Normal Service Will Be Resumed…

otherfish
Random fish

To any of you lovely people who’ve been following me and to anyone who happens to stumble through here, lost on the way to somewhere else: I’m going to take two weeks off from blogging; from writing, reading and commenting. I’ll be back on the 6th of May.

For the past few months I’ve been blogging a fair amount and now I need some time to do a final edit of a novel I’m writing (ooh get me, writing a novel, how original). Plus, I suspect that writing the BI blogs has been taking a bit of a toll – I lost my temper at work last week (I screamed loudly at an annoying orchid and scared the crap out of everyone, who thought I was hurt), and that’s not a route I want to go down.

So anyway, I’m going to take two weeks away from here, during which I’ll have a few days in Dublin (woohoo!) and then I’ll be back to finish the Islands of Xogulano story, write some more BI blogs, plus add a few stories.

Until then, I hope you stick around. Pull up a chair, have a perusal of old stories if you fancy, and I’ll see you soon.

Love inkbiotic (aka P. Jacob)

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Short Story: The End of Traffic

The alarm blisters my brain with its howling. I’ve only been awake for two seconds and my bad mood is already giving me indigestion. It’s four am and I have to be at work for nine. I’ve been late twice this week and my boss has given me an ultimatum: be on time or be fired. So I put together my survival kit, grab my backpack and call my car.

When I get downstairs my car, Delilah, is waiting by the front door of my flats. She sees me and opens the door. I sling my back pack in and clamber after, while she tries to shut the door on my ankle,

“Not today baby,” I say cheerfully.

“Hi there Luca,” she replies sweetly, “would you like me to turn the heating on?”

I say sure, but the heating in my car is more of a gesture than a temperature change, so I pull on a fleece so huge that it makes me feel like a bear. I tell Delilah to get me to work and make myself cosy on the seat. I’ve decided not to let the commute get me down today, I’ve got a good book, a pocketful of change and a determined sense of optimism. We’re going to get there early, I just know it.

We take the first few streets at a good pace, Delilah keeps a respectful distance from the cars in front and I like that about her. I’ve known a few guys tamper with their car’s programming so that they tailgate and honk, but I’ve never wanted that, it’s too stressful. Delilah will drive best she can, and I’ve got my book. We’re onto the main road, and still moving at full pelt, I don’t want to get excited, but I get that surge, Maybe today’s the day, when they’ve fixed the roads and sorted the traffic. Then we turn another corner and come to a stop.

“I’ve detected some traffic ahead, Luca. Would you like me to try an alternative route?”

I appreciate that she’s trying, but we’ve been travelling this route together for two years and there is no alternative. I’ve come to accept it, and I think she should too.

“No thanks, Delilah,” I say and do some reading of my book.

We’re still in the first twenty minutes and our timing is ok. We moved a few feet, we stop and wait, move a few more feet and stop. It’s the kind of driving Delilah excels at and it allows me to read and have a quick doze. Then we’re into urban junction territory and the mood of the road shifts. I climb into the front seat and ask Delilah to give me control of the car. There are some tricky traffic lights up ahead and it’s not enough to simply wait until they’re green. I’ve seen people die at these lights; not just car accidents, but suicides, heart attacks, a few of old age. If you want to get through the lights, you have to use some cunning, a little brute force and plenty of illegality, those are not Delilah’s strengths.

The lights change to green and all the cars around me start to jostle for the one lane that’s still open. I’m in that lane, but it means nothing. There’s an HGV to my left who’s decided I’m in his way, so he very slowly drives at me, I try to front it out, but then I hear the squeak and grind of metal on metal. I panic, I have to get away from him before he crushes my headlight to dust, but if I move too fast I hit the car to my right. I swing the wheel and then with excruciating slowness, I drive at the car in the lane to the right of me. Car horns create their cacophony. Desperate drivers grab their dash-deities and pray, little figurines of whatever religion is in right now. I make it to a clear space where I won’t get squished as the lights change to red. I’ve got nowhere, but Delilah is ok. I have a quick check in my rear view camera to see if anyone was less lucky, a few people have got out of their cars, so I suspect there’s been a small collision, but nothing serious.

It takes a twelve more similar attempts before I make it through the lights and into the Consumer District, more inch-an-hour territory. I ask Delilah to take over. It’s now five-thirty and I’m hungry, cranky and in need a little something to pick me up.

