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Photo by Luz Fuertes on Unsplash

Control Yourself Already

On impulse control, head bumps and learning to wait your turn

There are few things more embarrassing than to show up like a jackass.

Being human, I spend plenty of time in that barrel, if for no other reason- and in my case it’s a pretty good one- than having post-concussion syndrome, or the aftermath of Traumatic Brain Injury (or TBI).

If you’ve seen the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith, you know whereof I speak. The Nigerian doctor Dr. Bennet Omalu, who is the subject of that film has since, sadly, gone on to undermine his good work by overselling himself and making claims that have been proven to be suspect:

Still, he did bring very important points to light.

Post-concussion syndrome is real. I have it. After twenty-one significant head bangs, I live with unpredictable emotional outbursts, occasional shite-flinging-without-reasonable-justification, and periodic, deep dives into humble pie. That’s a dessert that I’ve had to come to love. Crow, too.

Look. I’ve had to develop a sense of humor about the condition. I do every single thing I can and much more than is recommended to moderate the symptoms. Most days I’m lucky.

However the short-term memory bubbles and sometimes lava-like explosions of genuinely ridiculous anger over nothing can and do cause me considerable embarrassment.

Such as, this morning. I got unreasonably angry about an issue that a large company had caused. I wrote a pissed-off note to someone that I tracked down in my inbox. I didn’t recognize the name. Just the company. I was told to “calm down,” to which I didn’t respond well, said that the condescension was noted and would be sent up the line. Presumably the CEO.

The person I was writing was the top of the line. The CEO, in fact. Of a nearly $120b corporation.

Now look. If you can’t find the humor in this, we might as well pack it in. I find that incredibly funny. I was so pissed off that effectively, because I didn’t recognize the person’s name as the CEO with whom I’d had a very reasoned conversation some time back (short term memory bubble), that I threatened to take it to the CEO.

While the gentleman wasn’t happy about my tone, he must have found that mildly amusing. Especially since he’d taken the time to read my email late on a Sunday night,which is far more than I can say for most CEOs.

You can’t make this stuff up. You just can’t. This is the kind of thing that ends up in sitcoms. I live it.

Of course I promptly apologized, explained myself and all is well. Well, sort of.

I live with situations like this. Regularly.

I’ve been gone five weeks, which means that the primary management system that I use to control those symptoms is back home and out of use. Inevitably the symptoms worsen. It’s nobody else’s concern that I can’t control my emotional volatility. That’s my job. I rather think that someone should fire me for managerial incompetence.

When you and I pour kerosene on the fire that is the high level of daily stress in our Western lives, the pressures many of us feel, and then on top of that unnecessarily hyped-up concerns about mystery illnesses, we often cascade that stress onto others. Hence trollers, crime, spousal abuse, extreme impatience, lots of examples. But that may not be all that’s going on.

Another piece of this is that vast numbers of us have had head injuries which have either gone untreated (I’ll shake it off) or even unnoticed.

Here’s what to know:

Popular movies, long before Omalu’s work, made fun of head bumps. They’re neither fun nor funny, although out of the need to negotiate terms with my own oft-bashed coconut I have tried to find my funny. There’s not much else I can do, given the resulting behaviors, the fact that at this point nobody has any answers for what to do to make things better permanently. I use an adaptive oxygenation system (LiveO2) but it has significant limitations. It takes up nearly an entire room, is heavy and bulky. The best results are if I use it every single day, religiously.

My lifestyle doesn’t support that. I use it daily when I’m home, but I travel a lot. So. I screw up a lot.

Given that some 5.3 million people live with TBI and are disabled to some point by them (ask any of my friends, they’ll tell you), I might offer that there are likely many more folks who got head-banged but didn’t seek help. They might well be the rude troller who fired off a message full of sewage at your Medium article. They might be the impatient, angry person who pushes ahead of you in line at the bank. They might be that asshole staring back at you in the bathroom mirror (oh, whoops, sorry, that would be me).

While no, I don’t support that behavior, I might understand it, given that I sometimes suffer my own rudeness. That’s not offered as an excuse. Which is precisely what I wrote, red-faced, to the above-mentioned CEO.

What’s up with my noggin has little or nothing to do with my age. And kindly, this is key. The stats for TBI are rising with older folks, who hit their heads during a fall.

Age doesn’t do that, per se. The decrepitude that is caused by poor diet, lack of movement and the cognitive problems caused by polypharmacy and mixing common over the counter drugs with pharmaceuticals (or just by themselves for that matter) are more to blame than age.

The World Health Organization says

“Coming to rest inadvertently on the ground” is a terrific understatement for the kinds of falls I’ve had. Yes, if a very large acacia tree branch that sweeps you off your horse and slams you onto the concrete-hard clay in Uganda is “coming to rest inadvertently on the ground,” then yes. I might describe it somewhat differently, especially since after I got up, I couldn’t locate my mount, and promptly fell right back down again.

