Dummy! Or, stupid is as stupid does

Brain buzz or no brain buzz, I can be a first class fool. And, sadly, I can’t blame it on sizzling my melon when I stroked out.

Last week I was cut off while driving.

“Idiot!” I shouted to myself in the car as I hammered on the horn. “Where do these people learn to drive?”

A day or two later, I cut somebody off. I figured it out when their horn sounded an attack. They went with a long first trumpet then followed with a series of short bursts. It sounded to me like; “Idiot! Where did you learn to drive?”

“Jerk,” I thought. “He must have been speeding. Where’d she come from, anyway? I bet they changed lanes. Where do these people learn to drive?”

It was only later that I pondered my reactions. What did I mean when I thought “these people?” I didn’t see the driver in either case. Man, woman, young, old, race, I had no clue. Did I have an unfortunate stereotype of what a bad driver looks like? My pondering made me uncomfortable, so I shelved it.

But I couldn’t forget what shelf it was in and I had to open it up again when I went out for a walk with my wife a little while later. Patricia is convalescing from a major, painful and scary surgery. Among other things, it’s made it tough for her to walk. And speed, right now, is not an option. But she has to walk as part of the rehab.

Some of this walking has been outdoors, but shopping malls have a nice even track with no worry of rain or wind, so we’ve made use of them.  The down side of malls is that they can be very busy. And choppers and staff are often intensely focused, determined and aggressive as they get from their Point A to Point B. I’ve learned they’re not super keen about slowing down to get around slow pokes convalescing from major surgery.

Now, the surgery was such that I can’t have my bride getting checked by aggressive mall types.  So, I’ve developed a few blocking techniques. Turns out that those years spent playing football weren’t a waste of time even if there was no room in the pros for a 5’10’ slow corner linebacker and special teams dude. I know how to block and, if necessary, how to tackle. Maybe not to the level needed in the NFL or CFL, but I do fine in a mall.

However, needing to run interference to protect Patricia from contact while in a shopping mall put me in an ugly game day state of mine. And I’d become tense and angry that people were putting her in harm’s way.

“Can’t people see that you’re not ship shape?” I steamed. “Jerks. Where did these people learn to drive, I mean, walk through a mall?”

Then Patricia said something I hadn’t considered. Something that somebody with my history of stroke and being the one time victim of stereotypes should have had top of mind.

“You don’t know what’s going on with them, Tim, just like they don’t seem to know what’s going on with us,” she said. “Maybe their boss just screamed at them, or fired them. Maybe their child or their mom is in the hospital.”

In Patricia’s job she drives a lot from client to client and walks through harried stores. She always has stories about bizarre road mayhem.  So if she can throw out a little empathy I suppose I can. And should.

She made me think about a story I heard Stephen Covey tell years ago when I went to an event he spoke at in Edmonton. Covey was a thought provoking speaker and the author of many books including The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

On the day I heard him, Covey told of being on a New York City subway on a weekend morning when a man walked on with a pile of rambunctious kids. To hear Covey tell it, they were running amuck on the train, yelling, knocking in to people while the dad did nothing.

Covey eventfully became too angry and frustrated to stay silent and asked the dad why he didn’t do something about his kids.

The dad, a stunned look on his face, took a peek at his marauding brood and said something like; “Ya, I guess I should. We’ve come from the hospital where there mother just died. I guess I just don’t know what to say or do.”

Covey told us that he immediately made the shift from anger to empathy. A few words changed everything. The circumstance made the facts seem different. Nothing practically had changed. Yet everything had changed.

We can wait for these shifts of points of view to happen and maybe they will or maybe they won’t. If Covey hadn’t said anything, he’d have left the train, angry about the many and disgusted with his children.  But, if as my wife suggests, we try to shift our point of view on our own, well, we’ll be in a better place. That’s good for our own minds and souls. And we may even be able to lend a hand to somebody else from time to time.

Go figure.

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Brainy laughs or, Keep chuckling to prevent madness

This week’s offering was born in a public men’s room at a highway diner outside of Red Deer, Alberta.

It was a Sunday evening and my wife, Patricia, and I were on our way back to Sherwood Park from a couple of days in Banff, where we’d gone to soak in the energy of the Rocky Mountains and to steel ourselves for some upcoming tricky business.

I spotted an odd sign the moment I stepped in to the men’s. It was hand written on white computer paper. It seemed very important, as if I’d better read it before doing anything else. So I put my stroke damaged free style reading skills to work to make out what it said. At turtle speed, I worked through the words. Then I shook my head and gave it a second scan, not sure that I’d gotten it right the first time.

But I had.

The sign said: As a courtesy to the next customer, please flush the toilet.

Now, I thought, why was that sign necessary? Then, before taking another step I had a second thought. If the sign was necessary, maybe I don’t want to be in here.