I spot Baby Joe. Joe is seven and he serves some of the freshest coffee in the district. He’s always got a joke for me, maybe a few cookies to sell. Except today he is isn’t waiting between the lanes as the cars inch past, he’s standing on the pavement. I get out of Delilah, the cars are nose-to-tail and I can’t see a surge of movement happening anytime soon, and go over to Joe.

“What gives Joe? Why aren’t you in the road?” Joe huffs sadly,

“Some kid got knocked down yesterday, now my mum don’t want me off the pavement,” he looks heart-sick, shakes his head and says, “I’ll never work my way out now.” I use up most of my change buying a coffee, six cookies and a toy truck, I figure he needs the money. I don’t point out the truth that he would never have worked his way out anyway. Social mobility is no longer a thing, unless you start out rich, play at being poor for a gap year, then stride back to the high life.

Delilah hasn’t moved, so I take wander between the cars to check out a few other street-sellers. There are Disney brain pets (“Take Goofy with you everywhere!”) and some very banned driving drugs (“All the sensations of sun-bathing while you drive to work”). I see Daisy with new merchandise just as Delilah starts to move. I give Daisy a wave, while I climb back in the car and lever the car window down, the computer fused years ago, Daisy waddles her way over to me and begins to work her product. You don’t turn a profit in the district, unless you’re young and cute or a talented seller, and Daisy is definitely in the latter category.

“Honey, honey, you see what I got for you?” she croons in a Korean accent that I believe to be fake. She’s pure South London, I can see it in the grime on her face, but she’s got a brand to maintain; we all have. “I got you flip flops make you feel like you’re floating, I got you Chameleon glasses and dashboard deities in every colour. What you want, my honey? What you want?”

I’m just about to ask about the glasses, when I spot a parting up ahead. I give Daisy a quick wave as I clamber into the front seat and quickly manoeuvre Delilah to the space. That’s gained me ten minutes at least.

We’ve reached the car city and they’re having a party, but they always are. Parties are the way the inhabitants of the car city convince themselves they aren’t just vagrants in yet another shanty town. The car city was a created a few years ago. It wasn’t planned, it simply happened. Some temporary traffic lights went up and the ensuing week-long tailbacks led to a few people giving up on their journeys. Commuters decided they didn’t really want to go to work anyway, and they already had all they needed with them, so they set up home. Over the next few weeks more of the travel sick joined. They’re a little cultish for my tastes, a little shiny-eyed with zeal. They think they’ve found the answer to traffic: give up and live in it, but it all seems defeatist to me. As I drive through, a pretty woman with red hair passes a flower to me through the window. I give her my brightest smile and she winks.

I’m closing in on Clapham, it’s eight o’clock, my timing is good. Delilah is doing the driving, so I’m having a work out on my exercise bike. I’m lying on my back and peddling my legs in the air when my boss comes on the screen.

“Morning Luca,” she says. I can hear the irritation in her voice and I know she’s wondering why I’m wasting time cycling when I should be driving. I disentangle my legs, but the bike is attached to the ceiling and it isn’t a quick process. Once I’m the right way up, I start the apologies as a matter of course, but she doesn’t listen, just carries right on. “Just checking that you’re going to be on time today. There’ve been a few late mornings recently, haven’t there?” I start to recap the disasters of the week: the lorry on its side across the M25, the mass suicide on the south circular, but she still isn’t listening,

“Just get here on time,” she says with an exaggerated sigh and the screen clicks off. She’s not a bad person, but she has no clue about traffic. She hasn’t left her home in years. She’s only a virtual presence at work, that last message she sent from her bed. She was wearing a jacket, but I could see the pillows behind her. She has no clue about the commute. No middle management and up has a clue because they don’t need to, that’s why the roads were allowed to get so bad.

Anyway, I’m making great time; an hour and I should be there. I’ve passed the car city and I’m onto the A3 heading out of town. This is the easiest part of the journey, we’re clipping along at about 20 miles an hour and it feels almost like flying. I hang my head out the window like a dog, and make a whoop of joy. I may even get to work early. I start thinking about that luxury, how I’ll have a little chat with Belinda on reception, how I’ll suck on a mocha cube, I may even make a proper cup of coffee. Delilah has inched up to thirty miles an hour and I haven’t felt this happy in years.