That article specifically does NOT mention drugs, which you can find here (and to my mind belonged in the WHO article):

My excuse is that I like epic sports. Typically when I bang my bump it’s due to something pretty spectacular. However, I fell down the stairs in Iceland (one of my funniest stories) but that’s because I had my right hand firmly attached to a very heavy piece of luggage. Said luggage decided to take a suicide leap down some 32 concrete stairs, and at the last minute, declined to offer me the option to abstain from accompanying that errant bag all the way down.

That head injury, in fact, was #16, and while I am most fortunate to have been in superb shape at 62 to survive it, that was the head injury that pushed me to find LiveO2. That frankly has been a godsend (nb: I do not work for nor receive compensation from LiveO2. I’m a customer of theirs. A happy one, but still a customer). Still, the fact that I cannot use it every single day affects impulse control and that emotional volatility.

I still do those sports. The experts say, and they’re right, that once you’ve had a concussion, you are far more likely to collect more.

I’d rather collect income from a lottery win but that’s another story.

Emotional control, also impulse control, are indicators of emotional maturity. When you Google impulse control, much of what comes up is about adolescent brain development. Those high-level skills are the last to develop. This tracks with what we see on line. It also tracks with the Gimme It NOW behavior, not only driven by the click-and-get-it-instantly shopping but all the other GET IT NOW messages drilled into brains. As a society we seem to have lost the ability to wait before we eat the marshmallow. That’s true of adolescents and the aged alike.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with that famous marshmallow experiment, here is a description, along with plenty of links to research results, a follow-up and a very good set of suggestions about developing your ability to delay gratification:

You and I see examples of our society’s inability to delay gratification all the time. We know better: we choose not to act better. There is far more money to be made off that need for instant gratification than in developing our skills to be patient and work towards a higher reward.

For example, Farfetch, a fashionista website that I enjoy perusing, promises to get me my impulse purchase within just a few hours in selected cities. That takes advantage of our inability to think clearly through the OMG that’s GORGEOUS then, wait, that’s a mortgage payment, to wait, I’ll only wear it once, to nah, mortgage payment is more important. That process takes time. By the time you’ve gotten that far, the package, with its several-thousand-dollar price tag, is on its way.

You and I can practice better control. I won’t tell you it’s easy because I love getting that package as much as anyone. However. When I see something that my brain says OMG, you gotta get this….

I handle that by selecting the item of my desire and putting it in the cart. I leave it there. Then I continue whatever else I was doing. If the item is bought, and it almost always is, by the time I return, so be it. If not, I march myself through a series of questions: What do I have just like this right now? How often do I wear it? How often am I likely to wear THIS? What would that amount buy me during a trip? How is this item going to measurably improve my life?

Not too many items survive that hot-seat. Those items that have, I love. This is impulse control. It has taken me years. I have a very well-developed compulsive shopper inside me. Many of us do. Companies count on that.

A Medium writer, in an article I read back when I first joined, commented that he’d stopped drug use in his twenties. He was shocked to realize how immature he was compared to his contemporaries. And, when he ran into an old drug-using friend, how that friend was just as childish, adolescent and puerile as they’d both been at twelve, when they’d both begun using. The truth of his comments was searing. I’d seen that emotional immaturity in my father and big brother, both of whom had begun drinking in adolescence. Substance abuse can alter, if not completely derail, development. Life becomes all about the next high, and all else falls by the wayside. It varies in each of us, but addictions really do undermine our ability to consider the marshmallow and let it sit there. Or walk away entirely.

What you and I see in others, and what others on occasion see in me, can be very misleading.

There may be many reasons you and I have difficulty managing our emotions. Sometimes I lose miserably, and I hold out my plate for a piece of humble pie. Common dish at my house.

If you notice that your kids, your parents or your friends are having some challenges, you might want to explore if anyone’s had a head injury. This isn’t a joke.

If mom or dad took a tumble in the toilet, make sure that they didn’t bang their head on the way down. Investigate their drug intake and question everything. Do that for yourself, too. There are many, many reasons why we see emotional volatility and impulse control, and some of them may well be related to medications, injuries, drug use or simply, overwhelm and anxiety. Or any combination thereof. These behaviors are not normal. They’re symptomatic.

Got impulse? I do. However.

It might be awfully hard to offer the bank that blouse in exchange for the mortgage. Just saying.

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Photo by Vinicius Amano on Unsplash

Written by

Horizon Huntress, prize-winning author, adventure traveler, boundary-pusher, wilder, veteran, aging vibrantly. I own my sh*t. Let’s play!

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