my brain is now used to training, and how I do the work given me, I will benefit. My reading will improve. Dr. Lynda Thompson at the ADD Centre, who referred me for evaluation, was impressed with the time they gave me answering my questions and liked that they would show the objective learning curve not rely on subjective feelings and measure the gains.

I’m not sure how I’d be able to handle it if I didn’t achieve reading like I used to, though. That’s why I’ll need all the support I can get from my neurodoc. We’re patching things up; I’ve enforced pursuing my goals, and only my goals.

The normal intensity of instruction is four hours per day, Monday to Friday, for four to six weeks. Because of my fatigue, we’ll cut that down to two hours per day, five days a week, for eight to twelve weeks. It seems that I would need the whole three months and would have to practice daily on top of instruction as well as continue daily practice after instruction ends. Whew. That’s a heck of a commitment to work! I worried that the whole thing would be a moot point if I didn’t find a way to pay for it. I need help since the cost is way, way beyond my means. So I’m borrowing. What else is new.

OHIP really should be paying for this. This is what cognitive therapy ought to encompass when acquired brain injury clinics talk about what they do as cognitive therapy. It should also include brain biofeedback and audiovisual entrainment and long-term talk therapy. But first we need to get the medical system to assess cognitive functioning and brain injury properly. And to get anyone working with people with brain injury to take their reading problems seriously. We live in a knowledge economy after all — if we can’t read volumes of information, we can’t work.

Concept imagery underlies comprehension. Comprehension not based on having an adequate vocabulary nor ability to hear phonemes. Nanci Bell: “What they struggle with is the concept or the whole. And if you don’t have the whole, you can’t do higher order thinking skills such as main idea.” They call it in the U.K. aphantasia, the inability to visualize. Higher order thinking: From what you pictured— not what you think — what comes next in this story?

Lindamood-Bell trains to the client’s potential not what falls into the average range. This is significant. Brain injury rehab is about working to the average of what they’ve done since the 20th century, not for what is needed for independence, satisfying functionality, and most importantly, the person’s potential.

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Sketches courtesy of Dana Kernik-Theisen, Center Director, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, Edina, Minnesota, who generously gave of her time to explain my results, recommendations, and reading theories.

Health

Concussion Recovery is a Series of What are my Priorities?

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Slide of graphic of man looking into his head. From Healing the Brain conference.

As I come out of the narrow, tortuous pass that is a life focused on treating brain injury and the subsequent PTSD, I’m faced with the big question: what are my priorities?

The first time I said bye to focusing on treating my injured neurons, I hunted for the supports I needed to be functional. That was my priority then.

“T1: To me “treating the whole person” is about discussing how care plans fit into the patient’s life and GOALS vs. the patient figuring that out later in a vacuum. #patientchat”
http://twitter.com/btrfly12/status/956952160234868741

As I begin writing this, I’m also scrolling through Twitter #patientchat; one person tweets that it would be nice if the physician discussed how care fits into the patient’s life and goals.

It would be!

Up until 2013, for me, my life goal was getting back to my life. Oh, I knew I was writing differently, I probably couldn’t return to computer programming, and writing was the only thing I could realistically do with my fatigue and propensity to suddenly not be able to work for long stretches. But somewhere in me, I believed I could return to “normal.” Return to working several hours a day. Return to normal socializing. Return to earning an income. Return to never having to attend another fucking health care appointment.

Then life and PTSD gave me a rude wakeup call. I had to refocus on health care appointments and also religiously treat my injured neurons at home just so that I could get through the day. That went on for years until a confluence of treatments in 2017 finally slayed the chaos in my brain. Ruminations like a hamster in a steroidal wheel slowed then almost faded away.

I resisted then finally acquiesced to the knowledge that my PTSD was not going to be treated in any curative way (some day I’ll write about why people with complex PTSD aren’t getting better and life is a daily struggle to keep functional and nights a nightly hell of tossing sleep). Then this past Christmas, I tired of treating my brain injury too.

I quit.

Yeah, okay, I’m still attending my brain biofeedback and I continue reading rehab with my neurodoc and I use my home devices just enough to keep pain of every kind at bay and my body ticking along as best it can. But I’m not doing any homework. I’m not thinking anymore about how to work on this part of my injury or that part. Any thoughts on brain injury and treatments are to keep my book blog pages updated. And I’m not working at all on treating my PTSD. It is what it is.

I want to get back to normal life, what I now define as: a day not consumed by health care.

But what do I want to do? Write novels for myself. (No one is buying them and I’m not made of money to spend on taking them to the final published book form so once I write the first draft, what’s the point of revising and editing.) Philosophy of Mind requires me to read. A lot. And really hard stuff. Well, that’s not going to happen. I didn’t get the professional help when it would have made a difference. (Health care professionals are so focused on what they do and what the average is for this function or that that they miss the rare opportunities to radically help their clients.) On the other hand I learnt of the video courses on the Great Courses Plus app, which I’m wending my way through very very slowly. I enjoy photography but can’t seem to dedicate time to it and haven’t been able to in years. I can design and create websites, though it’s on/off, sucks me dry of any energy, and oftentimes feels like there’s a thick concrete wall between me and understanding the back end of a website where all the coding takes place. I can help people with brain injury, like I did last November with NaNoWriMo and like I’m trying to do with Concussion Is Brain Injury, as long as I have energy and don’t have to do it for longer than a month at a time. There are other things I’d like to do. Cooking would also be nice; to make myself yummy nutritious meals without the energy suckage would be awesome.

I return to the question: what are my priorities? I don’t know.