Then I hear the noise and the world turns to dust. I look around wildly, the sound is so huge it’s like the whole world has caved in. The dust has cleared enough that I should be able to see cars up ahead, but I can’t, there’s nothing. I shout at Delilah to stop and she does, but the cars behind me aren’t so on the ball and crash straight into the back of me. As we sail towards the hole, I curl up into a ball on the back seat. I feel the car stop and I’m still alive. I move very slowly and peer out between the seats. Everything is beige, we are sitting in a dust cloud. We are about half a metre from the edge of the hole, it is the width of the entire road and looks about twenty metres deep. I get out of Delilah, although my legs are wobbly I’m not hurt. I can hear groans and cries for help. I automatically grab my medical kit, I’ve got pretty good at torniquets over the last few years. But first I need to try and save my job. I put a call through to my boss and start pleading,

“What? That’s the second time this week!” she shouts. I angle the camera to try and show her the road, but she isn’t interested, it wouldn’t be the first time someone has faked footage to excuse their lateness. I try to beg my way out of trouble, but she’s having none of it, “Just get here!” she shouts. I drop the medical kit, look at the crater and try to formulate a plan.

Someone has got out of his car with a blow torch and is cutting a path through the barriers on the central reservation. On the other side of the road, the cars are nose to tail and I don’t see how he thinks he can go against the traffic, but it’s either that or go back. Somebody else has taken a chance with driving through the woods to get around the hole, but it’s clear he won’t get far without a chainsaw. I wonder about just walking, it would take about an hour from here, but my job will be long gone by then.

Through the haze of dust, I can see a few survivors slowly clambering out of the hole, pulling themselves along with bloody fingers. I think my working life may have come to a natural end. I’ll do what I can here and then head for the car city. I pick my medical kit back up and go to play doctor.

Xogulano: Stalking Walking Mould

Those who have followed my adventures on these islands will know that they have not always been easy. From the pestering of paranoid locals with their bizarre myths about the islands to the series of odd events that have befallen me. Today started with another such event, when I woke to find my flotation device had been burst. Not by a sharp rock, as I thought at first, but deliberately punctured. I am not usually a light sleeper, so I am not sure how someone managed to enter my tent without my knowing, but I can’t see what other explanation is possible. On discovery of the attack, I scouted around looking for evidence and found no footsteps leading to my tent. However, I took a glance to the canvas on the roof of my tent, and found tiny, bare footprints, as if an imp had leapt with muddy feet across it. I assume this can only be a practical joke carried out by my visitor the fisherman.

After this rather unsettling start to the day, I boiled up a pot of coffee, a returned with a mug to sit inside the tent and contemplate. What I found was this.

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Sticky mould

I could see that it was most likely a type of slime mould, in the class Myxomycetes, but not one I had ever encountered before.This one had small sticky blobs that attached it to the tent ceiling and the consistency of chewing gum. However, what confused me was How could it have entered my tent so quickly? Slime moulds are mobile, but they move slowly, this had made it to the roof of my tent in minutes. I poked it with a stick and it shrank into a blob shape hanging from the ceiling, where it stayed for several minutes.

I sat watching and sipping my coffee, hoping it would give me further clue, in fact I ended up spending the day sitting in my tent, watching and sketching and learning the bizarre life cycle of my new friend.

Once I had remained still for some time, it slowly reattached itself. To do this it reaches out with a pseudopodial appendage and then grows a new sticky blob to attach itself (seen above). One particularly curious thing about this process, is that whenever I moved, the mould would stay still, as if it could sense my presence.

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After I had remained still for a while, the mould became confident and bounced its way quite enthusiastically around my tent, as shown in the diagram above. The final defensive position occurred when I poked it again; a foul smell was given off this time and was like that of rotting eggs.

 

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The above drawings show what happened when the hyperactive fellow settled down on the frame of my rucksack. I believe the small, spherical objects are enlarged spores, shot away from the mould to start anew. I attempted to dissect some, but they crumbled to dust.

Dr Florence

 

 

Brain Injury: Refinding Purpose

An Initial note about how irritating positivity can be

I have a very fine line to tread here, between giving positive advice and seeming dismissive of illness altogether – the ‘buck up and you’ll be fine!’ bollocks that well-meaning idiots come up with. The latter is never my intention.

So I will clarify: Brain injuries are often impossibly tough to deal with. Many times during my recovery I gave up, I decided that it was too difficult and I couldn’t cope. Unfortunately, simply giving up didn’t help much, the problems didn’t go away, so I had to carry on.

For anyone going through this now, my heart goes out to you, you have absolutely every right to think Fuck your positivity! My life is shit! And when you are feeling like that, this blog probably won’t help. However, there will be other times, when you feel a little more able to make plans and hopefully I can pass on what I learned about how to do that.