If I read this pre-stroke, I’d likely have paid it no attention.

But there’s something about putting extra effort into reading that makes a fella put a little more thought into the words read. It’s like investing the added time into making sense of the words has the effect of making you ponder those words more deeply once they’re worked through.

Over the past five years post having my reading skills buzzed by a stroke, public reading has led to some interesting times. Most signs and posters aren’t super text heavy. But one often encounters them on the move, so giving them a full read requires extra effort. And sometimes when I give this scan short shrift, skipping over parts or making assumptions, it’s let to some regrettable moments.

Sign art can ramp up my reading misfires, as well. A symbol or drawing that clearly means one thing to its creator is often clear as mud to me.

Recently out for dinner during a trip in Arizona I encountered unclear restroom door signage. Not an M and a W. Not a man picture and a woman picture. So, figuring I had a 50-50 chance of guessing right, I opened Door Number One.  The shrieks told me that I’d guessed wrong.

“Sorry,” I said, spinning around to door number two.

Earlier, I’d made a similar mistake in another eatery with creative restroom signage. This time I just wanted to wash my hands before dinner and had walked straight to a sink of the seemingly empty room. As I went to dry my hands I noticed a terrible thing.

No urinals.

Then I noticed that one of the stalls was in use. I had to get out of there pronto.  I started stepping toward the door, but I was too late. A woman opened the door before I reached it and gave me a confused look.

“You’re in the right place,” I told her. “I’m not.”

For me, when it comes to signage, globally recognized symbols are manna from heaven. Creativity and details are hell.  This is especially true while driving.

Traditional road signs are easy. Nice, simple symbols pretty much the same throughout Canada, the US and everywhere else I travel.  But street names, especially long one – Sir Winston Churchill Avenue – are trouble for me, often causing a missed turn or two if I don’t have a co-pilot.

That can make you feel like a dunce.

It’s the same but different for others who’ve suffered strokes and other attacks on their brains. Those whose speech is stilted often tell me they’re treated as stupid. People here how slow their words are, not the quality of what they say and they make judgments. They respond to them like they’re talking to a child. I don’t think that slow teachery talk is appreciated by kids and it’s much less so with adults struggling to get their words out.

Abnormal gaits to a person’s walking, wheel chairs and other ‘abnormalities’ seem to also have this ‘let’s treat them as though they’re stupid’ effect.

It’s very, very frustrating.  But a little humility can actually be a good thing.

It can make you just pissed off enough to try harder. It can remind you that you have to try harder if you’re going to heal to your maximum capacity and/or make up for the scars you’re stuck with.  It can even make you better than you would have been without the scars. Sometimes the undamaged waste their gifts. But for those of us who’ve had them ripped away, we’re often able to make better use of what we’re left with.

By the way, this is the first blog I’ve posted without having a trusted second set of eyes or two read through. It may show. But I wanted to test my stroke mind’s free bird, technology aided editing skills. Hapfulle their arnoot to maany typooos, ah, I mean, hopefully there aren’t too many typos.

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Technology & research are key helpings of brain food