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Some drawings I did while recovering

 

Losing the Things I Loved

With the BI, one of the toughest things to come to terms with was that I could no longer do the things I loved. I was struggling so much with getting my brain to work, that I had to give up studying; my job as a gardener; I couldn’t read books; I struggled with seeing my friends; I couldn’t even think of going on an adventure to a new country. I felt that everything that made me happy had been taken away from me and that there was nothing in life I could enjoy. This was a distortion of my situation, maybe an understandable one, but one that didn’t help me at all. I still had people in my life that I loved, but what I needed was purpose, without that everything felt meaningless.

There are three points to this blog, they take time to be fully understood (or at least, they did for me), but I believe they are crucial to being happy when recovering from BI:

  1. Your situation now, is not your situation for ever. Try not to think about what all this means for the future, the important thing is to find a way to be happy and calm now (not just for happiness’ sake, but also for your health), and one way to do that is to find something that will engage you, stimulate your mind but not stress you. Any more complicated questions can be left for later.
  2. Happiness lies in having purpose and that comes from investing time and energy into something and then getting something back out as a result. The two ‘something’s can be almost anything
  3. There are infinite ways to live your life, even with massive restrictions, there are many passions to pursue, and many ways to get a sense of purpose, but you will never discover this if you are focused only on what you have lost.

Notes on Happiness

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I believe that happiness and meaning in life are far simpler to achieve and far less restrictive than we are trained to think. You do not need to have a relationship, career, kids or money to be happy. Those things can all make you happy, but they can all make you unhappy.

I think the reason for this is that it doesn’t matter what you invest your time and energy in (eg children, a career, painting, learning French, collecting thimbles) so long as you make an effort and get something in return (love, success, beautiful pictures and the joy of painting, knowing French, a beautiful thimble collection).

  • If you don’t invest time and energy, but get something out anyway (I imagine being the child of rich parents is a little like this, without any effort you can have whatever you want) then you will feel there is something missing, an emptiness.
  • If you invest time and energy into something, but then get only bad things in return (for example, when the child you’ve loved and nurtured says she hates you, or your boss ignores the project you’ve been working on, or if you decide you actually hate thimbles) then you will feel your passion has been wasted and you will be unhappy.
  • If you invest energy in nothing and get nothing, you won’t be happy at all.

Being ill does not change this, but it can make it tricky. It may be that the things you invested energy in before the BI are either no longer possible, or no longer bringing you joy, and this is why you may need to find new passions.

Infinite Passions

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When I was ill, my frustration came from thinking that the only things worth doing, were the things I could no longer do. However, the truth is they were just the things that I had been doing up to that point, they were not better or any more conducive to happiness than the things I was eventually able to do after I got a BI. It’s true that taking up new passions was extremely difficult, and I worried that I’d never be able to enjoy them because of that, but luckily that isn’t how enjoyment works.

Having to invest more energy into doing something can, with time, make it more enjoyable than when something is easy.

Some tips on finding new passions

  • Experiment, try as many different things as possible: painting, writing music, getting a penfriend, sending postcards, knitting. You may hate many things that you try, or find that you aren’t able to do some of them, but there will be something that you can do.
  • Pay attention to what other people are doing and copy them. Ask your friends and family, look online (here’s a Wikipedia list of hobbies )
  • Revert a little to childhood. With a BI, you have the perfect excuse to pursue hobbies you loved as a child. Play with Lego, draw cartoon characters.
  • Don’t compare your ability now with what you could do before. For starters, if you are just setting out on a new skill, it will take time to learn to do it properly. For seconders, although having a BI can make things massively difficult, it can also give you a unique perspective on  whatever you pursue. Personally, I’d rather be unique than good.
  • Use technology – there are now so many apps that can aid a new passion, it’s worth exploring them to see what’s available. I have a friend who has become a master at creating beautiful music using free instrument and editing apps. .
  • The Internet is an incredible aid. Even people who have grown up using the Internet, tend to stick to the same kind of sites that they’re used to. Instead go exploring. With a BI, change and unfamiliarity can be quite unnerving, but the Internet is a fairly safe place to be adventurous in. Take it slow, read blogs that suggest sites, use sites like Stumbleupon, bookmark anything interesting you find even if you can’t cope with looking at it the time. Plus forums are a great place to meet and connect with people.
  • Approach any new activity without the expectation of a specific end result. Even more tricky is that you might not enjoy the process of what you’re doing at first, but don’t give up for that reason. Once you have mastered the basics it gets easier and you can start actually enjoying it. I took up drawing at this time (some examples are in this blog), I’d done an art degree years before, so my expectations were high. Often I hated what I did. It took months of trying different doodles before I found a new style that I both enjoyed doing and liked the end result. Some of the pictures from that time have ended up part of the Xogulano Islands blogs that I write about. They aren’t great drawings, but I love them because I don’t know anyone else drawing pictures like that.
  • Don’t dismiss something because you tried it before the BI and didn’t like it. With a BI, your abilities have changed, your passions may also have changed.

Final Advice on Investing your time:

  • Don’t have all your eggs in one basket. Almost any endeavor can fail, and if all your time has been invested in one thing, that can be upsetting.
  • Try not to be swayed/dissuaded by what society/peers tell you, you should/shouldn’t be doing. It’s irrelevant. It’s always irrelevant, because people are massively varied and the things that can make them happy are also massively varied.
  • Try to take into account how much energy and ability you have at any one time and try to have different interests for different levels of ability. Sometimes I didn’t have the energy to draw, sometimes I had enough energy to go out and take photographs, sometimes all I could do was shut my eyes and think up stories. It was good to have this choice. Because my memory was so bad, I found it useful to write down the options and then refer to them when needed.

Note: I haven’t dealt with motivation at all in this blog (I’m trying to keep them to a manageable size) although I’m aware that with a BI or just when exhausted from illness, motivation is a real problem. I will focus on it later.

As always, any comments, additions or questions are welcome.

 

 

Walking Under Glass

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On a Thursday like this, when the sound of breathing and humming wears away my patience to look like the threadbare patch of carpet that leads to the coffee machine, I find myself thinking Why don’t insects fall off more? It’s a typical Thursday thought, as my fingers get slow and the office clock seems to slow it ticking to a stop. Last Thursday the question that rattled its way around the afternoon was, If pheromones are important, why do people wear so much perfume? Today I have been inspired by the fly who came to visit my cubicle, I have decided to keep him as a pet.

My boss is strutting the office, a swagger that keeps knocking his hips against the desks, but everybody knows he’s a cuckold, his wife keeps him tethered and tightly wound with jealousy. He struts to overcompensate, but you can see the desperation in his eyes, the swagger only highlights that. I flick through a few documents on the screen to look busy, spread some misery in the world, then return to watch my fly as he buzzes frantically.

I’ve given up coffee for lent. It’s not that I’m religious or worry that I drink too much caffeine, it’s just that I need the challenge. That small judder of panic as I realise I can’t curl my morning around a mug, it spurs me on. It means I need to explore, find new ways to procrastinate. Which is why I’m drinking water from a glass, not coffee from a mug. Which is why, when I place it carefully over the small fly that has come to visit my cubicle, I can watch him wandering around and around.

I know I should be working, there are thousands of unpaid parking tickets out there and it’s my job to flick through the spreadsheets, send out a letter, and diligently ruin another day. I used to love that feeling of power, the achievement of bringing a little distress by doing the right thing. Unfortunately, these days I want to be anywhere except here. I want to spread my wings and find adventure, but I’m starting to suspect that adventure only ever happens on adverts for cars, the rest of us are doomed to dreams of life outside the cubicle. So I watch my little fly friend walk around and around, with occasional frantic bursts of flying. And I realise, me and that fly, we have a connection, we have a united destiny. We are both destined to go nowhere, no matter how much energy we expend. I have to admit, it’s spite that stops me releasing him. If I can’t be free, why should he? I’m smarter, I’ve evolved thumbs and self-awareness, of the two of us I should be the one with the options. Instead my wrinkled, sophisticated brain is dedicated to the task of asking pointless questions to fill my pointless day.

I’m too busy fly-gazing to notice my boss creeping up behind me until he thumps his fist on the back of my chair, causing me to startle.

‘You have targets!’ he shrieks. ‘Why haven’t you fulfilled your targets?’ I pull the usual sorry expression and shrug. He’s not paying attention, too engrossed in his own voice. ‘You’re not leaving tonight until you’re done.’ He stomps away while I’m still shrugging. He’s only tormenting me to experience a brief taste of power, to distract himself from his life of repetitive meaningless. He’s pathetic. I look at the fly, sitting still for a moment, all the opportunities of his fly life still ahead. All his dreams, his hopes.

I lift the glass and bring my fist down, crushing him instantly.

=

Xogulano: A Curious Community

My start to the day was unconventional and a little unpleasant. I woke to find that my flotation device had somehow become wrapped around my neck, so that I was breathing in vinyl. Having disentangled myself, I discovered that a  family of mites had made a nest in the hem of my trousers. I popped as many of the tiny scurrying arachnids as I could and then doused my trouser ends in paraffin.