I always talk, think and write about being back to normal. After a stroke, that’s what a fella wants. Normal = good. You want to blend in. At least for me, there’s still a fear that somebody will notice a slight hesitation in my speech or catch me struggling to retrieve a memory. If a regular Joe or Jane forgets a name it’s just a sign of a busy life. If someone whose brain has been sizzled does the same, could it be a sign that they aren’t firing on all cylinders? Are they damaged goods? Are they capable? Do they require pity? Arggg! I imagine it’s much the same for folks who’ve suffered other assaults on their minds. The fact is though, that you’re never the same after your brain has been blitzkrieged. The difference can be in how you feel, how you function or both. It doesn’t mean that you’re not capable. But it might mean that you need some help or tools to do what you used to do. Imagine if a mind like Stephen Hawkings was trapped inside his disability? What if he was born in a time and place where sharing his mind with the world wasn’t possible? Or if his part of the world had been cut off from the possibilities that helped set his brain free? I fear that that could be happening today. I’m actually pretty sure that it is. I’m certainly not in Hawking’s league. But whatever I have to offer would be largely muted without the help of technology. As I’ve written before, even the healed Tim Seefeldt’s reading speed is just over 50 words per minute. An average person reads at between 150 and 190 words per minute. You can’t do the work I’ve done through my career without being able to read and write. And, you sure can’t write without being able to read. Or to find a cheat. It doesn’t take a mind like Hawking’s to figure out that I’d be up the creek without a little help. More than a little. My equalizer is software originally designed for kids with learning disabilities called WordQ. WordQ literally allows me to keep up to the rest of you in reading the reams of material that comes across my computer each day. It allows me to edit my own writing to make sure that it’s up to snuff. I use it to edit and review everything I spit out, with the exception of very short emails. Bottom line is, without it, I don’t make a living the way I’ve been trained to make a living and I’m in a spot of bother when it comes to paying the bills. And, there’s no book (BTW, agents/publishers I’m still waiting to hear from you!) and there’s no blog. Beyond the practical, a large part of me would be gone without being able to write. Technology is a game changer for many of us in regular day to day life. And it can be especially critical for those of us who’ve suffered a few bumps along the way.  It’s not just high tech tools that can help heal damage and improve brain function for the unbroken, either. I’d also like to be a clearing house of ideas for stuff that’s working for folks whether it’s some form of physical exercise or meditation.  Personally, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the spiritual piece. And today, a big part of my day to day is yoga. My downward facing dog looks more like a rat, but it’s helped me a lot, from shoulders to toes and between the ears. The thing is, there’s so much out there and things change so quickly that it’s virtually impossible to keep up to speed without help. And to separate the good, the bad and the ugly. So, in that spirit, here are a few things readers have mentioned. What do you think? Some American readers have noted the work done by Bioness Inc. Their electrical stimulation devices are being used to help people with arm and leg mobility issues. Their stuff is aimed at helping folks with foot drop or hand paralysis as a result of stroke, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, incomplete spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy. I’d love to hear from more folks who’ve used this and to see if there are other tools targeting these issues. I’ve also heard from readers who’ve read about potential benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for those suffering ischaemic strokes. This one’s right out of left field for me. Are there any professional readers who can shed some light? Let’s try to work as a clearing house of sorts for some of the stuff that’s out there for stroke survivors and those suffering other brain trauma. Also for brain health. The way I understand it, it’s never too late to start trying to make the ole ticker work better. As well, the thinking that the clock was ticking after a stroke and that you could only make improvements within a short window of time is now, I believe, considered bunk. I’ll be waiting to hear from you. Meantime, I’m also waiting to hear from a concussion expert. I’m expecting some pretty interesting stuff to share with you on this front soon. -30-

Brain health clearing house

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last blog, but I’m back with a different state of mind.

Some travel set me behind. Then, interviews I was planning for a few posts on concussions were delayed. I didn’t want to just tell my story all of the time. I felt I’d hit a wall. And it was compounded by that personal issue I wrote about a few blogs back.

Then I got an email from fellow ex-reporter, Ron, that set my mind right.

Ron’s wife had a stroke 18 months ago. He’s by her side at their home just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Ron read about my story while doing some research on the National Stroke Association’s website (http://www.stroke.org/) where I’d posted a piece on their ‘faces of stroke’ page.  He tracked me down.  Reporters, even us ex-reporters, are good at this stuff.  Now two ex-newspaper guys — one from the South Eastern US and one from Western Canada – were connected.

Reporters — again, even us ex-reporters — are also good at asking questions. And in his emails to me, Ron asked a lot of good questions about life after stroke and support, tools and the like that are out there for recovery. He made some excellent points, like the ‘facts’ on the time after stroke that a person can still make gains seems to be greater than the experts used to think.

I realized from his questions that I’d forgotten one important thing about my recovery. As much as we now know about stroke, we’re still at the early stages of understanding the brain. New ideas are being floated every day. And advances and aids for stroke victims – and those suffering other brain conditions and injuries – are being made and discovered all of the time. And it’s happening all around the world. The point is, if you suffer a stroke or a brain injury in Vancouver or Miami or anywhere in between, all of the brain power you’ll need to help you isn’t sitting in a neat package in one convenient spot. You’ve got to do some digging.

As I’ve written, I had amazing care in Edmonton. And still, I learned about the reading feature in the Amazon Kindle through a speech language pathologist I connected with in Chicago. In our conversation, I told her how I was getting books from the library, then finding the same book on CD. I’d play the CD while following the words in the book. As I’ve said in earlier blogs, I can ‘read’ along with words being read out loud at normal speed, but I slow down dramatically when the recorded voice is shut off. Letter combinations don’t immediately appear to me as they do to you.  But they do when I hear the word along with seeing it. Weird, I know. At first I used this technique to speed up my reading. I seem to have hit a wall with speed, so now I need help just to keep up with the rest of you and not spend a frustrating month reading a short book.

The Chicago speech language pathologist asked me why I didn’t just get a Kindle, which has a feature where a computerized voice reads out loud, allowing me to follow. I’d not heard of this before. What a breakthrough that was for me.

I also craved having someone like me to confab with who understood exactly what I was going through with my lost words. Nobody I met or heard about had my reading issues. Then, by chance, I spotted a documentary featuring Oliver Sacks, the UK born, American based writer/neurologist who suffers a unique brain issue himself. The special talked about a Canadian novelist who had a stroke and lost the ability to read. His circumstances were different, but still. I tracked Howard Engel down and had some great, helpful and inspiring telephone conversations with him.