Fortunately, since this, my day has got considerably better. I took my small rowing boat out to the furthermost island and discovered a curious structure.

Plant colony

Those who saw a previous blog of mine about Volvox, will be familiar with the idea of singular organisms working as a society. Less common is when organisms of different species work together. Lichen is one example of this; what I discovered today on the island, is another.

 

As you can see from my sketch, a number of plants and fungi grow in different chambers or on nodules, evenly spaced around the uppermost part. There is not a single repeated organism and no sign of competition for space between the different species, as might be expected.

The reason I call this a colony, and the reason I believe the harmony between the species is not an accident; is that these organisms aren’t growing on rock, but a giant fungus. It has the consistency of florist foam, slightly squishy when pressed, but able to maintain a firm shape. The fibres connecting the fungus to the ground are mycelium, the fungal equivalent of roots.

Plants don’t usually succeed in growing on fungus, so I can only assume that this fungus has especially adapted to cultivate them. The fungus has essentially created a farm, with a number of different plant and fungus species fed by the host, which in turn create detritus that can be broken down and fed on.

I have never seen a colony such as this before and I suspect it is a phenomenon unknown to science. If I hadn’t seen it, I would have strongly doubted its existence. However, I am not the first person to have discovered it, in the soft surface of the fungus, I found a number of hand prints. Presumably the locals are more comfortable with visiting than they let on.

Dr Florence

The Glint of the Palette Knife

Jorge wasn’t sure how he became a celebrated artist. Utterly lost to the swirl of a palette knife, he barely noticed when his paintings, hung at the local café, were noticed by a shrewd agent with a knack for publicity, and sold to local landowners for an inflated price. Jorge kept painting, too engrossed in capturing the details of light and shade to notice his agent carry out a campaign of exclusivity and mystery that saw his paintings exhibited at larger galleries and sold to celebrities, who loved the stories of this reclusive painter as much as they loved the paintings. Eventually even princes and kings across the world became caught in the whirl of colour and the promise of a talent that only the elite could afford.

Jorge kept painting, he was happy to paint on demand, the colours were the same no matter who he painted. He painted party scenes, domestic gatherings, ceremonies, even the bizarre rituals of secret societies that were to be hung on the walls of private chambers. He painted life, animated faces that showed more expression than the botoxed originals.

It was years before someone noticed the anomaly, that in each painting, standing at the back of the action, head down, face blurry, wearing a green dress; there was a girl. At the back of a party scene she stood, barely a sketch. Hovering in a doorway of a grand hall, her clothes shabbier and barely defined, there she stood again. Through the decades he painted her, always at the back, her face never clear. Through his glittering career, painting portraits of dignitaries and royalty, always she was there. Sometimes just a shadow, sometimes only a sketch of her hand and a flash of the green dress, but always there. It became a quirk, a signature, something a connoisseur would recognise. The rich and the famous congratulated one another on knowing about the secret girl, of course the commoners barely knew Jorge’s paintings. Jorge kept painting.

Jorge told nobody that the painting was of his sister. She had died aged ten.  Her cancer was treatable, but Jorge’s family couldn’t afford the medicine. That was in more difficult days.

With each painting she grew stronger. A little more definition to her threadbare dress, more darkness to her eyes, a glint to her teeth. Sometimes he would chuckle as he painted her, remembering how she would dance on the sofa and pick flowers at the side of the road. Each painting was a step closer to when she would walk free and live again. Throughout the richest households in the land, at quietly held meetings of the secret rulers of the world, his sister was there, watching. She was waiting, one day soon she would be ready to step free and take revenge.

Jorge kept painting.

Brain Injury and PTSD: Adventures in Brain

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A soothing picture of a sunset in Costa Rica

Continuing with things I needed to understand about my brain:

For previous BI and PTSD posts look under the category to the right.

  • BI: Diffuse Brain Injuries – these aren’t often talked about, but they seem to be fairly common, if less straightforward than focal brain injuries.
  • BI:Everything is Information – Everything we sense (see, hear, taste and feel to put it simply) is information that must be interpreted in the brain, and this can go wrong at a number of stages. The going wrong can be caused by both mental illness and brain damage.
  • PTSD: Wired for Survival – there are plenty of non-survival things going on in the brain (feeling confused, making puns, happy memories) but taking precedence is a need to survive.

 

Diffuse Brain Injury

A focal brain injury is localized to one area, a diffuse BI is spread over lots of areas, although the damage may be smaller and less intense in those areas. (Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_injury )

I had a diffuse BI, which is why I had trouble with so many different aspects of functioning: memory, processing, movement, balance, sense of smell and so on. Because the damage did not wipe out any of those areas completely (as it might in a focal BI) I could be fine some of the time, but the more I did, the more my ability would disappear.

This made it confusing for other people (and me!) to understand what was actually wrong.

Everything is Information

I mentioned this briefly in a previous blog, but in order to understand BI, I think it needs more attention.

Images we see, sounds we hear, even physical sensations and smells, are all types of information that must be processed. This takes both energy and a number of different cognitive tools.

The process: Information enters the brain through an organ (eg eyes, ears)  and then bounces around the brain at great speed using existing information stored in the brain to interpret the new data. New connections are made and memories are formed on the basis that the brain thinks they might come in useful, a lot of information is discarded. The decisions for how the information is interpreted and what new memories are made, is made by routines (like computer programs) usually written in childhood and kept throughout adult life.

For example when we watch TV (I’m going to use Community as an example), our brains are very busy. These are some (but not all) of the processes that are happening. We are utterly unaware that most of them are happening:

  • Reading facial expressions – using memory to to decide what the expressions mean, based on experience from childhood of what those expressions meant in the past.
  • Remembering who characters are – using recent memory and facial recognition to know who they are  (eg that’s Jeff, he’s a lawyer), but also older memories of how we feel about people like that (he’s vain, I find this silly).
  • Understanding language – using memory to know what words and expressions mean.
  • Understanding the emotional intent behind speech – the tone, pitch and even speed of speech, indicates this.
  • Interpreting jokes – using all sorts of memory, some linked to the programs itself, some to lifelong memories.
  • Forming new memories –  about characters and situations that will be useful when watching the next episode.
  • Forming new opinions about life – making associations between people and behaviour, between actions and consequences.
  • Predicting – what might be about to happen based on previous experience (there’s Chang, he’s about to cause trouble).

With a BI, some or all of the processes can be damaged – either they don’t happen at all, they happen slowly or they happen wrongly. With a diffuse BI these abilities can change by the minute.

Sometimes I could watch a TV program for an hour and more or less understand and enjoy all of it. Sometimes I didn’t really get plot or even speech, but would enjoy watching the facial expressions (Jeeves and Wooster were perfect for this, they would keep me entertained for hours). Sometimes I couldn’t open my eyes, because trying to process what I saw hurt too much – this pain is difficult to explain. The sensation was a little like trying to do complicated arithmetic in your head, in a noisy room. It was a pain of extreme struggle and frustration which would quickly intensify into migraines, muscle pain etc.

As can be seen in the process above, memory is the way all this information holds together. There are many different types of memory that are stored in different parts of the brain (this website has a nice neat diagram showing the different types). It is possible to completely lose one type of memory, or to partially lose lots of them. Access to these memories can also be slowed down to varying degrees.

The way PTSD affects our processing of information is slightly different. Whereas BI slows down, stops or corrupts certain processes, PTSD tends to distort them through a filter of extreme emotion. Because PTSD involves emotions all turned up to 11, information that should be fairly straightforward (eg there is a dog) becomes a warning or a tragedy (that dog is about to attack me! or that dog is sad, it’s been abandoned, oh my God I have to save it!).

When PTSD and BI come together it can get truly ridiculous, because the faulty information caused by the BI then gets further distorted by the PTSD.

For example, once I was walking down a street and getting tired doing so, therefore my ability to process images started to fail. I saw a crisp packet move at the side of the road, couldn’t process what it was, so the PTSD filter came up with It’s an alien! It’s about to attack! And I was genuinely scared. It was a few moments before my memory kicked in with the information that I didn’t believe in aliens and that it was clearly a crisp packet.

Wired for Survival

PTSD is what happens when the brain believes we are in constant mortal danger. The symptoms are its way of dealing with that as it puts us in a to a physical state where we are ready for fight or flight. Due to a genuinely dangerous event, the brain seems to get locked in that state of extreme panic.

There doesn’t seem to be any logic as to why that particular experience affects the brain that way – like most people, I’ve had plenty of near-death experiences in my life, but this is the one that changed how my brain functioned.

These are some signs that the brain is locked:

(Note: All of these can be experienced when a person is stressed, but then when the stress passes, so do the symptoms. With PTSD, the symptoms are at full pelt and they don’t stop. A frustrating mismatch between our brains and modern life is that most modern stresses require clear thinking, but little actual danger. However, our brains assume all stress comes from physical threat and that thinking is irrelevant in such situations.)