These were watershed moments for me. Colossal breakthroughs, huge inspiration.

Ron reminded me that I can use this blog to help spark some breakthroughs for others who’ve suffered stroke and brain injuries. To provide a voice for those who’ve come up with devices, tools and techniques to help with brain function and improvement. Whether it’s help for those of us who’ve been buzzed or those trying to fight off decay.

So, please, reach out to me with what you know and what you have. Share research you’re working on or have heard/read about.  I’ll share them in this blog. I’ll dig into them and do some old fashioned reporting on them.  I’ll spiderwep from your ideas and tips and dig up more exciting and helpful stuff.

Ron’s already started me with some great ideas you’ll read about soon.

Thanks, Ron!

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Tricky brain

A brain under extreme pressure is a tricky thing.

In my experience, it does one of three things.

  • It shuts down completely, leaving the man or woman it serves unable to function or at the very least, it badly cripples how they function, or;
  • The screws tighten, increasing pressure, pumping up stress and making it run rougher than the ’74 Dodge Duster that I drove in grade 11 , or;
  • It makes a Rocky Balboa type 15th round comeback.

But without a Hollywood scriptwriter pulling the strings, how do you end up like Rocky, bloodied, bruised but victorious?

I’ve thought a lot about the role stress may have played on my 2010 stroke. I have no family history of stroke and had no known risk factors. Yet, my brain didn’t seem to care about this when it started to fry early on the morning of March 10 five years ago.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a stress junkie. I feel like I have the most success when I’m under the most personal pressure. I even think I kinda like the buzz I get from stress. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

But I’m not sure that it’s entirely bad, either.

Perhaps it’s one of those things that can be friend or foe, depending on how it’s used?

How many times are we able to up our game when we’re under the gun? Stress may have helped zonk my melon, but I think that it may also have helped me recover.

Stroked out and facing a life without words, meaningful work and threatened with not being able to support my family emotionally or financially – that was pretty good motivation to do everything I could to claw back. It was also pretty stressful. And all through my professional career I’ve been drawn to the stressful stuff. In a weird way, I’ve found the pressure of stress comforting.  But have I hurt myself seeking out stress, or even creating stress that didn’t need to be there?

It’s cool to be able to step up under pressure. But are there some folks and organizations that thrive too much on this and who do their brain’s harm by being adrenalin junkies?

The Calgary Flames got me wondering about this.

If you’re a hockey fan you’ll know that the Flames made an unexpected resurgence this season and at the time of this writing were up in their National Hockey League playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks. The Flames have some odd qualities to their game this year. Both exciting and frustrating is their ability to come back from behind. During many games and in their fight to clinch a playoff spot, which took until the second last game of the season, they were fighting back against the odds. It makes great copy for sports writers and causes grey hairs for Flames’ management.

I find it fascinating to watch the Flames continue to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. I actually seem to prefer it to watching them get a lead and keep it. I love seeing them as underdogs clawing back all of the time.

A little background is probably required here. I’m born and raised in Calgary and believe in sports loyalty. As such, while living in the Edmonton area since my mid 20s, I’ve had a number of sports related ‘moments’ where folks in the Alberta capital didn’t appreciate my loyalty. There were a few sucker punches thrown at me while wearing a Calgary Stampeders jersey at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium during CFL football games back in the ‘90s.

And in 1989 when the Flames were drinking from the Stanley Cup after being crowned NHL Champions, for the first – and so far – only time, I was having a few problems with members of the Edmonton Police Service who didn’t seem to be Flames fans.

So there’s a pretty deep connection with me and the southern Alberta NHLers.

The cardiac kid thing makes for exciting games and movies. And who knows how far the boys in red can take it in the playoffs this year? But does there come a point where living on the edge and all the stress associated with it is too much?

In sports, I’m not sure. Maybe the Flames can go all the way. If they do, it’s sure to be with a number of stressful moments and come-from-behind wins. But at least professional athletes have the offseason to recover. And hefty pay cheques to help them unwind in style.

But what does too much stress make of those who live their lives that way all year round? Are some of us inclined to shape our lives this way? And for those of us who do this, does something happen to us, to our brains, when we’re not under stress? Do we need it like a junkie needs his fix? And what really is too much stress? Another thing, what’s so called good stress? And what’s good about it?

I don’t have any answers here. But I’d love to hear from those of you who do. Theories would be interesting, too.

Really, please connect. You’ll stress me out if you don’t :-).

Oh, BTW, back to sports, I’m lining up some interviews with experts and survivors of concussions for some upcoming pieces. Stay tuned.