  • Hypervigilance paying too much attention to sounds. This is our brains trying to listen out for danger. It is the reason we get more annoyed by noise when we are stressed and trying to concentrate, because under stress our brains think we are in danger and so are trying to listen for any evidence of that.
  • Not sleeping deep sleep is never a good idea when there is danger.
  • Physical symptoms of stress – tight muscles, gritting teeth, restlessness, these are all signs that the body is ready to fight or flee.
  • Over interpreting situations – looking for any sign that something might have gone wrong and then fretting about it.
  • Struggling to eat – you brain doesn’t want you eating because it is difficult to fight or flee if you’ve just had a big meal.

Knowing that this is what’s happening doesn’t make the symptoms go away, but it does at least give an awareness that our understanding of the world is distorted: that we have no reason to be afraid, that people around us aren’t threatening or dangerous.

One knock on effect of this constant level of threat is exhaustion. When emotions are always set to 11, the body is working too hard all the time, without any proper rest.

People talk quite a lot about the dramatic symptoms of PTSD (flashbacks and panic attacks) but the exhaustion was most debilitating effect for me. It was so complete that it felt supernatural – as if all my limbs had been injected with lead and my mind was filled with fog.

Next BI and PTSD blog: The Basics of Caring for Yourself with BI and PTSD

Microfiction: The Scrapings

And again, some one line stories:

We knew it would end like this, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a loud harrumph.

“That’s just how it is,” he rasped, “men show their feelings by hitting each other, women by affection.” And that was when I knew I wanted to be a woman.

“Drunken poetry,” she wrote with a flourish in pink biro, “it contains all truth. Drunken poetry,” then she gave up, as the rhymes deserted her.

A light flickered, the air grew cold. Grandma had returned.

“That’s just how it is,” she ranted, “men prove their strength by striding round the world conquering things. Women prove their strength by enduring, by suffering.” And that was when I knew, I wanted to be a man.

Leading a double life was difficult with Facebook, it took planning and copious notes.

He woke up slowly, his head thundering and his stomach lurching. He eased himself onto his side and saw the Devil sleeping peacefully beside him. I am never drinking again, he thought.

“That’s just how it is,” they shouted, “people are selfish. They all want to be rich, and they don’t care who suffers as a result.” And that was when I knew I wanted to be an alien.

Short story: Behind the Door

The sun was shining and she’d got an A for her essay, life was good. As they strolled down the corridor to their next class, she felt that the world was her onion.

“There’s something weird about that classroom,” she said, stopping and gesturing with a wave of her books. “Have you noticed? The door doesn’t look like the other doors, it’s too thick, with bars across the little window. Freaky,” she added, trying to peer in.

“Just leave it!” he hissed in response.

“What? Why?” he really was unnecessarily huffy at times.

“It’s better if you just don’t pay attention, it’s safer,” his voice was becoming a whine now and her curiosity had only grown, filling her concentration.

“Why?” she asked again, adding a small pout, she liked to know things, she didn’t like to be left out. “Is it a cult? Or a nudist colony?” Their college was like hive for unpopular courses and rooms rented out to oddball organizations.

He sighed and leaned in close to her, his eyes darting back and forth.

“That’s where the war is. You can’t do anything about it, it’s best if you don’t look.”

“What?” the answer was so unexpected she wasn’t sure how to reply, but he said nothing and was already scurrying away down the corridor. “What war? What are you talking about?” but he was gone.

Impatient with his nonsense, she barely hesitated before opening the door and looking inside. She watched for only moment before slamming the door, but the images stayed, hovering just beneath the eyes, ready to flash. A child’s face in horror, his arm severed; a soldier holding the head of his dying friend; an explosion that caused nobody even to raise their heads, their ability to feel already exceeded. She ran.

Nobody listened when she told them about the room. She suspected that some knew, she saw the shifty, desperate look in their eyes. Anyone who didn’t know, saw her as yet another hysterical student with a ridiculous complaint. And she was tired, an exhaustion that seemed to play with her certainty, so that she wasn’t sure. Had she really seen it? Was it as bad as she had thought? Maybe it was an acting class, maybe it was just a film playing.

Sometimes she would be sitting in class and she’d hear the sound of gunshot, or distant screams, but the teacher only spoke a little louder and his expression never changed. There were days when the door to the war would be open a crack and inside she would glimpse a moment of death, but she learned to keep her eyes straight ahead. The war wouldn’t ever end, it was best to not look.